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

a World AIDS Day tribute (reposted from December 1, 2016)

WRA 1976

Wayne Roberts Abernathy, December 21, 1950 – March 20, 1995

numbered among the 1st generations of martyrs slain
by a killer, then, by most, barely known,
tho’ still, by some, bravely named,
Wayne,
with mind and heart, soul and spirit,
weathered the firstly gradual, then rapaciously fleet
& inexorable descent
into death’s shadow;
yet neither cursing nor clenching closed his eyes to the enveloping darkness,
rather gazing fast at his Lord’s, his greatest Love’s Light;
Whose promise of eternal keeping
he ne’er spent a moment doubting;
tho’ some – e’en family and church,
oft misunderstanding and unaccepting –
questioned, given his “lifestyle” choosing,
which he boldly, surely knew
was no more his free electing
than any other manner of God’s creative bestowing…

in this, aye, verily, Wayne, in his dying,
damning not the imposing, yet impostering darkness,
loved, longed, lived into Life’s unbounded Light
and now forever walks by blessed sight.

“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.

thanksgiving forgiving redux

What happens – and, I am bold to say, I believe this to be a common (universal!) human experience – when one you have forgiven for past indiscretions continues to behave indiscreetly?

I asked myself this question when, during our Thanksgiving Day gathering, I took rueful note that one I had forgiven,(1) continued to act, in my view, in ways that immediately refreshed my memory of prior indiscretions.

Before retiring, as Pontheolla and I recounted the wondrously pleasant day, I relayed my observations, saying, “It almost makes me want to rescind my forgiveness.”

As I seek always (well, chiefly) to be honest with myself and with others, I hasten to add, no, not “almost”. For, given how I felt, I did desire to retract my forgiveness. And, no, not “makes me”, for I don’t believe anyone can compel me to do anything against my will (barring, I think, confronting me with a credible threat to my existence). Rather I would withdraw my forgiveness as a matter of self-righteous choice (which, I confess, is not beyond me) and, thus, at minimal best, not hold the other person responsible for my act of conscious volition.

However, I cannot, did not, and will not revoke my forgiveness…for a host of reasons.

I cannot – I am unable to – withdraw what is not mine, though, paradoxically, yes, I did possess it to give. Jesus teaches, “If you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.”(2) Yet the truth, his truth is that God always acts first to forgive us, thus, empowering us to do the same, therefore, in the words of the Apostle, we are to “forgiv(e) one another, as God in Christ has forgiven (us).”(3)

I did not withdraw my God-given forgiveness because of what I believe to be an existential truth of all human living: No one arrives at any place of good or ill without, in the former case, the helpful hearts and hands of countless folk, known and unknown, seen and unseen and, in the latter case, without the labors of hurtful hearts and hands. Believing, knowing this to be true, only God knows (surely not, never I) and, thus, can judge the measure and consequences of the influences of good and ill on another.

I will not withdraw my God-given forgiveness because I look “in a mirror, dimly,”(4) unable to see and know myself fully.(5) Thus, the plea of the psalmist resonates within me: “O God, who can detect their sins; cleanse me from my secret faults.”(6) As only God can know and, thus, judge the measure and consequences of my self-awareness and self-ignorance, as I pray the blessing of divine mercy, withholding the just punishment I deserve, so I ought and do pray the same for others.

 

Footnotes:

(1) See my previous post, thanksgiving forgiving, November 25, 2017
(2) Matthew 6.14
(3) Ephesians 4.32b
(4) 1 Corinthians 13.12
(5) Indeed, as I live and breathe, I ever am in the process of being and becoming. All I am is greater (at least, different) than what, who I was. And all I will be is greater (again, at least different) from what, who I am.
(6) Psalm 19.12. On immediate reflection, I have enough difficulty dealing with my sins and faults of which I am aware, let alone the ones of which I am not conscious, that is, that are “secret” to me.

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 

 

 

thanksgiving forgiving

One of the aspects of my living…my being with which I most have wrestled and do wrestle is forgiveness. For reasons, at least those of which I am conscious – harkening back to formative years’ absences of acknowledgment and acceptance from those who mattered most; those lacks imparting wounds of the soul hard to heal – I have a heartfelt sensitivity to and an elephantine memory for slights and a spirit-deep capacity to bear a grudge. Interestingly to me, as I’ve aged (grown?), I find that I tend to harbor animus more, most against those who have harmed, rather than myself, those near and dear to me.

(Here, there is an inherent irony and an unpleasant truth. The loved one for whom I carry the blazing torch of retribution to right the wrongs committed against her/him may not – usually doesn’t – embody by character or embrace by choice a vengeful disposition. Hence, I, in wielding, without having been asked, the axe of reprisal for one who would not, am forced to face afresh the resident reality of mine own anger.)

Two days ago, on Thanksgiving Day, I stood face to face with one who, in my view, brought grave hurt to a dearest loved one and against whom I, through the nurturance, in my mental rehearsal of the rota of wrongs, had stoked the fire of my anger. In the instant of our meeting, after weeks, months since last sight, I noticed something different. An aging. A weakness of flesh. A brittleness of mind. A weariness of spirit. Equally instantly, I felt soul-searing sorrow and sympathy. Enough to do what I, by virtue of my faith in the One Who hath forgiven me, ought to have done weeks, months before. Forgive.