Salvation is like a bucket of chicken

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Sermon for the Feast of the Epiphany 2018

Readings:

If you saddle up your camel or hitch up sleigh and head over to the rectory tonight around 5pm, I will be having my annual Epiphany party.

 

I cannot promise you a star to guide your way, nor can I promise that you will find the baby Jesus when you arrive, but there is something wonderful that I can promise you: fried chicken. And while fried chicken may not give you everlasting life, I think we can agree that when it is good, it is something of an epiphany in its own right, a taste of heaven. And the fried chicken that I am offering you is the best kind of fried chicken, because not only is it crispy and juicy, but you don’t have to cook it and you don’t have to pay for it. It’s going to be there as a gift. You just have to decide if you want to show up to the party. And you have to decide if you’re going to reach out and take hold of that chicken leg and savor it, or just pass it by.

 

Now, I am telling you that it’s a gift, so if you show up to the party, and encounter someone bragging about the chicken; telling you how proud they are of it, how it turned out so good, and how they found the recipe, killed, plucked, cut, seasoned and soaked, floured and fried the bird, then you will know that that person is either lying or crazy. And don’t let anyone tell you how much they paid for it, or worse yet, try and sell you a piece. No, the table will be set before anyone else shows up and the feast is being offered as a gift to those that accept the invitation.

 

I know it may seem silly to some to compare God’s salvation to a bucket of chicken, but on more than one occasion Jesus compared the kingdom of God to a banquet or a feast, so it’s not that far off. And in those parables that Jesus told, the guests were never invited to the feast and then told upon arrival that they had to cook the dinner. No, the feast was a gift. The guests were just expected to respond to what was being offered. That’s it. In Luke’s gospel, when Jesus is telling the story, the host of the great dinner says that “those who were invited [but didn’t show up] will never taste my dinner.” In other words, the host isn’t going to shove the chicken down anyone’s throat, but he does want his house full, and anyone that wants to come can come.

 

We humans, we so desperately want to be proud of ourselves that we like to give ourselves credit for what God has done. We want to turn the spotlight back onto ourselves. We like to focus on what we have done for God, but that is not what the gospel is about. The gospel is about what God has done for us. The gospel is an invitation to the banquet; it is not the recipe for how to make the chicken. We need to be careful about approaching the bible as if it is an instruction manual or a recipe book; we need to see it as revelation. Revelation about what God has done, is doing and will do in the future.

 

Today is the Feast of the Epiphany, the manifestation of Christ to the gentiles. Do you remember the story where after Jesus is born his parents present him in the temple and the old priest Simeon holds him up and says to God “my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” A light for revelation to the gentiles. When we see Jesus we see God’s salvation. God is revealing himself to us. It is through Jesus that us gentiles finally got a glimpse of what God was up to. He is the one who hands us the invitation to God’s banquet and he is the one who has prepared the feast. We Christians, we like to celebrate when we saw the light or when we found Jesus, but what we really need to be celebrating is that God showed us the light. We need to celebrate that God found us. There is a big difference, because when we talk about seeing the light or finding Jesus, we somehow manage to put the focus back on ourselves and what we are doing, but when we talk about God showing us the light or revealing himself to us, then we aren’t trying to take credit for something God did.

 

Those three wise men, they didn’t find Jesus through their own skill or intellect, or even faithfulness. They found Jesus because God revealed himself to them. He reveled himself through the star, through angels and wonders and signs, but he also revealed himself through scripture and prophecy and tradition. Incidentally, if you think this story is hard to believe, I would argue that the only truly unbelievable part is that three men stopped to ask for directions, but I do believe in miracles so I will take it on faith. But even with stopping to ask directions, they would never have found him if God didn’t want to be found. And their gifts, their gold and frankincense and myrrh, they are really just a token acknowledgement of the gifts that this child was giving them: a kingdom more precious than gold, a living relationship with God, and victory over sickness and death.

I love the story of the wisemen, but I think it is worth remembering that they just showed up to the party. They were the first gentiles to accept God’s invitation. If they were wise, it is because they knew that they needed this child, more than he needed them. Their wisdom was really just in knowing how to respond to what God had done.

That’s a lesson we all need to learn. Our role in salvation is just to reach out and take ahold of what God has already prepared for us. Our role is to respond.

You know, given the time and the grease, we all could probably fry a chicken, but we could never find God on our own. There’s no recipe for that. That’s what makes this Epiphany so much better than a bucket of chicken on your dining room table; because we could never make it happen. No, God’s saving grace is not the same thing as fried chicken, but in both cases you encounter a thing of joy; the work has been done, the price has been paid, and all that is left for you is to decide what you are going to do about it.

And his name was Jesus

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Sermon for the Feast of the Holy Name

Preached at the Church of St. Alban the Martyr

December 31st, 2018

Readings:

Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, I too decided after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed.

 

 

Thus begins the gospel according to Saint Luke. Luke is my favorite gospel, and it is the gospel that you are going to hear most Sundays for the coming year. It is the gospel that is read on Christmas Eve and it is the gospel we just heard tonight. Now there are many reasons why I am fond of Luke, but one of the things that most attracts me to him, also happens to be the thing that turns others off. It’s this: Luke is a detailed historian, and Luke likes to be very specific about names and places.

 

So Luke will say things like: In the days of King Herod of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly order of Abijah….or In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary….or In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria…or In the fifteenth year of the reign of emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea and Herod was ruler of Galilee and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.

 

Names, names and more names, Luke has all these names of people that you can’t pronounce, and names of places that you don’t know where they are. I’m willing to bet that you know where Bethlehem is, but Ituraea? And I’m sure when he mentions Abilene that he’s not talking about Texas. So where is that? I get that it is easy to get bogged down in all these names and historic details. You may find yourself wishing that Luke would just get to the story and skip all of these meaningless names.

 

Sometimes it reminds me of listening to my grandfather talk about the war. No detail was too trivial to be left out. He didn’t just cook for the troops in the war. No, the way he told the story he used the kitchen of a restaurant that was owned by a lady named Frau Schaener, which had tables that were precisely this wide and this long, and he kept track of the number of meals served by counting the plates he put out, and his commanding officer was so-and-so, and he was in this part of Germany at this time of the year.

 

Some of those names and places I remember, and I am sad to say that some I don’t. At the time he told me those stories I was just a kid, and I can remember that by the time he was done telling one particular story I had turned myself around until I was laying upside down in the chair, just so that I could see the room from a different angle, I was so bored. And I can remember thinking: just get to the point Grandaddy. I don’t need to know the name of the lady that owned the restaurant, I don’t need to know how big the tables were in her kitchen. Why do those details even matter? Oh, but what I would give today to have all those details written down.

 

You see, I wanted his stories to be either enlightening or entertaining. They should have a point, and if the details in the story didn’t contribute to the point, then they didn’t matter, they should be left out. But what I didn’t appreciate at the time was that he wasn’t just trying to tell me a story, he was sharing a memory. The details mattered to him, because they actually happened to him. The size of the table in the restaurant where he worked was important to him, because it was a real table that he actually worked on and touched and used; it wasn’t something he made up in his imagination. And Frau Schaener, the lady who owned the restaurant the troops were using, her name mattered, because she was a real person, he knew her. She was not some generic background character; she was a real individual. Including her name in the story mattered to him, because that was her name. I wanted his stories to have a point or a purpose. But his point or purpose in telling the story, was that he wanted me to know what actually happened. He was an eyewitness to one of the most dramatic events in world history, the second world war, and his memory of that event wasn’t shaped by the grand thoughts of historians and philosophers, it was shaped by the real people and the real places that actually touched his life.

 

I think about those stories a lot now. I think it is because we are saying goodbye to so many of those of the greatest generation. Our living connection to that time is slipping away. And I find myself wanting to hold on tighter to everything they knew and saw and did. I want the details I want the names and maybe that is because I am beginning to realize that these aren’t just stories. These are real lives, and real memories and real people that we really loved. They have given us so much. They have given us everything. Their names and the names of the people that they remember they need to be recorded, if not in our history books, then at least in our hearts. Because real life is not a simple story with a point or a punchline, it is something that you live. Names are not just names, they are lives, real lives.

 

I think one of the reasons why I love Luke so much is that I sympathize with him. He’s a historian, but he isn’t really interested in talking about movements, or big ideas; he wants to talk about people; real people with real names that lived real lives. Luke had the great fortune to know, or he had access to the stories of, people that were eyewitnesses to THE most dramatic event in human history. And maybe as he was witnessing that generation slip away, he realized that no detail is too trivial, no name is superfluous, because Luke isn’t trying to entertain you or to persuade you; he wants you to know about something that really happened, to people that really lived. Luke is talking about events that have been fulfilled. He isn’t in talking about what God COULD do; he’s talking about what God DID do. And on nights like tonight when we gather to witness the passage of time, I find myself less interested in the big ideas and the speculations of theologians and philosophers and detached historians, and more drawn to the stories of real people, in real places, with real lives and real names.

 

The most dramatic event in the history of the world didn’t just happen once upon a time to the generic human child of a generic family, with no particular race in no particular place.

 

It was when Augustus was emperor of Rome, Herod was king of Judea, and Quirinius was governor of Syria. In the town of Bethlehem a baby boy, the Son of God, was born to a virgin girl named Mary. And eight days later, like all Jewish boys, he was circumcised. And his name was Jesus.

What is grace?

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Sermon for December 30th, 2018

Readings:

 

 

I am so grateful that in this part of the world the holidays are usually followed by a couple months of sweater weather or winter coat weather.

 

A nice sweater or a good coat can cover a multitude of sins and over-indulgences. I am sure that I am not the only one coming to this sixth day of Christmas feeling as if my clothes have shrunk a bit. It’s times like this that I am thankful for sweaters and coats: not only do they help keep you warm and protect you from the elements…they are also useful for covering things that you would rather not show the world. What a mercy that is.

 

From our Old Testament passage this morning:

 

I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my whole being shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with baggy sweatpants and covered me with the robe of double-thick terrycloth

…so said the prophet Isaiah, or something to that effect.

 

Well not quite, but that is what went through my head when I was reading that Old Testament passage earlier this week. I thought: what a grace it is that God has given us something to cover up all these imperfections. What a grace that I don’t have to wait for the bathroom scale to show me the number I want to see before I go on with my life. What a grace that I don’t need to be constantly focused on my flaws and what a grace that I don’t have to constantly look at everyone else’s either.

 

That is grace.

 

I have been thinking a lot about grace this week. In our gospel passage this morning, the evangelist says that: “from his fullness we have received grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses, grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” We talk a lot about grace, but what is it? When we say “the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, be with us all evermore” …what do we mean by that? What is grace like?

 

Well my mind kept going back to that image in the prophet Isaiah of God clothing his people with garments of salvation and robes of righteousness. There is so much of that imagery in scripture, the imagery of God clothing his people, and I thought, yes, that is what grace is: grace is God covering us. That is what God does. God covers us.

 

He covers us when we are naked and afraid. He covers us when our frail souls are exposed to the evils of this world; but he also covers us when our inner sinful nature is showing too.

 

In Paul’s letter to the Galatians he says that: “in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.” We have been clothed with Christ. God has covered us with the divine life of his son. In Jesus God has given us a new outer garment. It is like that winter coat or that fuzzy sweater, that not only protects us from the elements outside, and keeps us warm, comforts us, it also covers our own imperfections. It covers our sins.

 

Paul also talks about the difference between living under the law, and living under faith, or living with grace. Well, if the Law is the bathroom scale, telling us how far we went wrong, then grace is the fuzzy sweater, letting us get on with our lives and forgiving us when we go a bit astray. That is what grace is; it is God’s way of dressing us for the great feast he has prepared, covering our sins with a perfection we could never attain on our own. And faith is choosing to see the outer garment that God has placed over us, rather than obsessing about the numbers on the scale, or what lies underneath the robe.

 

Grace is something we receive, it is a mercy, but it is also something we can share with others. I have always admired people that exhibit grace under pressure. I have wondered, what does it mean to be a gracious person? It isn’t just about saying please and thank you. That is being grateful. I am talking about being gracious. And here is what I think it means.

 

A gracious person is someone that when they encounter another person’s flaws exposed, decides to cover them, rather than to draw attention to them or focus on them. A gracious person is not blind to the truth, but realizes a deeper truth. They realize that their sins are always visible to God, and yet God has chosen to look on something else. He looks on the new outer garment that he has provided through his son. A gracious person is not perfect; they just know the comfort of having their defects covered, so they live their lives trying to make others feel as if their faults are unseen as well.

 

What is grace? Well, it is many things, but most importantly grace is knowing that God’s love is stronger than our imperfections. Grace is knowing that God has us covered.

The best kind of gift

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Sermon for Christmas Eve 2018

Readings:

 

Babies can’t do much. They can cry and they can poop, but that’s about it. They can’t take care of themselves. They don’t have the power. They don’t have the skill. They don’t have the money either. They are helpless.

 

As you get older you learn to do more and more for yourself, but even as a young child there is still so much you cannot do. Without a job and without your own income and transportation, you very much rely on others to do things for you and you look to your family to provide for your needs. Sure, you may have chores, and there may be expectations and responsibilities, but you also know that it’s not up to you to make it all happen. There is still so much in your life that is outside your control.

 

I think that may be why Christmas, as a child, is so special: because you know so much of it is outside your control. As a child, especially as a small child, Christmas just happens. You don’t have to worry about shopping for, or paying for, or wrapping the presents. They are just there for you to open. You don’t have to worry about how to stuff or truss the turkey. It is just there for you to enjoy. You don’t have to decorate the tree; you just get to marvel at the twinkling lights. Christmas is so wonderful when you aren’t responsible for making it happen.

 

And I think what makes giving gifts to children so fun is that you know, and they know, they can’t get this any other way. When I was a child if I wanted a new He-Man figure, or a Garfield phone, or a movie or a book, the only way I could get it was if my parents or someone else gave it to me. I didn’t have a steady income or transportation. I wasn’t independent. It had to come as a gift. Christmas was such a magical time because I knew that I wasn’t responsible for making it happen.

 

Of course, I don’t have to tell you that that changes as you get older.

 

As you become an adult, you gradually take responsibility for more and more things, and as this time of the year comes around, it can bring with it this feeling of dread, because there is so much for you to do. Christmas doesn’t just happen to you anymore. Now you are the one that has the money and the car, so you are the one that gets to do the shopping and the wrapping and the cooking and the cleaning. When you were a little child you couldn’t wait to get up on Christmas morning as early as possible, because it was going to be a day of unearned and undeserved joy. Now, I’m sure that some of you would love to sleep in tomorrow, because for one thing you are out late tonight, but also because I know many of you are exhausted from all you have been doing or trying to do for these past few weeks. Christmas doesn’t just happen to you anymore, now you make it happen…or at least that’s how it feels.

 

And gifts, they don’t have quite the same thrill anymore when you are an independent adult. Let’s face it, if you have the good fortune to be gainfully employed with a little bit of expendable income, if there is something in this world that you want or need you can probably go get it. Sure, you may appreciate the gesture, when a loved one gives you a gift, but it doesn’t have quite the same power and magic as it did when you were a kid, because now there are other ways that you can get things, other than people just giving them to you. But it is those gifts that you can’t get on your own that have the most meaning.

 

Think about some of our classic Christmas tales:

 

When Ebenezer Scrooge wakes up on Christmas morning and sends a turkey to the Cratchit family, what makes that gift so special? It is because you know and I know that the Cratchits can’t get it any other way. They can’t afford it.

 

Or how about one of the original stories about Saint Nicholas, when he was still a bishop of the church, when he visited a local family in the middle of the night; a family that was destitute with three little girls headed for a life of slavery, and he threw three gold balls into their shoes. The gift that would save them from slavery was something they couldn’t go and get on their own.

 

Or do you remember our carol about King Wenceslas? “Good King Wenceslas looked out, on the Feast of Stephen” That’s the day after Christmas by the way. He looks out and he sees a poor man in the snow gathering twigs to burn. And he says to his page: “Bring me flesh and bring me wine, bring me pine logs hither. Thou and I shall see him dine, when we bear them thither.” The song concludes with the line: “therefor Christian men, be sure, wealth or rank possessing, ye who now will bless the poor, shall yourselves find blessing.”

 

When you give someone something that they can’t get any other way, those gifts are a blessing to you as well, those are the best kind of gifts, because it is in giving those gifts that we are most closely following in the footsteps of the little child born in Bethlehem so many years ago.

 

God isn’t trying to guilt people into giving. That’s not what Christmas is about, and that’s not how grace works. But before Ebenezer or Nicholas or Wenceslas were prepared to give to others, they each had to recognize what they had been given. They had to put away the notion of being self-sufficient; they had to become like children, born again, and in need of help from outside. They had to remember what it felt like to be given something that they could never buy on their own. They had to recognize that that is what God had given them in Jesus Christ: a gift they could never deserve or earn. It is a love that they can only share, not buy.

 

That my friends, is what the Christmas story is all about. We come here tonight to remember that we have been given a gift that we could never get on our own. We believe that this child, born in a stable on the other side of the world thousands of years ago, was the Son of God. That little child offers us a new beginning. He offers us forgiveness of sins. He offers us a different way of life. He offers us a different relationship with God, in fact, he offers us his own life. That child wrapped in swaddling cloth is the gift of heaven, and that is a gift we could never purchase on our own.

 

As Christians we can, and should, wake up every morning of our lives, just like so many children will wake up tomorrow morning, with the joy and wonder of knowing that something wonderful has been given to us, and we had nothing to do with it. We didn’t make Christmas happen. No matter how hard you have worked these past few weeks to prepare your holiday celebrations, Christmas isn’t something you can buy or work for; it is pure gift. All you can do is share it. Jesus said, we have to come to him as children, we must be born again. When we kneel before the crèche tonight and see the tiny babe lying in a manger, we are the ones who are helpless. This little child has given us a gift that we could never buy for ourselves and that is after all, the best kind of gift.

Stripping the Roses

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Sermon for December 16th, 2018

Readings:

 

Growing up we had a good friend of the family that was a florist. During my teenage years, on a couple of occasions she employed me to assist her in preparing for the Valentine’s Day rush. My primary task was preparing the roses. On days like today when there are beautiful bouquets of roses on our altar, and the smell of rose is in the air, my mind wanders to the back room of that florist shop. I can remember sitting there hour after hour, preparing buckets of roses for the florist to later use to make beautiful arrangements.

 

Now you might be wondering: “how much preparation does a rose really need?” “it is a beautiful flower all by itself, what do you need to do to it?”

 

Well, the roses you get from the florist may be beautiful and benign, but what the florist gets from the wholesaler or the greenhouse is a murderous death stick. Long-stemmed roses have massive, nasty thorns. You may think the roses in your back garden have thorns too, and they do, but long-stemmed roses, the kind favored for their strength and elegance in arrangements, those roses have thorns on steroids. Gloves don’t help much. Those thorns can go right through most gloves. Naturally a florist doesn’t want to sell the public a symbol of love that is going to draw blood, so they must prepare the roses and strip them of their thorns.

 

That was my job. Stripping the roses of their thorns. It’s tricky cause you don’t want to damage the rose, it still needs its stem for water and nutrients, but you have got to get rid of most of those razor-sharp thorns. Gloves don’t help much. I tore through a few pair. You can try to be careful, watching very closely where you put your fingers, but then there was always that thorn that you just couldn’t see, hiding discretely under a leaf, waiting for its chance to strike. And even when you very cautiously and very carefully grasped one of those large visible thorns between your thumb and your knife, you knew that there was always a chance that the very tip of that little sucker could turn back and bite you. I went through more band-aides in one afternoon than you could imagine. That job grew tiresome very fast.

 

Why was I doing this? To hell with these nasty flowers, I thought.

 

But then I would get up from my bucket and my box of band-aides, and walk over to where the florist was working to see what she was doing with all these stripped flowers. If you have ever seen a real artist at work, you know that there seems to be a bit of magic involved. Some of this flower, some of that flower, this one here, that one there, this flurry of activity that at times seemed completely random, until at last you stood back and realized how spectacular it was. I couldn’t have imagined how all of this would come together, but it did and it was gorgeous. Getting a glimpse of the finished product helped to motivate me to go on with the tedious, but important work I was doing, because I realized that there is just no room in this bouquet for the thorns. The florist simply cannot gather all these flowers together, can’t work with them or shape them, until the thorns are stripped away. So I went back to my bucket and back to my thorny roses.

 

You may wonder why the Church has “Rose Sundays.” Why in the middle of Advent and Lent does our tradition encourage us to change all the vestments for one day to this bright and gorgeous rose colour? Why do we have flowers on our altar today, when we don’t usually this season? And not just flowers…roses…the most expensive of the flowers. Why this sudden joy and extravagance?

 

Well Advent and Lent are supposed to be seasons of preparation. They are supposed to be a time when the liturgy and our lives are a bit more stripped back. They are supposed to be a time when we examine ourselves, take an honest look in the mirror and admit, that although we have the potential for great beauty, we also have serious flaws: sins that as we mature can keep growing larger and larger. These sins are a part of our nature now. We may not even be choosing them, just like the rose isn’t choosing to be thorny, but if the rose ever hopes to be used by the florist and gathered into the bouquet, then the thorns have to go; and if we ever hope to be used by God and gathered together into his arrangement, into the kingdom which only he can see clearly in his vision, then we too must allow our thorns, our sins, to be stripped away.

 

That is a painful and tedious process, and sometimes when you are in the midst of it, you need to step back and remind yourself of the beautiful thing that God is creating. You need to see the beautiful arrangement that God is making out of all those prickly flowers, and when you see it then you can say: “ah! That’s what this is all for! I guess the thorns really do have to go. Maybe this is worth the pain after all. Back to work then.” So Rose Sunday passes and we return once again to the work of preparing ourselves to meet God. Back to separating the wheat from the chaff; back to stripping the thorns off the roses. But ultimately this work of preparation and arranging, isn’t our work, it is God’s.

 

We never have the full picture of what God is doing, but thankfully now and then he gives us a glimpse. If you take another look at those words from the Prophet Zephaniah that we heard a few moments ago, you will see a beautiful vision of what God is doing with his people. It is an image of God gathering his people together: no oppression, no fear, no weakness, no shame, no disaster, just this beautiful gathering of God’s children that we will all rejoice in. It is such a glorious vision of the bouquet that God is creating. Now when you go home, go back and read the rest of Zephaniah, but you’d better be sitting down when you do.

 

Because what Zephaniah talks about before he gets to his glorious vision, is the stripping away that must happen first. Zephaniah begins with a painful and vivid description of God’s judgment against mankind and his determination to sweep away the sinfulness that has polluted his creation. There are words there that will make you uncomfortable. We don’t like to talk about God’s anger or God’s judgement; we want God to make things pretty, not to destroy things; we also want to imagine that roses can be used just the way they are, but they can’t. What we must realize, if we read all of Zephaniah, is that God does indeed have a beautiful vision and plan for his people, but there are some things that will have no place in that vision. God can and will do something beautiful, but part of that process is stripping away what he can’t use.

 

That stripping away can be very painful.

 

I remember that whenever I was trimming the thorns off of those roses, I always had to be careful. I wanted to remove what was hurtful without destroying what was beautiful. That usually meant that this process was going to be more painful to me that it was to the rose. I was wondering this week if stripping us of our sins is actually more painful to God than it is to us. Then I caught an image of Christ on the cross and I realized…of course it is.

God is way ahead of you

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Sermon for December 9th, 2018

Readings:

None of the gospels begin with the birth of Jesus. You would think that the gospels, being the primary records we have of Jesus’s life and teachings would begin with his birth, but they don’t really…not exactly. So if you decide one day that you are going to sit down and open up your New Testament and learn all about this Jesus character that everyone keeps talking about, well 1, good for you, but 2, I want you to be prepared for what you are going to encounter before you get to the good stuff.

 

Let’s start from the beginning. The first book you will come to is Matthew. And Matthew begins by giving us Jesus’s family tree all the way back to Abraham.  That is just as exciting as it sounds. So-and-so begat so-and-so, one unpronounceable name after another, this is about as dry as it gets, and for many people who can’t get past the first 17 verses or so, they think that’s what the whole Bible is like. One unpronounceable name after another strung together like the lights on your Christmas tree. So maybe you decide not to give up, but you decide to move on, and see if the next guy has a catchier opening.

 

So you turn to Mark:

“The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”

And you think: “finally, and author who gets straight to the point! Now I am going to learn about Jesus.”

 

“As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, see I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins…”

 

What is with this crazy John character? I want to read about what Jesus did and said, not this guy. He’s hardly respectable. His message isn’t that compelling. Jesus is supposed to be all about love, so why do we need to talk about all these people jumping into a river with this crazy man talking about all their sins? Do you mean to tell me in all of Israel these folks couldn’t find one good psychotherapist? That’s hardly believable! That’s what they need isn’t it? Just someone to tell them that they are OK just the way they are? So you think, I’m going to move on to the next guy and see if he gets to the point any faster..

 

So you turn to Luke.

 

Yada, yada, orderly account…in the days of King Herod of Judea (I know who he is) there was a priest named Zechariah…his wife was a descendant of Aaron. Wait, what is this about? I want to get to the bit where Linus talks about shepherds and angels and a manger. What is all this about a priest in the temple and his barren wife? Then you keep reading and think: wait a second this whole bit is about the birth of John the Baptist. Him again! Why can’t these authors just get to Christmas where Jesus is born and we all recognize him as the messiah, decide to start loving each other and live happily ever after? This book needs a better editor, because all this stuff about sin is never gonna sell.

 

What if I flip ahead a little…oh here is the birth of Jesus in chapter two. I’ll pick it up from chapter three, it should be good from here on out.

 

In the fifteenth year of the reign of the emperor Tiberius, when Pontius pilate, names, names, names, the word of God came to JOHN son of Zechariah in the wilderness…proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, the voice of one crying out in the wilderness….

 

This again! What was Luke just copying from the last guy? He must know that we want to read about Jesus, supposedly that’s why he wrote this gospel, so why is he talking about John and all this sin stuff? And why on earth do these guys keep dragging all that Old Testament stuff into this? Surely Jesus came to release us from all that?

 

So you give it one last try….the Gospel of John.

 

In the beginning was the word and the word was with God and the word was God. He was in the beginning with God. (A little fancy, but I will press on). There was a man sent from God whose name was JOHN!

Here we go again! I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, make straight the way of the Lord as the prophet Isaiah said.

 

They just won’t quit. These gospel writers keep insisting on talking about what God was doing before Jesus came into the picture, as if that was a part of the story. Why do Matthew, Mark and Luke and John keep talking about ancient history? Is that relevant?

 

Then John the Baptist, in John’s gospel says a very curious thing: “the one who comes after me, ranks ahead of me, because he was before me.” In other words the one whom I have been preparing the way for, has been a part of the story all along. He isn’t just following me. He came before me too. He has been a part of everything that came before…all of the preparation. The folks John is ministering to, they don’t know Jesus yet, but they know they need help. John knows that Jesus is getting them ready to meet him, and he has been since the beginning of time.

 

Maybe I can’t ignore what came before. Maybe God has always been in the preparation to meet him, as well as in the encounter. Part of that preparation is tedious. Part of it is painful. Part of that preparation involves looking at the ways and the places in our lives where we have failed. Part of it means accepting that we are not, have not been and will not be good enough. Part of the preparation to meet God, is first accepting that we need him. That on some level, we are helpless, like a little child. No matter where I turn in this book, the preparation is always a part of the story. Every author wants to show how God was preparing his people to meet him.

 

I must admit that whenever I hear “prepare the way of the Lord” my first thought is usually: “what must I do to prepare to meet God?” What must I do. And my mind starts to think: if I can just get my stuff together, if I can just pray the right prayers, or attend the right church, or give to the right cause, then then I will be prepared to meet God. Then God will come into my life. Then I will meet Jesus. Then I will know who he is.

 

But there is just one problem with thinking that way: it is built on the assumption that God is coming after me, or that God is waiting for me to make space for him before he comes into my life. But what if he’s not waiting. What if he is not following after me, but is way out in front? What if he is the one who is filling the valleys and making the mountains and hills low, so that the way is clear for him to come to me? What if I owe my salvation to a decision that God made, and not to one that I made? Maybe God is a part of the preparation.

 

Perhaps I need to start paying attention to what God has done to prepare me. Maybe I should look back on my past life and look at the ways that God used my bad decisions and my sinfulness and my brokenness and my helplessness to clear the way into my heart. Maybe I should look to the people whose lives and witness to God’s grace continually redirected me to a savior who loved me before I ever knew him.

 

This morning we are baptizing a child into this Christian faith. Cosette, whose name in French means ‘little thing,’ this little thing, this little child does not yet know who Jesus is. She doesn’t know the creed, she can’t say the Our Father, and she probably has not had any great epiphanies yet. She doesn’t even know what it means to sin, so how can she understand forgiveness? All that may be true. And part of your role as parents and god parents and family and friends and fellow Christians and members of the church is to make sure that she does know what God has done for her. You are to live lives and speak words that witness to God’s grace and God’s love, but part of the that message is that God isn’t waiting for her to get things right before he welcomes her into his family and into his kingdom.

 

The one thing little Cosette probably is aware of right now is that she is helpless. There is not much in this world that she can do for herself. She needs the help to come from outside. She needs love that comes from above. Maybe that is all that she really needs to know right now. Maybe knowing that we can’t do this on our own is all the preparation any of us really needs.

Stand up, Stand up for Jesus…

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Sermon for December 2nd, 2018

Readings:

 

 

I had a wonderful 5thgrade teacher named Mr. Boggs. Like most good teachers, Mr. Boggs could be a tad eccentric, and one of the things that he insisted on in his classroom, was that whenever an adult entered the room, the entire class was to stand at attention. Now I understand that this may have been common in an earlier age, but when I was in grade school, it was not. He is the only teacher I ever had that insisted upon this. We were the only class that did it.

 

It was a pretty simple rule actually. It didn’t matter what we were doing, what lesson was being taught, what story was being read, or what project or assignment we were working on; if an adult walked into the room, we were to stop, stand, and listen. And it didn’t matter if it was the principal, or the janitor; both were offered the same respect.

 

It was a quaint practice even at the time; I wonder if anyone still practices it. I suppose if you have served in the military, that it is rather the equivalent of your commanding officer entering the room and someone calling out “Attention!” You stop what you are doing, you stand, lift your head, look up and listen. Armies throughout the world and throughout history have taught their soldiers that practice. It makes sense for soldiers to be taught that kind of obedience. In a battlefield situation, things can change very quickly; you need soldiers that can refocus their attention and their priorities at a moment’s notice. Soldiers need to be able to respect authority and to take commands.

 

It may seem like an odd thing to ask of a bunch of 5thgraders though, but my teacher wanted us to learn respect and one of the most old-fashioned ways to show respect to someone is to stop what you are doing and stand. If you watch an old movie, you may notice that the gentlemen rise whenever a lady approaches or leaves the dinner table. During mass, when the gospel is proclaimed, the congregation stands. For us, it is a recognition that as Christians, our commanding officer has entered the room and is about to speak to us, so we stand at attention. If you attend a performance of Handel’s Messiah this holiday season, during the Halleluiah Chorus it is very traditional for people to stand. The story goes, that King George the Second, when hearing this performed for the first time was so moved by the piece and by his desire to show respect to the ‘King of Kings’ that the choir was singing about, that he stood. Of course, when the king stands, everyone else stands, and so a tradition was born. We stand to show respect.

 

Mr. Boggs was a great teacher and we loved and respected him. So we went along with his little rule. When an adult entered the room, we stood up. We became known as the class that stands when someone enters. It was a part of our identity. We were the class that showed respect. We were the class that took notice when you walked into the room. It was a bit odd at first. We were all so used to just focusing on whatever our assignment was, whatever it was that we were doing, that it was a real change for us to be constantly aware of what was going on around us: who was coming and going, who was in the room. Before, we could just tune all that out, but now we all had the classroom door in our side view, just in case someone were to walk in. After all, no one wanted to be the last one to stand up. That would be embarrassing. And if you saw someone coming, you made sure that your friends knew it. You got their attention.

 

That was a long time ago, but I thought about that class and that teacher this week when I read the gospel and heard Jesus telling his followers that when distressing things happen in the world to: “stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” Jesus says to them: “Be on guard that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life and that day catch you unexpectedly like a trap…be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.”

 

We have come to the First Sunday in Advent. Advent, is about the coming of Christ. Yes, in a few weeks we will remember God being born into the world in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, and we do prepare for that. We need to prepare for that; but Advent is first and foremost about reminding us of the need to prepare for Jesus coming into our lives here and now. Today, tomorrow, next week, next year, or maybe even before I finish this sermon. Advent is a reminder that Christ has promised to be our future as well as our past. He is our end as well as our beginning. We remember at all times his promise to return; we say every week that we believe that “he shall come again, with glory to judge both the quick and the dead; whose kingdom shall have no end.” But in Advent we are called to take special notice. In Advent we are called to look for his approach, and maybe think about how he will find us when he does come. In Advent we are called to stop, stand and listen to the one who is coming into the room.

 

There is the old joke: Jesus is coming! Look Busy!

 

As if busyness is what Jesus is going to be looking for when he returns. As if Jesus is going to be impressed by my slavish devotion to mundane tasks when he comes in glory to create a new heaven and a new earth. Keeping our heads down, staying on task, getting stuff done, making our lists, checking them twice, that might make us feel important and productive (and the Lord knows I love to feel productive, but then again, so does the devil). But when our redemption comes, Jesus didn’t say that he would show up in our email inbox, or on our shopping lists, or on our laptops. As a matter of fact, all of that stuff can just distract us, we can be so consumed and weighed down by it, that when Jesus does come into our lives, we don’t even notice. We don’t even look up from our work.

 

Jesus tells us that if we want to see him when he comes, we need to stand up and raise our heads.

 

Thinking back to my 5thgrade class, I always knew that nothing I was working on was so important, that I couldn’t at any moment be asked to stop what I was doing, stand and raise my head. Finishing your homework is important, but one thing Mr. Boggs taught me, is that it is never as important as showing respect to the one who is coming into the room. Perhaps it’s not a bad way to live your life.