Invitation

The week between January 18 and 25 is the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.  Heavenly Rest observed this occasion by having a pulpit exchange with First Central Presbyterian Church in Abilene, TX.  What follows is a sermon on John 1:35-51 offered to the people of First Central Presbyterian.

Indulge me for a moment, if you’d be so kind.  Think about the television show Wheel of Fortune.  What is the first image that comes to your mind?  While I’m no mind reader, I’d bet anything that for the vast majority of people, the first image that Wheel of Fortune conjures is Vanna White, clad in sparkly evening gown, revealing letters on a game board.  Am I right? 

For those of you who either haven’t seen or aren’t aware of this television show, Wheel of Fortune is a game show in which contestants solve hangman-style word puzzles to win cash and prizes determined by spinning this giant carnival wheel.  For the past 25 years, the show has been hosted by the aforementioned Vanna White, who reveals the correctly guessed letters from the puzzles, and Pat Sajak, who explains the rules of the game, makes small talk with the contestants, and is responsible for the giant wheel.  vanna whiteVanna is virtually silent and has very little to do during the course of the television show; all she has to do is point.  Pat, on the other hand, has to work the room like a small-town politician; he’s constantly encouraging people when they want to solve the puzzle or feigning interest in their mostly tedious anecdotes or consoling them when they lose.  It is somewhat surprising, therefore, that the person most associated with Wheel of Fortune is not the guy who communicates with the contestants and operates the eponymous wheel; it is the woman who shows us the answer.  Apparently this is a source of some consternation for Mr. Sajak.  I heard a hilarious radio interview with him a few months ago.  Evidently, when people see him on the street, the first thing they ask him is: “Where’s Vanna?”  Sajak intimated that he would like to respond, “Why are you asking me?  We don’t live together!  And why do you care?  All she has to do is point to the letters!  She doesn’t even have to turn them around anymore; it’s all computerized!” 

While I suspect Mr. Sajak was being somewhat sarcastic, his question is an interesting one.  Why is it that we are more likely to be interested in Vanna White than Pat Sajak?  Why is Vanna White the first person we think of when we think about Wheel of Fortune?  I don’t think it is just because she wears beautiful clothes and seems like a pleasant person.  I believe that there something deeper at play.  There something about the human condition that attracts us to people who reveal things to us.  There something deep within us that draws us to people whose job it is to say “Let me show you.”

A few moments ago, we heard the gospel of John’s account of Jesus calling his first disciples.  For those of us familiar with this story from other gospels, John’s account is decidedly unfamiliar.  There is no miraculous catch of fish, there is no abandoning of nets by the shore, there is no “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.”  Instead, John tells us about these individual encounters with Jesus, and they’re all pretty strange.  First, John the Baptist points to Jesus and says, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”  Unlike the other gospel accounts, there is no conversation between Jesus and John the Baptist; there is simply a declarative statement that reveals Jesus’ identity.  In the next encounter, one of John’s disciples asks Jesus, “Rabbi, where are you staying?”  It’s an odd question to our ears (why would this guy care where Jesus is staying?), but this is how student-teacher relationships started in the ancient world.  A potential disciple would ask a rabbi where he was staying, and then present himself at the threshold of that teacher’s door early the next morning, demonstrating his devotion to studying under his tutelage.  So while the disciple’s question seems strange, it is actually Jesus’ response that is odd; instead of waiting for the disciple to present himself as a supplicant the next morning, Jesus tells him immediately, “Come and see.”  It’s as if John is saying that what Jesus is revealing to the world can’t wait for morning; it has to happen right away.  Hot on the heels of this encounter is the meeting of Jesus and Simon. The moment that Jesus looks at Simon, he says, “You are Simon son of John.  You are to be called Cephas.”  In John’s gospel, Peter doesn’t get his nickname after correctly identifying Jesus as the Messiah; Jesus reveals it to him in the first five seconds of knowing him.  The final encounter is easily the strangest one.  After wondering sarcastically if anything good can come out of Nazareth, Nathanael approaches Jesus, who says, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!”  This statement eventually leads Nathanael to identify Jesus as Son of God and King of Israel.

In some ways, this whole sequence is absurd.  No one walks around exchanging declarative statements like this and no one ends every sentence with an exclamation point (unless that person’s name is Richard Simmons); it’s just not how human beings communicate.  I’m confident that John understood this, that he deliberately chose to present these encounters with Jesus in a bizarre way.  This leaves us to wonder what the gospel writer is trying to tell us.  It’s pretty clear that for John, the revelation of Jesus Christ is something that simply can’t be contained.  Carousel june bustinThose of you who are familiar with musical theater may know the song “June is busting out all over” from Carousel; in the first chapter of John’s gospel, revelations are busting out all over.  For John the Baptist the mere presence of Jesus points to the fact that he is the Lamb of God and indicates that God is manifest in him.  In a similar way, Peter’s encounter with Jesus is an opportunity for conversion and transformation; it represents a call to a new vocation that is informed by the presence of Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh.  So on one hand, it might seem as though John is telling us that if we truly encounter Jesus, the effects are immediate: we will immediately recognize him and our lives will be transformed accordingly.  Christian history is filled with dramatic conversion experiences like these, stories of people who have had epiphanies of Jesus Christ that have led them to change their lives completely.  Indeed, I think that there is a popular assumption that the only way you can experience God is if you have had a sudden and dramatic conversion.  Part of the reason for this is that our culture loves conversion stories.  We love to identify those moments that changed people’s lives; we love stories about people who reoriented all of their priorities after a single dramatic experience.  Why else would the notion of “love at first sight” be so universally compelling?  Sure, we love love, but more importantly, we love a good conversion story.  And from what we read this morning, it seems that John is suggesting that this is the way God operates, that our encounter with Jesus Christ should represent one of these conversion moments, that as soon as we experience the Word made flesh, we should feel inexorably motivated to reorient our priorities and transform our lives completely.

This is certainly how it worked for numerous people throughout Christian history.  The stories of Saint Paul, Saint Augustine, and Martin Luther, to name but a few, are all informed by this emphasis on conversion and transformation.  These men were living a certain way, had an epiphany of the living God, and then proceeded to live their lives in a radically different way.  As compelling as these conversion stories are, however, it is vitally important for us to recognize the other, more gradual ways that God can be manifest to us.  And while John gives us dramatic examples of conversion in his account of Jesus’ early ministry, he also gives us compelling instances where God’s purposes are revealed in a more subtle way.  There is, of course, the nameless disciple of John whom Jesus invites to “come and see.”  We do not read that this disciple felt compelled to change everything about himself; instead, Jesus invited him into a relationship, a relationship that wasn’t predicated on any particular result.  Even more powerful is the example of Philip and Nathanael.  After Philip tells Nathanael, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth,” Nathanael’s caustic response is, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”  Nazareth was something of a backwater, not terribly well regarded, especially by those from the more cosmopolitan cities around the Galilee, like Bethsaida.  Nathanael’s question has particular resonance for me, as my hometown was a place that was not terribly well regarded.  hartfordI have heard a version of “Can anything good come out of Hartford” more than a few times in my life.  My response to remarks like this tended to be defensive and sometimes angry.  I would ball my fists and list all of the luminaries who had called Hartford, CT home, from Mark Twain to Katherine Hepburn.  I would, in other words, shut down the conversation.  But notice that’s exactly what Philip does not do with Nathanael.  Instead of responding defensively, Philip responds with an invitation: “Come and see.”  Instead of shutting down the conversation and telling Nathanael to go find his own Messiah, Philip turns to him and says, “Let me show you what good can come out of Nazareth.  Let me show you what God is up to in this Jesus.  Let me show how your life can be different.”

It occurs to me that in many ways, this is the nature of our vocation as Christians.  We are called to be like Philip, and if you’ll permit me, we’re called to be like Vanna White.  We are called to show the world the good that has come out of Nazareth.  We are called to show the world what God is up to in this Jesus.  We are called to show the people of this world how their lives can be different.  This is a challenging time in the history of the Church.  In the face of scandal, abuse, denominational infighting, and whole host of other issues, fewer and fewer people are identifying themselves as Christians.  People look at the plethora of Christian denominations and wonder whether there is anything that they can agree on, if there is any point to them trying to have a conversation.  More and more, the Church is regarded as an irrelevant artifact of a patriarchal past, one that is destined gradually to disappear.  In short, people are asking, “Can anything good come out of the Church?”  Even though we might be inclined to respond defensively, the God we serve calls us to invitation.  Even though we might want to avoid challenging conversations, the God we worship calls us to say, “Let me show you.”  Let me show you the Medical Care Mission, a ministry of this church that has provided people with low incomes with health care for thirty years.  Let me show you Christians of many denominations serving breakfast to the working poor over at First Christian before the sun comes up every day of the week.  Let me show you people from a variety of backgrounds worshiping together with silence and song as they gather for ecumenical Taize services.  Let me show you a group of people committed to serving their community and seeking Christ in everyone they meet.  Let me show you love.  It is in the moments that we acknowledge and celebrate our love for one another, our love for our community, and God’s love for everyone in this broken world that we most vividly show the world what good the Church can do.  Ultimately, the Church does not exist for itself; it exists for the transformation of the world.  In that regard, we cannot reach out to the people of world with the intention of getting them to become Episcopalians or Presbyterians; we must reach out to the people of the world with the intention of showing them how much God loves them.  This week of prayer for Christian Unity that we celebrate today is an opportunity to do just that, an opportunity for us to embrace our Christian vocation, our call to be in relationship with the world and invite the world to come and see. 

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Lamentation

Sermon on Matthew 2:13-23 offered to the people of the Church of the Heavenly Rest in Abilene, TX.

563612_10100115394570697_1993153675_nA few weeks ago, an ecumenical colleague and I were driving to a seminar in Austin.  Our trip took us through Zephyr (Texans are so good at naming places) and there we drove by a church with a sign that read, “The X belongs in Texas.  Christ belongs in Christmas.”  Clearly, the folks in Zephyr had opened up yet another front in the purported “War on Christmas.”  Neither my friend nor I had the time or inclination to explain that the “X” in “Xmas” is the Greek letter “chi,” which is actually an ancient abbreviation for the name of Christ.  The X, in other words, belongs both in Texas and Christmas.  Part of the reason I wasn’t inclined to explain this is that I really think that all of the talk about the “War on Christmas” in those first weeks of December is mostly an excuse to get people to click on website links or watch sensational stories on the news or come up with somewhat clever church signs.

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“Do we get to win this time?”

The reality is, however, that all of the skirmishes in the supposed “War on Christmas” take place before Christmas even starts.  And once the season of Christmas has actually arrived, people forget about it!  Across the country on December 26th, decorations are packed away, Christmas trees are literally thrown to the curb, and people stop saying Merry Christmas, even though there are twelve more days to celebrate the birth of our Lord. Surely this is where the real battle is being fought.  Needless to say, I have, for the last two weeks, been a willing and possibly the only participant in this particular version of the “War on Christmas.” I have been the John Rambo of reminding people that it is still Christmas: I have encouraged people to keep their decorations up, I have corrected people when they refer to Christmas in the past tense, and I insist on saying “Merry Christmas” well into January.  And so beloved, I take this moment on January 5th to remind you that it is still Christmas, that we are still observing the birth of our Lord, that we are still celebrating the Incarnation.

As a result of our celebration, we are in the somewhat unusual position of observing the second Sunday of Christmas, which does not happen all too often.  In fact, the way our lectionary is constructed means that we in the Episcopal Church rarely have to deal with this challenging reading we heard from Matthew’s gospel.  And this story of the Holy Family’s escape to Egypt and the slaughter of the innocents is nothing if not challenging.  Matthew begins by telling us about an angel appearing to Joseph in yet another dream, warning him to take the child and his mother to Egypt to escape Herod’s murderous intentions.  Joseph wakes up immediately and escorts Jesus and Mary to Egypt by night, escaping from Herod and his minions in the nick of time and fulfilling a prophecy from Hosea to boot.  It seems that everything is wrapped up neatly in a bow; everybody ends up safe and sound exactly where they are supposed to be and Jesus is well on his way to fulfilling prophetic and Messianic expectations.  In the very next passage, however, Matthew tells us that Herod, infuriated by the duplicity of the wise men, sends soldiers to Bethlehem to murder every single child under the age of two.  It’s a shocking jolt to the system.  We were lulled into a sense of security, a knowledge that the heroes of the story were safe, and then we hear about a horrific massacre of innocent children.  Matthew tells us that even this tragedy fulfills the prophetic words of Jeremiah: “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”  After recounting this horrific event, Matthew moves on.  He tells us that the Holy Family stays in Egypt until Herod dies, eventually moving to Nazareth, so that Jesus can fulfill yet another prophecy.

imagesThe challenge of this passage is not simply the horrifying fact that children were massacred, but rather the fact that Matthew can be so glib about it.  It doesn’t seem to faze him all that much; he simply presents an account of the slaughter of the innocents, and then moves on with the narrative.  In some ways, this may be related to Matthew’s almost obsessive preoccupation with presenting Jesus as the “prophet like Moses” predicted in Deuteronomy.  After all, according to the account in Exodus, Moses also escaped from a similar slaughter of Hebrew children by an oppressive tyrant.  Moses also saved his people by coming up out of Egypt.  It could be that Matthew is simply unfolding those events that give us a sense of Jesus’ true identity.  It could be that the slaughter of the innocents is just another event that proves Jesus is the prophet like Moses, the one who will save God’s people from their sin.

While there may be some truth to this, the Church has never fully accepted this explanation.  We have never been so callous as to think of the slaughter of the innocents as the cost of doing business; it has always been an event that we have mourned as a community.  It is no accident that we remember those Holy Innocents in a feast day on December 28th.  It is no accident that one of the most important and enduring moments in the 16th-century Pageant of the Shearmen and the Tailors was when the women of Bethlehem sang the mournful carol we sang just prior to the reading of the gospel today.  In fact, that carol is the one element of that pageant that survived, the one part of that experience that we wanted to make sure we remembered.  Finally, I think that even Matthew expects us to mourn.  Matthew is incredibly selective about the quotation he uses from Jeremiah to describe the slaughter of the innocents: “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”  In the very next sentence of the passage from which Matthew draws that quotation, Jeremiah says, “Keep your voice from weeping, and your eyes from tears…there is hope for your future, says the Lord: your children shall come back to their own country.”  Yet Matthew ends the prophecy with “she refuses to be consoled, because they are no more.”  In other words, Matthew chooses to end the quotation not with the promise of restoration that we hear in Jeremiah, but with the reality of a mother’s pain; not with hope for the future, but with the reality of loss; not with the prophet like Moses, but with an acknowledgment that the loss of a child is more than one can bear.

When I was born, I spent some time in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit.  Looking back, it was a little absurd: I was full-term, eight pounds three ounces, and relatively healthy.  I was at least twice the size of all of the other babies in the nursery, but apparently there were some issues with my heart.  These were resolved relatively quickly and I was discharged from the hospital after a few days.

A few months later, my father was canvassing for our local Town Committee, which was Hartford’s answer to Tammany Hall.  He had to knock on doors in our neighborhood, and because he understood the fundamental law that babies are good politics, he carried me along with him in a Baby Bjorn (or whatever they were called back then).  Things were going well until he arrived at a house where a woman around his age answered the door.  After my father gave his spiel, the woman said to him, “You don’t remember me, do you?”  Terrified that he had violated the cardinal rule of local politics and forgotten someone’s name, my father stammered, “I’m sorry, I can’t recall meeting you.”  The woman responded, “Both of our babies were in the NICU at the same time.  Your baby made it, and mine didn’t,” and she closed the door.

“A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”  There’s nothing my father could have said to this woman to console her.  There’s nothing he could have said to help her make meaning of her child’s death, nor is there anything we could or should say to help a parent make meaning of her child’s death.  In the same way, there’s nothing Matthew could say to make meaning of the death of those innocent children, except to acknowledge the pain and loss.

How do we find good news in this story about the murder of innocent children?  How do we find good news in this story about a mother’s inconsolable grief?  We cannot presume to make false meaning of these stories, we cannot hide behind clichés like “everything happens for a reason” or “God needed another angel.”  These are well-intended but ultimately unhelpful responses to tragedy.  The good news, the gospel that we affirm today, the reality of the Incarnation we continue to celebrate is that even though our world is ruled by tyrants and broken by sin and death, God came to dwell among us.  The gospel we affirm today is that through Jesus Christ, God has experienced the pain of a grieving mother and the suffering of a frightened child.  The gospel we affirm today is that on a cross outside of Jerusalem, God came face to face with Herod and Caesar and all the evil powers of this world and through Jesus Christ, God has said “no” to the power of evil.

imgresAnd because God has said “no” to the power of evil, we have been enabled to say “no” to the evil powers of this world.  When we see people who are being ignored, we are called to say “no” and reach out in love and compassion.  When we see people who are wracked by hunger and thirst, we are called to say “no” and give them something to eat.  When we see people oppressed because of who they are, we are called to say “no” and affirm their fundamental dignity and worth.  When we see people without hope, we are called to say “no” and give them reason to hope.  It is in this way, in the words of our Collect this morning, that we “share the divine life of him who shared our humanity.”  It is in this way that we celebrate the Incarnation, not only during these twelve days, but every day of our lives.  And as we celebrate the Incarnation, I pray that the one who came to dwell among us will empower us to stand in the face of tragedy and misery and say “no” to the evil powers of this world.