04 December 2016

Prepare the Way of the Lord, A sermon for Advent 2A

“In those days . . .” our Gospel reading begins. “In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness . . .” You don’t have to be a Biblical scholar to know that a story that begins with “In those days  . . .” is a story about things that were and things that are and how they’re different. There is a new thing coming, the Gospel writer tells us. And if we’re to believe the description in today’s reading from Isaiah about wolves living with lambs, and lions eating straw, this new thing is completely different from anything we’ve seen so far.

If you’re paying attention to the rhythms of the church year, you’ll know today is the second Sunday of Advent. Advent, of course, is the church season when we wear blue, light candles on a wreath, and open tiny boxes to eat the tiny chocolates inside, all while stubbornly refusing to listen to Christmas carols and being smugly satisfied that we are doing the Liturgical year the right way, not letting any spare merriment sneak into the short, dark days of December.

I was talking this week with other parents who have children at home about how hard it is to keep Advent as a period of waiting and preparation when everybody else has been covered in twinkle lights and tinsel since Halloween. My younger son has been singing a medley of Christmas songs he learned in music class, my older son has been practicing Good King Wenceslas on his violin for a concert this week.  A Charlie Brown Christmas has been broadcast for the year and is probably already back in storage. And if you want to wait until Christmas Eve to put up your Christmas tree, you better be using an artificial tree because there are no good live trees left on the lots after about the 18th. Popular culture tells us to spend this month consuming as much as possible, and we can worry about budgetary and dietary repentance on January 1st.

But John the Baptist comes to us now saying “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven has come near.” We always get John on Advent two, and as one of the commentaries I read this week said, John is always weird.  A more generous commentary calls him “colorful.” He’s out in the wilderness, for one thing. And he’s wearing camel hair and leather and eating locusts, for another. I admit I don’t know everything there is to know about Biblical fashions or food trends, but I am a reader and all readers know that if an author starts talking about clothes and food it is because those clothes and foods are unusual in some way. John’s wardrobe and diet are meant to evoke the austerity and self sacrifice of the Hebrew prophets. It’s no surprise then that people of the time would wonder if John was the second coming of Elijah. The Gospel writer was clearly trying to give readers the impression that John might be Elijah.

If John is meant to be one of the old school prophets, and maybe Elijah himself, then it’s important that we’re clear on what the Hebrew prophets did. They weren’t doomsayers. They didn’t predict the future. Their gift lay in being able to see a situation clearly. They looked at what was happening around them and could see where things were headed because if you were seeing clearly you knew there was no other way it could go than the way it had gone every other time things were headed that way. That was how things were and how they kept being. If the Hebrews wanted a new thing, they needed to listen to the prophets and get out of their old ways.

John’s clothes weren’t the only unusual things about him. John was baptizing Jews. Baptism, in John and Jesus’ day was a thing for converts, not for those were were born Jews.  John was saying that the Hebrews who for so long had prided themselves on being sons of Abraham, God’s chosen people, were no better off than the Gentiles. They needed the same baptism, the same new thing, that the Gentiles needed.

John is calling on believers to repent. Most of us have heard that the word repent means “to turn around” and for the Hebrew word “shuv” that is the literal translation. The Gospels were written in Greek, and the Greek word translated as “repent” is “metanoia” which taken literally means “A change of mind.” In context both shuv and metanoia mean the same thing: taking a clear look at how our thoughts and our actions are rooted in the old things and turning them toward God. This is no simple expression of regret that wipes our transgressions from our records, as John makes clear to the Pharisees and Sadducees he suspects have come for a quick fix. No, John tells them they must bear fruit worthy of repentance.

Aren’t we as likely as any Pharisee to look for the quick fix instead of truly turning around? Aren’t we as likely as any Sadducee to stay mired in the past instead of allowing ourselves to have a change of mind, to see the new Kingdom that is coming?

John tells us that we must bear fruit worthy of repentance. Isn’t that what we’re doing during Advent? Getting out into the wilderness to “prepare the way of the Lord, to make His paths straight.”?

John tells them “do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor.” John tells us, do not presume to say to yourselves “I have the right skin color, the right bank accounts, the right gender, the right education, the right neighborhood, the right religion. I will be okay.”

Our old privileges might be enough for us to be okay in this world, but they have no value in the Kingdom of God, not even the part about not singing Christmas carols during Advent. What matters in the Kingdom of God is that we bear fruit worthy of repentance.

We heard about one such fruit from Paul today in the Letter to the Romans. The reading this week catches the end of a long letter and the last thing Paul urges them to do is to live in harmony with each other, Gentiles and Jews alike. They should welcome one another, just as Christ welcomed them. That kind of harmony was a new thing, a change of mind, a turning around. It required self-sacrificial love from those early Christians. It required that they love the people who didn’t look like them or live like them or know the same stories or sing the same songs,  and not just love them from a distance but live in harmony with them under one roof. That’s what the Kingdom of God looked like to Paul. Notice Paul didn’t say that the early church in Rome was succeeding at that task, only that it should be their goal, supported by the encouragement of the Scriptures and the example of welcome Christ gave them. They should study those Scriptures and have hope

This Advent, what if we didn’t just light candles and open tiny boxes to get at the chocolate inside? What if we didn’t keep Advent only through a stubborn refusal to play Christmas carols until December 25th, and loud complaining about how the Twelve Days of Christmas weren’t meant to be a shopping countdown? What if Advent were more than a month of “Not Christmas Yet”?

What if, instead, we tried to be like the prophets of old, and take a clear look at how things are and where they are headed, and encouraged by the Scriptures, we allowed ourselves to hope? What if we made an honest assessment as a church and as individuals, of the things we are doing that are rooted in idolatry, violence, injustice, exploitation, slavery, and scarcity, and then asked ourselves how can we change our minds, how can we turn ourselves around to be rooted in God’s laws of love, peace, justice, dignity, freedom and abundance? How can these Advent candles light our path to God?  How can we, in these dark, short days of December, bear fruit worthy of repentance?


*In preparing this sermon, I relied heavily the commentaries posted on Working Preacher.
Advent 2, Year A
Revised Common Lectionary
Isaiah 11:1-10
Romans 15:4-13
Matthew 3:1-12
Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19

07 October 2016

Scent Memory

Perfume

Joy smells like lying in the dark in my bedroom, pretending to be asleep 
when my mother came in to check on me after coming home
from a glamorous grown-up party, the kind I never go to, 
because no one is glamorous anymore.
Joy smells like the sound of her charm bracelet jingling 
as she took off her fur coat, 
and the rustle of garment bags as she put it away in the spare closet.

Sometimes the parties were at our house.
 My parents would hire a man to tend bar,
 and his wife to manage the kitchen for the evening 
so they could mingle. 
My sister and I put on our best party dresses and carried trays of hors d'oeuvres
 through the sea of people, offering up ham biscuits and shrimp puffs
 and showing off our best manners. 

We were never relegated to watching the party from the top of the stairs. 
My mother knew there was no chance we would sleep 
and she might as well get free labor, 
and the pride of parenting such well behaved children. 
If there was music no one could hear it over the voices and laughter 
and the ice in the glasses as my parents’ friends drank up
jugs of whiskey, vodka, and gin flavored with olives, onions, and tonic.
It’s a miracle the whole generation of them 
didn’t run their cars into trees on the way home. 

Sometimes the parties were at my grandmother’s house.
 My grandparents would hire a man to tend bar, 
and his wife to manage the kitchen for the evening 
so they could mingle. 
My sister and I came in our best party dresses and carried trays of hors d'oeuvres
 through the sea of people, offering up ham biscuits and shrimp puffs
 and showing off our best manners. 
A tray of ham biscuits was dropped once. 
I don’t remember if I did it, or my sister did. 
It does not matter now. 
We both wanted to die, 
to sink into the floor under my grandmother’s disappointed gaze.
 A well mannered child would never drop a tray of ham biscuits, 
not even by accident.

Joy smells like the car ride home,
 (where my father was always sure to compliment us on our manners, 
even long after the age when it was necessary
 to ensure the proper development of our characters) 
and carrying my mother’s coat upstairs to the spare closet before bed.

My perfume does not smell like that, and I almost never wear it. 
My children will have to remember something else.

03 July 2016

A Guest's Hospitality

Seventh Sunday After Pentecost
Year C, Proper 9
(track 2)

If there is a theme that stands out in today’s readings it might be joy.  The prophet Isaiah tells the people of Jerusalem to rejoice and be glad. The Psalmist tells all the lands to be joyful in God. In the Gospel the seventy are sent out ahead of Jesus and they return with joy. The work that God has for us to do is meant to fill us with joy. If that’s not good news I don’t know what is.  What is the work? In Galatians Paul tells us to work for the good of all and to bear each other’s burdens.

I could just give a nice three sentence sermon today.  Love God.  Love your neighbor.  Be joyful. Great talk. Enjoy your holiday weekend.

Except there is a little bit more to say.

Our readings today are also about vulnerability. The people rejoicing in Jerusalem were home from exile and everything was supposed to be great again. For the whole time they’d been in exile the prophets had been telling them it was going to be great. And then they got there and the city was in ruins. The buildings were crumbling. The fields were full of weeds. After years in exile the Israelites troubles were supposed to be over. Instead they have more hard work to do.

The prophet uses the powerful image of a mother caring for her child to encourage them once again to trust in the promises God had made to them, and to be willing to do the work that is necessary even when the outcome seems uncertain, to have faith that their hard work will reap joy.

In the Gospel, we see an even greater vulnerability. The seventy are sent with no food, no water, no spare tunic, no money, no way to defend themselves against bandits on the road and no way to respond to those to who reject them except to shake the dust off their feet. They are to go to strange places bringing nothing but peace with them, enter the homes of strangers, eat their food and hear their stories.  And it works. The seventy are sent out and they return with joy.

That vulnerability is also a kind of hospitality. Of course there’s the hospitality of the strangers who welcomed the seventy. They opened their homes to these wandering prophets, but it’s also about the hospitality of the guests. The seventy who were sent were subject to dietary and other purity laws that would have made eating at a stranger’s house impossible and yet Jesus asked them to go and sleep in these strange beds and eat this strange food.

It’s not, when you get down to it, the hospitality of the hosts that is astonishing here. It’s the hospitality of the guests. How easy would it be for you to go to a stranger’s home, someone who didn’t look like you or sound like you or act like you? You can bring a friend with you, but you cannot bring a snack or your favorite pillow. How comfortable would you be eating their food, sleeping in their guest rooms, listening to their stories?

Listening to other people’s stories is harder than you might think. You have to listen fully, without interrupting, and you have to believe that the story they’re telling you is their real experience.  And you have to listen for points of agreement, instead of jumping in to tell the storyteller why they’re wrong,  even when the story makes you uncomfortable

This kind of listening doesn’t come easily to many of us. But it is a skill that can be learned, and one that is worth learning because it makes it possible to build relationships with our sisters and brothers beyond these walls.

The diversity strategy of this church, for as long as I’ve been here, and of every other church I’ve been involved with, has been founded on the hospitality of a host. We are happy to welcome people into this building. We are glad when new people show up, and we want them to stay and be fully engaged in the life of the church. We are so firm in our belief in the hospitality of a host that we are sometimes willing to go as far outside as the front lawn to eat lunch with each other and as many of the passers-by as the children of the parish can cajole into joining us.

I love this building. This building, this physical space with its stone and stained glass and wooden pews, artful altar hangings, and vibrant flowers, is a joy and a comfort. We use the walls of this sanctuary and the rest of the building to do a lot of good things. We marry and bury and baptize people, we feed the hungry and the lonely, we house the homeless, at least for one week a year, and we collect money to send out into the world reach the people who aren’t here. We come to Christ’s table for solace and strength, pardon and renewal.  We pray for each other, and lift each other up and sometimes we even allow ourselves to be vulnerable, to admit weakness, to ask for help, to weep in the pews.

 But this building’s stone walls can keep people out and our message in. Yes, we feed the poor and house the homeless and clothe the naked. Yes, as we say in our baptismal covenant, we seek and serve Christ in all persons, and we strive for justice and peace among all people, and to respect the dignity of every human being, but as long as we are within these walls, the people who most need us to do those things won’t know about it.  And as long as we are within these walls, the only stories we will hear are our own.

The last time St. Andrew’s was in a time of transition, the Rector Search committee held a lot of listening meetings. People told the stories of how they came to St. Andrew’s, what they found when they got here, and what made them stay. Those were good meetings. We learned a lot about each other and about what St. Andrew’s does well. But there were a lot of stories we didn’t hear.

We didn’t hear the stories of the people who came to St. Andrew’s for a while and then left. We didn’t hear the stories of the people who would never think to walk through our doors in the first place. What was it Paul said in Galatians? Work for the good of all. All is a big word, a lot bigger than the number of people who fit in these pews.

Have you ever wondered why despite being in the middle of a majority minority county, St. Andrew’s remains . . . how do I say this . . . less diverse than we might be? We have friendly greeters, a strong and growing children’s program, beautiful music, and an ample coffee hour. Within these walls we have much to recommend us. I think the answer is that while we are pretty good at welcoming the stranger, we are not very good at being the stranger.

I’m not suggesting we give up the hospitality of the host. This is not an either / or question. It is a "yes, and . . . " question. Yes, we should continue and build on all these good things that we’re doing, and we should begin to build up new things we’ve never done.

 The question is then, where do we start? I don’t feel equipped for this kind of ministry. But then the seventy weren’t equipped either. They were de-equipped. They had only the clothes on their backs and each other. What do we need to start being gracious guests in our community? Where should we go? These are questions I don’t have the answers to, but I believe we can answer them together, with God’s help.

This time of transition is the perfect starting point. We’re already standing in the doorway between what was and what will be, and if we’re already in the doorway, we might as well step outside. I’ll be very much surprised if we don’t return a little better at bearing each other’s burdens, a little better at working for the good of all, and, as the seventy were, filled with joy.

"Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide"

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