Singing after Silence: A Sermon for Advent 2C, December 5, 2021

Of all the things the pandemic has deprived me of, deprived us as humans, as members of a congregation, none may be more significant than the loss of song. From the early days, when we learned of the rapid spread of covid among choir singers, we have remained largely silent in church—the rich hymnody of the Christian tradition, which speaks to and for us and our faith, has been laid aside except for halting attempts like virtual choirs or our zoom hymn sings when we gather virtually to raise our voices. But the sheer joy and emotional depth that comes from singing together has been largely absent from our worship. We are slowly, haltingly, reintroducing hymns to our worship, but at the same time we recognize the challenges we face when we do sing.

Still, as Mark and Berkley know, I refused to go through a second Advent without singing “Lo, he comes with clouds descending” which will be our closing hymn today at our later service. 

Song has been a central part of Christian worship from the beginning, as it was and remains for Judaism—evidenced in the presence of the Book of Psalms in our holy scripture. 

Today, we sang the Song of Zechariah as our psalm or response. It’s one of four songs that Luke includes in his story of the nativity.  One of those songs, the Gloria, sung by the angels when they appeared to the shepherds, has traditionally been a central part of our Eucharistic celebrations. The other songs appear regularly in the daily office, morning and evening prayer: the Song of Mary, the Magnificat, the song of Simeon, the nunc dimittis, which is sung at Evening Prayer, and the Benedictus, the Song of Zechariah, which we just said together.

These songs likely were not composed by Luke, but were taken and adapted by him from songs that Christians were already singing in their worship. Whether or not they come from the people or angels, in whose mouths Luke placed them, they reflect an even deeper tradition for all of them are bathed in the language, imagery, and poetry of Jewish worship and Hebrew scriptures. 

Still it’s important to pay attention to the context and to the lips where Luke places these songs. In Zechariah’s case, he hadn’t been able to sing, or speak for nine months. You may recall the story. Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth were elderly, childless. Zechariah was a priest. The story goes that he was chosen by lot to enter the sanctuary and offer incense, quite likely a great honor and probably the only time he did it in his life, and while he was there by himself, the angel Gabriel appeared to him and promised that he and Elizabeth would have a child. Zechariah was rather skeptical about the probability of this ever happening, and when he expressed his doubts, Gabriel struck him speechless for the duration of the pregnancy. 

The child was born and on the 8th day, as he was about to be circumcised, and still speechless, Zechariah wrote out instructions that the baby should be named John. As soon as he did that, his voice returned and he began to praise God. Luke continues, “Then his father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke this prophecy.” 

For nearly two years, our voices have remained silent of song. We have been able to speak, unlike Zechariah who remained totally silent for nine months. Now, I can’t imagine being silent for nine months, and I can’t imagine that after nine months of silence, the first thing I would do would be to praise God. But I do know this about silence, that it allows us to think and reflect before we speak, and with nine months of silence, and uncertainty about whether the silence was just temporary as Gabriel said, or would be permanent, I think I probably would think carefully, very carefully about what words I would speak when the ability to speak came back.

But Luke doesn’t say that this song was the product of careful reflection and composition over the course of nine months. He offers a rather different account of its composition—Zechariah, Luke says, was filled with the Holy Spirit and began to prophesy. This prophecy, this Spirit-filled song, fairly bursts with scriptural allusions. It’s as if Zechariah, having nine months of silence to reflect on his experience and on his promised son, has internalized all of salvation history, the whole story of scripture, and recasts it in light of the hope he now has. 

It’s fitting that the name Zechariah means “God remembers” for Zechariah sings of God’s remembering God’s people. Zechariah sings of God’s promises, to raise up a mighty nation, to save “us”—Zechariah includes himself in this promise of salvation—from our enemies; to show mercy to our fathers; to set us free to worship God without fear.

In the last section of the psalm, Zechariah turns to the promises embodied in his own son, John the Baptist, who would be the prophet, not only of God’s promises, but also prepare the way for the one who was still to come, the one who would usher in God’s reign. 

This one, Zechariah’s son, John the Baptist, would be a harbinger, a sign of that which was to come, the dawn of salvation, not salvation itself. John offered hope and pointed away from himself to the Christ. But through him, we begin to see, recognize, and experience “the tender compassion of our God.” That lovely phrase not only evokes images of a mother embracing her new-born child, as the joyful and incredulous Elizabeth was likely cradling her infant son John, it also invites us to imagine God’s maternal, nurturing love for us and for all creation, a love we experience and know in and through Christ’s love for us. 

“Tender compassion” reminds as well that God’s love and mercy for us, as powerful as it may be, is also an invitation, not an imposition. It requires us to pay attention, to be vulnerable and open, to allow ourselves to see and experience that tender compassion in spite of the noise and violence of our world. Like the breaking dawn that we see only if we ourselves are already awake, and if we lift our eyes away from ourselves and our concerns to the horizon, God’s tender compassion is easily overlooked, missed in the noise of all that competes for our attention. God’s tender compassion is a melody played on a single note, not the cacophony of a rock band in a stadium.

Zechariah sang his song after nine months of silence, imposed on him as punishment by Gabriel. Song has largely been absent from our voices, our lives over the last couple of years and our lives have been less rich because of it—our spiritual experience perhaps less full, less rich because of our inability to sing.

And the world may make us feel like we cannot sing. We may feel hopelessness, despair, oppression as the world around us careens from one disaster to the next. Images and stories from across the globe make real the suffering of our fellow humans, the fact that like Zechariah, they too, cannot open their mouths to sing, or if they do, their songs are laments or the blues.

Such songs can also be prophesies—they can call us out of our complacency, our stupor, our self-deception. They can wake us to the pain and suffering of the world around us; they can also, like Zechariah’s inspire us to action and to hope. 

God’s tender compassion comes to us in many ways and in many forms. May we pay attention, open our ears to hear its sweet melody, and may it help our hearts sing as we experience God’s mercy and salvation.

Our redemption has drawn near: A Sermon for Advent 1C, 2021

November 28, 2021

What a couple of weeks it’s been! The shock of the Rittenhouse verdict; the carnage in Waukesha last weekend, during which the good people of St. Matthias led by the rector David Simmons, opened their doors to offer refuge and comfort to victims and bystanders. Then this week the convictions for murder of the defendants in the murder of Ahmad Aubery. And even as we were trying to observe the annual rituals of Thanksgiving, Good Friday, and the end of the college football regular season, news of a new and worrisome COVID variant threatening to upend our lives once again.

We continue to struggle, individually, as a community, a nation, a world, with ongoing pandemic and our deep desires to return to the world and the lives we had two years ago. News of the omicron variant sent shockwaves through the financial system on Friday, and I daresay, has caused many of us to worry again what the future, the next weeks may hold for us, even as we look ahead to Christmas and other holiday plans that were beginning to look rather like celebrations of past years.

With all of that on my mind, I didn’t have the fortitude to go back through my past sermons on Advent I, to remind myself of past years, of the themes I stressed. For me, the beginning of Advent has usually been a wonderful moment in my personal spiritual life and in the life of the congregations of which I’ve been a part. There’s the excitement of the build-up towards Christmas but more than that, the central themes of the season: waiting, watching, hope have tended to strengthen my faith in Christ’s coming—not only at Christmas but on the Last Day, and strengthen my resolve to look for signs of his coming, and his presence already in the world around us and in my life. 

But this year, I feel like I’ve had enough of waiting. Haven’t we all been waiting, for nearly two years, for life to return to some semblance of normal? Is it possible to maintain hope in the face of all that’s going on in the world? 

How do we make sense of it all? How do we enter Advent this year with all of this uncertainty, fear, and, let’s face it, sheer exhaustion? I don’t have answers for you—I think asking these questions, wondering how to prepare for Christ’s coming, how to open ourselves to his presence in the world, experiencing his entrance into a world like ours all that pondering search; well, that all maybe Advent discipline enough for now.

Still, as I reflect on our readings and collect, there’s something that intrigues me this year. As I was thinking about today’s sermon, something a commentator wrote caused me to stop and ponder. They said something to the effect that the gospel reading in Advent begins with a focus on time expanding outward, toward the Second Coming, and over the course of the four weeks, time begins to slow down, to shorten, until we come (this is me, not the commentator) to the moment of Gabriel announcing to Mary the coming of the Savior of the World in her body.

There’s something profound in that observation that says something about the Gospel of Luke and about us. We are in Year C of the lectionary, when we read the Gospel of Luke which has a very different tone, and certainly different perspective on time, than the Gospel of Mark which we read this past year. If there’s a single word that describes Mark’s attitude toward time, it is “Immediately” one of the most common words in the gospel, often used to introduce a new scene or episode. There’s an urgency to Mark’s gospel, a sense that everything is happening at a break-necked pace. And that extends to his perspective on Christ’s second coming, which as you heard last Sunday, Mark seems to have expected to happen very soon, in his lifetime.

 Luke has a very different tone. As we will see again and again throughout the coming year. The story he tells is not limited geographically in scope to Galilee and Jerusalem, as with Mark. Instead, Luke puts the story of Jesus in a global context. He begins by contextualizing his story in the Roman Empire, and ends the Book of Acts, the second volume of his work, with St. Paul’s arrival in Rome. 

Even here, in this text, Luke ratchets down Mark’s urgency. Whether it’s because he’s writing at a later date, further removed from the events described in the text, Luke’s version of Jesus’ words lack the intensity of Mark’s.

We are actually hearing from Luke’s version of verses taken from the same episode in Mark’s gospel that we heard last week, the so-called Little Apocalypse. Both gospel writers place in Jesus’ mouth in the last days of his life as he is teaching in and around the temple. He predicts the destruction of that very temple, an event that would take place some forty years after Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. It was a cataclysmic event both for Judaism and for Christianity.

Mark was very likely written shortly after the temple’s destruction, and his version of this apocalypse shows urgency and immediacy. Luke, writing at least 15 years later, has a longer perspective. Clearly, the destruction of the temple did not inaugurate Christ’s return, so Luke leaves out references to wars and rumors of wars, references to people fleeing the destruction and fleeing persecution. Instead, he mentions signs in the skies and stars, and in the seas, nothing so specific as an earthquake.

Luke’s version may not seem quite so urgent, but there is desperation, nonetheless. The language used is evocative—“People will faint from fear and foreboding”—we might also say, it is enough to take one’s breath away, feelings we are familiar with these days.

But in the midst of these signs, all is not lost. There is hope. God’s reign is still entering into the world, still coming. Our redemption is drawing near. 

Over the course of the next weeks, as we move back from nearly the end of Jesus’ life to the beginning, and before, time will contract; the scope of Luke’s story will narrow to Bethlehem, and to the coming of Christ into the world. Our focus may narrow as well, as the business of the season, the world-historical events swirling around us give way to the intimate rituals of family, friends, and community.

But those small, intimate moments bear witness to the larger truth—that Christ’s coming into the world ushers in a new age—God’s reign of justice and peace. And signs of that coming are not just in scripture, or in re-enacted stories but in the world around us.

Our redemption draws near. Even when it seems most unlikely, when things seem to be at their worst, when there are signs in the skies and in the seas, when the powers of the heavens seem to shake, and we cower in desperate fear, there are signs of God’s coming reign. 

Our redemption draws near. There is hope for all who live on the face of the earth. This Advent, even as we struggle with all of the world’s ills, struggle with pandemic, with injustice, oppression, and racism, when all seems lost and the world seems to be spiraling into chaos, our redemption draws near. 

May this Advent be a season when our hope is rekindled like the candles of advent wreaths are lit; when our faith is strengthened and our eyes opened to see those signs of Christ’s coming, signs of God’s reign breaking in upon us, signs of God’s future entering into our present. 

A Disrupted Advent: A Homily for Advent 4B, 2020

It’s a familiar story. They are words we’ve heard many times year after year. A story depicted in countless paintings; gestures and words mimicked in devotional practices. It has settled into our memory like other stories that have shaped us—stories told in our families that seem to capture something of the essence of who we are and where we came from; stories of our nation, mythic stories that define us. Such stories are often so familiar, so beloved, their meaning so fixed in our memory that we rarely explore them more deeply.

There’s so much we don’t know about this story; so much more we want to know. We don’t know who Mary was, not really. We don’t know how old she was, although it’s likely she was a teenager. In first century Palestinian Judaism, girls were often betrothed at age 12 or so, and married no later than 19 or 20. We don’t know, can’t imagine, what this encounter, this new reality did to her. The gospels are largely silent about what she does later in life, about her response to her son. John tells us that she was present at the crucifixion; Luke says she was among the group of disciples that gathered in Jerusalem after the ascension, and presumably right through to Pentecost. Tradition has filled out the story. Theological reflection and devotional creativity have answered questions raised by Christians for 2000 years.

We have this story. A young woman, her life suddenly disrupted by the appearance of an angel; her world shattered and remade by events out of her control. That we know something about. So many of our certainties, so much of our lives have been disrupted over the last nine months; who could have imagined back in March that we would be here, the pandemic still raging, our lives on hold, fear, and weariness, and anger, still overwhelming us? Exhausted, fearful, the lives we led, the world we lived in nine months ago seem distant memories, faint whisps of dream we once had, with no connection to reality in which now live. Our hopes for the future cling by a slender thread. Oh, yes, we know what disrupted worlds and lives are like.

An angel came to Mary, saying “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” Her world upended, first by the very appearance of an angel.. And then came more, that she would bear a child who would be the Savior of the world.  

I’m always fascinated by her response to the angel. First, when he appears to her and greets her, Luke she was perplexed and wondered what sort of greeting this might be—perplexed and wondering, not by the appearance of the angel to her, which would no doubt shock and surprise us, but by his greeting, by him calling her “Favored one.” And then when told the rest, she asks the question, “How can this be?” 

The tradition of devotion and theology, and perhaps going back to Luke himself, has tended to portray Mary as a passive recipient of God’s grace and favor, as someone who accepted her fate quietly, submissively. Often she has served as a role model for passive, submissive femininity, and certainly in Luke’s gospel, she functions as something of the ideal disciple, one who follows meekly and obediently.

But here we see something else. Surprise, wonder, questions. Mary’s faith is not that passive, unquestioning faith. She wants to know more, she wants to understand. And then, in the midst of her disrupted world and disrupted life, something else. We know the scandal of unplanned, unwanted pregnancies, of teenaged mothers left on their own with no resources, forced to struggle to provide for themselves and their little ones. We can imagine how hard it would have been for a teenager in first-century Palestine, with all of the shame and stigma, traces of which remain in the accounts of Joseph’s response to the news of Mary’s pregnancy. We can, I think, imagine the fear, the future she imagined as she heard the angel’s words.

But can we imagine also the hope? In the middle of this disruption to her world and to her life, Mary visits her elderly cousin and during that visit, sings a song that has echoed throughout history down to our day:

My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior 

He has shown the strength of his arm, *
he has scattered the proud in their conceit.

He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, *
and has lifted up the lowly.

He has filled the hungry with good things, *
and the rich he has sent away empty.

And while it has become a song of pious devotion, it is a profound prophecy of God’s power, justice, and mercy. It is a song of hope in the midst of fear, hope for justice in the midst of oppression, a cry of resistance against the forces of evil and inequality.

Mary is an example for us. In the midst of our disrupted and upended lives and world, nothing seems the same, and our wishes for a return to normalcy, to turn the clock back nine months or a year, or simply an exhausted desire to ignore what’s happening around us and get on with our lives, when we are beaten down, Mary is an example for us.

We can’t know what her life was like, what she thought or felt. But we know her faith, her hope. We know the God in whom she trusted. And the words she sang can become our own as we hope for a new world, a better future, for ourselves, our nation and world. 

Into our disrupted world, into our disrupted lives, Christ is coming. The angel’s greeting comes to us and in that greeting, in Mary’s song, we may find strength and hope for the coming months. The world being brought into being by Christ’s coming, is a world disrupted by God’s justice and mercy, where the mighty have fallen, the hungry are filled with good things and the rich are sent away empty. 

Mary sings of and shows us the world as God intends it, a just and equitable world, not the old world of wishful thinking and faint memories. Mary points us toward the future, a future full of hope, a future where God reigns. May we raise our voices with Mary, in hope and faith that God is with us now and reigns in justice and mercy.

Returning from Exile: A Homily for Advent 3B

Advent 3       

December 13, 2020

Advent Exile

December 7, 2014

We are now observing the Third Sunday of Advent. It is known as Gaudete Sunday, a Sunday of joy. In many churches, the purple or blue vestments that are used throughout Advent give way to rose or pink vestments. And the dominant themes of the season—repentance in preparation for the coming of Christ at Christmas and at the second Coming, give way to rejoicing. We don’t make the change in liturgical colors, but as you can see, our advent wreath includes a rose-colored candle to represent this Third Sunday.

This theme of joy comes out especially in the first reading and the psalm today. Both texts speak to our own situation as well, because as you probably know the first doses of a covid vaccine are being shipped today, signifying that our struggle with the pandemic may be coming to an end. At the same time, experts warn that there are dark, difficult times ahead.

Both of those texts, Psalm 126 and Isaiah 61 reflect the experience of God’s people in exile in Babylon. The Psalm speaks of God restoring the fortunes of Zion, of people who left weeping, return in joy. The prophet speaks of God providing for those in Zion, replacing their mourning with a garland. He speaks also of building up the ancient ruins and repairing the ruined cities.

Exile is an image that may resonate powerfully in this season. Forced from our churches, our downtown nearly abandoned, having to give up many of our cherished activities and familiar routines, we are in exile physically, but also spiritually and psychologically. We feel profoundly dislocated from our community, our friends and family, even perhaps, from ourselves. We are disoriented, longing for return. And now, we may be able to see an end to all of this. Our hope is rekindled even as the number of those suffering and dying continues to rise. 

Advent speaks to that longing, of hope in the midst of difficult times. As the year comes to a close, the days shorten and grow cold, the candles we light each week seem to be an act of defiance, a statement of faith that the light coming into the world, shining in the darkness, will overcome the forces of evil. It is a hope expressed in our faith that the one coming into the world, the Word made flesh is at work making all things new, even when chaos and evil seem to be overwhelming everything. 

Our faith this season, our waiting, our hope, is not passive. It must participate in the work that God in Christ is doing here among us. That’s the message of the prophet, who proclaims those powerful, familiar words, echoed by Jesus himself in his first public sermon in the Gospel of Luke:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me

because the Lord has anointed me; 

he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the brokenhearted, 

to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners; 

to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,

This is the work that God in Christ is accomplishing, the work that we ourselves are called to. And in this season of struggle, of waiting and hope, it is work that we may want to defer or ignore because of all that is going on around us and in our personal lives. 

We have, I think, been tempted to focus on ourselves, on our fears and on all that we have lost—and we must, as we say that, recognize that many of us have lost a great deal indeed, loved ones, jobs and livelihoods, our hopes for the future, a sense of security. As we have seen in the runup to the election, and now in the weeks since, the anger and fear, the emotions surrounding all of that loss have driven deep in our individual and national psyches, heightened division, led to violence.

But even as we have tended to focus on ourselves, it is important to pay attention to the words of scripture this week, to the prophet’s call for justice, to bind up the broken-hearted, liberty to the captives, to rebuild the city. He was talking about Jerusalem, of course, the desolate city that the returning exiles would encounter. But our city is not so very different, with its deep inequities and injustice, with its boarded up windows and abandoned restaurants and retail establishments. As we return in the coming months, to the downtown and to our church, we must not lose sight of the work we need to do to advocate and struggle for a more just and equitable downtown, where all are welcome and may flourish.

As we think about our return, we would do well to heed the example set by John the Baptist in today’s gospel reading. When asked if he was the Messiah, he repeatedly denied it, and directed attention away from himself toward the one who was coming into the world, Jesus Christ. John was a witness; his proclamation, his testimony was not about himself but about Christ. His repeated denials, his pointing away from himself to another, is a powerful witness to us in our age.

Among everything else we see in our culture today, in our highly individualistic, perhaps even narcissistic culture, is an emphasis on the individual, on the individual’s rights. We are bombarded with images from politics, from culture, from social media of people who go out of their way to bring attention to themselves, make everything about them. What, after all, is a “social influencer” if not someone who is marketing themselves? In our response the pandemic, in the debates and conflicts over masks, or public gatherings, even worship, the rights of the few are often privileged over the needs of the many. 

But John shows us a different way. His popularity, his notoriety, brought him attention, brought the religious elite to him to question him. And when questioned, he bore witness, not to himself, but to Jesus. 

Even when we want to do the work to which God calls us, advocating for justice, feeding the hungry, binding up the broken-hearted, we may often do it for reasons that are as much about ourselves as they are about the needs of others or following the teachings of Jesus. 

But John shows us a different way. It’s not about us. It’s about Jesus. In our work for justice, in our efforts to help our fellow human beings, our priority must always be to point the way to Jesus. As we look ahead to our return to the city, as we look ahead to Christ’s coming, may our longing, our waiting, our searching point us to Christ, and help us point others to him as well.

What shall I preach? A sermon for Advent 2B, 2020

Advent 2       

December 6, 2020

What Shall I preach?

December 7, 2014

Whenever I read the Isaiah text, I find myself reading it in the cadences of Handel’s Messiah, the beautiful Tenor aria that begins that oratorio. I have no idea how many times I have heard that music; it was an annual accompaniment to Christmas throughout my childhood and youth. Although it’s been years since I’ve attended or sung in a performance of it, the music remains in my memory. 

I’m fascinated by the different ways in which we encounter and interpret scripture. Take Messiah, for example. If you’re familiar with it, it’s very hard not to hear it when you read, or listen to, the scriptures that Handel set to music. There’s a sense in which the music has shaped our experience and interpretation of the texts. 

That makes our experience of Advent this year especially difficult. The familiar hymns are heard only in recording, we try to remember what it was like to join our voices with hundreds of others, or the sheer joy of attending holiday performances of favorite works. Our celebrations are muted, or transformed as we focus our efforts more intimately at home, with family and friends.

Music interprets texts; texts interpret texts. In the gospel reading, Mark draws on the language from Isaiah 40 to make it relevant for his own day. The words from Isaiah helped him to understand John the Baptist, “the voice of one crying in the wilderness,” and Jesus, especially Jesus. The reading from Isaiah includes the verses: 

Get you up to a high mountain, 

O Zion, herald of good tidings; 

lift up your voice with strength, 

O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, 

lift it up, do not fear; 

say to the cities of Judah, 

“Here is your God!” 

It’s imagery Mark picks up and uses for his own purposes, although our translations don’t make that clear. Mark tells us “The beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ” Good news, good tidings, Gk euangelion, also translated as “gospel.” Mark is identifying himself, and John the Baptist, with the one who climbs the high mountain and proclaims the good news, “Here is your God!” Mark is looking back to Isaiah and to other biblical stories as he attempts to convey to his readers the urgency and significance of the good news. 

Mark’s John is not only a voice crying in the wilderness, drawing on themes from Isaiah. In his depiction of John, Mark reaches even further back, to the legendary figure of Elijah, depicting John in the very same terms that the prophet Elijah was depicted, wearing camel skins and with a belt around his waist. By the first century, Elijah had become much more than a figure from Israel’s ancient history. There were fervent hopes that he would return, and when he did, he would usher in the messianic age. In the gospel of Mark, both John and Jesus are mistaken for Elijah.

Mark uses all of this imagery from the Hebrew bible to impress upon his readers that the long period of waiting and anticipation is nearing its end. Israel’s hopes for God’s inbreaking into history are coming true. Mark is a herald of Good Tidings, a proclaimer of the good news. And the good news is “Here is your God!”

But there are other ways, other contexts, in which we interpret and read scripture. Primary among those other contexts is the situation in which we find ourselves. Covid case numbers are skyrocketing and the number of deaths reaching unimaginable totals, almost 3000 reported on Friday. At the same time, our mental and emotional exhaustion with the social distancing requirements meaning many of us are giving up, what words of comfort and consolation, what message of hope can be offered?

When I read those words from Isaiah, “A voice said, ‘Cry out!’ And I said, ‘What shall I cry?’” The prophet’s words become my own. Like so many, I struggle to make sense of what we’ve learned about our nation in these past weeks and months. I struggle too, to find words that can express honestly and faithfully my own heartbreak and what I think the good news of Jesus Christ might be in this moment.

For Isaiah, the question, “What shall I cry?” is part of a standard call narrative. That is to say, here, as elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible, when God calls someone, there is often resistance. Remember Moses, called by God at the burning bush, responded that he wasn’t an eloquent speaker. Other prophets resisted God’s call. Jonah, for example, traveled in the opposite direction in order to avoid the responsibility God gave him. Here, the prophet’s question is followed by his observation that prophetic utterances don’t matter—human beings are weak and fickle; they come and they go like grass that flowers and then turns brown.

We know the futility about which the prophet speaks. We know the disappointment of dreams and justice deferred. We know a world in which the hopes of an earlier age have faded in the face of what seem to be insurmountable problems. In our own lives, we know the routine grind of daily life, our hopes for a brighter future crushed by economic realities, social change, illness, or personal failure. We know the grief we should be feeling, the extraordinary we should be taking, the exhaustion and despair that have set in.

We do know hope. Mark proclaims, “the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ. Isaiah is told, “Get up to a high mountain … say to the cities of Judah, ‘Here is your God’!” Our hope is that God is here among us; that we are God’s agents, helping to bring God’s reign into being in our world. 

We also know comfort and consolation. In the midst of the disappointments and pain in our personal lives, in the midst of a world where injustice and violence seem to have free reign, the prophet’s words come to us, reminding us that in the midst of all our struggle and pain, God is present as well, that God’s love and grace sustain and surround us. The prophet’s image of God as shepherd, feeding and protecting the flock assures us of God’s protection and care in the midst of everything.

Advent is a time of waiting as we eagerly anticipate the coming of the Christ child. Advent is a season of discernment as we look for signs of God’s grace in the midst of a dark world. Advent is a season of hope as we look forward to Christ’s coming among us and as we prepare ourselves to receive him in our hearts and in our world. Advent calls us to kindle our faith as its candles are lit. Advent urges us to get up on a high mountain and shout aloud, “Here is your God!” May we respond to that call and offer words of comfort and consolation to our hurting world.

Don’t look back, don’t look ahead, look around: A Sermon for Advent 1A, 2020

Advent 1       

November 29, 2020

Here we are, beginning the season of Advent, observing it in ways none of us has ever done before, looking ahead to a Christmas season that will be equally unsettling in the compromises we will have to make because of the pandemic’s continued presence among us. Our joy and excitement are tempered by fear, exhaustion, and the ongoing sense of isolation—from our church, our friends and loved ones, from the rituals that have offered us such great comfort and to which we look forward each year at this time.

It’s enough to make us want to cry with the prophet, “Oh, that you would tear open the heavens and make the mountains shake!” We want deliverance from all of this; we look for solutions—vaccines, political leadership, magic bullets, that will remove all of our hardship and anxiety, and return things to normal.

In our present circumstances, the themes of Advent, as expressed in today’s gospel reading may provide less comfort and consolation, than increase our anxiety and exhaustion. In our struggles, it might be helpful to remind ourselves of the situations in which the gospels were written; in this case, Mark in particular.

The first Sunday in Advent is the beginning of the liturgical year, and the cycle of our readings switches. This year, we will be reading from the Gospel of Mark, which most scholars agree was the first of the gospels to be written. And it was written in difficult circumstances indeed. Around the year 70, so about 40 years after Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. The gospel reflects the challenges those 40 years presented. During his public ministry, Jesus repeatedly announced the coming of God’s reign, and proclaimed that he would soon return in majesty to usher in that reign of justice and peace. But 40 years had passed and Jesus’ followers saw no signs of that coming. As I mentioned a few weeks ago, this delay constituted something of a crisis of faith for the early Christian community.

Another factor was emerging as the gospel was written. In 66 ce, Jewish revolutionaries had taken up arms against the Roman occupation. Early successes had led to Rome’s vicious crackdown. We don’t know whether Mark was written immediately before, or in the immediate aftermath of Rome’s re-conquest of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Jewish temple, but we know that this turn of events created crisis both for the emergent Christian community and for Judaism. 

The destruction of the temple was catastrophic for Judaism of the day. I used to say to my students that we couldn’t imagine what it meant emotionally, psychologically, and religiously to the Jews of the day. But now, I think we may have some sense of the significance of that cataclysmic event. Having been prevented from public worship, from gathering in this familiar place regularly, we have been forced to reimagine, reinvent our worship and our common life. And we have had to do that in the midst of our frustration and anger that we are not able to gather, that the old rituals and spaces are unavailable. We have spent a great deal of our time and energy in lament, mourning, and anger; looking back to the past, rather than forward into the uncertain future.

It’s in this context, to this moment, that Mark is writing his gospel. In this context, in this moment, we are beginning once again to observe Advent. Mark speaks to us, now, in our context, in this moment. We may be looking back to the past, to Advents and Christmases of years past, wishing we could easily recreate them without worry or concern for our safety. We might even, as so many are doing, observe them this year as we have in the past, throwing caution to the wind and endangering ourselves, our loved ones, our community. Our we might put everything on hiatus, put our lives and our celebrations on hold for a safer time. We can see all of those responses hinted at in the gospel reading. 

But there’s something else.

At the very end of our gospel reading we hear the following:

Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, (Mk13:35)

Those time references, evening, midnight, cockcrow, or dawn, will appear again, in the next two chapters of Mark, which contain the story of Jesus’ arrest, trial, and crucifixion. I don’t think that’s an accident. I think Mark intends to make the connection, for there elements here in chapter 13 that reappear in the passion narrative, the darkening of the sun, for example.

What’s going on? Well, to begin with, the Greek word that is usually translated or interpreted to mean the Second Coming is “parousia” which literally means “presence.” What Mark is doing is trying to reorient our perspective away from a focus on the future, second coming. He wants to draw our attention to all the ways that the world has already changed by the coming of Jesus; all the ways the world has changed by Christ’s death and resurrection. And of course, because of the resurrection Jesus Christ is present among us now—the Parousia has already occurred.

But what might all of that mean for us, this Advent? We are inclined to think of this season as a time of preparation for Christmas. Often that means little more than a liturgical imitation of what we’re doing in real life, decorating our homes, buying presents, making holiday plans. 

But I think there’s something else. While Mark has Jesus say “They will see the Son of Man coming in the clouds and with great glory” Mark has something else in mind. For Mark, the most important, clearest evidence that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God came in his crucifixion. That was the first time a human being confessed Jesus to be the Son of God. 

For Mark we see Jesus’ identity, his divinity, not in his power but in his weakness, in his willingness to be crucified. 

We live in a difficult time, where it very much does seem as if things are going from bad to worse, and we can’t see how bad they will get. We live in a time when the loudest voices in Christianity proclaim a message that has almost nothing to do with the Jesus of the gospels; it’s a Christianity connected with political power and nationalism, not with weakness and humility. We live in a time when many of our fellow Christians, many of our denominational institutions are more concerned about individual rights than the wellbeing of the wider community, the flourishing of all people. And in their demand for rights and power, they cause suffering and pain, they threaten the lives and health of the weakest and most vulnerable among us.

Looking for signs of Christ’s presence in these days is difficult, because of the noise, the anger, the hate. 

But Advent reminds us that Christ came into a world of violence, he came preaching a message of peace, he came not to the center of power and wealth. His presence was not announced by the media or accompanied with the trappings of royalty. Remembering that Jesus died on the cross teaches us to seek his presence in the midst of suffering, weakness, and vulnerability.

For us in this season, let us not look back, nor look forward. Let us look around, keep watch, and remain alert for the presence of Christ among us, even when we are most fearful and full of despair. Let us look for signs of Christ’s presence. Let us be signs of hope and light to others in these dark days. May we share the good news of Christ’s coming, of his presence, and may we help others recognize and know his presence in the midst of their anxiety, fear, and longing.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer on the Magnificat

The throne of God in the world is set not on the thrones of humankind but in humanity’s deepest abyss, in the manger. There are no flattering courtiers standing around his throne, just some rather dark, unknown, dubious-looking figures, who cannot get enough of looking at this miracle and are quite prepared to live entirely on the mercy of God.

For those who are great and powerful in this world, there are two places where their courage fails them, which terrify them to the very depths of their souls, and which they dearly avoid. These are the manger and the cross of Jesus Christ. No one who holds power dares to come near the manger; King Herod also did not dare. For here thrones begin to sway; the powerful fall down, and those who are high are brought low, because God is here with the lowly. Here the rich come to naught, because God is here with the poor and those who hunger. God gives there the hungry plenty to eat, but sends the rich and well-satisfied away empty. Before the maidservant Mary, before Christ’s manger, before God among the lowly, the strong find themselves falling; here they have no rights, no hope, but instead find judgment.

From a sermon preached in London, the Third Sunday of Advent, December 17, 1933

The Messiness of the Messiah: A Sermon for Advent 4A, 2019

As I grow older, it becomes increasingly difficult for me to make keep up with all the changes in popular culture.

That sentence could be the lede for an almost infinite number of examples..

In this case though, I’m thinking of the Hallmark Channel, of which I was only vaguely aware. I learned this fall that from approximately Halloween to New Year’s Day, there’s an endless stream of Christmas movies; and that on Friday nights throughout the year, Hallmark shows holiday-themed movies. Apparently other channels have followed suit. With good reason. Apparently Hallmark’s programming is so successful that for the fourth quarter last year, it was the most popular channel among women aged 19-54.

other channels have followed suit. Apparently, this programming is so successful that Hallmark wins the ratings war for the final quarter of the year with the key demographic of women 19-54. Continue reading

“Advent” by Christina Rosetti:

Advent

This Advent moon shines cold and clear,
These Advent nights are long;
Our lamps have burned year after year,
And still their flame is strong.
“Watchman, what of the night?” we cry,
Heart-sick with hope deferred:
“No speaking signs are in the sky,”
Is still the watchman’s word.

The Porter watches at the gate,
The servants watch within;
The watch is long betimes and late,
The prize is slow to win.
“Watchman, what of the night?” but still
His answer sounds the same:
“No daybreak tops the utmost hill,
Nor pale our lamps of flame.”

One to another hear them speak,
The patient virgins wise:
“Surely He is not far to seek,”–
“All night we watch and rise.”
“The days are evil looking back,
The coming days are dim;
Yet count we not His promise slack,
But watch and wait for Him.”

One with another, soul with soul,
They kindle fire from fire:
“Friends watch us who have touched the goal.”
“They urge us, come up higher.”
“With them shall rest our waysore feet,
With them is built our home,
With Christ.” “They sweet, but He most sweet,
Sweeter than honeycomb.”

There no more parting, no more pain,
The distant ones brought near,
The lost so long are found again,
Long lost but longer dear:
Eye hath not seen, ear hath not heard,
Nor heart conceived that rest,
With them our good things long deferred,
With Jesus Christ our Best.

We weep because the night is long,
We laugh, for day shall rise,
We sing a slow contented song
And knock at Paradise.
Weeping we hold Him fast Who wept
For us,–we hold Him fast;
And will not let Him go except
He bless us first or last.

Weeping we hold Him fast to-night;
We will not let Him go
Till daybreak smite our wearied sight,
And summer smite the snow:
Then figs shall bud, and dove with dove
Shall coo the livelong day;
Then He shall say, “Arise, My love,
My fair one, come away.”

Come, Lord Jesus: A Sermon for Advent 1C, 2019

Could the news get any worse? We are faced with a relentless cycle of stories that break our hearts and that bear witness to the brokenness of humanity and the brokenness of our world. What’s more, in the face of these crises—the global climate crisis, the crisis of political legitimacy that so many nations and peoples are confronting, beginning with our own, instead of coming together to work on solutions, we are growing more divided. Our differences seem to be widening even as things seem to be getting worse.

Among those divisions, one of the most interesting to me is the generational conflict that seems to be growing. Younger generations are becoming more resentful, more angry at their elders. And the target of much of that anger is my generation—the baby boomers. Well, we sure have messed things up, haven’t we? On our watch, warnings about global warming have become climate catastrophe; economic inequality has increased to levels not seen since the Gilded Age of the late 19th century; our political system, not just in this country, but worldwide, seems to be nearing total collapse with authoritarianism, nationalism, and racism on the rise. Continue reading