Monday, December 28, 2009

Reading the Signs

Sheepscott Community Church December 27, 2009

Isaiah 60: 1-6

Ephesians 3: 1-12

Matthew 2: 1-12

Reading the Signs

Red skies at dawning, sailors take warning.

Red skies at night, sailors’ delight.

I thought of those familiar lines on Tuesday morning when I was thinking about this sermon. I had been thrilled that the sun was actually shining after days of overcast, wind, snow showers and colder than seasonable temperatures. With our passive south-facing solar glass unable to really take the edge of cold off in the house in those days, because of the overcast, I rejoiced in the thought that we could finally get a bit more comfortable in the house.

About 10 o’clock I noticed clouds overspreading from the East. Darn! What happened to that blue sky? that bright sun? I felt betrayed by what is only par for the course in now astronomical as well as meteorological winter. I went back and checked the weather blurb in the newspaper. There it was: overcast with snow showers in the later afternoon.

If like the sailors, we can read the signs in the skies, everything depending on whether that rosiness is evident on the horizon at dawn or at dusk, at sun’s rising or setting. If we can interpret those meteorological signs, why not the signs that attended the birth of Christ? While I grant it is accepted scholarship that legends have grown up around the myth of the birth of Jesus, as with the birth of other great religious figures, it is nevertheless worth investigating any individual who rises to that stature, especially in this case, to someone who is seen as a divine figure, in fact the Godhead itself realized in a human being. That proposed reality wants very close scrutiny from every individual.

What am I getting at here? What am, I suggesting? This is the day we are marking Epiphany. Although it occurs on the calendar date of January 6, today is the day it is liturgically possible for us. I remind you that Epiphany is a showing forth, and especially the showing forth of a divine or superhuman figure. It has come to be associated with the showing forth of the Christ, Jesus, to the Gentile world, represented by the three Wise Men, the Magi, the Three Kings. It is the twelfth and last day of Christmas.

We have talked before about our old friend Herod, who was the insanely jealous king of Palestine, who reigned from 47 BCE to 4 CE. It was he who murdered his wife and her mother because he suspected they were rivals for his power. But he didn’t stop there. He assassinated his eldest son and two other sons for the same reason. The Roman Emperor Augustus had bitterly said of Herod that it was safer to be Herod’s pig than to be his son.

One more anecdote about him to convey the depth of his brutality in the service of jealousy and warped sense of morality. When he came to be 70 years of age, he knew that he didn’t have long to live, and so he arranged to have a group of the most distinguished citizens of Jerusalem arrested on trumped-up charges and imprisoned with the order that the moment he died they should all be killed. He was well aware that no one would mourn his death and he wanted to be assured that there would be tears shed in Jerusalem when he died, regardless of whom they were shed for.

This may give you more understanding of the heart squeeze that Herod must have felt when he heard the story that wise men from the East had arrived searching for a little child, born to be King of the Jews. The chief priests and scribes were summoned into Herod’s presence to tell him what Jewish scripture had to say about where this anointed one should be born. They responded with the quotation from Micah, which you heard in this morning’s gospel reading: “But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,/ are by no means least among the rulers of Judah,/ for out of you will come a ruler/ who will be the shepherd of my people Israel.”

It was then Herod sent for the wise men, charging them to make a diligent search for the little child who had been born. And he said that he too wanted to come and worship the child. Yeah, right. We know the sad ending of the tale, but it is not used in this cycle of readings. When the wise men returned to their home port after receiving directions to do so in a dream and not return to that dog Herod, Herod was outraged. Using the calculated birth date from the chief priests and scribes, he ordered all of the male infants under two years old in Bethlehem to be slaughtered. This event has come to be marked by what is called and onserved as the Feast of the Holy Innocents in some churches. It’s a sad tale we don’t like to hear and imagine, but it is entirely consistent with Herod’s character.

Now, let’s look at the signs I alluded to earlier. First, we have the sign of the wise men from the East, traveling to find this child born to rule. The writer of Matthew introduces the Magi, here translated as wise men. The Magi were originally members of the Persian priestly caste, but the word came to mean any possessor of supernatural knowledge and power, often with a pejorative bent. These wise men were understood to be astrologers, interpreters of the movements of the stars and planets in the heavens in relation to events on earth, and consequently, people’s lives. Gazing at the heavens, as they no doubt did, in order to practice their art and craft, the Magi would have noticed an unusual star.

It was a common motif in antiquity that a new star marked the birth of a ruler. Consequently, it is an exercise in futility to seek out astrological phenomena of the time, e.g., the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in 7 CE., to explain what is a literary and theological motif. Nevertheless, I would like to take this opportunity to sound a positive note in this area of astrology, commonly associated in some religious circles with wickedness and evil. It is here clearly put in the service of calling attention to the birth of the Christ. Is sinfulness vs. usefulness for the purposes of God all in the mind and heart of the practitioner? I’m inclined to think so.

Astrologers as either scientists, or necromancers have been around for thousands of years. In the case of the Magi, they are what we would consider astronomers, a little bit of both old science and what we would consider astrology, predicting or explaining world events by the positions of the stars and planets in the heavens. Remember the wise men as astrologers when you hear someone indicting other ways of knowing about God. It is God who knows the heart and the reasons why any individual practices as he or she does. Just an aside, but a significant aside. As I understood from a recent dream I had and would pass on to you, in case it’s useful, hear God saying, with regard to any area we might be troubled about, and think we need to make a judgment about, “Let me be the judge of that.” Burden lifted Just love. That’s all you have to do. Love well, and leave the rest to God. There’s plenty to keep us busy there.

So, we have the star as a literary and theological motif indicating the birth of a ruler, in this case a religious ruler, and yet the King of Kings, as we believe. Other signs are the gifts themselves which the wise men brought to the child. We’ve known these since childhood, and just sang about them in the hymn “We Three Kings” just moments ago. “Gold I bring to crown him again;” “Frankincense to offer have I; Incense owns a deity nigh;” “Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume breathes a life of gathering gloom.”

The three gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh gave rise to the idea that there were three Magi or astrologers with specific names: Casper, Melchior and Balthazar. In fact scripture does not specify how many men there were, but the tradition developed into three wise men, who morphed into kings themselves. The stuff of evolving legend, but legend grows out of truth, and the underlying story is that truth. A very important person born. How do we know that? By important personages coming to honor that one, and that brings us back to the gifts.

Gold, the king of metals, is a fitting gift for the king of human beings. So then, Jesus was the man born to be king, but different from most kings because he was born to reign, not by force, but by love.

Frankincense is the gift for a priest. It was in Temple worship and at Temple sacrifices that the worshipper could smell the sweet fragrance of frankincense when it was burned. The function of the high priest during worship or sacrifice in the Temple was to open the way between God and the worshippers. The Latin word for priest is pontifex, which means bridge-builder. The priest was a bridge-builder between God and human beings. This certainly is what Jesus is and does: he opens the way to God for all of us. He makes it possible for us to enter into the presence of God.

Myrrh is the gift for one who is to die because it was used to embalm the bodies of the dead. While Jesus came into the world destined to die, as we all are, he came into the world to live, to show us how to live, to be the bridge-builder between God and man.

Gold for a king, frankincense for a priest, myrrh for one who is meant to die. The three gifts which the wise men, the astrologers, the Magi, the kings brought to the child–– signs to the world then and now of that child’s meaning, which each person is bound to figure out for him- or herself.

If we look at today’s gospel reading, we can see that no sooner was Jesus born than men began to group themselves in one of three ways in response to him. There was the reaction of Herod, one of hatred and hostility. Herod was afraid that this child would interfere with his exercise of power and so he wanted to destroy him. There are still those who would destroy Jesus as the Christ because they see in him one who would interfere with their lives as they want to live them. They see Jesus as the Christ as someone who will take away their access to what they want when they want it.

A second grouping is that of the chief priests and scribes, whose reaction was one of relative indifference. They were so engrossed in their Temple rituals and legal discussions that they completely disregarded Jesus. He meant nothing to them. Poof and piffle. There are still some among us who react the same way to Jesus as the Christ, viz., with complete indifference. Jesus? What? What about him?

The third reaction was that of the wise men, who were truly wise. They came searching for understanding about the significance of this birth. Do we come searching for its significance? Their reaction was to drop to their knees in worship. To be in the presence of God does that to us. We don’t think about it. We don’t analyze it and wonder what the one on our right might think; what the one on our left might think. No. We drop to our knees. We don’t make a choice. The reality of God’s presence chooses us; it drops us. That’s only one indication of what and whom we are dealing with.

Worth remarking again is that the wise men brought gifts. Besides dropping in worship, they laid their gifts in acknowledgment of the one whom they had found, the one to whom the star of wonder, star of night, star with royal beauty bright pointed.

Go in the company of the wise men, the astrologers, the Magi, the kings, the searchers whom God knew by name and intention. Tolstoi’s last words were, “To seek; always to seek.” Those are words to indeed live and die by. I suspect that when we actually encounter the Christ in the fullness of his meaning, only then will the seeking, the search be over. Amen.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Blessed Are You

Sheepscott Community Church December 20, 2009

Micah 5: 2-5a

Hebrews 10: 5-10

Luke 1: 39-45

Blessed Are You

“My soul doth magnify the Lord and my spirit rejoiceth in God, my Savior.” How about you? Does your soul magnify the Lord and your spirit rejoice in God your Savior? Mary’s prayer of praise, which we read this morning as the Call to Worship, is a prayer of overage, if you will. Mary is so full of joy that she is overcome. Some people sing, some people go running, some people laugh. Mary prayed. She was so full of joy in the moment that she spilled out the Magnificat, as that prayer of praise is called.

Just for the record and in order that you will be able to sleep tonight and not be worrying about it, magnificat, the word itself, it is from the Latin verb, magnificare, meaning to esteem highly. In this case, soul is the subject of the verb: “My soul doth magnify, or esteem highly, the Lord.”

If any time of the year calls forth the occasional feeling of Magnificat, it is this Christmas time, and that especially for children. Do you remember the feeling of almost unbearable excitement? I remember listening to Don Kent who was the weatherman for WBZ-TV in Boston almost forever. By the time of the Christmas Eve evening weather forecast, he would have the first reports of an initially unidentified flying object, which became identified by the end of the forecast as––amazing as it might seem––a sleigh with what appeared to be reindeer pulling it. Then he would demonstrate on the map where in the Arctic region it had been spotted. Oh my gosh. The thrill. He’s on the way. They actually saw him. Definitely Magnificat time.

We have different reasons for Magnificat throughout our lives. Getting an A on your first research paper you worked hard on in the seventh grade. Smelling the earth during mud season, when the frost comes out. The taste of that first homegrown ear of corn from the garden. Falling in love, whether it’s at 15, 25, 50 or beyond. Your first child being born. Your first grandchild, your second, third and fourth. A sudden awareness of God’s presence in any situation: in nature, in the delivery room, the emergency room, the cemetery, over coffee with an old friend. The list is endlessly varied because people and how they experience God is endlessly varied.

But today we’re talking about Mary and her Magnificat. The story tells us that it was when Mary was visiting her cousin Elizabeth and they got talking about the extraordinary events in their lives that is when she erupted in spontaneous prayer.

Mary doesn’t get a lot of play in the gospels. We know about the annunciation, when the angel Gabriel announced to Mary that God had chosen her to bear his Son; we know about the Nativity, the birth of that child, which we will celebrate in another five days; we know about the vigil of the mother at the foot of the cross when that same divine child, the Christ, was dying. We are also familiar with today’s gospel of Mary’s visit to her cousin Elizabeth to help her during the last three months of her pregnancy. That’s difficult enough for any woman, when she feels like a beached whale as those last three months progress. Getting out a chair with grace is a lost cause. Getting out of a chair at all is an accomplishment.

Complicating the universal discomfort and difficulties of the third trimester as all women experience them, Elizabeth had the added factor of bearing her first child at an advanced age. The gospel doesn’t tell us just how old she was, only that she was no spring chicken. Mary, on the other hand, was really just a kid, by our estimation: probably between thirteen and fifteen years old, according to scholarly estimates. She easily could “hurry” to the hill country, where Elizabeth lived, or go “eagerly” as another translation has it, because although she herself was newly pregnant, she had the strength and fleetness of foot of one who is young.

Elizabeth says to her young cousin, “Blessed are you among women and blessed is the child you will bear!” This echoes the words of the angel who came to Mary at the annunciation according to the NIV translation, which we use: “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.” Another translation has the angel saying just what Elizabeth said, “The Lord is with you. Blessed are you among women!” Blessedness is what I want to consider here.

If someone were to ask you if you would want to be among the blessed, as opposed to those not blessed––cursed or outside or other, perhaps––it seems like something of a no-brainer that you would choose the former, to be among the blessed. But before making that dive, that leap, a little circumspection might be in order, especially and for our purposes this morning, through a consideration of the reading of the gospel.

There is paradox to consider: the joy of the moment with her cousin, who confirms her status before she has said anything about what has happened to her with her question, “Why am I so favored that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” How that must have rejoiced Mary’s soul: There. I’m not crazy. Elizabeth knows about it too. And the two women would no doubt have sat and sipped whatever they had for tea in those days and chatted on about the events that they were living out. Just imagine...

But as those who have read and heard about the story of Jesus for much of our lives, we know the other side of the paradox is the sorrow down the road for this young mother-to-be. And whether Elizabeth survived into John’s career as a prophet of Jesus, the one he came to point towards, we don’t know. But I find myself hoping that she didn’t live to see his violent end at the hand of Herod’s executioner. If old age didn’t kill her, that surely would have.

Given the way things turned out for Mary and Elizabeth, not to mention Jesus and John, why would anyone sign on for blessedness? This does seem like a very good time to be asking that question. Last week I talked about our hearts becoming the Christmas crib, the receiving blanket that will provide a place of rest for the divine child. It is the Spirit of God who shows us where we need to repent in order to prepare our hearts for such a visit. It can be through Mary’s agency as mother of the Christ, she who brought him to us when she bore him into the world that Christmas night, it can be through her agency as a model of surrender that we can have our hearts prepared to receive him in the fullness of his identity, knowing what we do––perhaps more than Mary knew when she assented and when she gave birth––and knowing that increasingly more may be asked of us as we draw closer and closer to the author of life.

When Mary said to the angel, “Let it be done unto me according to thy word,” or “May it be to me as you have said,” her saying that is called her “fiat,” the Latin for “Let it be done.” I would like to think that Elizabeth’s exclamation about Mary’s fiat, “Blessed is she who has believed that what the Lord has said to her will be accomplished,” may be exclaimed in the courts of heaven about us. Is that too much? Too outrageous? Why can’t we have that same level of faith that Mary had to believe what the angel had said, to believe that God can use us to promote peace and justice, to embody love and kindness in a world that cries out for it. As Paul wrote in Romans 8: 22, “All creation groans and is in agony even until now.” We live in a world that groans in agony and cries out for us to be willing to believe, to set inordinate modesty aside that would keep us from believing God would use us for his purposes. “Let it be done unto me according to your word.” Fiat.

Do you think that Mary and Elizabeth’s world was vastly different from ours? Perhaps, in the technologies and medical advances and infrastructure changes, yes. Of course. It would be vastly different, but if we look closely at Mary’s Magnificat, we can easily see that although the surface of things may change, people do not change. And because they do not change, governments made up of people do not change nor do modes of behavior.

In this context, consider the Magnificat as a revolutionary document. “He has scattered or confused the proud in their inmost thoughts.” That is a kind of moral revolution. William Barclay, in addressing this issue, relates an O. Henry tale of the friendship between a boy and a girl, who were good friends when they were in school. The boy went off to the city, where he fell into evil ways, making his living as a thief. After he had successfully relieved an old lady of her purse and was feeling particularly pleased with himself, the girl whom he had known back in the village approached in all her innocence and goodness, and he felt overcome with shame because of what he had become. He leaned against the lamp post. “God,” he said, “I wish I could die.” He saw himself for what he was, which is the beginning of the end of pride and the beginning of a moral revolution. “He has scattered the proud in their inmost thoughts.”

The Magnificat also contains in its lines social revolution: “He has brought down rulers from their thrones but he has lifted up the humble, or raised the lowly to high places.” There is no honoring of class or caste in God: we are all equal. There are also the lines, “He has filled the hungry with good things while the rich he has sent empty away.” These are revolutionary words economically speaking. Nothing wrong with a fortune, but it is what is done with that fortune that declares who the person is before God. Think Ebenezer Scrooge. The expected key word is share. Share the wealth, no matter how much, no matter how little. We are challenged by the words of Mary to share, just as she shared her own self, bodily. She was not impressed into service. She was invited, and she accepted, thereby giving us a model of how to respond to God.

It is a revolutionary act to say yes to God because thereby one life begins to be changed and one life––think Martin Luther King, Mother Teresa, Greg Mortenson of Three Cups of Tea fame––one life can beget great change in the larger world. Our own lives can beget change. Which brings me to the prophet Micah, from whose writing Tony read this morning. Most of us are familiar with this morning’s reading, which concerns the prophet foretelling the reign of Jesus, who has yet to come. And he does fill the bill, doesn’t he? Born in Bethlehem, one who shepherds his flock in the strength of the Lord, and one whose greatness did reach to the ends of the earth. And finally, he is peace, no matter what else you may hear. He is the Prince of Peace, no matter the bending and twisting of his words to fit any other model.

If Micah foresaw this blessed one, whom Mary consented to bear, and whom Elizabeth recognized by the leap in her own womb at Mary’s greeting, we are called these eons later to consider these words and events, to decide whether they have meaning for us now. We have a responsibility to consider carefully what we heard read this morning and what we will hear read and sung later today. I like what Carroll Smith said about the Advent Service of Lessons and Carols, that it was another opportunity for a person to make his or her soul “aright,” viz., in a right manner, justly, correctly, straightway, in a right course. That’s what we want, isn’t it?

Although not included in today’s reading from Micah, it is in his book that we find the epitome of that soul set aright lived out in these words, and they are literally words to live by:

Micah 6: 8: “He has showed you, O man, what is good./ And what does the Lord require of you?/ To act justly, to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” There we have the formula to live a blessed life, but knowing the paradox of blessedness in the lives of those who have accepted God’s invitation, I caution, Take care in accepting the invitation. It will mean the greatest joy, and commensurately the greatest sorrow, but also, more work because everyone who accepts the invitation to be among the blessed assumes responsibility to share that blessedness. But what could possibly be better than to know that we have said yes to the Wonder-Counselor, God-Hero, Father-Forever, Prince of Peace? Just ask Mary: I expect she will say it is and was all worth it. Amen.

Monday, December 14, 2009

The Lord Is Near

Sheepscott Community Church December 13, 2009

Isaiah 12: 2-6

Philippians 4: 4-7

Luke 3: 7-18

The Lord Is Near

I think Brie’s birthday tomorrow is a perfect parallel to this morning’s readings. You may recall that when Advent began, I mentioned to the children the one pink candle, which is pink and not marked by the purple of this season of repentance because we are half way through the season. We are called today to rejoice because we are almost there. As Cindy read from Philippians, “Rejoice!” Rejoice because the Lord is near, nearer than he was two weeks ago. Although Brie’s birthday is not until tomorrow, we rejoice with her in anticipation of that special day. It might be a good idea to have some little treat at home to mark this day of rejoicing, and to think of John the Baptist, seeing his cousin approaching, as we see the feast of Christmas approaching, and exclaim with him, “Look, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world!”

Don’t you get a feeling of excitement and expectation from the Gospel of Luke this morning? The people were wondering in their hearts if John might be the promised Messiah. His words, his appearance, all of it was compelling. And the people were deeply longing for the Messiah. Maybe, just maybe, this might be he. But John quickly disabused them of that notion when he said clearly, “I baptize you with water. But one more powerful than I will come , the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.”

If anything those words built up the anticipation even more. But what or who was this Holy Spirit, they must have wondered. I can sense the excitement in the background, which was John’s as much as theirs. Imagine how he must have felt when he actually saw Jesus approaching.

In John the Evangelist’s gospel account of this same event, he writes that some priests and Levites had come out to John in the desert to ask the Baptist who he was. Immediately he says, “I am not the Christ.” Further on they ask what he does have to say about himself, and he answers in the words of Isaiah the prophet, “I am the voice of one calling in the desert. ‘Make straight the way for the Lord.’” In that gospel, John also says that although he baptizes with water, that one whom they do not know will come after him and it is he whose sandal thongs he is not worthy to untie.

The very next day, whom should he see but Jesus approaching, and he exclaimed, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” This is who I meant when I said, ‘A man who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.’” And so forth. I find myself wondering, why didn’t they recognize each other? They were cousins after all. And then I remember at our son’s wedding seeing a niece and nephew I had not seen for 20 years since they were toddlers, and if their parents had not brought them, whom I easily recognized, I would not have known who they were. So, maybe it was like that with Jesus’ parents and John’s parents: they might have gotten together only on the most important of occasions. Finally we’re left with speculation to fill in such time gaps, and we have talked before together about the lesson of the story being what matters, not the perfect alignment of facts according to our own grids of critical biblical appraisal.

Here the story is that Jesus was baptized by John, who openly said he was not the Christ, but also just as openly pointed the finger at Jesus as the one before whom he was sent.

We know what it’s like to wait in an emergency room for news of a loved one who is being worked on in one of the examining rooms. We are hoping for good news, but it could go either way. Sometimes the best outcome we pray for proves out in death, where we had hoped for healing. Some of us know what it is to hope for and anticipate a job following a layoff and a radical curtailment of available money for even groceries. We know what it is to await news of our own or our child’s application to the college he or she so badly wants to attend. If we haven’t experienced it ourselves, we know of someone, or a couple, who want a child badly and every month wait for the good news of conception or adoption.

We understand the anticipation and hope connected with these experiences, and also the disappointment at some outcomes and its resultant sadness. We also understand the reward of a hoped-for outcome and its resultant joy. We’ve all had both kinds of experiences and have learned to live with reward or disappointment with greater or lesser degrees of acquiescence.

The difference between anticipation in these human experiences that can go either way and the anticipation connected with John the Baptist and those who heard him and us ourselves as we travel through Advent approaching the feast of Christmas is that there is no disappointment at the end of the four weeks, at the end of the preparation and waiting period. Christ will come. Christ will inhabit the crib of our hearts on that night, where we have prepared for him a place of rest, a receiving blanket fashioned of repentance and desire to be new.

It is worth mentioning again, as I did last week to the children, that even though on the occasion of Christmas we mark the coming again of the Christ into the world, he is always already here, that fact made real by another of the major players in this religious drama, whom John the Baptist alluded to this morning: the Holy Spirit. Christ dwells with us through that Holy Spirit who makes us one in spite of ourselves, and in spite of our protests and our running in the other direction to get away from our fellow human beings.

The novelist Somerset Maughm’s Of Human Bondage has a wonderful paragraph in it that affected me permanently when I was a teenager, more arrogant than many. The message of the paragraph was that the character was refusing to participate in the human fray, thinking he was better and then calling that human fray coarse or something like that. The character justified his own avoidance of responsibility to be part of the whole thing by calling it coarse. That blew my hair back that day because it spoke to my condition, a condition of thinking I was better than. What a joke. I want to note that the Spirit of God can use a well-written text, an inspired poem, or piece of music or art to move us in our deepest selves into wider truth, which we may not have recognized otherwise and may have avoided for whatever reason.

The Spirit of God, that Holy Spirit, the source of all creativity, who knows us absolutely intimately, knows what our buttons are and what pushes them, what stirs us to action, what excites our passion. That Spirit, the same one whom John the Baptist alludes to in this morning’s gospel, is present in Christ to us today, right now, here in this church, in each of you, in me. That’s exciting, that’s challenging, and here’s the good news: it is true. I have never lied to you, and I would not say what I just said if I did not know it to be the truth without qualification. The Spirit of God, the same Spirit who is responsible for all of creation, whom John the Baptist speaks about, is with us today. And we are preparing to honor that one’s coming in Jesus a little less than two weeks from now.

Think about swine flu. Very contagious. Regular winter flu. Also very contagious, as are colds. This negative contagion of illness underscores how we are one and are affected by one another. Masks and gloves, washing our hands frequently during the day, drinking plenty of fluids and intaking Vitamin C notwithstanding, we cannot finally fully protect ourselves from illness. Think Howard Hughes. This Holy Spirit with whom Jesus will baptize is a positive contagion, will make us aware of how we are one, in spite of ourselves and our desire to run in the other direction from belonging. We can never outrun the Spirit because we can never not be part of the Body of Christ, regardless of fancy thinking, or despairing thinking. We can never get away from one another. Deal with it.

Often, before we can live and act under the joyful and creative influence of the Spirit, we have other work to do in the Spirit, and that is repentance. Repentance is the bedrock of Christianity, and yet conviction of sin is one of the rarest things that ever strikes a person. Repentance is the threshold of the understanding of God, of approaching God, but a person cannot truly repent on cue because true repentance is a gift of God. We come to see who we are before God: Nothing. And yet we are received with love and forgiveness. Gratitude for receiving what we could never deserve comes forth from that. The old Puritans used to pray for the gift of tears, and those tears are finally the only appropriate expression of unspeakable sorrow we have before God when convicted of sin.

Lamentation, beating of the breast, exclamations of woe, Jonathan Edwards’ “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”––these are thoughts that might rise up out of what I am saying. I won’t discourage them because they are an oft’ neglected part of the whole picture of what it means to try to be a Christian. It is not all sweetness and light. It’s facing ourselves as we truly are. I’m not talking about the big sins of idolatry, murder, stealing, adultery, covetousness, although these can parse into our everyday lives quite easily––a sermon for another time. I am talking about our pettiness, our meanness of spirit, the withholding of a smile or a kind word when that word could shift the wind for another suffering soul. That’s what I’m talking about. The everyday stuff.

But it isn’t all breast-beating and woe either. In this season of repentance, we need only pay attention to what John the Baptist is saying in this morning’s gospel. After the opening words of threat and judgment, the people who had gathered to hear John asked with one voice, “What should we do then?” John gave them by way of reply the social gospel to share with one another. The man with two tunics should share with him who has none, and food, the same.

When tax collectors and soldiers asked him specifically what they should do, he instructed them to work out their salvation by doing the job as it should be done. Let the tax collector be a good tax collector, and the soldier a good soldier. Let the boatbuilder be a good boatbuilder, the medical technician a good medical technician, the teacher a good teacher, the insurance salesman a good insurance salesman. It was and is a person’s duty to serve God where God has set that person, and it was John’s conviction that a person can best serve God in the day’s work. Very Shaker. “Hands to work, hearts to God.”

We have plenty of work to put our hands to over the next two weeks, and let us consciously remember to give our hearts to God in that work. How to do that? Just by saying so out loud or to ourselves. “I give my hand to this work, God, and my heart to you.” If you want to expand on it, extemporize, go right ahead. If you’re baking, “May each of these cookies that I make with love, bless with love all those who receive them.” Make free in your prayers. The freer we are in our gift of prayer to God, the more room we make for God’s response to us. Amen.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Don't Shoot the Messenger

Sheepscott Community Church December 6, 2009

Malachi 3: 1-4

Philippians 1: 3-11

Luke 3: 1-6

Don’t Shoot the Messenger

The messenger I had in mind in the title of today’s sermon is of course John the Baptist, one of the chief Advent players. As you heard in Zachariah’s extensive prayer of praise, which we read together this morning, John the Baptist, the prophesied child of the high priest and his wife Elizabeth, would be the prophet of the Most High, who would go before the Lord to make a way for him.

At this point in preparing the sermon, I heard Canada geese and ran outside to try to catch sight of them, a seasonal event that never grows old. Late, at this late date, but never old. I didn’t see them, but I could hear them honking their way South, a natural harbinger of impending winter. The Canada geese in their migration, the barn swallows in their arrival and departure, the wooly bear caterpillar with its stripe of supposedly prophetic weather forecasting–– these are all natural prophets, as are the frost on the pumpkin, the sun lower on the horizon, the skim of ice on the pasture pond. Can we read these signs?

We can read John the Baptist as a harbinger of a season unlike any that had ever dawned before or has since that time. He was the prophet of the promised Messiah. Luke considers the emergence on the scene of John the Baptist so significant that he carefully lays out the political geography of the period against the world background of the Roman Empire. Because of this gospel’s detail, scholars have been able to use that roadmap to determine that John the Baptist was preaching and baptizing between about 27 and 29, the Common Era.

The writer of the gospel of Mark paints a clear picture of John the Baptist in the first chapter of that gospel. “John wore clothing made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey.” It sounds like someone who may have appeared in the background of a ‘60s documentary on the Haight-Ashbury District of San Francisco. We recognize this figure of the outsider, especially the religious outsider, the prophet with the sandwich board, walking the streets of New York City or San Francisco or Memphis or Little Rock, and often featured in New Yorker cartoons. We have certain expectations when we see that figure.

A prophet can appear in Newcastle or North Whitefield. I think I’ve mentioned before the biblical message painted many years ago on an outbuilding in Whitefield about the end times and being ready. Which reminds me of a story Jon told me about being a child in summer in Boothbay Harbor and seeing a station wagon with a megaphone affixed to its roof that would drive around the Harbor, warning people to get ready for the end. He said there was a biblical reference written around the box that held the megaphone. He is able now to calculate that it was probably the abbreviation for Second Thessalonians 5: 1-10, which his child mind of the time interpreted as the world coming to an end on Thursday at 5:10.

Anyway, we recognize the stereotypical and caricatured figure of the prophet. We do get a little uneasy when we see and hear prophets, don’t we? These odd loners who might be speaking the truth. We listen with one ear because we may be thinking, He’s a nut! but what if he isn’t? The people in Palestine in John the Baptist’s day flocked to him to hear what he had to say, to be challenged to repent and be baptized. They were thrilled by his words and many readily went down into the Jordan. They responded to his call to prepare the way of the Lord, just as we are doing in this Advent season, preparing the way of the Lord.

There was something about John that attracted people to him, in spite of his appearance, his rugged demands, and his calls for repentance. It was the Spirit of God in him, that same Spirit that drove him out into the desert where he himself prepared for his career, just as the Spirit of God drove Jesus, following his baptism by John, out into the desert to prepare for his career. Both careers––that of the prophet, the messenger, and that of the One prophesied––both careers were short-lived, but they changed the history of the world.

If we get a little uneasy when we see or hear about prophets, we also are suckers for the lists of so-called prophesies from people like Nostradamus or Jean Dixon, who have presented themselves and been recognized as seers, foretellers of future events. Here a distinction needs to be made between a prophet and a fortune teller . A true prophet, one called by God for God’s purposes, like John the Baptist or the major and minor prophets of the Hebrew Bible, for instance Malachi in this morning’s first reading, a true prophet is one who speaks for God, who is God’s messenger. True prophets do not tickle the ears of their listeners with blandishments. True prophets may speak of the outcome of ungodly behaviors, and also may offer consolation in times of suffering, and words of assurance of God’s presence at such times. They may tell something of the future, but not necessarily. It is the speaking for God that makes a prophet a prophet, not the foretelling of events.

The Spirit of God is in or upon the prophet, and speaks sometimes in a halting way because of human limitation, sometimes in an exalted way because of the Spirit of God overcoming human limitation. The prophet is the presence of God among his people.

Think of the “I have a dream” speech of Dr. Martin Luther King. There was the message of God delivered through a contemporary prophet. Dr. King had other words written to be preached that day, but the Spirit of God took over and the prepared text was set aside to give the people the hope, the encouragement they needed to hear to keep on keeping on, to claim the freedom that was indeed their God-given right and to act towards it. “I have been to the mountaintop,” he said. And he had seen the Promised Land, but like Moses, he was never to enter the Promised Land. Five years later, he, the messenger, the prophet, was shot dead by James Earl Ray in Memphis TN, where he had gone to support the striking sanitation workers. When the tent poles of Martin Luther King’s activism were moved to accommodate all the poor, not just the African- American poor and disenfranchised, it seemed at that point that he had become more of a threat and needed to be done away with.

Martin Luther King learned his model of leadership of nonviolent resistance from the Indian leader Mohandas Ghandi. Ghandi had read Tolstoi, where he learned about nonviolence, and Tolstoi had read Henry David Thoreau’s essay on “Civil Disobedience.” The message of nonviolent resistance, which King understood and internalized as a Christian and young graduate from Boston University School of Theology, was first articulated in Concord, MA, traveled to Russia and thence to South Africa, where Ghandi was a the time, and later put into practice in India, and then back to the homeland of the United States. The power of the written word became the spoken, prophetic word, became the activating, enabling word of God made flesh.

Oscar Romero, another prophetic voice for justice, was a bishop in El Salvador during the late 1970s. He moved from being a conservative bishop who kept his mouth shut in that oligarchic country, to being a prophetic voice for the poor of the country. His conscience was activated at the time of the assassination of a friend who was a Jesuit priest who served the poor. After that death, Romero was named archbishop of San Salvador and he unexpectedly and to the annoyance of the powers who were responsible for naming him to that post, he became the voice of the poor documenting atrocities of injustice week by week on the radio and calling to account the officials of a corrupt and repressive government.

He knew his days were numbered because of speaking out. That fact did not silence him but only seemed to stir him to bolder and bolder statements, as if to take fullest advantage of the time he had left. “I have frequently been threatened with death,” Romero said in an interview a few weeks before his death. ”I must say, that as a Christian, I do not believe in death but in the resurrection. If they kill me, I shall rise again in the Salvadoran people.”He was assassinated by a single gunman while saying Mass on March 24, 1980. Shades of Thomas a Becket, whom we considered a few weeks back, running afoul of Henry II, his one-time friend.

Like Becket and John the Baptist, Romero met a prophet’s end. The messenger was shot.

I note here that neither John the Baptist nor Jesus was interested in worldly power. Nor were Thoreau or Tolstoi or Ghandi, or Sojourner Truth, Virginia Woolf, or Mary Wollstonecraft, or Martin Luther King or Oscar Romero. On the contrary, they were interested in the empowerment of others––particularly the disenfranchised––to be able to live their lives in a godly way, which is a fulfilled way. John called for repentance by way of preparation––We’ll hear more about that next week––and Jesus called for us to simply receive all he had to give––love, peace, his very self, which we will partake of this morning in the Communion. May the mutuality we enjoy in this sacrament make each of us a prophetic presence, ourselves the message of God in Jesus to the world. Amen.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Come in from the Cold

Sheepscott Community Church November 29, 2009

Jeremiah 33: 14-16

1 Thess. 3: 9-13

Luke 21: 25-36

Come in from the Cold

Jon and I find ourselves eating supper earlier these days––by candlelight––and going to bed earlier. It’s that time of the year, the dark time, before the solstice on the 21st of next month, when the northern hemisphere of planet earth begins to incline toward the sun. Not uncoincidentally, the church begins its liturgical year today, the first Sunday of Advent, and also inclines toward the light, the light of the world whose birth we will hail and celebrate on Christmas.

The Latin word advenire means to come to, not simply to come, which is venire, but to come to. Ad-venire, ad being the preposition “to.” During Advent we look toward Christmas when Christ will again come to us, individually and as a church. It’s not a random coming, but a particular coming to. Prepositions matter. What is coming upon the world is the light of the world, and there is comfort in hoping towards that. The challenge, however, is that here on November 29 and right through December until solstice, we are in the dark, where we prepare and hold on to that hope.

A story I like to touch upon in every Advent season is my experience of what is called absolute darkness. I was in County Clare, Ireland, in 1994, making a pilgrimage of sorts to ancestral homesteads, when I happened upon the Aelwie Cave. At that time the cave had been cleared about a half mile into the earth, and visitors were invited to descend a decidedly rickety footbridge to view, among other things, the illuminated hibernation pit of a prehistoric bear, and an abyss-like cavern within the cave that featured dripping––one drop every five seconds––stalactites and the receptive opposed stalagmites. The relative unsteadiness of the footbridge, which was a mere one-person wide, discouraged any protracted meditation on the natural wonder.

The guide had told us at the beginning of the descent that when we reached the furthest-most accessible point of the cave, she would turn off the jerry-rigged strand of single light bulbs that stretched the length of the walkway. We arrived at the end, and, true to her word, she switched off the lights. Ireland is a country of extremes, viz., just as I thought I knew what the color green was before I saw the green of Ireland, just so had I thought I knew what darkness was before I was plunged into absolute darkness, which is darkness without even a pin prick of light.

The guide had said that the human being can only bear absolute darkness for about 30 seconds before becoming agitated and anxious. We weren’t simply preconditioned, predisposed by her words; that’s the way it really was. The movement on the bridge as seconds passed was disquieting in itself, considering the seemingly haphazard nature of the construction. Added to that the aforementioned anxiety, and you have a nervous mix of people poised to turn and return to the entrance to the cave. But we needed the light, the turning on of which was welcomed with audible sighs of relief, small talk and the shifting of purses from one shoulder to the other.

That descent into the Aelwie Cave has always been a metaphor for me for the season of Advent. We are a people in complete darkness waiting in fear of the unknown for the coming of the light, and, as we believe, that light being the Light of the World, Jesus, the Christ. No more than we can stand absolute darkness beyond 30 seconds can we stand or bear being without God for a protracted period of time, whether or not we know that as the name or label of what is missing, what is sustaining us moment by moment beyond our knowing. Our hope in these days of early sunsets, early suppers and early bedtimes is that there will be light at the end of Advent with the coming of Christ at Christmas. We let that hope build in us and give us the wherewithal to continue in the multiple responsibilities of our individual preparations, from Christmas cards, to decorations, to gift-buying. From cooking and baking, to wreath-making, to singing for our own entertainment and others.’

While all of these activities are part of the preparation for the 12-day holiday season, the most important preparation is of the individual heart. Once we get past our fear of the darkness associated with the season and the wider darkness that it connotes, which is actually what can frighten us, once we get past that we can focus on the four weeks of Advent preceding Christmas as being like the 40 days of Lent preceding Easter, a time of penitential reflection. That is why the altar cloths, the paraments are changed today. They have been green since the first Sunday after Pentecost, but now that the post-Pentecost season is finished, we begin the penitential season of Advent with the change to the color purple.

This time of getting ready is a time to think about what rooms need cleaning up, cleaning out, before the coming of the Lord. Before our only grandson was born, Jon and I traveled down to North Carolina to help prepare the way for the child. Our daughter and her husband at that time didn’t have more than a few coins to rub together, and it was a necessity as well as a joy to help them prepare for the big event. That preparation involved cleaning out in order to make room for the new bassinet and other newborn paraphernalia, which, if you’ve been around babies at all, you know the sheer number of items involved can be staggering. But clean out we did, and set up we did, and the needed preparation was enough to make a way and a place for the baby.

I think the parallel, the analogy is pretty clear. If there’s any cleaning out by way of repentance, any preparation that needs to be done, do it. If there’s a hidden room under your inner staircase that hasn’t been opened in years––unforgiveness, for example––and you know that the dust and grime has built up over the years, dare to open the door with the help of the Spirit of God and apply the cleaning tools of reflection and repentance. And tears. Nothing washes clean like tears. Clean up the mess before the baby comes.

Readiness is all. I want to be ready. Don’t you? I remember a time I wasn’t ready, and it impressed me so much that I have never forgotten it and will share it now with you. This would have happened about 35 years ago, when I was a mother with young children. We were visiting with friends of ours, who also had young children, and there were others there as well, a regular evening party. I had a couple of glasses of wine, not a big deal, except that I don’t do very well with spirits, other than the Holy Spirit, so I wasn’t ready for what happened. The phone rang and it was another friend of ours who was asking for prayer for an immediate emergency situation with one of her children, as I remember it. When I went to pray, I couldn’t. I was affected by the wine and so was not able to be 100% clear, for want of a better word, with God. I felt bad that I could not come before God on behalf of that child because, as I say, I was affected.

I had no illusions about my prayer being all that important. There were others who could and did pray with a clear conscience. But it mattered tremendously to me. I knew I wasn’t prepared, ready, reminiscent of the parable of the ten wise and foolish virgins, which Jesus told regarding the end times. The ten virgins took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of the virgins were wise and took extra oil with them, and five were foolish and only took their lamps without the extra oil. The bridegroom was delayed, and long in coming, and they all fell asleep. When the cry went up that the bridegroom approached, the foolish virgins asked the wise for some of their oil because their lamps had begun to flicker. The wise virgins refused, saying that if they gave the foolish ones their oil, there would not be enough left for them, and they sent off the other five to buy oil in the marketplace.

While they were gone, the bridegroom arrived and entered the wedding banquet in the company of the five wise virgins. The door was shut behind them, and the five foolish virgins were not admitted, when they returned with their oil. The moral in Matthew 25: 13 is “Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour.”

That was the way I felt that night. I had missed the boat, had missed the opportunity to meet God on the way of prayer because I had indulged myself in a way I could not afford to, if I were going to choose what for me was a better life of increasing service. I’ve never forgotten that. I’m not indicting drinking by any stretch. I’m only saying that it isn’t good for me. We’re all made differently. I only tell you this story as a reminder to get ready and be ready, whatever that means in your life, given your peculiar and particular makeup––get ready and be ready for the coming of the Lord.

One other piece of this picture puzzle of the First Sunday of Advent I’d like to add is entitled “The Curate’s Bath.” It’s from The Diaries of Francis Kilvert (1840-1879). He didn’t live a long life––39 years––and after I’ve read this, I think you’ll be able to understand why his end might have come sooner rather than later.

“As I lay awake praying in the early morning I thought I heard a sound of distant bells. It was an intense frost. I sat down in my bath upon a sheet of thick ice which broke in the middle into large pieces whilst sharp points and jagged edges stuck all round the sides of the tub like chevaux de frise, not particularly comforting to the naked thighs and loins, for the keen ice cut like broken glass. The ice water stung and scorched like fire. I had to collect the floating pieces of ice and pile them on a chair before I could use the sponge and then I had to thaw the sponge in my hands because it was a mass of ice. The morning was most brilliant. Walked to the Sunday School with Gibbins and the road sparkled with millions of rainbows, the seven colours gleaming in every glittering point of hoar frost. The Church was very cold in spite of two roaring stove fires...” Very vivid picture. I feel cold reading it.

We don’t have a wood stove in our church, but we do have someone who has set the thermostat so that on Sunday mornings it will be warm in here by the time most of us arrive. And that mystery person is Bill Robb, and that ministry is one of those helps that make a church run. What Francis Kilvert describes in his diary––the solitary icy cold bath in a winter room on a Sunday morning––is about as far from comfort as one can get. If the Finns deliberately dive into the snow or through a hole in the ice of a frozen lake to cool off after a sauna, where the temperatures can reach 150 degrees of dry heat, they are performing the other side of a cleansing ritual and also inducing health with a tried and true method tested over centuries of practice.

Actually the Finnish sauna is a good parallel to our Sunday morning worship, where the way has been prepared for us by Bill Robb at the thermostat. For the most part we are already clean when we come to church, and we come clothed, thank goodness. But as in the sauna, where whole families, or groups of men and separate groups of women gather to get clean and socialize and remind each other just by being together about who they are as a people, a tribe, a group who choose to have sauna together, just so do we come together out of the cold and into this place not just of furnace warmth, but of human warmth. If the darkness is descending early––and it is––we are in company with others and we need not be afraid. We are not alone. We are not out in the cold. We are in the embrace of other faulty human beings who, for the most part, are simply doing the best they can, like ourselves.

We can support each other prayerfully and practically, and together reach out to the wider community in the same ways, especially in this dark time as we approach Christmas. Gather around and share the heat, not simply the oil-fired hot air furnace heat of this building, but the heat of life that each of us has in us. I think of the Christ child, whether born in a cave, perhaps like the Aelwie Cave, or a stable, whatever circumstance it was, it was a humble origin. No doubt it was cold, if it was indeed night when he was born. That is the story, in any case. One legend around the birth has it that the animals, the ox and the ass, the sheep and whatever else might have been found in a place out back in the Middle Eastern town of Bethlehem of that day, the animals warmed the child with their breath.

But the child himself warmed the world. The light and heat he generated in the room of his birth, at least metaphorically, might have powered a thousand generators as we now know them. But I exaggerate. What we do know is the light that we look towards, a little over three weeks hence, brings us out of the darkness, out of the cold, whether the absolute or twilight darkness within ourselves into the full radiance of the healing light, the healing love of God. That baby is our way, our ticket, our lamp full of oil, which we can safely share with one another because the source of it for all of us is unending, is infinite. But we are not there yet. We are in the darkness of Advent now. Let us make the most of this time of preparation so that we can be ready when we hear that baby’s first cry. Amen.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

A Different Kind of King

Sheepscott Community Church November 22, 2009

Daniel 7: 9-14

Mark 11: 1-11

A Different Kind of King

Today is the feast of Christ the King. In order to understand the notion of king or queen, we can look to one of our earliest exposures to those royal, colorful, powerful personages in nursery rhymes, “Old King Cole was a merry old soul/And a merry old soul was he./ He called for his pipe/and he called for his bowl/ and he called for his fiddlers three.” The King calls for––he doesn’t ask–– and he gets what he calls for. There are always those around the king waiting to fulfill his wishes, and the most successful of those around the king anticipate those wishes and please the king by serving up what he wants before he has even found the words.

I think of the twelfth-century disagreement between King Henry II of England, and his once best friend Thomas a Becket. He had appointed Becket chancellor, and later named him Archbishop of Canterbury, in order to foster and further his own secular power. To Henry’s dismay, his friend took seriously the ecclesiastical appointment and resisted the king when it came to principle. Enraged by this resistance, the King said in the hearing of several of his loyal barons, the fateful words that would be a death sentence for his one-time friend. “What a set of idle cowards I keep in my kingdom who allow me to be mocked so shamefully by a lowborn clerk.” The four knights immediately discerned the King’s meaning, and without a word were off to Canterbury where they dispatched the Archbishop, Thomas a Becket, spattering his brains on the cathedral floor. Kings have power for good and ill.

A recent example of the royal charisma was Michelle Obama’s friendly gesture of putting her arm over the shoulder of Queen Elizabeth. Royal watchers gasped in horror at the presumption shown in touching the Queen’s person. Not the Queen, however, who seemed rather charmed by the First Lady and asked her to stay in touch.

To bring this message into a context closer to today’s gospel, I remind us about the very powerful King David, from whose line Jesus himself was descended. David was the conquering hero who was a brilliant military strategist and who united the northern and southern kingdoms of Judah and Israel, establishing the capital of the united kingdom in Jerusalem. If King Henry II wanted his one-time friend Becket out of the way of his ambition; if Herod’s wife Herodias wanted the head of John the Baptist on a platter because he publicly deplored the marriage of Herod and his brother Philip’s wife as incest; and if David in a conniving lustful act had the husband of Bathsheba, Uriah the Hittite, killed, in order to clear the way for himself with Bathsheba, we begin to get a sense of the power of royalty. Life and death are in their hands––at least on this side of the veil.

We have no king or queen in our country, because we are a democracy, although there have been a few presidents who would seem to have liked the idea of being crowned king. And so we have to depend on our observations of those countries where there is royalty, whether they are constitutional monarchs, as with Queen Elizabeth of the United Kingdom, or King Harald V of Norway, among many others, or whether they are absolute rulers, such as King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, or King Mswati of Sawziland, also among others. It is our observations, our reading, our paying attention to the news that can inform us of the power of the role of king.

Does Jesus, as we celebrate this feast of his kingship today, does Jesus look like the traditional powerful king? Jesus was and is the most powerful of kings, but, exemplar of irony that he is, the power rises out of powerlessness, not claiming power for himself. He was a person completely surrendered to God, and in that surrendering of his own personal power, his life even, he became the medium and minister of God’s power. It passed through him. Again and again, the faith of the people he encountered was what drew power from him. As he said to the disciples when the woman with the issue of blood touched the hem of his garment, “I felt power go forth from me.” It was her faith that drew forth that power of God to heal.

We might even appropriate the words of Henry II, “mocked so shamefully by a lowborn clerk.” I could imagine that the pharisees and the scribes were beside themselves with jealousy and anger, not to mention fear of a Roman backlash because of the activities of that lowborn Jew from Nazareth. Recall from the first chapter of John what Nathaniel replied when Philip said, “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote––Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” Nathaniel said, “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” Jesus’ humble beginnings were undeniable.

Consider that in a little more than a month, we will once again be celebrating the birth of this lowborn king. Irony strikes again. That he should have been born in a stable, in a manger on a bed of grass, or something very like it. That’s about as lowborn as you get. I think of Jesus saying in his later life, “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” It was ever so for him. But as we see in today’s gospel, notwithstanding his humble beginnings, the people were getting really stirred up about whether Jesus might be the Messiah for whom they had been hoping and waiting. Their great King David had also had humble beginnings as a shepherd boy before his ascendancy through the court of King Saul. Would this Jesus lead in the same way? Could they hail him as the Messiah, the next great king who would free them from Roman oppression? What this larger crowd who laid their cloaks on the ground before him and hailed with palm branches were looking for was the same thing that the apostles were still looking for and wouldn’t fully understand until Jesus had died and was raised up, and the Spirit sent upon them.

Let’s consider the setting of today’s gospel. Jesus has sent two of his disciples to go to a nearby village and get a colt. They should bring it back, and if anyone questions them, they should just say that the Master has need of it and will send it back shortly. Whether Jesus has foreknowledge or whether he has made arrangements on a previous visit to Jerusalem is not clear and not particularly germane to the reading. What is germane is his mounting on an ass or donkey that has never been ridden, That was fitting because for an animal to be used for a sacred purpose, it should never have been used for any other purpose before.

That Jesus chose a donkey or ass rather than a horse has great significance. Notably, in Jesus’ time, the ass was as much an animal of kings as the horse was. The difference was that when the king went to war, he went astride a horse. But when he came in peace, he rode on an ass. We must note the kind of king that Jesus was claiming to be: He came meek and lowly, in peace and for peace. His was a prophetic and highly dramatic action. When people weren’t getting the message in words, sometimes the prophets of Israel would resort to these kinds of dramatic actions. In this dramatic action of Jesus, the entry into Jerusalem, he embodied the words of the prophet Zechariah 9: 9: “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion. Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem. Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, and riding upon an ass, a colt, the foal of an ass.”

The point? This king was coming in peace. Not what the people were looking for. The people were looking for the conquering hero, the successor king to David, and it was in that mode that they exclaimed, “Hosanna,” in both verses 9 and 10. That word is quoted and used as if it meant “Praise!” which it did come to later mean, but which in this context, transliterated from the Hebrew was, “Save now!” The people wanted the Savior, the Messianic King. “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” “Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David!” Exclamation points all over the text here. The people are excited.

The gospel of John, unlike the three synoptics, Matthew, Mark and Luke, has the triumphant entry into Jerusalem following by a day the raising of Lazarus in nearby Bethany. He is suggesting that this is why the residents of the city, some of whom had been at the dramatic events of the day before, this is why they are at a fever pitch. The news about Lazarus had traveled like wildfire. Even without John’s spin on the event, it is dramatic enough in its own right. One issue that needs to be raised is whether the people were seeing him as a prophet or as the awaited Messiah.

In Matthew the people were asking, “Who is this?” Verse 11 has the crowd answering, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee,” a prophet of the messianic kingdom. But it is also true that Matthew introduces the quotation from the prophet Zechariah, cited earlier, about your king coming to you “without display, astride an ass,” not what the people were looking for or what they hoped for, but just what and how Jesus chose to declare his messiahship, his kingdom. A kingdom of peace. There is no way we as a community trying to be Christian can get around that. Jesus is not a man of war. He is and was a man of peace. Others would have proclaimed him King and Messiah in a heartbeat if he would have acquiesced to their vision of kingship, and what is still the more widely accepted understanding of what it means to be a king, but Jesus wasn’t buying it. He knew who he was and he knew that his hour had come.

In the last few verses, “he came into Jerusalem into the Temple. After he had looked round everything, when it was now late, he went out to Bethany with the Twelve.” There’s an air of finality and fatality about these verses. They feel ominous. One commentator I read suggested that this was the quiet before the storm. It was a time of deliberate acts and deliberation, with Jesus making choices with his eyes wide open. He was not a victim in that sense. He chose his course. He was summing up the strength of the opposition and his own resources before the decisive spiritual battle he was about to enter upon.

No incident shows the sheer courage of Jesus as much as the entry into Jerusalem. Considering the authorities who were out to trap and arrest him, we might expect him to try to enter the city secretly, but no. Jesus did just the opposite. He entered in such a way that the whole city was stirred up by his entrance. To quote William Barclay, “One of the most dangerous things a man can do is to go to people and tell them that all their accepted ideas”––in this case what the role of Messiah was––”that all their accepted ideas are wrong. Any man who tries to tear up by the roots a people’s nationalistic dreams is in for trouble.” But that is what Jesus deliberately did. He was making the last appeal of and for love and making it with a courage that was heroic.

Jesus returned to Bethany with his apostles, where he had friends. He sought the presence of God there, and it was only with that prayerful assurance that he could face what he had to face.

So, does this change your image of what Christ the King means? If we have the messianic king riding an ass into Jerusalem as the opening into the end, we also have for our first reading the vision of Daniel, who sees one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. “He approached the Ancient of Days,” the scripture reads, “and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all peoples, nations and men of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will not be destroyed.” That’s the other side of the messianic royal coin.

But Daniel is vision, and Mark’s account in the scripture is history of a kind. It is a living history for some of us who believe in the Spirit of God who occupies and thereby quickens the words to life. All well and good, but what is there for all of us that the kingship of Jesus can mean? The living kingship can be found in service. One scripture that means a great deal to me and to which I return again and again, is Jesus washing the feet of his disciples, saying to them, “Do you understand what I have done for you? You call me ‘Teacher,’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. I tell you the truth, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who has sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.”

This Lord and Teacher and yes, King, kneels before these peasant men and washes their dirty feet. This is the same One whom Daniel sees in vision being ushered into the presence of the Ancient of Days who gives him all sovereign power. If we empty out in service, however that is called for at any given time, as Jesus did in this humble exercise of loving service, God will be able to fill us with his Spirit, as he did Jesus, who surrendered his life to the One he called Father. We are invited to do the same.

Jesus kneels before us to wash our feet no less than he knelt before the disciples. Can we deal with that? The Savior of the world wants to wash our feet. What that can mean is that he wants to do for us, help us, comfort us where we have need of comfort, indeed cleanse us from the inside out, but the key is we have to be willing to let him. No time for false modesty or pretense of humility. Let him wash your feet. Then can you go forth and do likewise. Amen.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

The Language of Apocalypse

Sheespcott Community Church November 15, 2009

1 Samuel 1: 4-20

Mark 13: 1-8

The Language of Apocalypse

I would like to start with a poem of Robert Frost’s, one most of us are familiar with: “Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening.”

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening

Whose woods these are I think I know.

His house is in the village though;

He will not see me stopping here

To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer

To stop without a farmhouse near

Between the woods and frozen lake

The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake

To ask if there is some mistake.

The only other sound’s the sweep

Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,

But I have promises to keep,

And miles to go before I sleep,

And miles to go before I sleep.

There’s great pleasure in simply reading the poem for the narrative because we in New England can easily picture the setting and imagine ourselves in the poet’s situation. I can imagine David O’Neal pulled off the road in his plow truck on the crest of the hill at the Old Sheepscot Road turnoff on the Alna side of the bridge, looking down toward the Village as the snow falls.

Or Alden Davis and Chuck Reinhardt in those same moments standing under a tree in their yard and looking down and across the field and pond toward Donna Krah’s, Bill and Sonnie’s and the Hill Church. That would of course be before the snow began falling so heavily they couldn’t see their hand in front of their face.

The poet is successful in his unspoken invitation to the reader, and we, and David O’Neal and Chuck and Alden, all of us stop, as we probably did on the fifth of this month, to watch the snow and have the long thoughts that such watching brings. Having set up a vivid visual picture that we can identify with, the poet concludes with the evocative lines:

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,

But I have promises to keep,

And miles to go before I sleep,

And miles to go before I sleep.

Again, the simple narrative is satisfying, but the lines do resonate at a deeper level, do lead to those long thoughts of how much time we have before we enter those dark, deep woods, where the snow falls, and falls on that cold ground. How much time have we have left to do what we are here to do: to learn to love, to become ourselves seats of reconciliation, to discover our gifts, and in that discovering to learn to share those gifts––whatever they might be––with the larger community, which I believe is the Body of Christ.

In a few words, there is a literal level of the poem, which, if successful, leads the reader to the figurative level, where indeed the deeper meaning is. I offer you that by way of introduction to today’s gospel, which contains some of Jesus’ apocalyptic warnings to the disciples about future events.

The gospel opens with a disciple’s comment about the magnificence of the Temple in Jerusalem. “What massive stones!” the disciple exclaims. Indeed, they were massive stones. The Temple, which Herod built for the Jews, was one of the wonders of the world of its time. The building was begun between 20 and 19 B.C.E. and was still not finished when Jesus lived. The historian Josephus wrote that some of the stones used in the building were 40 feet long by 12 feet high by 18 feet wide. It would be just those stones that would move the disciples to such amazement that they commented on them to Jesus.

Imagine their surprise when he countered with the statement that with regard to the buildings made of stone, not one of those stones would be left on another. Every one would be thrown down. To the disciples the Temple seemed the height of human art and achievement, so vast and solid that it would last forever, so we can understand their amazement at Jesus’ statement. They were filled with curiosity about when it would happen. We know what that’s like because we’re just the same way. If we hear about a prediction, we want all the details.

Jesus explained to them that others would come in those days in the time of the destruction of the Temple, claiming to be he, Jesus, the Christ. He warned them not to be deceived. He told them that there would be wars and rumors of wars, earthquakes, famines, nation rising against nation, and so on. These latter matters are almost commonplace and occur in every generation, but when Jesus spoke about them, his disciples were hanging on his every word because Jesus was presenting as future fact these events as a sign of his coming and of the end of the world, which he expected to happen before that generation had passed away. That seems to be an indication of him being fully human, not understanding the complete and larger picture.

The Temple was destroyed for the second time in 70 C.E., as Jesus had foreseen. There are other items on Jesus’ list, but we don’t hear the long list this year before the beginning of Advent, as we usually do. Still in chapter 13 of Mark, verse 24 ff.: “But in those days following that distress,/’The sun will be darkened,/ and the moon will not give its light;/ the stars will fall from the sky,/ and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.’”

These lines are directly from the book of the prophet Isaiah and qoted in Mark. I mention that because the language Jesus is using when he describes those end-times is poetic language, figurative language, not to be taken literally. The underlying reality of the so-called Second Coming of Christ, the appearance of God at the end of history, will be like nothing they have ever seen. That’s the point. The pictures Jesus used to communicate the size and impact of the day of the Lord, or Judgment Day, and the Second Coming, which are inextricably woven together in the scripture, are meant as impressionistic pictures, a seer’s visions that aim to impress on the minds of human beings the greatness of the future event.

If Robert Frost tells a story we can easily follow in “Stopping by the Woods,”where image and line present a clear picture but hold and hide a deeper meaning, Jesus does the reverse. He presents the fantastic of apocalyptic poetry and expects his listeners to extrapolate from that language the fact of the great events of the Last Judgment and the Second Coming, like nothing ever seen.

This kind of apocalyptic language, as used by Jesus and by some of the prophets of the Hebrew Bible, was familiar to the Jews of that time, which is why Jesus used it. The Jews never doubted that they were the chosen people, and they also never doubted that one day they would occupy the rightful place in the world of such a chosen people of God. They had fought and fought again to hold on to the Promised Land, but the lived history of successive defeat, oppression and captivity indicated that that was not going to happen except by the intervention of God on their behalf. So there grew up this language and literature of the all-powerful God who would interrupt history on their behalf, on behalf of his chosen people.

That day of intervention was referred to as “the day of the Lord.” The terror and horror of that day is repeated again and again in the prophets. From the prophet Amos: “In all the squares there shall be wailing; and in all the streets they shall say, ‘Alas! Alas’! They shall call the farmers to mourning, and to wailing those who are skilled in lamentations, and in all the vineyards there shall be wailing, for I will pass through the midst of you, says the Lord.”

From the prophet Joel: “The day of the Lord is coming... a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness... I will give portents in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire, and columns of smoke. The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes.” You get the picture, and I can’t help but mention again the Wizard of Oz. People like to be frightened for some reason. They respect what scares them more than what holds them in an embrace.

Jesus would employ this language about his Second Coming, which, as I mentioned was inextricably textually interwoven with the so-called terrible day of the Lord, he would employ this language because it was familiar to the people. The religious literature of the time that pictured God breaking into history on behalf of his chosen people was called Apocalypse, from the Greek apokalupsis meaning an unveiling. The books of apocalypse were dreams and visions of what would happen when the day of the Lord came and in the terrible time preceding it. Old Testament imagery was used, supplemented with new details as history and circumstances unfolded. Apocalyptic literature was meant to paint the unpaintable and speak the unspeakable. It was poetry, not prose; visions, not science; dreams, not history. It was never meant to be taken prosaically as timetables of events to come.

I think all of us have heard contemporary commentaries especially of the Book of Revelation that try to squeeze into a precast form of understanding the meanings of the prophetic sayings in the book. While the Book of Revelation does contain truths for all times, including ours, it’s important to remember that it is apocalyptic literature, written at a moment in history especially for a people in that moment who would have had the cultural tools to decode the intended meaning.

Jesus always worked with what the people knew so that he could get his message across in the limited time he had. As we know from the gospels, he taught through parables, stories that employed the commonplace of people’s lives at the time. Think of the lilies of the field, the birds of the air, the sower of the seed. These were everyday images the people would understand. The lost coin, the yeast in the bread. Just so, Jesus employed the extant apocalyptic figures, which the people would understand from hearing them in the synagogues. They would have taken in these stories with their mother’s milk. That was the language he chose to get across to his disciples the importance of his Second Coming. At this juncture in the gospel, he is in Jerusalem and about to undergo his passion. He is setting the stage for what the disciples would later recall to each other after he had died and was raised up.

This is for all intents and purposes, the last Sunday of the liturgical year. Next Sunday we will celebrate the Feast of Christ the King, the break between this apocalypse we consider today, and the four Sundays of Advent before Christmas. It’s a heady brew, this mixture of end and beginning, destruction and preparation, but that is the way of our liturgical year, ‘round and ‘round.

What can all of this apocalyptic talk mean for us? The fact is all times are end times for us individually. The world as we know it ends for us at death. That is our personal end time. Meanwhile God is communicating signs and portents to us through everything and everyone around us. If we will open our eyes, our ears, our minds to that voice that is the poetry which informs our lives of the deeper meaning of those lives, we will hear and see God, not with the physical senses, but with the listening spirit within. Christ is always coming in us and to us. Might we, illuminated by the Spirit of Christ, be ourselves the Second Coming? Now there’s a thought to keep you awake tonight. Amen.