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.