Good News

Sermon on Luke 2:1-14 offered to the people of the Church of the Heavenly Rest in Abilene, TX.

Every Christmas Eve, millions of people around the world tune in to listen to a Service of Lessons and Carols from King’s College in Cambridge, England.  HDR tonemappedFor those of us who are passionate about choral music, it’s always one of the highlights of the year, an opportunity to hear one of the world’s great choirs singing some of the classics of choral literature as well as some new compositions.  As much as I love hearing new and old favorites, however, one of my favorite moments of the service comes at its very beginning.  After the choir and congregation have sung “Once in Royal David’s City,” building from a single treble voice to a majestic wash of sound, the Dean of the Chapel intones the words of the Bidding Prayer: “Beloved in Christ, be it this Christmas Eve our care and delight to hear again the message of the Angels, and in heart and mind to go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which has come to pass, and the Babe lying in a manger.”  I love this prayer, not only because of its beautiful language, but also because it implies that this is a story we have heard before and need to hear again, that the story of Jesus’ birth is indeed good news.

The term “good news” is used quite a bit in our culture.  There are whole websites dedicated to the sharing of good news.  For the most part, all of this “good news” is the stuff of feel-good human interest stories, the last three minutes of the 6:00 news.  A sampling of headlines makes this pretty clear: “At 82 years old, finally the ‘it’ girl on campus,” “Canadian Lottery Winner donates $40 million to charity,” “Girl donates her American Girl doll to raise money for the troops.”  You get the idea.  While I’m sure that all of these are wonderful stories of compassion and generosity, this is not the “good news” that the Angels proclaim in Luke’s gospel.  The “good news” proclaimed to the shepherds on that Middle Eastern hillside twenty centuries ago has much broader and more significant implications.

If you think about it, the gospel according to Luke presents the birth of Jesus is kind of an odd way.  You would think that the evangelist would want to focus exclusively on the baby and his family, on their joys and trials, their triumphs and hardships.  But instead, Luke begins his account of the birth of Jesus by talking about politics.  In particular, he focuses on a peculiar decree made by Caesar Augustus.  The emperor wanted to take a census of his diverse empire so the appropriate taxes could be levied.  This makes sense; this is part of the reason that our constitution mandates a decennial census.  It gets weird, however, when we hear that everyone was required to return to his hometown in order to be counted.  That’s just bizarre.  Why would you force someone return to a place he no longer lives in order to conduct a census?  If you do that, you’re not going to get an accurate count.  Scholars have wrestled with this, and some have come to the conclusion that there was no census, that it is a literary device used by the gospel to make sure that Jesus was born in Bethlehem so that the prophecy of Micah could be fulfilled.  But I wonder if Luke mentions this decree from Caesar Augustus to show us what the exercise of worldly power looks like.  The emperor used his authority to command people where to go, even when those commands didn’t make any sense.  By mentioning this decree, Luke exposes the way the world is: people are subject the whims of tyrants and forced to do their bidding.

It is within this context that the angels make their announcement.  Even as the known world is being subjected to the whims of a capricious ruler, an angel appears to a group of shepherds and says, “Do not be afraid, for behold: I am bringing good news of great joy that will be for you and all people.”  The word that we translate as “good news” or “good tidings” is euaggelion.  While both of the familiar translations are accurate, they do not capture the full scope of the Greek.  You see, euaggelion was not used for everyday good news; euaggelion was used specifically to announce the birth of a new emperor.  The angels are not simply telling us that something good has happened in Bethlehem; the angels are telling us that a new king has arrived.  Even as the rulers of the present age are forcing their will upon the world, the angels announce that a new ruler has been born and that the world is going to change.  The message of the angels is that this world can be transformed.  The message of the angels is that the days of the powers of this world are numbered.  The message of the angels is that God has come to dwell among us and has promised new life to the world.  When we hear the good news of Christmas, we are called to reevaluate our lives, reorient our priorities, and make ourselves ready for a transformed world.

Even though the angels’ announcement is ultimately a political proclamation, we must remember that today we celebrate the arrival of a very different kind of king.  While most worldly rulers are heralded by military parades and housed in magnificent palaces, the king we welcome today was heralded by a humble donkey and housed in a stable.  While most worldly rulers demonstrate their power through oppression and violence, the king we welcome today reveals his power in compassion and love.  And while most worldly rulers would do anything to stay in power and preserve their lives, the king we welcome today gave himself up for us on a Roman cross.  Today we affirm the deep logic of the Christian faith: in the Incarnation, God became one of us and demonstrated how we are meant to care for one another.  We are not meant to impose our will on others, we are not meant to presume that we know better than our neighbors, we are not meant to turn anyone away because of who they are or what they have done.  God has taken our human nature upon him; thus, we are called to welcome as a gift from God anyone who shares our humanity.  We are called to humble ourselves before the one who humbled himself as we reach out in love to the world Christ came to save.

choir-service-bigPerhaps the most dramatic moment of Lessons and Carols takes place silently and away from the eyes of the congregation.  As the organist plays the final notes of the prelude, the choir gathers in the rear of that beautiful chapel.  As they prepare to sing “Once in Royal David’s City,” sixteen young boy trebles huddle next to one another, uncertain about which one of them will sing the first verse.  It is not until the choirmaster sounds an opening pitch and points to one of them that they know who will sing an unaccompanied solo for the hundreds gathered in the chapel and the millions listening around the world (no pressure!).  It’s a powerful and dramatic moment, one that requires the boys to be ready for anything.  But more importantly, that nervous child singing about the birth of Jesus for millions upon millions of people is an icon of the Incarnation, a celebration of the fact that God shared our frail humanity and came to bring us good news.

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Endorsements

Sermon on Matthew 11:2-11 offered to the people of the Church of the Heavenly Rest in Abilene, TX.

A few weeks ago, the media was abuzz with news of corruption in Toronto, Canada.  It seems that Rob Ford, the mayor of Toronto, not only admitted to using crack cocaine in Toronto’s City Hall during “one of his drunken stupors,” but was also unrepentant and refused to entertain even the possibility of resigning.  When one watches some of the profanity-laden video of Mr. Ford vociferously defending himself on the floor of the City Council chamber, it’s easy to forget that this guy was elected to be the mayor of a city with 2.6 million residents.  But he was!  By 100,000 votes!

This led me to wonder how those people who supported Mr. Ford are feeling today.  I took a look at some of the editorials that endorsed Rob Ford’s candidacy back in 2010.  While none of them are terribly effusive, many of indicate that he was the right man for the job.  One newspaper noted that though some of Mr. Ford’s plans were unrealistic and not fully formed, at least he had a vision.  imgresThis editor somewhat prophetically concluded that “the risk in supporting Mr. Ford is what he might do as mayor,” but that at least he would do something.  Even more prescient was the evaluation of the National Post, which endorsed Mr. Ford by saying that “Toronto very much needs a proverbial bull in the china shop.”  I think the National Post got more than it bargained for.  Given what has happened in Toronto over the past month or so, I wonder whether these editorial boards wish they could take back their endorsement.  When the person they had identified as the cure to their city’s ills failed to live up to expectations, did these editors worry about whether people would ever take them seriously again?  Or did they simply retreat quietly to their offices and hope that the next candidate they endorsed would meet their expectations?

I think this dynamic of regret is at work in the words we hear from John the Baptist today.  Last week, we found John standing waist deep in the waters of the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins and admonishing his hearers to prepare the way of the Lord.  We heard John predict the coming of one more powerful than he, the one who will gather the wheat into his granary and burn the chaff with unquenchable fire.  The John we heard from last week is the John of prophetic expectation, the great forerunner of the morn, the one heralding the advent of the Messiah.  Even though he is dressed in animal skins, lives in the desert, eats bugs, and can’t stop telling us what we’re doing wrong, I think that the John we heard from last week is the John we’re comfortable with.  Last week’s John is the self-assured baptizer, the one who is certain about the future, the one who is preparing us for the coming of God’s kingdom.

This week, however, we hear from an uncertain, self-doubting John.  We’ve fast-forwarded in Matthew’s gospel.  Jesus has begun his ministry: he’s given the Sermon on the Mount, called the disciples, healed the sick, exorcised demons, and sent out apostles to preach the good news.  Before all of that, however, John baptized Jesus in the Jordan.  John determined that Jesus was the one he had been preaching about, the one with the winnowing fork and the threshing floor, and so he gives Jesus his endorsement.  According to Matthew, this was the last time that Jesus and John had any contact.  Since then, a lot has changed for both men.  Juan_Fernández_de_Navarrete_-_St_John_the_Baptist_in_the_Prison_-_WGA16467Jesus has begun a ministry of teaching and healing throughout Judea; John is in prison.  Jesus has been eating and drinking with tax collectors and sinners; John has been rotting in jail.  So, when John hears about all that Jesus has been doing (the company he’s been keeping, the activities he’s been engaging in, the parties he’s been attending), John’s reaction is to wonder if he endorsed the wrong guy.  There are some scholars who hypothesize that John was a member of the Essenes, a group of Jewish monks who lived in the wilderness and were anxiously awaiting a Messiah who would throw out the Roman oppressors and restore true worship to the Temple.  If this is accurate, then it should not be surprising to us that John might be disappointed with the person he endorsed as the Messiah.  After all, if you expect a Messiah who will overthrow the Romans, you would expect that person to spend his time raising an army of strong and devoted warriors and rallying people to his noble and glorious cause.  You wouldn’t expect that Messiah to spend all his time hanging out with sick people and teaching in an inscrutable and sometimes alienating way.  Furthermore, if you expect a Messiah who will restore true worship to the temple and cleanse it of all impurity, you would expect that person to avoid those considered ritually unclean.  You wouldn’t expect that Messiah to spend time with tax collectors and sinners.  Perhaps most poignantly, if you are expecting a Messiah who will vindicate the righteous, you wouldn’t expect that Messiah to let you rot in jail.

Given John’s unmet expectations of Jesus, it’s no surprise that John sends two of his disciples essentially to find out whether he had made a mistake.  The two disciples ask Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”  “Are you the one we’ve been waiting for, the one we’ve been preparing for, the one we’ve been expecting, or are we still looking?”  The grammar of the question intrigues me, because it’s a little absurd to ask someone if he is the one who is to come.  It’s absurd to ask someone in the present if he is someone from the future.  “What do you mean, am I the one who is to come?  I’m here already!” There’s an element of this incredulity, this frustration in Jesus’ response: “Go and tell John what you see and hear: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.”  In other words, “The kingdom of God has come near.  What exactly are you looking for?”

The contrast between the expectations of John and the reality of Jesus is illustrated when Jesus turns to the crowds and asks what they expected when they went to see John in the wilderness.  Matthew frames these questions in such a way that the answer is self-evident.  What did you go out to see: a reed shaken by the wind?  No!  Someone dressed in soft robes?  No!  A prophet?  Yeah, a prophet!  Jesus, in other words, tells the crowds that John met their expectations, that John’s prophetic witness made sense within the context of the way the world works.  But, Jesus goes on to explain that though John is a prophet mighty in word and deed, the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he is.  Why is that?  There is no one who was better prepared for the coming of the Messiah than John the Baptist; surely he should have pride of place in God’s kingdom.  There is no one who did more to prepare people for the coming of the Messiah than John the Baptist; why would he be left out of the conversation?

It seems to me that even though John the Baptist was prepared, he was not ready for the coming of the Messiah.  While being ready and being prepared may seem synonymous, there is a crucial difference.  We prepare with a specific goal or situation in mind: students prepare for tests, musicians prepare for recitals, football teams prepare for  specific opponents.  On the other hand, readiness implies a state of being, one that is not contingent on a particular situation.  If we are truly ready, we are ready for anything.  John the Baptist had a very specific idea about who the Messiah was and what he was going to do; he was prepared for the coming of that Messiah.  As soon as his expectations were not met, however, John wondered whether he was supposed to wait for someone else.  John wasn’t ready for what the coming of the Messiah truly represented.

I suspect that many of us can sympathize with John’s desire to know what to expect.  We live in a world that is so full of uncertainty and instability that we cling desperately to our expectations, hoping against hope that they will be met.  This is particularly true in our faith journeys.  Danger-ExpectationsWe are much more inclined to prepare for a Messiah who can be pinned down, a Messiah who will meet our expectations every time.  In a brief Internet search of “faith” and “expectations” last night, I found numerous websites that encouraged people to “Ask in faith and expect an answer.”  Popular religious figures encourage their hearers to tell God exactly what they want and expect it.  Examples like these demonstrate our deep preoccupation with certainty, our desire for a God who meets our expectations.  But Advent calls us to be ready for a Messiah who will challenge our expectations and call us out of our complacency.  We are called to be ready to encounter the Messiah in the places where we least expect to find him.

Many of you know Roz Thomas.  For those of you who don’t, Mother Roz was the Associate Rector here at Heavenly Rest for a number of years and has more recently served as the vicar of Trinity Church in Albany.  Those of you who know Roz know that she has a unique ability to defy expectations.  Though she was a tiny woman, one of her first purchases after arriving in Texas was a large Ford pickup truck.  When she was on the lot buying the truck, she found that there was a drawer underneath the driver’s seat.  She asked the salesman what the drawer’s purpose was; he responded, “Well ma’am, that’s for your gun.”  Roz was only taken aback for a moment before she decided that she would store her prayer book/hymnal in the drawer.

One of the things I have appreciated most about Roz’s example is how much she cared for the people of this community.  Roz has told me stories about emerging from the church offices and seeing a crowd of people gathered around her truck, all of them looking for a few dollars, a kind word, or a prayer.  Roz is one of the people responsible for the existence of Hands On Outreach, our emergency assistance ministry.  Roz knew how to look for Jesus in unexpected places.  She understood that each time she came in contact with a person asking for help, she was encountering the Messiah.

Roz died earlier this week.  This is a shock to all of us.  People who had seen her only a few days ago said that she seemed to be in good health.  Roz’s death was unexpected and I can’t imagine that she was prepared for it.  But I suspect that she was ready.  I suspect that her ministry of seeking out Jesus in unexpected places led her to be ready for the coming of the Messiah who defies our expectations.

Are you ready for the coming of the Messiah?  Are you ready for a Messiah who is found among the lost, the hopeless, the poor, the sick, and unloved?  Are you ready for a Messiah who shows us that the path of love is one of sacrifice?  Are you ready for a Messiah who defies your expectations?

Security

Sermon on Matthew 24:36-44 offered to the people of the Church of the Heavenly Rest on December 1, 2013.

I have a deep appreciation for the situation comedies of the 1990s.  In all likelihood, the reason I am so fond of these sitcoms is because I grew up with them; watching Frasier or Friends or Mad About You was my reward for finishing my homework or practicing the piano.  At the same time, part of the reason I love these shows is because they hold up well even fifteen years later.  Nineties sitcoms were more sophisticated than their hokey and saccharine eighties counterparts, but they still had a charming innocence that the cynical, reality-driven shows of the last decade abandoned.  There are, of course, elements of these shows that did not stand the test of time, plotlines that simply don’t make sense in our current context.  For instance, every episode of a show in which two characters were unable to meet because of some earlier miscommunication could be solved very easily with a cell phone.  Also, every episode of a show where there was a misunderstanding about someone’s identity could be resolved with one of the characters looking her up on Facebook.  Perhaps the most obvious sitcom trope that no longer works is the two lovers sharing a tearful goodbye just outside of the airplane jet bridge as one of the characters is about to fly away.  Those of us watching in our post-9/11 world are saying to ourselves, “That could never happen anymore.  They would have to say goodbye at home or by the ticket counter, and that’s not nearly as dramatic.”

imgresThis particular nineties sitcom trope exposes how much has really changed since terrorists hijacked airplanes and crashed them into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon twelve years ago.  We are now hyper-vigilant; we’re not willing to take any chances.  At the airport, you can no longer go through security unless you have a photo ID and a boarding pass, and I’m willing to concede that this makes sense.  You can no longer carry knives of any length onto an airplane, and that makes sense.  When you go through security, you have to take off your shoes and put them through the X-ray machine.  Why?  Because a guy once tried (and failed) to explode a bomb that was in his shoes.  You can no longer carry containers of liquid larger than three ounces on the plane anymore.  Why?  Because someone once tried (and failed) to explode a bomb that involved combining liquids hidden in shampoo bottles.  You also may have to go through a machine that allows the TSA agents to essentially look under your clothes.  Why?  Because a guy once tried (and failed) to explode a bomb that was in his underwear.  Now I don’t mean to suggest that all of these are bad things.  Rather, these measures are indicative of not only our society’s intense concern with security, but also our very human preoccupation with protecting ourselves, our insistence on always being prepared for whatever comes next.

It is this very human impulse that Jesus taps into in today’s gospel reading.  Today, we hear what is frankly one of the more terrifying passages in Matthew’s gospel.  This comes from what scholars call the “Little Apocalypse,” which is Jesus describing what the coming of the Son of Man is going to look like.  Prior to this passage, Jesus appropriates a number of apocalyptic metaphors from Scripture, telling the disciples that “the sun will be darkened, the moon will not give its lights; the stars will fall from heaven and the powers of heaven will be shaken.”  This is dramatic, Cecil B. DeMille-type language that is meant to give the disciples at least a fleeting sense of how great and awe-inspiring the day of the Lord is going to be, that day when God will reconcile the world to himself.  This language is supposed to fill them with hope and expectation, because it describes a time when the righteous will be vindicated and God’s people will be restored.  Naturally, the followers of Jesus would like to know when this is going to happen so that they can be prepared for what comes next.  Jesus tells them, however, that the coming of the day of the Lord is a mystery at the heart of God, that no one knows about that day or hour, not even the Son.  In fact, Jesus says that it will take us completely by surprise, that it’s going to happen when we least expect it.  And here is the terrifying part of this passage: Jesus says that the Son of Man will come so suddenly that people who are working side by side will be taken away from one another and vanish from each other’s sight.

imgresAll of this underscores Jesus’ exhortation to keep awake and be ready for the coming of the Son of Man.  He tells us that we do not know on what day our Lord is coming, and it is here that he plays upon our preoccupation with security and preparedness.  Jesus presents us with a scenario to help us understand his point about readiness: “if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into.”  It’s a vivid and potent image.  The thief is not going to send us a note to tell us when he is going to try to break into our house.  And if we can’t prepare for a specific moment, it would seem that we’re supposed to be prepared all the time.  Perhaps Jesus is telling us to stay hyper-vigilant, to keep all of the lights in the house burning, to sit up straight and fight off sleep even as our eyes grow heavy peering out the window and looking for the thief.  I think this is the classic human response, the post-9/11 response to this scenario: we don’t know when the thing we’re preparing for is going to happen, so we have to stay awake forever.  Of course, there’s no way we could possibly stay awake forever; there’s no sustainable way for us to be that vigilant.  Perhaps we have to look at this image differently.  I think that when we hear this metaphor, we’re conditioned to imagine that we can prevent the thief from coming, but remember that Jesus is using this image to describe the coming of the Son of Man, and the day of the Lord is coming whether we think we can stop it or not.  In fact, Jesus tells us that this is the only thing that we can be truly secure about, that God is going to make things right through the Son of Man.  So if we follow Jesus’ metaphor to its logical conclusion, we don’t know when the thief is going to arrive but we also have no way of stopping him; perhaps, then, we’re not meant to worry about catching the thief in the act.  Perhaps Jesus is using this image to point us to a different way of looking for the Son of Man.

Today is the first Sunday of Advent, the time in the Church year that we not only prepare for Christmas, but we also affirm that God is going to be revealed and reconcile all things to himself on the great and terrible day of the Lord.  Now, I’m perfectly willing to concede that the coming of Son of Man tends to be a touchy, even uncomfortable subject for many Christians.  Many of us would much rather concern ourselves with the mangers and stables and sheep of Christ’s first coming.  Part of the reason for our discomfort is that throughout history, there have been two extreme approaches to preparing for the coming of the Son of Man.  imgresOn one hand, there have been numerous Christians throughout history who, in spite of what Jesus said in our gospel today, have proclaimed that they could pinpoint the exact date and time of the day of the Lord and Christ’s second advent.  While there are a whole host of issues with this, I think the desire to know exactly when Christ is going to return stems from the very human desire for security.  We want certainty, we want assurance, we want to know when to expect whatever we’re expecting.  On the other hand, instead of being hyper-vigilant about the day of the Lord, there are those who say that it’s never going to happen, that it was a mistake of the early Church, that Jesus only was on this earth once, and any talk of the coming of the Son of Man is foolishness.  Ironically, I think this impulse stems from the same desire for security.  We would rather assure ourselves that something is never going to happen, rather than living our lives with any kind of uncertainty.  As we celebrate the first Sunday of Advent, however, we are called us to a middle way, one that is less secure, one that is riskier, but one that takes Jesus seriously and trusts that we are being reconciled to God and one another.

In the very next chapter of Matthew’s gospel, just after we have heard three parables about the necessity for watchfulness, Matthew unfolds the judgment of the nations, the passage wherein people are separated as a shepherd separates sheep and goats.  Ravenna Last JudgmentStrikingly, Jesus introduces the passage with the phrase, “When the Son of Man comes in his glory.”  The last time Matthew uses the phrase “Son of Man” is in the passage we read this morning.  To my mind, this means the story about the judgment of the nations reveals something about the day of the Lord; the story about the judgment of the nations is meant to prepare us for the coming of the Son of Man.  You know the story well: when the righteous come face to face with the Son of Man, he says to them, “Come, you that are blessed by my father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you…for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”  The righteous are surprised, because they don’t remember doing any of these things for the king.  But the Son of Man responds “Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are my brothers and sisters, you did it to me.”  Jesus tells us that we encounter the Son of Man when we reach out and care for those who cannot care for themselves.

Advent, therefore, is not about pinpointing the precise day of the Lord’s return or saying “Christ will come again” even as we assume that it will never happen.  We are not meant to look for the false security of certainty; we are called to embrace the uneasy reality of risk.  Jesus calls us to risk ourselves, to take a chance and reach out to those in need.  In a moment, when we pray for those who have died, you will hear the name of David Dingwall.  David was a priest in the Diocese of Easton who died this week after a disturbed man set himself on fire and walked into a church’s outreach center. This tragic event highlights the risk we take when we care for those who cannot care for themselves.  Events like this might tempt us to close our doors and turn our backs on the world.  But I suspect that Fr. Dingwall knew the truth that we affirm today, that each moment we spend caring for other people is an Advent moment, an opportunity to encounter the Son of Man.  Every can of food you give to Hands-On Outreach, every hour you volunteer at Thrift House, every note you send to someone who is lonely, every time you welcome a newcomer to Heavenly Rest is an Advent moment.  So be ready and stay alert, because every person you meet could represent the coming of the Son of Man, the one who reconciles us to God and one another.