Jesus’ Baptism and our own: A Sermon for the Baptism of our Lord, 2020

In our liturgical calendar, today is the First Sunday after the Epiphany. Saying that probably doesn’t help orient many of you to what is going on in our worship. The Feast of the Epiphany is celebrated on January 6. It brings the Season of Christmas to an end. It’s a feast that celebrates God making Godself manifest in the world and especially in Jesus Christ. Traditionally, the church has focused on three specific events in Jesus’ life on Epiphany: the coming of the wise men, Jesus’ baptism, and Christ’s first miracle in the Gospel of John—the transformation of water into wine at the Wedding at Cana.

The first Sunday after the Epiphany focuses on the second of these three events: Jesus’ Baptism. Each year, we hear one of the gospels’ versions of the story of his baptism by John. It is also one of the Sundays when it is especially appropriate to baptize and to bring into the body of Christ new members.

Reading the story of Jesus’ baptism on a day when we also celebrate the sacrament of baptism prompts us to think about what our baptisms might mean in light of Jesus’ own baptism. But Jesus’ baptism is not our only source for early Christian baptism. There is also Paul, for whom, as he writes in the Letter to the Romans: “all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death”—so baptism is a participation in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

If you were to set the three different versions of Jesus’ baptism that we are given by the synoptic gospels, it would be very easy to see the different ways the gospel writers shape the story to reflect their perspectives on the meaning of the event and its significance for the person and ministry of Jesus. They differ in many small but significant details.

Looking only at Matthew’s version, as we are today, we can still detect some important themes that we will note repeatedly as we work through the gospel this year.

One thing to note is the important role of John the Baptist for Jesus’ ministry. For Matthew, Jesus’ proclamation and ministry is a continuation of John’s. Both preach the coming of the kingdom of God. John the Baptist will make appearances later in the gospel. There are occasions when others think Jesus is himself John the Baptist.

Remember that this is the first time we’ve seen Jesus as an adult in the gospel of Matthew, the first time we’ve seen him since the family’s return from Egypt after fleeing Herod. So Matthew’s depiction of this story is very important. What first impressions does he want to give us of Jesus?

He tells us that Jesus came to John in the wilderness. Jesus wasn’t just wandering by. He had come a long distance. He had come to John for this, to be baptized by John. But John refuses to do it. He says Jesus should baptize him. But Jesus insists, and says something very interesting: “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Jesus seems to be bringing John into this event, sharing with him in its enactment, and together, Jesus seems to be saying, they are fulfilling all righteousness. We might even say that it takes both of them, willingly participating, to fulfill all righteousness.

Righteousness is a complex term with many meanings in scripture. For us, it’s one of those old “religious” words that we never use except when we’re in church or talking about church; if anything, when it is used in popular culture it’s a synonym for amazing or cool. So we don’t know quite what it means. Earlier, Matthew described Joseph as a “righteous” man when he plans on quietly ending his relationship with Mary—he’s acting in accordance with Jewish law. We might regard it as both inner disposition and a matter of outward practice. But perhaps the most important element in it is obedience to God. Jesus is signaling here that both he and John are obeying God, seeking to live according to God’s will.

In Matthew’s telling of the story, it is that shared obedience, the willing participation of both John and Jesus in the event that leads to the confirmation of Jesus’ identity. As he comes out of the waters of the baptism, the voice from speaks, “This is my Son, the Beloved, in whom I am well pleased.”

 

I’m not sure many of you know why we baptize people, especially infants. I doubt very many of you believe that unbaptized babies will burn in hell if they die—even the Roman Catholic Church has rejected the traditional doctrine of limbo. And we have so internalized American values of self-determination and freedom when it comes to religion that the idea parents might make a religious for their children has come to be regarded by many as parental tyranny.

Yet here we are. Out of some sense of obligation, or tradition, we will gather around the font again. Often, there’s a powerful bond of family that tugs us to bring our babies to the font, whether or not we quite believe in it all, we’re doing it for our parents or grandparents.

It’s tough to be a parent today. Young families are juggling jobs and daycare; struggling to make ends meet in a changing world and changing economy. We wonder and worry what sort of world our children and grandchildren will inherit from us—whether the planet we live on will even be inhabitable in 50 or 75 years. We can’t do it on our own. I’ve been fascinated to see how many people have come to Grace Church in the last couple of years, moving here to be closer to their children and grandchildren. That’s not just about being closer to family, it’s about helping out, providing childcare, helping raise the next generation. I’ve also seen the struggles of those parents, single moms especially, who don’t have other family members to turn to in difficult times.

For parents to bring a child to the font, is a recognition and admission that they can’t do it on their own. These beautiful children, miracles of life and of God’s creative power, are at the very beginning of their life’s journey. None of us knows what lies in store for them, what challenges and possibilities they will face. Baptism brings them into the body of Christ, the fellowship of the faithful, where we all commit to helping them grow into their full stature as children of God.

For those of us who are observing this rite today, baptism is also a powerful reminder of who we are. There’s a sense in which we are like these babies, brought to God’s grace by power beyond ourselves, our salvation dependent not on what we might do or choose, but only through God’s love.

We can’t do it on our own. We can’t make it on our own. Baptism reminds us that we aren’t lone individuals making our way in the world. We are enmeshed in a network of relationships, and baptism grafts us into the body of Christ. Baptism is the means by which God reaches out to us, draws us into God’s loving embrace.

In a way, all of us here are like John and Jesus today, coming to the waters of baptism in obedience to God’s call, trusting in God’s grace. And like Jesus, of whom the voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved;” in baptism we are all marked as Christ’s own forever, embraced as God’s beloved children. Thanks be to God.

 

 

Are you the one? A sermon for Advent 3C, 2019

Last week we saw John the Baptizer at the height of his power and career. Crowds were coming to see him and to be baptized by him. Even the movers and shakers were coming—the Pharisees and the Sadducees. How do think he was feeling as he saw the response to his preaching, the adoring crowds and the changed lives. As evidence of his power, we hear him attacking the religious insiders with language of great drama and violence.

Now, some weeks or months have passed and John is in a very different position. Herod had arrested him because John had criticized him for marrying Herodias, his brother Phillip’s wife. Another important point to note is that in the synoptic gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus begins his public ministry only after John is arrested. In other words, John doesn’t actually see Jesus’ preaching and healing ministry in action. He only hears about it second hand.

John is in prison, waiting. In the Roman world, prison was a place of waiting, not of punishment. Prisoners were waiting to find out what the judgment would be, whether they would be found innocent or guilty, and what their punishment would be. Execution, sentenced to the galleys or the mines? John was waiting.

John had been waiting for a long time, not to find out his fate. He, like Israel, had been waiting for the one who was to come; he was waiting for deliverance. And so, from prison, he asks that question, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

This probably seems like a very strange question for casual readers or hearers of the gospel. The story we know, if we know it, is a story in which John the Baptist knows who Jesus is. As Luke tells it in his gospel, John and Jesus were cousins, and John recognized the Messiah when both were still in their mothers’ wombs. Luke says John leapt in the Elizabeth’s womb when Mary came to visit her. The Gospel of John is even clearer. When John sees Jesus walking, he says to his disciples, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.”

So why would John want to know, “Are you the one who is to come?”

I think it’s simple, really. As we saw in last week’s gospel, John was looking forward to a great reckoning; the day when God’s justice would come down to vindicate the righteous and punish the wicked. John had prophesied, “Even now the ax is  lying at the root of the tree; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”

John was now in prison, hardly evidence that God was making things right. And Jesus, the one whom John had baptized, the one in whom he had placed his hopes, had continued John’s preaching. He, like John, was proclaiming the coming of God’s reign. But there seemed to be no signs of its arrival.

So, John, lying in prison, wonders. He wondered whether everything he had been about had meant anything; whether his preaching had been worth it. So he sent two of his followers to ask the question. It’s an obvious question, but still it’s a very interesting and important one. And it is a profoundly “Advent” question. Advent is a time of already but not yet; it is a time when we recognize Christ’s presence among us, Christ’s having come among us as a human. But at the same time, we are looking ahead to that final reckoning. Like John, we are looking ahead for that time when God makes all things new; when God’s justice rolls down like water, and God’s righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

John’s disciples asked Jesus the question, “Are you the one who is to come or are we to wait for another?”

Jesus’ reply is not a simple and unambiguous affirmative. Instead, he instructs John’s disciples to tell him what they have seen, “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.”

As readers of the gospel, as people who know the story, this answer seems obvious and to the point. Jesus is alluding back to prophetic scripture, to the Book of Isaiah. It is language that is echoed in the gospel of Luke, in which Jesus’ public ministry begins with his reading from Isaiah: “He has sent me to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind.”

As readers of the gospel, we know about Jesus’ healing ministry. Jesus had restored sight to the blind, healed a paralytic, and performed many other healings.

We hear this passage and we think it’s all so obvious and we may even wonder how John the Baptist could have had any question about who Jesus was.

But think about it a moment. Think about all of the suffering in the area where Jesus was preaching and healing. He may have performed some healings, but there were many other people who continued to suffer and the oppressive yoke of Roman occupation was as harsh as ever. Did Jesus’ answer convince John’s disciples? Did it convince John?

Like John, we are living in a time of already but not yet. We believe and proclaim that Christ has come into the world; that Christ has ushered in something quite new; that his death and resurrection have changed everything.

At the same time, we continue to see the suffering and injustice around us. Many of us experience great suffering and pain in our own lives. It may so overwhelm us that we despair.

Jesus’ answer to John’s disciples is his answer to us. In the midst of the world’s suffering, in the midst of our own pain, he challenges us to see signs of his coming; to look for signs of God’s coming reign; signs of his healing power. Those signs may be faint; they may be overwhelmed by the bright lights and glare of the world.

Like John, we want to see clear evidence; we want to see God coming in glory, destroying evil, beating down the devil. We want to see the carnage and a complete and total victory.

Instead, we are pointed toward this. A few people are healed; a few hear the good news and are transformed. God’s reign breaks in, tentatively, quietly, almost unnoticeably. So we have to pay attention.

There are signs, but we need eyes that will see them; ears that will hear them. I invite you to look for those signs, to imagine what such signs might be in our world today. In the midst of the suffering in the world, in the midst of all of our troubles, where do we see Christ’s healing power? Where do we see God’s justice rolling down? Where do we see God’s reign breaking in and transforming lives and the world?

In food offered from our pantry? Or the meal and music provided at our First Monday meal? In the shelter offered to a homeless man or to a family? In the compassionate service that moves a homeless person from the street to permanent housing? In the reconciling witness of MOSES and other organizations that help formerly incarcerate people rebuild their lives and relationships?

Look for those signs, in the world, in the lives around you. Become those signs, to the world, to the lives you encounter. God is here among us, healing us and the world. Christ will come again to make all things new. May we rejoice to see his coming; and may we see the signs of his coming in our faith and in our actions.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Advent is a wilderness: A Sermon for Advent 2A, 2019

Wilderness. It’s a word that conjures up images of danger, untamed nature; precarious human life facing the challenges of uncharted territory and unknown threats. For Americans, we almost immediately think of our national myth of pioneers setting out against great odds into a distant and forbidding land, in an attempt to make lives and livelihoods in uninhabited territory. That myth, as attractive as it may be, is a far cry from the reality that the places to which white settlers came usually already had human populations and were home to highly developed human communities. Continue reading

When all the people had been baptized: A Sermon for the Baptism of our Lord, 2018

Last month, I found myself following and to some extent participating in a twitter conversation or debate about the practice and theology of baptism. A number of people from various backgrounds took part as they discussed the relative merits of adult believer’s baptism or infant baptism, and explored the meaning of the rite—does it wash away original sin? Is it primarily a sign or symbol of membership in a community? Does it transmit grace, but only if the one being baptized makes a mature confession of faith or commitment? Continue reading

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

Are we prophets? Are we prophets’ children? A Sermon for Proper 10B, 2018

I get uncomfortable whenever I hear progressive Christians talking about being prophetic. In my experience, it usually means little more than making political statements that have more to do with American partisan politics than with the Good News of Jesus Christ. But that’s only one of the ways in which Christians misread the traditions of biblical prophecy.

We tend to see the prophets through the eyes of Handel’s Messiah or the birth narratives of Jesus in Matthew and Luke. On this view, the prophets were mostly about predicting the coming of the Messiah, and their importance for Christians lies in the fact that the appearance of Jesus is both a confirmation of their predictions, and that they offer key insights into who and what Jesus is.  Continue reading

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.

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

An Advent Wilderness: A sermon for the second Sunday of Advent, 2016

 

Well, it’s certainly good to be back at Grace and in Madison after being away from here for six Sundays. I’ll be sharing some of what I saw and experienced later at our annual meeting which I hope many of you will attend. As is so often the case, the things we set out to do, the goals we make for ourselves, don’t always materialize in quite the way we anticipated or hoped, but such opportunities often lead to quite unexpected things—discoveries about oneself and the world that are powerful and transformative.

That certainly happened to me. The time I spent at the monastery of the Society of St. John the Evangelist in Cambridge was one of the most powerful spiritual experiences I’ve ever had. Arriving there on Election Day, spending four days mostly in silence, the days punctuated by the rhythms of the Daily Office offered a wonderful respite from the noise, anger, and anxiety of the world beyond the monastery’s walls, and an opportunity for me to encounter God more deeply and be a part of a praying community.

At the monastery and as I traveled up the East Coast and in the Pacific Northwest, I re-discovered another important truth. I mentioned before leaving that this time away would be the longest period I would be away from Grace and Madison since coming here in 2009, that it would be the longest period I would be away from an altar since my ordination more than ten years ago. Time away is important. It can be refreshing. It can also help to provide perspective; to give us the opportunity to reflect on where we’ve been, what we’ve been doing, and to plan for the next season of our lives.

But it’s not just the time away. It’s also the distance. I’ve not traveled much since coming to Madison. Indeed, although I was blessed to be able to live abroad for two years, apart from weekends in Chicago, visits to my mother, or a few days spent up north, I’ve not traveled much at all recently.

I discovered in these weeks of travel as I visited cities that were mostly unfamiliar to me, and visited churches I’d never been at, talking with clergy from very different backgrounds and working in very different contexts, that all of this can provide important perspective on my ministry and on our shared mission at Grace Church. We will talk much more about this in the weeks to come—you’ll have an opportunity to hear some of what I learned later at our Annual Meeting. But for now, I want to highlight simply the clarity of vision, the new perspective I’ve gained on our work together here in Madison.

And this may be where what I’ve been about these last two months connects with our gospel reading. As I was beginning to reflect on this text, Matthew’s depiction of John the Baptizer’s ministry, the opening words grabbed my attention.

“In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea.” John is a wild, crazy figure. He wears camel skins and eats locusts and wild honey. He shouts, “Repent for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” He prophesies doom and destruction, painting images of unfruitful trees being hewn down and useless chaff being burnt in an unquenchable fire. It’s dramatic, powerful, and frankly, somewhat scary.

But all of this takes place in the wilderness, far from the center of power, away from the settled existence of Jerusalem and the towns and villages of Judea. And I wonder whether his message would have had the same impact if he had proclaimed it in the streets, public squares, or the temple mount of Jerusalem. I wonder whether he would even have been able to preach those words if he hadn’t come out into the wilderness.

The wilderness is a place of great symbolic power in the biblical tradition. The Israelites wandered for forty years in the wilderness after their miraculous exodus from Egypt. In the wilderness, they grumbled at their plight; the text repeatedly calls them “a stiff-necked people.” Because of their grumbling and their sins; God condemned that first generation who had come out of Egypt to die in the wilderness, they would not live to possess the land promised to them. Even their leader Moses would only see it from a mountaintop just before his death.

For the Israelites, the wilderness was a place of struggle and disappointment; but nevertheless, God was present there with them. It was in the wilderness, at Sinai, that God appeared to Moses and gave the Israelites the Torah, the commandments by which they were to live and order their common life. Throughout their time in the wilderness, God was present with the Israelites as a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night, and dwelt with them in the tabernacle.

In the gospels, the wilderness is where Jesus encounters John, is baptized by him, and then goes away by himself for forty days, where he’s tempted by Satan. In Matthew’s telling of this story, one could imagine that through this time in the wilderness Jesus comes to understand better who he is and what his ministry will be. Rejecting the temptations Satan offers him, Jesus chooses a different way, a different model of Messiahship, a different sort of Kingdom.

The wilderness is a desolate place but in the biblical tradition it can also be a place of personal and communal transformation, a time of preparation for the next stage of life. Time in the wilderness built the foundation for the Israelites’ conquest and occupation of the promised land. Time in the wilderness helped prepare Jesus for his ministry. Time in the wilderness gave John the Baptist the perspective he needed from which to judge the religious and political life of Jerusalem.

Yes, the wilderness can be a desolate, forbidding place. But it can also be a place that helps prepare us for the work we are called to do. In December each year, we are surrounded by the all of the hustle and bustle of the season; the round of parties, the preparations that we make for family and friends, even the typical year-end and semester-end tasks that confront us. It’s hard to find time for ourselves; it’s even harder to find time for God in our over-scheduled lives. I wonder whether it might be helpful simply to carve out a few minutes here or there, to step away from it all, to enter silence, or to create a wilderness for ourselves where we might open ourselves to encounter with God. This Advent, look for, make way for, a place or time of wilderness.

There’s something else about the wilderness that might be helpful. I’m thinking of John, out there, proclaiming his message of repentance, challenging the political and religious leaders of his day. Many of us might be inclined to feel, at this time in our national life, that we are in a wilderness, that we have lost our way, that our hopes for a better future, a more just society have been deferred indefinitely, perhaps even utterly destroyed.

John did not lose hope. Alongside his prophesies of doom and destruction, he saw the coming of God’s reign, its very nearness. Our hope dare not rest in the political process or in the vagaries of history. Our hope rests in God. Our hope lives in the one whose coming we await even now; the one whose coming promises and proclaims the reign of God; the one whose coming in weakness and humility challenges all of the world’s power; the one whose coming in love shows us the way of love and peace. Thanks be to God.

 

 

 

 

 

 

What then should we do? A Sermon for Advent 3, Year C

 

I read the story this week of an Iranian-American woman. She was riding home on the bus after work one day in Chicago when a white man dressed in a suit and tie began to attack her verbally, shouting anti-Islamic names at her. After several minutes during which she quietly tried to get him to stop, he spit at her, told her to get off the bus, leave the country because it wasn’t hers. All this time, on a crowded bus, no one said anything. Finally, she’d had enough. She shouted at him at the top of her lungs. It was then that others intervened and the bus driver stopped and forced her attacker to leave. Continue reading