Category: Dialog

Jesus & the Super Short Sermon that Almost Got Him Killed

— *ALMOST* —
Sermon for St. Andrew’s, Madison, February 3, 2019. Here are the readings!

My children fancy themselves experts of sermons. To be fair, they have had a lot of experience. But also, to their mind, the secret to sermons is not especially complicated. When asked what makes for a good one, they won’t hesitate to tell you: “The shorter the better.” Perhaps their wisdom resonates with you.

Now, I don’t want to mislead you. I have no intention of satisfying my kids’ high standard for preaching this morning. Instead, I want to look with you at the exception that proves the rule, the mystery of Jesus’ super short first sermon to his hometown of Nazareth, by the end of which the people are ready to throw him off a cliff.

“Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” That’s it. Nine words. One sentence. Well, that and a couple of somewhat hostile off-the-cuff remarks made in the receiving line. “Pretty words, preacher,” the local folk say, but it is by no means clear they mean this as a compliment. The next minute it’s, “Off with his head!” The response is as sudden as it is confusing because, per my kiddos, it shouldn’t be happening – he preached for less than five minutes, even counting the addendum! What exactly went wrong? This is important. If we can’t find consensus and peaceable agreement around even the shortness of sermons, what hope is there for anything or anybody in this mad, mad world in which we live?

So what did go wrong? I’ll confess, if I’ve learned anything about preaching in twelve years of doing it, it’s there’s no telling or predicting what folks sometimes hear, much less get upset about. On the other hand, the Spirit also has a regular habit of helping people hear things and opening our hearts in ways more edifying than the preacher ever intended or knows. That’s a grace and gift of God. All that is to say I don’t know  what went wrong for Jesus that day. Peter’s first sermon wasn’t much longer and featured that masterfully poetic opening – “we’re not drunk!” – and over three thousand people were converted. Life, it seems, is not always fair.

I figure the best we can do as far as this particular preaching mystery is concerned is explore the surroundings, some details. Details like Nazareth, the hometown that gives the preacher problems. Not surprising, really. After all nobody does paternalism quite like parents! Familiarity can be an unforgiving filter through which to try to speak a new thing. Details like the particular words Jesus claims for his own with that super short sermon: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” This scripture, the one he’s fulfilling, comes from Isaiah, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

But wait a minute, what’s wrong with that? It’s not original, maybe, but it’s not plagiarism, either. He cited his source. Maybe there’s something else… Good news to the poor? Sounds fine to me. Release to the captives? Politically complicated, maybe, but I’m not opposed in principle. Recovery of sight to the blind? Absolutely. Physically and metaphorically, both. Let the oppressed go free? Yes! Again, working out the particulars will no doubt require some effort, but nothing we can’t and shouldn’t get behind. To proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor? Sure. But what does that mean? Isn’t proclaiming the Lord’s favor just a flowery expression for all that comes before it?

Weirdly, no. “The year of the Lord’s favor” is a phrase familiar to Jesus’ first listeners, and it has some baggage. I’m not saying enough to kill a preacher over, but it’s worth a second look.

The year of the Lord’s favor refers to the year of Jubilee. The Jubilee was the year in Hebrew Scripture, occurring after seven sets of seven years – every fifty years – in which the people were told to hit the reset button. Debts were forgiven, slaves were freed, and property rights were returned to previous owners. Physical forgiveness of actual debts. If you had lost your future to a string of bad decisions, today it would be returned to you. If you had cost someone you loved their livelihood by the choices you’d made, today they would be restored. If you had cheated your neighbor and not gotten caught, this day of Jubilee would come as both the reminder and judgment that illicit gains could only take you so far.

So Jubilee spoke freedom but also a critique of the game people so often turn life into. Jubilee built on the logic of Sabbath, that once a week rest that temporarily paused human striving and remembered the God of creation, actively deferring one’s sense of identity, belonging, and value to God. Both Sabbath and Jubilee call the People of God back to their true identity and trust in God. Sabbath and Jubilee practiced the trust the people had learned through 40 years of desert wandering, the Exodus from Egypt, when God fed them manna in the wilderness, that daily bread that could feed them, but could only be kept for a day, before the maggots spoiled it. Do you remember? It had to be gathered again each new day. The same daily bread Jesus tells his disciples to pray for. One day at a time. Forming lives of living trust in the living God. Jubilee is the giant reset button to our every effort to live this life not mindful of our daily dependence on and relationship to the living God who loves us. Jubilee is an invitation to trust God with our lives and put down every way of being in this world that takes out mistrust of God on our neighbors by fear, exploitation, and violence.

It’s honest and important to note that scholars aren’t at all sure Israel ever actually observed the Jubilee; only that Scripture records God telling Israel to observe the Jubilee. So Jubilee isn’t so much an insight into Israel as an insight into the God of Israel. Jubilee reveals God’s heart and desire for God’s people and their common life together. In God’s heart and desire, there is forgiveness of heavy debts. In God’s heart and desire, there is mercy for stupid choices and bad luck alike; there is remedy for injustice. In God’s heart and desire, there is an open-handed posture to which God’s people are invited, one that models that all things come from God and so are gifts of God, intended for the glory of God and the building up of God’s people. In God’s heart and desire, most of all, there is that deep trust of God. Because the people trust God, the people can give back and share even the things the laws say they own. Because God’s people belong to God, they learn that they belong to one another, too. It is into this celebration, this self-revelation of God — bizarre to us and to them – that Jesus enters and self-identifies. Jesus is perpetual, embodied Jubilee. Not every fifty years, but always. Here, in his person, and in the community he gathers, the people called ‘church,’ of which Christ is the head and for which Luke is glad to offer extended details in the sequel to his gospel, The Acts of the Apostles. Buy your copy today! Jubilee in his presence. Not every fifty years, but always. “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

There are lots of places in the Christian life where love of God and love of neighbor connect, overlap, and intersect; Jesus’ short sermon is one of those important places. Jesus names the ways relative categories like status, success, possessions, and positions – social, political, even religious – make it hard to remember to trust; make it hard to be honest about our need of God and our neighbors. In other words, what we celebrate as love is often self-interested and deeply in need of healing. There’s a reason why they chased him to the edge of the cliff. But to willingly forget our need of God and our neighbor – to forget that our life and death is with our neighbor – is to forget what it is to be made in the image of God; it is to forget both who we are as God’s children and the generous, abundant life to which God calls God’s children. It is easy to forget. We gather today and as often as we gather to remember and be re-membered. In Jubilee, in Jesus, God resets the score and invites us to reimagine the game we thought we were living as one of being held by, rooted in, and made to share the love God makes known to us in Jesus.

The name for the people so gathered and called is ‘church,’ and our life begins around this table where the one whose life is Jubilee calls us to be present to his presence in our midst. Lord Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, help us meet your presence with our own unguarded lives, today, right now, and always.


5 Books that Help Me Live the Others

I recently read a book that was mostly lackluster, but with a few gems thrown in. It was a little bit of a treasure hunt. One of the gems I took away was the idea of an organization having “core books.” Core books are just like core values but, you know, with covers and titles and pages. You can put them on shelves and/or check them out from a library. From what I gleaned, these are books to which an organization periodically returns, and to which an organization regularly looks, as it seeks to flourish and grow, as it becomes itself more and more.

It strikes me that core books are probably like core memories; that is, you don’t choose them so much as you look back and recognize later the guiding role they’ve played in your organization or community’s life and thought. One day you look up and discover that these books have stuck with you and left their mark in ways that others haven’t.

As I stumbled on the core books phenomenon, a part of me kept reading, but another part of me was already compiling a list (of course!). It was either personal or organizational, I couldn’t decide. Maybe both. But it was clear that I have a list or, rather, a list has me. It was equally clear that the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer are so foundational as to not count for the list. A good list would describe my community’s (and my own) commitments and habits of engagement with the Bible and the BCP. In other words, these are the books the other books (the ones on the list) must help me live.

Without further ado, here’s what I’ve come up with (so far):

The Inner Game of Tennis (Timothy Gallwey)
It really is about tennis. This book guides the questions I identify as useful and my conviction that there is wisdom in the room; also, I lean on it to hold in front of me the importance of wholeness, attention, and trust.

Silence and Honey Cakes (Rowan Williams)
Rowan Williams’ brief engagement with the early Church is continually echoing in my heart, challenging my assumption that I know what is real, or at least that I’m very good at being present to it, insisting on life that remembers ‘my life and death are with my neighbor,’ and implicitly recalling St. Francis de Sales: “Be yourself, and be that well.”

Child of Mine (Ellyn Satter)
I’ve written at length extrapolating from this wonderful book here and here. It’s a book on childhood nutrition and eating that inadvertently echoes a lot of The Inner Game of Tennis, but in a greater practical depth. I go to it in reflecting on responsibility, roles, and trust.

Life Together (Dietrich Bonhöffer)
A spiritual classic whose opening lines haunt me, as does his conviction in it that our ideas for community destroy community. With this comes his subsequent insistence that forgiveness is the work. From here I often springboard into the writings of Jean Vanier on life and community. On this branch of the tree, too, would be Brother Roger’s writings for the Taizé community.

Bossypants (Tina Fey)
I am tempted to put the overtly faith-based Improvisation by Sam Wells in this place, but honestly most of his (amazing) work there is also here, in Tina Fey, and it’s funnier while also being remarkable in its own right. The commitment to YES AND is fundamentally a question of friendship, mission, pneumatology, and gifts, all rolled into one. I find in improvisation practices to grow in the themes represented in all of the above.

There it is! A core book list. My first crack at it, anyway. What’s core books make your list?

Epiphany Evangelism

Call me a liturgical geek, but I was VERY EXCITED that Epiphany landed smack dab on a Sunday this year. I love Epiphany, and so often we have to blow right past it for Jesus’ Baptism, or something not-nearly-as-fun. But this year, we got everything! Magi! Camels! Fleeing in the Night! Narcissistic tyrants oddly and […]

Crusty Christian History

In the adult forum, we are reading Tom Ferguson (AKA Crusty Old Dean)’s overview of Episcopal Church History. I have really enjoyed this, and I believe the congregation has as well. In my experience, learning about Church History is both comforting (see? All these current fights are nothing new!) and upsetting (OMG! The Church has […]

Christmas trifecta

My first Christmas as a solo rector has come and gone. I thought to myself, whilst collapsed on the sofa after the Christmas morning service was over, and I was safely ensconced in flannel PJs, wrapped in a wooly blanket, “Wow. Why I am so tired?” It’s because Christmas is a forking lot of work. […]

Knitting Prophets

The Christmas Sermon Sprint in 2018 is by no means as arduous as it was last year, when Christmas had the nerve to fall on a Monday. (Really, WHO ALLOWS THESE THINGS.) The near-universal panic among ChurchEmployed Folk last year, trying to figure out what to do with Advent IV, plus Christmas Eve services was […]

The Promise of Fire: A Homily for the Baptism of Harold Isaac David Mowers

Here are the readings for Dec 16, 2018, Advent III, Year C.
Good morning! My name is Jonathan Melton. I am the chaplain at St. Francis House, the Episcopal Student Center at UW-Madison. (Go Badgers!) I am blessed to call Fr. Dave not only my colleague in this diocese, but also my dear friend. It’s a joy to be invited to be with you this morning, to share the 3rd Sunday of this Advent season, to be present to young Harold Isaac David’s baptism into the Body of Christ, and to worship the living God with you today.

I have a trivia question / favor to ask. Does anyone know the fancy Latin name this Sunday goes by? I’m pretty sure I can say it right, but I want someone else to say it first. Gaudete Sunday. Pink candle Sunday. The “we’re more than halfway home to Christmas” Sunday. Rose Sunday. Rejoice Sunday. Joy Sunday. Lemme ask you, if you got put in charge of setting aside one Sunday a year given over to joy, and they stuffed that Sunday full of scriptural references to joy, like today’s readings, say… Zephaniah: “Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart.” Canticle 9 from Isaiah: “Cry aloud, inhabitants of Zion, ring out your joy.” Philippians, Paul, exhorting the church: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.” And then they told you to pick a biblical character, a mascot, if you will, for the day, a person who personifies every aspect of joy, you’d go with John the Baptist, too? Amirite?

Who wouldn’t go with John? It’s not really close, is it? That joyfully, itchy camel hair. Those joyfully crunchy insect appetizers. Scratching, crunching, joyfully pointing fingers, and yelling, “You brood of vipers!” Charming those around him just comes naturally to John.

No, no, no! What is going on here??

When John bursts onto the scene today it’s like a Christmas pageant gone awry. All the other characters are in place, know their parts, are wearing perfect and coordinated costumes made by their mothers by hand. Conscientiously whispering their lines under their breaths. It’s all so well choreographed, each motion expertly fitted for the one before and after. And then, the performance. A hush. Lights dim, music starts, dramatic, sentimental, sweeping. But then this one rogue sheep decides he’s had enough…NO, I will NOT stand idly in the fields. Suddenly, he’s on his feet. A teacher calls out to him, but he does not hear it. It’s not his fault the director has unjustly miscast him AGAIN and, for his part, the injustice will not stand. He was every bit as Joseph as Billy was in auditions. But what can he do? His friends are already in the place of the shepherds, standing out in their fields. The Holy Family is taken, too. What’s left? Hmm. YES. It dawns on him. A prophet! He stands up, sheep skin turned camel hair, now hanging from his shoulders. No more will he be silent. A voice! He marches toward center stage, tripping and pushing over toddling animals, who fall and tear their costumes. “FIRE!” he shouts. “FIRE!” The director stands dumbstruck, scanning the scene, searching in vain for some semblance of order. It’s too late. Children are screaming. Mary faints and nearly drops the baby. What, in God’s Name, is going on?

“I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people. That’s right. This is John’s Good News. Merry not-quite Christmas. This is John being joyful.

So this is the question we are given today: what does fire have to do with joy?

I don’t know about you, but I’m used to it going the other way. Fire as punishment. Here, there’s room for that sense, too, potentially, but even the wheat in the granary gets baked into bread eventually, according to John. The fire is not just for the bad girls and boys. Fire is for everyone.

It’s funny, because for us fire is so quickly hellfire. But there are alternative interpretations in Scripture. In fact, fire has something of a storied history in the Bible.

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light (fire)”; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.

Fire can signal a new creation.

What else do we know about fire? Where else does it pop up in the biblical narrative?

Think fire that came to Moses in the bush that burned but was not destroyed; think fire, that great column that lit up the nights, by which God led the People of Israel out of their slavery in Egypt, into the Land of Promise, so that the night and the day might be both alike, that fire which anticipates the realms of angels; think fire as the Spirit descended on Mary, sparking the flame of the Church whose head is Christ, only Son of the Father – admittedly, this fire is implied, not stated outright, but the earliest pictures drawn by the earliest Christians show Mary inside a flame, carrying the presence of God and, think back to Moses, yet not consumed; think fire that formed as flame and fell on the heads of Jesus’ friends as they stood there, in his absence, locked for fear behind closed doors. Pentecost! The Holy Spirit birthing, breathing, life of the kind and quality we share by virtue of our baptism. Think even the flames of the New Fire stoked at the Easter Vigil, in which we celebrate, we remember, we enter into the death and resurrection of Jesus.

Fire, not first as our punishment, but – throughout the resounding witness of Scripture – first as God’s presence. Fire as good news.

He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.

If you’ll humor me, turn to page 285 of your Prayer Book, the Easter Vigil, the night before Easter morning, the heart of our baptism, at which the New Fire is lit. See the three-fold response sung by the deacon as the flame is introduced in procession before the Assembly:

First, the fire, “The Light of Christ,” the deacon sings. Then…

Rejoice now.
Rejoice and sing now.
Rejoice and be glad now.

Do you see it? The response of the People of God to the fire, to the presence of God, is joy. As Christmas announces and Easter confirms, the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness does not overcome it. In the words of John Wesley: “The best of all is, God is with us.”  Rejoice.

Now, I realize this account of the fire risks ruining the mainstream idea of faith. Ask even the non-religious on the UW campus what religion is for and they’ll tell you, almost to a person: faith is for making you a better person. So fire is for threatening you into being a better person. But no, the Christian faith is for making us truer, not better, and the truth begins with the news that we have not been forsaken by God but that God is with us and for us and we know the face of this presence in Jesus. Canticle 9 again. “Surely, it is God who saves me. I will trust in him and not be afraid….the great one in the midst of you is the Holy One of Israel.” We discover who we are as we discover ourselves as beloved of God and together in Christ. Our task is to be present to the One who has promised to be present to us in and through the love of Jesus.

We who have been baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus touch fire; like Moses, like Mary, the presence of God does not consume us. But as Martin Luther liked to say, “We are baked into one cake with Christ.” What burns away, what is challenged as chaff, are our other stories about ourselves – failures, successes, insecurities, and fears, and God knows we have some – that get in the way of, distract from, or otherwise challenge the truth of this promise: “You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever.”

Harold Isaac David, we’re about to pray this fire on you, on us again. Burning bush, new creation, power of God, light to lighten our every darkness. You will be baked with us into the one cake of Christ. Your baptism will open us again to this fire and these familiar promises by which each of us and all of us together are reminded that God’s love is the most true thing about us. With God’s help, we will do our best to help you remember this, too. So without knowing it yet, you have asked us to reexamine our trust in this love, to turn our backs on false stories and every practice that endorses them, to recommit ourselves to the love of God made known to us in Christ Jesus. In a world in which it is so easy to feel overwhelmed, lost, and alone, your baptism into the death and resurrection of Jesus this morning becomes for us this wonderful reminder and shaping promise: The best of all is, God is with us.


Advent Is Coming! And There It Goes…

Happy (liturgical) new year! For those of you, dear readers, who come from less liturgically focused traditions, the season of Advent encompasses the four Sundays before Christmas and prompts us to prepare for Christ’s coming as a baby into our world. It’s officially the start of the next yearly rotation of liturgical seasons. And I find this season fascinating, because it’s both the beginning and the end. It prepares us for Christmas, specifically to recognize that when Christ arrived bodily into this world, he was both the savior (big responsibility) and a defenseless, helpless infant (itty bitty operating capacity).

But Advent also points to the end. And yeah, I mean like that crazy guy on the corner with ‘the end is near’ on a sandwich board, end of the world type stuff. Advent also prompts us to prepare ourselves and be vigilant for that. Like the story of the ten bridesmaids in Matthew’s gospel, we don’t know when Christ will come into this world again, so we need to keep alert. And Advent helps us with that, but for me it’s also a reminder that the encounter with Christ changes everything. Christ as a baby changes everything. Christ will come again with angels and loud trumpet calls and everything will change.

Did I mention that I’m fascinated by Advent? But I’m also really bad at it. I’m not usually in the groove of Advent until the third or fourth Sunday. And then it’s basically over and we’ve got twelve days for the Christmas celebration. Yay! And I’m that jerk who will insist on saying “Happy Advent” while everyone else is fighting about “Merry Christmas,” but I’ll start saying “Merry Christmas” on the 25th of December and I’ll keep saying it until the 6th of January, while everyone else is like “what is this guy doing? Christmas is over…”

So that’s (probably) the end of the didactic part of today’s blog…

Lots of updates from me with the new (liturgical) year: Some of you following along at home have been tracking that I finished up with my Army training a couple of months ago. So that’s cool because now I’m a qualified Army medic and I can report to my unit, which is armored and that means that I’m working with the guys who operate the tanks. That’s really cool.

Since I’m done with training, I also got a new tattoo. I had been wanting some kind of semicolon tattoo, but I didn’t know quite how I would go for it. But when I was in San Antonio for training, one of my instructors had this ;IGY6 tattoo and he explained it to us and it was like a light bulb for me. I knew right away that that was how I would do my semicolon tattoo. So I think that’s pretty cool too.

The last update before I start doing my reflective bloggy thing is that I got a new job! Since part of the requirements now for Army medics is to pass the National Registry of Emergency Medical Technician’s test, I am a certified EMT. So I decided to take that and go work on an ambulance. The entry level job for EMTs is what’s called BLS/Interfacility transfer. It’s kinda like being a glorified medical taxi. We can transfer medically stable patients from one hospital to another, or we can take old folks from their nursing home to the clinic for an appointment (in cases where they need the ambulance because they can’t sit up in a wheelchair), and we can take discharged patients home if they’re unable to drive themselves or go in a wheelchair for whatever reason.

Some people don’t like working interfacility because it’s not exciting, or you see the same thing over and over. Meanwhile I think it’s important because everyone has dignity. I think this is important work because we can provide care for someone who just went through one of the worst days of their life, and get them to where they need to go for continued care. What sticks with me is that we also transfer mental health patients. Sometimes that’s tough for me because I still need to recognize that these patients are worthwhile and they still have dignity and I’m just tired, I’m not actually frustrated at them when it’s the third or fourth mental health patient in a row that we’re transporting.

These people are still worthwhile. It’s still a privilege for me to provide care and take them to where they need to go.

Take for example the guy that I transferred the other day. I’ll call him K. We got the call for K because he had been in the emergency department too long and he needed to be admitted at a different facility, a facility that could actually provide care for him. Walking in there, all I knew was that K was on a transfer hold, so more than likely he had been suffering from what we call “suicidal ideation.” So whether or not he attempted it, he had told someone he was thinking about killing himself.

And the sad fact is that this guy was too easy to write off. He was anxious and depressed, he had a history of mental health issues, he was a drug user… too easy. But when I walked in, I saw a memorial tattoo on his right arm. It was the boots and the rifle with the helmet perched on top. And the helmet had a unit patch on it. 1st Cav. This guy was a tanker. And suddenly it was like K was one of my guys.

As we got rolling in the ambulance, I was getting K’s info for my report. Part of the report included his destination, which I knew because we were transporting him, but I decided to check with him to see whether he knew. He didn’t. In fact, he had been unaware that he would be transferred that night at all. The last he had been told, the nursing staff was going to look into what kind of options he had, and then get back to him to see what he wanted to do. That never happened and instead, my partner and I showed up all of a sudden and said we were there to take him away. And as I tried to explain the situation to him, he asked whether he was going to a locked mental health unit and I had to tell him the truth. Yes. He was going to a locked unit.

Somewhere in there the mental floodgates opened and he started telling me everything. About the caseworkers who didn’t help him, the troubles he had getting treatment at the VA, about the ways his mind played tricks on him and made him not be able to trust people. He said that he’s tried to kill himself so many times, in so many ways and it hasn’t worked and he didn’t know why.

So I showed him my tattoo. I told him that I got it for him. Because I didn’t want him to be a statistic of veteran suicide. He took one look at it and told me that he loves a semicolon because there was some song about how there’s always more to see after a semicolon and people’s lives are like that; that every time you encounter someone, there’s always going to be something more to see. He said that every time you look for that something more that you come away changed.

When we dropped K off at his destination hospital, I shook his hand. I told him to take care of himself. To keep pushing and get to the place where he needs to be. He thanked me and said that after the ambulance ride tonight, he was feeling some real hope again. He told me that we both were going away changed that night and said I should remember that.

He was right. He was absolutely right.

Meeting with K changed everything. Meeting with Christ changes everything. Are we not called to seek the face of Christ everyday, everywhere, and in everyone? So is everyday Advent?

Forgive me, dear reader, I wax too poetical. But I hope that you see my point. I firmly believe that Christ shows up as one of the least, the last, or the lost (like Matthew 25:31-46). I believe that we see him every day, but most days we don’t recognize him. But in the same way that Advent points to, any encounter with Christ’s divinity can change everything.

Who’s who in the Ancient World

I am well aware that Advent stirs up (ha!) in me the same passion that is sparked by the sports ball, or cute animals. in other people.  When Family Feud asks what the top ten things that provoke emotional tears are, “struggling mightily for justice and right relationship despite great odds!” is not usually up […]

Good News and…Fire?

Here are the readings for Advent II, 2018 (Year C).
Preachers are supposed to be carrier pigeons of Good News. But by now you’ve already figured out that today’s scriptures are full of dubious looking “Good News.” I’m not saying it’s not Good News, I’m just saying it all sounded painful to me. Malachi, perched at the end of the Christian Old Testament, at the end of the beginning – standing therefore in maybe the most Advent position imaginable, waiting, watching, proclaiming –  promises a refiner’s fire, gift of God to purify each and every one of us. Oh boy. Just what I wanted for Christmas. Then, Luke’s gospel, recalling Isaiah, proclaims the return of the cosmic chiropractor, making crooked things right, so that the cracked patches of individual pavement we’d like to call our individual lives can be made again into the way of the Lord. Realignment as Good News?

And not just our individuals lives, but our communal and religious lives, too. After all, Jesus is very much in keeping with the Jewish prophetic tradition before him when he challenges the religious leaders with respect to the ways they distort God’s intention, sometimes on purpose, sometimes without even trying. That’s just to say, God knows things get twisted.

But the Chiropractor’s coming! There’s your Good News. The high will be brought low. The low brought high. Not for the sake of the exalting or humbling but for the sake of the road’s restoration: prepare ye the way of the Lord. Call it judgment if you want to, but the bottom-line is that potholes spoil a good parade. Smooth out the streets. Prepare for the Presence. Let everyone with a lamp to light keep it lit in anticipation of the coming Christ. From every corner of our holy texts today the Advent promise is that things that have forgotten what they’re for will be reminded and, in the reminding, be made whole.

There are parables that have warned us about Good News like this. Jesus, telling the story of vineyard workers who forgot that they’d been hired by the vineyard owner. They didn’t exactly forget. They adapted to their situation and then preferred their adaptation. They’d replaced waiting for the owner’s return with hoping that the owner might never return, justifying all kinds of exploitation and violence, toward other people, toward the land, by their hope. They were accommodated to crookedness. No, it’s not like they forgot, exactly, but more that they buffeted their lives with busyness and other things expressly designed, sometimes, to make it harder to remember. Maybe because there’s profit to be made in the forgetting. Maybe because it’s painful to wait for another when the wait seems long. In any case, they’ve long since grown ambivalent, if not hostile (and sometimes downright hostile), to anything that would change the status quo. Question: do other things distract us from remembering or does remembering distract us from the other things? It’s a question of where you start, I guess, or where you have in mind to go.

I recently read, in a birding memoir of all things, this remarkable observation. Dan Koeppel writes, “I found myself wondering how much of what we end up doing – or being – is inevitable, and how much is choice?…Most of us have met that moment where we suddenly realize the things that we once sought are now falling into a different order of priorities. Sometimes, we have to find a way to change our lives, to re-embrace that which seems to be vanishing. Other times, we simply abandon our dreams.”

We forget who we are. What we’re for.

Sometimes, to remember, we have to find a way to change our lives, to re-embrace that which seems to be vanishing. That sounds so very Advent. So very Malachi to God’s People. So very John the Baptist on the river’s edge.

What John the Baptist was doing on the river’s edge was proclaiming a baptism of repentance, for the forgiveness of sins. Repentance means to change one’s mind, which is another way of saying, I think, that repentance is the ability to be surprised by God. “Once I was sure that God’s love meant only X, Y, and Z. But look, a new thing! Who knew?” You still get the full force of the mind-changing word, but I hope this take on repentance gets us past all the turn and burn characterizations to which the word is so often prone. Most of all, I hope you see that if repentance is the ability to be surprised by God, you can only exercise this ability by tending with your life to the presence of God. This is why repentance, for Christians, is ongoing. It’s only partly because we stubbornly turn our backs on God from time to time. It’s just as much or more about the reality that God isn’t static. God moves! Behold, a Savior is born of Mary in Bethlehem!

When was the last time you were surprised by God?

John the Baptist proclaims a baptism of repentance, which is a turning, an attuning, like a flower turning to face the sun that soars across the sky; is a turning that sometimes gets reduced to moralism, see the naughty/nice list referenced by insipid crooners on your radio dial this time of year, but true repentance names a greater turning, a careful tending to light and life. So Advent measures time in candles and prayers and songs and silence. For a few pregnant weeks, we make a clock of these things. So it follows that the baptism of repentance proclaimed by John is the farthest thing from an exercise in should-ing or shaming: it is the reorientation of the heart toward what is real and true and lasting. Repentance is relational attention, the changed and changing understanding of one who lives in a relationship of love with God.

The repentance – and the surprise – in Luke’s gospel today is that the new thing God is doing doesn’t start with the list of the pompous and powerful that precedes the introduction of John. In fact, it’s almost like we get a comprehensive people and places where the new thing is not beginning. Emperor Tiberius? Nope. Pontius Pilate? Try again. Herod the ruler of Galilee? Not there, either. The ruler of Iturea and Trachonitis? Getting colder. Lysanius, ruler of Abilene? Sigh. Oh, I know. We’re in church. It must be the religious folks. The high priests! Annas and Caiaphas. No, not them. But there, in the wilderness, you’ll have to turn to see him, John. Proclaiming the baptism of repentance, of turning toward God and so away from the kingdoms that make it harder to remember.

Sometimes, if you want to see where God is moving, watch the news. See who’s making headlines. Then, turn away. Look elsewhere. Maybe to the sidelines, but maybe in the opposite direction. Prepare ye the way of the Lord. This, after all, is what we’re for. It’s a vocation we share with John. The high will be brought low. The low brought high. Call it judgment if you want to, but the bottom-line is that potholes spoil a good parade. Prepare for the presence. The promise of Advent is that things that have forgotten what they’re for will be reminded and, in the reminding, be made whole.

As it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah,
“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth;
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.'”