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

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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.

it’s remarkable

 

a sermon, based on Matthew 25.31-46, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the Last Sunday after Pentecost, November 26, 2017

For all who believe in judgment – whose sense of right and wrong is crystal clear, whose moral compass is balanced, whose ethical sensibilities are sharp, whose response to life’s injustices is the hope for an afterlife when all wrongs are made right – here is the definitive Bible passage!

Jesus speaks of a celestial court. “All nations” – the whole earth, everybody – are gathered before him to be judged and divided; the righteous to eternal life, the accursed to everlasting punishment. Everyone gets what everyone deserves! Justice is done, finally, forever, never to be undone!

Christ separating the sheep and the goats, 6th century mosaic, Basilica of Sant_ Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna, Italy

But let’s be glad this cosmic judgment hasn’t happened yet and that we are not on trial. For none of us can be assured of acquittal. For we, even with our best intentions, are imperfect, thus fall short of the standard of judgment, which, according to Jesus, is service with our sisters and brothers in greatest, gravest need.

And it’s remarkable, worthy of recognition, that the standard of judgment has nothing to do with doctrine. Surprising given how much we Christians o’er two millennia have fought and died about whose right and whose wrong about what we believe and don’t believe! Yet Jesus doesn’t demand a recitation of a creed or a profession of faith, even in him.

Rather, and it’s remarkable, Jesus identifies service to the needy of this world as service to him, the Messiah of the eternal, living God. Thus, service is not only a cornerstone of human society, it is the code of the universe, the heart of life as God hath made it. We’re not living…being unless we’re serving.

And it’s remarkable how unremarkable this service is. With the exception of welcoming a stranger who becomes a friend or caring for the sick who may be made well, these acts of service hold no promise for lasting transformation. The systemic conditions of which human need is the symptom continue to create need. The hungry, once fed, hunger again. The thirsty thirst again. The naked need clothing again. When the visit is over, the visitor returns to a life of liberty while the prisoner remains imprisoned.

And it’s remarkable that these simple, straightforward acts of service are not intended to be deliberate deeds by which we seek to gain “extra credit” or “bonus points” to balance the liabilities, our sins of commission and omission, on the ethical ledger of our lives. As the sheep didn’t know they were serving Jesus and as the goats, had they known Jesus was in need, would have served him, service is to be spontaneous and unconscious.

And it’s remarkable that the image of sheep and goats is not only an earthly symbol with heavenly meaning, but also reflects an ordinary practice of first century Palestinian shepherds; in the evening separating their mixed flocks that had grazed together during the day, the sheep preferring the chilly night air, the goats needing warm shelter.

In this light, this story isn’t only about eternity, but also now. A story about life in this world. A life in which not only the hungry, thirsty, naked, sick, and imprisoned, but all of us are needy, in some way, all the time. Thus, a life in which love and justice call us to reach out in compassion with those in need, for we never can know when we will be the ones in need, praying that a helping hand reaches out to us.

In that light, this story is less about God’s judgment of us and more about our judgments of others and ourselves. Are we, more often than not (for none of us always is any one thing!), sheep who serve spontaneously and unconsciously? Or are we goats who would serve if the task was great enough or the one to be served, in our judgment, worthy enough? Or are we an animal yet to be named who does see those in need, yet refuses to serve?

Which are you? Which am I?

 

 

Illustration: Christ separating the sheep and the goats, 6th century mosaic, Basilica of Sant’ Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna, Italy 

 

 

freed from fear…imagine

preaching, 1-22-17a sermon, based on Matthew 25.14-30, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 24th Sunday after Pentecost, November 19, 2017

Jesus tells a parable about talents. In his day, monetary units of precious metal equal to fifteen years’ wages of a day laborer. For our day, the root of our notion of our capabilities, our talents that enable us to do something.

Viewed through the worldly lens of economics, this story is about our stewardship of our abilities and our money; using them fully, investing them wisely for which we, at life’s end, will give a reckoning through our legacies and bequests.

Hmmm, maybe.

From a heavenly perspective, this story is about our faithful use of divine gifts, as Paul delineates in First Corinthians,(1) among them, faith and discernment, knowledge and wisdom, bestowed by the Spirit, which we are to use for the sake of others and for which we must give an account at the end of time, the Day of the Lord, the second coming of Jesus of which Paul speaks.(2)

Hmmm, maybe.

Today, focusing on two of the four characters, I suggest that this parable is about an elemental aspect of our relationships, all of our relationships, with God and with all others. Not the first two servants, who invest and double their money, make the same speech to their master, who, with the same words, praises and rewards them. They function as literary foils like Romeo and Juliet’s Friar whose patience magnifies Romeo’s impatience or Mr. Hyde whose evil illumines the goodness of Dr. Jekyll or the malevolent Draco Malfoy to the benevolent Harry Potter. The first two servants, in their exacting similarity, highlight the utterly different relationship of the master and the third servant; who, suffering from a case of fiscal paralysis, buries and returns the money.

Parable of the Talents, Eugène Burnand (1850-1921)

There is the point of the parable, which, though it may seem, is not a judgment against laziness, but rather is about fear.

FEAR - Scrabble tiles

The third servant imagined that his master was unkind. “I knew you were harsh, so I was afraid.” And acting on his fear, “I hid your talent and here it is.” The master replies, “You knew, did you, that I am as you imagine? If so, then you should have done otherwise.”

The point. Whatever we imagine about God and anyone else will influence our behavior. Speaking for myself, if I imagine God or you to be judgmental, I will be afraid and, in my fear, remain guarded, reveal little, risk even less lest I fail and fall under your judgment. If I imagine God or you to be benevolent and fair, then I am free to take the risk of being open and vulnerable, indeed, to be as loving and just as I perceive God and you to be.

What we imagine, we reflect. What we reflect, we will be and do, think and feel, intend and act.

If this is true – and I believe it is! – then the moral of this parable is this: Resist and reject fear. Risk faith and trust in our interactions with God and others, for there is truest freedom.

 

Illustration: The Parable of the Talents, Eugène Burnand (1850-1921)

Footnotes:

(1) 1 Corinthians 12

(2) 1 Thessalonians 5.1-11 is the day’s appointed epistle reading.

get ready!

Epiphany 1-22-17a sermon, based on Matthew 25.1-13, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost, November 12, 2017

“Keep awake…for you know neither the day nor the hour.”

Jesus, identifying his ministry, identifying himself with the coming of the kingdom of heaven, symbolized by a wedding banquet, tells a parable about bridesmaids waiting for the bridegroom. Him! Some are ready and invited to the feast. Others are not and are left out.

Parable of the Bridesmaids, James Tissot (1836-1902)

Reflecting on this story, I, as one who came of age in the 1960s, recall the words of a song of the late, great Curtis Mayfield:

People get ready! There’s a train a-coming.

Don’t need no baggage. You just get on board.

All you need is faith to hear the diesels humming.

Don’t need no ticket. You just thank the Lord.[1]

A train’s a-coming. Mayfield’s metaphor for passage to eternity, for which the required readiness is neither the earthly “baggage” of material attainment nor the “ticket” of personal attributes and achievements, but simply, only faith.

This past week, I had a conversation with a dear friend; though I did more listening than talking. Though young (I consider her as a daughter), she’s made what she considers a lifetime of mistakes. In her view, her prospects are unclear and her horizons, what she can see of them, veiled in shadow.

This morning, I step back from the threshold of eternity to focus on this world. This sermon, the fruit of my listening to my friend, is what I want to say, what I will say to her.

This business of readiness is a resonant theme throughout our daily living. We want to be ready. On top of our game. At the peak of our powers. Physically rested. Emotionally stable. Mentally alert. Financially solvent. Conversant with the tasks at hand and confident of having the necessary skills in hand.

I often wish that when we succeed at being ready, accomplishing what we set out to do, proving again our ability, polishing our life’s record of excellence that would be the end of it. But no! Life continues to challenge our readiness, presenting us with ongoing opportunities “to do it again” and, thereby, reminding us of moments when we weren’t ready. Moments that will come again. When confidence falters. When anxiety overwhelms. When we fail.

Whenever that happens, then we know how the foolish bridesmaids felt. Whenever we, as they, showing up with oil in their lamps, offer our well-intentioned best. Whenever we, as they, bringing not enough oil for as long as they had to wait, discover our best is not enough. Whenever we, as they, hear that word of rejection, most painfully spoken when looking in the mirror that reflects our guilt in letting others down and perhaps our shame in seeing again the face of less than our best: “I do not know you!”

Now, I do not know whether any of this registers for or resonates within you. Speaking for myself, manifold have been my experiences of this. Thus, I know and again I declare that life continues to challenge our readiness.

But that can be good news. For as long as life lasts, there are second chances. Therefore, the judgment “I do not know you” on our failures, on us is not final.

To behold in life the possibility, the reality of second chances, whether understood as bestowed by the hand of an ever-loving, ever-forgiving God or offered in each new opportunity or both and more, can give us hope and courage to be in the moment, making the best decisions we can, and living with the consequences without that oft self-imposed burden of having to prove how good and right we and our choices are.

A train always is a-coming. It’s called “second chance.” Readiness is having faith, believing that is so and climbing on board when it comes. So,

People get ready! There’s a train a-coming.

Don’t need no baggage. You just get on board.

All you need is faith to hear the diesels humming.

Don’t need no ticket. You just thank the Lord.

 

Illustration: The Parable of the Bridesmaids, James Tissot (1836-1902). Note: Tissot’s painting portrays the five wise bridesmaids who, awaiting the arrival of the bridegroom “became drowsy and slept” (Mathew 25.5), nevertheless, having brought more than sufficient oil, have their lamps lit. I assume that Tissot, in not depicting the five foolish bridesmaids, therefore not following the flow of the parable, wished to infer that they had departed to buy oil for their lamps.

Footnote:

[1] From the song, People Get Ready (1965); words and music by Curtis Lee Mayfield (1942-1999)

what if?

preaching, 1-22-17a sermon, based on Matthew 23.1-12, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 22nd Sunday after Pentecost, November 5, 2017

Jesus is in Jerusalem for the final showdown with his enemies, truly, the final countdown to his death. With no time or temperament for polite speech, Jesus stands up to the religious leaders, speaking up in the face of their hypocrisy; his message, personal and polemical: “Your leaders have the power that comes with their knowledge and the authority to exercise their power to teach. Therefore, listen to what they say, but don’t do what they do. For they don’t practice what they preach. Rather than proclaiming God’s law of love and liberty, they make rules and regulations impossible to follow. They make public display of their goodness. They expect front row seats. They wear distinctive clothes and answer only to exalted titles.”[1]

This kind of talk could get Jesus killed, and we who know his story know that it did! Nevertheless, Jesus boldly confronted the religious leaders, then addressed the entire crowd: “Don’t go by honorific titles, for you all have honor. Don’t treat anyone as God, for there is only One worthy of worship and that One is not any of you. If you want to stand out, then step down, for greatness is measured in service to others.”[2]

Jesus, speaking to everyone, condemning the status quo of the hierarchy of favor for the few and subordination of the many, pointed to a radical reality; paradoxically though otherworldly intended for this sphere of time and space: the nearness of the kingdom of heaven.[3] A realm of life, a state of existence in which being created by God, therefore already approved, dignified by God removes every need for self-justification, every desire to increase self-esteem by the trappings of title, privilege, and public honor. Yes, in this world, there are titles, privileges, and publicly-bestowed honor, yet these are human inventions. In the kingdom of heaven Jesus proclaims God’s intention that all that is essential, life and dignity, is granted by God in creation and at birth.

In this revelation and my recognition of this revelation, I confess that I feel personally challenged by Jesus’ message. For, despite claiming love and justice as my values, I, sometimes, choosing to follow my preferences and prejudices, chafe under the burden of doing, being love and justice for all. And I have a vocation, by its nature, given to the public display of goodness; regardless of how I may feel. And I wear distinctive clothing. And I sit, perhaps arguably, in the best seat in this house. And I have a title in front of my name. And fearing the risk of the loss of what I have, sometimes I don’t stand up and speak up in the face of wrong.

I’m not alone. All of us, as communal creatures hardwired to be in relationship, want to be acknowledged, greeted and treated with respect. Perhaps most, if not all of us like places of honor and the best seats. And surely all of us have had moments in our lives when we thought, believed, knew something wasn’t right, yet said, did nothing; and, as we live, moments such as these again will arise and confront us.

I think of our current times; our airwaves filled with news of sexual harassment, thus bringing to light words and deeds of a long and wrong past that the purposeful silence and ignorance of many has allowed to continue unto this day.

But what if we, in this world still wedded to hierarchy and favor for few and subordination of many, with hearts, souls, and minds, embraced and embodied, preached and practiced Jesus’ message? What if we clearly beheld ourselves to be as God has created and redeemed us: earthly vessels overflowing with heavenly love? What if faithfully, truly believing that, we lived to give without reserve, served without desire for recognition, spoke and acted in the name of Jesus in the face of injustice?

If so, then the kingdom of heaven that Jesus proclaims would not only be near, it would be here.

 

Footnotes:

[1] Matthew 23.2-7, my paraphrase

[2] Matthew 23.8-11, my paraphrase

[3] Jesus inaugurated his public ministry with the following proclamation that formed and framed all he did and said, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (Matthew 4.17).