For some years now, the population at church on Christmas morning has been much lower than it used to be. This is not necessarily to be bemoaned: the population on Christmas Eve has gotten higher. It’s something of a cultural shift. But, whether we’re here Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, we’re looking in the same direction; and as long as that’s what we’re doing, whichever time we choose for it is beside the point.
There is a difference, though, between the experience of worship on Christmas Eve and on Christmas Day. On Christmas Eve, the predominant feeling is still one of anticipation, as it is throughout Advent, in a way that evolves over that season. Strictly speaking, on Christmas Eve we’re still in Advent: the gift has not yet arrived. There’s excitement in church on Christmas Eve, because we know the gift’s going to arrive, in just a few hours; but it’s still not quite here yet. So the concept of Santa Claus, as a symbol, has real meaning.
Today is different: the gift has arrived. We have it. The anticipation, and the excitement, have evolved into joy. And I’ve been using the word “gift” because of course I’m talking about the great gift of God in Christ, who is now among us. If you want to talk about a gift that keeps on giving, this is the ultimate. And in church, we do talk about that gift; it’s one of the things we’re here to do: to give thanks: always to give thanks; especially for this unimaginable gift.
I think it’s wonderfully appropriate that in the lectionary for today, Christmas Day, our church chooses to put before us a passage from the letter to Titus. Titus, a bit player among the big stars of the New Testament if ever there was one, off somewhere in the shrubbery of the letters of Paul; very short letter; almost never gets read in church. And of course it’s just all that that makes it appropriately featured on one of the two greatest celebrations of the Christian year: because it’s just one more example of how God always works through the small, the barely noticeable, the completely unexpected. My ways are not your ways, says the Lord, over and over and over.
Titus was one of Paul’s corps of missionaries, like Timothy: the ones he sent to minister to churches in the eastern Mediterranean he had founded and moved on from (in Titus’ case, it was the church on the island of Crete.) Paul sent these lieutenants to make sure those churches were still on the right track, following the gospel that he, Paul, had taught them. So the letter to Titus, like other such in the New Testament, contains specific instructions on what Titus is to do: what to look for, mistakes he’d heard of that needed correcting, likely pitfalls and how to avoid them, how to handle certain people.
The passage we heard today is a little capsule summary of the gift of God in Christ: in the words of the letter, a gift of “rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit. This Spirit he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior”; and this has happened (again, from the letter) “not because of any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to [God’s] mercy.” You could call that the gospel in a nutshell.
But because to churchgoing Christians these are all such familiar phrases, it can sound like a formula, kneejerk, lifeless, and our eyes glaze over and we think Yeah, yeah, we got that already; and the gift is dead, because what it means for our lives is lost.
But we can get an idea of just what it does mean from the two verses that immediately precede the passage we heard today. Titus receives instructions from Paul concerning the church in Crete: “Remind them…to be ready for every good work, to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show every courtesy to everyone.” That’s great, isn’t it? Who could quarrel with that? We probably like to think we know this already; but do we actually live that way? Really? Or just when we feel like it? Or is it okay to not live that way when we decide, as we so often do, that the other person doesn’t deserve it? And – truthfully – how often do we fail to live this way especially among the people who are closest to us? Our families? Those with whom we work?
These words describe the life of the gospel, day in and day out, that God calls us to in Jesus Christ. And in the very next verse – the one right before today’s reading – the writer attests that this life is a gift, that he has received in his own life: “For we ourselves were once foolish, passing our days in malice and envy, despicable, hating one another.” And then the first verse we heard today: “But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us….” In Jesus Christ God shows us the way, as a pure gift.
And through this gift we are freed from the shackles of anger and fear and hatred and envy and pride; freed into a kind of joy that knows no bounds, because of the purity of the gift, that God gives so freely. This kind of joy is embodied beautifully in the character of Ebenezer Scrooge. It’s one of the reasons A Christmas Carolinstantly became, and has stayed, so popular, because it captures so well this aspect of the spirit of Christmas. Near the end of the story, once Scrooge makes his peace with the three Ghosts that have visited him, and vows to turn his life around in the true Spirit of Christmas, he is filled with a giddy joy that nothing in the story has prepared us for, from him, it’s completely out of character, but makes perfect sense to us, when we see it: a joy that, finally, alone in his room though he be, has him laughing out loud, laughing at nothing at all, laughing until tears are rolling down his cheeks; because, by keeping Christmas in his heart (as he puts it), he is free of the chains he forged in life; and it’s a gift.
That’s the gift of God in Christ, at Christmas. Whatever else turns up under the tree, we’re good to go. Thanks be to God.
(Isaiah 9:2-7; Ps. 96; Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1-20)
I grew up in northern Virginia, on a farm between two tiny towns a couple of miles apart. Each had a population of a few hundred, each had an Episcopal church, and there was a single minister (we didn’t call them priests in those days) who served both. On Sunday mornings there was an eight o’clock service at one, and a ten o’clock at the other. At Christmastime, the eight o’clock church had the Christmas Eve service, and the ten o’clock had worship Christmas morning. When my brothers and I got into our teens, our family switched from going Christmas Day to Christmas Eve, and it stayed that way for the rest of our parents’ lives.
I remember a couple of things about that Christmas Eve service. For most of the years we went, the minister was a sweet old guy with a very gentle, benevolent way about him, but who delivered his sermons in a kind of sing-song drone that had a truly hypnotic effect (and not hypnotic/enthralling, but hypnotic/”You are getting sleepy, very sleepy”); so the “Amen” at the end was like the snap of the fingers that brought you up out of the trance you suddenly realized you’d been in for the past ten minutes, and – as in actual hypnosis - you remembered nothing of what had happened in that time. So his sermons might actually have been brilliant; or it might have been the same sermon every year, but it was impossible to know.
But I also remember the unique touchstone quality of that service. People reconnected, and in a particular way. The congregation was people I’d grown up around, and for some it was the only time all year that we saw each other, people like me who’d gone away to college and then to jobs in different parts of the country. But the social dimension had deeper roots: we came back home for Christmas, and we were there in church on Christmas Eve, partly to see who we all were now, with another year under our belts. And we were drawn to this context – this service of worship - to do that; because we all had some sense (and mine was pretty dim at that point) that the story of this little baby is like the core of a nuclear reactor: that it’s where everything in life starts: the story of the man who spoke, and speaks, the capital-T Truth; and who had, and has, the power to transform lives, who shows us who we really are. So it’s natural to feel the need to refresh ourselves in this story.
And when we hear this story on Christmas Eve, it has a different feel than it does at any other time, both the story and what we do together around it. By definition the eve of something carries with it the awareness of the next day: the sense of pure possibility. And in Christ that possibility is new life, and joy, and wonder. And it’s real.
There’s an indication of what I’m talking about in the gospel reading we just heard. Luke’s story of the Nativity is so beautiful, and so familiar (we hear it every Christmas Eve), that it’s easy for us to be deaf to its live voice. An angel of the Lord announces to the shepherds the birth of Jesus as the decisive act of God in human history; and then a huge crowd of angels shows up and sings praise to God: it’s quite a production; and when they all go back to heaven the shepherds say, We’ve got to get to Bethlehem and see, as they put it, “this thing that has taken place.” So they don’t know exactly what it is that’s happened, and is happening, but they know it’s something: pure possibility. And they find Mary and Joseph and the baby in the manger, which confirms that the angel had told them.
And once it’s confirmed, the shepherds tell everyone who’s around, anyone who’ll listen, what’s happened. And this is the point: Luke tells us that “…all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.” The contrast here is subtle, but very sharp. All who heard the shepherds were amazed: they’re reacting as spectators. Getting plenty of bang for the buck, but spectators. Mary treasures the shepherds’ words and ponders them in her heart. She knows that what’s happened is more than just a spectacle, more than just a awe-inspiring demonstration of God’s presence and power. And as she has from the start, Mary takes it all very personally. She understands that what she’s heard has to do with real life. She treasures the words of the shepherds: she feels the richness of their meaning for her, and for everyone. And she ponders them in her heart: do you hear the awareness of possibility there? Mary is looking to tomorrow: to what those words mean for her life going forward; and for the lives of every human being, from now on.
This is what our church calls us to do, at Christmas: to not be spectators, but to take it personally: to treasure these words of the Christmas story, and ponder them in our hearts: the story that this little baby is the Light of the World, and is really born into each of our lives to light us to who we really are: to new life,, and joy, and wonder. Thanks be to God.
(Micah 5:2-5a; Canticle 15; Hebrews 10:5-10; Luke 1:39-55)
“And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?”
I have a friend who many years ago was a reporter for the Christian Science Monitor, and in 1981 the paper assigned him to cover the first landing of the very first space shuttle, the Columbia, at Edwards Air Force Base in California. That first flight only lasted two days; probably the most important mission it had was to get up and down safely, because it was the first. The landing was scheduled to take place in the morning, and at the appointed time my friend and the large crowd of other reporters who had been invited to witness this were gathered outside by the landing strip where the shuttle was to touch down. They had been told the direction the shuttle would be coming in from, so they were all looking that way. They were there as professionals - to do a job, to report the event – but there was also among them all an eager anticipation: this was something that had never happened before, and they were going to be the first ones to see it. They were all looking off to the horizon, straining to be the first to catch sight of the shuttle. But the time it was scheduled to appear came and went, minutes passed, and there was a mounting anxiety that something had gone wrong.
And then suddenly, from the back of the crowd there on the tarmac, someone shouted Hey, there it is; and every head whipped around, and there, coming from the opposite direction than the one they had been told to look, was Columbia, less than a mile away, almost on them, lumbering awkwardly down. And my friend said that that he and that whole crowd of reporters, serious, sober professionals there to do what years of experience had prepared them for, to give a clear, precise account of the details of the event: all of that instantly went away, and he said it was like they were all of a sudden like kids at a high school football game: jumping up and down, pumping their fists in the air, shouting Come on baby, get her down; rooting Columbia home. And it was the fact that they’d been taken by surprise, that the ship was coming from a completely unexpected direction, and was all of a sudden right in front of them, that instantly vaporized the constraints of professional behavior, and set free a reaction that was completely spontaneous, genuine, and absolutely truthful, from the deepest, most vulnerable part of their humanity. And I’m sure that, because of that, at least some of them must have left that occasion slightly changed people.
We live in a world that we think we know. We think we’ve taken the measure of it. We know what to expect. We look in certain directions. We behave in certain ways. And then God does something that we’re not looking for, and we’re taken out of what we know, if we’re honest with ourselves; and if we have the eyes to see it, we face God’s presence, here and now – thank God; and our spirit leaps.
This is what happens to Elizabeth in today’s reading from the gospel of Luke. In Christian tradition the encounter between Mary and Elizabeth is known as the Visitation. It’s in the middle of the larger story that Luke tells of the birth of Jesus Christ, and because of that, we usually don’t give this particular episode the attention it deserves. But there’s something unique and distinctive about Christian spirituality that this story reveals.
Elizabeth is the wife of the priest Zechariah. They are childless, which was considered a disgrace, and the woman was always the one held responsible: and in the language of the Bible, Elizabeth is “barren”. (Think about the implications of that word: it’s not just a synonym for “childless”.) Luke tells us that they are advanced in years, which probably means they’re in their forties, and at that time certainly meant that the possibility that they might have children in the future was out of the question.
But an angel of the Lord appears to Zechariah and tells him that his wife Elizabeth will bear a son, for whom God has appointed a special task. And Elizabeth does conceive a child, and she understands this to be the work of God: “This is what the Lord has done for me when he looked favorably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people.” So God, through this completely unexpected event, has started a particular movement of the Spirit in her.
The angel Gabriel then visits Mary, and tells her she’s going to bear a son for whom God has appointed a special task of his own; and when Mary says How can this be, I’m a virgin, Gabriel says, essentially, it can be because God is doing it, nothing is impossible with God, and tells Mary about her cousin Elizabeth, an old woman, now pregnant. That’s to say, in the language of the time, she’s no longer barren: it’s not simply that there’s a physical process, that we’re all familiar with, going on in her, and we think, Oh, Elizabeth’s pregnant, isn’t that nice: something fundamental about who she is has changed.
So Mary goes immediately to her kinsman, to explore with her, because she’s the only one who can understand it, this utterly new and inexplicable thing that’s happening to each of them. And this is where we learn something unique and distinctive about the Christian life, as Luke tells the story: Mary goes “with haste” to Elizabeth; and when Elizabeth hears Mary’s voice, before Mary can tell her anything at all, Elizabeth understands what’s happened, and what’s happening: the child in her womb, the new life in her, “leaps”; Elizabeth is “filled with the Holy Spirit”, and she “exclaims with a loud cry”: “Why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?”
This question – this thought - is a leap of the Spirit, in two ways. The first is a leap to a new dimension of thankfulness. “Why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?” Elizabeth understands that this – the Visitation, Mary’s coming to her – is a gift, a gift of God, which means it’s a pure gift: she’s done nothing to deserve it. She understands that there’s nothing anyone could possibly do to deserve such a gift. And since she knows the gift is pure gift, Elizabeth’s thankfulness is pure thankfulness: there’s no self-congratulation, no self-justification, nothing held back: she gives herself fully to what God is doing. That’s one leap of the spirit.
The other is that, in this question, Elizabeth looks to the future: Why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? There’s a sense of mission here: Elizabeth understands that there’s a reason that this has happened, a reason that God has given her this gift, a reason that involves her, and her life. She doesn’t know yet what it is; but she understands that it is her task now to find out. This is a call.
This is the culmination of Advent, where we stand with Elizabeth. The season surprises us, astonishes us: yanks us out of dark, desolate barrenness, to radiant, excited, whole-souled thankfulness at the gift that God has given us, each one of us: thankfulness which makes us free, free to answer the question we put to ourselves: Why has this happened to me, that our Lord comes to me? It is in that awe, and wonder, and joy, that we approach the birth of Christ. Thanks be to God.
(Zephaniah 3:14-20; Canticle 9; Philippians 4:4-7; Luke 3:7-18)
When actors are working on a play, they usually talk in terms of actions: what am I doing in this scene? I’m going to get in my father’s face and stay there until he finally listens to me. I’m going to swallow my fear and ask this girl to marry me. I’m going to joke my way out of the trouble I’m in. The words of any script just lie there flat unless you’re really doing something through them (this holds for the worship service as well.) And when something feels like it’s not right in a performance, usually something’s gone off track in that area, and you go back to square one, and ask yourself is, Okay, what am I doing here? That’s how to reconnect to the character. Because what we do and how we do it is the truest reflection of who we are.
I’m thinking about this because of today’s gospel reading. What should we do? In this passage we hear that question three times. This reading immediately follows the one we heard last week: John the Baptist, in the wilderness, preaching repentance (turning in a new direction.) And people are flocking to hear him because they know something’s gone off track in their lives, they hear the call to repentance, and they know that’s what they need. Today, in typically subtle, diplomatic language, John tells them a what that means: he says, You brood of vipers! Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Don’t think that just because you say you buy into this, that takes care of the problem. Do something about it. What you do shows who you really are.
Hence the question, What should we do? Three different groups of people ask it, and each gets a different answer. The reason why relates to what we’re doing here today.
This is the third Sunday of Advent. In church tradition it’s known as Gaudete Sunday. Gaudeteis Latin for “rejoice”, and today that is what our church calls us to do. In the progress of the season of Advent this is the day when we look to the light that is coming toward us, and we rejoice, we rejoice in the One who is coming into the world, and will very soon be among us. This rejoicing is signified by the rose-colored candle that we light today on the Advent wreath. We hear the word “rejoice” –as an imperative, a call - in two of today’s readings. At the beginning of the passage from Paul’s letter to the Philippians: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice!” Rejoice in the Lord: let us think about who Jesus is, and what Jesus does, in our hearts, in our spirits; and let us rejoice. Our faith calls us to do that today.
We hear it from a somewhat different angle in the prophecy of Zephaniah: “Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem!” This is particularly striking from Zephaniah, because these words are such an about-face from the rest of that book: Zephaniah is what people think of as a typical Old Testament prophet: full of judgment: judgment in the sense of a guilty verdict being delivered (there’s another sense of the word, which I’ll get back to.) Here’s an example from Zephaniah chapter 1: “I will utterly sweep away everything from the face of the earth, says the Lord.” How’s that for a sentence being pronounced? The book is full of that kind of judgment; and lest you think that’s just old-fashioned, here’s a verse from chapter 1 that could have been written yesterday: “I will punish the people who rest complacently on their dregs, those who say in their hearts, ‘The Lord will not do good, nor will he do harm.’ “ Does not that kind of indifference to God seem entirely modern? (And isn’t it comforting to know that it’s not?)
But finally, says Zephaniah – today’s reading is from the very end of the book – finally we are to rejoice, to sing aloud, and shout; because, as we heard today, “[t]he Lord has taken away the judgments against you” (again, judgment as a verdict of guilty.)
Today’s gospel story, however, says nothing literally about rejoicing: it seems rather to point in the other direction; but in fact it has very much to do with why we rejoice today. It has to do with judgment in a different sense of the word.
In this passage from Luke, John the Baptist tells people about the one who is to come: “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire”; and then Luke immediately follows this with “So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to people.” Burning the chaff with unquenchable fire? Most of us probably don’t hear this as good news.
We don’t hear it as good news because it sounds like judgment of the kind we’re used to hearing in the Bible, the judgment that pronounces sentence. So what we hear is, the coming one is going to identify who’s bad and who’s good – who’s naughty and who’s nice - and the good ones are going to make it into the granary and the bad ones are going to get what’s coming to them. Finally, and for good.
But this is a misunderstanding. The novelist Alexander Solzhenitsyn once wrote something that speaks directly to why. He said, “If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.”
And this is where a different sense of the word “judgment” comes in. To judge something also means to see it for what it really is. God sees that line that cuts through our hearts, and God knows who God created us to be. God knows who we really are: that’s the wheat; and God knows how each of us goes off track in this broken world: that’s the chaff. It’s not us and them: it’s just us. John tells of the Coming One who will separate the wheat from the chaff: he will lead us back to who we really are, each in our own way. Christ’s judgment is redemption: re-deeming, re-valuing – valuing us for who we truly are. That’s why the question, What should we do, gets different answers, depending on who’s asking.
What should we do, asks the crowd – the ordinary people? John tells them, Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise. He’s saying, stop your willful blindness to the needs of others because you’re so wrapped up in your own security. It’s essentially a restatement of the second great commandment: Love your neighbor as yourself. This is what you do about that. Simple. Hard, sometimes. But simple.
What should we do, say the tax collectors? John tells them, Don’t charge people more than you are supposed to. In that society that’s what tax collectors did. They collected taxes for Rome and routinely overcharged people, for their own profit, knowing they could get away with it because no one could challenge the power of the empire. This is why people hated tax collectors, why they’re prime examples in all the gospels as the lowest of the low.
What should we do, say the soldiers? John tells them, stop shaking people down. That was standard practice: because they had power, Roman soldiers used extortion and blackmail to enrich themselves. With each group, John addresses the particular sin that leads them away from who they truly are. And they know that’s what’s happened: that’s why they’re asking the question: because we all want redemption; we all know we need redemption; and we know we can’t get it by ourselves.
God sees who we really are. That’s the judgment of God in Christ. God comes into the world to live that judgment: to show us – each of us – who we really are, and call us to live that way. This is what we rejoice in, today. What should we do? Who are we, really? Today we rejoice that there’s an answer. Thanks be to God.
(Jeremiah 33:14-16; Ps. 25:1-9; 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13; Luke 21:25-36)
Beginning last January, once a month Bishop Laura Ahrens has led a book group at Camp Washington. The invitation is open to everyone; it’s during working hours, so I know not everyone can make it, but if you ever can it’s definitely worthwhile. This month we’re looking at a book called Learning to Walk in the Darkby Barbara Brown Taylor, an Episcopal priest who’s a wonderful writer. It’s about our fear of darkness, beginning in childhood. In the introduction she talks about how, when she was little, playing outdoors, at the end of the day her parents would call to her: Come on inside, it’s getting dark. We’re taught early on that darkness is something to be wary of; and, she says, when you look around the world, “…it seems that eliminating darkness is pretty high on the human agenda.”
And usually for good reasons; but there’s a downside to that. Darkness is part of God’s creation. Taylor’s point in writing the book is that there are things about life, and about ourselves, and about God that we can learn only in darkness. She talks about her introduction to the experience of exploring a cave, in an underground complex of caves in West Virginia that goes on for forty miles. She talks about spending a night in a cabin with no light source other than the moon and stars: nightfall, pitch black, daybreak. In darkness we come face to face with the limitations of human capability: with our powerlessness.
Most of the book has to do with darkness in the literal sense, but of course Taylor is well aware of the spiritual and psychological darkness that’s part of life in this world. This darkness lies behind everything she writes about, and the title, Learning to Walk in the Dark, certainly refers to that larger darkness, which we each experience in our own way.
It is in this kind of darkness that we begin the season of Advent. Today is the first day of our church year, and we do not start it off with a picnic. The Christian church decided way back when that we need to begin our Christian journey, every year, in the dark; that, in the life of faith, that is Square One. When I was ordained a priest, right here in this church (it’ll be six years ago next week), those of you who were here will remember that it was the day after the shootings in Sandy Hook, and remember that horrible darkness that had suddenly descended on us all. The Rev. Fleming Rutledge preached the sermon that day, and she began by talking about the season of Advent, which had just begun: “[Advent is] superficially understood as a time to get ready for Christmas, but in truth it’s the season for contemplating the judgment of God. Advent is the season that, when properly understood, does not flinch from the darkness that stalks us all in this world. Advent begins in the dark and moves toward the light—but the season should not move too quickly or too glibly, lest we fail to acknowledge the depth of the darkness. Advent bids us take a fearless inventory of the darkness without and the darkness within.”
The judgment of God. That’s to say, God’s final doing of justice: the judgment that somehow, some day, God being God must inevitably deliver on the gone-wrongness of this world: gone-wrongness which we continually find ourselves enmeshed in, throughout our lives. This judgment of God is something we yearn for, we beg that God to put things right. But at the same time we know that, living in this world, that judgment falls on us. So it’s threatening, and it’s unknowable, in black darkness.
The fear of this day of judgment, this time when God will finally put things right, is of course what Jesus is talking about in today’s reading from the gospel of Luke: “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars”; “People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.”
This kind of apocalyptic language is hard for us to hear, not just because it’s about the obliteration of the only life we’ve ever known, in ways which are impossible to foresee, but also because of the cosmic scale of it all. It’s certainly not the way most of us talk, or think, about life. And when we hear this kind of talk, there are several kinds of mistakes we Christians commonly make.
One is to see it as purely mythological, and therefore to dismiss it. We treat it as a kind of talk from a former time, that may have been necessary for people way back then, but we’ve progressed beyond that, we know more about the world, and we don’t need that kind of thinking any more, it’s bogeyman stuff.
A second mistake is the opposite course: to obsess about the predictions, and what we expect to be their fulfillment in our contemporary world. I led a Bible study at one church at which one of the occasional attenders was a guy named Chuck, who was very devout and knew the Bible well, but who paid an unhealthy amount of attention to the apocalyptic sections of the Bible. Chuck had a very specific idea of the rapture, for example, and he’d come to class with his copy of the Bible in which those sections were well-thumbed, with extensive hand-written notes in the margins. And usually he wouldn’t participate in the discussions except at the end, to deliver pronouncements; and when someone challenged him once he said, “I’ve been studying Biblical prophecies for thirty years”, and I remember thinking brother, there are a lot better ways you could have been spending your time.
But probably the most common mistake among people of faith is to hear this language and simply ignore it: let it go by, not react at all. But to do is to ignore the truth: that we live in a broken world – no one should need convincing about that – and that God is God; and must make all things whole, must do justice, somehow, someday.
So how do we learn to walk in the dark? How do we live, in this particular darkness?
I think there are indications in the other two readings we heard today. The passage from Jeremiah, written in the darkness of the Babylonian exile, proclaims God’s promise to us: “The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah….I shall cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In these days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety.” This is the promise that God makes from the beginning: at the creation, when God pronounces it good, and at the promise God makes in the covenant with Abraham; and at the end of the Bible, at the description of the end-times in Revelation: when all that’s over, “I will be their God, and they will be my children.” So, standing in the darkness as we do, we have God’s promise that God’s love for us will never end. If we weren’t in this darkness – utterly ignorant, utterly helpless – it wouldn’t be the promise. We wouldn’t hear it. We wouldn’t know how life-changing it really is. This is the promise of the resurrection. It’s why Martin Luther said the whole Bible points unmistakably to Jesus.
And in today’s reading from 1 Thessalonians, we have witness of what that promise creates, in us: in our life in Christ. Paul writes to the church there, “How can we thank God enough, in return for all the joy we feel before our God because of you?” “…[M]ay the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you.” This passage is bursting with the love and joy and hope that is life in Christ. This is how we walk in the dark. Today is the day we choose to face the darkness, because in the darkness we feel God’s promise; and we know God’s promise will be fulfilled. Thanks be to God.
(2 Samuel 23:1-7; Ps. 132; Revelation 1:4b-8; John 18:33-37)
I’m actually going to be tag-team preaching today. I wrote most of this sermon, but in the course of working on it I came across something written by a Mennonite pastor named Brad Roth, which I thought expressed the truth I felt I was stumbling toward in a way I couldn’t improve on. So in the last couple of minutes, I will be speaking his words. Welcome, Brad.
On the island of Orkney, in the north of Scotland, there’s a cairn which is known as Maeshowe. A cairn is a pile of stones which is a memorial, or a landmark of some kind (people have made them for many centuries, all over the world.) This one is huge – it’s about 30 feet high and 100 feet across – and it was built almost 5000 years ago, it’s been covered with earth for many centuries. There’s a central chamber which was first excavated about 150 years ago, but those people found that they were not the first to have broken in there. They found Viking runes – inscriptions carved into the stone – which date from the 12thcentury. There are about thirty of them; I was there many years ago, and the two that I remember translated, “We are the bravest warriors on the western sea”; and “Ingeborg is the fairest princess in the north.” The others were along the same lines.
Some things never change. Those inscriptions at Maeshowe, made 900 years ago, are essentially graffiti, just like you’d see on a subway; and graffiti of a common type: claims of power, and status. People have been making these proclamations forever. And in many different ways: in a politician’s slogan, or an ad campaign (“Coke is the real thing”.) We lift up what we identify as power, we lift up what we say is the source of truth, we lift up the one whom we follow; in the language of a former time, we lift up the one who we call our king.
As faithful people we know that true power, real power, has a single source: God alone. This is why we call Christ our King.
Today, the last Sunday of the church year, we celebrate as the feast of Christ the King. This day was established in the Roman Catholic church by Pope Pius XI in 1925, in response to the rise of the brutal secularism that arose in Europe after World War I, and we included it in our calendar some decades later. This is the day on which we remind ourselves of the one we call our king: the one we follow, the one we trust, and say is to be trusted. And we say that our king is a different kind of king, with a different kind of power, than any other.
This is what Jesus is talking about in the scene with Pilate from the gospel of John, which we just heard. The first thing we should keep in mind about this conversation is that it takes place in the shadow of the cross. This is what’s at stake here. There are two possible outcomes to this conversation: either Jesus will be released, or he will be crucified. And let’s remind ourselves of just what that is: a horrible death, which begins in excruciating torture that only increases, for hours, and finally ends in slow suffocation: the muscles of the breathing apparatus gradually collapsing in weakness until they’re no longer able to grab just one more breath.
Under these circumstances, knowing what he’s facing, Jesus nonetheless treats this as he does every other human encounter: as a teaching moment. Pilate asks him, Are you the King of the Jews? And Jesus answers, Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me? That’s to say, What is it that you mean by the word “king”? Do you want to learn the truth? Pilate’s answer to this (I’m not a Jew, it’s your people who’ve handed you over to me) means either that he doesn’t understand Jesus, or doesn’t want to understand, doesn’t want to deal with it. But Jesus doesn’t let him off the hook: he says, My kingdom is not from this world; meaning my authority, my kingship, is not of human origin: all real power comes from somewhere else.
This whole scene is really a miniature summary of Jesus’ entire mission: to proclaim the presence of the kingdom of God. Which is to proclaim that true power, true authority – in this world, as in heaven – come from God alone. That’s not a hope, or a belief: that’s the truth. This is what Jesus tells us.
And that power, that authority, when we see it - when God acts in this world – looks very different from the exercise of human power; what this world calls power. This is what Jesus is talking about when he says, If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over. He is not here saying, If I really wanted to I could put my boys to work and we wouldn’t be chatting here so peaceably, you’d be in big trouble, but I’m not doing that because I’m a nice guy. Jesus is saying, That’s the way the world works: followers fighting each other. The way God works – God who is the one true power – is entirely different. When we call Christ our king, we are saying something that, to the power of this world, sounds crazy; and ridiculous. And to express that something, I now give place to my Mennonite brother Brad Roth. The rest of the sermon, slightly edited, will be his.
“We witness the sacrificial kingship of Christ, the one who came not to be served but to serve, the one who “did not regard equality with God as something to be grasped” (in the words of the letter to the Philippians). Christ’s glory comes by way of the cross. The normal understanding of power is reversed in his kingship. And we, the people drawn to him by his lifting up on the cross, have become a kingdom, “priests serving his God and Father,” says Revelation, whose vision of power is reversed as well. The cross of Christ calls power into question but also serves as the basis for a different sort of power.
“We forget this at our peril, the way the genius of the gospel hangs together on the cross: the cross with its power that is not power, the cross that takes shape as the pattern of our lives, the foundation of Christian thought that is always also a kind of antifoundation, the disturber of worlds.
“We see the way that Jesus the king who is crucified calls into question the assumptions of power in this scene in John 18. Who stands before who? Who interrogates who? Who is the king? Not the one who commands iron legions but the one who willingly lays down his life for the sheep. “Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice,” says Jesus, speaking of his kingship and more.
“For Christians, this means that any exercise of power that does not trace back to the self-sacrificial love of the cross is illegitimate, having lost its proper grounding. This may sound like the nub of some cooked-up-behind-the-pulpit political theory, but it’s really about how we live day to day, how we want and how we purpose, how we steward influence, money, position, and all the rest toward God’s ends on behalf of the least of these. It’s power set to work with and under and no longer over, at least not over in the same way.
“Jesus’ kingdom is the basis for a different sort of power. Jesus has trampled down Death by death, and now it’s in the power of his name that the church preaches and heals and teaches and casts out demons. This is not a metaphor. This is real power of a different order that rescues us from the bondage of sin, from the fear of death, from slavery to our own little selves. It’s because of that power that the gates of Hades will never prevail against the church. All power resolves into Jesus, is drawn to his ultimate end: resurrection.
“I don’t think most of us have ever been totally convinced that we believe or want this version of power. We’re the crowd, crowing for Barabbas with his base but reliable power, whetted sharp. But the church, throughout the world, has stumbled when it’s leaned on Barabbas-power but won when it’s played the long game of faithful dependence on the Lamb that was slain. Parades of power snaking through concrete capitals impress, but the cross in its turnabout mystery wins in the end. ‘To him be glory and dominion, forever and ever.’ “ Thanks be to God. Amen.
(1 Samuel 1:4-20; 1 Samuel 2:1-10; Hebrews 10-25; Mark 13:1-8)
This Thursday is Thanksgiving Day, of course, and I hope everyone will be in a place they’re thankful for, with family and friends. Whatever your plans, if you’re around here, you might consider joining in the Easley family extravaganza that happens in our parish hall, and help deliver turkey dinners to people who wouldn’t otherwise have them. It’s in memory of Sheila and Sam Easley’s son Dustin, who died in a car crash on Thanksgiving Day a dozen years ago, and it’s an event that, as Sheila puts it, turned the worst day of her life into the best day of her life. Life’s funny that way.
Something I’m particularly thankful for this year presented itself to me in a funny kind of way last week. I’m going to ask you a rhetorical question. It’s rhetorical – I don’t want an answer – because it’s a sensitive subject. Have you ever been fired from a job? There’s a movie that came out about ten years ago called “Up In The Air”, which stars George Clooney as a man who fires people professionally (he works for a company that other companies hire to do that for them.) There’s a lot of footage in the movie of people talking about their experience of being fired, what it felt like, what it meant to them. I’m sure those people were not actors, it’s obvious that they’re talking about real experiences from their own lives, and it’s painful to watch. I have been fired myself a couple of times, over the course of my acting career. People get fired all the time in show business, and it’s actually kind of a badge of achievement: because it means that, whatever you’re doing, it’s at least strong enough so that someone in authority is moved to say, NO! That’s what I DON’T want!
But in any line of work being fired is never pleasant, and often crushing. Of course you’re losing your job, and your paycheck, but it’s far more than that: it feels like your identity - your personhood - as we here in church would say your existence as a unique child of God - is being denied, dismissed.
I’ve been fired, and I’ve had to fire people – neither of them is fun – so I’ve had enough experience of the process to know there’s a right way and a wrong way to do it. The right way is for the person who made the decision to look the person being fired in the eye and tell him what’s happening, and why. The wrong way is any other way. And what makes the right way is the right way is that you’re speaking the truth. This happens to be the way we are called to as Christians (Ephesians chapter 4: “Speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into the one who is the head, into Christ.”) And when you speak the truth in love to someone, you honor her personhood, you honor the unique spirit God has created. That doesn’t eliminate the pain; but it does open the way for healing to begin: it creates space for hope.
Now, what does all this have to do with thankfulness? Last week, at our Wednesday morning healing service, there was a woman there who is not a member of St John’s, and had never been to the service before. At the homily I asked people to share something they were thankful for, in anticipation of Thanksgiving; and this woman said she was thankful for her faith, to which she had returned in recent years. She meant by this not her church or the people in it, but the substance of our Christian faith, all of it, and the effect that it had had on her life.
And it made me realize how neglectful I am to be thankful for our faith, for this Christian way that we try to follow: because it is, after all, a gift of God. And one of the things about it for which I’m most thankful is that it calls us to speak the truth (in love), even sometimes when it’s painful. Our faith is not about sending valentines. We properly call it good news, but it’s good news because it comes to us in the midst of the bad news this world has no shortage of. Our faith faces bad news forthrightly, and has an answer. I am thankful for that. And there’s a particularly big example in the gospel reading we just heard.
In this reading Jesus is talking about a particular truth, a big truth, that’s painful in a particularly big way. It’s from Mark chapter 13, near the end of the gospel, in a section that’s sometimes called the “little apocalypse”: Jesus is talking here about the end times, about the end of this world as we know it. This had been a strain in Jewish thinking and writing for centuries by the time of Jesus.
And it comes about because Jesus has come to Jerusalem for what he knows will be his final confrontation with the powers of this world. So his own death – his own end-time – is certainly on his mind. The big-picture end time comes up kind of by accident. The passage right before the one today’s is the one we heard last week: Jesus and the disciples are at the temple watching people put money into the treasury. Today they’re coming out of the temple, and one of them looks back at the building and is moved to remark on its grandeur, and majesty. These are small-town guys, and that reaction is easy to understand – it’s like a farm boy seeing the Empire State building for the first time. And it’s justified: the temple is an extraordinary human effort to honor God.
But Jesus knows that, massive and hallowed though it is, sooner or later it will certainly come down. Because all human creations pass away. Because this world that we know and love is going to end; the way his own life is going to end in a matter of days. That’s the truth. And Jesus knows he doesn’t have much time left to teach, to get this painful truth across. But he does have an answer to the fear, the anxiety, which all this awakens in us. I see his answer in two ways.
One is this. Jesus spends this whole chapter talking about the kind of things that are likely to happen in the end- times, the chaos and the tribulations that people are going to undergo. But at the end of the chapter Jesus tells the disciples, “But about that day or hour no one knows neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” So whatever the end is going to be, whatever it’s going to look like, Jesus Christ stands with us, in our not-knowing, in our confusion, our fear. At that moment, which will come for us all, Christ tells us that he will be with us.
And the other is this. In the passage we heard today, Jesus talks about wars and earthquakes and famines, but he tells the disciples, “Do not be alarmed”; and then he says, “This is but the beginnings of the birth-pangs.” Birth-pangs: the Greek word is hodinon: the torturous physical suffering of a woman in the act of giving birth. So out of all the destruction, something utterly new is going to emerge. At the core of our faith is – and always will be – hope. It’s the truth. And we can proclaim this with what we heard today from the letter to the Hebrews: “Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful.” Let us all give thanks for this. Amen.
(Ruth 3:1-5, 4:13-17; Ps. 127; Hebrews 9:24-28; Mark 12:38-44)
There are events in our lives that change the way we see things, and therefore change how we live. Sometimes these events, and the changes they cause, are big and obvious, sometimes they’re small and subtle. I’m sure we can all come up with examples of both kinds from our own lives. Certainly a big and obvious event in my life was when our first child was born; and, among the many changes in my life that happened as a result of that, I’m thinking of a relatively small and subtle one. Betty was born in 1986, I’d been living in New York City for thirteen years, and for all those years I’d ridden a bike to get around town. I used to ride my bike fast – not to say recklessly - and this was before you were required by law to wear a helmet (so why bother, right?), and I’d taken my share of spills.
But about a month after Betty was born I stopped riding my bike in the city, for good. And this was mostly because I faced the fact that there was now someone who I was responsible for taking care of and providing for, in some ways for the rest of my life, so I couldn’t be quite so cavalier about staying in one piece. But it was also that as soon as she was born, it was suddenly and surprisingly clear to me that I myself had a new life, that I was seeing new things about the world, and discovering things about myself, every day, doors were flying open. So I decided to get smarter about taking unnecessary risks. It was a new world, and I wanted to stick around.
That kind of life-changing transformation is what Christian faith calls us to: a different way of seeing things, and all the changes in how we live, big and small, that grow out of that. And just as with a new baby, life in Christ is always new, doors are always flying open, and the changes are surprising – sometimes shocking – but always life-giving, and breathing freedom, and joy.
I’m thinking about all this because of something in today’s gospel story, which I’ll get to in a minute; but by the grace of God it was also lifted up in a fresh way in an experience I had last week.
This past Tuesday was one of the Clergy Days the ECCT holds every year. These are little one-day retreats, they do three of them a year, they’re not required, so attendance varies. The program for this one was titled “Grace in an Age of Anxiety” (peculiarly appropriate, as it happened to be Election Day); and evidently that touched a nerve, because the number of clergy attending this one was about 50% higher than usual.
The program leader was a 40-year-old man named David Zahl, who is one of the founders of an organization called Mockingbird. To quote its website, Mockingbird is “a ministry that seeks to connect the Christian faith with the realities of life in fresh and down-to-earth ways” (music to my ears.) They do this by means of various publications, a couple of big conferences they organize every year, and rich online resources they provide through their website. It’s called “Mockingbird” because a mockingbird mimics what it’s heard, and in Christian faith that’s what we do: we repeat the message of God’s grace, of God’s love and forgiveness, that we have heard.
Zahl began by talking about what he called “enoughness”. One of the great sources of anxiety in human life is produced by the belief that we’re not enough: we’re not good enough, smart enough, thin enough, happy enough, successful enough - name your own favorite shortcoming. There’s not much really new in this: longing for “enoughness”: knowing we’re not enough comes with being part of a broken world (Christianity 101). What’s new about it these days is that our current secular culture has abandoned the truth which we have always known in faith: that in fact, of course, we are enough: but that’s not because of who we are; it’s because of who God is.
That knowledge is not part of common currency now, because the credibility, and therefore the relevance, of organized religion, has been collapsing for decades. (And it’s not masochistic to talk this way, it’s common sense, this is the world we live in.) So this is Jack talking now: people have lost their connection with the good news, they don’t go to church, mostly because they have a mistaken understanding of what we’re really doing in here. They think they know, and (whatever that is) they don’t buy it. I’ve told the story many times of my friend who, soon after I was ordained, asked me, Jack, how could you possibly subscribe to a reward and punishment system of belief? Of course I said, I don’t. None of us are here for that. And that certainly has nothing to do with what Jesus was talking about, but that’s the perception. And organized religion does have to accept a large part of the responsibility for allowing that kind of misunderstanding to arise, and to flourish.
One proof that it’s a misunderstanding, a missed connection, is that people are still looking for the same answers which authentic Christian teaching has always provided (like its answer about enoughness); but they’re looking for them elsewhere: in the workplace, on their cellphones, at the health club, in the kitchen. As Zahl says (and he’s right), these places have their own rituals, just as we do here in church. What they don’t have is the mercy; the forgiveness; the grace; which can only come from God. So the transformation into enoughness cannot really happen.
And here’s where we get to today’s gospel story of the widow’s offering. Most people hear this as a story about stewardship. It’s not. Jesus plops himself down across the street from the treasury – the place where people bring their contributions to the temple – and watches as they do that. It’s a well-known observation that Jesus spends more time in the gospels talking about money than anything other single subject in human life, because he knows that how people handle their money – what they do with the value they create – is a good barometer of the life of the spirit. (It’s in the Sermon on the Mount: Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.)
So Jesus sits there, watching. He sees rich people putting in lots of money, and then he sees a poor widow put in a couple of coins that amount to one penny; and he calls the disciples over, because this is a teaching moment. He tells them, This woman’s given more than all those rich guys, because they have lots more, but she has nothing, she’s given everything she has. (How does Jesus know this? Just by looking at her. This happens many times in the gospels, it’s one of the things about Jesus that stupefied people, his ability to look at someone and see the whole story.)
Jesus wants the disciples – and us – to look at this woman because she is the epitome of enoughness. Having given away the two coins that were all she had, in the eyes of the world, not only does she not have enough, she has nothing. And she’s a widow, so she doesn’t have the security of a male earner in the house, so there’s no safety net.
What she does have is trust in God’s grace, she has knowledge of God’s goodness and mercy, she knows that it’s infinite. And that it’s all she needs. Jesus sees that her offering is not an expression of poverty, but of wealth: of treasures in heaven. This is a person whose faith has truly transformed her. This is a portrait of true enoughness, which comes only from God., and which God wants us all to know is ours. Thanks be to God.
One of the great things about this job is that people invite you into the deepest parts of their lives, their highest highs and their lowest lows. It’s a privilege; it’s sacred trust; and it’s an indescribable blessing. Usually it involves parishioners, but sometimes it comes completely out of the blue; and has nothing necessarily to do with who you are, except that you happen to be wearing a collar.
In my life one of those occasions occurred last Sunday afternoon. It was a high high: I was asked to speak at the dedication of an almost-completed Habitat for Humanity project here in New Milford. (I think they rotate this duty among local clergy.) For those of you who may not know, Habitat builds simple, inexpensive houses and gives no-interest mortgages on them to people who otherwise would not be able to afford their own homes.) This particular house was on Stonewall Lane, a new housing development just off 202 on the north side of town.
It was a small, two-story house with three bedrooms. The new owners were a young woman and man in their twenties: she works at Kohl’s, he in an auto-parts store; and they have two small boys, three and six years old, who were ecstatic to show me their new bedroom, rolling around on the wall-to-wall carpeting.
There were about thirty people at the dedication: volunteers who’d worked on the project, board members of the local Habitat organization, and family members of the new owners. There were folding chairs set up in the little driveway, people settled into them, and I was to open with a prayer. But as I looked out at those faces, I couldn’t help but say, Isn’t this a great day? There was just a palpable feeling of joy and thankfulness from everyone that I could feel we all wanted to lift up, and celebrate. And of course everybody smiled and nodded.
Then I said a prayer to bless the house, the local Habitat board chair said some things about the organization and what else they were doing in New Milford, the project manager talked a little about the actual building of the house, and thanked a number of people who had worked on it (including a young man who had helped paint the interior, and who had, along with his wife and baby, themselves moved into a Habitat house just down the street the year before.) And then I was supposed to make some “closing remarks”(and if that’s not an invitation to sound like a fathead I don’t know what is.)
But I said the kind of thing I thought somebody from a church should say: that there’s a saying of Jesus that it’s more blessed to give than to receive. That probably when a lot of people hear the word “blessed” they think it means something like getting a gold star, which to be honest they could do without. But that the New Testament was written in Greek, and the Greek word translated as “blessed” actually means something more like “happy”, with a strong overtone of “lucky”. And that certainly most of us know that when you give, you get back something on a whole other level, that turns out to far outweigh anything you may have given. So if you have the opportunity to give, you are lucky; because the act of giving is joyful.
Today is Stewardship Sunday at St. John’s – in a little while we’re going to bring up our pledge envelopes and put them in the bowl there – and it would be natural for you to think that the point of the story I just told you is that giving to St. John’s is joyful. Well, I hope that’s true. I hope it is joyful for you. But that actually has nothing at all to do with why I told that particular story on this day .
There’s an Episcopal priest named C.K. Robertson, whose specialty is stewardship and congregational development, and he’s done a lot of consulting work in those areas all around the country (he’s something of a figure in the national church); and he says when vestries or other congregational leaders ask him to visit and speak to them about stewardship, they expect that he’s going to talk about the hot new pledging program. But instead, he talks about stewardship by beginning with this one question: Why is this church here?
Robertson says the response is usually either blank stares, or something on the order of, “We’ve been here for over 100 years!” (Which of course doesn’t answer the question.) So: why is this church here? What difference would it make to the members, and to the surrounding community, if it weren’t here?
There are many potential answers to these questions. We could probably each come up with a number of them. But I’m going to suggest to you that today’s gospel points to one in particular.
I don’t think there’s anywhere in all four gospels that the disciples look more ridiculous than they do in the story we heard today: James and John most of all for sneaking up to Jesus to ask for special status in the life to come – as if getting to him about this ahead of the others would actually work – but the rest of them as well, for squabbling like a bunch of kids over the pecking order among them. But Jesus, in his infinite patience with these guys, sits them down and says, No. That’s the way the rest of the world works: that’s what the Gentiles – those who are outside the community of faith- see things. They establish a pecking order. They create power relations (and brutal ones.) But it is not so among you, Jesus tells them.
Now he’s certainly not saying that by being members of the community of faith, of course, you are free of this problem once and for all (their behavior in this story is ample proof of that.) When Jesus says, It is not so among you, what he means is, It is not to be so among you. It’s a gentle reminder of something they’ve forgotten. He’s saying, You know the truth, fall away from it though you just did (as happens, every now and then.) But it is among you – in this community, as you follow me – that you know the truth, that you have felt the truth. And when I call you to follow me, I call you to live the truth. And the truth here – among us - is that there is only one power relation, because there is only one true source of power: God alone. And that power operates in ways that look very different from the “power” that people claim as their own.
Very different, for example (I would say), in the fact that it’s more blessed to give than to receive. Among us, we know that we are lucky when we have the opportunity to give, because we know the joy – the surprising, life-giving joy – giving creates. This is an example of what Jesus means when he talks about the kingdom of God. Among us we know that this is the truth. And though we continually forget it, continually fall away from it, here – in this little pocket of the Episcopal branch of the Jesus movement – here is where we come to hear Christ remind us of it.
This is why I told the Habitat story today, Stewardship Sunday. Because this would be my answer to the question, Why is this church here? It’s here to transform us. We are the Body of Christ in here so that we can be the Body of Christ out there. We are disciples so that we can be apostles. We learn to live deep in here, so that we can live wide out there; and live as people of joy, and peace, and hope: the people God created us to be. Thanks be to God for our church. Amen.