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

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thank You, Lord

A personal reflection and prayerful meditation based on the Beatitudes (Matthew 5.1-12) on Thanksgiving Day, November 23, 2017.

The Sermon of the Beatitudes (La sermon des béatitudes) (1886), James Tissot (1836-1902)

This day, O God, I give You all praise and thanks that, through (yea, only through) the prevailing power of Your Spirit, I, day by day, more and more, know myself to be:

Poor in spirit, accepting (finally!) all that I am – my strengths and weaknesses, my wealth and want – and, in my acceptance, believing, knowing that I am not (never!) in control, and believing, knowing that You are God and I am not (ever!).

Mournful. Not melancholy, bemoaning all things (though, You know, O God, that I am a practiced, even professional complainer!), but rather caring for others; even more, knowing how much and often that I, in my brokenness, grieve others; still more, knowing how much and often I need forgiveness.

Meek; not spineless, but courageous with righteous anger, O God, about all hatred and injustice that grieves Your Spirit.

Hungry and thirsty for righteousness; insatiably desiring right relationship with You, O God, and all others You have made, including myself.

Merciful; settling for no safe-distance-sympathy and suffering no passing-moment-pity, but rather being responsible, response-able to others, striving to see through their eyes, seeking to be as they are, even, especially those most unlike me.

Pure of heart; single in purpose; wanting, willing one thing: to see You, to know You, beholding Your ever-unfolding revelation of Your Self and the meaning of life – that of the world and mine.

Peacemaking; though taking no pleasure in the dis-ease of conflict, quailing not from engaging it; striving to understand all points of view, even, especially those with which I disagree; mindful of our common dignity as Your creations and our common destiny to dwell in Your peace that passeth our understanding or to destroy and die in our divisions…

(and knowing, believing, O God, Jesus’ teaching to be no multiple-choice, but rather an all-inclusive list; accepting, embracing the last and, for me, hardest of all)

Persecuted; willing to sacrifice my comfort and convenience, yea, my well-being for the sake of standing in commitment to You and Your kingdom.

For all this and more than I can know and name, on this Thanksgiving Day and day by day, in the words of a song, I: Thank You, Lord, I just want to thank You, Lord. Amen.

 

Illustration: The Sermon of the Beatitudes (La sermon des béatitudes) (1886), James Tissot (1836-1902)

you’re in good hands with All…

(not state,[1] but rather) Souls – a personal reflection post-All Souls’ Day, November 2, 2017

In this recent annual 3-day cycle of All Hallow’s Eve (better known in common parlance as Halloween), All Saints’ Day, and All Souls’ Day, I, as a Christian – and without the slightest disparagement of any other faith tradition or spiritual custom – have been put greatly in mind of those, commemorated by this last observance, who have died in the faith of Jesus as Lord.

O’er two millennia, some of these, whom Revelation refers to as having “died in the Lord”,[2] verily, a tiny few, are personally known to me and a few more only by historical record and reputation, and, clearly, most not at all. Nevertheless, perhaps it is my daily increasing awareness of my aging and, thus, my mortality that sharpens my focus on the inexorable journey’s end of all who dwell in this world: death. In this deepening recognition, the Spirit of God floods, as life’s blood, my heart with these words: Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.[3]

This late 1st century writer, seeking to bolster the determination and dedication of Christians living in Jerusalem and under persecution, recalls the examples of those, Hebrew heroes and heroines, who lived and died with faith, “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen”[4] – among them, Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham and Sarah, Joseph, Moses, the Israelites in their exodus from Egyptian captivity and their trek to the Promised Land, the judges, David, and Samuel. As the ongoing arc of the epistle extends through and beyond any given historical era and as long as time in this world lasts, it is reasonable, indeed, a testament of conviction to expand and include in the “great cloud of witnesses” all who lived and died in faith.

saints (a great cloud of witnesses), Fra Angelico (1395-1455)

I find this a momentous thought – one that grants me the comfort of encouragement, especially in moments of trial and tribulation when life’s only surety seems to be (and, as it seems, so it is) struggle – that all who have gone before me:

  • wait for my eventual arrival that where they dwell in light eternal, there I will be and
  • watch me in my life’s journey and
  • watch over me, fretting over my failures and praying for my progress and, in all things,
  • willing me to carry on!

 

Illustration: Saints, Fra Angelico (1395-1455)

Footnotes:

[1] Since the 1950s, You’re in good hands with Allstate has been that insurance company’s reigning slogan expressing a commitment to customers’ wellbeing.

[2] Revelation 14.13

[3] The Epistle to the Hebrews 12.1-2a

[4] Hebrews 11.1

a call and a claim

a sermon, based on Matthew 9.35-10.23, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 2nd Sunday after Pentecost, June 18, 2017

Jesus called his disciples, before saying, “Follow me”,[1] declaring the purpose, the reason for the call, saying, “The kingdom of heaven is near.”[2]

Jesus Commissions Disciples, James Tissot (1836-1902)

This same good news he sends them out on a missionary journey to proclaim. But his accompanying instructions are hardly as appealing. A declaration dripping with danger: “I send you as sheep among wolves.” Then a mystifying, difficult (impossible?) to operationalize message: “Be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” Then a terrifying statement: “Beware…you will be beaten…and dragged before rulers.” Then a consoling, but, given what has been said, confusing word: “Don’t worry.”

Jesus, the way you treat your friends it’s a wonder you have any followers!

Now, in Jesus’ time and in the historical context of Matthew’s gospel, a half-century after Jesus when the church was under persecution, these words of warning were necessary. To go into the world with his counter-cultural, contra-status quo message of unconditional love and justice inevitably would lead to trouble with secular and religious authorities. And Christian conversion could erupt in discord within one’s family.

Moreover, Jesus’ message of hardship was part of a prophetic tradition woven into the cultural and spiritual fabric of his people’s understanding of what happens when one stands up, stands out in the name of God.

Still, what sense do we make of these biblical insights into the hard texture of discipleship?

In our day and time, Jesus’ words seem, sound alien. Mainline American Christianity, in which the Episcopal Church is firmly rooted, generally knows little about bold prophetic proclamations that provoke persecution. Verily, there have been historical moments when Christian reticence to speak in the public square from the stance of faith to the raging cultural, political, and social issues of the day justifiably has led to the charge that the church is a non-prophet organization! However, our Christian sisters and brothers in some regions of Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East can testify to the truth of Jesus’ words. To be his disciple can and does put them in direct, at times, violent confrontations with governments and the followers of other faith and secular traditions.

Nevertheless, I believe that we can attest to the vivid reality of Jesus’ warning that proclamation brings trouble, particularly in the recent past and current generations when the divisions between conservative and progressive Christians have been and are so pronounced; the right denouncing the left as so inclusive and relativistic that it stands for nothing and, indeed, is no Christianity at all and the left decrying the right as narrow and doctrinaire, far from Jesus’ all-embracing love.

Today, putting all this aside, I focus solely on Jesus’ message. For if we take it and him seriously, there is, in his instructions for the missionary journey, an unmistakable and immutable call and claim on any, every disciple, of any and every age, in any and every age. A call to us, a claim upon us to go forth into the world – and, in the concrete daily circumstances of our lives, through our profession in word and deed of God’s love and justice – proclaiming that the kingdom of heaven is near.

 

Illustration: Jesus Commissions Disciples, James Tissot (1836-1902)

Footnotes:

[1] Matthew 4.19

[2] Matthew 4.17a