Monday, December 19, 2016

We Are Expecting

"Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been 
engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy 
Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, 
planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord 
appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your 
wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name 
him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what had been 
spoken by the Lord through the prophet:

“Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel,”

which means, “God is with us.” When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord 
commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne 
a son; and he named him Jesus."
--Matthew 1: 18-25

Expectation is in the air.  On Sunday we sang about it with all eight verses of that wonderful Advent hymn, O come O come Emmanuel.  I don’t know about you, but my heart races each time I sing that song.  With each verse I feel it more and more, the hope, the expectation of God coming into the world.  This is why I love Advent so much!

It’s Expectation with a capital ‘E.’  It’s God’s own expectation.  We’ve been breathing it this season at Good Shepherd.  We’ve gathered in it and talked about it in our Advent Sunday School.  We’ve shared it with the community through Operation Red Sleigh and ringing the Salvation Army bell.  Our collectively hearts have been racing, and our spirits are stirred.  God is expecting, and so are we.

The story of God's expectation, of the birth of Jesus, is told to us in the gospels of Matthew and Luke.  Mark starts with Jesus’ baptism, and John, well, John might give us the best Christmas story of all, but it doesn't start in Nazareth or Bethlehem, rather it is the story of Jesus the Word being in the beginning with God.  Beautiful, but not the same story.  As this is the year that we spend most of our Sundays hearing from Matthew’s gospel, we heard that story of expectation on Sunday.  While Luke’s story focuses on blessed Mary, our Lord’s mother, Matthew chooses instead to tell the story of Joseph, Jesus’ earthly father and guardian. 

An angel visits Joseph. 

In this version of the story the angel visits not Mary but Joseph, and gives the news that Mary’s child is of the Holy Spirit.  All this, according to the angel, is to fulfill what Isaiah spoke of almost 8 centuries earlier, that the young woman would bear a child who will go on to save his people.  Matthew is not really concerned with the notion of Mary being a virgin, however—yes, the word is used in the above text, but the Greek word used here is parthenos , which also means "young woman" or "maiden;" in fact, it is translated as "young woman" in the NRSV version of Isaiah's prophecy.  So Matthew’s story stresses not so much that Jesus was born of a woman who was a virgin, but rather that Jesus’ birth is the work of the Holy Spirit.  And if we know anything about the Holy Spirit, we know that the Spirit is God’s own agent of expectation.

A common mistake among Christians is the notion that the Holy Spirit somehow did not exist before coming at the Day of Pentecost.  Actually, Judaism taught that the Holy Spirit was certainly real and active in the world.  So for Joseph to hear that the baby to be born would be of the Holy Spirit, that held certain conotations.  And when we think about those connotations we notice that they are still very much applicable to the Spirit, even now in 21st century Christiniaty. 

For Jews like Jospeh the Holy Spirit was the agent by which God’s truth was brought to humanity.  The Spirit taught the prophets what to say.  Not only that, but the Spirit enabled people to recognize that truth when they saw it.  Human eyes are often blinded by their own ignorance, led astray by their own prejudices and pride, and eventually they build walls between each other and God, using those qualities as the mortar.  But the Holy Spirit is the sledgehammer that knocks down those walls, opens those eyes, and allows human beings to get a glimpse of the truth of God in the world and in each other.

Perhaps most important of all, Jews understood the Spirit to be the agent of God’s creation.  In Hebrew the word for Spirit, breath, and wisdom is all the same word—ruach—and it is that word that is used in the creation story of Genesis, God’s ruach that moves over the waters of chaos, calming them and giving life, and that word is repeated by the Psalmist, by Job, and by the prophets over and over again.  The ruach of God—the Spirit and breath and wisdom of God—is not only the agent of creation, but also re-creation.  Remember Ezekiel and the dry bones?  It is God’s breath, God’s Spirit that enters them and gives them life.  The rabbis of old had a saying, “In this world God’s Spirit has put wisdom in you, but in the future God’s Spirit will make you to live again.”  So, yeah, Jews had a pretty good understanding of the Holy Spirit as a very real agent at work in the world. 

An artist's depiction of God's ruach calming the waters of chaos.

So if Jesus’ birth is of the Holy Spirit then that means that all of this is fulfilled in him.  Thus, in the birth of Jesus the Spirit of God is now more operative, more at work in the world, than ever before.  It is the Spirit who brings God’s truth now in the form of Jesus; it is the Spirit that enables us to recognize that truth in him and in each other; it is the Spirit who, through him, brings order out of the chaos of our lives and gives us new hope, new meaning, new life.  This is the expectation of Advent.  This is what has not only already come into the world but what is about to come into our world again. This is what the Spirit was stirring in Joseph on that fateful day in Nazareth, and it is what the Spirit is still stirring in us right now.

The Spirit has planted that seed of expectation in each of us.  Sure we have expectations this time of year.  For example, we expect to get a Christmas bonus or time off from work.  We except to succeed, to be the best.  I expect all of you to love my blog posts!  These are more burden than expectation, they weigh on us and cripple us beneath their weight.  We end up placing expectation after expectation on ourselves, and we let the world around us place expectation after expectation onto us, and eventually we cave in from all that weight.  But when we draw nearer to God, especially during this holy season, we let go of our own expectations and we embrace the greater expectations, that which God has planted deep within us, that which God’s Spirit is stirring and moving in us.  I wonder what might happen if we did that for real.  What would happen if we let go of our expectations, the expectations the world has placed upon us, and embraced God's expectations for us?  It might change our lives!  It changed Joseph's life, after all.  He expected to dismiss Mary--it's what society expected of him.  Still, he listened to the Spirit and embraced God's expectation for him, just as Mary had.  His life was changed, as was ours.  What might our lives, our world, look like if we let go of our own expectations and more fully embraced God's?

As you sit with these final moments of Advent, brothers and sisters, I pray that you will let the Spirit just wash over you.  Let the Spirit reveal God’s truth to you in a new way this year.  Let the Spirit re-create God’s love and mercy for you in ways you never thought possible. Let the Spirit that brought Christ into the world once before bring him once again through you.  Listen to the Spirit.  Trust the Spirit.   She rarely makes a mistake!  Feel the expectation stir in you as we say,  "Come,  Holy Spirit. Come, Emmanuel."

Monday, December 12, 2016


The pink candle of Gaudate Sunday is lit.

Gaudate!  Gaudate!  Gaudate!  I’m gonna guess that the Anglo-Catholics and Romans reading this blog are the only ones who know what in the world I just said.  The word Gaudate is, of course, Latin and means…..anyone….rejoice!  Rejoice!  Rejoice!  Rejoice!  So why am I speaking Latin and why am I rejoicing in this Third Week of Advent?

Since the Middle Ages the Third Sunday of Advent has been called Gaudate Sunday, and it takes its name from the first word of the introit, or opening hymn, that was sung on that day.  Most Roman Catholic Churches, and some Episcopal Churches, still sing the Gaudate Introit.  That word, Gaudate—rejoice—is the theme of both that Sunday and this week.  We've been hearing the prophets talk about the wrath that is to come, and we have been talking about Jesus' coming into the world, but now we are getting excited by it!  Now we are getting stirred up!  We even light the pink candle to symbolize this change in tone.  I once heard a priest explain to a 5th grader that we light the pink candle because we take the purple, subdued tone of Advent and mix it with the white, rejoicing of Christmas; to which the 5th grader said, “Yeah….purple and white don’t make pink!”Nevertheless, we light our pink candle, and if you’re a church with more money than you know what to do with your priest may have even worn pink vestments on Sunday.  

This church has way too much money!

These are visual signs of our shift to a more joyful tone. Quite frankly, we have needed some rejoicing in recently, as our community continues to grieve over the tragic death of young Laura Lisk.  How fitting, then, that we have lit a candle on Rejoice Sunday that is Laura's favorite color!  That’s God’s grace for you!  Perhaps she's reminding us to always rejoice in the Lord, especially right now.  

On Sunday we heard Isaiah, standing in the chaos and pain of exile, preach about the freedom to come, and we heard the joy in his voice.  We heard James tell his congregation that the Judge is at the door, that Jesus’ return is right around the corner, and we heard the joy in his voice.  And in our Gospel, when we heard Jesus himself send word back to John’s disciples, letting them know that he is, indeed, the Messiah, we heard his joy as he told them to report not what they’d seen and heard—the lame walk, the deaf hear, the blind see.  All three gentlemen we heard from on Sunday preached with that joyful, good news that the Kingdom of God is breaking into human history, so how could there not be rejoicing?

Yet it is not their voice that I find to be the most joyful, the most resounding, during this Gaudate Week; rather it is the voice of a woman, of blessed Mary.  In lieu of our Psalm on Sunday we read together that portion of the Gospel of Luke that we call the Song of Mary, the Magnificat--again a song that takes its name from the first word in its Latin version.  In this seemingly quiet moment, when Mary, pregnant with Jesus, visits her cousin Elizabeth, herself pregnant with John, we get the most beautiful song in all of Scripture—apologies to David and Solomon.  There is so much joy, so much hope, so much praise for the Kingdom of God coming into our world.  So significant is Mary's song that we Anglicans sing at at every single Evensong, no matter where we are worshipping!  It gives voice not only to Mary, but it gives us voice, and it sums up what this time of the year is all about. 

"My soul doth magnify the Lord
And my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Savior
For he hath regarded the lowliness of his handmaiden
For behold from henceforth
All generations shall call me blessed
For he that is mighty hath magnified me
And holy is his Name
And his mercy is on them that fear him
Throughout all generations
He hath showed strength with his arm
He hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts
He hath put down the mighty from their seats
And hath exalted the humble and meek
He hath filled the hungry with good things
And the rich he hath sent empty away
He remembering his mercy hath holpen his servant Israel
As he promised to our forefathers, Abraham and his seed forever."
--The Magnificat (Luke 1: 46-55; BCP Rite I translation)

Mary’s soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord—or her soul "doth magnify the Lord" according to the beautifully constructed Rite I translation.  Her soul sings for joy of the greatness of God, and what does that greatness look like?  It doesn't look like greatness as the world has defined it, does it?  It doesn't look like top-down power politics, or military force, or a domination system.  It looks like a lowly servant being looked upon with favor.  It looks like mercy for those in every generation who fear and love God.  It looks like the mighty being cast down from their thrones because their time is up, while the lowly are at long last lifted.  It looks like the hungry being filled and the rich being sent away because they've had their turn.  It looks like God remembering the promise of old to Abraham and ultimately fulfilling it.  Make no mistake, brothers and sisters, Mary's song is nothing short of a prophecy!  Remember that the prophets are the ones who stand in the middle of the chaos and offer us hope for the future, and that is certainly what Mary does.  Hers is a prophecy just like Isaiah or Jesus!  And her prophecy reminds us that God's greatness and power are not what the world often wishes them to be.  Furthermore, God's power comes, not with a bang, but gradually and over the course of time.  Like a mother holding her child in her womb for nine long months.  Mary knew that to be true, better than anyone ever has.  

Mary visits Elizabeth.

Some folks wonder why the people in Jesus' day didn't think he was the Messiah.  It had less to do with what certain prophets said about him and more about what folks saw and heard from him.  He was a nobody.  His parents were nobodies. When he finally came on the scene he came with the beggars and offered hope to the outcasts of society.  In short, he was picking up right where his mama had left off!  Many--including John the Baptist--believed Jesus would usher in a new age with a political revolution or military force; in fact, many scholars believe that John sent his messengers to ask Jesus if he was REALLY the Messiah because John himself didn't think Jesus' methods reflected what the Messiah was supposed to do.  Yet Jesus offers something the world cannot offer.  He offers real mercy and healing, that of the soul.  Jesus gives us something different, he shows the world that God is not to be found in the might and force of mankind, but in the patient love that God pours out over God’ people gradually over time. Jesus reflects exactly what his mother sang about.   

This is why we have Advent, to remind us of that gradual build toward the kingdom. It doesn't come in a flash, but it comes with little moments of love that are built one on top of the other.  The kingdom rises like yeast, as my favorite theologian once wrote.  It builds and builds and builds until it finally breaks through, like a child coming into the world.  And it was Mary who laid that foundation with the her "Yes!" that she gave to God as a willing participant in the act of Salvation.  Hers is the most important yes in all of human history.  It changed the world, and so can the yes that you give to God!

I saw over 1000 people say yes to God this past weekend at an event called Operation Red Sleigh, which provides a meal and Christmas presents for nearly 500 families in Randolph County, North Carolina.  There were high school groups there, church youth groups, the Gideons passing out bibles, and so many volunteers who cooked meals, cleaned up, or just talked to folks and got to know them.  They all said yes to what God had placed on their hearts, and in doing so they built upon the foundation that Mary laid so long ago.  Little by little.  Moment by moment.  This is how the kingdom comes on earth!  

Nearly 500 kids got Christmas presents thanks to Operation Red Sleigh.  And I met Santa!

Mary's song is our song!  It is not just her soul that proclaims the greatness of the Lord, no!  Our souls do, as well! And like Mary, if we say yes to God and keep adding on to those layers, then the kingdom will rise and will be born among us.  You may think that whatever God has put on your heart is insignificant, but trust me it is anything but!  This little Palestinian girl seemed insignificant, but her faith changed the world.  That may be the greatest Christmas miracle of all!  So say, "Yes!" brothers and sisters!  Build upon that legacy of love that Mary first established for us. Keep adding on to those moments, and you will transform the world!  For it is those seemingly small moments of love that cast down the mighty and lift up the lowly.  They give hope and light to a frightened and dark world.  They give us reason to rejoice.  Always.  If we keep sharing those moments of love, and if we are patient, as Mary was, then we too will give birth to hope and love this year.  Rejoice!  Rejoice!  Gaudate!

Monday, December 5, 2016

Listening to the Prophets

"A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse,
and a branch shall grow out of his roots.

The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him,
the spirit of wisdom and understanding, 
the spirit of counsel and might, 
the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.

His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.
He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
or decide by what his ears hear;

but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;

he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,
and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked."
--Isaiah 11:  1-4

"But when John saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, 'You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.

'I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.'"
--Matthew 3: 7-12

When I lived in New York City I would sometimes see these folks standing on street corners or in parks, and they would usually have some kind of homemade sign with them that read something like, “Repent!” or "The end is nigh!"  I never really saw folks stop to speak to them, but even though they’re ramblings would often come off as gibberish I would think to myself, “That was a prophet!”

A NYC street preacher, or a prophet.  You decide.

Most of our modern depictions of prophets are of folks who can tell the future.  But that’s not really accurate.  The ancient prophets like Isaiah and John the Baptist weren’t like Miss Cleo or the Psychic Friends network, or any of those folks you see on the infomercials at 1:00 in the morning on basic cable.  The prophets were less about predicting what was going to happen and more about speaking to what was actually happening.  They called God’s people to new repentance, called them back to remember who they were and whose they were, so that they may be the people God had made them to be. On the Second Sunday of Advent we were introduced to two such prophets—Isaiah and John the Baptist—who do just that. 

Speaking at a time when the people of Israel were under siege and about to be taken into captivity by the Babylonians, Isaiah sought to bring hope to the people who had begun to lose their faith in God.  Isaiah remembered the promise that God had made to David, most beloved of all of Israel’s kings.  God had said in the second book of the prophet Samuel that the throne of this son of Jesse would endure forever, that a member of David’s line would always sit upon the throne.  Unfortunately for the people of Israel, during the time of the writing of Isaiah they had no king, and their whole way of living was at risk of being annihilated at the hands of the Babylonians.  But wait, says Isaiah, there’s hope!  Remember how God promised a throne to David?  Well, even if there isn’t anyone seated on that throne now, there will be; after all, God said so.  Yes, a shoot will come up from Jesse, and an heir of that line will again come to throne of Israel.  And when that happens, oh what a glorious day it will be!  Wolves will lie with lambs, leopards with baby goats, and no one will hurt anyone ever again.  Dang!  Now that is a pretty picture.  At a time when religions came and went, when the faith of a conquered people usually died because it meant that their god had been defeated in some cosmic battle with the god of their oppressors, Isaiah gave the people of Israel hope.  Remember God’s promise, he said.  Remember God’s love for you. Therein lies your hope for the future.  And thanks to that promise of a Messiah, of an anointed savior, Israel’s faith in God lived on, even in the midst of exile.

The time of John the Baptist was similar to Isaiah.  It had been about 400 years since the last person had arisen as a prophet in Israel, and like Isaiah, John was preaching to a conquered people.  This time the oppressors were the Roman occupiers, and a lot of folks didn’t have much hope left.  Some of them, like the Pharisees and Sadducees, said that strict religious obedience was the only way to survive.  Others, though, turned to folks like John, who were calling the people to reexamine their lives, to turn away from the world and put all their hope in God.  Like Isaiah, John believed in the Messiah, in one who would come after him and bring hope back to the people.  John’s message was popular enough to garner a following, even among some of the elite, and it gave people the hope that one would, in fact, come and free them from their oppression.  And wouldn’t ya know it, he was right!

Neither Isaiah nor John just predicted the future.  They spoke to the present time, to the struggles people faced, to the ills of their society. They came off as gibberish to some, especially those in power, but they called people to look deep within themselves and find God’s love for them, God's hope, buried deep down.  When they found that hope they would be able to prepare the world for God’s anointed, for Messiah.  They never meant for the people to follow them, even though that sometimes happened; in fact, there is still a small sect of Jews called the Mandaens who believe that John is the chief prophet of Israel and that Jesus was a false one who just copied everything John did.  Isaiah and John did not want people to worship them, they just wanted people to listen, to just stop the waring madness of their lives and listen to God.  And if they’d just listen they’d remember.  They’d remember that God promised never to leave them, promised to empower them with divine love, and promised to break into the world once again and bring about the salvation of all.  The prophets are the ones who remind us of those promises. 

There are still prophets out there today calling us to have hope in God’s love and mercy.  In the last century prophets arose like Martin Luther King and Mohandas Gandhi, who stood in the midst of oppressive societies and called people to have hope.  Hope is so often in short supply, and heaven knows we need some here in our community after losing our dear Laura Lisk last week.  We need hope.  We need to remember that God does not abandon us, that God is still moving in our lives, and that God will once again break through history and save all of God’s creation.

I’m not going to be so bold as to say that we are all called to be prophets.  That’s just not true, if for no other reason than the fact that all of the prophets met their end by a violent death!  I’m not a prophet, and odds are neither are you.  But we can honor the prophets when we meet them.  We can listen to them, rather than kill them!  And we can all speak with that prophetic voice; not the voice that predicts that the end is nigh, but the voice that speaks of God’s mercy and love, and that is the voice that can give hope to this otherwise fearful world, even in times of exile, occupation, or heartache.

So may the legacy of the prophets be ours.  Isaiah, John, Martin, Mohandas, Laura.  All those who have shown us that, even in the worst of times, we can hold on to hope because God loves us.  May we speak with those same prophetic voices and prepare the way for hope to be born into our world once again.