Sunday, November 27, 2011

A Sharp Elbow to the Ribs
(a sermon for Advent I)

{Sermon preached Advent 1, November 27, 2011, St Christopher's by-the-Sea}

It’s become popular in recent years to complain about how very, very early the various retail stores – presumably fueled by their godless worship and pursuit of the almighty dollar – have begun decorating their stores for Christmas.  “But it’s not even Thanksgiving!” we say, with indignity.  We roll our eyes at the hedonism of our age.

And then, every year, we come to this Sunday, the one just after Thanksgiving, and in our turkey-drunk stupor we act totally surprised, “What??  You mean it is Advent already?  Why didn’t anybody say something?  Nobody told ME!  You mean it happened again?”

Yes.  Yes.  And yes.  It’s Advent already.  It happened again.  And a part of me laughs: even godless consumer capitalism saw it coming – even godless consumer capitalism tried to warn us – the very rocks were crying out.  Three months ago, while we were still buying swimsuits!  We mocked Noah as he built the boat and warned us about the flood.  Too much??

Now, I realize there’s a danger in making Black Friday sound semi-pious; I get that in no way does the consumer culture capture the true spirit of the season - it needs the church’s help for that - but it DID try to tell us: Sleeper, awake!  4 AM special!  Christmas is coming.
In any case, here we are again, the Sunday after Thanksgiving, the first Sunday of Advent, one more time allegedly surprised by the impending coming of our Lord.

Happy Advent.

By the way, no one else is surprised.  But we are.  The people who proclaim each week, “Christ will come again.”  God’s sense of humor: his church.

Christ will come again.  The promise of Advent.  The promise of the whole Christian life: not that we will go up, says NT Wright, but that Christ will come down, make all things right, restore the whole earth; that heavenly city, the glorious New Jerusalem.

Or, if you prefer the imagery from Isaiah this morning, that God “would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at [God’s] presence.”

Christ will come again.

Ready or not, here he comes.

Good news on this front, by the way.  Did you know that because Christmas falls on a Sunday this year, this is the single longest Advent you’ll ever get?  We may not have remembered; this Sunday may have surprised us, but there’s still time to prepare.  Advent is the season of preparation, and in Advent, as in life, you’ll never have more time to prepare for his coming than you have today.

In Advent, we prepare for Christ’s coming.

Now, if we allow ourselves a moment’s honesty, the fact that we are surprised by Advent every year suggests that preparing for Christ’s coming is not something that comes naturally to us.  This could be for any number of reasons:

Maybe we take his coming for granted.  Like we’re entitled to glory, the goodness of God.  Or, on the other end of things, maybe we’re in denial with respect to God’s glory.  We know too much about ourselves to believe that any good could come to Nazareth - or to us.  Maybe, somewhere along the spectrum between entitlement and guilt, it’s not that we don’t know it’s coming, but we’re disappointed when it does.  Call us the skeptics, but we’ve seen Christmases come and go and things can be good for a season but it’s a pretty big hole that we start from and by January 2nd everybody’s more or less as ordinary as when they started; we quickly forget whatever good came for a season.  Entitlement.  Guilt.  Disappointments of the past.  All of these things can make it hard to prepare.

And I don’t know about you, but when I feel guilt or disappointment coming, some days I’m tempted to just stay in bed.  Sleep it through.  Self-medicate.  Disconnect.

If you know what I’m talking about, if you've been there in that feeling, then you hear, maybe, the power of Jesus’ words when he says to friends this morning, “Keep awake.”

Keep awake. 

(Quick story: Sometimes it’s too late to keep awake.  I remember my own first communion - six years old on Christmas Eve.  I took my Advent first communion class, preparing for Christmas.  But that was back when midnight masses were still the norm and midnight hit me hard that night and I don’t remember much except an elbow in my side at the altar rail, just in time, as Dad put the host in my hands.  Some of us need the kind, strong words of encouragement - stay awake; and others of us need the sharp elbow.  Christ is coming!)

The arrival of change, the prospect of new creation, leaves even the most mature among us closing our eyes like small children, wishing the fears, our failures, and the future away. 

“Therefore, keep awake,” Jesus says.  “For you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly.”

So Christ is coming.  Our job is to prepare, and we have time to prepare. 

The only other point I want to make this morning is that to prepare for his coming is to commit to the hope that only God can bring.

To prepare for Christ is to prepare for hope of the God-can-bring kind.  How does one do that?  What does it look like to prepare for the coming of God? 

I wonder if you’ve noticed that the entire Christian year is present every time we celebrate the Eucharist.  Every season present to the liturgy.  Here’s what I mean by that... that on Christmas, the shepherds hear the angels’ song: “Glory to God in the highest, and peace to God’s people on earth.”  And at every Sunday’s Eucharist we sing the angels’ song: we sing the Gloria. 

Epiphany is the season in which God shows us more clearly who God is, most especially in Christ - that action roughly corresponds to the part of the service in which we read from Holy Scripture.  God telling the story again, so that we might know God more nearly.

Lent might be that time in the service wherein we commit ourselves to prayer for ourselves and the world, most especially the confession of our sins.  But also talking us all the way to Holy Week, as we gather around the table at the Last Supper: “this is my body, broken for you.”  And then, through Good Friday - on the cross, we learn the words that only the cross makes possible when, in the three-day mystery, we call God our Father.

Easter comes just a moment later: “Alleluia!  Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us!"  That glorious A-word of the Christian faith.  Alleluia!  "Therefore let us keep the feast!” 

Pentecost might come at a couple of times - when we call on the Holy Spirit to bless the bread and wine and us, but also, and maybe most principally at the end of the service - the dismissal, which becomes a kind of paraphrase of the Great Commission: “Go in peace to love and serve that Lord!”, whereby we take on our calling to proclaim the Good News in word and deed by the power of the Holy Spirit. 

But where does all that leave Advent?  Just before Christmas - the Gloria.  I think that makes Advent the short prayer we say before all else, the collect of purity (join me as you find the words familiar): Almighty God, to You all hearts are open, all desires known, and from You no secrets are hid: Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of Your Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love You, and worthily magnify Your holy Name; through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Advent, this season in which we ask God to help us prepare for the rest of what comes; to open our hearts; to cleanse them by the inspiration of God’s Spirit; so that - and this is the best part - we may perfectly love God and - listen to this - worthily magnify God’s holy Name.  Worthily magnify.  That's the dead give away that this prayer is for Advent.  Do those words sound familiar?  Mary to her cousin Elizabeth, both of them pregnant, Mary preparing for the coming of Jesus, Mary says this: My soul doth magnify the Lord : and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.

Mary’s calling, made our own, in Advent.  Magnify the Lord.  This is what we pray for in Advent - to be opened, cleansed, inspired by the Spirit, that we might know the “yes” of Mary to the angel; that we might make room for Mary's yes - magnifying the Lord, rejoicing in God, our Savior.  The angel who said to Mary that God sees you, loves you, would like to live in and with you, in order that the world might be saved through God’s Son.

And if that sounds vague to you - if you’re left wondering what that means for you and the next four weeks ahead, preparing this Advent, and if you’re thinking you don’t have any clear steps yet, and all that you know for sure is you’re going to pay more attention to Mary and her “yes” this time around - you’re more than good for the rest of the season, I think.

Happy Advent.


Monday, November 21, 2011

A Short Invitation on Consecration Sunday

Late Monday night, I got back from CREDO (thank you for your prayers, and your card; it made my day) a clergy wellness workshop put on by the larger church.  A lot of good learning, sharing, challenging, growing, and one simple thing that is no less important: a lot of traveling.  Five flights in all.  Corpus Christi to Houston to Atlanta to Asheville.  That was on the way out.  Asheville to Houston to Corpus Christi coming back.  Lots of travel.  And not just the flying.  During the Health and Wellness portion of the week, we were given complimentary pedometers in order to count our steps each day.  The goal is 10,000 steps.  One Rector texted her associate, who had stayed back at home: “They gave us pedometers,” she said, “and I got one for you.  Oh yeah, and I’m learning to assert my authority.  You’re in for it now.  Look out!”  

Plane flights and counted steps, lots of travel.

St Christopher’s, of course, is the patron saint of travelers.  The legend holding that Christopher encountered Christ in his day job helping travelers cross a hazardous river.  Oddly, though, it isn’t St Christopher that I think of when I strap in on the runway and say a quick prayer.  Instead, I think of St Francis.  

Why St Francis?  Truthfully, I’ve remembered St Francis so many times as I’ve boarded airplanes and said a quick prayer to God that I sometimes have to remind myself why.  St Francis - because the story goes that as he was planting flowers in the monastic courtyard one day, a visitor approached him and asked him what he would do if he knew that God would take his life in the next ten minutes.  What would he do - St Francis - knowing that these minutes were his last?  St Francis looked up from his work, thoughtful, and said, “I suppose I would finish planting this next row of flowers.”

I know, I know - lots of things more likely to bring about death in this life than airplanes, but maybe because of the vulnerability of sitting in row 14 of that thin metal tube flying through the air, I think of St Francis.

What if you knew that these were your last ten minutes?
What kind of work gives you peace of the St Francis kind?  

When you sort out your life into piles - the chores, the delights, the thanksgivings, the regrets - when you think about the distractions and detours and destinations of your life - what are the matters that matter to you, and how do break the pull of the orbit of the mundane and live into the things that matter, daily?

At the end of your mortal life, if this was it, what are the matters that matter to you?

The reading from Zephaniah this morning reminds us that there are lots of matters that don’t matter; mortality can help us identify them.  And we need help from time to time letting go of them.  Thus the phrase, “You can’t take it with you.”  As resurrection people, however, we know that there are also some things you can take with you; they just aren’t the usually things folks tend to hold on to.  Love, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, generosity, forgiveness, self-control, joy.  The character, the disposition, of the People of God.  These things are not lost in the economy of God's Kingdom.

Today is Consecration Sunday, the day that we collect our pledge cards for 2012 and, as a parish family, ask God to bless them.  Our theme these past few weeks has been ‘Growing Generous Hearts’.  Our guiding verse has been from Proverbs 11: “One gives freely, yet grows all the richer.”  Along the way, we have observed that giving opens us up as people to the movement of God in our lives.  We have also observed that generosity itself is a gift of God: we can give because God has given us everything, even his Son.  To say that we open ourselves to the Spirit in giving and that God is a giving God is to say that generosity is part of the image of God planted in each one of us.  It’s what we were made for.  

It’s a matter that matters.

This morning we’ll be rearranging some things in our worship to give each of us time to reflect and respond.  There will be no confession, no creed, this morning.  In a moment, the lay reader will lead us in some reflective prayers to open a short time of quiet.  This is a chance to respond, to fill out your pledge card, if you haven’t already.  You have a pledge card in your bulletin.  A

If I were to brave some unsolicited counsel, it would be this: Relax.  Take time to breathe.  Reflect on where God has been moving in your spiritual life.  Where are your blessings?  Reflect also on what you hope God might be hoping for you.  How is he calling you now?  

Lastly, if you’re visiting St Christopher’s this morning - and just lucked out to meet us on Stewardship Sunday (and the day the A/C is out) - or if you’re not ready to call St Christopher’s home in the form of a pledge - feel no pressure.  Don’t fill out a card.  But take the time to reflect.  It’s a gift meant for you.  A gift born of the conviction that God has made each of us in his image, and that the image of God is generous, giving, kind.  We believe in the call of a generous God because he feeds us here.  The call if for all of us.  The time is for you.

Of Saints and Holy Laughter

Funeral homily preached at the Burial Office of Evelyn Lawrence, November 11, 2011.

I remember an Easter Vigil service at which the bishop was visiting this church in North Carolina.  It was his custom to mention the clergy by name and to thank them for their ministry.  This could not help but sound route at times: Thank you, Father Soandso; Bless you, Mother Soandso.  But when he came to one rector, the usual politeness gave way to a much, much richer moment.  Instinctively, the people knew that polite words would not be enough for this priest.  The bishop sensed it, too.  He smiled broadly.  “And Timothy,” he said, “What shall we say of Saint Timothy?”  The people erupted with the laughter that happens when truth has been spoken.

That image and that instinct have been recurring in my soul the past few days.  Though Evelyn would be the first to roll her eyes at her being called a saint, the people know better.  Evelyn Lawrence had the quality of cloth soaked in holy oil.  Not on account of any perfection, but precisely because she knew her flaws; the humility with which she shared them.  Not on account of her having it all put together, but precisely because she knew and lived into her deep, abiding need of God.

What shall we say of Saint Evelyn?

Now, her grandchildren tell me Evelyn wasn’t always this way.  That’s not a dig on Miss Evelyn, either.  It’s a point the family wanted very clearly to make: that the St Christopher’s family because the place where, for the last thirty years of her life, Evelyn found room to live the life of faith.  Not just words on her lips, but in deeds, in her life.  

Even two days ago, when we spoke, Jennifer and Natalie wondered out loud if the St Christopher’s family knew the full extent to which Evelyn loved, valued, and was grateful for the holy friends this place provided.  My response was that that was quite a thing to suggest, because Evelyn was so beloved of our parish family.  Her pew cushion was revered by all of us, even in her absence.  Jennifer and Natalie nodded, but stood by their assertion.  I believe it.  So those of this parish, please hear it again: Evelyn loved you with a gratitude and love that ran all the way down.

Evelyn’s family remember her adventurous spirit and courage.  Her adopting a child even as another was leaving the home.  Her immigration from her home in Jamaica, first to the east coast, then to Portland.  In these things, Evelyn displayed determination and direction.  Indeed, her candor and determination conveyed a strength and made her easily readable to others.  If you didn’t like what Evelyn had to say, you at least knew she believed it was the most loving thing that could be said.  And if you knew her long enough, you learned to trust that.

My own time with Evelyn is marked in my mind by two things: that she never let me leave without making me promise to “kiss that dear sweet child of yours.”  And that as often as I asked her how she was doing, her answer was always: “I am thankful.”  

I am thankful.  Thankful for the family she had; thankful for the things she enjoyed; thankful for the change to have enjoyed the things she could no longer enjoy.

Today we are thankful that Evelyn enjoys the nearer presence of our Lord; that hers is the company of saints and angels in heavenly realms, and that the resurrection morning broken open by Christ, what we called that first, uncertain Easter in dark predawn hours, now belongs to her as fullness of light.  She is found, this morning, completely in Christ’s story.  Her joy and our Lord’s are made complete.  

We are thankful.

The image of Evelyn’s entering the presence of the Risen Lord makes me smile a little bit, because the story of Evelyn’s entering the presence of this church is so widely known.  She had just relocated to Portland.  As one raised in the Anglican tradition, she came to this church, but was understandably suspect of how she would be received as a Jamaican woman in deep South Texas.  She snuck out early for three weeks, attending service, but leaving before the final prayers.  A while later, as she told it, she was at a doctor’s office when the doctor abruptly called out the his wife: “It’s her!  This is Evelyn, the woman who keeps running from church.”  

Dr. Long catching the one who always snuck out early.  Evelyn, afraid she wouldn’t be accepted.  She laughed at how wonderfully wrong she turned out to be.  St Christopher’s became her home, where she lifted up her song to the Lord, and where she knew and loved many friends.

I smile at her story because there are so many who wonder if they can be accepted by God.  Will there be room for me?  Is the kindness there real - and for me?  Be not afraid!  Evelyn - relax!  He’s got you.  And to you, also, he’s got you.  There is plenty of room for God’s People.  Plenty of room in the People of God for saints like Evelyn and us:

"Jesus said unto her, I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: And whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die. Believest thou this?  She saith unto him, Yea, Lord: I believe that thou art the Christ, the Son of God, which should come into the world."

And she laughed with the angels, Miss Evelyn did, the laughter that happens when truth has been spoken.


The Shepherd and the Lamb:
Two Images for Christ the King Sunday

Sermon preached on Sunday, November 20, St Christopher's by-the-Sea

This past Monday, November 14, the church celebrated the feast day of Samuel Seabury, the first American bishop of the Episcopal Church.  Seabury was elected by the American church in...anybody know?  1783 and sent, later that year, to London to be consecrated bishop.  The Church there refused to consecrate him because part of the vows required of bishops in the Church of England included an oath of allegiance to the King.  In 1783 that was still something of a sore spot, as you can imagine.  Even though Seabury was a loyalist at the time of the American Revolution, he found himself unable to take the oath.  After being refused in England, he sailed on to Scotland, where a worthy occasion to stick it to King George was warmly welcomed by the people.  Seabury was consecrated in Aberdeen on November 14, 1784.

We Americans have never felt quite at home with kings.  Mixed emotions, clear allegiances, and an indomitable spirit of independence that springs from the day that declaration was first signed. 

Today is Christ the King Sunday.  This morning I want to ask the question: “What does it mean to call Christ King?” - even for Americans.

Now, someone might say, "no problem, Jonathan, no worries.  Christ isn’t a king like King George or even Hussein.  This is different."  Maybe so.  That, to me, only highlights the question more clearly: how ARE we thinking about Christ’s kingship?  Of his kingdom?  Is it poetic license?  Pretty words that no one really means to take literally or all that seriously?  That seems too harsh.  Is it a kind of spiritual metaphor, the kingship of Jesus?  That is, do we at the same time call Christ our King and insist that that kingdom not touch our politics on the ground?  And on what grounds do we do that?  

One of you told me that Smokey made the simple but poignant point on All Saints’ Sunday that to walk with the Spirit is to be out of step with the world.  That’s the area we’re exploring this morning - the land between kingdoms.

No agenda at this point, just unfolding the question: “What does it mean to call Christ your King?"  

Because Americans, as we know, have never felt quite at home around kings.

Specifically, this morning I want to suggest that our Scripture lessons focus our attention on two things that Christ’s being King means for us.  And the two things that Christ’s being King means for us are lifted up in two images: that of shepherd and that of lamb.  The first image, shepherd, speaks to the question: “Is God able?”  The second question, lamb, speaks to the question: “How will this be?”

We’ll start with shepherd.  In the reading from Ezekiel, God presents himself as the shepherd of God’s people.  And of course this is the image that Jesus takes for himself most especially in John’s gospel when he says, “I am the good shepherd.”  It’s a comforting image; read most recently in this space at the Burial Office for Evelyn Lawrence - and read frequently at funerals: God as the one who finds good pasture for God’s people; God as the one who seeks and cares for God’s sheep, especially the lost and strayed and weak; God as the one who brings sheep - er, people - from all countries together - hints here of the new Jerusalem, that glorious heavenly city of Revelation, wherein every people from every tribe and tongue and nation are gathered as one people in praise.  Hints, therefore, that American, British, or even Texan might not be the most important thing someone can say about a person if God means to make a people out of all these disparate people: behold, a new Kingdom.

Lots of comfort in the image of God as shepherd, as provider.  It’s meant to bring us comfort.  But not only comfort.  That God will take care of God’s Kingdom is a promise to those who need care and a warning to those who don’t trust God to do it.  Indeed, much of the work that we’re told God will do for God’s people is undoing the damage of those who have failed to trust the provision of God.  See, for example, our reading from Ezekiel: "Because you pushed with flank and shoulder, and butted at all the weak animals with your horns until you scattered them far and wide, I will save my flock, and they shall no longer be ravaged."

And this is important to name, I think: that even (or especially) for people who desire to trust God, there are lots of tempting reasons to doubt God’s provision.  Lots of anxieties, worries, burdens that we carry: what about my church and its long-term wellbeing?  Yes, my local church, but are those whispers about the decline of Christianity true?  What about our children and the future of the faith?  What about the moral direction of our country?  (And here, depending on your leaning, you could point with equal sincerity in either direction.)  What about my life - my retirement “number” (if you've seen the commercial, my financial pressure, and always, always, my persistently present fear of loneliness?  

These are true worries.  At its (dubious) best, worry can be a way of expressing compassion and concern; but worry can also become a deep chasm of doubt.  Doubt that God is capable and determined to shepherd God’s people, and/or you.  Like when the disciples panic when they find Jesus asleep in the boat.  Maybe we better do it ourselves, you know, without him, if we have to.

Of course, failing to trust God is not something we necessarily set out to do.  Sometimes it just happens.  We just forget.  I remember the confirmation class that was asked on its final exam who was the head of the Episcopal Church in America:

the Pope
the Archbishop of Canterbury
the Presiding Bishop
the local bishop
the local priest
either the biggest giver or the longest tenured member

The answer was g, but more important, g stood for Jesus.  

Jesus is the head of even the Episcopal Church.  He’s in charge.  The upside of remembering this simple truth is tremendous.  When we remember that God will deliver what God has promised, we are able to say the prayer Bishop Frey taught me: “Lord, it’s your church, I’m going to bed.”

[Those of you who know Bishop Frey know that his prayer was not license for irresponsibility or sloth.  But he preached and preaches the Living God who has acted, is acting, and will continue to act for God’s People.]

The God who delivered Israel from slavery and broke death’s back and the tomb’s hard rock, acting now for God’s People, acting now for you: Christ as shepherd, provider, and King.  “Fear not, little flock, it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the Kingdom.”

Christ the King is our Shepherd, the leader we follow, whose arm is strong, whose voice calls your name.

The second image of Christ the King is the lamb.  And where the shepherd image means to remind us that Christ is able, the lamb is God’s answer for how this will be.  

We turn to our gospel where the king will come to his throne and set all things right.  ("All things" - that wonderful chorus throughout our readings this morning.)  And he’ll start by surprising people with invitations to the kingdom on account of the way they treated the sick and the naked and hungry and thirsty and the prisoners.  Because, in his words, “in so much as you did if for one of the least of these members of my family, you did it to me.”  And this would be tempting to read as hyperbole, the king simply wanting to get the thrust of his point across, but we who hear these words as Christians cannot help but think that Christ DID come naked, and, on the cross, we found him thirsty, that he was killed as a prisoner.  It’s not JUST that Christ cares for the least of these (though he certainly does that); by the world’s standards, he came as one, too.

Jesus as the lamb who on the cross was slain for us.  The powers of the world - the old kingdoms - defeated by the one who would not accept their power; instead, exposing them for the charades of fear that they are.  

But to take the gospel’s connection seriously, we must back up and slow down a bit and linger in the words “he was killed as a prisoner.”  He didn’t just care for the least; he poured himself out as the least.

Death-row inmate Mumia Abu-Jamal has asked, 
“Isn’t it odd that Christendom - that huge body of humankind that claims spiritual descent from the Jewish carpenter of Nazareth - claims to pray to and adore a being who was a prisoner of Roman power, an inmate of the empire’s death row?  That the one it considers the personification of the Creator of the Universe was tortured, humiliated, beaten, and crucified on a barren scrap of land on the imperial periphery, at Golgotha, the place of the skull?  That the majority of its adherents strenuously support the state’s execution of thousands of imprisoned citizens?  That the overwhelming majority of its judges, prosecutors, and lawyers - those who condemn, prosecute and sell out the condemned - claim to be followers of the fettered, spat-upon, naked God?”

Christ comes as Shepherd and as lamb.  The strength of God revealed in the weakness of the cross.  The provision of God found in the blood that pours from his side.  

What does all this mean for us?  What's the take-home, preacher?

At the very least, this should make us look twice for God in places and people we don’t think he’d think twice about.  In God-forsaken places and people.  At the very least, we should look twice for God there.  If Christ the crucified lamb is King, we know God IS there.  

And at more than the very least, we might wonder what it would mean to risk ourselves being least - to risk rejection at the hands of the world with which Smokey said we’d be out of step - what would it mean to risk being least by the standards of the world?  And how would this risk open me to see and understand the new standard - the vibrant, forgiving, merciful life - of the Kingdom with which my world is necessarily out of step?  

I don’t know the answer to that last one for sure.  But I believe this is what it means to call Christ my King.


2020-21 Annual License Renewal Letter

Each year, just before Advent, I request the Bishop's renewal of my license to serve in the Episcopal Diocese of Dallas. These annual le...