coming together

Advent, the opening season of the Western church year, from the Latin adventus, meaning “coming”, focuses on spiritual preparation for the Christmas celebration of Jesus’ nativity and, as he already has come in his birth in Bethlehem some two millennia ago, for his second coming at the end of time and, until that time, for his daily coming to human minds and hearts and souls through the leading and guiding inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

On the past four Wednesdays, the people and clergy of All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Clinton, SC, and Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC,

alternating from place all-saints-episcopal-church-clinton-sc

to place epiphany-laurens-sc-facade

gathered to share supper, scripture study, and prayer.

advent-program-all-saints-clinton-11-30-16

The Bible study model we employed, known as “African” or “Lambeth”, [1] called us to read the selected passage three times,[2] in turn, asking:

advent-program-epiphany-laurens-12-7-16

What words or phrases catch your attention?

 

 

Where does the passage touch your life today?  advent-program-all-saints-clinton-12-14-16

advent-program-epiphany-laurens-12-21-16

Through this passage, how may God be inviting you to change – to do something different or to be someone different?

 

 

(Additionally, to assure the creation and maintenance of a secure space for individuals to share their thoughts and feelings openly, we encouraged no ensuing comments or discussion of anything said, save for questions of clarification.)

I was told that All Saints’ and Epiphany folk, from time to time years ago, had engaged in joint seasonal programming. As that had not been true for a while, our “Adventing” together was a grand experiment that proved to be a great experience. The hospitality was enriching, our study inspiring, and our prayers ennobling.

Speaking always and only for myself, I had a ball!

 

Footnotes:

[1] In 1998, this Bible Study method was introduced by the African Delegation to the Lambeth Conference; the decennial gathering of bishops of the global Anglican Communion. This approach is rooted in the ancient practice of praying the scriptures, Lectio Divina or “Divine (or Holy) Reading.”

[2] We used the gospel passages appointed for the four Sundays of Advent: Matthew 26.36-44, Matthew 3.1-12, Matthew 11.2-11, and Matthew 1.18-25.

Photographs: All Saints’ Parish Hall, November 30; Epiphany Parish Hall, December 7; All Saints’ Parish Hall, December 14; Epiphany Parish Hall, December 21.

signs of ambiguity

Washington Diocese of the Episcopal Church

a sermon, based on Isaiah 7.10-16 and Matthew 1.18-25, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 4th Sunday of Advent, December 18, 2016

King Ahaz of Judah is in trouble.[1] In the late 8th century BCE, Syria and Israel formed a coalition against Assyria, inviting Judah to join them. Ahaz, having no quarrel with Assyria and not wanting to start one, refused. Syria and Israel declared war on Judah, seeking to replace Ahaz with a cooperative royal ally.

Ahaz, as king, is the symbol of national confidence that God will defend the divinely established throne. Nevertheless, he is terrified: “The heart of Ahaz and his people shook as the trees of the forest shake before the wind.”

the-prophet-isaiah-1896-1902-james-tissot-1836-1902-the-jewish-museum-nyc

Enter the prophet Isaiah, proclaiming, “Fear not,” for Syria’s and Israel’s plans will not prosper. Then, addressing Ahaz’s need for assurance, Isaiah encouraged the king, “Ask God for a sign.” Amazingly, Ahaz, with the pretense of pious humility, declined the divine offer. Nevertheless, a sign was given. A young woman would bear a son named Immanuel, meaning “God is with us.”

What did this sign, this birth of Immanuel mean? “God is with us” was no promise that king and nation would be sheltered from harm. Indeed, before the child reached the age of reason, knowing “how to refuse evil and choose good”, Syria, Israel and Judah would be defeated. The sign, therefore, was ambiguous. Still, as a first fruit of a new generation, a newborn child, though unable to lead an army in a season of war, signaled new possibilities.

the-angel-appears-to-joseph-c-1645-rembrandt-harmenszoon-van-rijn-1606-1669-gemaldegalerie-der-staatlichen-museen-berlin

Joseph was in trouble.[2] Mary, his betrothed, was pregnant and doubtless adulterous. Observing the law, Joseph could have accused Mary, subjecting her to a trial.[3] “Being a righteous man,” Joseph, “unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.” But “just when he resolved to do this” enter an angel, proclaiming, “Fear not.” Mary’s child, whose origins are heavenly, shall be named Jesus, meaning “God saves.”

What did this sign, this birth of Jesus mean? “God saves” was no promise that the people would be spared from harm. Shortly after Jesus’ birth, King Herod’s fear and fury at hearing the news of one born “king of the Jews” led to the massacre of the infants of Bethlehem.[4]

massacre-of-the-innocents-le-massacre-des-innocents-1824-leon-cogniet-1794-1880-musee-des-beaux-arts-rennes

And today, the children of Aleppo, the latest in history’s egregiously long list of innocents, suffer at the dignity-defying, death-dealing hands of warring, malevolent rulers and powers!

The sign, therefore, was ambiguous. Still, as a first fruit of a new generation, a newborn child, though unable to answer difficult questions of moral choice, signaled new possibilities.

At times, we look for signs. Times of uncertainty. Times of anxiety…

Perhaps involving our relationships when things aren’t well. Give me a sign that my spouse, partner, or significant other, parent or child, relative or friend sees the light of what I’ve been saying for years or that I may see more clearly my part, my role in those places where we are “stuck”…

Or involving our financial well-being when we’ve lost a job or when resources for the care of aged loved ones run low, run out or when our movement toward the fulfillment of long established, long invested plans for the future decelerates to the largo tempo of a vacillating economy. Give me a sign of a new way or to clarify my choices or to signal a turnaround is near…

Or involving health, ours and those we love; living through the daily chances and changes of aging and illness or surgery and recovery and adjusting to our body’s new normal…

Or involving national security, whether our sense of peace with a new administration or in relation to America’s role in all the raging wars of this world. Give us a sign that sharpens the line between justice and vengeance, between increased safety and the loss of personal liberty, between self-defense and self-destruction that we will not plant the seeds of radicalized retaliation for generations to come.

At times, we look for signs, which, however, alway are inherently ambiguous; capable of being read, re-read, misread, or unread.

Looking again at the scripture, the sign of the birth of a child is the striking similitude of the prophetic pronouncement to Ahaz and the angelic announcement to Joseph. Either is ambiguous. Neither satisfied the immediate need. Nevertheless, the image of a child, whose is-ness, beingness is now, but whose fullness of being is yet to be alway points to tomorrow.

A fair, faithful interpretation of a sign, paradoxically, clearly rests in our ability and willingness to hold in tension our living in this moment as wisely as we can and our keeping watch on the horizon for what will come…to see this moment as the is-ness of now and to recognize that all that is now is not, cannot be what will be…to give birth today in this moment to an idea, a dream, a vision and to nurture it for a larger life tomorrow.

Seeing what is and envisioning also what might be is an act of hope. And hope is what a sign, however ambiguous, means.

 

Photograph: me preaching at The Washington National Cathedral, Friday, January 27, 2006 (by Walt Calahan)

Illustrations:

The Prophet Isaiah (1896-1902), James Tissot (1836-1902)

The angel appears to Joseph (c. 1645), Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (1606-1669)

Massacre of the Innocents (Le Massacre des Innocents) (1824), Léon Cogniet (1794-1880), Musée des Beaux-Arts, Rennes. Note: I favor this image of this horrific biblical story, for, in its artistic restraint absent in many renderings (e.g., Marcantonio Raimondi, c. 1510, Jacopo Tintoretto, c. 1580, Peter Paul Rubens, 1611, Gustave Doré, 1865), it suggests rather than depicts the massacre. The image of the mother is poignant and powerful. Her bare head and feet are signs of vulnerability and though she protects her infant with her body, as they remain cornered, their doom is sure.

Footnotes:

[1] In addition to Isaiah 7.10-16, all references to the Ahaz story are found in Isaiah 7.

[2] In addition to Matthew 1.18-25, all references to the Mary-Joseph story are found in Matthew 1.

[3] See Numbers 5.11-29

[4] Matthew 2.13-18

when Jesus advents

Washington Diocese of the Episcopal Church

a sermon, based on Matthew 11.2-11, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on 3rd Sunday of Advent, December 11, 2016

Whenever I consider this world’s sickeningly repetitive demonstrations of inhumanity, I say, I shout, “This must stop!” And whenever I feel this rise of righteous indignation, I know I share spiritual kinship with John the baptizer who preached to all who dared listen:

Bear fruit worthy of repentance…

for the ax is at the root of the trees.

Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down

and thrown into the fire…

One who is mightier than I is coming…

His winnowing fork is in his hand.

He will clear the threshing floor,

gather the wheat into the granary,

and burn the chaff with unquenchable fire.[1]

st-john-the-baptist-in-the-prison-1565-1570-juan-fernandez-de-navarrete

Jesus, whose advent John proclaimed, arrives, but without the expected judgment. John, arrested for disturbing the peace, huddled in a dark prison, still harbors hope for the fulfillment of his prophecy. Hearkening for word that the ax has swung, the winnowing fork has swept, he hears news of Jesus’ ministry, taking sad note that the world continues on its weary, wicked way as though nothing had happened or would happen.

I share John’s disappointment whenever I imagine how life could be or, arrogantly, ought to be or whenever I join in countless prayers and efforts to bring dreams to light and to life, yet behold the vision evaporate in the heat of the world’s stubborn resistance to change. (Truth be told, sometimes my desolation is about my reluctance to engage and enact my vision to do something different, to be someone different.)

Long ago, at moments like these, I’d cry out to God, giving God another chance to prove that God is God, in charge of the world and in control of me. But God always declined my graciously offered opportunities to fulfill my visions. (My disillusionment with God often led to my deeper, personal discouragement, for I believed my dreams were flawed or, worse, false, thus unworthy of being fulfilled as, indeed, I myself, the dreamer of my dreams, must have been.)

Today, I no longer wishfully theologize about a god of my imagining. Yet, after 2000 years of Christianity, in the face of sadly abundant signs of humanly sinful, sin-fueled suffering, I still share John’s soulful lamentation: Jesus, are you the one or must I look for another? Usually, I raise the question in curiosity. For John, imprisoned, awaiting execution, it was a matter of life and death: Jesus, are you the Messiah or has my ministry, my life been a lie?

Now, there are times when John’s cry is an issue of critical concern. Whenever the hungry again plead for bread and the homeless for a bed and an uncaring world shrugs, “There’s no room in the inn!” Whenever a prayer for peace again is drowned out by the deafening sound of war. Whenever the call of the oppressed for freedom again is reduced to a whisper under the weight of bondage. Whenever visions of love again are vanquished and dreams of justice again denied. Whenever and wherever, we might cry: Jesus, are you the Messiah or have we been fools to follow you?

Nevertheless, I believe that John asked his poignant question, yes, in despair, yet also with hope that Jesus would answer. Jesus did answer. Though not saying, “Tell John who I am, that I am the Messiah!” or “Tell John what I say!” but rather, “Tell John what I do. The disabled, diseased, deaf, dead are made whole.”

Yes, the world goes on its weary, wicked way. Jesus never promised anything else. ‘Til Judgment Day, there will be sin and suffering, hunger and homelessness, war and strife. Yet whenever and wherever we, who follow Jesus, do what he did – feed the hungry, clothe the naked, pray and work for freedom and peace, act in love where there is hatred, welcome and acceptance where there is exclusion – there and then Jesus advents, he comes with hope and healing.

John was God’s messenger proclaiming the coming of the Messiah. Yet he could not perceive that Jesus, as Messiah, rules with love, not force, governs with justice, not judgment, whose power is revealed in service and sacrifice, not violence. Therefore, “the least in the kingdom of heaven”, the least of Jesus’ followers, those who behold, however imperfectly, who Jesus is and those who do, however partially, what Jesus does, even we, are greater than John.

 

Photograph: me preaching at The Washington National Cathedral, Friday, January 27, 2006 (by Walt Calahan)

Illustration: St. John the Baptist in the Prison (1565-1570), Juan Fernández de Navarrete (1538-1579), The State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia. Note: John is depicted with his wrists bond, his head bowed and eyes downcast in disconsolation. His camel hair garment (Matthew 3.4, Mark 1.6) lay at his side, above which, partially visible is the head of the staff, often associated with John the Baptist in art, bearing the scrolled Latin inscription, Ecce Agnus Dei, “Behold, the Lamb of God” (see John 1.29, 35).

Footnote:

[1] Matthew 3.8, 10, 11b, 12. From the gospel passage appointed for the 2nd Sunday of Advent.

going out to see John

Washington Diocese of the Episcopal Church a sermon, based on Matthew 3.1-12, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on 2nd Sunday of Advent, December 4, 2016

Today, I seek to enter and inhabit, live the scripture. I invite you to join me.

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About three years ago, I first heard about John. All Jerusalem was abuzz about a man who came out of the wilderness, preaching repentance and the kingdom of heaven. Messianic talk. My people know that repentance, turning around, returning to God, is necessary preparation for the Messiah’s coming to restore Israel to glory.

the-voice-in-the-desert-la-voix-dans-le-desert-1886-1894-james-tissot-1836-1902

Curious, I went out to see John. I wasn’t alone. Multitudes from Jerusalem, the Judean countryside, and along the Jordan gathered on the riverbanks.

st-john-the-baptist-preaching-anastasio-fontebuoni-1571-1626-palatine-gallery-florence-italy

He was something to see! Bony, yet brawny. His hair, long, unkempt. People said, “He looks like Elijah!” Though gone a thousand years, our sacred history describes Elijah as “a hairy man with a leather belt around his waist.”[1] Four hundred years ago, the prophet Malachi foretold Elijah’s return to announce the Day of the Lord[2] when God intervenes in human history to set things right. Elijah…John…close enough!

It wasn’t only how John looked, but also what he said. “I cry in the wilderness! Prepare God’s way!” Six hundred years ago, Isaiah, with those same words, declared the end of our ancestors’ captivity in Babylon and return to the Promised Land.[3] But now the Roman Empire holds us captive in the Promised Land! So, when John spoke like Isaiah, I dared to hope for liberation!

Some Pharisees and Sadducees were in the crowd. Odd seeing them together. They don’t agree on much, politically or theologically. John saw them and all heaven broke loose! “Vipers!” he screamed. Snakes haven’t had a good reputation since Adam and Eve! Terrible thing to call someone, especially our most respected people! Nevertheless, he said: “Vipers! You claim to be Abraham’s children, God’s chosen, but it’s not enough to be upright in outward behavior. You must be righteous in your inward being and, in this, you aren’t faithful and true to God. Vipers!”

saint-john-the-baptist-and-the-pharisees-saint-jean-baptiste-et-les-pharisiens-1886-1894-james-tissot-1836-1902

In the past, others came from the wilderness claiming to be prophets. John was different. He didn’t say he was a prophet, he acted like one! And he preached and practiced baptism. No one baptized except the desert-dwelling ascetics, the Essenes, and then only for members of their community. John called everybody to be baptized as a sign of repentance in preparation for the Messiah, whose sandals, he said, he wasn’t worthy to carry. John never promoted himself, always pointed beyond himself. What humility!

I’m a skeptic, but I was impressed. John had charisma. A gift of truth-telling. And I went to him, begging, “Baptize me!” With strong hands, John plunged me into the water, holding me under, finally letting me go. Gasping for air, I didn’t know if my life had turned around, but I did see it pass before me! Yet I felt different. Expectant. Ready for a brighter, better day.

Then nothing happened. Well, something happened, but nothing good. King Herod arrested, imprisoned, and beheaded John. Just before that a man from Nazareth, Jesus, came to John to be baptized. Incredible stories were told about his preaching, teaching, healing, raising someone from the dead. People called him Messiah and followed him, expecting God’s kingdom to come. Then the Romans crucified him.

Promises, hopes, like all before and since, come to naught. I wondered then, I wonder now, why did I bother to go out to see John?

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John burst onto the first century Palestinian scene with incandescent temperament and intemperate tongue. His words inflaming minds, igniting hearts. His urgency suffering gladly no hypocrisy or subtlety.

Why would anyone go out to see John? Perhaps because his message of repentance resonated in human hearts. People knew that they were soul-sick, in need of healing. They knew that they, even at their finest, falling short of their best, were in need of help. They knew that they, in their wildest imagining envisioning who they were destined to become, needed hope. In the ferocious sincerity of John’s language, they heard a word of truth and new life. Not happy-ever-after-fantasy, for given what we know of the world and ourselves, life was not, is not like that.

John spoke truth. About new life through repentance, our turning around to face anew God and ourselves and our reality. All of it. Our highest, unspeakable joys and our deepest, unspoken fears – love and hate, assurance and fear, trust and betrayal, communion and separation, intimacy and abandonment, life and death. New life that lives in the power of the paradoxical peace that nothing, even the worst of everything will not, cannot destroy us, for we are a part of something greater.

John proclaimed and died for the truth of this reality, preparing the way for Jesus, the Messiah, who not only proclaimed, but personified the truth of God, for which he was crucified. A crucifixion that led to a resurrection. A resurrection that is the foundation for a community of life-giving love. A community for two millennia through which people have sought to live the life of God and in which we gather today going out to see and to hear John to be reminded afresh of how real and new and true the life of God is.

 

Photograph: me preaching at The Washington National Cathedral, Friday, January 27, 2006 (by Walt Calahan)

Illustrations:

The Voice in the Desert (La voix dans le desert) (1886-1894), James Tissot (1836-1902)

St. John the Baptist Preaching, Anastasio Fontebuoni (1571-1626), Palatine Gallery, Florence, Italy

Saint John the Baptist and the Pharisees (Saint Jean-Baptiste et les pharisiens), James Tissot

Footnotes:

[1] 2 Kings 1.8

[2] Malachi 4.5

[3] Isaiah 40.3

a word spoken cannot be unspoken

thinking

A word spoken cannot be unspoken.

The effect of an uttered word is long-lived and, as the proverbial ripples, the consequence of a stone cast into a pond, ever-widening, non-ending.[1]

A word spoken cannot be unspoken.

An advisement that we take care, very great care with the words we share. I am reminded of the admonishment of the Apostle James: The tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits. How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire…No one can tame the tongue; a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing.[2]

A word once spoken cannot be unspoken.

I think of that now generations-old observation of children, in my experience and hearing, often spoken in public settings as an apology to others for unruly behavior: “S/he’s bad” and in private directed at the child as a word of reprimand, “You’re bad.” In either case, what is missed, I think, is the effort to discipline by conveying to our children the desired or required behavior rather than almost necessarily teaching our children that we believe them to be inherently disorderly.[3]

A word once spoken cannot be unspoken.

I – and this is long look back in the day (and dating myself and giving insight into my adolescent curiosity!) – think of that boundary-breaking, rabble-rousing comedian and social activist and critic Lenny Bruce.[4] In one of his famous (infamous?) routines, Bruce laced the air with a repeated torrent of denigrating epithets about every identifiable ethnic and racial group. His aim? To delegitimize those words by their overuse, rendering them ineffectual elements in the arsenal of the wounding weaponry of racism and nativism. A brilliant, even noble effort, I think, but one that…did…not…work. The words remain; their use rising with society’s anxiety with the progress toward universal equality and inclusivity.

A word once spoken cannot be unspoken.

I think of America’s recently (finally!) completed presidential campaign that saturated, sullied the communal climate with all manner of invective. In this, I especially consider our 45th President-Elect, Donald Trump, whose mastery of the act (the art?) of insult – among them, through the Republican primaries, “Low Energy Jeb” (Bush), “Lyin’ Ted” (Cruz) and “Little Marco” (Rubio), and then, during the general election, “Crooked Hillary” (Clinton) – honored neither civility nor veracity. On January 20, 2017, Inauguration Day, Mr. Trump, among numerous national roles, will become our Commander-in-Chief, perhaps, too, our Defamer-in-Chief and surely our Tweeter-in-Chief.

A word once spoken cannot be unspoken.

I also think of Mitt Romney, the Republican Party’s previous presidential candidate, who made especial effort to denounce Mr. Trump (though whose endorsement he craved and received during his 2012 run at the White House). During a March 3, 2016, speech, Mr. Romney described Mr. Trump variously as “a con man, a fake…a phony…(possessing) neither the temperament nor the judgment to be president.” On November 19, 2016, Mr. Romney was asked by Mr. Trump to meet and consider a potential role in the Trump administration. Oh, to have been the unnoticed and observant fly on the wall! Given Mr. Trump’s consistently exhibited grudge-bearing animus, I wonder how that conversation unfolded. Perhaps, too, Mr. Trump’s invitation demonstrates his less-expressed capacity for pardon. One can hope. Yet whichever – both ever – the case…

A word spoken cannot be unspoken.

Now, I surmise the same is true for positive words of acclamation and affirmation. They, as words, once spoken cannot be unspoken. Still, there is, I think, a repeatedly demonstrable reality that we humans tend to remember and ruminate more on the negative than the positive.[5]

Nevertheless, as a Christian, in this Advent season of preparation for the annual Christmas celebration, there is one occasion in which a word spoken cannot be unspoken that enlightens my mind, lightens my heart, emboldens my soul, enlivens my spirit…

As John the Evangelist wrote: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it…And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory.[6]

The Word, the divine logos, took human flesh in Jesus, entering the realm of time and space, standing on the stage of human history. And John’s wondrous statement, a cascade of words about the Word linked by the word “and”, testifies that God’s life-giving power is unconquerable, that God’s light-bearing presence is inextinguishable, that no matter how ebbs the tide, no matter how dim the day, God’s life and light prevail. For the Word spoken cannot be unspoken. Thank God!

 

Footnotes:

[1] I believe this to be true also of words emailed, texted, tweeted, or otherwise set aloft in the universe of cyber-communication, despite the capacity of electronic deletion!

[2] The Epistle of James 3.5-6a, 8-10a

[3] If “badness” is a genetic predisposition or a learned behavior and fault must be assessed, in the name of justice, wouldn’t that be ours to claim, specifically, as the principal adults in the child’s life and, generally, as society at large? Would it not be fairer to say, “We’re bad”? I think so.

[4] Leonard Alfred Schneider (1925-1966)

[5] Perhaps it is our innate psychology that thinks more about the bad and feels more about the good that makes the former longer lasting in the realms of our recollections and reflections and the latter more ephemeral.

[6] Gospel of John 1.1-5, 14a

until “The End”

Washington Diocese of the Episcopal Church

a sermon, based on Matthew 24.36-44 and Romans 13.11-14, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 1st Sunday of Advent, November 27, 2016

Today, the First Sunday of Advent, we, again, begin a new church year. We, again, begin to retell our Christian story of God’s redemptive activity in the coming and birth, life and ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus. Yet strangely Advent begins by calling us to contemplate the end.[1]

the-last-judgment-1467-1471-hans-memling-1430-1494

Jesus speaks of the close of this age, the consummation of human history, the culmination of this life and this world. For some, a sobering, chilling concept as captured by the words of that 13th century hymn, Dies irae:

Day of wrath! O day of mourning!

See fulfilled the prophets’ warning,

heav’n and earth in ashes burning!

O what fear man’s bosom rendeth

when from heav’n the Judge descendeth,

On whose sentence all dependeth!

For others, the very idea of the end is so far removed from daily consciousness, any consciousness that it evokes little regard and provokes little response.

Whatever our view, ominous signs, suggestive of “end times”, are (and always have been!) about us. War, yesyet with combating forces, for generations, no longer only nations, even regions of peoples, but ideologists and religionists governed by no boundaries and possessing greater firepower and perhaps greater vengeance with a capacity and willingness to annihilate. Poverty, yesyet spreading through larger portions of our global community. Environmental change and degradation, yesyet sweeping across grander expanses of our planet. These and more continuing downward arcs of “development” bespeak the terrible callousness, even terminal wickedness in the heart of sinful humankind.

In the face of the ever-present evidences of “the end”, until it comes – and “about that day and hour no one knows,” not even Jesus – Advent summons us to speak and act with expectant exultation. Today’s Collect gives voice to our prayerful petition for ourselves and our hopeful proclamation to the world: “Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which your Son Jesus Christ came…” whose second coming, second advent, “in the last day, when he shall come again,” is the heartbeat of our greatest hope, “(that) we may rise to the life immortal.”[2]

This is the promise we affirm every time we acclaim, “Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.”[3] Implicit in this promise is the assurance that God, as the only One who knows, is in control, that good will conquer evil, that peace will prevail over conflict, that love will triumph over hatred, that even given humankind’s proclivity for self-destruction, history has a redemptive conclusion, that, in Martin’s words, “the arm of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”[4]

And this promise is our destiny, our end. Yet here and now, we have more than this promise, for Jesus gives us a prescription for the living of our lives in this world: “You must be ready!” One way, among many, to answer this call to readiness is not to gaze at the horizon for Jesus’ coming, but rather to keep busy, constant, steadfast in our Christian living. For me, “Christian living” means striving to do, to be for all people the love and justice, the unconditional generosity and equality, of Jesus. What Christian living is for you, you are called to decide.

Many years ago, during my discernment of a call to ordained ministry, I met several times with a wise priest and mentor, the Reverend Dr. Joseph Nicholson, the sometime rector of my home parish, All Saints’ Episcopal Church, St. Louis. During one of our conversations, in one of those “inquiring minds want to know” moments, I asked, “What would you do if you knew the world would end tomorrow?” He paused for a moment, looking at me intently, then reached for his appointment book, turning to the page of that day. “This afternoon, I have hospital and Communion calls and, in the evening, a weekly Bible study and, after that, another meeting, and then, my wife and I will go out to dinner.” Obtusely, I asked, “OK. But what would you do?” With an understanding smile and kindly look, he replied, “If I knew the world would end tomorrow, I would continue to attend to the labor the Lord has given me to do.”

This remains sage and sound advice for anyone, on any day, and at any time. So, let us, following Paul’s counsel, “Knowing what time it is…live honorably…putting on the Lord Jesus Christ,”[5] that is, doing what the Lord has given us to do until the end when he comes again or until our strength and breath subside in death, whichever comes first.

 

Photograph: me preaching at The Washington National Cathedral, Friday, January 27, 2006 (by Walt Calahan)

Illustration: The Last Judgment (1467-1471), Hans Memling (1430-1494), National Museum, Gdańsk, Poland. Note: In the central panel, the resurrected and ascended Jesus, sitting in judgment of the living and dead, is enthroned above a rainbow, his feet resting on the earth. From his mouth emerge a lily (mercy), reflected in the palm-up blessing of his right hand and a sword (justice) reflected in palm-down condemnation of his left hand. He wears the scarlet robe at the time of his conviction to death (Matthew 27.28). His open hands reveal his stigmata (wounds) of his crucifixion. He is surrounded by his apostles and his mother, the Virgin Mary, and John the Baptist. Below, St. Michael the Archangel, attired in soldier’s armor, holding a scale to weigh human souls, drives the naked unrighteous towards the underworld (the right panel). In the left panel, the also naked righteous are greeted and guided toward the gates of Paradise on a crystal stairway and given clothing by St. Peter and the angels.

Footnotes:

[1] Matthew 26.36-44 is the day’s appointed gospel.

[2] From the Collect for the First Sunday of Advent, The Book of Common Prayer, page 211, my emphases. The full text of the Collect: Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which your Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

[3] The Memorial Acclamation, The Book of Common Prayer, page 363, my emphasis.

[4] From Our God Is Marching On! by Martin Luther King, Jr., preached on the occasion of the march on Selma, Alabama, March 25, 1965

[5] Romans 13.11-14 is the day’s appointed epistle.

O Come, O Come, Emmanuel?

preachinga sermon, based on Luke 1.39-55, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 4th Sunday of Advent, December 20, 2015

“O come, O come, Emmanuel…”[1] This wondrous carol proclaims the meaning of Advent, from the Latin, adventus, “coming.” This season of Christian anticipation of the birth of Emmanuel, “God with us.”[2]

Still, I wonder. Do we always want God with us? The God who, as depicted in the Bible in numerous ways, is ultimately infinite in majesty and mystery? The God who, therefore, is not fully knowable, never controllable, thus, always inspiring reverence and fear?

It’s saner, it seems to me, to keep God at a distance; on occasion, offering a respectful nod and, weekly, a worshipful bow. If we choose to approach God, surely it’s safer to draw near the humble, harmless Christmas crèche of the baby Jesus, wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger, surrounded by an adoring Mary and Joseph, docile cattle, gift-bearing wise men, and an angelic choir hovering above.

Christmas Creche

Yes, O come, O come, Emmanuel, but please stay in Bethlehem and remain as a baby. That way you won’t disturb us, our thoughts and feelings, our intentions and actions too much. And we’ll stay here in our world, being who we are, doing what we do; even though all is not quite right with our world or with us.

Yet Emmanuel, whose name is Jesus, grew up and inaugurated his mission, declaring: “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.”[3]

And in his ministry, Jesus caused a ruckus. Reaching across cultural boundaries between rich and poor, righteous and sinner, well and sick, living and dead, men and women, adult and child, Jew and Gentile. Breaching ancient barriers meant to keep the peace, meant to keep everyone in place.

But what else could Jesus have done? Before he was born, his coming was announced by his cousin, John, who, also still in the womb, leapt for joy at the sound of Mary’s voice, leading her to burst into song. Not a lullaby, but a righteous, radical declaration[4] of God’s will.

I wonder. How often did Mary sing this song after Jesus was born? Singing while she told him about the history of their people, a chronicle of travail and tribulation, occupation and oppression. Singing while she told him of the visit of the angel Gabriel that foretold his birth through God who was his Father and that through him God would save.[5] No wonder Jesus grew up and did what he did. How could he have done otherwise?

This is why, for some, Jesus is a problem. Emmanuel, God with us, God disturbing us, proclaiming that the first shall be last and the last first,[6] that the proud are scattered, the powerful brought down, and the rich sent away empty, that the lowly are lifted up and the hungry filled. The dream, the nightmare of it is enough to make the powerful and prosperous lose sleep.

We could dismiss it as wishful thinking. But we can’t. For Mary’s song took flesh in Jesus. His life of unconditional love and justice for all. A life that led to his death because he challenged the status quo of the iniquity of inequality.

Yet here’s the paradox. Mary’s song doesn’t condemn the mighty and the rich. Rather it testifies that power and wealth, almost always of greatest significance in human societies, are not real values. For they have no standing in God’s sight.

This truth shines heavenly light on our identity: We are to be Emmanuel, God with us, for others. When we sing, “O come, O come, Emmanuel”, we ask Jesus to advent again so that we will follow him anew, doing the work we have seen him do; work, through him, we have been given to do. We, in unconditional love and justice, are to invite all to dwell together, “bind(ing) in one the hearts of all mankind,” bidding “our sad divisions cease,” for we come in the name of “our King of Peace.”[7]

Christianity is an incarnational religion. Even more, a way of life. The story of a transcendent God taking our flesh, being in human history is the chapter and verse of the life’s story of all who follow Jesus.

In this spirit, today, let us sing and pray: “O come, O come, Emmanuel!” Let us sing and be, O come, O come, you and me!

 

Photograph: Christmas crèche on the Parish Hall stage of All Saints’ Episcopal Church, St. Louis, Missouri (1963) by William John Abernathy

Footnotes:

[1] Veni, veni, Emmanuel, Latin, ca. 9th century

[2] See Isaiah 7.14: “The Lord will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel” (that is, God is with us).

[3] Luke 4.18-19

[4] A declaration echoing Hannah’s song of old (1 Samuel 2.1-10).

[5] See Luke 1.26-38.

[6] Matthew 19.30, 20.16

[7] Words from O come, O come, Emmanuel, verse 7.