Voices crying in the wilderness: A Sermon for Advent 3C, 2018

As most of you know already, my mother died this past Monday. Her death was expected. In fact, I received word of it just as I was packing up the car to drive six hours to be with her. Her death, and the memories and grief that have filled my thoughts over the last week have certainly recast my experience in this Advent season. But I realized that so much of what I was feeling, the emotional turmoil is consistent with the themes of this season of Advent. Continue reading

Ready for Silence by Madeline L’Engle: A Poem for Advent

Then hear now the silence
He comes in the silence
in silence he enters
the womb of the bearer
in silence he goes to
the realm of the shadows
redeeming and shriving
in silence he moves from
the grave cloths, the dark tomb
in silences he rises
ascends to the glory
leaving his promise
leaving his comfort
leaving his silence
So come now, Lord Jesus
Come in your silence
breaking our noising
laughter of panic
breaking this earth’s time
breaking us breaking us
quickly Lord Jesus
make no long tarrying
When will you come
and how will you come
and will we be ready
for silence
your silence.

Your Redemption is Drawing Near: A Sermon for the First Sunday of Advent, 2018

 Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which your Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

This beautiful and powerful collect for the First Sunday of Advent calls to mind both the first and second comings of Christ and prays that we might direct our energies and lives away from evil and toward the light of Christ brings to our awareness the central themes of this season and orients us to the scope of history and the history of salvation. We live as Christians between that time of Christ’s incarnation, his death and resurrection, and the consummation of our final hope in Christ’s return. As Christians, we have experienced the first fruits of Christ’s transforming work, but we live in this world, in this time, enmeshed in the powers of darkness and evil that surround us and seem to hold sway. Continue reading

The Song of Mary

These words have been very much on my mind and in my heart this Advent:

He hath showed strength with his arm; *
he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He hath put down the mighty from their seat, *
and hath exalted the humble and meek.
He hath filled the hungry with good things, *
and the rich he hath sent empty away.

the full text (traditional language from the Book of Common Prayer):

My soul doth magnify the Lord, *
and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Savior.
For he hath regarded *
the lowliness of his handmaiden.
For behold from henceforth *
all generations shall call me blessed.
For he that is mighty hath magnified me, *
and holy is his Name.
And his mercy is on them that fear him *
throughout all generations.
He hath showed strength with his arm; *
he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He hath put down the mighty from their seat, *
and hath exalted the humble and meek.
He hath filled the hungry with good things, *
and the rich he hath sent empty away.
He remembering his mercy hath holpen his servant Israel, *
as he promised to our forefathers,
Abraham and his seed for ever.

Being Witnesses: A Sermon for the 3rd Sunday of Advent, 2017

In these dark days of Advent, as the days grow shorter and the sun’s light grows dim, the mood of our nation and our world seem very much in synch with the season. It’s difficult for us to ignore all that is occurring around us and focus on the season of Advent, and the coming of Christ at Christmas. Sometimes I feel as though the festivities and hoopla, whether it’s the parties we throw or attend, or the glitz of stores and the blitz of marketing are all intended to distract us from what’s happening—global warming, the threat of nuclear catastrophe, the continuing assault on our constitutional liberties, on democracy itself.

It’s hard to find our way through it all, it’s hard for us to find perspective, to keep our faith when there is so much profoundly wrong and unjust, and the forces of good seem impotent in the face of the evil that surrounds us.

On top of it all, many of us struggle to make sense of, let alone, proclaim, the message of Jesus Christ in this context. When Christianity has been coopted by extreme nationalists and white supremacists, when there seems no connection between the message of love, peace, and reconciliation proclaimed by Jesus Christ, and the dominant voices of Christianity in America, we may want to hide our faith, to keep quiet. We fear being associated with the Franklin Grahams and Roy Moores and silence our voices, out of fear that we might be accused of supporting them. Let me just add, if you are not deeply troubled by the cooptation of Christianity by a certain political agenda in this country, you should examine your beliefs and commitments, for the very soul and future of Christianity is at stake, the gospel is at stake.

Our lessons today remind us of where our focus should be, where and how we should proclaim Christ, where and how we should work for justice.

The reading from Isaiah, the first verses of which provide the text for Jesus first public proclamation in the Gospel of Luke, offer both reassurance and command. As Christians, we read these words as promise of Christ’s coming, of the future reign of God that he proclaimed and for which we hope. We see ourselves as recipients of that good news, and of the promised healing and release.

At the same time, we must see ourselves in this story, not just as recipients of God’s grace and justice but as participants in the coming of that justice. We are called to rebuild the ruined cities—and here we might think not only of literal cities, but of all the ways that human community, the common good, have been undermined and attacked in recent years.

Even stronger are the words from the Song of Mary. It’s always helpful to remember just who she was—a young woman, likely a teenager, mysteriously, shamefully pregnant, as vulnerable in her historical context as a similar young woman would be in our day. Yet from that small, unlikely, reviled person, comes this powerful hymn that witnesses to God’s redemptive power:

My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,

my spirit rejoices in God my Savior; *
for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.

From this day all generations will call me blessed: *
the Almighty has done great things for me, and holy is his Name.

He has mercy on those who fear him *
in every generation.

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.

 

This familiar hymn has suffered for its popularity and familiarity. Its use in worship over the millennia has numbed us to its revolutionary power. We need to reclaim it today, sing it with meaning. We need to do more than sing it, we need to work so that it comes into being. We need to imagine the possibility that God is working in this way, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, in spite of all our fears, doubts, and despair. We need to believe that the words of a first-century teenaged single mom can inspire to see God at work in the world around us. For remember, the world in which she lived was unjust and violent as well, and for many people hopelessness and terror were ways of life.

And finally, the gospel…

We heard the story of John the Baptizer from the Gospel of John. It’s a brief excerpt of a larger narrative, and on the surface it’s rather strange, although you might not have thought anything odd about this when hearing it. In the Gospel of Mark’s description of John that we heard last week, the focus seemed to be on his lifestyle, his clothing and diet choices (camel’s hair, locusts and wild honey). According to Mark, he preached a message, “Repent for the kingdom of God is at hand.”

Now in John’s gospel none of that is present. While some of his preaching message is consistent, at the heart of John’s portrayal of John is something else, the fact that John was a witness to Jesus Christ. In a rather odd formulation, John writes that “

This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, “I am not the Messiah.”

For that is John’s purpose and role in the fourth gospel—to point toward Christ. John is a witness, the witness. And more than witness, for the Greek word behind the English “witness” and “testify” in the first few verses of the reading is word from which we get our English word “martyr.” John came to bear witness to the light, to testify about Jesus Christ. Later in the first chapter, John sees Jesus passing by, points to him, and tells several of his disciples, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” The disciples then leave John and follow Jesus.

These are questions of identity and purpose. The priests and Levites asked John who he was, in a scene that is reminiscent of the scene in the synoptic gospels where Jesus asks his disciples who people say that he is. John directs their attention away from him toward Christ.

John offers us an important lesson, not just about who he was and who Jesus Christ is. He also reminds us that one of the most important things we do, in our words and in our lives, is point to Jesus Christ. It is in and through us that others learn what it means to follow Jesus and also learn Jesus’ message of love, peace, mercy, and justice. In this time, when so many others proclaim a different gospel, and very different message of Jesus, our witness to him is more needed than ever. May we witness, testify, and point, clearly, unequivocally, and boldly, to the Jesus Christ who stands with the poor, the oppressed, the captive, and the God who casts down the mighty from their seats and fills the hungry with good things.

 

 

 

 

 

Advent and the Gospel of Mark: A Sermon for Advent 1, Year B

I’ve been fascinated by the power of the season of Advent ever since I first encountered it 30 or 40 years ago. I grew up in a branch of Christianity that didn’t pay close attention to the liturgical year, at least not back then. We had Good Friday and Easter, of course, and Christmas but that was pretty much it. Our preparation for Christmas was the same as other Americans’ preparation for Christmas, buying trees and decorating them, Christmas cookies and other tasty items, shopping for presents and the like.

It wasn’t until I was in college, and especially later, as a seminary student and lay person in my mid twenties, that I first experienced the lectionary readings and hymns that are used in these four weeks leading up to Christmas. Coming at them as an adult, and as student of theology, the tone of the season had a powerful effect on me. It still does.

It’s not just that Advent is at least to some degree a penitential season. Here at Grace, we use the same liturgical color, violet that we use during Lent. But more than that, it’s the emphasis in the lectionary and hymnal. The focus is not just on the coming of Christ at Christmas, it has another focus on Christ’s Second Coming.

That’s clear from our readings. The portion of Isaiah that was read is a plea for God’s intervention in history. While it was written by an author who hoped that intervention would come soon, in his own lifetime, Christians have interpreted it and many similar passages from the Hebrew Bible as descriptions or predictions of the Second Coming.

The gospel reading from Mark is from the so-called “Little Apocalypse” chapter 13 of that gospel, which occurs during Jesus’ teaching in the temple in the last week of his life. In that way it connects with the readings we’ve been having from the Gospele of Matthew over the last months which come from Matthew’s treatment of the same material and same period of Jesus’ ministry.

It might be helpful to remind you of some of the important themes of Mark’s gospel as we begin this year of the lectionary cycle. While there continues to be scholarly debate about the relationship among the gospels, for over a century, the consensus has been that Mark was the first gospel to be written, around 70 CE. Mark is by far the shortest of the gospels and it’s unique in that it starts in media res, in the middle of the story, with Jesus’ baptism. There’s nothing about his birth or origins (although his mother, brothers and sisters do make an appearance) and it ends with the empty tomb. Originally, there were no stories of the Risen Christ’s appearance to the disciples. Those were added later. That doesn’t mean that Mark didn’t know about the resurrection—clearly he did. Rather, he wanted to tell a story with different emphases. As an aside, the other two synoptic gospels, Matthew and Luke, knew the Gospel of Mark and used it, in addition to other sources, in telling their version of Jesus.

Mark is written with an extreme sense of urgency. One of the most repeated words in the gospel is “immediately.” Everything seems rushed. He typically doesn’t take a lot of time to describe the settings or background. When the same story appears in all three synoptics, Mark’s version is almost always the briefest. I will have a great deal more to say about Mark’s perspective in the coming year. I encourage you, as I do each year, to take the opportunity to read the gospel in its entirety several times over the course of the year. It’s something I do as it helps me remember the overall story arc, as well helps to orient me when I get bogged down in the week-to-week lectionary.

We see Mark’s (oh, and by the way, the names of the gospels are traditional, very ancient from the 2nd century, but we actually don’t know who wrote them or where they wrote them) overarching perspective even here in this “Little Apocalypse.” We call it an apocalypse because it reflects that type of literature and world view, describing God’s intervention in history. Apocalyptic is dualistic—it presupposes a cosmic struggle between good and evil. It is pessimistic about the present and immediate future. Things are really bad and they are going to get even worse before they get better. And it assumes that the world as we know it is about to end.

Now what’s interesting about Mark’s version of apocalyptic is that while many of these elements are prominent, signs of the second coming, for example, other aspects of apocalyptic are notably absent—the final judgment isn’t mentioned, and the overall message seems not to be that the Second Coming is imminent, but that it as been delayed, no one knows when it might come, so it’s important to stay awake, be alert, watch.

In that respect, Mark’s message is consistent with what we read from Matthew over the last few weeks. But there’s something else that I find quite intriguing. 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 Jesus’ admonition in Mark is sage advice for us this Advent. Keep Watch! Be Alert! I talked briefly last Sunday about looking for signs of Christ’s coming among us. I think that’s part of Mark’s message here.

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. 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.

For us in this season, let us 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, be signs of hope and light to others in these dark days.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The imprisonment of John the Baptist, the carceral state and Advent hope: A sermon for Advent 3, Year A, 2016

Today’s readings are here

Most of you know that over the last year, Grace Church has begun to develop a relationship with the Dane County Jail. It began with a visit to Grace last January from Christa Fisher, chaplain to the jail, who preached and talked about her work in an adult forum. The relationship has deepened, as Grace offered to host the ongoing tutoring project and participating in the jail ministry’s winter clothing drive.

The jail ministry has touched me on a personal level. It may have begun, not with my first encounter and conversation with Christa, but even earlier. I don’t know exactly when it was, but I found myself reflecting on the familiar and powerful parable of the sheep and goats in Matthew 25:31-46, you know the one in which the King says:

“I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”

It struck me at the time, for whatever reason, that in all of my life, I had never set foot in a prison, let alone visited or talked with a prisoner. Don’t get me wrong; it’s not like I think I’m going to burn in hell for eternity because I never engaged in prison ministry. Rather, I began to realize that prison ministry, especially in this age of mass incarceration, had simply never been of much interest or concern to me. In fact, I probably didn’t even know where the Dane County Jail for the first 3 or 4 years I lived in Madison; that’s shocking to admit, given it’s only two blocks away.

As part of Grace’s involvement with the work of the Madison Jail Ministry, I have challenged myself to take an active role in supporting the work of the chaplains. Last May, I participated in a tour of the jail that is intended for new employees and volunteers. It was an eye-opening, unforgettable experience. It wasn’t just that parts of the jail, the two top floors of the City County Building that could serve as a movie set for a 1930s era prison. That’s the part of the jail where they repeatedly have difficulties opening cell doors and evacuating inmates during fire drills. It was the demeanor of those who were incarcerated. Their body language and demeanor were those of people without hope, living in despair. They were lonely, abandoned by society, living at the arbitrary whims and actions of their jailors.

By now, we should all be familiar with the statistics, so I won’t belabor them. As Michelle Alexander argued with great passion and eloquence in her book The New Jim Crow, mass incarceration targets African-Americans, especially African-American males disproportionately. It’s not just that an unconscionable number of African-Americans are incarcerated in the US, it’s that they are incarcerated for longer sentences and for crimes for which White Americans walk free.

The racial disparities and hopelessness of mass incarceration are on full display in the Dane County Jail. Many of those in the jail are there for parole violations that can be as minor as having used a computer. What struck me during my tour of the jail was that I hadn’t been anywhere that looked quite like the Dane County jail, or encountered such despair and hopelessness in the eyes and body language of the incarcerated, since my visit to East Germany back in 1980. The Dane County jail, like the former East Germany, is the carceral and surveillance state on full display.

All of this came to mind this week as I read and reflected on our gospel. It’s another episode concerning John the Baptist and the contrast between his demeanor here, in Matthew 11, and in the reading from last week, from Matthew 3, couldn’t be more stark. Last week we saw him railing against the religious and political elites for their corruption, and prophesying that the wrath of God would soon come down upon them. He was courageous, resolute, unworried about the response his preaching might arouse in his opponents.

Now, a few weeks or months later, he is in prison, having crossed Herod one too many times. But Herod isn’t quite sure what to do with him; the gospel of Luke suggests even that Herod kind of liked having John around,, he brought him in for conversations. According to Matthew, Herod wanted to have John executed, but feared how the people might respond.

In any case, now John is in prison. It’s puzzling given what we know about John, that he wonders about Jesus’ identity, that he sends his disciples to Jesus to ask him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

I mean, how could he not know? They are cousins, for crying out loud (at least that’s what Luke tells us). John baptized Jesus. John told everyone that Jesus was the one sent by God, that he, John, was only his messenger. John may even have heard the voice from heaven saying, “This is my Son, my Beloved.” How could he have doubts?

Well, there are a couple of answers to this question. First, there’s the issue of the relationship between Jesus and John the Baptist, and what from the gospels seems to be something of a competition between them, perhaps even a struggle between followers of John and Jesus later, after their deaths, over who was the greater. There’s all sorts of evidence, even in the Book of Acts, that John continued to have a following, and that his followers competed with the followers of Jesus for popularity.

There’s also the fundamental problem for the early Jesus movement that Jesus was baptized by John…

Finally, there’s the little detail that the synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, agree that Jesus began his public ministry only after John was arrested; that he waited until then to begin preaching publicly and healing people.

So there’s something very interesting going on in the gospels’ depiction of the relationship between Jesus and John the Baptist.

But I don’t think that’s the only reason that John asks this question about Jesus identity from prison. Prison, in the first or the twenty-first century is a place of hopelessness and despair. Too often, it’s a waiting room for death. Think of all of the people on death row across our nation, and think about the decades many of them have been languishing there.

I think John’s question may come out of his hopelessness and despair and I’m not sure Jesus’ response to him, reassured him. Jesus tells John’s disciples, “‘Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.”

Jesus omits something in that response. When that list of things appears in Isaiah, and when in Luke’s telling, Jesus proclaims those words in his first public sermon in the synagogue in Nazareth, there’s another group mentioned:

 

‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,

because he has anointed me

to bring good news to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives

and recovery of sight to the blind,

to let the oppressed go free,

The blind may see, the lame walk, the poor here the good news, but Jesus makes no mention of prisoners in his response to John’s disciples, no promise of freedom, no freedom for John himself.

John’s doubts and uncertainties were well-founded and it’s an open question whether Jesus’ reply to him did anything to reassure him as he lay in prison and waited for his death.

That should be unsettling for us. It may even raise our doubts and uncertainties. If John couldn’t or didn’t know, and if Jesus’ words offered him no consolation or hope in his particular situation, may our doubts and uncertainties are warranted. Maybe hopelessness, despair, cynicism are appropriate responses in our situation, too. After all, it’s not just John. There is still suffering in the world—the blind, deaf, disabled; and millions upon millions of people who languish in poverty and are food insecure.

So there is cause for despair, cause for doubt, cause for uncertainty. In the midst of all of that, there are also signs of hope—signs of the inbreaking of God’s reign in this dark world. Signs of hope in the work, faith, and spirit of the chaplains at the Dane County jail, signs of hope in the work and witness of our food pantry; signs of hope, signs of God’s inbreaking reign in the coming of Christ in a tiny and distant village in the furthest reaches of the Roman Empire. This Advent, may we look for signs of Christ’s coming and signs of God’s coming reign, in our hearts and in the world around us, and when we see those signs, may we know that Christ is coming, that he is the one for whom we are waiting.