Advent 2

So an elderly pastor was searching his closet for his collar before church one Sunday morning. In the back of the closet, he found a small box containing 3 eggs and 90 $1 bills. He called his wife into the closet to ask her about the box and its contents. Embarrassed, she admitted having hidden the box there for their entire 50 years of marriage. Disappointed and hurt, the pastor asked her, “WHY?” The wife replied that she hadn’t wanted to hurt his feelings. He asked her how the box could have hurt his feelings. She said that every time during their marriage that he had delivered a poor sermon, she had placed an egg in the box. The pastor felt that 3 poor sermons in 50 years was certainly nothing to feel bad about, so he asked her what the 90 bucks was for. She replied, “Each time I got a dozen eggs, I sold them to the neighbors for $1.”

John the Baptist didn’t have a wife to tally up his preaching failures, but if history and tradition serves, she wouldn’t have had need of many eggs. The Baptist is most likely the greatest preacher who ever lived, and if he wasn’t, he was certainly the most interesting preacher ever. John was the last of the prophets, the bridge between the prophets of the Old Testament and the New; he had a lot to say, and he wasn’t afraid to say it.

I once heard it said that “most non-churchy people don’t wander into churches because they think everything is fine,” a saying I think is about 3/4 true. Some people wander into church to give thanks, which is great; but a lot of people, myself included, look to the church to name the things that nag at us, our troubles and doubts, our sins and offenses, the cruelties and injustices in our society, and then hopefully to offer a better way.

The Israel of 2000 years ago was not fine, and pretty much everybody knew it. If Roman rule wasn’t bad enough, the rule of the high-priests was there to make things worse. We worry about income disparity nowadays, and rightly so, but their gap between the privileged and the underprivileged was a yawning chasm, and way too often the privileged class was the professionally religious class.

This rankled John the Baptist. Being a prophet, God gave him some very specific things to say. John’s first task to proclaim that the Kingdom of God was coming near, near in the person of the Messiah, who turned out to be John’s cousin Jesus. But the Baptist was also charged with making ready (remember that phrase from last week) for the Messiah, getting Israel right with God and within itself, so they could receive Jesus properly.

This John did with abandon. Calling people slithering snakes, denying the priests their birthright, images of axes and fire, comparing God with a reaper. These are not the words or methods of a patient preacher, but a preacher with an urgent message. Repent! Dismantle the structures and habits that keep you in sinful privilege and that keep others heavy laden. Prepare yourselves for something different. Make ready for your God to come to you.

But from time to time the people of God fail to prepare for Christ, fail to recognize Christ when He is in our midst, and so we get a prophet, or at least a godly person, to remind us of who we are and who we serve, remind us that the Kingdom of God is near, to pave the way for Jesus. John the Baptist, sure. St. Augustine, St. Hilda. Maybe some modern examples: John Henry Newman, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King, Jr., Mother Teresa.

The Church offers us a better way. She offers us a time and a place to address the things that nag at us, our troubles and doubts, our sins and offenses, the cruelties and injustices in our society. While these are among the daily operations of a Christian, none of us can live up to all of that all the time, and so we get John the Baptist as a reminder, we get the season of Advent as a setting, all to make ready for Jesus, who is the Way.

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Advent 1

Well, somehow it’s Advent. It seems like I sneezed in August and all of a sudden we’re staring down Christmas. And so as I recovered from two Thanksgiving dinners and looked over the readings for the next few weeks, it occurred to me that Advent is easily the most Metal season of the Church. If the members of Metallica and Guns N’ Roses were ardent Anglicans, Advent would be their favorite season. Darkness is the major theme of Advent – the word darkness is in the first line of today’s Collect – and just listen to that Gospel reading: a worldwide flood, thieves in the night, the end of the world. Just the kind of stuff you were looking for to help you set the mood for hanging Christmas lights.

 

Darkness is not just a metaphor, of course, but a reality; it takes time to get used to the days getting shorter, to the cold, to the shift in our physical rhythms.  It can make it hard for us to mark time, and so the Church gave us Advent as the beginning of our new liturgical year.

 

Now, “If we were still using the dating system made popular by Hippolytus of Rome, we would be writing the year 7498 AM (Anno Mundi) as the date for our correspondence.  As it happens, we still use the system devised by the sixth-century monk Dionysius Exiguus (“Tiny Dennis”), who advised that it would be more apt for Christian Europe to place the incarnation at the center of history and to date events prior to Christ by counting backward, leaving the normal forward count for the events after that first Advent.  It took the promotion of another monk, Venerable Bede, a century and a half later, to popularize that dating system.  And we have been living with the BC/AD system ever since.”[1]

 

Jesus didn’t seem that concerned with time, outside of knowing when it was time for Him to head to Jerusalem for His sacrifice, but His followers were totally preoccupied with time. When will Israel shrug off Roman rule? When will you finally take over? When will the world end? Are we there yet? Are we there yet? It must have driven Jesus crazy. They had in front of them the Son of the Living God, and instead of just enjoying that fact for a few minutes, it had to be a three-year press conference.

 

And so Jesus brought out His inner metalhead. “As were the days of Noah, so will be the coming of the Son of man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, and they did not know until the flood came and swept them all away.” I’m sure someone in the ’70s thought that was from a Led Zeppelin song rather than a quote from Jesus.

 

There will be a day, Jesus is telling us, when the clocks will stop ticking and the need for calendars will cease, but that day is most likely not today, and probably not tomorrow either, but hey, you never know.

 

So be ready, Jesus tells us. Not anxious, not worried, not frozen in place lest we miss it, but ready. Don’t miss the obvious signs: don’t be like the people who laughed at the godly guy building an ark. Don’t be the person who leaves his doors unlocked during a rash of robberies. Be ready.

 

So what does it look like to make ready for Christ? Well, that’s the entire theme of Advent, casting off the works of darkness and putting on the armor of light. Here’s a couple practical ways to make ready

 

First, make sure you and Jesus are on the same page, so to speak. How is your relationship with Jesus? What is your relationship with Jesus? If you’re not sure, Advent’s a good time to check in.

 

Next, forgive and ask forgiveness. Make right your relationships with others. See Christ in others and let others see Christ in you.

 

Next, read some Scripture. If an important guest was coming to your house for dinner, you might inquire beforehand where she is from or if she favors a certain type of food – you’d try to know a little of her story before she arrived. Learn Jesus’ story before He arrives.

 

Finally, know what time it is and act like it.  Keep watch, for Jesus is not only one day coming back altogether, but He also comes to each one of us every day.  He comes to us in our neighbor and in the stranger, in His Body and Blood, in His Spirit that dwells within us.  When we watch for Jesus, when we are ready for Him, He knows that He can use us to show His love and light in a world that is much too dark.  Watch therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.

 

[1] Dennis Hamm, SJ: http://liturgy.slu.edu/1AdvA112716/theword_hamm.html

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Christ the King

A happy Christ the King (weekend) Sunday to you all. The Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe, is not an old feast, as it was added to the calendar in 1925, but it’s still a venerable one, and we are blessed enough to have it as our feast of title – Christ Himself is our patron.

I saw many, many political signs over the last few months, Trump and Clinton and the menagerie of local politicians running for this office or that one. A few quickly became favorites: the now classic Giant Meteor of Death 2016. Keyboard Cat for President. There was one with a picture of Queen Elizabeth; if these are our choices, the sign seemed to say, perhaps we’re better off with corgis and crown jewels.

But we’re a people who rather forcibly shrugged off a king a while back, and I can’t see us ever wishing to be ruled ever again. Earthly kings and queens rarely comport themselves as Queen Elizabeth has, and it seems that much of the world has simply outgrown the monarchy, at least as a system of government.

And so it can be difficult for some, myself included, to even know what calling Jesus “King” looks and feels like. If Jesus is King and He’s running this divine Kingdom we hear about all the time, how come the world looks and feels the way it does? If the Kingdom of God is a peaceable kingdom, then what gives?

As my friend Fr. George Roberts said, “Jesus made peace…it may come as news to us living in a world that seems far from peaceful. But the reality of Jesus is that His sacrificial life and love did usher in reconciliation and peace with God. It is finished, Jesus said from the Cross. The final act of redemption had been accomplished which is reinforced and final in the Resurrection of Jesus from the dead.

“So, we understandably ask, “Why is the world not united yet? Why are we still such a mess?” The answers to those questions may seem complex but the simple answer may be that we have not chosen, yet, to live into Jesus’ promise. We don’t (and cannot) actually build the kingdom of God, though I have used those words myself many times. Jesus has already built the kingdom of God among us, in us, but we must now choose to live into it. We will always live in the footsteps of Jesus imperfectly but we must strive to follow where He would lead. We must live the life that Jesus called us to, grow the kingdom that is not of this world but is meant to be, at least in part, in this world. Jesus did not ask us to be Him but to follow Him. He has reconciled us to God; now we must, by following Jesus, be reconciled to each other.”

I’ve seen this in action. On Thursday night we had the Fill Fr. Matt’s Truck for Thanksgiving event, and we filled three trucks and an ambulance with food and personal items for those in need, about twice the haul from last year’s event. That in and of itself is pretty awesome, but so was the scene in the Farnsworth House: loads of people, people from different walks of life, different groups in town, Clinton voters and Trump voters, dogs and cats living together; it looked for all the world to me like the Kingdom of God hanging out on Farnsworth Avenue.

Jesus reconciled humanity with God. Jesus brought, as St. Athanasius told us, the manhood to the Godhead, and so the Kingdom is ours now, too, ours to do with as we please. If that’s a scary thought, good, because it’s a scary proposition, but giving us the Kingdom shows us how much God loves us, how much He is willing to risk to be with us.

We live, as Christians, in the Kingdom of God, a kingdom established by Christ, through Christ, and for Christ, and He has made sure that each and every one of us has a place in His Kingdom. Because we can be sure of that, we can make decisions based on our citizenship, decisions that put others first, decisions that allow us to be servants instead of masters. The other day, my friend Fr. Rob told a group that he wants a Tesla, wants it so bad he would rub his face on the fender, but that he’ll never have one, because he’s made a choice, a choice to live in the peaceable kingdom, where others matter more than him. What does the Kingdom of God look like from where you are sitting?

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Pentecost 26

Well, it appears the republic still stands.  If this group represents a microcosm of the American people, then half of you are happy and half of you are really, really not.  In case you hadn’t noticed, I did not make my preference known, nor will I ever, as it is my duty to minister to all people, not just those who agree with me politically.  I will, however, say that I am eternally grateful that this election season is over, and that I remain terribly worried about how that season made our fellow citizens feel and react, how it drove so many of us to new lows.  To torture a Bible verse, I would say that “Lincoln wept”.  I will also say that in my effort to stay out of the crossfire, I failed in my main duty.  I failed to take a terrible time in history and use it, as Jesus told us to, as an opportunity for testimony.

“Jesus himself, in Luke’s Gospel, saw terrible times ahead, a day coming when not one stone of our human temple will rest on another.  He warned of the signs.  There will be wars and insurrections. Nations will fight to the death against nations.  Tribes, peoples, and clans will clash.  The earth will protest with mighty quakes, the biosystem will spawn plague and famine.  The sky will blossom with omens. Finally, there will be rejection and even persecution for those who believe in Christ.”[1]

That all sounds pretty terrible, and it was.  This was a prophesy, of course, not a prediction, and the prophecy of course came true.  Many of those who heard those words or heard tell of them saw for themselves the fall of the Temple, were driven from their homes by war, or left in ruin when their crops were destroyed by pests.

But there’s part of me that wants to ask Jesus, if I could be so bold, “What’s new, Lord?”  At what time in human history were things different?  When have we been free of war or of plague?  When were God’s people not persecuted?  When, O Lord, did we not have to suffer through 45 political ads during NCIS?

But I think that’s really the point – not watching NCIS unmolested, but that life was always thus and will be until the end of time.  On some level this is Jesus telling Nicholas Cage not to make those Left Behind rapture movies – or maybe not that specific – but certainly telling all of us not to worry so much about the end of the world.  This is Jesus telling us that there’s really not much we can do about the last day, but that’s there’s plenty we can do about and with the days we have.

That’s because, on some level, each day is our last day.  As St. James wrote, “Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and get gain”; whereas you do not know about tomorrow.  What is your life?  For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes.”

So this is a fun sermon so far, right?  One time a man who comes to church about once a year told me that a sermon of mine he heard was not very soothing, and I told him that it wasn’t my job to make him feel better.  It is my job to give you all hope, however, and in the admonition of Philander Chase, to show you all Jesus.

Thankfully that’s pretty easy today; given our times and this Gospel lesson, it’s pretty obvious that our only hope is in Jesus – Jesus is our hope.  And for those who hope, we know that stones can fall and the waters rise, but that in the end, in Christ, not a hair on our head will perish.

Jesus councils us today to not be alarmed, to not lose hope; He tells us that amidst the rancor and the anger and the vitriol, we need not feel and act as if all has been lost.  He tells us in the words of St. Paul, to “clothe ourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience,” and most of all, clothe ourselves in love.

This is not an easy time, but it is a time in which those who hope in Jesus will give testimony to the world.  What will your testimony be?

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All Saints’ Sunday

I must confess that the feast of All Saints has not every been my favorite holiday.  Part of it is the music, or rather the music choices of my churches past: I sing a song of the Saints of God (well, if you sing it that way, of course you’ll hate it).  There’s also the confusion I have come across about the meaning of the feast of All Saints and how that’s confused with the solemnity of All Souls.

 

Very quickly, the feast of All Saints celebrates the big-S Saints of the Church, the boldface names, people you find in stained glass and church calendars.  All Souls, November 2nd, is a day set apart to remember and pray for all the dead, especially those faithful departed, whose lives and names have not yet been canonized.

 

“All Saints Day grew out of the early church’s practice of remembering the martyrs of the church.

Special days to recognize Saints developed over time.  By the late 300s general observance of a day to honor all Saints was in place.  In the 400s such a day was often held on the Sunday after Pentecost.  By the mid 700s, All Saints Day became connected with November 1 (and often celebrated on the Sunday following).  In time, All Souls Day was celebrated on November 2 in order to recognize the faithful who had died but did not have the distinctive title, “Saint”.”[1]

 

Now, one of my favorite things about being your priest is that I get to sit with the Church School kids for what we call “Ask Fr. Matt”.  The kids (and usually their parents) get to ask me anything they want, and then I attempt to answer them the best I can.  Over the years there’s only been one or two sessions in which I wasn’t asked about people living with dinosaurs, and those were my favorite one or two sessions.  But I have been asked about what it takes to become a Saint.  There’s an actual definition of that process, of course, having to do with sanctity of life, miracles worked, humility shown, but I wonder if there isn’t another way of looking at it, another way of working toward sainthood.

 

“For the writers of the New Testament, saints really were just folk like them, who had set their hope on Christ and lived for the praise of his glory.  They were not put on pedestals or into stained glass and their personal faults and shortcomings were very much in evidence.  They struggled to keep Christ at the center of their lives and to follow his difficult teachings.  They weren’t saints because they always did the right thing, or because they had all the answers, or because they were always sweet and pleasant.  They were saints because their relationships with Jesus Christ were so open and intimate as to let his love transform them.”[2]

 

Does that sound like us?  I think it does.  Being here, being in a place like this that essentially demands that we not only worship Jesus but find Him in everyone we meet, especially the most vulnerable, and then blessing them the best we can, means working toward sainthood.  Working on sainthood means joining Jesus in His mission, “accepting his mission as our own.  That is the answer to the skeptics of the world who might fairly ask, just how is it that the poor, the hungry, and the weeping are blessed? How does Jesus bless them?  The answer, I hope, is that Jesus blesses them… through us.”[3]

 

That sounds great, especially when sitting in church, but it can be harder in practice.  Joining in Jesus’ mission in the world means acting in ways that are counter to the world.  The world may think you’re weird or threatening; some people might not know how to deal with a modern-day saint.

 

But if and when that happens, Jesus has you covered: “Blessed are you when they revile and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for My sake.  Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

 

And so, my fellow saints, how is Jesus working His mission through you today?

 

[1] Richard J Hull, Celebrating All Saints. http://www.christianchurchfoundation.org/userfiles/files/allsaintsdayworshipresource2012.pdf

[2] Fr. Bret Hays, from a Sermon given on All Saints’ Day, 2013.

[3] Ibid.

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Pentecost 24

I spent the early portion of this week at the diocesan clergy conference down in Galloway. It was very well run this year, which was nice, but we had to listen to a speaker tell us about “Fearless Church Fundraising” for three days, which was horrifying. Maybe they were trying to get us ready for Halloween, because trying to squeeze basic sales techniques into a theological framework is quite a trick. The treat was getting to see my fellow clerics for a few days and learning from their experiences, and then coming home to today’s Gospel story of that classic little fundraiser, Zacchaeus.

 

Poor Zacchaeus. “So frequently has he been unfairly compared to the twentieth-century Internal Revenue Service in the United States that his reputation has been sorely tarnished.”[1]  But he was a complicated guy living in a complicated time, and as Luke tells the story, he was looking for more, looking to be more than a tiny, disliked pawn of the Romans.

 

Zacchaeus was rich.  He was a well-known, prominent tax collector, and he was smart enough to know that some of the people who worked for him were probably a little shady.

 

“Sometimes “rich” can mean “greedy” in the Bible, but as this story progresses it will become clear that Zacchaeus does not seem to be greedy.  As a toll collector, Zacchaeus bid to Rome for the right to collect tolls, not personally but through agents.  When Rome accepted his bid, Zacchaeus paid them the toll for his region in full.  Then it was up to him to recoup his bid by collecting the tolls and trying to make a profit if possible.  He relied on agents to do that work.  Enviable as it may sound, few toll collectors managed to recoup their bid and fewer still managed to make a profit.  Zacchaeus was rich in that others, hired agents, did his work for him.  In his case, “rich” did not mean “greedy.”[2]

 

“It also happened that he wanted to see what Jesus was like.  So, running ahead of a big crowd’s rush, he climbed a sycamore to see what he could see.”[3]

 

What an interesting scene.  Zacchaeus, the guy that many of his neighbors snickered at when he walked past in his nice robes, tailored for a child, on his way to the tax office, was now straddling a tree branch to watch an itinerant preacher and miracle worker walk by.  Note that Zacchaeus wasn’t looking to be noticed himself, nor did he hope to stop Jesus and ask Him some important metaphysical question.  Zacchaeus wasn’t trying to justify himself to Jesus or even to ask Jesus for forgiveness.  Zacchaeus just hoped to get a glimpse of the man everyone had been talking about, this Jesus who just might be the savior everyone had been longing for.

 

But like everyone who truly seeks to get a glimpse of Jesus, more than just a glimpse is given.  “Zacchaeus, make haste and come down, for today I must stay at your house.”

 

“Zacchaeus’ determination to see Jesus and his climbing up into the sycamore tree are taken as a sign of genuine faith, which could break through the barriers between God and human beings,” and with that barrier broken, nothing is impossible, even the Son of God coming to stay with you, declaring you righteous, declaring that peace and salvation have come upon your house.[4]

 

We are all, in our own way, a pack a Zacchaeuses (Zacchaei?).  We are all, in our own way, stunted, unsure about ourselves and our acquaintances.  We all might suspect ourselves of sinning in ways we don’t even realize, making up for those things in any way that we can.  We are also all here, sitting this, our sycamore tree, trying to get a glimpse of Jesus.

 

But there’s no trick to what Jesus told us today, just the treat: that the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost, to visit this house and to declare those who come to Him in faith as His own, to declare that salvation has come to our house, that the Kingdom of God is ours.

 

 

[1] John J. Pilch. http://liturgy.slu.edu/31OrdC103016/theword_cultural.html

[2] Ibid.

[3] John Kavanaugh, S.J. http://liturgy.slu.edu/31OrdC103016/theword_engaged.html

[4] Reginald Fuller. http://liturgy.slu.edu/31OrdC103016/theword_indepth.html

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Pentecost 23

When I was young, I was friends with a kid we’ll call John; he was the child of friends of my parents, and so we spent an awful lot of time together growing up.  John, I’m sure, had a good heart, but he could be a little, let’s call it self-involved, and that caused him to make some interesting decisions.  One of my favorites was the year, when we were younger teenagers, that for Christmas he gave my parents a framed picture of himself.  Looking back on it, that has to be one of the best and funniest moments of my young life, though the humor of it was wasted on my youth.  If that picture could talk, it would say “God, I thank thee that I am not like other men.”

 

Pride cometh before the fall, the idiom says; King Solomon wrote it – if he had written in Tudor English – as “Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall.”  Jesus told this parable, the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, in the midst of a bunch of teaching that beat up on the indolent rich, the corrupt powers of Rome, and as usual, the Pharisees.  Not all of the Pharisees were bad guys, of course, but not unlike being a priest, being a Pharisee gave one opportunity to be particularly bad, publicly reprehensible.  Their main problem was pride.

 

And so the parable introduces us to two men, a Pharisee and a tax collector.  Neither will be the most popular guy at the temple, but the Pharisee does have pride of place, so to speak.

 

The Pharisee begins to pray.  “Notice that the parable doesn’t doubt the Pharisee’s truthfulness: he does have real moral excellence. And notice too that the Pharisee doesn’t congratulate himself on this moral excellence in himself. He thanks God for it; he gives God all the credit for it.  So what exactly is wrong with this Pharisee?  Think about it this way. Aquinas says that there are four kinds of pride.

 

(1) There’s foolish pride. You think you have an excellence which you don’t have, like a child who thinks he’s the best basketball player in the world.

 

(2) There’s the pride of the self-made man. You think you have an excellence you do have, but you think you got that excellence for yourself, without anybody’s help.

 

(3) There’s the sneakily self-congratulatory pride. You think you have an excellence you do have, and you recognize that God gave it to you; but you assume God gave it to you because he knew that you would make such good use of it.

 

(4) And then there’s the most self-deceptive kind of pride. You think you have an excellence you do have, and you recognize that you have it because God gave it, and you acknowledge that God gave it because he is so good, not because you are so nice—BUT you are glad others don’t have it and you hope they don’t get it.”[1]

The Pharisee had a mix of three and four: God gave him his gifts because he is somehow worthy of them, and he doesn’t think that God should give others, especially that disgusting tax collector, the grace to power to achieve his kind of righteousness.

 

What kind of pride do you have?  I’m all too aware of my ownership progression, hitting at least three out of the four I’ve listed.  Thankfully, no matter where you fall on the list – and we all fall on this list somewhere – we’re in good company.  St. Paul was rather forthcoming about his prideful ways, and he did his best to attribute all glory to God, but if you didn’t notice, he wrote the words me, I, or my eighteen times in the four verses we heard today from his letter to Timothy.  Paul probably gave his friend’s parents a framed painting of himself for Christmas.

 

How do we get rid of pride?  A good start is with the words of the tax collector: “God, be merciful to me a sinner!”  It starts with remembering that no matter how great you are – and you’re all pretty great – as Paul also wrote, we have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.  From there it’s about humbling ourselves before God and our neighbor, using the talents God gave us for the benefit of His people, and wishing the best for others.  You guys are already pretty good at those things; I’m not worried about any of you having to revise your Christmas gift list.

[1] Eleanor Stump: http://liturgy.slu.edu/30OrdC102316/reflections_stump.html

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