By God’s grace

Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost – October 13, 2019 – Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7 – Trinity, Winchester

Let’s look at today’s collect again.

Lord, we pray that your grace may always precede and follow us, that we may continually be given to good works…

“That we may continually be given to good works.” That’s a good thing to pray for. We should do good work—God’s work—in the world.

But lest we get too caught up in the idea that our works might be the source of our salvation, this prayer first calls our attention to the source of our good works: God’s grace. We pray for God’s grace to precede and follow us because grace is precisely what makes our good works possible.

The order is very important. God’s grace comes first. Our works follow. When you look at it that way, it makes life seem so much more manageable, doesn’t it?

In our Sunday School series on evangelism last spring we said that the mission of the Church is God’s mission. The work of reconciliation in the world is God’s work. The ministry of this parish is God’s ministry. We are able to share in it because God empowers us with his grace.

God was here before us, and God will be here long after we go. We are God’s coworkers on earth for a time, but God’s grace lasts forever.

We heard this morning a portion of Jeremiah’s letter to the exiled Israelites in Babylon.

“Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease.”

In other words, Jeremiah encourages them to put down roots, as if to say, “You are in this for the long haul.”

Last week we got a sense of just how devastated the Israelites were to find themselves in captivity. I can’t imagine that “put down roots” is what they wanted to hear. But prophets aren’t in the business of telling people what they want to hear. Prophets are in the business of telling the truth.

People want to hear things like, “Everything’s coming up roses!” But we don’t need the prophet to tell us, “Everything’s coming up roses!” When everything’s coming up roses we are pleased to go on listening to CNN and the local Top 40 station.

What we need to hear are things like, “Brace yourself, folks. Things are going to get tough for a while.” That’s why God sends a prophet. To be honest, to “get real” with us when we need it most.

God sends a prophet to the woman whose husband comes out to her after eight years of marriage. God sends a prophet to the man whose job transfers him away from friends and family. God sends a prophet to the teenager whose father is sentenced to 10-12 years.

It doesn’t do any good avoiding the truth. Things are going to get tough for a while. Your marriage is ending. You may spend Christmas alone. Dad’s not going to be around for a while. 

You don’t have to like it, but in order to have the slightest hope of getting through it, you do eventually have to accept it. That’s why you need a prophet like Jeremiah to tell it like it is. 

Jeremiah tells the Israelites to go on living their lives. Lay a foundation, put up some walls, plant some food, get married, have babies. In short, do the work God has given you to do. It’s not ideal, but it’s the first step toward accepting their new normal. 

Let’s get really clear about one thing. Their daily life and work is not meant to be a distraction from their troubles. “Well, this will take your mind off of things for a while… Have a hot bath, take a walk in the woods, get one of those adult coloring books.”

No. The work isn’t a diversion. The work is their key to reconnecting with God. As they resume their routine they will reminded of God’s presence among them.

Build the house. Who fashioned the stones from chaos? God. 

Plant the garden. Who sends the rain form the heavens? God.

Get married. Who created us, one for another? God. 

Be fruitful and multiply. Who blessed all of Abraham’s righteous offspring? God. 

The work is meant to return them to the steady rhythm of life so that they might realize once again that God’s grace is what makes their lives possible, even in Babylon.

Life isn’t always easy. Even though we may not like it, we have to summon up the courage to accept it. Sometimes we need to be reminded that getting out of bed in the morning and going on with our lives is the best thing we can do. Because it’s in living those lives that we find the grace of God. 

I know a little church in a small Tennessee town. Maybe you know it, too. It has been through some pretty rough times. One day nearly the entire congregation walked out. They thought they’d set up a new parish down the road. 

I’ve never been part of a church when something like that happens so I can only imagine the lament. I can only imagine how hard it must have been to walk into a nearly-empty nave the following Sunday. 

I don’t know exactly what the faithful remanent heard the prophet say. Probably not “build houses” or “plant gardens.” I imagine it was something like “say your prayers, answer the phone, pay the bills. Do the work God had given you to do.” 

I know another little congregation at a small rural crossroads not far from here. It struggled with membership for years. Members died, members moved away, members stopped coming. There were some disagreements, some harsh words, some apologies, a lot of mixed emotions. 

They also heard the words of the prophet. “Things are going to be tough for a while. You might have to make some hard decisions. Do the work God has given you to do.” 

By God’s grace the people of these congregations did just that. They prayed, they worshipped, they studied the Bible, they took care of the sick, they fed the hungry, they clothed the naked. In fact, they still do. And by God’s grace they always will. 

Came. Coming. Here.

First Sunday of Advent  – December 2, 2018 – Jeremiah 33:14-16; Luke 21:25-36 – Trinity Church, Winchester

Today we begin again. We begin a new liturgical year by waiting with patience and expectation for the One who is promised to us. We begin by waiting for Jesus.

We wait, not only for his coming in flesh, but also his coming in glory. Because we focus on both the incarnation and the “parousia,”Advent is an interesting time of the church year to say the least. It both completes and renews our annual liturgical cycle. It renews our year with the longing for Jesus’ birth and concludes it with the expectancy of his second coming. 

For this reason we might say that Advent is “a season under stress.” This stress makes for a season of some conflicting interpretations and practices. We see evidence of this conflict in today’s scriptures. One calls us to joyful longing and one to judgment and dread. [1]

“The days are surely coming,” we hear from Jeremiah, “when [the Lord] will fulfill the promise [he] made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah . . . I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.”

As Christians we understand Jeremiah’s interpretation of the coming Messiah to be fulfilled in the birth of Jesus Christ. This is a text of promise. It communicates our Christian hope of redemption and deliverance at the hand of the Messiah who comes, even as a baby. 

From Luke, on the other hand, we hear Jesus himself, at the end of his public ministry. “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations . . . People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” It sounds a lot like, “Lo, he comes with clouds descending.” 

Like today’s reading from Jeremiah, we can hear this passage from Luke as a text of promise. One day the Lord will come in glory to redeem us from the sin and destruction of this world. There’s hope!

However, the passage is scary and a little unsettling. We hear in it the dread that accompanies judgement. It is in this sense a text of terror. There will be distress on the earth. “People will faint from fear.” Watch out, Jesus warns, so that you are not caught off guard, as if in a trap.

Hearing eschatological, even apocalyptic, texts like this one, the Church seems to interpret them as either texts of promise or texts of terror. [2] But the two are not mutually exclusive. Advent reminds us to see them as both. The conflicting nature of these texts is not a bad thing; it is something to be cherished. 

Today’s texts remind us of Advent’s complexity, but they are not our only liturgical reminders of the ambiguous nature of the season. Throughout its history the Church has emphasized both penitential and anticipatory aspects of Advent. 

Some might silence the Gloria in favor of the Trisagion, as we have done, to emphasize a penitential component of the season. Some sacred ministers will wear deep purple—or even black—to orient worshippers toward a mindset of repentance in preparation for impending judgment. 

On the other hand, others prefer to emphasize the joyful expectancy of the incarnation by adding a bit of greenery to liven things up. My childhood parish used to decorate for Christmas before Advent 1. If you were to visit different parishes over the next three weeks you would see varied interpretations across our denomination. You will certainly see pieces of each in this parish.

The nature of this season beckons us to sit in tension for a while. Adopting either of these approaches wholesale—whether donning the metaphorical sackcloth of repentance or decorating the tree and singing carols—is not advised. The point of Advent is to live into its ambiguity. 

We don’t know much about the origin of Advent. If you’re interested, I can recommend some books on the subject like Waiting for the Coming by J. Neil Alexander. In it he tells us that one thing is clear from examining Advent’s somewhat fuzzy past: the church is not willing to settle for one story or another. Advent is not only about the judgement, hope, and expectation of the second coming or joyful longing and preparation for the incarnation. Advent is about participating in both of these realities. [3]

These two themes are inextricably intertwined for a very good reason–they remind us that our beginning is linked to our end. The Jesus who came is promised to come again. Our celebration and remembrance of the past and the hope and expectation of the future  meet in our present reality. 

Today’s collect helps us understand. Give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light now—in this mortal life in which your Son came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he comes again in glorious majesty, we may rise to the life immortal.

Right here, right now, we know that the same Jesus who came, and is coming, is among us and working in us. You may have heard it before. It’s sounds a lot like…

“Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.”

“We remember his death, we proclaim his resurrection, we await his coming in glory.” 

That’s past, present, and future. Jesus walked among us. Christ will come in judgement of us. The Risen Lord is with us now. Came. Coming. Here.

If you dwell in Advent’s ambiguity and wait patiently, you will learn the most valuable lesson of all. Jesus is with you now, even while you wait for him. You have a whole lot to look forward to in the future. You have a whole lot to celebrate about the past. But you also have a whole lot of living to do right now. The good news is that Jesus is with you, and he guides you along the way.

Remember him, as a vulnerable infant, Expect him, like a valiant figure in the clouds. But most of all, experience him in the flesh like his disciples always have, in the breaking of the bread and the prayers. 

 

[1] J. Neil Alexander, Waiting for the Coming: The Liturgical Meaning of Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany (Washington: The Pastoral Press, 1993), 23-24.

[2] Ibid., 20.

[3] Ibid., 24-26.