first come, first served?

a sermon, based on Luke 2.1-14, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, at the late-night service on Christmas Eve, December 24, 2017

She gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

Detail of The Adoration of the Shepherds (Adorazione dei pastori) (1609), Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610)

Joseph and Mary, responding to the census decree of Emperor Augustus, journeyed from Nazareth, standing exhausted on the doorstep of a Bethlehem inn. It was full. Others had arrived ahead of them. First come, first served. But the innkeeper wasn’t heartless. He sent them to the stable. It was better than nothing. And that night Mary gave birth.

Tonight, I wonder about that innkeeper in the years that followed that night. In the years after Jesus began his public ministry. In the years when he made a name for himself, preaching, teaching, healing; some calling him “Rabbi”, others “Messiah”. I wonder if innkeeper ever wondered: “I wish I had had room in the inn.”

Tonight, I wonder about us, we who stand at the doors of our lives as innkeepers, choosing what and who we let in and keep out. The food we eat and don’t. The places we go and don’t. The people we meet and with whom we associate and don’t. The thoughts we contemplate, the feelings we embrace and don’t. The memories we entertain and don’t. The words we say, the deeds we do and don’t.

And, like Augustus, we’re emperors of the domain of our lives. Daily, we take a census. We count. Time, energy, money. Blessings and troubles. Appointments and commitments. Our days; calculating how much we can accomplish and, perhaps at times, contemplating how many we have left.

We’re innkeepers, the doors of our lives swinging both ways, letting in, keeping out and census-takers, always counting.

Tonight, I wonder if what we value, thus, allow into our lives, reflects who we are? Is there a match between what we embrace and what we embody? Harmony between what we believe and how we behave?

Ideally, yes. Yet we know sometimes it just ain’t so! Sometimes, we choose wrongly and count poorly. But in the pressured, split-second timing of daily living, we must deal with whatever or whoever comes first. Sometimes the most urgent thing is not the most important thing. Sometimes what separates the two is only a slight difference in the shade of significance. Whatever the case, though we want to make room for what matters, we must deal what’s at hand; what comes up now and next; like innkeepers following the rule of first come, first served.

Tonight, we celebrate the birth of Jesus. He is the meaning of Christmas. And that meaning is peace: “Peace on earth and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled.”(1) Christmas proclaims the reunion of earth and heaven, the reconciliation of what is, that is, the way we are and what is meant to be, that is, the way God created us. Peace born not only in Jesus, but also in us that every part of our lives is reunited, reconciled. That our choices of what and who we let into our lives and, yes, what and who we keep out, match who we are. That there is clarity and consistency in what we think and feel, intend and do. That we can live ever-attentive to what matters and no longer first come, first served.

 

Illustration: Detail of The Adoration of the Shepherds (Adorazione dei pastori) (1609), Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610)

Footnote:
(1) From the hymn, Hark, the herald angels sing; Words by Charles Wesley (1707-1788)

“Greetings, favored one!”

a sermon, based on Luke 1.26-38, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 4th Sunday of Advent, December 24, 2017

Reading again and reflecting anew on this story, commonly called the Annunciation, I think about our life’s stories, and I see in Mary a model for us of how to face the many sorts of announcements that come to us. Each of the following announcements, I either have experienced or, through nearly forty years of pastoral ministry, I have heard from the lips of others about their lives…

An executor of an estate announces that you are the beneficiary of the generous bequest of a loved one. An IRS agent announces you are the subject of an audit…

An employer announces that you have been promoted with increased responsibility and recompense or you have been transferred or discharged…

A partner or spouse arrives home announcing a new job opportunity requiring a reconfiguration of family finances or a geographical move…

A partner, spouse, or long-lived friend announces a change in your relationship – a greater connectedness or distance…

A therapist announces the next step in your hard-fought, long-sought journey toward wholeness…

A physician announces that your medical condition or that of a loved one has improved or has worsened.

Each of these annunciation experiences, desired or undesired, raises the specter of the unfamiliar, the uncertain, making it sometimes hard to know what to do. Mary, again, as a model for us, shows us how to be in the moment, listening, waiting for a clarifying revelation.

The Annunciation (1898), Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859-1937)

Gabriel appears. “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” Though Mary is familiar with the lore of her people Israel about how God speaks through angelic messengers, she has heard no such word. Now, she has and she is perplexed.

“Do not be afraid, for you have found favor with God.” Mary would conceive and bear a son, Jesus, who would reign on the throne of David in an everlasting kingdom. For an oppressed people in an occupied land overrun by the Roman Empire, this is a thrilling word of hope, fulfilling an age-old prophecy of liberation.

But Mary is a virgin, thus, Gabriel’s message abounds with logical and biological impossibilities. “How can this be?”

“The Holy Spirit will come upon you.” Then Gabriel offers an anticipatory sign, a revelation concerning Elizabeth, who “also conceived…(although she) was said to be barren; for nothing (is) impossible with God.”

“Here I am…let it be with me according to your word.” Mary’s assent is no docile denial of her own will in the face of divine fiat. (Verily, I believe if the only answer Mary can give is “yes” and, thus, she is not granted the freedom to say “no”, then her “yes” wouldn’t be true.) Hers is the “yes” of faith; her conscious acceptance of a new thing, literally, a new creation and with it, a new meaning of and for her life.

The Annunciation. A story of the announcement of the coming of salvation within human history. A story about Mary and her embrace, verily, her embodiment of that divine Word.

Many are the announcements that come to us. May we, like Mary, remain present in the moment, listening, waiting for a clarifying revelation. For even, perhaps especially in the most unlikely, undesirable circumstances, we never can know when an angel may appear calling to us, “Greetings, favored one!”, calling us to bear the life of Jesus in the wombs of our souls, calling us, through our response, to bring the life of Jesus more greatly into the world.

 

Illustration: The Annunciation (1898), Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859-1937). Note: I love Tanner’s depiction of The Annunciation – the muted earth tones of the room, for me, expressive of groundedness in the reality of time and space and of the moment of divine-human encounter, Mary, with her hands-clasped prayerful posture, looking upward with patient expectation, and Gabriel, not portrayed in human form, but rather as the pure light of heavenly illumination.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

sue God?

a sermon, based on Isaiah 61.1-4, 8-11 and John 1.6-8, 19-28reached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 3rd Sunday of Advent, December 17, 2017

Isaiah (1896-1902), James Tissot

Over 2500 years ago, the people Israel, after nearly fifty years of captivity in Babylon, were free. For a second time, they would journey to the Promised Land. The prophet Isaiah marked the auspicious occasion with this word of hope: “The spirit of the Lord God is upon me…anoint(ing) me…to bring good news to the oppressed…the brokenhearted…the captives…(and) all who mourn.”

By contrast, stories of this past week from around the globe screamed the sorrowful news of the daily revivals of ancient animosities, civil unrest, escalating terrorist violence, and, perhaps most ominously, steps forward and backward and forward again toward the threshold of war with North Korea.

Reading Isaiah, then looking at the world, where is the good news to the oppressed, brokenhearted, captive, and mourning? It’s been 2500 years! Plenty of time for God to bring this glorious vision to light and life. Sometimes, when I think things never will get better, I feel like suing God for breach of promise!

But one thing gives me pause. My belief that we humans bear responsibility for the state of the world. Yes, we pray: “Stir up your power, O Lord, and…come among us…we (who) are sorely hindered by our sins…to help and deliver us.” Yet what seems an honest confession of our need can sound like our abdication of our accountability; our all-too-facile admission of our failings so to absolve ourselves of our guilt and grief over the mess we have made of this world. Perhaps we should sue ourselves, declare moral bankruptcy, and throw ourselves on the mercy of the Court of Cosmic Claims (or Crimes, as the circumstances may warrant)!

However, accepting our responsibility immediately raises the question: For what? And if the “what” are the big and abiding problems of our world – hunger, homelessness, economic disparities between rich and poor, the destruction of the environment, racism, sexism – then every one of us, whether one individual, one community, one congregation, one nation, with limited energy and resources, immediately is overwhelmed.

So, what do we do?

John can help us. To the question, “Who are you?” he confessed, declared, “I am not the Messiah!” that is, in common parlance, to say, “I’m not God!”

Saint John the Baptist and the Pharisees (Saint Jean-Baptiste et les pharisiens), 1886-1894, James Tissot (1836-1902)

John then described himself in terms of his life’s mission: “I am a voice crying in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord’”, thereby, reminding all of their responsibility. If the vision of good news to the oppressed, brokenhearted, captive, and mourning had not then and has not yet dawned, perhaps it was they then and we now have not done all we could do to bring it to light and life.

Thus, in response to the question, What do we do?, which is another way of answering the question, Who are we?, following John, we are to be those who always are mindful of our responsibilities for and to the world. It isn’t about whether we always fulfill our responsibilities. We never always fulfill anything. Ultimately, that’s God’s job. Our job, individually and communally, is to be aware and alert to human need and to our resources (not worrying about what we don’t have and acknowledging what we do have!) and to our commitment to respond, and then in the name of the One for whom we Advent-wait, to make straight the way of the Lord, that is to say, to do something.

 

Illustrations:
Isaiah (1896-1902), James Tissot (1836-1902)
Saint John the Baptist and the Pharisees (Saint Jean-Baptiste et les pharisiens), James Tissot

Footnote:
(1) Full text of the Collect for the Third Sunday of Advent: Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us; and, because we are sorely hindered by our sins, let your bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory, now and for ever. Amen.

who are we?

a homily, based on John 1.6-8, 19-28 and Isaiah 61.1-4, 8-11, preached with the people of All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Clinton, SC, and Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, at the joint Advent service on Wednesday, December 13, 2017

“Who are you?”

Saint John the Baptist and the Pharisees (Saint Jean-Baptiste et les pharisiens), 1886-1894, James Tissot (1836-1902)

The priests and Levites from Jerusalem, intrigued by this strange man who stepped out of the wilderness proclaiming a prophetic message of One who was coming, asked, “Who are you?” John answered, equally intriguingly, not by saying, “I am…”, but rather confessing, declaring, “I am not the Messiah or Elijah, whom Malachi, 400 years earlier, had prophesied would return(1) or the prophet whom Moses once promised would come who, as he, would be a lawgiver.(2)

John’s testimony, thereby, bore witness to this reality: A statement of one’s authentic, God-borne, Spirit-breathed identity is as true in declaring what…who one is not as it is to proclaim who one is. Verily, saying who one is not may be more true, for, in the words of the Apostle, we see in a mirror, dimly,(3) unable to know ourselves fully. (Thus, truth be told, whenever we say, “I am…”, perhaps, at best, it’s an educated guess!)

This issue of our identity is echoed in Isaiah, who, 2500 years ago, on behalf of the people Israel, freed from their Babylonian captivity to journey for a second time to the Promised Land, declared “the Spirit of the Lord…has anointed me…to bring good news to the oppressed…to proclaim liberty to the captives…release to the prisoners.” So momentous was this God-borne, Spirit-breathed vocation that surely you and I, if asked, “Is this you?” might be quick to say, “I am not!”

Ah, but we need to reconsider. For it is no surprise that Jesus, the One John proclaimed was coming, used these very words on that sabbath day in the synagogue in Nazareth to inaugurate his ministry: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me…”(4)

Jesus Unrolls the Book in the Synagogue (Jésus dans la synagogue déroule le livre) (1886-1894), James Tissot (1836-1902)

Thus, it cannot, must not be a surprise to us – as Jesus, who already hath been born, who hath performed his earthly ministry, who hath been arrested and tried, crucified and raised from the dead, who hath ascended on high to sit down at the right hand of God to come again to judge the living and dead, and who hath sent his Spirit to abide within us with divine presence and power that we might proclaim liberty to the oppressed, brokenhearted, and captive – that we, yea, even we are those who, to the question, “Who are you?” dare can answer, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon us!”

 

Illustrations:
Saint John the Baptist and the Pharisees (Saint Jean-Baptiste et les pharisiens) (1886-1894), James Tissot (1836-1902)
Jesus Unrolls the Book in the Synagogue (Jésus dans la synagogue déroule le livre), James Tissot

Footnotes:
(1) Malachi 4.5-6
(2) Deuteronomy 18.15-18
(3) 1 Corinthians 13.12
(4) Luke 4.14-21

the heart of the story

a sermon, based on Mark 1.1-8, Isaiah 40.1-11, and Psalm 85.1-2, 8-13, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 2nd Sunday of Advent, December 10, 2017

“The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God…”

Saint Mark (Saint Marc) (1886-1894), James Tissot (1836-1902), Brooklyn MuseumI love Mark the evangelist’s account, his “take” on the Jesus-story. Not that his narrative is better than the others; for each has a chosen audience and a particular emphasis. That’s why the canonical New Testament has four. (One is good. Two or three are better. Four are best!) Rather I love Mark because he begins by leaping into the heart of the story.

Unlike Matthew, Mark doesn’t begin with the genealogy of Jesus, which, yes, is important, tracing Jesus’ earthly heritage through the generations of his Hebrew forebears, beginning with the patriarch Abraham,(1) followed by an account of his birth and the coming of the Magi from the East…

Unlike Luke, Mark doesn’t begin with that amazing visit to Mary from the angel Gabriel, which, yes, is important, announcing that she would bear God’s child…

Unlike John, Mark doesn’t begin by pulling back the curtain separating earth and heaven, which, yes, is important, inviting us to peer into the infinite cosmos in search of the workings of the mind of God before all things, before anything: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”(2)

No, Mark begins, again, by leaping in to the heart of the story: The proclamation of the good news of salvation. Thus, we are bidden to hear the cry of John the baptizer, a messenger heralding the coming of Jesus: “I am a voice crying in the wilderness!” The same utterance of the prophet Isaiah centuries before to the people Israel trapped in Babylonian captivity, announcing their soon-to-come emancipation. John, daring to repeat these sacred words of liberation, daring to declare that God, in a new day and time, does what God always is doing – redeeming, reconciling – announces that human captivity to sin and separation from God is over! For, as John only can proclaim salvation, “The one more powerful than I” – Who will perform it! – “is coming after me.”

So, in the words of the psalmist, let us “listen to what the Lord God is saying, for he is speaking peace” – redemption, reconciliation; no longer estranged from God in sin – “to his faithful people.” And, in our listening, let us be those “who turn their hearts to him.”

And let us not only listen, but take note how John appears. Not in flowing robes of finest silk or linen and not at a banquet table groaning under the weight of a smorgasbord of epicurean delights. No. John is dressed as the great prophet Elijah(3) in camel’s hair, a leather belt around his waist and he dines on locusts and wild honey.

And let us take note where John proclaims his message. Not on a paved street in the great city of Jerusalem, but rather, having tread the rutted, dusty pathways of the barren wilderness, on the banks of the River Jordan.

desert

This means that the good news of God’s salvation beckons to us in the margins of our lives, yea, verily, that the good news of God’s salvation belongs in the margins of our lives. It is as light when we walk in darkness, food when we hunger, water when we thirst, comfort when we are distressed, hope when we despair. No matter where we are, surely at our best, yet more…most importantly at our worst, there is nowhere where God’s good news of Jesus Christ does not, cannot, will not reach us and redeem us.

 

Illustration:
Saint Mark (Saint Marc), James Tissot (1836-1902)

Footnotes:
(1) Yet, provocatively enough, including non-Israelite women, some of questionable reputation: Tamar (Matthew 1.3; for her story see Genesis 38), Rahab (Matthew 1.5; see Joshua 2.1-21; 6.22-25), Ruth (Matthew 1.5; see the Book of Ruth), and Bathsheba (Matthew 1.6; see 2 Samuel 11-12).
(2) John 1.1
(3) 2 Kings 1.8

keep awake!

a sermon, based on Isaiah 64.1-9 and Mark 13.24-37, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 1st Sunday of Advent, December 3, 2017

Advent, from the Latin, adventus, “coming” – the Christian season of preparation for the Christmas celebration of the birth of Jesus. Take note how Advent begins, how Advent calls us to prepare. Not with the cheery optimism of our annual preparations for our yuletide celebrations, but rather with Isaiah.

Isaiah (1896-1902), James TissotThe prophet, on behalf of a long-suffering people, cries out to God for divine intervention (“O that you would tear open the heavens and come down!”) and confesses to God the people’s sins (“our iniquities, like the wind, take us away!”) and confronts God for being the cause of the people’s sin and suffering (“You were angry and we sinned; because you hid your face, we transgressed!”).

Isaiah, as a herald of Advent, speaks for us; we who live in this long-suffering world of manifold misfortunes of both natural and human origin.

Isaiah, as a herald of Advent, also speaks to us, clamoring to catch our attention, rudely interrupting our holiday planning to remind us that whatever the causes of the world’s tribulations, this world remains in need of redemption.

Would that we could turn to Jesus for a hopeful word. But no. Answering his disciples’ question about the end of time, Jesus foretells the destruction of the Temple and their coming persecution.(1)

Jesus foretells the destruction of the temple, Alexandre Bida, 1874

Then he says, “In those days, after that suffering.” One might expect things would get better, but no again! Jesus prophesies the destruction of the cosmos: “The sun will darken, the moon will not give its light, stars will fall from heaven, the powers of which will be shaken.”

apocalypse

Yet there is good news: “The Son of Man (will come)…with great power and glory.” Jesus, having come once in his birth, according to centuries of Christian theology and tradition, will come again to set things right, to inaugurate God’s kingdom in its fullness when, in the words of Dame Julian of Norwich, “all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”(2)

But there’s a catch. No one knows when he’s coming. Not the religious enthusiasts who disengage from the world to watch and wait. Not the numerologists who make periodic predictions of the day, time, and place of his arrival. Not Jesus himself, though he promised, “Truly, I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.” Today, as truly I tell you that many a generation has come and gone and nothing of this prophetic word has been fulfilled.

Perhaps those who first heard it were suffering the sort of persecution of which Jesus speaks. For them this was a word of comfort, advising them to “keep awake”, to wait with hope that divine help, swift and sure, was on the way. However, for us, centuries later and fairly comfortable with life as we live it, thus, not longing to see the upheaval of the cosmos, “keep awake” must mean something else.

“Keep awake” is our Advent call of how to prepare for Christmas and every day after…

“Keep awake” is a cry that we renew our care about our work as Christians and the church in our generation, which has not yet passed away…

“Keep awake” is a command that we, the comforting hands of divine help, swift and sure, in this world, revive our concern for our sisters and brothers who dwell in great, grave want and need, who suffer at the hands of all the wicked -isms that we cannot or will not resolve, do something tantamount to tearing open the heavens, something akin, to paraphrase today’s Collect, “to casting away the works of darkness”(3) that those who live in life’s shadows might see light.

On this First Sunday of Advent, this first day of a new Christian Year, it is a good thing to be reminded that Christianity is no avocation, no hobby, calling for our free, spare time and efforts, but rather – as the first Christians were called “followers of the Way”(4) – a full-time vocation, a daily manner of being in the world, of being ourselves. Therefore, “keep awake” is Jesus’ call, cry, command to every one of us every day to do something to brighten the light of love, to fan the flame of justice in this world.

 

Illustrations:
Isaiah (1896-1902), James Tissot (1836-1902)
Jesus foretells the destruction of the temple, Alexandre Bida, 1874

Footnotes:
(1) See Mark 13.3-23
(2) From Revelations of Divine Love: Number 13 (1413), Dame Julian of Norwich (1342-1416)
(3) Full text of Collect for the First Sunday of Advent: Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which your Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
(4) Acts 9.2, 11.26

“we are clay, and You, O God, our Potter”

a homily, based on Isaiah 64.1-9, preached with the people of All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Clinton, SC, and Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, at the joint Advent service on Wednesday, November 29, 2017

On the threshold of Advent, as we await the celebration on Christmas Day of Jesus’ first coming in his nativity and his second coming, whenever that will be, “to judge quick and dead”, we read Isaiah who asks God to “tear open the heavens and come down”…“as fire” to deal with adversaries; nations and peoples who don’t do right.

Truth be told, this year with Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria and wildfires in the West, I believe that we’ve had enough of the heavens torn open and fire!

Yet there is a shift in Isaiah that the prophet bids, begs we consider: God’s people can be God’s adversaries; the ones who don’t do right. As Isaiah declares, “We sinned…we transgressed…(becoming) like one who is unclean…”

Back in proverbial day when I was a child growing up in All Saints’ Episcopal Church, St. Louis, when the American societal establishment honored religious observances and before we, in our culture-wide commercial and consumer haste to get to Christmas began to see holiday advertisements, first, soon after Thanksgiving Day, and now, any time after All Hallow’s Eve, Advent was considered “a little Lent”, a season of penitence in recognition that there can be no true celebration without repentance, no true festivity without reflecting, yes, upon our blessings, yet also our failings.

Isaiah, as a herald of Advent, calls us to examine our relationship with God and, in our earnest, honest examination, to confess again that it needs healing and to profess again that we, as clay, can’t fix it and to confirm again that God, as our Potter, is the only One who can.

potter hands

This means we cannot contain or control God to do our bidding, not now, not ever and that we can commit our lives, our minds and hearts, our souls and spirits, placing them in God’s hands to mold, shape, and fashion us into something glorious, which is, Who is the image of the One whose birth and second coming we await.

May the words of that grand spiritual be our Advent prayer:

Spirit of the living God, fall fresh on us.
Spirit of the living God, fall fresh on us.
Melt us. Mold us. Fill us. Use us.
Spirit of the living God, fall fresh on us.