Advent is here again, seeking to knock us off our dead center certainties, and our attempts to button life down securely. Advent is here again calling us to traverse the wilderness of uncertainty and disorientation. And in our Gospel lesson we meet the patron saint of disorientation, John the Baptist. He is not what any had expected when it comes to the Herald of the Messiah. He is wild, unconventional, and yet with a compelling presence the draws us out, with all of Jerusalem to take a closer look.
And there he is, outside the bounds of what most consider normal and he calls us to repent. Sadly the word repent has so often been misused as a weapon against people who are out on the margin-not unlike John- unlike the majority in someway. John uses the word repent not as a weapon, but it’s an invitation. He is not pointing it at someone else. He is entering into repentance himself and inviting others to do so as well, because he is convinced of the transformative power of repentance especially in the face of the glory which is about to break in.
The Greek word for repent is Metanoia which literally means to turn around. Metanoia-to change course radically, to walk off the well-worn path and to take a look at reality from a different vantage point. Part of me loves that invitation, and part of me shies from it. What will happen if I take John up on his call to Metanoia-I fear I will become disoriented and at the same time I long to become disoriented. I am worried that if I do vere off course to follow John into the wilderness, I won’t know what’s going on-I worry my well-constructed templates for understanding life will not work out there. And yet part of my heart yearns to run after him, so that I can dive into an understanding that is deeper than anything I have known before.
Advent gives permission to that longing. Advent urges me to believe that bolting off course in wild pursuit of that transformation of my heart is more elemental to preparing for Christmas than all the shopping and baking and decorating I’ve laid out on my calendar. And yet each year as Advent rolls around I struggle to understand this metanoia, transformation John is pointing to. Is it just one more self-improvement technique? John does not answer. He just pointed to the water he is standing waist deep in and invites me to join him. Before I step in, I want to ask for a guarantee or at least see some stats and transformative outcomes.
But Advent and Joun offer none of those because the deep waters John is calling us into defie the descriptions of this manifested world. There is no adjective, description or measure that can capture what is going on here. And yet we feel it. We get water splashed on us, and we are prayed over at our baptism, and then we are on this road together, being invited deeper in with every spiraling holy year.
A question we might ask ourselves this second Sunday of Advent:
Is there any part of me that I’ve been holding back from these transformative waters -some aspect of my life or the way I am in the world that I have been safely sheltering on shore? The awareness that comes in thinking and praying on your answer to that question may open a new understanding of yourself. Now if you’re like me, your knee-jerk reaction maybe to rationalize what you perceive-explaining it away somehow-or, if the evidence is compelling, to quickly figure out what to do about it-how to fix it. But Advent calls us to something else. Advent’s work is to ask a question – Is there a part of me that I’ve been holding back from these transformative water-some aspect of my life that I have been safely sheltering on shore? And then to just sit with it. To let it be. To see what new awareness arises and then to let the acceptance open up around that awareness. To simply be present with the newness of what is discovered rather than to take action on it. Perhaps to share the awareness with a trusted friend with spiritual guide or director. In all this to trust God to work transformation in surprising and grace filled ways on a time schedule that is not necessarily ours. As the writer of the second letter to Peter wrote:
Do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day it’s like 1000 years, and 1000 years or like a day. The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance.
Saint Augustine once wrote to God, “Our hearts are restless, until we find our rest in Thee.” That is the truth this off-road course Advent offers us time and again. Each year we come back around to this invitation, to an open ended, unstructured space where we can risk disorientation for the sake of discovering again how much we are in need of being with God. Not that we are ever really apart from God, but we often block ourselves from the closeness with God by becoming so identified with our life situation that we forget we are not the one writing the plotline. We forget the mysterious workings of God’s grace and the connection that we have always had with the source of all that is.
Metanoia is an unblocking-a turning around to find God closer to us than our own breath. Metanoia is not an event, but a process that carries us overtime-not just as individuals but it’s a body-with all people and with all creation. For life is a web, not a bunch of disconnected beings for events. What we have come to trust in Christ Jesus is that the web is shot through with God’s grace. And we trust when we veer off our individual, me centered path long enough to receive a deeper experience of our life in the web, we become infused with that grace and that grace empowers us to live in ways that will yield great good for generations yet unborn.
It all starts with the willingness to set aside fear, to veer off-road into the wilderness, to put on the Advent garb of trust in the power of God in Christ to transform us day by day.
God bless you and any off-roading you do this Advent. In Christ name and sake. Amen+
Speak to our hearts and strengthen our wills O God so we may love and serve you today and always. Amen
Today is Advent 1. I bet most of you knew that, right? I am willing to bet that many of us here today know that the church season of Advent is about anticipation, preparation, and waiting for the future. I bet that Advent is a favorite season for some of us: a season of beauty, a season with music that transcends and transports us to places of great joy. And………I am willing to bet that for some of us, the season of Advent can slip away – almost unobserved. I bet that it can pass by with great speed without our even being aware that it is passing — and then its ending is often a surprise — not noticed until it is suddenly right on us…..
And that might happen this year even if it usually doesn’t happen to you. If you recall, there are 4 Sunday’s in the church season of Advent. Today, Advent 1, the first of those 4 Sundays, marks the beginning of the church year – and the 4th Sunday this year falls right on Christmas Eve, which doesn’t always happen – we usually have at least a few days between the Sunday of Advent 4 and Christmas Eve. But this year the very next day is Christmas — so… there are no days between Advent 4 and Christmas Day. All this makes for a fast season to go by even faster, so it’s easy to forget that we’re still in Advent that last week.
I used to be a bit flummoxed by the season of Advent because, while I understood that Advent is a period of spiritual preparation in which we make ourselves ready for celebrating the coming, the incarnation, of Jesus at Christmas, I didn’t understand why we would hear about the end of days right before that in Advent. It seemed totally out of order to me, and so I was always thrown by the scripture readings for the first two Sundays during Advent — the ones that focus on the second coming of Christ – readings that are not happy or joyous, rather they’re scary and apocalyptic. It wasn’t until the last two Sundays came along that we would hear about the joyous time of Christ’s birth – his first coming. So, over the course of the four weeks, scripture readings would move from passages about Christ’s future coming return, to scripture about Christ’s initial coming, when Jesus arrived in the Nativity story we know so well. I just didn’t get it.
As I grew older, I heard this concept of the past and future coming referred to as: the history of our Savior’s coming and the mystery of our Savior’s coming – the before and the not yet — and I liked that – it helped me make sense of these four week’s scripture readings……….This juxtaposition of history and mystery is about the fulfilled promise of Christ’s first coming and the yet-to-be-fulfilled promise of his second coming. Karl Barth, the great 20th century theologian, rectified and joined those 2 concepts perfectly in the spirit of Advent: He wrote, “The unfulfilled and fulfilled promise are related to each other, as are dawn and sunrise. Both are promises — and in fact the same promise.”
So, while Advent is certainly a joyful time of anticipation when we look forward to Christmas, it is more than that. It is also a penitential time, some call it a little Lent and it typically involves scripture reading, prayer, fasting, and repentance. It is no mistake that our vestments and altar hangings can be the same colors in Advent as they are in Lent. We look back upon Christ’s coming with celebration – Christmas — while at the same time looking forward in anticipation to the coming of the Kingdom, and we prepare for the time when Christ returns for his people. In Advent we sing the beautiful hymn, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”, and each week we say in the Nicene Creed: “We await His coming in Glory”. The history and the mystery.
There are several other well-loved traditions in which many participate during Advent – Such as using an Advent wreath. Here in church at the beginning of the service we light one candle the first week and add another to it each week. Many of us have Advent wreaths at home that we use each day when we pray or during our time of reflection. ……Many of us use Advent calendars – and I don’t mean the type that when you open the little window each morning you find a different piece of chocolate or a number telling how many days are left before Santa slides down the chimney. There are many types of Advent calendars available for us but if you don’t have one yet please take one of these. They are available on the table out in the narthex. This one is created each year by the Rector at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Charlestown. Each day has a Bible verse related to the drawing and phrase to use for your prayers or reflections that day.
It can be difficult to keep our minds on worship during Advent in the midst of holiday parties, shopping, and the need to put up lights and decorations. But let’s really try this year to slow all the frenzy and busyness and intentionally pay attention to some of these Advent traditions – aside from being beautiful, these traditions help us slow down and keep us focused on our worship, and on the purpose of the Advent season….they help us reflect on the history and the mystery.
In the adult forum last week we were discussing Barbara Taylor Brown’s book, “Learning to Walk in the Dark” There was a passage that struck many of us very forcefully and I’d like to read it to you as we think about taking time during Advent. A husband asks his wife,
‘How long since we have done this?’ He says….. How long since we have left our house, which we know so well, to climb a hill and sit next to each other in the dark with nothing to do but wait for the moon to rise? How long since we have sat quietly under such enormous space? ‘Twenty years,’ I say. ‘Why is that?’ he says. He and I both know why, but the answer makes me so sad that I cannot say it out loud. We have been busy. For twenty years.”
So by all means prepare for that Christmas feast, visit relatives and enjoy the giving and getting of gifts, but don’t miss the beauty of Advent. Don’t get so caught up making sure the tree is trimmed just right or with finding the perfect outfit for the Christmas party that we miss the glory of Advent.
Now there is nothing particularly profound or Earth-shattering in that message this morning. Slow down. Pay attention. Get Ready. But part of the message is much more subtle…..and that is to be aware of the NOW; to be aware of when Christ is being made known to us in the moment; to remember that just because we are looking back, and anticipating the future, does not mean that we should forget that the Kingdom of God is here, today. And we should revel in the presence of God in our world.
My brothers and sisters in Christ, we all know that life is short and we know this season of Advent will go by fast. Don’t be too busy!! – or you may miss it. This year let’s really, really try to honor and live into the spirit of Advent…..however we do that — praying with candles in a darkened room, or through meditation, or by walking the labyrinth out back that is not yet covered in snow or by using the Advent calendar.
And most importantly, let’s remember that the promise is Jesus Christ. Rejoice in the knowledge that he has come, and that he will come again…and celebrate that he is always with us, right now, right here in this time of the before and the not yet. Let us commit to living the Gospel’s message of “Keep Awake”…..Not just for this Advent season but for all of our lives. Remember last week’s Gospel? Let us see the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick and the homeless — and let us act on what we see with compassion and love as Christ teaches us. Let us see the face of Christ in each other….
So watch and be alert for where Christ is being made known to you in this crazy world right NOW? Be aware of what God is doing in your world. Think about how are you preparing to respond to it. Christ is the history and the coming mystery but Christ is here now, abiding in each and every one of us and in the relationships we have with each other. This I believe is the essence of Advent.
This season of Advent is short and goes by fast. Don’t be too busy! Stay awake – or you may miss it!
The big piece of equipment the optometrist swings in front of your face and has you look through during an eye exam is called a phoroptor. It holds all the lenses that they flip back and forth in front of your eyes as you try to read the eye chart, in order to find the best prescription of lenses for you to see clearly if you don’t naturally have 20/20 vision.
Well we need a spiritual phoropter today, because it is the last Sunday of the Church year, when we remember and celebrate Christ as our King. But as we envision Christ as King today, we need a special focus. The lenses we might use to bring into focus our world’s notion of kingly power simply don’t work for getting a clear vision of Christ as King. Christ bears little resemblance to the kings of this world. To get a clear view of Christ as King, we need to flip out the lenses of power and majesty, and flip in the lenses of humility and compassion.
In his book Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, Markus Borg argues that a rule of compassion was central to who Jesus was. He sees the crystallization of this compassion rule in one verse taken from the sixth chapter of Luke’s Gospel where Jesus commends his disciples to, “Be compassionate as God is compassionate.” And Borg argues that it is through this crystallization, this lens that we will best see Jesus for who he is: a compassionate king.
In Jesus’ own day, the dominant crystallization of the Jerusalem religious establishment was not in sync with Jesus compassion rule either. If the crystallization of Jesus message was, “Be compassionate as God is compassionate”, the crystallization of the Jerusalem religious establishment was “Be holy as God is holy”. At that time and point in history, that religious establishment understood holiness to be directly linked to keeping the purity code. This code was based on the many laws related to purity that are found in the book of Leviticus. Based on this code, the labels of “pure” and “impure” were applied to persons, places, animals and social groups in the first century Jewish world. And these classifications had significant social ramifications with regard to the valuing of people in society. Those seen as pure were imbued with a higher value than those seen as impure because the dominant theology of that time and place said the purer you are, the more like God you are. Let me just stress that this was one theological strain in Judaism that held sway at one particular moment in the history of the Jerusalem religious establishment. It is a strain of theology that is not unique to Judaism; indeed it is a strain of theology that has recurred in many different times, places and faith traditions before and since.
With this purity code as it’s predominant lens it is no wonder that the Jewish establishment of Jerusalem in Jesus’ day did not recognize Jesus as King. Jesus, though a devout Jew, was a man who blatantly broke the purity code by eating with those whose behavior deemed them as impure, such as tax collectors and prostitutes; by touching and healing those whose physical conditions deemed them impure, like lepers and the blind and lame; by keeping company with women, whose impurity came as part of their birthright. In almost everything he did, Jesus blatantly called into question the social boundaries that had been so carefully constructed by the purity code. It is no wonder that the adherents to that code did not recognize him as king. They were expecting the promised messiah and king of Israel to come as a great political ruler who would lead a regime change by overthrowing the impure gentile government of Rome that so oppressed first century Israel. The last thing they thing they were looking for was for their messiah and king to come and challenge their religious piety.
Yet Jesus did not challenge those purity code boundaries in order to mock of anger the religious establishment. Rather he did so to proclaim that God’s holiness had little to do with external forms of purity and everything to do with internal purity, which he defined as compassion. His words and actions, his living and his dying preached this, “Be compassionate as God is compassionate.”
In Hebrew the word compassion is the plural of the noun which translates into the English word womb. So to say that God is compassionate is to say that God is womb-like. And so, to seek to imitate God is to seek to be womb-like too. That is, to feel for others as a mother or father might feel for their children – in ways that are life giving, nourishing, caring, embracing, and encompassing. That is what lies at the heart of so many of Jesus’ words and actions. Even when he is being confrontational with the religious establishment he is doing so out of a desire to break open their rigid focus on purity and to lead them into a place of compassion.
But lest we get too focused on the folly of the religious establishment of that day, perhaps we should flip the lens onto ourselves. We need only look around to recognize that compassion is not the predominant lens that focuses our society. If the message, “Be compassionate as God is compassionate”, was central to Jesus, what could we say is the central message to our society? “Be successful as God is successful”? “Be powerful as God is powerful”? What is the dominant lens of our cultural phoroptor? When we look through that lens do we see Christ as king or as confronter? Do we see ourselves as sheep or as goats?
That is the question of this morning’s parable. In this parable the son of man, in the final judgment, applauds that part of the human herd that have looked out, not just for themselves but also for others – those whose vision is focused on the life of the larger community. This parable announces that social orders that are in sync with the reign of Christ are those that have a community focus at their heart. Social orders in which power and wealth are instruments used to serve the common good. Social orders in which no one is left behind. Indeed Christ does not just applaud these ways of being in the world, he says that he is to be found among those who are on the outskirts of the flock – so to serve him is to serve them.
Christ the King says:
“I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty, a stranger in your midst, naked, ill and in prison, and in my need you gave me water, clothing, comfort and friendship.” (Homilies for the Christian People, p. 176)
Christ is not some being sitting on a throne up above the sky, robed in glory and remote from us. Christ our King reaches out to us each day, in the minutia of our lives. As one eloquent preacher put it:
“Christ the king is hidden in the open hand begging for a taste of bread and a cup of water, in the struggle for justice and peace, in the lives of women and men who abandon the strategies of fear and intimidation for the politics of hope and mercy…It is there Christ reigns.” (Ibid.)
Let us pray:
Compassionate King and Shepherd, your love gives us the vision to see that we are a herd of cross-bred sheep and goats. We long to be more fully yours. Come correct us where we have gone astray, tend us, and lead us in your ways and for your most gracious purposes that we might meet you again in each other and in each person we would serve in your name! Amen+
Coordinator for Children & Youth Ministries
St. James Episcopal Church, Amesbury, MA and St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Newburyport, MA seek a Coordinator for our Children and Youth Ministries which include our K-5 and middle school church school programs, teen and young adult programs, and related children-youth-family activities. We seek a person who possesses an enthusiasm for the Christian education and spiritual formation of children and young people. It is the aim of our youth programs to nurture and develop in our young people an ever growing awareness of their relationship with God in Christ and each other through worship, scripture, fellowship and service.
Duties and responsibilities will include, but will not necessarily be limited to:
- Evaluate, supplement and implement current education programs in collaboration with trained volunteers at each church. Each church uses different curriculums presently, but there is opportunity for these to be integrated and/or supplemented under a shared Coordinator.
- Manage and coordinate programs for families with infants and young children including Cherub Church and pre-baptismal sessions.
- Plan and coordinate programs for teens including strengthening connections to the Youth Leadership Academy and Diocesan Youth Council.
- Create and manage a calendar of lessons and events for the program year.
- Coordinate trainings for volunteer teachers and assistants.
- Oversee church school registration and ongoing communications with parents and families.
- Manage budget for Christian Education Program including maintenance and purchase of supplies.
- Communicate regularly with Rector, Vestry and Parish Administrator.
- Enroll and track Safe Church Training and CORI administration.
The ideal candidate will have:
- An Associate’s degree or equivalent experience.
- Experience with teaching, classroom management, and/or youth programs.
- Excellent interpersonal skills and rapport with children, youth and families.
- Strong organizational and time management skills, with the ability to prioritize and delegate.
- Strong communication and networking skills, especially with online communications.
- Working knowledge of computer applications: Spreadsheets, documents, e-mail, etc.
- A commitment to the Christian faith and teaching, especially with children and youth.
- If not an Episcopalian, the candidate will be willing to support the basics of our tradition.
- Certification in Godly Play and/or Catechesis of the Good Shepherd is preferred, but may be obtained later.
- A CORI check and completion of Safe Church training will be required after hiring.
Time and Pay: To Apply:
Up to 19 hours a week year round, (with significant Submit resume & references to:
down time June-August). The Rev. Martha Hubbard,
$20 per hour, not to exceed $18,000 per year firstname.lastname@example.org and
The Rev. John Satula, stjames.Frjohn@verizon.net
“Whose Image is on this coin?” Jesus asked them. They were members of two groups in the religious and political establishment -that Pharisees and the Herodians. These two groups were constantly feuding with each other on the payment of taxes to Rome. Yet they had joined forces to trap Jesus who’s radical and teaching and preaching threatened to bring the wrath of Rome down upon all of them. So they went together to publicly ask him about the payment of taxes assuming that Jesus would not be able to please both of them, and would have to lose face in one way or another in front of the crowds.
“Whose image is on this coin?” he asked them. “The Emperor’s.” They answered. “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s and to God the things that are God’s.” he replied. With this answer Jesus acknowledged that Caesar should receive what is due in taxes-an answer that was sure to please the Herodians – but the rest of his answer made it plain that Caesar was not to be worshiped as a God-an answer that was bound to please the Pharisees. So neither group could argue with him. They hadn’t seen this coming. Thwack! Jesus springs their trap in such a way that it does not catch him but snaps back on those who set it. Most importantly however his words teach those who listen critical lesson about the difference between human and divine power and domain. So what can we take from what Jesus is saying to apply to our lives. What does it mean for us to give what is due to this world’s structures of power and authority, and to give to God, what is God’s?
In a commentary on this passage Biblical scholar Ralph Klein says:
“Paying taxes in our society does not have the potentially bad connotations it had in the time of Jesus. Unlike those in Roman Palestine, we have chosen our government, and it has the full legal right to tax us. We often complain about the taxes we pay, and we rightly criticize waste in government, or the excessive proportion of our taxes that goes toward the military-industrial complex. We need to be careful however, lest we participate in the cheap and trivializing joking that goes on about taxes. Taxes are a part of the social contract that holds us together as a people, and they are a recognition that many social problems or public works are so immense that they can only be approached by all of us together working for the common good. We need to give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar.”(Proclamation Series A, 1999, p. 257)
So the images of our government on our money remind us of our duty to contribute our part toward the upkeep and well-being of our whole society. We should keep this in mind as proposals for tax cuts are presented in our congress these days. And we need to ask ourselves, who would those tax cuts serve? Do they serve the whole of society? Are those most in need and at risk being served by tax cuts? If not, why not? As people of faith who seek to follow after a God who is as the Prophet Isaiah put it “ a refuge to the poor, a refuge to the needy in their distress” perhaps it is time we asked those questions of those who represent us in Washington. There are all sorts of tools available to us to do so- from pen and paper and the US postal service, to online portals to our representatives’ offices. How will we speak out in a faithful way about the taxes we pay for the health of our society?
Then there is the second part of what Jesus says in response to the Herodians and the Pharisees – “Give to God the things that are God’s”. How do we live into that statement?
Last week my I took my mom out on an errand and we ran into a friend of mine who took one look at us and said to me, “This must be your mother- you are the spitting image of her.” The coin bears the image of the leaders of the state, but physically we bear the image of our parents and our family’s genetic line, but spiritually we each bear the image of God. I love the old Jewish adage, “Before each person goes a band of angels proclaiming loudly, ‘make way for the image of God!” God’s image is emblazoned on the very core of our being. From our birth we are marked as God’s very own. And as St. Augustine of Hippo said, “God loves each of us as if we were the only one.”
When we bring children to be baptized – to receive the primary sacrament of the church – we touch on this truth, acknowledging that we need God’s loving partnership to raise up the treasure of a person who has been entrusted to our care. A child has been put into our arms and in that sacramental moment we return that child to the embrace of God in the church, thus honoring that ultimate divine imprint that will carry them farther than we ever could. Baptism reminds us to make way for the Holy Spirit’ power to work among us. And each time we are part of that sacred rite our own baptismal turning over is renewed – the turning over of our full self to God in Christ.
And as we live more deeply into that turning over of our lives and wills to God, amazing things take place. When we dare to renew this commitment daily, problems that seem insurmountable find resolution in ways we could not have predicted. We are led more and more to take a breath or a step back before charging ahead on self-will alone, and we find God leading us to do and say things that we could not have done or said on our own. It is not that we live happily ever after, but when we do our imperfect best every day to turn ourselves more fully over to the One whose image is emblazoned on the core of our being, we recognize that we never go through the hard times alone, and the joys of life we feel more deeply.
But we do not do this alone. The Christ we follow gathered followers around him and wove them into a community that has been handed down to us. We need faithful community to sustain us and to join in taking faithful action in the world. We need each other to reach out and bring comfort and relief to those who are in need around us – those who hurt or hunger in body, mind or spirit. We need each other to nurture the next generation as they grow up into the full stature of their path with Christ. We need one another to puzzle and tussle with over what it means to worship and contemplate, and take faithful steps where we live and work each day – in the nitty gritty of our lives. And we need each other to shine in this world with a light that draws others to the presence of Christ we count on in this place.
So, may we each be inspired once again to give the best of who we are back to the One from whom we came, that goodness may outweigh brokenness in this world. Part of that is of course, as we have been reminded over the last few weeks, taking time once again to stop and ask ourselves what percentage of our income God is calling us to give to this Godly work here at St. Paul’s. The tithe, or 10 % is our goal, and our individual situations and circumstances are going to help each of us to prayerfully determine what percentage we will give as a pledge for the coming year. In that process, I pray that each of us will be freed from fear of economic insecurity, and that we will find faith to step up to what we hear God calling us to.
I want to leave you with one final image that I think expresses so beautifully what God can do with and through us when we trust and give back to God our hearts, our minds, our treasures and our actions in this world. In a workshop I attended years ago in another diocese, the workshop leader had a large framed artistic rendering of the face of Christ at the front of the conference room. From where I was sitting, it looked as though it was a black and white photograph of a mosaic from some European church. Under the picture were the words, “Behold the face of God”. After a while of looking at the picture from our seats, we were invited to the front of the room to see the picture up close. It was only then that it became clear that it was not a photo of a mosaic, but rather a mosaic of photos of people’s face, arranged in such a way that the color values of each picture fit together to create the picture of Christ’s face that could be seen from a distance. The message is this – by giving ourselves to God through Christ in the church, we become precious parts of the mosaic of Christ’s face to the world. Without us the picture is not complete.
“Make way for the image of God!” The angels proclaim before each one of us, and before us as a church as we show Christ’s face to the world.
In his name. Amen+
This past week on one of those really warm sunny days I was at home in the afternoon and I opened the front door to let the warm afternoon sun stream in. This attracted both our big grey tabby cat, Honshu, and our spunky little mini dachshund, Mocha. They both circled the patch of warm sunlight on the carpet eyeing each other and the posturing began. It ended as it always does with the cat, who is at least half again as big as the dog and towers over her, planting herself smack dab in the middle of the warm sunlit patch, while the dog had to settle for a corner – a safe distance away -where she was half in the sun and half in the shade.
In the three years they have been sharing our house with each other, there have been poignant moments when they have touched noses peaceably, but those moments have been few and far between and fleeting. What I have concluded is that their ongoing conflict with each other seems to stem from the fact that they are well – a dog and a cat. Now I know that is stating the obvious, but as an adult I have never before lived with a dog and a cat, and I am now really noticing how different these two species are. Our cat, Honshu is a typical cat, as one character on a favorite sitcom put it a cat is “temperamental, unpredictable, complex and hard to read, she makes people work before she lets them in, but if they put the time in and prove they care, she opens herself up to them.” (April on Parks & Rec, Season 6 episode 7)
Our dog on the other hand is like many dogs is loyal, territorial, eager to please, very predictable, and always ready to lick your face.
But I am not giving up on the idea that they can be friends, and often when they are at a stand- off with each other I will plop myself down in the space between them on the floor – a space crackling with tension- and connect them to each other by petting each of them with one out-stretched hand. This tactic has rarely failed to changes the air, eliciting purrs and wags on either side.
Reading our passage from Philippians this week I started to think that we had misnamed these fury friends of ours. Perhaps instead of Honshu and Mocha, we should have named them Euodia and Syntyche. Paul names these two women in the outset of this passage from his letter to the church in Philippi, urging them to find unity in Christ, and further urging the community around them to find ways to bridge the gap between them. They have been co-workers with Paul – a title he reserves for those who have labored long and hard for a faith community – and clearly their conflict troubles Paul.
As it is with cats and dogs, so sometimes it is among us humans. We meet up with people we just don’t seem to be able to get along with. It may stem from a past hurt or conflict, or we may just be very different kinds of people who do not see the world from the same perspective. Now Paul could have laid it on heavy and reprimanded these two women reminding them that their unhappy divisions could have corrosive effect on the church they both labored long and hard to build, but instead he gave this advice to Euodia, Syntyche and the community around them:
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.
This is one of my favorite passages from scripture and I had never before noticed that it came as advice to faithful people who were struggling to get along with one another. I have always loved these words, but I love them even more now. As I consider people I struggle to understand or work with, these words soften my heart toward them and push me to look with gentleness toward them, noting the good features, rather than just our sticking points – is there anything that true, honorable, just, pure, commendable, excellent? This passage calls me to put my gaze there, because that shift has the power to call down the God of Peace between us, and that can change everything. But that said we often need the help of community to bridge the gap, and it is a wonderful gift when a living breathing servant of God is the instrument of God’s peace between us when we struggle to as Paul puts it, “be of one mind in the Lord”.
This powerful reading – about finding ways to honor the being of another who might seem to be playing a dog to our cat – when read in combination with the other scriptures of the day helps me take the long view of why pursuing understanding and peaceful co-existence is important. In the passage from Isaiah, we find another strong and comforting image that may be very familiar to us because it is often chosen to be read at funeral services – the feast for all people on God’s holy mountain. But this morning we hear it read in the context of what comes before it – The Prophet tells of a time when God was:
a refuge to the poor,
a refuge to the needy in their distress,
a shelter from the rainstorm and a shade from the heat.
And a time:
When the blast of the ruthless was like a winter rainstorm,
the noise of aliens like heat in a dry place,
But God has turned that around and a time for feasting has arrived. But notice it is a time for feasting for all people – not just the ones we would like to see on the guest list.
I will never forget a sermon one of my seminary professors preached to us in a chapel service during my senior year. He talked about the many images that scripture offers us of the realm of God, and how those images give us hope as we work for that realm to come. Then he said that as far as he can tell from the over-arching themes of the Bible, the thing that will likely surprise each of us most when we enter that realm is that we will be spending eternity with lots of people we had imagined would never make it there. And that he said, could be a living hell if we were not practiced in the discipline of making peace.
All of this makes me reflect on the wedding garment spoken of in the arresting parable we heard read from Matthew this morning. My bet is we will be well dressed for the banquet of the next realm and have a great time there, if here and now we can work on a spiritual garment woven of threads of acceptance, forbearance and forgiveness. And my dear co-workers in Christ if we are to prepare such a garment for ourselves we are going to need each other’s help. Let us never forget that. May our gentleness be known to everyone, the Lord is near. Amen+
Speak to our hearts and strengthen our wills O God so we may love and serve you today and always. Amen
So our first reading this morning from the Hebrew scripture, often referred to as God’s Divine Love Song, can give us whiplash: vacillating, from one voice to another voice with emotions swerving around delight, guilt, fear, confusion, rage and hope – all in 7 short verses………Isaiah was not messing around in the telling of this parable!
“Let me sing a song for my beloved.” What an amazing beginning – one that can conjure up profound images and beautiful feelings of great love for the one who is beloved. But we soon learn as we read on that all is not sweetness and light in this love story.
Isaiah, the prophet, lets us know that God is the one singing this song. He tells us, using God’s voice, that God has done all of the work required to create and then protect the environment so that a vineyard would flourish and yield plentiful grapes. But instead of a harvest heavy with succulent fruit,…..wild grapes, good for nothing but feeding scavenging birds are the result of all of God’s care and love.
Then we hear the plaintive voice of God essentially asking, “Why???? ….Why wild grapes?” And quickly God’s voice changes from that plaintive voice I hear as full of pain, sadness, and sorrow to one full of disappointment and frustration asking, “What else could I have done for there to have been grapes full of sweetness?”
The song goes on, rapidly shifting to a song filled with expressions of anger, painting a picture of judgment and vengeance and it becomes a song of terrifying, furious punishment…..ending in promises of destruction and abandonment.
And then Isaiah comes back in – in his own voice!!! summing it all up for us (in case we miss the point) by telling us that in this parable the House of Israel — the Northern Kingdom, is the vineyard of our Lord, while the people of Judah — the Southern Kingdom, constitute the planting of the vine by God. And the parable goes on to show us that the covenant between God and the people is being betrayed…….The covenant that was created when God told Moses, way-back in the day as we read in Deuteronomy, that God would bless them with many blessings and Moses said that the people would keep God’s commandments. Isaiah, tells us that with that covenant God expected righteousness and justice from the people and now, instead, God was receiving the fruits of a broken promise.
Now I don’t know about you, but I don’t like stories like this of a vengeful God — a God who metes out punishment in return for bad behavior. But isn’t that what we read here in Isaiah?
Some love song!
While I was in school, a number of us would sit about in the evenings talking, trying to understand, with each other’s help, some of those theological or spiritual issues we inevitably had to grapple with, trying to make sense of them. One of the concepts we often grappled with was this idea of a vengeful God, a God who punished and exacted retribution. One of the things we discussed was that the Hebrew prophets’ use of parables was very different from how Jesus used parables — the parables we are probably a little more familiar with. Jesus’ parables were usually about furthering the understanding about God’s Kingdom – of spreading the Good News……but, the Hebrew prophets’ parables served a different purpose.
The prophets were great at using parables that did not evoke good feelings…..Their parables usually caused the people of their time to unwittingly condemn themselves and their own behavior…..so that they would finally see the devastating consequences that would occur if they did not change. The prophets in the Hebrew scripture were not fortune tellers or soothsayers as we so often think when we hear the word prophet; rather, they were messengers of and from God who explained, clarified or reframed situations. They used parables to paint pictures that said, “This is what will happen if you keep doing what you are doing – so wake up and change — so it won’t happen that way!” So, just because this lesson reads as if God was causing catastrophic, revengeful events to overcome God’s people, G’sod beloved, it doesn’t mean that those outcomes were inevitable.
And let’s step back a bit and look at what was going on at this time in history……Before we come upon Isaiah in this morning’s reading, we have 4 chapters that tell us all about the sinful, corrupt ways of the people of Israel and now we learn that Judah is headed the same sinful direction. And Isaiah, being a messenger using God’s voice, is saying to the vineyard and grapes, “Stop this or things won’t be good – this is not how you promised me, your God, you would behave”. Isaiah’s prophetic voice is giving the warning that the love of God and love of neighbor are no longer the center of the people’s lives, that the people have forgotten the covenant they made with God during Moses’ time — and that they had better shape up!!
During one of those evenings sitting around at school trying to figure this all out, a colleague said that she always thought of these types of passages as God’s way of showing us that there was a reset button available to us — that God was metaphorically cleaning the slate, thereby letting people start over when they had messed up.
Reset…… It became a code word for us used in conjunction with this action – reset (do it) as if we were pushing a button. Whenever we came upon this type of passage, one of us would say, “Reset”…. and after a while we would just make the motion (Do it) knowing what it meant to us. Our instructors were very confused one class when a number of us simultaneously suddenly pushed an imaginary button. It spread into our daily lives as well…frequently one of us would say to another, “Reset”, or just make the motion, and we’d stop and examine what was happening that might not have been what God expected or desired of us. To this day, I find myself often telling myself, “Reset.”
At the end of the parable Isaiah tells us that God desired and expected justice and righteousness – God expected the people would love one another and would love God and would carry out God’s work and uphold justice. But we know from those first 4 chapters that the people of our parable’s day weren’t in right relationship with each other or with God. They weren’t being just or righteous. And In order to do God’s work, they needed to be in right relationship, or at least trying to be.
And what about us in our day? What about us and our right relationship with God and with each other? Are we in right relationship? What about our social, political, economic and legal systems? – the systems we are all a part of creating?
Let’s ask those questions in the light of our most recent national tragedy — Is it righteous that there are 323 million people in the US and there are 283 million guns in the hands of civilians? Is it righteous that 4.5 million more guns are purchased each year? Is it just that approximately 30,000 people die from gun violence, including suicides, in the United States a year? 30,000 people…..that is close to double the population of Newburyport. How righteous is it that we have a legal system where a semi-automatic gun can be purchased —- and then modified into a fully automatic weapon of mass murder using a kit purchased from the internet for just $99? How just is it that ammunition is created and used, not only to kill, but to cause maximum pain and suffering through unbelievable damage to the human body? How do we fare when we ask ourselves those questions? How do we fare when we look at other systems in our world or in our personal lives? Sometimes pretty good…sometimes mediocre and sometimes pretty awful? ………. Have we really examined our own individual and collective fruit lately?
And if we find it to be pretty awful, what then? What do we do then? Do we explain away the shortcomings in our personal interactions? Do we turn the radio down or the TV off because we have become resigned or numb to the horrors of our systems? I suspect we sometimes come to church to escape harsh realities of our lives…..and that’s OK…….but sometimes as Christians, we must reflect on the regularity those unjust tragedies like mass murder….of how we as a people fail. Do we listen for a prophetic voice to point out areas we need to change…to guide us to action that changes what is not righteous, not just? Who are our prophets? Who in our lives do we listen to who will tell us when we need to hit the reset button? An old friend, a spiritual advisor, a family member, the Bishops against gun violence? Do we take the time during our noisy day to listen for God’s voice? In today’s world taking the opportunities around us for things like contemplative prayer, quiet reflection or long walks, can be so necessary for us to allow those voices to enter into our awareness and help us know how to change.
This lesson is a story about God creating, tending and nurturing us. So yes, this is a story about God’s overwhelming love for all of us as individuals and as a community. And it is a story of that love being spurned by the beloved. But no matter how badly we behave, how often we spurn God’s love, we have Jesus to embrace us. God gave us the ultimate reset button. Jesus. As Br. James Koester, one of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist brothers wrote, “No matter how many times we reject God’s love, no matter how many times we as individuals turn our backs on God’s love, no matter how many times we as a community spurn God’s love, no matter how many times we as a church scorn God’s love, God always, in the person of Jesus stretches out his arms of love on the hard wood of the cross longing to embrace us and bring us home.”
Yes, this parable is a love song from God to God’s people, from God who delights in God’s vineyard. A god who doesn’t just write off those who don’t live up to his expectations and desires. What a gift from God Isaiah was delivering…..to be able to see that a change needed to happen and that the reset button could still be hit… It is a love song from God to God’s Beloved, to us, God’s cherished.
And it is a gift that is just as available for us to unwrap today as it was for the people of Isaiah’s day………………… if only we listen for the prophetic voice, accept the gift and hit the reset button.
Please God. Amen