The Fifth Sunday After the Epiphany: February 10, 2019
The symbol of fishing, of which we have heard in today’s Gospel, has a rich background in antiquity. Since Luke was writing for those familiar with Greco-Roman traditions, he singles out that aspect of the symbol which was exploited by teachers who “lured” people to themselves (yes, pun intended), and through their education of them transformed their lives. That aspect is the “bait.” Peter will now be catching women and men with the bait of God’s word and thereby bringing them new life.
I like the imagery of fishing, especially as I am one who is passionate about the sport of a particular kind of fishing, that of fly fishing. If you look closely at this chasuble I am wearing today, you will notice that on the central front panel there is a depiction of a rainbow trout rising to a fly. The means of catching, whether it is a net, or live bait, or a fly, is not what’s important here. What is important is the catching. So let’s be a bit playful and look at the scriptures to see what God is up to in the drawing of people to himself and then what that might mean for our role in the catching.
First we have an account of the call of Isaiah. He “saw God’s face,” indicating he had an experience of divine presence that was compelling and potentially life-transforming. This led him to accept God’s call as a prophet, a truth-teller to Israel and also to the power domination system of Assyria. As is often true in call stories in Scripture, he is at first resistant, even horrified, to be chosen in this way by God. Why? He knew of his foul mouth, but a seraph is sent to Isaiah with a burning coal to burn away anything not of God.
So God first caught Isaiah with a vision of his transcendent holiness: “Holy, holy, holy,” three times holy, meaning really, really holy. Then, after Isaiah has been cleansed for this new role by God’s gift of grace, Isaiah is prepared to be one who dares to tell God’s truth with beauty and power, to catch others with divine love and mercy. I wonder if we, individually and as a community of faith, might be caught if you will, by a vision of God renewed in our passion to be radical truth tellers to power, calling forth the changing of hearts wherever we see God’s hope for humanity being threatened? It can be risky to be sure, but that kind of integrity just might be attractive bait to the world out there to which we are called to minister.
Then we have St. Paul in his first letter to the Corinthian Church. As you will recall, he was caught by a compelling experience of God’s call when he was knocked off his horse on his way to Damascus to continue his persecution of the followers of Jesus. Again by the gift of grace (there’s a theme developing here), he is granted a new vision of God’s liberating truth, where God’s net is cast wider than St. Paul ever could have imagined. The net was cast wide, and it was cast deep. It transformed his life and it transformed not only the lives of the people of the churches to whom he wrote, but eventually the entire world. So much so, it is the reason you and I are here today. We at some point were “caught.”
Don’t forget that the Church to which Paul was writing was a church in conflict. Some things don’t change. The bait he offered in the part of his letter we read today is the resurrection of Jesus, the promise of new life not just after we die, but the “life-giving, liberating, loving” truth available to us even now. Any Gospel worth sharing is one that sets us free to be fully who God calls us to be. That is the bait—when people see us set on fire with God’s love, transformed as God’s people to a new vision of hope and peace for the world. Our call is never to threaten people into the Kingdom, but to love them into it with a love that knows no bounds. No bait and switch allowed once people join us. “All are welcome” on our signs needs to mean just that, all are welcome, no exceptions. What is that to look like here at Christ Church and through you to the people of Denmark and beyond?
Then we come to Luke’s account where we specifically find the fishing metaphor played out. Peter took the bait, “hook, line and sinker,” as they say. He, the expert fisherman who had caught nothing after an entire night of fishing, was so overcome with amazement by the abundance of the catch, he totally abandoned the life track he was on in order to follow Jesus.
We hear stories like that all the time and I have experienced it myself. In the late 70’s I was all set to go off to Frenchman’s Reef in the Virgin Islands to be the assistant manager of a new hotel there, but because of the call of Jesus went to seminary instead. Gosh, I was all set to retire 2 ½ years ago, but because of an experience of the beauty of God in God’s people while meeting with the Standing Committee, followed the Spirit’s call to come be among you in South Carolina. I’ve watched young people go with us to El Salvador for mission work with one life-goal in mind, then be encountered by God in a way that they shift those goals completely in service to God’s people. I hope you have seen such life-changing grace in your own life.
The compelling call of Jesus shown in the grandeur of God through the great haul of fish caught the imagination of Peter’s heart. He then was able to hear God’s call that from then Christ’s life in him was to be the bait as he was to be fishing for people. To be clear, Isaiah, Paul and Peter were not the bait, but it was the Good News of God in them. Just as the net was let down into the deep water, we too are called to go deep, not willing merely to play around on the spiritual surface, but to plunge the depths of our faith in ways that make us irresistible in our all-embracing love, in our extravagant mercy, in our never-ending hope.
It was Archbishop of Canterbury William Temple who said that the Church exists primarily for those who are not a part of it. Filled with gratitude for God’s life-changing presence in our life, let’s go fishing.
The Fourth Sunday After the Epiphany: February 3, 2019
We live in a strange time in the life of the Church, and I don’t just mean in The Episcopal Church in South Carolina. Participation numbers in any kind of a faith community across our country continues to drop. If we are paying attention we must always be asking what it means to be a people of faith in a 21st century context and how we will live fully into our call to be disciples of Jesus. We do this work knowing that there are no easy answers or any quick fixes. What we do know is that we have a God who promises to be with us always and is calling forth our trust in the possibility that God’s vision can be made manifest, an epiphany, in you and in the life of our own faith context.
We talk a lot about love in the Christian faith. You will recall this theme from our most recent diocesan convention. Today we hear once again that great ode to love in I Corinthians 13, commonly heard at weddings. In some ways that’s unfortunate, because it means that the point St. Paul is making is often lost in that context. His letter to the Church in Corinth is not about a feeling, an emotion, or a romance. He is talking about a gift of the Holy Spirit given to a community of people in order that they might be who God calls them to be. To Paul, love is selfless action always seeking the good of the other. In Jesus’ life we see this perfectly on the Cross. Our discipleship as a community of faith is to be an outward and visible sign, a sacrament if you will, of the radical nature of God’s love for the entire creation, including you and me, as found on that Cross. Allow me to share with you some places where I see that kind of Jesus-love lived out.
In about ten days I will be leaving for El Salvador. I will be meeting as a member of the Board of Trustees of a human rights organization called Cristosal, originally founded through The Episcopal Church and with continued close ties. The people of El Salvador continue to struggle for the basic norms of justice that you and I might take for granted. When there, I witness the people of that country who, in costly ways and sometimes at great risk, seek to change the structures and confront the violence that keep God’s people oppressed and without the basic rights that all human beings should inherently be able to enjoy just by being human – made in God’s image. The work is about loving as we seek to tell God’s truth to power.
Or perhaps you recall an occurrence in an Amish community in Pennsylvania a few years ago, when many of their children were horrifically murdered while at school. Do you recall the response by the Amish? It was to forgive, right in the midst of their own deep pain. They said that the killer had been hurting too, clearly ill, and had not yet come to the light. They even went to his family to console them. Why? Because they said, it is the Way of Jesus.
Then there was the moment in Florida outside of a prison where an execution was about to happen. In a TV interview of the mother of the murder victim, there protesting the execution, she said, “To execute this man only perpetuates the violence, it doesn’t end it.” Contrast this with another scene on that same parking lot where at a beer party the group cheered when the body of the executed man was taken away in a van.
All three of these accounts are about radical ways of loving. They challenge us. They might make us a bit uncomfortable. Such a feeling may give us a sense of what Jesus’ hearers may have been thinking and feeling when they heard his teaching in today’s Gospel. Jesus was at a homecoming of sorts, in his home town, Joseph’s boy, but does not hold back confronting them with who they are called to be as the people of God. He lays before them the thought that God always tends the outsider, those on the edge and beyond our comfort zones. He was confronting a community that had focused too much on itself. What was the result? They tried to throw him off a cliff. Indeed, he ended up on a cross.
Likewise in the I Corinthians reading. It is not about weddings. It is about loving your worst enemy, the quirky neighbor, the person in the pew next to you, the refugee, the outsider. It is about loving those who want to saw you in two as tradition tells us happened to Jeremiah when he dared to speak God’s truth. It is about loving those who want to crucify you. This is radical stuff. No sentimental loving anywhere to be found here. Jeremiah protested that he was not capable to speak for God. God’s response? I called you and will give you what you need. God expects big things from us while on this earth.
True justice is love in action. Love is hard work. We don’t have to look to El Salvador, or the Amish community or that prison parking lot. We know its hard work. Jesus’ vision of the Kingdom, his way of loving, is not passive. It does not settle. It is about leveling the playing field of the exercise of power and dominance over one another, calling all of us, including politicians by the way, to a way we’re often not ready to hear much less put in place in one’s life.
Herein lies my struggle with being a disciple of Jesus. It is the Christian’s call to stand not only with the victims of our world, and here’s the rub, but also with the unforgivable, the condemned and the hated. Why? Because this is what Jesus embodied in his life. It cost him his life and he forgave them from the Cross even as they were executing him.
I am convinced that being an authentic community engaged in radical, costly love is how we begin to reshape who we are as the people of God. People would find the integrity of this way irresistible, as hard as it may be. We know it is the better way and it is the work we are called to do. This way of love is to be definitive for all who follow in the Way of Jesus.
Bishop Skip Adams sent the following letter on January 30 to leaders of each congregation in the diocese. A copy of the letter can be viewed here. The text follows:
Dear People of The Episcopal Church in South Carolina,
This letter comes to you in a spirit of celebration and thanksgiving. The support you continue to manifest for the life and ministry of our Diocese is to be commended. You do so while exercising leadership, remaining connected, and joining in our common mission of God’s liberating Gospel in Christ.
I want you to know that now that we have been able to close the 2018 financial books, the parishes and worshiping communities of the Diocese exceeded what you initially promised to send in support. Diocesan Council and I wish to extend our gratitude for your wonderful response. This is especially important because, understandably, gifts from outside the Diocese have fallen off over the last couple of years.
There is more good news to celebrate. Promised giving for 2019 has for the first time in our re- forming Diocese exceeded $500,000. We are still waiting to hear from a small number of parishes, but it looks like our pledges will be approximately $515,000. Last fall during the Pre-Convention Deanery Meetings and Diocesan Convention, our Diocesan Council did an outstanding job of presenting the 2019 budget and making the case for giving at the requested 10 percent level. I am grateful to report that there have been many positive responses, and more congregations are planning either to meet that goal in 2019, o r make a significant step in that direction.
While financial numbers alone do not indicate all that is happening in a community, they are a substantial outward and visible sign of the commitment of our faith communities and the people of God doing Christ’s work in and through the local mission stations of The Episcopal Church.
We still have many unknowns before us, to be sure. What I do know, however, is that we continue on in faithfulness to God for the work that we have been given to do. Just this morning I was struck once again by the words from the Daily Office in the Suffrages when we say: “In you Lord is our hope; and we shall never hope in vain.”
Blessings and grace to you all in Jesus’ Name,
The Right Reverend Gladstone B. Adams III
The Episcopal Church in South Carolina
The Third Sunday After the Epiphany: January 27, 2019
So, why are you on the earth? Why are you here at St. Mark’s Church in Charleston? Why gather in this beautiful place to celebrate this meal of thanksgiving to God we call the Eucharist and confirm and receive three wonderful people of God? Today’s Gospel raises such crucial questions for all of us.
Make no mistake – here in Jesus’ first sermon as recounted by St. Luke, standing in the synagogue in Jesus’ home town, he identifies his reason for being on the planet, why he came to us as a babe in Bethlehem. He quotes from Isaiah 61 and says: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and the recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Wow. That’s quite an agenda. Here we have Jesus’ mission statement. If we are the Body of Christ as St. Paul so clearly indicates in today’s reading from his first letter to the Church in Corinth, then is this not our mission too, our primary reason to exist as a parish church and the primary ministry to which each of us is called through our baptism?
This past week Bonnie I attended a presentation at the Charleston Museum. It was an event to introduce the newly released book Unexampled Courage. It addresses the story of Sergeant Isaac Woodard, a young African-American soldier returning from World War II in 1946, who on the day after his discharge was taken off of a bus and brutally beaten by a Batesburg, South Carolina police chief to the point of blindness. This incident, long buried and untold in our history, served as a wake-up call to Judge Waties Waring of South Carolina as well as President Harry Truman, leading to the desegregation of the military as well as the grounding argument leading to the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision of Brown versus Board of Education.
Sometimes in life, corporately and individually, we get wake-up calls, those times when we are awakened, even jolted out of our slumber to a new perspective. The light is shined on a moment in time exposing a truth, perhaps even confronting us in some significant way to ask of ourselves ultimate questions about purpose and meaning. They can come in many ways. Without getting caught up in any one political perspective, anyone paying attention can see that our country is now, as in other times in history, in the midst of a wake-up call. We are in the midst of a cultural struggle to define once again what we want to be and what we want to become. How does Jesus’ sermon in the synagogue form our answer as disciples?
So too for us in our parishes, we live in odd times in the life of the Church. The split in our life as an Episcopal Church in South Carolina is another kind of wake-up call. We, even as we wait (and wait and wait) for courts to move and make decisions, we get to decide what the quality of our waiting is going to be in faithfulness to Christ and the work we are given by the Spirit to do. Jesus’ sermon is not saying we sit idly by for others to act. There is Gospel work to do to set at liberty one another and the people we are called to serve.
Beyond our immediate particularities, the cultural realities around us are shifting faster than many might have ever imagined. By 2044 we reach a tipping point when minorities will make up the majority of people living in the United States. What will this mean for the mission of the Church? The old days of being church are gone forever, arguably for the good. Many of us are anxious, however, even fearful about our future. Yet we do have a choice. We can choose to live out of fear and hunker down to mere survival mode, or we can see this time as a call from the Holy Spirit to reorient, plant our feet once again deeply in God’s love and hear a call for us to re-awaken to our purpose for being as a community of faith in the discipleship of Jesus. What kind of church do we want to be?
This is the new thing being celebrated in Nehemiah today. Why were they weeping? They had been set free to the joy of God after they realized how far off they had wandered and were introduced afresh to the divine healing of their brokenness as a people. They heard once again the call of God on their life. They had forgotten their purpose for being and when they heard again that God was with them, had not abandoned them and would never abandon them, that God was in their midst and even had joy for them, they were stirred to new faithfulness and a new sense of purpose.
God, in Jesus, is always looking to restore his people, in every age, in every time. It is true today and right here at St. Mark’s Church. It may look different in every age, but what we do know is that God desires to be in relationship with us. Out of that relationship we are to take on God’s agenda of justice for the world which is one where all things are set right in our relationship with God, one another, and the entire creation. Perhaps we can even move from the mere tolerance of diversity to being able to celebrate the diversity with which God has endowed the creation.
If we are the Body of Christ, then our mission must be Jesus’ mission. We must not settle for the status quo. We must be a people of radical hospitality and generosity of spirit, known by a love of God and one another so deep, so significant, that through us everyone will see the beauty of the Way of Jesus. We are to be known by our revulsion at injustice and our committed attention to the most in need of our community. By this we will show our love of God as we identify with Jesus in the ministry he describes as the center of his mission, our mission, on earth. It is why we are here.
The Baptism of Our Lord: January 13, 2019
In just a couple of weeks we have jumped some 30 years in Jesus’ life, from his birth, then his naming on January 1 when we celebrated The Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus (you see it’s not just New Year’s Day), to The Epiphany and the visit of the Magi, to today, his Baptism. We have gone from infant to adult, from his birth to the inauguration of Jesus’ public ministry, leaving out all of those intervening years.
We do have one account of Jesus as a 12 year-old in the temple, but even though we may have curiosity about what kind of child Jesus was—have you ever wondered if Jesus ever gave Mary a hard time—we won’t spend too much time there speculating. The Gospel writers want us to clearly see that Jesus was born, chosen and sent for a purpose. Today’s celebration then, is to help us claim our own baptismal identity and see that we too are born, chosen and sent for a purpose.
Born. We just spent the 12 days of Christmas, from Christmas Day up to The Epiphany, echoing the hymn of the shepherds – “Glory to God in the highest.” I hope we discovered the message that Jesus’ birth was no accident. It was a dramatic unfolding of a tapestry showing forth God’s desire to be in relationship with all of creation. God acts in history. I realize the sweeping theological implications of what I am about to say, but I am going to risk it. Part of what we discover in the birth of the Christ is that in God’s amazing providential love, even under circumstances that may confuse us, no birth is an accident. I am not saying that every birth story unfolds in a manner God wills it, but no birth is an accident. In other words, no person is an accident.
Hear again the words of Isaiah: “…Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine…you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you…Do not fear, for I am with you…everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.” This is true for each of us and for all of us. One of our responsibilities as we claim our baptismal identity is to help each person among us discover that she or he was born for a purpose and is of infinite value, loved by God beyond our wildest imaginings. In so doing you will discover that you too were born for a purpose. What might that be?
Chosen. “…when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’” In his baptism Jesus is beloved and God is well pleased, and he hasn’t even yet started his ministry!! God’s favor comes before he does anything.
Too often we go about life trying to earn favor, to prove our worth. Unfortunately we often feel like we have to do that with people, even those closest to us. I am here to tell you, however, that you do not have to do that with God! In baptism we already have God’s favor. God is already pleased. When the water was poured over you at your baptism, God was saying– “you are my child, my beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” We cannot impress God; we cannot earn God’s love; we get no brownie points. The love is given and we are Christ’s own forever. You were chosen for a purpose. What might that be?
Sent. This is Jesus’ inauguration day, the beginning of his public ministry. Even though we sometimes used to do private baptism, except in an emergency it is a contradiction in terms. There is no such thing in Christianity as private believing. Jesus was baptized to be sent. This is where the rubber hits the road, for we are baptized to be sent. It is what the word “apostle” means – “one sent.” Martin comes forward today in Confirmation in order to be sent, to live out his faith in the world as one transformed by the Spirit’s love and hope. Our call, no different than that of Jesus himself, is to give our life, so deeply secure in the embrace of God that we will be resolute about bringing healing, freedom and hope in collaboration with God’s vision of justice for the world God has made.
In the birth of Jesus we might say that God hit the streets. We take our faith and go into the streets of our living. In that sense faith is more a verb than a noun. You will remember that Jesus asked if a city built on a hill can be hidden, or if you would light a lamp and put it under a basket so that no one could see that light. I do not want to stretch this too far, but private baptism can lead to private thinking, which can lead to private believing, which can lead to private Christians, that is, those who may believe but keep it unseen and hidden. You are sent for a purpose. What might that be?
Faithfulness is meant to move us through life so that even when we find ourselves in darkness, and there is plenty of that to go around, we who are the beloved in God’s Spirit will be a source of light to touch and change the world with God’s love, mercy and forgiveness. Each of us must be able and willing to tell our faith story, just why it is we are disciples of Jesus, and why it matters. That’s why we baptize and confirm. Our baptismal identity is to infuse everything we are and everything we do.
Jesus was born, chosen and sent for a purpose. You were born, chosen and sent for a purpose. And especially Martin receiving the bishop’s laying on of hands today, you were born, chosen and are sent for a purpose. The joy of life is in knowing it and living it if you have the courage and will to do so.
The Feast of the Epiphany: January 6, 2019
As we conclude the Christmas season today in our celebration of The Epiphany, sometimes known as The Manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles, the lessons reveal to us people who could dare to imagine. Imagination is creative. It takes what we know and what we hope for and projects it into a future not yet foreseen. I recall a conversation with a U.S. Episcopal bishop many years ago who was adamantly opposed to the ordination of women. It became apparent that his objection was less theologically based than one might have expected. It was more that he just could not imagine a woman in that role. We cannot do what we cannot imagine.
Isaiah, St. Paul, the Magi – they were all imaginers to the full. They could see the present for what it was, along with the challenges with which they were faced. Yet they could also see the future in grace-filled visions. They knew God was with them and that God already held the future. That was the key.
We too often shrink from creative solutions to things. Being cautious we tend to merely tinker with what we already know. “Going boldly where no one has gone before” works on Star Trek, but going exactly where others have gone before is the pattern for most of us. Now that’s not always wrong, but our Scriptures call us to faithful risk-taking. In times of anxiety, especially when the future is filled with unknowns, we often find it a time to entrench, to batten down the hatches, to circle the wagons – choose your favorite metaphor – when in fact the moment is crying for a new boldness and sense of adventure. Now is such a time for us, for our Diocese and entire Episcopal Church, and gosh yes, for our country.
In the faith story we inherit, the people of God put their imagination in service to God. Someone has said that prayer is precisely that – imagining with God! Through this prayerful imagination God speaks, makes his will known in the community of the faithful, and a revelation comes. A messenger is heard. What if Mary, Jesus’ mother, had played it safe? What if the Wise Men had said gee, the journey is just too long and too tough? What if St. Paul had decided to stay home and ignore the voice that called him into an entire new way of being faithful?
In today’s reading, Isaiah imagines a whole new future for Jerusalem and its people. The Wise Men found themselves compelled by astrological forecasts of all things, and followed a star. They risked a long journey in search of a King whose significance was beyond even their own understanding. Paul imagines a grand plan of God revealed in Christ to bring all people to himself, unified in the person of Jesus. He took risks and resistances were overcome.
I wonder if we remember the amazing words of the baptism liturgy when we pray for the one just baptized: “Give them an inquiring and discerning heart, the courage to will and to persevere, a spirit to know and to love you, and the gift of joy and wonder in all your works.” God works through our imaginations! It is one of the gifts of our baptism for which we pray. It is God’s hope for Harriet being confirmed today. What we cannot imagine we cannot do.
If we are to carry out God’s desire for our life individually and even corporately as a parish church, we must hook our star to the star of Christ. Being fearful is easy and the pundits around us are constantly trying to manipulate us with fear tactics. If we give in and allow our anxiety to rise above what is reasonable and even creative, then we tend to move to the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy to mere survival. But God is about creativity and life. Whatever God is calling forth from you, the people of God at Good Shepherd, you have an opportunity to imagine what that is and even, if you are so bold, to imagine a whole new future for yourself. This kind of trust, faith if you will, is not built on certainties. It is built on the promise of God that is the core ingredient of hope.
So when we pray for someone who is sick, we are to imagine him or her well. If a married couple cannot ever imagine the possibility of joy in their relationship, then they probably will not experience it. If a congregation cannot imagine an invigorated and committed people with empowered mission being offered in the Spirit, vigorous life-giving worship that captures people’s hearts, than they will never attain it. If a country cannot imagine a Congress that can actually get along and get something done that is constructive for the good of all, then it will not occur. If the world cannot imagine peace, it will not be realized.
I recently read of a man who had lost his job and was down on his luck in every phase of his life. He was in danger of losing the things he loved the most and could have given up and thrown in the towel. But instead of that, he went around to people on the street, collected food stamps and got a group of folks together to feed one another and the homeless of his town. He cooked a turkey on the street in an old file cabinet drawer. To do such a thing required his imagination and a bold desire of the will. We have a God who throughout Scripture proclaims to ancient peoples and to us, do not be afraid. Do not be anxious. To God they are diseases of the soul when we allow them to control us.
Today is Epiphany time. It is a time when our hopes and dreams can be revealed. We begin by bringing our gifts, our very selves, to the manger, even this altar, with all we have to give. In this act we give ourselves to Christ himself and ask to be renewed in the power of the Spirit. Imagine yourself faithful. Imagine yourself whole and full of love. Imagine God at work in and through you. Imagine God calling you, yes you, and say in response, “Yes God, we will imagine a new world with you.”
Watch the video by clicking on the image above. The text is below.
Greetings, Dear People of The Episcopal Church in South Carolina and Friends,
Perhaps like you, I am often looking around for signs of encouragement, especially if at any moment I am feeling discouraged or even disconnected. In pondering this, I realize that encouragement comes to me in at least two very clear places.
First, I get encouragement from all of you! As I travel around the Diocese and have the opportunity to worship with you in your parishes, to see and witness your faithfulness, the encouragement that I receive is immeasurable, for I find it in you and your presence and your work, the work of your parishes, and the ministries with which you are engaged. Your endurance itself encourages me.
Then, and this won’t surprise you, I find encouragement in the Scriptures. Day after day, right in the midst of the readings of Advent, I see hope and fulfilment and promise. None is more poignant at this time of the year than what we hear in the second chapter of Luke, in the ninth verse, when we hear the angel announcing to the shepherds:
“Do not be afraid; for see – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people.”
It is precisely into the midst of death and fear that hope becomes flesh in Jesus. In the body of an infant lying in a cattle trough some two thousand years ago, we discover that hope is real, for the sign God’s commitment to a new heaven and a new earth is found in that Child. Our Advent and Christmas celebrations seek to awaken us to the realization that the One born in Bethlehem is the embodiment of God’s hope for the entire world.
As a people of Jesus, we dare to join God in this hope. It becomes our great gift to the world, for wonder of wonders, a promise of the Manger is that God places hope in you and me! With joy, we then participate with God in the re-creation of the world. May the hope of Christ be born in you this day.
Christ’s love to you, and all whom you love, for a blessed celebration of the Nativity of our Savior.
The Third Sunday of Advent: December 16, 2018
The season of Advent is a time when we prepare for the arrival of company. Bonnie and I are looking forward with eager anticipation for the arrival of all of our children and grandkids. Many fix up their front yards and homes with lights, garland and other decorations. We attend church, share gifts to attend to what some call “the true spirit of the season.” Some of us actually clean the house awaiting company, but others are more inclined to hide things, pulling that extra bedroom door shut hoping they will not be seen. Knowing human beings as I do and for that matter my own humanity, I suspect that in preparing for Christ to come we lean a bit toward the latter. There are circumstances of our life we try to hide, hoping they won’t be found out.
Then, just as we are coming down the stretch to Christmas with the sense of celebration intensifying all around us, John the Baptist appears right in the middle of our preparations and tells us what perhaps is the last thing we want to hear: “Repent!” He walks in the front door and finds everything we so carefully tried to hide. He feels like a type of scrooge and throws water on the parade. The ax is wielded to cut down all that is not bearing the fruit of God’s Kingdom. The chaff and the wheat will be separated. The appearance of this prophet/truth teller is inconvenient to say the least.
Look at today’s Gospel for reference. After hearing his dire warnings the crowd, tax collectors and soldiers ask what they should do in response. The crowd is told: If you have two coats (or four or five), share them with those who have none. The same direction is given concerning food and in one fell swoop of the ax John the Baptist’s unsettling words reject accumulation and the acquiring of private property as markers of success.
The tax collectors get a word too. Collect no more than the amount prescribed and with that swipe of the ax says personal esteem and respect no longer are measured by the amount of one’s acquisitions or control and power over others. Then the soldiers are exhorted not to extort by threat or false accusation, but to be satisfied with their wages. The ax is chopping away any notion that power or domination or threat of violence can bring real peace and has no place in God’s vision for the world.
Whew! It takes one’s breath away. The Baptist’s words are meant to be a wakeup call, an alarm sounding, then and now. What is also amazing is that St. Luke dares to say, at the end of today’s Gospel reading, “So with many other exhortations he dares to proclaim the Good News to the people.” Is that some kind of joke? Where’s the good news in that? It sounds like surgery to me.
So why is it that year after year, in this Advent time leading up to Christmas and the celebration of our Savior’s birth, we invite John the Baptist back into our midst, to cry out the call to repent, to change, to be different, to challenge our pretensions and achievements? Maybe it’s like a good news bad news joke. It may feel like surgery, the bad news. But often it leads to healing and wholeness and a deeper more faithful discipleship, good news.
On some level we all know this. I think that is why at Christmas most of us are willing to do a little extra and focus more on others than ourselves. Yet we must also be aware that discipleship in Christ is more than turning over a new leaf, making a resolution, or giving a little more to the Salvation Army pot, as good as that is. The needs of humanity are too great, the suffering and pain of our world too extensive, the world’s enticements anesthetizing our own deep longings for love, acceptance, freedom and yes, even God, just too seductive. John the Baptist is calling us into a conversion of our life patterns in joyful response to the One born in Bethlehem. It is to make a difference in the way we live life, setting us free from all that would detain us from doing the radical work of the Gospel.
Of course the other thing that biblical axes do is offend, especially when Gospel truth challenges our preconceptions and misperceptions. And the notion that we can do nothing to earn God’s favor shakes us to our core. Surely all those good deeds and kind thoughts must count for something! We want to earn God’s favor and love even as we know we could never do enough. The real “spirit of the season” is that being reconciled to God by the Babe of Bethlehem is pure gift, but we often become a part of a frenzied attempt to “make the grade” and in our flurry of busyness the sense of gift along with a full and grateful heart can get lost. As Lily Tomlin has said, “The trouble with the rat race is, even if you win, you’re still a rat.”
The heart of Advent and the imploring words of John the Baptist are for us to take stock and examine our life motives. Although the falling of the ax may feel at first like bad news, it is to be sure, good news. For in the coming of Christ we are assured of God’s love for us, knowing that our efforts are not about earning that love, but a way to respond with joyful hearts to prepare a way for Christ to be born in all, including ourselves. Even as we await his arrival, we discover he is already here among us, in you, and in me. So “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.” Throw open your arms and let the company come.
Advent II: December 9, 2018
“He, John the Baptist, went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” There may be no more loaded sentence in all of Scripture, theologically loaded that is. Repentance, forgiveness of sins, such themes have vast connections and import on how we understand our and the world’s salvation history in Jesus. They are words of enormous complexity pointing to ways of thinking that are no longer in the common vocabulary.
Try putting the word “sin” into your smartphone. In my voice recognition software the word is not recognized. It keeps trying to write the word “send.” What the reading from Luke is inviting us to see, however, is that the Advent saint par excellence, John the Baptist, is calling us to something that is essential for our own soul’s health.
I saw an article in a newspaper, the headline of which said, “Human sin creates problems.” Really? Is that news, some kind of new awareness that has come along? Gosh, human sin creates problems. Well I’ll be! Of course human sin creates problems. As we just recalled the bitterness of war in our annual remembrance of Pearl Harbor, or even as we observe the present ongoing threats to the human family around the globe, it doesn’t take a lot to understand the consequences of some of our behavior on this planet. What are the root causes of war? Human sin (all sides by the way). What are the root causes of racism? Human sin. What is the root cause of lying? Human sin. The abuse of power; the drive for more and more with never enough; poverty; not tending to our life of prayer and going deep in our call to discipleship; any unwillingness to reach across the divides we’ve created to embrace our neighbor? All of it comes from human sin.
You get the picture. The Catechism of the Book of Common Prayer defines sin as, “Seeking our own will instead of the will of God.” The result is that it ends up, again from the Catechism, “distorting our relationship with God, with other people and with all creation.” Sin is rebellion against God. It is the abuse of God’s good gifts to us offered by God in extravagant love. That’s what John the Baptist is addressing. His ancient proclamation is a challenge to how God’s people continually miss the mark of God’s great vision of justice and hope for all people and the responsibility of God’s people to participate with God in the building of the New Creation. When we push God to the periphery of life faith becomes trivialized into merely whether or not one smokes or drinks or dances, and gets reduced to a sub-Christian level of a pagan moralism of being good or bad, with God nothing more than a kind of heavenly Santa. The result is that God becomes irrelevant to how we do business in our families, work, or even politics and our engagement with the world.
The vision set forth today is to “Prepare the Way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” Every valley is to be filled, every mountain and hill made low. The crooked straight, the rough ways made smooth. We are given a vision of God’s grand excavation of the human condition. Nothing is left the same as God is about creating a highway with the removal of every conceivable obstacle for the saving arrival of God among us and in us. We see it perfectly in the One whose birth we celebrate in a couple of weeks.
The scene is set for us by Luke in the specific geo-political circumstance of his day, that is, the 15th year of Emperor Tiberius, Pontius Pilate was governor, Herod was ruler of Galilee, his brother Philip was ruler of Ituraea and Trachonitis, Lysanias was ruler of Abilene, and during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas. The point Luke is making is that all discipleship happens in the religious and political context of one’s time in history and it is those principalities and powers we are to be confronting. Those of us who long for a world of fairness, compassion, kindness and justice, are drawn to see that John the Baptist’s prophetic voice exposes the nonsense that keeps us from making the Reign of God real on this earth. The promise is that God’s grace, working in us, can break through impasses of all kinds.
We prayed in the Collect this morning that, “we would heed the warnings of the prophets,” bold voices speaking truth to power such as John the Baptist. And yes, he too was dismissed, even silenced, by the powers of his day. Yet we know from the biblical witness that he was angered by the waste of it, the sad senselessness, the stubborn unseeing willfulness of a people who mouthed God with their lips, going through all the actions and rituals, but neglecting the radical discipline and obedience of God. So it is, in his context and now in ours, that a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sin is proclaimed and for us to find a way to walk in a whole new direction, incarnating the truth of God in our day.
The Baptist is pointing of course to Jesus, the One coming. We repent so as not to cut off ourselves or anyone else from the One who loves us most completely and the baptismal promise that we belong to God forever. That includes right now. Prepare. Be ready. Make the way smooth for God and each other. Turn in a new direction. Be loved and love with wild abandon. Yes, human sin creates problems. But we follow the One born in Bethlehem who has conquered it all for everyone in the hope that “all flesh,” not just certain ones we think are worthy, “shall see the salvation of God.”
The gift is that we are set free for God and one another. Perhaps you can take great comfort in St. Paul’s prayer of joy for the people in Philippi: “…that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.”
Advent I: December 2, 2018
Over the last couple of weeks we have once again been assaulted by disturbing images from around the world and within our own country. The fires in California, genocide in Myanmar, refugees fleeing the violence of their home countries in Central America, acts of anti-Semitism on the increase in the United States even as we remember our Jewish sisters and brothers on this eve of Hanukkah. I’m not sure Black Friday or Cyber Monday is enough of an anesthesia to relieve the anxiety with which we live on the planet. Can we sing the “Kyrie eleison” enough?
Confronted with constant reminders of death and destruction, Advent takes us to the edge in search of that place that longs for a new possibility. We call it hope. In Jeremiah, the people’s lives have been turned topsy-turvy. It is 325 B.C. The temple has been destroyed and rebuilt, but the former glory has not returned. Jeremiah is speaking to a people who have known only hard times and are struggling to make it. A vision of the future is held before them, a time when the Lord will fulfill the promise made to Israel and the house of Judah. A righteous branch will spring up for David; Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. The hope of a new vision changes the manner of living in the present.
Look at Paul writing to the church in Thessalonika. He encourages them to continue to grow in faith and love for one another because this is the way to holiness. They too were in confusing times. The world was a mess. Roman oppression was ever-present, yet Paul encourages them to grow now as “you wait for the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.” The first century church, gathered to celebrate the Eucharist as we are doing now, did so expecting the Lord to come at any moment and to bring to consummation all of time in the fullness of God’s righteousness and peace. Seeing the promise of God’s future is to infuse our present with hope.
Even in Luke, natural disasters, stress among the nations, people living in great fear and the powers of heaven shaken are the daily reality. This sounds startlingly contemporary does it not? Yet they have hope. Why? The Kingdom of God is near as they expected Jesus’ return. We do pray, nearly every day, “Thy Kingdom come,” I trust with a similar expectation. We get a sense of it in the desire of people living at the margins, like a Syrian refugee family, fleeing violence and waiting, waiting with bated breath for that one rescuing word of welcome; or a falsely accused prisoner on death row waiting for the DNA tests that prove his innocence. Release. Freedom. That is the quality of Advent.
The annals of former slaves tell us this is how they survived the cotton fields and harsh slave owners, that is, by staying centered in the promise of restoration in Christ. Elie Weisel tells of being able to live through the concentration camp of World War II by remaining centered in one’s hope in God. One can understand giving up. People live out their rage on the world in manifestations of violence, often because of some deep historical injustice that has led to a loss of hope. When hope is missing or been taken away, violence is the only choice many believe they have. It doesn’t excuse the behavior, but it does help to understand it.
Our call is the transformation of the now so that it more clearly reflects God’s vision made perfect at the end of all time. We make, if you will, the future present. The Kingdom of God is already a reality among us and in us. Our baptism signifies this to us in God’s sacramental promise. Our motivation, and the mission we seek to pass on is the love of God and God’s vision in Jesus to make all things new, on earth as it is in heaven. We persevere as a community through our longing for God even in the midst of duress.
Henri Nouwen once said, “You are a Christian only so long as you constantly pose critical questions to the society in which you live – so long as you stay unsatisfied with the status quo and keep saying that a new world is yet to come.” Christian hope always views the reality of the present world, its beauty as well as its destructive forces, from the perspective of God’s desire for the creation. It is not born in mere optimism. It is born in God, or even, God born in us. The end judges the present and is why a Christian is never satisfied until the new heaven and new earth has been realized among us. In this sense we are always an Advent people – unsatisfied with the way things are when they are less than God’s hope for the world. That is, by the way, why the building of walls, religious or racial profiling and any other way we live out our fears by limiting and restricting God’s transformative love is not an option for a Jesus person.
Having said all of that, we know that our hope rests not solely in our human ability to change ourselves or our world. If we could, good people would have done so by now. Jesus is calling forth a whole new creation – changing the world order and overthrowing the empires of domination. Jesus comes not to make us good, but to make us holy. Completely new. The call of today is to wake up and be on alert – acting as if it all depends on us, but knowing that in the end it all depends on God. Our hope is not in our ability to change the world – our hope is in the One whose birth we celebrate in a little over three weeks.
You and I, in our baptism, discover that we belong to a God shown forth in Christ who promises that the end is already secure. We seek to change the world now as an act of thanksgiving for the promised life to come. The promise changes the present. Our hope – past, present and future – is held in Christ Jesus. As Luke would tell us, “Stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
Bishop Skip Adams
The Right Reverend Gladstone B. Adams III was elected and invested as our Bishop on September 10, 2016. Read more about him here.