Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Moral Imperative

The time is coming very shortly, just two days away, in fact, when our total attention will be focused on the Blessed Virgin Mary giving birth to Jesus, the Messiah. That attention is wholly appropriate to Christmas Eve and is the triumphant endpoint of our entire Advent preparation.

But there is one person who seems to fade into the background on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, and that’s Joseph, Jesus’ earthly father.

In fact, fading into the background seems entirely in his nature. He seems like a behind-the-scenes type of guy.

We all know them—these people who are the salt-of-the-earth, hard-working, faithful souls whose quiet devotion to the simple, humble things that have to be done keeps the church and the family going.

That’s Joseph.

But there’s more to the story. Continue reading

Mandela and John the Baptist: When Jesus Doesn’t Come to the Rescue

There are some moments in life that just make your heart ache.

That is definitely the case for me when I read our gospel story today.

John the Baptist, the mighty, fiery, wild man John, has finally been brought low.

The physical deprivations of living in the wilderness on nothing but locusts and wild honey couldn’t do it. The hoards of desperate people begging him for baptism couldn’t do it. The jeering remarks of the Pharisees couldn’t do it.

But at last, the being on death row in prison has done what nothing else could do.

John’s fire has been put out.

He is at his absolute lowest point, probably in his entire life.  And at that moment, suddenly everything seems worthless and the premise on which he has built his entire life seems questionable at best and absurd at worst.

How many of us have been in his exact spiritual shoes before? Continue reading

Shooting Out of a Stump

This sermon was originally published at the Episcopal Digital Network’s Sermons That Work.

 

We encounter a strange image for the coming Messiah in our lesson today from Isaiah 11: “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.”

Now picture what this looks like, you’ve seen it before. A tree gets chopped down to a stump, and a little shoot starts growing out of it at some point.

Most people view this as an unwanted eyesore.

These little shoots that grow out of stumps are actually known by the unflattering name of “suckers,” and there are all kinds of remedies on the Internet for how to seal off a stump and prevent it from giving out new shoots of life.

Having these ragged little branches growing out of it makes a tree stump look unkempt and messy and homely.

Israel’s enemies had tried every way they knew to seal off the stump of Jesse that was the root of the throne of David.

War, slavery, imprisonment, starvation – Jesus’ ancestors suffered all this and more. There had not been a viable king on the throne of Israel for generations.

And yet, somehow, there is still life stirring in this burnt-out old stump.

Now, in the season of Advent, is when we see the little tiny shoot begin to sprout.

It is so fragile! One wrong move and it could die.

Too much water, too little water, the wrong amount of sunlight or wind, even a tiny bug could come along and destroy it, and it is totally defenseless.

When you think about it, it is an odd image to use to describe Jesus.

He’s the new King of Israel, and he is described as a fragile branch growing out of an unsightly old stump.

Not a very triumphant or powerful image.

But that’s what Advent is all about.

It is about coming to terms with the profound knowledge that God chose to come to Earth in such a vulnerable state: a defenseless human baby.

Neither a baby nor a wee branch growing out of stump is going to last long against any enemies. But that is also part of reorienting our mindset during Advent.

The angel says to the shepherds, “Be not afraid.”

That is what lies behind the courage to let Jesus be born as a helpless baby, the little shoot out of the stump that could be cut down at any moment: The knowledge that we have entered a new era of peace.

God’s kingdom has arrived.

Isaiah paints a picture of what that kingdom is like in our lesson today: “The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.”

Peace and wholeness, the Kingdom of God, have arrived.

We are in a safe place.

It is safe to be vulnerable, to reach out, to stretch out and grow.

The interesting thing about branches on trees is that they grow right on the edge. Very little of the growth of a tree happens internally, down in the trunk. New cells are produced right at the very edge and build outward, fragile but brave.

What are the edges of your life that need your attention to really start growing?

What are the parts of you that feel unfinished and vulnerable, that you are afraid to let out into the light?

We must internalize the message of the angels of peace, we must hear and respond to the command “Be not afraid” in order to let that new growth within ourselves have half a fighting chance.

It feels strange to be talking about the fragile budding growth of new tree branches when we’ve just now really settled down into winter.

But that is an important sign as well.

The new life and new growth that Jesus brings do not always arrive in the obvious places.

We need to look for birth and growth within ourselves and our neighbors in the cold, forgotten, frosty and inhospitable places as well.

And the storms that we experience are important also to our new growth.

Back in the ’90s you may recall there was a project called Biodome, an effort to create a totally self-contained biological environment, a mini-Earth sealed away from the outside world. Some of it was successful, but one of the most baffling disappointments was the trees. They had the sunlight and water and nutrients they needed, but as they grew, they couldn’t stand up straight. They flopped over on the ground, weak and limp.

The scientists finally realized one vital ingredient of the outside world they had forgotten: wind.

In nature, the wind blows and causes tiny microcracks in the trunk and branches of trees.

Trees rely on this trauma for their growth.

Standing straight to the wind, breaking a little but rebuilding at the same time, is what helps them grow stronger.

Did you ever think that you might need the fierce storms of your life?

That they might be as pivotal to your growth as the good days of sunshine?

Because John the Baptist does descend like a furious storm in our gospel today. He arrives with locusts and vipers and axes and fire.

How does his warlike message of the wrath to come square with the promised peace of the wolf lying down with the lamb?

Remember the image of the shoot growing up out of the stump? Take a step back and consider how that environment was created.

A tree had to be chopped down to a stump in order for the new shoot to grow up out of it.

John the Baptist says, “Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees.”

He is the very personification of that message.

He has arrived to shock us out of our complacency, to call us to chop down and root out all the old habits of greed and shame and selfishness that have grown up in our souls.

Advent is the beginning of the new church year, and it is time to begin with a fresh slate.

We are told by John the Baptist to “bear fruit worthy of repentance.”

What does that mean?

All the old condemnations of ourselves and others are to be chopped down and thrown away, making room for the new shoot of Jesse to grow up within us.

That is how we prepare the way of the Lord.

John the Baptist is not preaching a message of condemnation, but rather one of liberation, of freedom from the thick, choking overgrowth of sin that has trapped us in misery and hopelessness.

And for all the ferocious strength of his message, which we must take seriously to heart, what action does John the Baptist take? From what act does he take his name? Baptizing.

Even as he pours down the fire of his words, he also pours out the gentle stream of water on the heads of the inquirers and seekers at the River Jordan, blessing them with the cleansing stream that foretells the Living Water.

He waters the potential of the believers, that a new shoot of life might have the chance to blossom and grow.

So too is the season of Advent our own opportunity to test the edge of the waters of Jordan, gathering our courage to let the Holy Spirit of baptism – with the fierce fire that burns away the brambles of sin and the gentle water that nurtures the fragile growth of new life – once again cleanse our souls as we prepare for the Christ child.

In the season of Advent, the season of expectation and possibility, the spirit of the coming Christ is looking for fertile ground in which to grow up, a new shoot out of the old stump.

Isaiah proclaims that “on that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.”

We can make ourselves that dwelling place, made glorious and new by Christ’s presence.

Let us dedicate ourselves to hosting the coming Christ within us, and we will find ourselves manifesting grace in completely new ways that we never expected, newborn shoots of life growing up to bear good fruit.

Let’s be like Jesus, and branch out.

Sewing the Armor of Light

Ahem.

Chooga-chooga-chooga-bzzzzzzzzzzz.

Kerchunk, kerchunk.

Chooga-chooga-chooga-bzzzzzzzzzzz.

“Mom, can I look at your buttons?”

“Yes, dear, you can play with the button box as long as you clean up what you spill.”

Chooga-chooga-chooga.

“Today on Oprah, a breakthrough in healthy weight loss.”

“Merideth, don’t let the twins put buttons in their mouths, they might choke.  Whitney, come over here and let me hold this up to you.  I think you’re having a growth spurt.”

“Okay.  Mom, why can’t I have white like Maggie’s dress?”

“Because you look so pretty in green.  And look at this beautiful lace for your collar.”

“I want beautiful lace too!  Mooommmm!”

“Merideth, your dress will be lovely, and do not make me ask you again to keep those buttons away from the twins.”

Chooga-chooga-chooga.

Kerchunk.

Chooga-chooga-buzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz. Continue reading

Gospel Tornado Siren

In our Gospel today, Jesus is speaking of very real threats to his followers.

They are walking in the temple and admiring how beautiful it is, adorned with rich stones and ornamentations, and he has to bring them abruptly back to Earth with a wake-up call.  While you are thinking about how beautiful these material things are, Jesus says, dangers are creeping up on you all around.

Jesus warns his followers of three types of danger.

The first is being led away by false teachers and false Messiahs.

The second is great external calamities like wars, earthquakes and famines.

And the third is losing faith because of betrayal by friends.

His original disciples were in danger of all these things happening to them literally.

How blessed we are that we as twenty-first century Americans are not in danger of famine or being put on trial and condemned to death for our faith.

Many of our brothers and sisters around the world are not so lucky. Continue reading

Can You Lose Control?

Most of the time when Jesus is arguing with someone in the gospels, it’s the Pharisees. But this time, he is confronted by a group that we only see once in the Gospel of Luke: the Sadducees.

The Sadducees were a group in the upper social and economic strata of Jewish society who jockeyed for power with the Pharisees. They are known in our story today for what they don’t believe: that there is such a thing as resurrection.

It’s a cold and strange life to contemplate, living with the idea that our souls are as finite as our bodies.

The positive part of it for the Sadducees is that it makes them emphasize that what we do on Earth really matters because it is our only chance to make things right. There is no pie-in-the-sky-by-and-by for the Sadducees. You have to take responsibility for your life and your society now because there is no afterlife.

But it’s clear that at least this particular group of Sadducees in this particular moment are not exactly focused on “living your best life now.”

They are concerned only with tripping Jesus up on orthodox Torah interpretation so they can humiliate him and threaten his power and his standing with the people. And so they create this bizarre hypothetical scenario in which a childless woman has to marry a series of seven brothers as each of them dies without leaving an heir.

They think they’re so smart with their tricky question. Continue reading

Hailstorm and Hernia Protection

There is something magical about the Feast of All Saints. It’s mystical and serene and joyful and reflective.

But unfortunately I’m going to have to cut through the clouds of mental incense here for a minute and talk about…wait for it…doctrine.

Shudder.

Doctrine is frankly the last thing I want to talk about at the worst of times, much less on such a beautiful, mysterious day as All Saints Day.

But mystery is the key here. We want to have informed mystery. We want to have mystery because that is the nature of an ineffable God and an afterlife beyond our imaginings.

We do not want to have mystery simply because we are ignorant and have not done our homework.

If we’re going to celebrate All Saints Day, we need to talk about what saints are and why they get their own day all at once. Continue reading

Are You Worth It?

Today Paul writes to us in 2 Timothy: “I was rescued from the lion’s mouth.” And the lion we find stalking us in our gospel story today is pride.

Pride is such a sticky trap that I for one am always struggling with, or rather the pride-humility polarity that is so hard to balance.

We all know that being overly impressed with ourselves like the Pharisee in our story is not the way to go. But a humility that becomes twisted with self-hatred, a self-esteem crushed to the point that we believe we are worthless, does nothing to please God either.

Today we must look at our scriptures and ask the question: what is our true worthiness?

We begin with the two characters in our gospel story, the Pharisee and the tax collector. Their respective worths are even labeled by how they are named—the Pharisee is capitalized in the text and the tax collector is lower case. You can see the capitalized Pharisee and lower-case tax collector in the temple in your mind’s eye: the one standing tall and proud, the other diminished and sinking low in his grief and shame.

But consider on what the Pharisee builds his self-worth. First, it is by comparing himself to others.

The first words out of his mouth are, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.”

He places himself in a hierarchy against other people and gives thanks that he ranks higher by virtue of not having committed these notorious sins.

And then he values himself for the deeds he has done. He proclaims before God and all the other people in the temple praying, “I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.” The Pharisee can point to a list of the sins he is not guilty of and the good works he has accomplished and count himself on solid ground before God.

Except it is not solid ground at all. Continue reading

How to Be an Unjust Vessel of Grace

Our epistle today from 2 Timothy tells us that “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.”

That does sound like Paul, doesn’t it?  Bless his heart.

You can practically hear him harrumph at the end of that.  Paul can be a great theologian when he’s not getting too hung up on gender roles, but he does get a wee bit stuffy and uptight-sounding from time to time.

The word “inspired” comes from roots connected to the word “breath.”  The breath of God, the wind of the Holy Spirit, can blow through any verse of scripture and breathe new life into it, but it is up to us to open our hearts and minds to that inspiration by applying our holy gifts of creativity and imagination to these old stories that we have heard a thousand times before.

Take for example our gospel lesson, the story of the widow and the unjust judge that Luke tells us Jesus related to teach us about the need to pray always and not give up heart.

The widow convinces the unjust judge to change his mind and grant her justice because of her annoying persistence.

Whom do we usually cast in the role of the unjust judge?

God. Continue reading

Build a House Inside The Problem

Last week we talked about when Jesus was having a bad day.  Today we begin with the Israelites in the Book of Jeremiah, who are having a bad century.

Jeremiah is speaking to a people who have been utterly decimated by Babylon.  They have been invaded, lost the war, and been carted off to exile in a foreign land.

They have lost friends and family members in the siege of Jerusalem.  Their last memory of their homeland is of their beautiful temple lying in smoking ruins, fading slowly into the distance behind them as they are dragged away.

They are beaten, humiliated, devoid of hope.

Now Jeremiah writes to them, and he’s writing to everyone, from whomever is still alive among the leadership down to the common people: “These are the words of the letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem to the remaining elders among the exiles, and to the priests, the prophets, and all the people, whom Nebuchadnezzar had taken into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon.”

This is a people hurting and embittered.  They are desperate to hear that even now God is stirring up God’s wrath, ready to rain down fire and destruction on Babylon and rescue God’s beloved people to bring them home.

What they hear is totally shocking and jarring. Continue reading