Sacramental Illumination

A Sermon for Epiphany2; Isaiah 62:1-5, Psalm 36:5-10, 1 Corinthians 12:1-11, John 2:1-11

In Mission Impossible Fallout a terrorist organization steals plutonium cores and plans to use them to wreak havoc. The hunt (pardon the pun) is on; agents are searching major cities all over the world. They are surprised when the terrorists are located high in the Himalayas. Julia, Hunt’s partner, realizes nuclear explosions here would contaminate water for as much as half of the world’s population. It’s an interesting thought that the loss of water, after all, we have so much of it, could be a major crisis. And then I read an article in the New York Times about the Tuyuksu glacier which supplies water to 2 million people. It has shrunk by miles, and a water shortage likely in the next 20 years. When you look at all Central Asia, the Tibetan Plateau, Himalayan, and Karakoram shrinking glaciers are the source of water for millions. It may not be a nuclear blast. but changing weather patterns are threatening the lives of millions and millions (Ruby and O’Neil).

In our Gospel readings for the last two weeks, water is significant. Last week Jesus is baptized (Luke3:15) in the waters of the Jordan River (Matthew 3:11). This morning Jesus turns water, reserved for rites of purification, into excellent wine. One aspect of this miracle is its Eucharistic, and sacramental, overtones (O’Day). By an act of the divine muse, this connected to a phrase from today’s collect illumined by your Word and Sacraments. I got to thinking about sacrament as illumination.

You recall that a sacrament

 is an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace (BCP 857).

Pondering all Jesus’ miracles, you might notice a common trait, they all involve something extraordinary happening, something that is unbelievably beyond human possibility, something spiritual. Grace is defined as

God’s favor, undeserved, unearned, by which our sins are forgiven, our hearts stirred, and wills strengthened (BCP 858).

Grace, in part, is a sort of spiritual mitochondria. Mitochondria are the parts of cells that produce the energy they use, sort of little power plants. Grace is, in part, a spiritual power plant, that enables us to do those things that are beyond our human abilities.

Certainly, the transformation of water into wine is beyond human ability, so, by grace empowered spiritual action Jesus transforms water into wine. However, we get to easily distracted by the transformation; much more is going on here. The water was set aside for purification. In the Bible, purification rites are how an unclean person is restored to the enjoyment of religious privileges, and daily life. (Easton). It can be as simple as washing hands and goes from there. Our practice of baptism in part is developed from this concept (Sakenfeld). It is what John is referring to last week when he tells the crowd I baptize you with water (Luke 3:17). Another connection in this morning’s story is the revelation of Jesus as a presence of divine glory (Gaventa and Petersen).

When Jesus’s mother tells him about the wine crisis his response is What concern is that to me? It’s a good question, he isn’t the host (The Living Church). Jesus is a guest, and guests are supposed to bring food and wine as a sign of their support for the marriage, a shortage could be a sign of a lack of community support for the groom and bride (Trozzo). It was also customary to invite as many as people as possible to a wedding feast. To run short of wine would be a major hospitality blunder, shaming the whole family (Keener and Walton). In Jesus’ day water was not safe to drink, wine was the usual and customary drink, so, the lack of wine could be a public health issue (Trozzo). Beyond all these kinds of reasons there is scripture; Psalm 104:14 reads

You make grass grow for flock and herds and plants to serve mankind; that they may bring forth food from the earth, and wine to gladden our hearts (The Living Church).

One of God’s attributes is bringing wine to gladden our hearts. In Proverbs and Hosea, the abundance of wine is an eschatological (end of time) image, of restoration (Trozzo). Biblical marriage ceremonies are also symbolic of the last days and the celebration of God’s future reign (Gaventa and Petersen). One final bit, when needs are met even commonplace needs like the one in Cana that day somehow joy follows, and that joy flows from the revelation of the glory of God (Hoezee). Which may be the point, the wine problem is a concern for Jesus, because in meeting the need of an everyday event, like the wedding feast, God’s Glory is revealed.

So, how does all this connect to sacraments? You know there are two great sacraments; Baptism and Eucharist, and several other sacraments: confirmation, ordination, marriage, reconciliation of a penitent (better known as confession) and unction (anointing of the sick) (BCP 860). The Catechism goes on to say

God is not limited to our rites, they are patterns of countless ways by which God uses material things to reach out to us (BCP 861).

So, any time we are confronted with someone else’s problem, there is the opportunity for us to follow Jesus example and meet a common need, and in doing so reveal the presence and glory of God. And when the challenge is beyond our human abilities we can rely on the mitochondrial energy of grace, to empower such a spiritual sign. Any time the presence and glory of God are revealed is a time of illumination, spiritual illumination.

Last week I read of a bus driver being called a hero because she saw a 2-year-old in a diaper and onesie walking into the street, she stopped her bus, got out, picked up the child and carried it to safety. This is a moment as full of grace as Jesus’ transformation of water to wine, it is an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace, it is a spiritual illumination, revealing the presence of God. I believe such moments are present to us all the time; we just don’t see them as such, because we have limited our understanding of ‘the ever-present’ to time excluding geography; yes, grace is present all the time, and ~ grace is also anywhere and everywhere.

May this season of Epiphany, this season of light, this season of illumination, reveal the opportunities for it to be your concern, to draw on the power of grace, meeting a common need, revealing the glory and presence of God, in a sacramental illumination moment.


References

Easton, Matthew George. Easton’s Illustrated Bible Dictionary. WORDsearch Corp., 2008.

Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 20 1 2019. <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/author/bruceepperly&gt;.

Gaventa, Beverly Roberts and David Petersen. New Interpreter’s One-Volume Commentary. Nashville, n.d.

Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.

Hoezee, Scott. The Lectionary Gospel John 2:1-11. 20 1 2019.

Keener, Craig and John Walton. NKJV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible Notes. Nashville: Zondervan, 2017.

O’Day, Dail R. New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary The Gospel of John. Vol. VIII. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015. XII vols. App Olivetree.

Richter, Amy. “The Frist Sign Epiphany 2.” 20 1 2019. Sermons that Work.

Ruby, Matt and Claire O’Neil. “Glaciers Are Retreating. Millions Rely on Their Water.” New York Times (2019). <https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/01/15/climate/melting-glaciers-globally.html&gt;.

Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.

The Episcopal Church. The Book of Common Prayer. New York: Church Publishing, 1979.

The Living Church. “Many Gifts and the One Gift of Joy.” 20 1 2019. livingchurch.org. <livingchurch.org/2018/08/22/freedom-and-popular-culture>.

Trozzo, Lindsey. Commentary on John 2:1-11. 20 1 2019. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/&gt;.

 

 

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Beloved

A Sermon for Epiphany 1; Isaiah 43: 1-7, Psalm 29, Acts 8:14-17, Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

When I was 11 years old, I joined Scout Troop 175, of the Atlanta Area Council, of the Boy Scouts of America. It was a grand ritual, the room was light only by candlelight, the entire Troop stood in patrol, those of us being inducted stood facing them. As asked, we recited from memory

 the Scout Motto – Be Prepared

 the Scout Code –

A Scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent. and

 the Scout Law –

 On my honor I will do my best to do my duty to God and my country and to obey the Scout Law; to help other people at all times; to keep myself physically strong, mentally awake, and morally straight.

Then I was pinned with the Tenderfoot badge and became a Scout. At every successive awarding of rank the Scout motto, code and law were repeated.

I stayed active in Scouting till I was 16 or 17 when other teenage interests distracted me. In my last two years of college, I joined Troop 6 as an assistant Scout Master. My first Job after graduation was as an Assistant Scout Executive for the Atlanta Area Council. Here too the motto, law, and code played a perhaps less obvious, but none the less powerful part of who I was. All those years ago I became a part of the Scouting community. Though not formally, I am still a part of that community because that community continues to be a part of me, although 54 years has added some callouses and experiences, and I am not longer a Tenderfoot, in many ways ~ I am still a Scout.

This morning we read Luke’s account of Jesus’ baptism. It is remarkably short, all of two verses. It has only three elements: prayers, the Spirit, and the heavenly voice. This morning I’d like to explore the heavenly voice’s pronouncement: “You are my Son, my Beloved; with you, I am well pleased” (Luke 3:22).

James Ligette points out the heavenly voice does not tell Jesus what to do, does not tell Jesus where to go, does not require reciting any law, or oath or pledge. What the heavenly voice does ~ is to tell Jesus who he ~ is my son and names the divine’s affection for him … my beloved (Liggett). Karoline Lewis writes about the power of “you” especially the second person singular in particular “You are …” (Lewis). That two-word phrase “you are” is definitive, it powerfully defines who the hearer is; it powerfully defines who Jesus is. In our Baptismal rite, after extensive presentation and examination, the sacramental splashing of water, and offering of prayers, once again we hear the heavenly voice, this time intoned by the priest,

“You are sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own forever” (The Episcopal Church 308).

These are not magic words that mystically remake the candidate. They make audible, they make clear ~ who the candidate is, who you are, just as the heavenly voice did for Jesus.

It is significant that the emphasis is not on the sacramental act, but on God’s affirmation of Jesus’ identity as God’s son, and Jesus’ anointing into God’s service (Harrelson). There is an element of empowering Jesus for the ministry to come (Culpepper). None of that ministry is predefined or predetermined (Epperly). It all flows from Jesus’ understanding of who he is, which flows from the divine proclamation of God’s love for him. All this is revealed as Luke’s gospel story unfolds, and we see how Jesus rejects all the ancient expectations of purity, restoration Kingship, and national glory; as we see how Jesus continues to reject all the current expectations of entrenched morality, burgeoning social reform, personal prosperity, and a return of national greatness (Liggett). As did Jesus’ life, our lives reflect how well we understand who we are, and God’s affection for us. Jesu’s baptism did not happen in a vacuum, he is surrounded by a variety of political and religious traditions and expectations, from John the Baptist to the Hight Priests, to Herod, Pilate, and Rome, from Old Testament to the moment (Liggett). Our baptism is also in a variety of political and religious traditions and expectations.

Jesus’ life and ministry confront the brokenness of the world and expresses his trust that God is actively present, empowering the world to move towards the coming of the Kingdom. The same is true for us. Baptism calls us away from today’s radicalism, such as extreme individualism, racism, sexism, and all our other isms, and brings us into that heavenly community commissioned to seek justice and righteousness for all. Through Baptism we become part of a covenant community called to confess the brokenness of our world, and trust that God is actively present, empowering the world to be the Kingdom on earth as it is heaven right here right now (R. J. Allen).

 

References

Allen, David. “Way.” Brother, Give Us A Word. Cambridge, 11 1 2019. <ssje.org/word/>.

Allen, Ronald J. “Commentary on Luke 3:15-17, 21-22.” 13 1 2019. Working Preacher. <workingpreacher.org>.

Culpepper, R. Alan. The Gospel of Luke, Introduction, Commentary and Reflections. Ed. Leander E. Keck (NIBC) Mark 16. Vol. VIII. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015. X vols. OliveTree.

Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 13 1 2019. <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/author/bruceepperly&gt;.

Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.

Hoezee, Scott. The Lectionary Gospel Luke 3:15-17, 21-22. 13 1 2019.

Lewis, Karoline. The Power of ‘You’. 13 1 2019. <workingpreacher.org>.

Liggett, James. “How to be Beloved – Epiphany 1.” 13 1 2019. Sermons that Work.

Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.

The Episcopal Church. The Book of Common Prayer. New York: Church Publishing, 1979.

 

 

 

Epiphanies, Callings, Imperatives

A sermon for Epiphany; Isaiah 60:1-6, Ephesians 3: 1-12, Psalm 72:1-7,10-14, Matthew 2:1-12 (extend to 2:13-18)

I hope your Christmas, all 12 days of it, was merry and your New Year celebration safe and joyful. Ours was. Christmas Eve we saw our granddaughter in her first Christmas pageant, it was glorious, and she was more so. Christmas Day began easily, we were up mid-morning, expecting our West Memphis daughter and her family about 2. At 10:30 the phone rang, and her husband spoke: “We got done early, Lilly Grace wants to know if we can come now?” Of course, we said yes. We enjoyed a day of endless food and sweets, capped off with a drive through Lights of the Delta. New Year’s Eve was less eventful. We stayed home, watch an endless stream of Midsomer Murders before heading off to bed. When I noticed it was 12:30 I wandered over to Angie and whispered, “Its 12:30 – Happy New Year.”

The rest of the week was supposed to be a series of small tasks. It turned out to be a series of days of long tasks around an all-day series of doctor’s appointments in Memphis. Both Angie and I are fine, it just took all day. It was a time when I got so focused on 1 or 2 things, that I missed what was before and what was after.

It is not unusual that intense focus on a single thing causes us to miss surrounding pieces. Epiphany is that way. We are so focused on the Wise Men at Jesus’s manger side we miss details of their travels and the unintended consequences. Now, I congratulate St. Stephen’s for your long tradition of the wise men making their way along the center aisle trail from Christmas Eve, way back there (point) to somewhere in the middle on the 1st Sunday after Christmas, to the manger on the 1st Sunday after Epiphany, or as it is today, Epiphany. However, our very traditional manger scene is a mish-mash of Gospel stories. There is no birth story in Matthew and there are no wise men in Luke. We’ve mashed them together for reasons I’m not quite sure of, except for what have become musical and pageant traditions. Here are some of the essentials we miss or simply don’t ever hear.

The Holy Family does go to Jerusalem after Jesus’ birth for purification and thanksgiving sacrifices, but they go back to Bethlehem, not Nazareth where they were living before the great census (Pankey). To give you a sense of the geography Nazareth is way up here Jerusalem about here Bethlehem just down the road.

The wise men are actually magos, magicians, sorcerers, astrologers or wise men, but not kings as we are known to sing of (Thomas Nelson Inc). Whoever they are, they are not Jewish, they are not of any tradition or people in the bible who know the God of Israel. They see Jesus’ “star rising,” which is an astrological phrase, indicating how a person will be seen by others, which is how they know who Jesus is. If the star appears at Jesus birth, and he is now about 2 years old (more on this in a minute) and they have been following it for 2 years or so. So how do they get to Jerusalem and don’t go directly to Bethlehem? Where did the star go? Steve Pankey, a colleague of mine, wonders if they got distracted by the regal glory of Jerusalem and Herod’s court? Others wonder why they didn’t realize the danger of going to a King’s court to ask directions to the birthplace of another king?

What we do know is that Herod, with the help of his court religious leaders, tell the wise men Jesus is in Bethlehem. He also asks them to let him know exactly where Jesus is, so he can also pay homage. Matthew tells us they follow the star, which seems to mystically reappear, right to Jesus’ presence.

Here is another point of our focus, the wise men, kneeling down in front of Mary and Jesus offering him treasure of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Note there is no mention of cattle, or donkeys or lambs or shepherds, or angels, we’ve brought over from Luke, or a little drummer boy. The only people there, other than Jesus’ family, are the wise men. After at least a night’s sleep, which we discern from the warning they receive by dream, they head home a different way.

Here are two stories that follow their departure. The first one we read on the 2nd Sunday after Christmas (which is rare) and Epiphany, which is on a Sunday about every 6 years. You recall I mentioned how ruthless Herod is. He ordered Syrian Roman Legion to crush the rebellion after his father (also named Herod) died. He was also known to kill political or religious leaders who spoke against him. So, it is easy to imagine how Herod will react to the news of a new Jewish king. On Herod’s order all the boys 2 years old and younger are killed, a tragedy we observed every December 28; except we don’t. By the way, this is how we know Jesus was about 2 years old when the wise men arrive. The second story is how Joseph warned by an angel in a dream takes Mary and Jesus and flees to Egypt, escaping the mass murder of the innocent. They stay in Egypt until Herod’s death.

We are so focused on the wise men offering homage and gifts to Jesus we miss these two subtle yet critical points. The word ‘epiphany’ (little ‘e’) means a sudden manifestation or perception of the essential nature or meaning of something or an intuitive grasp of reality through something (such as an event) usually simple and striking. In school, I typically had an epiphany just after the test. In church language ‘Epiphany’ (capital ‘E’) is the celebration of Christ manifestation to the gentiles, in Matthew’s story, the wise men (Peters). We are so used to seeing the wise men as kings, I suspect that we rarely think of them as gentiles. The meaning of the star given to the magi is the first gospel revelation that God is incarnate in Jesus for gentiles as well as for the Jewish people. Jesus is born for everyone, every heart who receives him. Secondly, it is worth noting that it is foreign court officials (as all magi in Jesus’ day are) who are the first pay homage to Jesus. The first action to the news of Jesus’ birth by his earthly king is an attempt to execute him. A dark foreshadowing because it is the governments, both Jewish and Roman, who execute Jesus.

All this comes down to two epiphanies

  1. the light of the word came to everyone, and
  2. the powerful can and do seek to block the light of the word.

Which reminds me that

from the very beginning, when God spoke, there has been light, and the light of life was good, the light of life shines in the darkness and darkness cannot and has not overcome it (Gen 1:1, John 1:1).

From this, I glean two callings

  1. welcome everyone in Christ’s light, it is not our calling to judge others or to protect God’s divine presence; God is very capable of defending divine self. and then
  2. speak the truth, that pulls back the curtain that hides when, where and how the authorities, the rulers, the principalities, the powers, the darkness of this world (Eph 6:1) by thought, word and deed, done and undone, seek to cast darkening shadows over God’s people.

These gleanings evoke two imperatives.

  1. Now is the time to welcome all into divine light life.
  2. Now is the time for the darkness to be overcome to be transformed by the ever-present light life.

For Epiphany, the time of divine light life is right here right now.


References

Boring, M. Eugene. New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary The Gospel of Matthew. Vol. VII. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015. XII vols. App Olivetree.

Gaventa, Beverly Roberts and David Petersen. New Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary. Nashville, n.d.

Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.

Keener, Craig and John Walton. NKJV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible Notes. Nashville: Zondervan, 2017.

Pankey, Steve. “Distracted by Power.” 3 1 2019. Draughting Theology.

Peters, David. Stars, Epiphany – January 6, 2019. 6 1 2019. <http://episcopaldigitalnetwork.com/stw/&gt;.

Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.

Thomas Nelson Inc. NKJV Strong’s. Nashville: Olive Tree, 1982.

 

 

Be a Blessed and Merry Christmas Keeping

On the 5th day of Christmastide

A sermon for Christmas; Isaiah 9:2-7, Titus 2:11-14, Luke 2:1-14(15-20), Psalm 96

One of my early Christmas memories was when I was about 12. At my mother’s suggestion, I took a set of bells, that hung on the back door during Christmas, walked down back porch roof to my little brothers’ room and rang them. As soon as I heard them move, I sprinted back down the roof and, to my mother complete surprise, dove through my bedroom window, fortunately, I landed in my bed.

Some years later my brothers and sisters and I raced downstairs at the appointed time. We were not allowed downstairs before 7, a rule established after our 5:30 am appearance. To our surprise, nothing was there. The tree and all the presents that had been there were gone. What we expected to be delivered magically in the night, was not there. We were stunned. It was one of the few moments, when the house was not asleep, that it was silent. It turns out mom and dad had moved everything from the family room to the living room during the night. The next year is proof that what parents do is more formative than anything they can say or teach. In the dark of night, the five of us sneaked downstairs, moved Christmas into the upstairs hall, including the fully decorated tree. Our gales of laughter replaced the time of stunned silence.

When we mostly grew up, well we were living on our own, some of us were married, and some of us had kids, the extended family would meet at our parent’s home, enjoy a meal of captain’s soup, exchange gifts, share in joyful Christmas banter, before we headed off to our individual families’ emerging Christmas traditions.

If in the future any such events are a part of your Christmas experience, this preacher disavows any knowledge of past events. Beware the flaming thurible (a crucible for incense).

I hope your families’ traditions of observing Christmas bring such joy into your lives. During my reading this past week, it struck me when someone made note of the difference between observing Christmas and keeping Christmas that there is a lot of observing Christmas in the traditions I shared and that I see. The curious thing is, that except for the significant change in happy vs mean attitude, how similar just observing Christmas can be like Scrooge. But here is good news, observing Christmas can be transformed into keeping Christmas, without the visit from three Christmas Ghosts.

Dana Kelley wrote about a scene in A Christmas Carol that is not in any of the movies. Charles Dickens’ story includes an argument between Scrooge and the Ghost of Christmas Present, where Scrooge accuses the Ghost of cramping “the people’s opportunity of innocent enjoyment. The language is difficult, but the background is clearer.

In Dicken’s day ovens were not common in the homes of working class and poor people. Six-day a week, ten-hour workday meant Sunday was the only day they could prepare a hot meal. Blue laws prevent bakers from baking on Sunday, but not from making their ovens available to these families to cook their meals in. Sir Andrew Agnew, a member of Parliament, introduced a bill that proposed to close the blue-law loophole and disallow even the firing up of ovens on Sundays.

The scene is a dig at a local politician, through the Ghost. I suspect it is left out of the movies to avoid insulting anyone, including us because we can’t conceive of the problem any more than Sir Agnew could. Confession; though I have no knowledge of the lineage; I do know that Agnew is a common name in my father’s family. And yes, it makes me at least ponder, if not squirm.

The Ghost answers Scrooge

 There are some upon this earth of yours who lay claim to know us, and who do their deeds of passion, pride, ill-will, hatred, envy, bigotry, and selfishness in our name; who are as strange to us and all our kith and kin, as if they never lived. … Remember that, and charge their doings on themselves, not us.

Scrooge promises he will, and this is the transformational moment in the book. I’m sure you remember the story ends by sharing that it is said of Scrooge He knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. Dickens goes on the write May that be truly said of us, and all of us!

It is easy to get caught up in observing Christmas, sometimes in the joyful ways, but for some folks in a negative way, because of the brokenness in their family (Kosa). It is easy to forget that you are a blessing to God just as you are. It is hard to see how God longs for you to be a blessing to others, through your brokenness. (Almquist). We forget that the bible is full of broken or different families. This includes Jesus’ family. Mary’s pregnancy is unexpected, Joseph becomes as foster father, and they will have to flee to a foreign county because of death threats (Kosa). 2,018 or so years ago, that brokenness becomes a blessing. It is a blessing that has never stopped, the Messiah’s birth is always happening, even in the bottomless abyss of each soul’s dark night (Stringer). Every Christmas, every night is the opportunity for every heart to become just a bit more of a humble manger, a place for the birth of Jesus (Bartoli).

I see such opportunities kept. In Blytheville there are many such mangers, whether they call themselves ministries or not, from support for Charitable Clinic, or Ringing for the Mission, or being a part of giving away some 800 sets for food boxes through the Ignite program, or participating in one of the Christmas Tree giving efforts, to sending cards to isolated neighbors, to simply wishing your cashier a blessing and Merry Christmas.

My Christmas wish for you is that our God, who is always doing something new, reveals how your hearts are becoming a birthing manger, a blessing of God’s light and life and love to all who surround you (Almquist). May you be a blessed and Merry Christmas keeping.


References

Almquist, Br. Curtis. “Blessing- Brother, Give Us A Word.” Brother, Give Us A Word. Cambridge, 12 12 2018. <ssje.org/word/>.

Bartoli, Br. Nicholas. Manger – Brother, Give Us A Word. 15 12 2018.

Kosa, Lauren. I just divorced and was dreading Christmas. Then I remembered. 11 12 2018. <https://www.washingtonpost.com/religion/2018/12/11/i-just-divorced-was-dreading-christmas-then-i-remembered-all-broken-families-bible/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.1dd65d529039&gt;.

Stringer, Clifton. THE SIGN OF THE NEWBORN BABY. 19 12 2018. <https://www.ministrymatters.com/all/entry/9418/the-sign-of-the-newborn-baby&gt;.

 

 

It Just May Be Your Song

A sermon for Advent 4; Micah 5:2-5a, Hebrews 10:5-10, Luke 1:39-45, (46-55), Canticle 15 (or 3) or Psalm 80:1-7

A quick history of Israel from Samuel through 2nd Kings and the time between the Old and New Testament. In

 1043 BCE Saul becomes King (1 Samuel 8 – 10)
1010 BCE David is made King over Judah (2 Samuel 2)
931 BCE the Kingdom is divided (1 Kings 12, 13) by the wisest man in the world
722 BCE Israel is taken into captivity (2 Kings 17:6) never to return.
586 BCE is the Fall of Jerusalem (2 Kings 25) and her people are taken into exile
537 BCE the exiles return (Ezra 2)
444 BCE the city wall rebuilt and not long after the Temple is sort of rebuilt
33 BCE  Judah is conquered by Alexander the Great along with all of Persia,                                 and in
63 BCE she conquered by Rome

Today’s story begins around 4 BCE. It was another bad year. Herod the Great died, and all the Jews rebelled. The Roman Syrian legions crushed the Jewish rebellions and burned the city of Sepphoris in Galilee and reduced its inhabitants to slavery. Those who could not hide were killed, raped, and enslaved. Those who survived lost everything. Jesus grew up in Nazareth about 4 miles from Sepphoris. As have all the others who occupied Judea, the Romans economically exploited the Jews (Johnson).

Mary’s family likely arranged for her to travel to her aunt and uncle’s home with others journeying in that direction because it was not safe for anyone to travel alone, never mind a young girl (Keener and Walton). The road she is traveling with God safe isn’t safe either.

When she sees Elizabeth, Mary greets her “shalom”, or peace, meaning may God cause all to be well with you (Keener and Walton). Elizabeth answers with a thanksgiving that she is blessed to be in presence of her Lord’s mother and offers Mary a blessing.

Mary responds with what we know as The Magnificat, we said it together this morning. It is built on (Samuel’s mother) Hannah’s prayer and sings about the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham and God’s commitment to reversing unjust power and status (Gaventa and Petersen; Culpepper). It echoes the social upheaval and economic exploitation, speaks of how the people are still anticipating deliverance from unjust rulers and unfair law, and their belief that God is at work (Harrelson). The use of the word ‘Savior’ is evidence that the people need strength that is greater than theirs; it expresses the people’s desperation; and confesses that the need for deliverance will be met by someone else (Harrelson). The Magnificat praises God’s activity and faithfulness as (1) the warrior, who engages in battle on behalf of God’s people and brings them deliverance, and (2) God the merciful, who remembers the lowly and cares for the needy (Harrelson). It proclaims that the overthrow of the powerful will not come through strong rebellion but through the coming of God in the weakness of a child (Culpepper). It speaks of how this dramatic reversal by which the proud are scattered and the powerful deposed is the signature of God’s mighty acts. It sings of how the lowly are exalted, and the hungry are fed, while the rich are sent away empty. Mary sings of God’s redeeming work not as some future expectation, but as already being fulfilled (Culpepper). The Magnificat’s jubilant hope for the future is dangerous political language, as it speaks of upending the current power structures. Mary is not just a pregnant teen, she is God’s messenger proclaiming the arrival of a new age; an age of justice in which unjust social and economic values are turned upside down (Epperly).

After the end of WWII, we lived and worked in a world believing we faced only one real enemy, the Russian Empire, formally known as the USSR. In 1991, or there about, that Empire fell along with the Berlin Wall. Then we believed the ideology of western democracy and capitalism would dominate.

For lots of entangled and complex reasons that vision has not born fruit. The economic strength of the American middle class has given way to technology changes, overseas manufacturing, and the commoditization of most all segments of social support systems, schools, healthcare, prisons, and so on. China has emerged as an economic competitor and a growing military threat. Middle East countries rich in oil have erupted into violent interregional religious and social conflict. Despots, whose rule we thought was limited to South America and Africa, have emerged in Europe. Italy is threating to pull out of the EU. England has announced it will but doesn’t seem to know how. The Arab spring was short lived. Syria has been engulfed in a brutal civil war for 7 years. Yemen’s 3-year-old civil war is even worse. We don’t hear much about Iraq, only because everything else is such a mess, at the same time some talk of security forces behavior that likely will lead to the reemergence of ISIS. Decades of negotiations have made little if any real progress to settle the Israel – Palestinian conflict. Nuclear Arms treaties are giving way to the emergence of threats from countries who are not participants. We thought we were making progress in reducing the health effect of smoking, when vaping appears on the scene; last year teen vaping rate doubled, and just last week a major tobacco company bought Juul, the company selling the favorite e-cigarette among teens. And our own political scene is a mess with politicians acting from loyalty to their party and or campaign funders, not the country or “we the people.” Congress hasn’t been able to pass a budget without some sort of shut down or kick it down the road maneuver for years. Large corporations are buying each other and everything else up at rates concerning some economist. We cannot even agree what science is, never mind decide if it is revealing rising global temperatures and the consequences that may come or are coming or are here.

It is a different set of causes, nonetheless it is how, in our age, justice, social and economic values are corrupt (Epperly).

We proclaim that we know how God works, but we might pretend we do not, so we avoid drawing attention to ourselves, because we know such knowledge is as dangerous for us as it is for Mary (TLC). Religion is inseparable from politics, just as it was in in Mary’s time. When we celebrate God’s concern in the past, we acknowledge God’s concern and we pray for God’s concern for the present, as we pronounce our confidence that God is at work now (Johnson). We don’t use the language any more, but we pray for the return of the King, the return of our Messiah.

But, ~  we forget that the overthrow of Rome did not come about through the strength of rebellion lead by a mighty king, but through the coming of God in the weakness of a child. We forget God’s messenger was a pregnant teenage girl, from a backwater town, of the smallest tribe, in a relatively insignificant province of the Roman Empire.

As we look to the celebration of our Savior’s birth, we are also looking at how we are called to be God’s messenger, in this age, when everything is turn upside down, in its own way. And though it is not safe, it may just be your song magnifying the Lord, rejoicing in the Savior who awakens in our hearts the presence of divine strength brings shalom
peace from war,
peace of mind,
completeness,
soundness in welfare, safety, and health,
prosperity
peace and quiet,
contentment,
friendship,
covenant relationship with God (Olivetree),
right here, and everywhere, right now.


 

References

Biasdell, Machrina. Song Hope – Advent 4. 23 12 2018. <http://episcopaldigitalnetwork.com/stw/&gt;.

Culpepper, R. Alan. New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary The Gospel of Luke. Vol. 8. Abbington, 2015. 12 vols. Olive Tree App.

Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 23 12 2018. <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/author/bruceepperly&gt;.

Gaventa, Beverly Roberts and David Petersen. New Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary. Nashville, n.d.

Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.

Hoezee, Scott. Advent 4 – Luke 1:39-45 (46-56). 17 12 2018. <http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/advent-3c/?type=the_lectionary_gospel&gt;.

Johnson, Elisabeth. Commentary on Luke 1:39-45, (46-55). 23 12 2018. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2975 1/3>.

Keener, Craig and John Walton. NKJV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible Notes. Nashville: Zondervan, 2017.

Olivetree. Olive Tree Enhanced Strong’s Dictionary. Olive Tree Bible Software, 2014.

Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.

The Living Church. “Work and Joy.” 23 12 2018. livingchurch.org. <livingchurch.org/2018/08/22/freedom-and-popular-culture>.

 

 

 

From a Crowd Into God’s people

A Sermon for Advent 3; Luke 3:7, Zephaniah 3:14-20, Canticle 9, Philippians 4:4-7, Luke 3:7-18

[pace agitatedly]

“You brood of vipers!”

Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? (Luke 3:7 [pause] Yes, a brood is a family of young animals, born in one hatching. And yes, vipers are venomous snakes with long, hinged fangs that enables them to bite deep to inject their venom. But John isn’t calling the crowd a bunch of really poisonous snakes. About 4 decades ago I lived in an apartment complex. One of my neighbors was about 6’6, weighted like 250 pounds, and was a city police officer. One Friday night I was at a party, with lots of people crammed into someone’s apartment. All of a sudden, the door burst open; it’s full of police blue, and a loud booming voice proclaiming “Hi ya’ll!” He had our attention.

The crowd – brood is every one Jew & Gentile, the powerful and their functionaries, and every-day folks. John’s chides the crowd for relying on their family relationship to Abraham for salvation. Yes, he was faithful, but that doesn’t matter, God can raise up another Abraham any time God chooses; besides, as we heard in Isaiah’s Canticle it is the faithfulness of their relationship with God that matters. Abraham can help, he can point the way, but their relationship with Abraham is not the saving relationship. I wonder if some folks don’t think of their church, the way the crowd thinks of Abraham, a sort of I belong so I’m okay membership card to God’s presence.

So yes, John has a prophetic warning to share, but more importantly John wants to get the people’s attention, he got it (Culpeper).

The change in wording from ‘crowd’ to ‘people’ is one sign he has their attention (Culpeper). Another sign is that they ask him what to do. There are three broad groups of people. Those who have plenty, who are symbolized by the two coats. It almost makes me ashamed of the number of coats in my closet. Tax collectors specifically, or more generally government or officials of any kind. Finally, soldiers, who actually function more like the police, their job is to keep the peace. John tells those with plenty to share. He tells the officials not to use their office for personal gain. He tells the soldiers, the police, to be satisfied with their wages. The summary is to quit doing things the way you want to, or the way society tells you is okay, and do it better, do it honestly, do it as an act of service for others; be truthful and above board in your work, be faithful to whatever task is yours to perform (Nagata; Hoezee).

In listening to the what is going on in the world I wonder who would be in the crowd today John directs his abrupt prophecy too? Who is John calling to be faithful,

  • a county clerk treating people differently, because they are different than the clerk
  • a doctor stealing million in Medicaid dollars, perhaps contributing to the desire of some government leaders to cut cost by cutting benefits,
  • a college president kicking back state grant dollars to legislators who coordinated it,
  • police and jail officers covering up the misdeeds of their partners,
  • teachers, coaches, priests, and others who abuse the children in their charge,
  • a secretary embezzling hundreds of thousands of dollars from the church whose books she keeps,
  • builders taking advantage of disasters, offering work at inflated prices and lesser materials;

there were others Luke did not include in this Gospel story; there are others today.

John’s prophetic call is an Advent call, a call to reorient your life (Lewis); it is an invitation into a joyous companionship with God (Epperly). It is an invitation made to all of us.

~~~

All of us, not everybody, but all of us know the gifts under the tree represent God’s gift of Jesus to all of us. John reminds all of us that what matters is how we live our lives, not as points earned, but an outward and visible sign of the inner, spiritual relationship with our creator God (Lewis).

The Christmas story is the beginning of God changing the world, all of it, all the universe, everything, every living creature in it. John gives us peak ahead, by letting us know the change is happening one life at a time. The people were not called to try and change the world on their own, or start the newest spiritual practice, or begin an ambitious project; they were called do what they had been doing all along; just do it better, in righteousness and justice (Hoezee). Neither are we and so are we.

All this is hard work. It is hard to look at our own behaviors, to strip away all the social, religious stamps of approval, and see with divine eyes. It is hard to give up the benefits our culture gives us. It is hard to give up the advantages we’ve been lucky enough to have, or clever enough to claim. It is hard to love mercy, do justice, and walk humbly with God. It is hard to be transformed from a crowd, into a community of God’s people. The authors of today’s collect know this, which is presumably why they begin with the phrase Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us. God listens, God hears, and God is ~ stirring things up; right here, right now.


References

Culpeper, R. Alan. The Gospel of Luke, Introduction, Commentary and Reflections. Ed. Leander E. Keck (NIBC) Mark 16. Vol. VIII. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015. X vols. OliveTree.

Dinkler, Michal Beth. Commentary on Luke 3:7-18. 12 12 2018.

Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 16 12 2018. <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/author/bruceepperly&gt;.

Gaventa, Beverly Roberts and David Petersen. New Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary. Nashville, n.d.

Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.

Hoezee, Scott. The Lectionary Gospel Luke 3:7-18. 16 12 2018.

Keener, Craig and John Walton. NKJV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible Notes. Nashville: Zondervan, 2017.

Lewis, Karoline. The Time Is Now. 16 12 2018. <workingpreacher.org>.

Nagata, Ada Wong. “What Should We Do? Advent 3.” 16 12 2018. Sermons that Work.

Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.

 

 

Rites of Trauma

A Sermon for Advent 2; Malachi 3:1-4, Canticle 4 or 16, Philippians 1:3-11, Luke 3:1-6

This past week we watched a couple of versions of Dickens “A Christmas Carol” This got me to thinking; 3 Ghosts of Christmas, Past, Present, and Future; sounds like an interesting way to practice Advent. However, no matter how I tried, I could not make 3 equal 4; no math tricks I learned in school worked, no new math things, I’ve seen, worked, not even the crazy math of quantum mechanics worked. The divine muse was silent. And then I read David Brook’s column Fighting the Spiritual Void.

Brooks explores the impact of trauma, and how poorly we help people recover. It doesn’t matter if its PTSD, or sexual assault, a grave injury, witnessing a horrific event, or surviving a disaster when many close to you did not, we’ve moved to a place where we treat trauma simply with medication. Our culture’s “not religious, but spiritual” posture leaves a spiritual void … [of] privatize morality [that] denudes the public square of spiritual content, … [robs] people of the community resources they need to process moral pain together (Brooks). Brooks wishes we had the spaces, wisdom of community elders, and rituals that symbolize the transformation.

When I finished his column, I realized we know how to do this. Churches, especially like the Episcopal Church, which are liturgy centered, know about rites, we know their power. Or at least we did. We seem to have lost the connection between ritual and the needs of the secular community. A similar loss is at the heart of today’s reading from Malachi.

The first thing you will have noticed is, inspired by multiple commentaries, I expanded the reading by a few verses, to include verses where God replies to Judah’s complaint that since they have returned from Exile they have rebuilt the Temple under Zerubbabel, experienced a religious revival under Ezra and rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem under Nehemiah yet they had not returned to their former glory. The result is that worship has become a mere form, tithes are ignored, Sabbath is broken, marriage and adoption of pagan customs are common, and priests are corrupt (Mast). Malachi answers for God

You have wearied the Lord I will send you my messenger, suddenly. He will come to the Temple. He will cleanse priests like a refiner’s fire and fullers’ soap until they are righteous then your offerings will be pleasing to God (Malachi 2:17-3:5).

 Notice I have tinkered with the wording and emphasized Malachi’s focus on worship. Judah has once again violated the covenant. The collapse of divine justice prevails. Gods will refine and purify the places, the leaders, the hearts of worshippers, erasing corruption and restoring grace (Han). Advent is a season of such reorientation. It is about hearing Malachi giving voice to God’s warning and reorienting our worship so we may reorient our lives. The shift to blue vestments and liturgical accouterments indicates such thinking has fallen from favor in the church. I still hold to the idea that Advent is a time of penitence, different than Lent, but still, a time to change the direction of our lives, and according to Malachi, the direction of our worship.

This morning I am hearing two prophetic voices. One, Brooks, is in the role of the nuisance prophet who points out our shorting comings, where we have lost the truth and reveals our secrets (Johnson). He also has some creative ideas of what restoration might include. The other, Malachi, is meddlesome (Johnson). He tells us God is actively purifying thing, refining things, which means changing things. Those changes might just look like additional rites for a traumatized people and communities. Books suggest such rites include the language of Myth … that moves people from Separation through Initiation and then back to Return. It sounds a lot like Brueggemann’s categorization of the Psalms into Psalms of Orientation, Disorientation, and Reorientation. These rites could revive ancient rites for soldiers returning from war who are given a chance to cleanse, purify (think refiners fire) themselves and then rejoin the community, which takes possession of the guilt they have for actions made on our behalf. Then they are welcomed as warriors, and positive leaders in the community (Brooks). There are foundational traditions within our existing sacramental traditions for such rites.

Brooks sees a place for a community-wide rite of passage for people coming out of prison, for the forgiveness of a personal wrong, Such a rite can draw on elements of baptism including renouncing Satan and all forces of wickedness… (BCP 302) a promise to seek and serve Christ in all people respecting the dignity of every human being (BCP 304) and elements of confession, counseling, and absolution found in the Reconciliation of Penitent (BCP 447).

He suggests a rite for people as they emerge from the darkness trauma and abuse. They might draw from the laying of hands and anointing found in the Ministry to Sick (BCP 453), and prayers which pronounce releasing them from suffering and restoring them to shalom, wholeness and strength, deliverance, and perseverance.

Brooks also suggests a rite to mark the moment when a young person finds their life’s vocation. It might be based on The Commitment to Christian Service (BCP 420) and include a prayer for guidance, a commending to their work, a Litany for Vocation mirroring a Litany for Ordination (BCP 548), all generally following the Celebration of New Ministry (BCP 556).

The crafting of such rites will not be easy. They will need be openly available to all people recovering from traumatic events, Episcopal or not, Christian or not. There will need to be prophets to help us see the need, to see that no one sinned; this man was just born blind; and call us to work the work God is calling us to work (John 9:3-5). Who knows, such rites may even be a new way to proclaim the Gospel to a nation whose actions are less and less grounded in the foundational values we pretend to proclaim. I know it will be a challenge to follow Brooks’ and Malachi’s prophetic voices. I know It will be harder to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God (Romans 12:1) as a prophetic voice that prepares the way for those recovering from life’s trauma (CEP M). I know such grace is present right here, right now.


References

Bratt, Doug. Advent 2 C Malachi 3:1-4. 9 12 2018. <cep.calvinseminary.edu>.

Brooks, David. Fighting the Spiritual Void. 19 11 2018. <https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/19/opinion/mental-health-ptsd-community.html&gt;.

Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 9 12 2018. <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/author/bruceepperly&gt;.

Gaventa, Beverly Roberts and David Petersen. New Interpreter’s One-Volume Commentary. Nashville, n.d.

Han, Jin H. Commentary on Malachi 3:1-4. 9 12 2018. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/&gt;.

Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.

Johnson, Deon. “Advent 2 C (18).” 9 12 2018. Sermons that Work.

Keener, Craig and John Walton. NKJV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible Notes. Nashville: Zondervan, 2017.

Mast, Stan. Malachi 3:1-4. 9 12 2018. <http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermonstarters/&gt;.

Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.

Schuller, Eileen M. New Interpreters Bible The Book of Malachi. Ed. Leander E. Keck. Vol. V. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015. X vols. Olive Tree.

The Episcopal Church. The Book of Common Prayer. New York: Church Publishing, 1979.