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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.