A Diocesan Regional Learning Day will be held at Christ Church in Andover on Saturday, January 12. These events are really worthwhile. If you’d like to participate, please contact Deb in the church office.
This year, instead of one Spring Learning Event in March, there are 5 Regional Learning Days around the diocese beginning in January. Following our successful comprehensive campaign for the diocese, there are now many more resources available to churches for mission, ministry and partnerships. These Learning Days will help your congregation prepare for accessing and using these new resources, but also for building capacity in lay leaders in every parish, regardless of participation in any of these new and ongoing initiatives.
Bishop Shaw invites every congregation’s participation in this mission strategy work. NOTE: Churches that attend one of these Regional Learning Days will be prioritized for the first round of mission grants, green grants, and mission hub funding.
So begins the first lesson we heard from the Prophet Zephaniah. It seems a non-sequetur to the events of recent days, as does the pink candle of rejoicing on our wreath.
Since Friday at about 9:30 am it has not felt like there is a lot to rejoice about in our country. It just doesn’t seem like rejoicing on this day is what we should be doing, with people tragically lost in the terrible shooting at the Sandy Hook School in Newtown, CT. I know that this tragedy has hit me hard. All I could think of as I saw the aerial views of the Sandy Hook School was the floor plan of my own children’s school – Newbury Elementary School. I imagine for any of you who have children you love in schools anywhere, or who work in schools, or who have worked in schools, this cut you to the your heart too. And so rejoicing is not the first thing on our minds this morning.
And yet our first lesson invokes joy. “Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem!” So I want to spend some time this morning talking about the difference between joy and happiness. It’s not a happy day. Such loss in our country rattles us to the core. It makes us afraid and sad and uncertain about what is coming next. But that does not preclude joy. Those feelings distance us from a sense of happiness, but joy is different. Joy comes even in the midst of tragedy when we understand – when we feel in our bones – that God never leaves us. That we are not abandoned to the winds of change and circumstance that brings such sadness to us.
Joy is about being held firmly in God’s hand and knowing that all will be well – not because of us, but because of God’s unswerving love for us. God came to us in the incarnation of Jesus. The Holy One – author of the universe – went through 9 months in the darkness of the womb of a young girl who was vulnerable in the world. Not a princess safe in a castle on a hill. But a young woman betrothed to a man working each day to get by. God entered humanity in a vulnerable way, and I can’t help thinking this week that vulnerability of God’s coming is meant to tell us that any vulnerability, any struggle we encounter is nothing less than the fertile ground for the Advent of God’s presence.
That is the joy of this Sunday. That is the step back that we take from the spirit of repentance this week – just enough to say our joy is that God does not leave us there. Our faith is not a myth that evaporates under the heavy weight of our sadness. Paul put it so well in the second lesson for this day:
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near.
Our joy today is in the conviction that even in the face of the most unthinkable tragedies, God holds us and is closer to us than our own breath.
At the same time we come here today not just for the comfort of that joy. We come also seeking a way forward; seeking an affirmation of the pain of what has come upon us; seeking to know what to do next. And that is where the Gospel lesson speaks. John refers to those gathered seeking baptism as a brood of vipers. He says to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance.” – pretty strong words. And then he goes on uses apocalyptic language to describe the Messiah who is coming after him. Perhaps it is his ax that is lying at the roots of the trees that bear no fruit? He carries a winnowing fork, an implement used to separate the edible parts of the grain from that which cannot be consumed – the chaff.
And so John gets the attention of those who wish to be washed clean. Stunned they stand before him and ask him, “What should we do? What should we do to escape this coming wrath?” Their question is not unlike ours – What should we do? We have been brought up short in recent days in this society. We have seen the underbelly of our culture of violence, our culture of weapons – we have seen what it can do. It’s not just theory. And the sad thing it has happened so many times before. Some stats I heard this weekend:
68 people have died in mass shootings in this country in 2012
105 people are shot each day in this country and 83 of them die of their wounds.
What really got our attention this time is that these were the most vulnerable, the most precious – our children. No one who knows children of this age – who has ever loved a child of this age – can even fathom what they must have experienced in those last moments of their young lives. And somehow we all know we have to do something – we are the ones that have to do something.
We are excruciatingly aware now – we must accept that something is wrong. And we have to do something. John said to those who were gathered there. Those of you who have two coats, share one; those of you who have food, give some away; those of you who collect taxes take only what is due; those of you who are soldiers, be satisfied with your wages. The message here is for us in this day also – “Don’t just think of yourselves.” Don’t be so focused just on yourselves that you lose sight of your responsibility to your neighbors and indeed to the whole human race. What you do, on a very practical, everyday plane matters. Take time to do the things that are important. Take time to see the need in your neighbor or your child. Take time to understand what others are going through and how you might help them- how you might share the light and the sustenance of life. Don’t let it pass you by because you are so preoccupied with gaining things for yourself – the endless quest for more that our culture is so addicted to.
What John is preparing the way for is the One who is coming after him. The One who comes to tell us that there is really only One of us – that we are each one members of the other. John is here preparing the way for the One who comes to destroy the forces which isolate us so tragically from one another. The One whose Joy it is to become one of us that he might through the amazing power of God – lead humanity to shed our viper skins and to claim our true identity as children of God.
Today let us pray here for all whose lives are forever changed by the events in Newtown, CT. And as we go out from this holy place let us live expectantly and love courageously, letting our gentleness and faith be known to all around us, as we prepare to celebrate again the rebirth of joy and hope at Christmas. In Christ’s name and for his sake. Amen+
Most mornings now my alarm clock rings at 5:30 am, and I awake into the mysterious time between night and day- when dreams have not fully let go of me and the new day beckons but has not yet begun. It is a liminal time, an in between time, a border region between light and darkness, not unlike the season of Advent.
In the summer season the experience is very different – the sun has lit the sky by the time I am up and life outside my window has begun to stir. Not so in December – the world is still deep in slumber as I light my candle and settle into my chair for 20 minutes of quiet. The whole experience turns me inward. Wrapped in the comforter that I use to keep warm in the early morning chill of the house, I feel like I am in a cocoon waiting… waiting… waiting for some sort of metamorphosis?
This season of Advent that we began last Sunday is a bit of a cocoon too. It is a time between times – our liturgical calendar ended 2 weeks ago with the resurrected Christ ushering in God’s full realm, and in just 2 weeks we will celebrate God bursting into time in the babe, Jesus of Bethlehem. So in these 4 weeks in between we are, as it were, in gestation – in the cocoon, awaiting a new beginning of the whole cycle again.
So what is this time for? What are we waiting for? Our culture has rushed past us and is already in full blown, commercial Christmas mode, but we hold back, at least for a few minutes a day, daring to trust there are important things growing unseen within this cocoon – this womb of Advent.
One of the things that can grow within in Advent is a spirit of repentance – that is why John the Baptist is such a pivotal figure in our readings for this season with his call to repentance for the forgiveness of sins. But the word repentance seems to stop a lot of people in their tracks. They hear that word and knowing it is associated with the word sin they want nothing more to do with it. In her book Speaking of Sin, the Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor observes that words such as “Sin, repentance, penance, salvation, iniquity, and transgression… sound like language from an earlier age when human relationship with God was laced with blame and threat.The most obvious solution to the discomfort [these words] provoke is to stop saying them altogether, which is what many of us have done… When we speak of God now, we go straight for the grace.” As Ollie pointed out last week in his sermon to us, grace is not really amazing if we don’t see what we need it for. If we are out of touch with the power of sin in our individual and communal lives, then opening our hearts to the healing grace of God born to us in Jesus might get trumped this season by all the other things on our “to do” list.
The invitation of this season of Advent – extended to us by John the Baptist – is to unlace self examination and repentance from, at Taylor put it “blame and threat”. To redefine repentance so it becomes something we engage in for growth not something we are humiliated by. What we need to claim in Advent is the true metamorphosis of the season – the transformation of our lives through the turning over of our sins to God’s compassionate touch.
Now there are small s sins and there is big S Sin. The small s sins are all the things that we do that are not good for us or for others. Many of these things we do, we know are wrong, but have become habitual ways of behaving for us, or are ways we revert to under stress. Then there are there is the big S Sin, which is kind of like the trunk of the Sin tree, with all the other small s sins growing out from it like branches. The best way I know to describe the Big S Sin at the root of all other sins, is to say it has to do with our disconnection from God and each other, and our default belief that we have the power to fix what is wrong with us. Isn’t it ironic that in this highly technical age where we are so “electronically connected”, I would get up here and say that the root of our Sin is our disconnection from each other and God, and our reliance on our own power. But think about it for all the power we have to communicate with each other do we really know each other? And does the pace of our lives in modern society lend itself to regular daily connection with God? And for all our technical advancements, why is there still so much hunger and warfare in the world? And what about the looming specter of global warming? Disconnection and willful self reliance spell large S Sin in my book.
So what are we to do if we take on this Advent invitation to look at our individual sins and the large S Sin that infects us all? A piece of 12 step program wisdom is helpful here. In the 12 step rooms it is said that in order to recover from what whatever ails us (and I read that as another way of saying Sin), it is necessary to apply 3 a’s – awareness, acceptance and action – in that order – awareness, acceptance and action. Tragically, most of the time, we want to race from awareness of our sins to some sort of action we think will remedy or make up for them. But this rush to action actually short circuits the process of repentance. Without really sitting with the awareness of our sins and accepting the reality of what they mean about who we are and what the world we live in is really like, we are drawn into the illusion that we can fix the sin that ails us by ourselves. But if we resist that rush to action and give ourselves time sit still long enough with our sin and brokenness, we begin to understand that we are part of a world that though fiercely beautiful is also bent and broken in some significant ways. Then we begin to see that our brokenness needs a fix that is well beyond our capacities. This opens us to the opportunity to invite God in and to consent to God’s activity within to bring healing and wholeness that can then lead us to take actions that can bring true healing and reconciliation into our lives and relationships. Then true humility is born in us and we begin to know deep down God’s amazing grace as the root of all real healing.
On this theme Barbara Brown Taylor writes:
“The only reason I can think of [to keep on speaking of sin] is because we believe that God means to redeem the world through us. We have been chosen, in the language of Genesis, not only to be blessed but also to be a blessing to all the families of the earth. Our participation in that high calling requires us to understand God’s grace as something more than the infinite remission of our sins. If we want to take part in the divine work of redemption, then we will also understand God’s grace as the gift of regeneration – the very real possibility of new life right here on earth – complete with new vision, new values, and new behavior.
As wary as I am of pious calls to perfection, it does seem to me that too many of us have given up hope of new life for ourselves or for the families of the earth. It is easier (and less painful) for us to rely on God’s forgiveness of our sins than it is to believe that God might support us to quit them. But how can we quit them if we have forgotten what they are called.
Abandoning the language of sin will not make sin go away. Human beings will continue to experience alienation, deformation, damnation and death no matter what we call them. Abandoning the language will simply leave us speechless before them, and increase our denial of their presence in our lives. Ironically, it will also weaken the language of grace, since the full impact of forgiveness cannot be felt apart from the full impact of what has been forgiven. (Speaking of Sin, pp.4-6)
May the knowledge that this womb of Advent, in which we are being carried, is God’s own womb give us the courage to reflect on, name and accept the Sin that infects us. And may our only action in this season be to lift up our heads and behold the grace that will shower down upon us for our healing, and the healing of all creation.
May we increase and abound in love for one another and for all. And may our creating, + redeeming, and sustaining God strengthen our hearts in holiness. Amen.
Here it is, the first Sunday of Advent again. We’re now in the church year where Luke’s gospel takes the lead. There are lots of great readings in this year’s Gospel. Luke wrote down Mary’s song for us – “my soul magnifies my Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my savior.” He told us about Joseph and Mary going to Bethlehem to give birth to Jesus in a stable. From him we know the parable of the Good Samaritan and the parable of the Prodigal Son. Many of these Gospel passages are appealing to non-Hebrew people like us: scholars believe Luke wrote a Gentile audience. He’s talking to you and me.
So, Luke’s words are appealing to us. But they’re not comfortable words. They’re words about the end of the world, and words about what life is like after the world has ended. Luke wrote down his gospel about fifty years after Jesus’s resurrection, after the Roman-Jewish war had laid waste to Jerusalem.
Today’s Gospel reading is about that post-apocalyptic time in 80 AD. And, it’s also about our time. It challenges me and you personally. Jesus foretells a day of reckoning, a day that’s coming soon. He talks about “distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves.” We know what that means: we live by an ocean that lays waste to great cities. Jesus says “People will faint from fear … of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.” At least some of us know what that means: Do you remember the cataclysmic jihad threatened by certain terrorists from the Middle East?
And Jesus warns us to keep watch for these great disasters. In the language of the Bible translation called The Message, he tells us
Be on your guard. Don’t let the sharp edge of your expectation get dulled by parties and drinking and shopping. Otherwise, that Day is going to take you by complete surprise, spring on you suddenly like a trap.
I’ve had surprises grab me like a trap, and I know that’s true for many of you. We’ve had life-changing, terrible, disastrous, surprises: accidents, diseases, the sudden death of people we love.
These words of Jesus can hurt. They make it sound like it’s our fault we’re surprised by terrible news. It’s because our hearts were weighed down with parties and drinking and the worries of this world. If we were somehow holier and purer we wouldn’t have been surprised. Ouch. If we read these words that way they really cut us. What’s the truth of these words? Are we reading them right? Let’s think through that question.
Yesterday was World AIDS Day. Each year since 1988 December 1st has been a day used to promote awareness of the AIDS epidemic. As we all know, that disease has been a disaster of Biblical proportions for humanity. It’s killed many more than the Roman-Jewish War. And we’ve used it as an excuse to point our self-righteous fingers at each other and accuse each other of being unclean.
Ten years and a month before that first AIDS day, I happened to be visiting San Francisco. I was applying to graduate school there. I took a cheap standby jet flight and booked a room at the Y. I was tired after my long flight, interviews, and tests. I needed to sleep. But, I am here to tell you, that YMCA was a rowdy place on Halloween night in 1978. People were partying like there was no tomorrow. Dissipation, drunkenness, and the worries of this world were all there. You know the popular song about the YMCA: I think it was inspired by that epic party. Revelers knocked on the thin door of my little cubicle hoping for some anonymous companionship, until I put out a do-not-disturb sign. I spent a few minutes feeling like a stranger and a spoil-sport, then fell mercifully asleep.
As the next few years went by and we all started to hear rumors and then facts about the mysterious disease that turned out to be AIDS, I caught myself feeling a little smug. I was happy that I hadn’t joined in that wild Halloween party. I told myself, “I don’t do ‘dissipation, drunkenness, and the worries of this world,’ so I’m safe. I’m healthy. Good for me.” We know now that lots of people had that kind of self-righteous attitude. Lots of people said to each other “this disease doesn’t affect people like us.” And as a result people with the disease were marginalized and blamed. The disease itself was ignored for a long time. All that is still going on.
The question is this: should you and I be cut by Jesus’s sharp words? If something bad catches us unaware, does it prove that “our hearts are dulled by dissipation, drunkenness, and the worries of this world?” When disasters surprise us, is it our fault? If we do foresee them, does it prove we’re holy?
I wish I could say “no, of course not.” I wish I could say, no, this warning of Jesus isn’t about now, it’s about later. I wish I could say, you and I don’t have to worry about it. Because we’re baptized and we believe, we are all set. Those warnings are for somebody else. But is that true?
Partly, we’re off the hook. For the sake of God’s holy mercy, we must not blame ourselves for being surprised by some disasters. Luke quotes Jesus saying that it was certainly not the fault of certain Galileans that Herod murdered them. When we’re stunned by a family member’s mortal illness, Jesus is NOT saying that we’re to blame. Not at all.
But it’s not that easy, sorry to say. Sometimes the warnings ARE for you and me.
With the hindsight the AIDS epidemic gave us, it’s obvious: some of the people at the wild Y party that Halloween night a generation ago were taking serious health risks. The consequences frightened us. Our life together suffered and is still suffering.
I took a cheap jet flight to San Francisco that year. With the hindsight Hurricane Sandy gave us, it’s obvious oil-burning air travel has helped change the climate for the worse. Our life together is suffering because, partly, of a choice I made.
So yes, both my fellow Y residents and I were, in our own ways, partying like there was no tomorrow. And yes, Jesus’s words cut us. They warn us not to be surprised when our partying has consequences. Still, we are surprised.
We had a funeral here Thursday for Callie, a recent high school graduate. Her death was a catastrophe and it took everyone who knew her by surprise. I hope and pray that the people who loved her don’t feel her death was their fault. It was not. I hope and pray God will guard the hearts and minds of the people who loved her against hearing today’s gospel words as condemnation. They are not. We live in a world where catastrophes have already happened: AIDS, Hurricane Sandy, the death of people we love. The promise of today’s Gospel reading is this: God will never abandon us, even if our world has ended. God was, is, and will be with us. God suffers for with us and with us. God yearns for us to open our eyes and our hearts and love each other like God loves us. God yearns for us to turn from the old world and live in the new. Jesus is coming in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his realm has no end. I’m not talking just about an afterlife after death. I’m talking about a way of life that overcomes death.
At Callie’s funeral we sang Amazing Grace. The Good News at the heart of that song is this line. “’Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, and grace my fear relieved.” Those two things go together. Without one, the other is worthless.
Does saying “Be afraid! the sea is rising and it’s because of your cheap jet rides!” to people persuade us to change our attitude to using fossil fuel? No. Guilt is a notoriously bad way to change human behavior. On the other hand, does saying “don’t worry about it! party on!” help anything? No. God uses the two — fear, and relief — taken together to change our hearts.
That’s what our Gospel reading is about: Jesus warns us to keep watch but always – always – combines the warning with a promise to be with us. Each day the old world is passing away, and each day the new world is coming. It’s my prayer for this Advent season that God’s grace will teach your heart to fear and God’s grace will set you free to live in +God’s realm. Amen .