Advent, take three

Third Sunday of Advent – December 15, 2019 – Matthew 11:2-11 – Trinity, Winchester

John clearly has his doubts about Jesus. Even from prison he sends his disciples to ask, “Are you the Messiah, or should we wait for another?” In other words, “Tell us, Jesus, is there someone else coming whose sandals you are not fit to untie?” 

The question is, where does John’s doubt come from? [1] Wasn’t he the one who told us that Jesus was the real deal in the first place? 

Wasn’t he the one who told the crowds, “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me . . . He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”

Wasn’t he the one who said to Jesus, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” Surely this is the same John. Why does he doubt now?

Perhaps his doubts arise from present circumstance. He who was once a prisoner of hope, is now a prisoner of Herod. Time spent locked away may have taken a toll on his prophetic spirit. 

Or perhaps his doubts are caused, ironically, by his knowledge of Bible. John knows well that the prophets say that the Messiah will bring a fiery brand of judgement and uproot disobedient nations. 

John doesn’t see Jesus of Nazareth living up to those expectations. [2] Jesus is not destroying delinquent nations. Instead, Jesus is walking around preaching to poor people. What a letdown, right? Maybe he’s not the one after all.

John’s doubts reveal that he doesn’t quite understand the scandalous nature of Jesus’ ministry. At least, not yet. Fortunately, Jesus clears things up. He says to John’s disciples, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.”

These words not only describe Jesus’ ministry, they point us to the very nature of God. [3] God is not a God of wrath and judgement in the conventional sense.

God’s judgement is mediated through loving acts of grace. These people don’t have enough food. Feed them. These people can’t stay warm. Clothe them. These people are sick. Heal them. These people wander in darkness. Tell them the Gospel Truth.

Talk about uprooting the nations and exercising judgment! Jesus’ ministry embodies a radical opposition to the status quo. The difference is, it doesn’t demand our attention in the way we are accustomed to.

We like shiny objects and elaborate productions, but that’s not the way Jesus works. If you ask me, John takes all that stuff about fire and destruction too literally. Sure, God is a destroyer, but not because he lays waste to erring nations. God is a destroyer because he destroys death and brings about life.

Jesus embodies the role of the Messiah because he heals the sick, restores the weak, and saves the lost. The fire he kindles is not the fire of fury, but the Spirit of God, which burns away the remnants of sin and death.

We hear echos of this Messianic role in today’s Collect. “Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us . . . let your bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us.”

This is not a prayer to a God who punishes brutally. This is a prayer to a God who saves mightily. That divine might may not always look like we expect to, but nevertheless it is present in the One who tells us to turn the other cheek instead of hitting back.

Proof that the Kingdom of God has arrived does not come in the grandiose actions of a savior du jour, but in the constant presence of the savior of eternity.

That said, it’s hard to recognize God’s presence in the world, and that makes it easy to doubt God’s power. We have heard the voices of God’s prophets drowned out by gunfire. We have known patriarchs to edit our history books before they go to print. We have tasted the bitterness of hasty words that rinse the flavor of grace from our mouths.

We have even willingly chosen to ignore God’s work in the world, patting our pockets and saying, “I’m sorry, Sir, I don’t have any cash on me today.”

Whether we overlook it, or whether we refuse to see it, Jesus is among us, quietly embodying salvation. Jesus is among us, reciting the names of the dead as they are welcomed into heaven. Jesus is among us, recording the history of the oppressed in permanent ink. Jesus is among, forgiving our trespasses and helping us muster up the courage to forgive those who trespass against us.

For the most part this is quiet, behind-the-scenes work. We so crave attention-grabbing theatrics that we tend to ignore the real nation-uprooting, judgment-exercising, status-quo-challenging work of God happening all around us. When we don’t see it, we assume it isn’t there. Like John, we begin to wonder who we’re really waiting for, all the while forgetting that Jesus has already come, not with trumpet fanfare, but with an infant’s cry in the still, dark silence of the night. 

 

Notes:

[1] Thomas G. Long, Matthew, Westminster Bible Companion (WJK: Louisville, 1997), 125.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

The work God has given you to do

Ninth Sunday after Pentecost – August 11, 2019 – Isaiah 1:1,10-20 – Trinity, Winchester

As Christians, we say that the Bible is the inspired word of God, but it’s not always clear exactly what that means.

There are many answers. For instance, scripture is a record of God’s interaction with God’s people over time. Through scripture we come to know God and who we are in relationship with God. Not only do we believe that its human authors were inspired by God to write what they wrote when they wrote it, we also believe that God inspires our hearing of it today. 

One of the specific reasons that I’m convinced scripture is inspired is because of its lasting relevance. Across time and culture, God’s word continues to inform our life together. For example, hear God’s words to us this morning from the mouth of the prophet Isaiah. (And, yes, I’m paraphrasing here…) 

“I’m tired of your sacrifices. I have had enough of your burnt offerings. I do not delight in the blood of your bulls. Your incense is an abomination. Your solemn assemblies make me sick. 

“I find your festivals burdensome. From now on when you pray I’m not even going to listen. Your hands are full of blood! Wash yourselves! Start doing some good for a change.” 

In other words, God says, “I’ve had it *up to here!* Get yourselves under control!”

These words are hard to hear. For that reason we might be tempted to write them off as water under the bridge, a travelogue of an ancient people dealing with ancient problems. 

However, Isaiah’s prophecy is as relevant today as it ever was. Our hands are still full of blood. Not the blood of bulls but the blood of school children and innocent bystanders. 

We’ve tried to wash them, but rather than searching for the cleansing rivers of God’s grace, we opted for the tears of blameless immigrant children. 

Much like the ancient Israelites, our nation is at a breaking point. The question is, what are we as Christians going to do about it? As Isaiah says, the answer is much more than simply, “Go to Church.” We must also speak out—and act—in the name of God.

Mainline Protestants and Catholics in America often shy away from claiming the authority of God. We are nervous about the prophetic role of our faith. Our reticence to don a prophet’s mantel is not without reason.

Some people who call themselves Christians spend so much time damning people to hell that the rest of us have become conditioned to think that claiming God’s authority is a bad thing. In an attempt to seem relevant, the Church has forfeited its prophetic witness to fear-mongers and imposters. 

Perhaps the reason that many contemporary Christians are uneasy about claiming God’s authority is because they perceive themselves to be inadequate. They don’t want to presume to know the mind of God, only to find out they’ve confused their own desires with God’s will. 

This instinct is admirable—no one should mistake themself for God! However, you must remember that God created you, God called you good, and God entrusted you as a steward of his creation and his word. 

So, while you don’t have to call yourself a prophet, you at least ought to act like you’ve read them, and you must share their message with the world. 

Today that message is this: God is fed up with our sacrifices, our empty thoughts and prayers, our vapid rituals and festivals. Before you go preaching and teaching this message, understand that God does not criticize liturgical practices because they are bad in and of themselves. God criticizes them when they are unaccompanied by acts of justice and mercy. 

Valuing liturgics is fine, but valuing liturgics over people is not. 

Praying is a wonderful tactic for change, as long as you understand that true prayer is a way of life, one that informs the way you act in the world. 

By all means, please, come back next week to participate in the prayer book rites that so richly inform our faith, but remember: while keeping the liturgical calendar is important, it is not more important than how we treat the least of God’s people. Our participation in these liturgies rings hollow unless we also “rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, and plead for the widow.”

Today is not about bad-mouthing liturgy. It’s about realizing that, no matter how we worship, when we ignore the urgent needs of those around us, we sin, plain and simple. The good news is that God offers us forgiveness anyway. Although our sins are like scarlet now, they will become like snow. 

“If you are willing and obedient,” God says, “you shall eat the good of the land; but if you refuse and rebel, you shall be devoured by the sword.” 

We are tempted to hear this as though our own actions will determine whether or not we are forgiven by God. Such is not the case. We can never do anything to earn or to forfeit the marvelous grace of God. 

In these words God is not giving us an ultimatum, i.e. “Do this or else be damned for all time.” Rather, in these words God is assuring us that with a little help from the almighty, we do indeed have the power to make things better. 

Through Isaiah, God offers us a clear, honest, warning. If you do what I recommend, then your communities will flourish. Everyone will have the food, water, shelter, and love that they deserve as children of God.

If you do not live like I recommend, then your dire situation will persist. You will continue to live with the evil of inequality, fear, and guilt.

Today, and everyday, God invites you to repent and to commit ourself to what is good and just and merciful. You have the power to do what is right, not on your own accord, but because God works in and through you. 

I know that you already know this. You know it because you know Jesus. In Jesus, God showed us that our humanity matters. God makes divine use of even our frail flesh. What a blessed thing. 

I’m not exactly sure what I can urge you to do without risking tax-exempt status, so for now let’s just make it simple. What I’m saying is this: hear what God’s prophets are saying to God’s people, take advantage of God’s grace, and for God’s sake, do the work God has given you to do.

Discovering Repentance

Tuesday in Proper 10C – July 16, 2019 – Matthew 11:20-24 – St. Mary’s Convent, Sewanee

It seems Jesus’ ministry isn’t going so well. 

All the ground he’s trod, all the sermons he’s preached, all the miracles he’s performed, and folks in Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum still don’t get it. He is understandably frustrated, perhaps because he knows that his earthy ministry wanes with each passing day. 

Don’t you get frustrated when, despite your best efforts, things don’t go according to plan? My friends who are school teachers help me understand classroom woes from their perspective. 

How many times do I have to tell you not to touch that?!

How many times do I have to remind you to keep your hands to yourself?!

How many times do I have to say, “No talking in the hallway!”? 

How much worse must the Son of God feel when, after giving God’s people glimpses of the Kingdom firsthand, they turn away from God’s saving grace? 

We cannot imagine what it’s like to be Jesus, but we do know a thing or two about what it means to be human. It turns out, Jesus knows a little something about that, too. He knows that it includes getting angry. 

For this reason, passages like this one can be difficult to hear. It’s hard to make sense of an angry Jesus. We are taught that God is good, loving, and merciful. So, why is he condemning the people of these towns to hell? 

Perhaps we need to think on it some more. What is Jesus’ anger—or any anger, for that matter—really about? Deep down, why does the teacher get angry when the students don’t follow the rules? Is it frustration because they just don’t seem to listen? Sure, but why? 

I’d bet that a big part of it is sadness. Sadness that other human beings—especially cute, young, impressionable human beings—are capable of willfully doing wrong. 

To experience the Gospel, yet turn away from it unrepentant, is tragic. In today’s gospel Jesus mourns that. “Why must my father’s children put themselves in this position?!” If we could answer that question, I guess we’d finally stop doing it.

Alas, we still separate refugee families at the border. We still elect blatantly racist leaders. We still celebrate the founder of the Ku Klux Klan in the great state of Tennessee. 

Why do we persist in sin? Because we are children of Adam’s fallen race? Because we are weak-willed and can’t help it? Because it’s just plain more fun to be bad than good? 

I’m honestly not sure I have the answer. As a preacher, I’m humbled to find myself in this position quite frequently. This may be disconcerting to some of you, while others might find it comforting, a sign that we really are all in this together, that no one is perfect. 

At any rate, while the motivation for our sin is not always clear, what is clear from today’s lesson is that Jesus mourns the fact that we don’t hold ourselves accountable for our sins. Perhaps the better thing for us to focus on today is not why we sin, but what it looks like to hold ourselves accountable when we do sin. In other words, what does it look like to repent?

I’m not talking about self flagellation. I’m talking about amendment of life. Repentance is built into our liturgy, but the question is, is it built into our daily lives? It should be! We need to acknowledge where things are broken, admit our culpability, and take steps to fix them. That’s what God created us to do. 

So, what’ll it be? Apologizing to an old friend? Investigating sustainable living practices? Eating better? Divesting from companies that harm the general welfare? Thinking critically—instead of alphabetically—at the ballot box? 

Those are just a few examples. Only you and God know what’s next for you, but whatever it is, first you’re going to need some strength. So before you get started, come to the table, take, and eat. 

Good Friday 2019

Good Friday – April 19, 2019 – Trinity, Winchester

Pontius Pilate entered his headquarters and asked Jesus, “Where are you from?” But Jesus gave him no answer. Pilate said to him, “Do you refuse to speak to me? Do you not know that I have power to release you, and power to crucify you?” Jesus answered him, “You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above.” John 19:9-11

*****

Pilate asks Jesus, “Where are you from?” But Jesus remains silent. 

This utterly baffles Pilate. “Don’t you know that I have the power to either release or crucify you?” Jesus replies, somewhat calmly as I imagine it, “You have no power over me unless it was given to you from above.”

“You have no power.” 

Jesus is right. Pilate has no power. It is easy to see why Pilate thinks he has power over Jesus. In his mind, he can either have Jesus killed or he can set him free, but in reality, it’s not so simple. Nor does Pilate have power over the angry mob outside. He has no control over the hate welling up in their hearts and spewing from their lips.

Something far greater than human power is at work in the events of Jesus’ arrest and trial. Evil forces conspire to create divisions that Pilate and the angry crowd are completely unaware of. Only Jesus recognizes them as the work of Satan plotting to get exactly what he wants. 

Jesus sees Satan at work in the mob mentality. Tensions arise and instead of trying to discover their underlying causes, the group casts all the blame on one person: Jesus. They identify him as a scapegoat. He has been putting some crazy ideas in the minds of the poor, the widowed, and the sick. They consider him the source of their problems. If they can only kill Jesus, then all of their problems will go away.

Satan still works like this in the world. Truth be told, I get nervous throwing around words like “Satan.” Some of you might wonder, “What in the world is he talking about?”

I’m talking about systematic evil in the world. All around us the devil’s scandals run riot. Some develop quickly, others over long periods of time. They carry us unknowingly along with them, and all the while we are complicit in evils of which we are often unaware. [1]

This was the story of the United States during the Civil Rights Movement. “If only that black family would move back to their side of town! People would walk around the neighborhood again. Parents would let their children play in the yard. We could leave our doors unlocked.”

It’s still the case today. “If only we could keep the immigrants on that side of the border! Our jobs would be safe, our economy would be thriving, and our streets would be free of crime.”

That’s not the only example of our modern tendency to scapegoat. Think about the human impact on climate change or the societal acceptance of school shootings. Even as we cry out for solutions, systemic forces of evil keep us from working together to find them. 

We would much rather attack each other than work together to solve the problem. “If we got rid of Trump, everything would be so much better!” “If Nancy Pelosi disappeared, we wouldn’t have these problems anymore!”

As toxic partisanship takes over the political landscape it’s nearly impossible to have civil dialogue. Fear has become our only motivator. When we respond out of fear, we vilify people who are different from us. We lose sight of the real issues and instead mistake each other for the problem. We begin to think that if we can suppress our rivals, then all of our problems will be solved. [2]

As long as that’s our attitude, then the devil has us right where he wants us. As long as Satan keeps us afraid of each other, then we’ll forget about God. As long as Satan keeps us focused on destroying each other, then we won’t notice Jesus hanging over there on that tree. And as long as the devil keeps us at each other’s throats, then we can ignore the fact that we hung him there. 

Three years ago, during Holy Week of 2016, the House of Bishops issued a statement to the church reminding us to reject hatred and fear. They wrote, “We reject the idolatrous notion that we can ensure the safety of some by sacrificing the hopes of others.” [3]

Their sentiment is, unfortunately, still relevant. Even in a country that stands in the shadow of the lynching tree, we continue to turn against our neighbors. As long as we seek safety and security at the expense of others, and as long as we engage in dialogue only with those who agree with us, then we have not learned our lesson. 

It’s as if we have forgotten about Good Friday. It’s as if we’ve forgotten that today is a crucial part of our Christian story. Today Jesus teaches us one of his most important lessons: fear has no power. 

Today Jesus refuses to play by the devil’s rules. Today Jesus refuses to lower himself to cheap scare tactics and manipulation. Instead, he does the one thing that Satan never expected. He gets up on the cross and he dies. 

He dies. 

Not because he’s weak. Not because he’s stupid. Not even because his Father willed it. No, Jesus does not die out of guilt or necessity or coercion. 

Jesus dies out of love. Jesus dies to show us what it looks like when you refuse to fight fear with fear. 

By dying Jesus upends our worldly expectations. By dying he teaches us that what we consider to be power is not power at all. By dying he teaches us that no matter how afraid we are, we cannot solve our problems by eliminating our neighbors; by dying he teaches us that fear never gets the last word; by dying he teaches us that love triumphs over death. By dying Jesus teaches us that we have no power to save ourselves. 

No matter who we persecute, no matter who we lock up, no matter who we expel, we can’t save ourselves. 

Only God can do that. 

 

[1] Rene Girard, I See Satan Fall Like Lightning (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2001), 41.

[2] Ibid., 38-41.

[3] The House of Bishops of the Episcopal Church, A Word to the Church (Holy Week 2016).