Sunday, November 27, 2005

Advent 2: Songs of Exile

My sermon for Advent 2 is featured on the Episcopal Church's "Worship that Works" site. Here's the link:

Songs of Exile

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Advent 1B: Remembering the Future

One of the most popular Christmas specials of recent years has been the dramatization of Truman Capote's "A Christmas Memory". The very title of that wonderful program tells us something important about the season we have just entered. Advent and Christmas are seasons of memory. All of us have memories of Advents and Christmases past. I hope we remember how the liturgy of the church changes at the beginning of Advent. One of the great advantages of our traditions as Episcopalians is that worship involves our senses. At the beginning of Advent we see that green gives way to purple; we notice the Advent wreath and its four candles, knowing that when all four are lit Christmas is finally at hand; we smell the Advent greenery on the altar and Advent wreath; we hear the lovely, haunting Advent hymns -- "Rejoice, rejoice, Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel".

But I'm afraid that our memories are more shaped by the popular media than by the traditions of the church.

Perhaps one artist above all seems to have caught the popular imagination with his scenes of American life, especially his depictions of Christmas and other holidays, and that artist is Norman Rockwell. I remember seeing a Rockwell print that would be for many the ideal scene of Christmas festivity.

It depicts an older man and two boys (apparently a father and his sons) are dragging an evergreen, snow still clinging to it, into a well-appointed living room. A fire burns in the fireplace, and a woman and young girl (surely the mother and daughter) clap their hands together in delight.

Well, as Yogi Berra once remarked, "Nostalgia ain't what it used to be".

The "Christmases past" of most "baby boomers" were urban or suburban in nature. We had artificial trees or perhaps dried up sticks of trees we bought from Boy Scouts in the church parking lot.

The message of much popular media seems to be that we should try to remember a past that never was or at least was not our past.

Like us, the writer of Isaiah 64 struggled with the problem of memory. The memories recalled in Isaiah 64 are not of a "Norman Rockwell Christmas"; they are better, truer, and deeper memories. They are memories of the mighty acts of God. The writer remembers a God who came down from heaven and at whose presence the mountains quaked. Isaiah recalls a God who "kindled brushwood" and caused the waters of the earth to steam and boil.

The writer of Isaiah 64 did not have personal memories of these things. When the writer of Isaiah 64 spoke of the mountains quaking at God's presence he was alluding to Israel's encounter with God at Sinai. That was an event in the distant past, something which no one alive had personally witnessed. And yet Israel remembered, for the event was embedded deeply in their corporate memory and that memory was kept alive in their stories.

More than likely, the author of Isaiah 64 was an exile who had returned to Jerusalem about fifty years after Babylon had invaded and burned and destroyed Israel's holy city. But the prophet and the refugees who returned from Babylon had kept alive the memory of what their God had done; they had told the stories of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob; of Sarah and Rebecca and Rachel. They had recounted Israel's great deliverance at the Red Sea and of the awe their mothers and fathers had felt before Sinai when Moses delivered God's great precepts: "I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt... you shall have no other Gods before me." The memories of Israel's God were just as real to the prophet, as if had seen them with his own eyes. For they were a part of Israel's corporate memory. In fact, they were what gave existence and identity to Israel.

And so they gathered, prophet and people, amidst the ruins of Jerusalem, among the rubble of the Temple to tell the story of the God who had done "awesome deeds that we did not expect". They gathered to remember and to wait. To tell the story surrounded by the destruction Babylon had visited upon Israel and its capital took courage and boldness. It could even be seen as an act of defiance. It was counter-cultural. To remember what God has done in the past is to hope for and anticipate what God may do in the future.

We gather in our warm homes and churches, not in the ruins of the Temple. But our world, too, often seems a wasteland, a land in which we have forgotten God and God has forgotten us. Like Isaiah and the Israelites, we gather in the cold and dark; we light candles and sing songs and tell again the story of the God who came and who comes, of that which has been and is yet to be.

Like the prophet who penned Isaiah 64 we must confess that we, too, have not seen or heard the God who made the mountains tremble, who "did awesome deeds that we did not expect". The memory of a Norman Rockwell Christmas is lovely but unreal. The memory of a God who comes down, who meets whose who "gladly do right" is very real indeed.

Like the prophet we, too, can tell the story, Israel's story, of a God who came down with majesty and fire. But we can also tell the story of a God who came with meekness and gentleness in the form of a baby.

And we can tell the story of how God comes among us even now, who "meets whose who gladly do right, those who remember [God] in their ways".

What we remember and await is not a Norman Rockwell Christmas. It is a lovely picture, but the day after we would be left with a feeling of emptiness. Instead, we wait for something infinitely better - for the skies to pour down righteousness upon those who hunger and are cold, for fire to fall upon dry and drowsy hearts, which is to say, upon us. We assemble and tell the story as we remember that which is yet to be and anticipate what has already happened -- the advent of our God.

Thanksgiving Day: Errand into the Wilderness

The feeding of the five thousand is arguably the most famous meal in western history. A meal of bread and dried fish was probably typical for first century Palestine. But even though the fare was spartan, the crowds who dined on the miraculously multiplied picnic couldn’t get enough. They even followed Jesus to the other side of the Sea of Galilee. The crowds did what crowds always do; they followed someone who gave them “bread and circuses”. And Jesus rebuked them: “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal." (John 6.26-27)

The crowds that followed Jesus into the wilderness following the miraculous multiplication of the loaves and fishes made two mistakes. First, they were seeking “the food that perishes” rather than “the food that endures for eternal life”. Secondly, they assumed that what Jesus was offering came with a price tag attached: "What must we do to perform the works of God?"

This dialogue between Jesus and the crowd in the aftermath of the feeding of the five thousand seems an odd gospel reading for Thanksgiving Day. No doubt about it -- Thanksgiving is about “the food that perishes”. Say “Thanksgiving” and my mind turns immediately to turkey and dressing, mashed potatoes and gravy, pumpkin and pecan pie. But Thanksgiving should also remind us of the pilgrims and puritans who came to the northeastern shores of North America in the seventeenth century, seeking to found a godly church in a godly commonwealth. Perry Miller, one of the greatest scholars of American puritanism, entitled one of his books Errand into the Wilderness. That’s a good way of describing what the pilgrims and Puritans were up to. It’s also not a bad way of describing the scene in today’s gospel reading. Jesus was on an errand into the wilderness and so were the crowds who followed him. But Jesus was in the wilderness to offer “the food that endures for eternal life” and the crowds were seeking the “food that perishes”.

Thanksgiving also seems to be about working hard and enjoying the rewards of our labor. The question the crowd asked Jesus, "What must we do to perform the works of God?" has an American ring to it. Sixteenth century Reformer John Calvin observed that the command to refrain from work on the Sabbath means that we should work hard the other six days! But we live in the age of “24/7”; even the 24 hours of the Sabbath seem stressful. Bill Gates famously remarked that an hour spent in church seemed to be an inefficient use of time.

Human life is mostly about seeking the “food that perishes”. It has to be. Someone once observed that we do not live by bread alone, but we don’t live very long without it, either. Like Jesus and the crowds and like the pilgrims and puritans, we, too, are on an “errand into the wilderness”. Human life is a journey through uncharted, difficult, and often dangerous territory. The constant temptation is to make it nothing but a quest for “food that perishes”. But the paradox is that if we seek only to fill our bellies, we will die of malnourishment.

Rabbi Harold Kushner tells the story of a colleague who said to a member of his congregation, “Whenever I see you, you’re always in a hurry. Tell me, where are you running all the time?” The man answered, “I’m running after success, I’m running after fulfillment, I’m running after the reward for all my hard work.” And Kushner’s colleague replied, “That’s a good answer if you assume that all those blessings are somewhere ahead of you, trying to elude you and if you run fast enough, you may catch up with them. But isn’t it possible that those blessings are behind you, that they are looking for you, and the more you run, the harder you make it for them to find you?” Kushner observed that God may have all kinds of blessing in store for us – “good food and beautiful sunsets and flowers budding in the spring and leaves turning in the fall – but we in our pursuit of happiness are so constantly on the go that God can’t find us at home to deliver them”! (Lawrence Kushner, When All You’ve Ever Wanted Isn’t Enough (New York, 1986), pp. 146-147)

Perhaps the feeding of the five thousand isn’t such a bad reading for Thanksgiving Day after all. It reminds us that life and the food that sustains life are not our accomplishment; they are God’s gift. At the end of the great Danish film Babette’s Feast, a distinguished general rises to propose a toast and says, "Man, my friends is frail and foolish. We have all been told that grace is to be found in the universe. But in our human foolishness we imagine God's grace to be limited...But we are wrong; grace is infinite. Grace demands nothing from us but that we shall await it with confidence and acknowledge it in gratitude.”

So, this Thanksgiving I encourage you to pause and remember a feast two thousand years ago in Palestine, when Jesus took and blessed and broke and gave the loaves and fishes to five thousand. The cuisine would hardly have impressed Julia Child, but it was a potent reminder that a little is enough when it is given and received with love and gratitude. Enjoy the turkey and cranberry sauce and all the other “food that perishes”, but save some room for the “food that endures for eternal life” because that’s what we really need to sustain us on our “errand into the wilderness”.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Christ the King: The Kingdom of Love

Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, in inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world... Then he will say to those at his left hand, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels...” (Matthew 25.34, 41)

“Christ is the King, O friends upraise anthems of joy and holy praise…” Thus begins a wonderful hymn by Bishop G.K.A. Bell of Chichester, England. “King” is a favorite title of Christ employed in many Christian hymns. We sing, “Crown him with many crowns, the Lamb upon his throne” or “The head that once was crowned with thorns is crowned with glory now”. And on the last Sunday in Pentecost we celebrate the Feast of Christ the King, when in addition to singing about Christ the King, we have to start thinking about what it really means to say that Jesus of Nazareth is king, and that can give us pause.

Kings and queens have mostly disappeared from modern, western countries. Oh sure, we hear a great deal about the “woes of the Windsors”, the British royal family, and it often makes for entertaining reading. But where there are kings and queens, they are usually figureheads, useful for making inspiring remarks and opening shopping centers, but having little real power. We are more comfortable, or at least familiar, with presidents and prime ministers.

However, there remains a fascination with kingship. British journalist Katharine Whitehorn attributes our fascination with kings to the popularity of fairy tales. “Whoever heard,” she asked, “of someone kissing a frog and it turning into a handsome senator?” President Jesus" just doesn't have the same ring as "King Jesus". A trendy, leftist minister once referred to Jesus as "Chairman Jesus", but that won't quite do either. Like it or not, we are stuck with King Jesus. So, on this Christ the King Sunday we are given the salutary reminder that we are subjects of a leader for whom we did not cast a vote; rather we are the subjects an absolute monarch whom we did not choose. Scary? The words “absolute monarch” bring to mind images of dungeons and royal thugs. But keep this in mind: Although we did not choose this King, he chose us. There is one law in this Kingdom and one banner waves in its skies: the law and the banner of love.

But more disturbing than the idea of kingship is the way King Jesus exercises his rule in the parable of the sheep and goats. “The king will say to those at his right hand… ‘I was hungry and you gave me food’… [but] he will say to those at his left hand, …’I was hungry and you gave me no food…’” The righteous sheep are told that they will “inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world”, but the “accursed” goats are told to “depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels”.

Applied literally and unimaginatively, this parable would seem to say that we are to give food, drink, and hospitality to everyone who asks. To deny to serve the needs of even one hungry and homeless person would seem to be justification for being sent into eternal torment.

However, note the way the king speaks and the way the sheep and the goats answer him. The king says, “I was hungry, and you gave me food.” And both the righteous sheep and the “accursed” goats reply, “When was it that we saw you hungry?” The king asks in the singular, but both the sheep and the goats reply in the plural.

We are not expected to do the work of feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, visiting the imprisoned, or healing the sick alone. We are expected to belong to communities that will exercise compassion and mercy. Does this excuse us from individual responsibility? Not necessarily; the community acts through its members, as well as corporately. Unfortunately, not only have all of us, time and time again, passed by the hungry and homeless on the streets, our churches are usually more concerned with maintenance than with mission.

Examine your check book. What percentage of your money do you spend on yourself and your family and what percentage do you give to the hungry and homeless? Examine your church’s budget, too. The great majority of churches that I know anything about give a small fraction of their money to the poor. “When the Son of Man comes in his glory” what will he have to say to us and to our churches? Christ the King Sunday is an invitation to us individually and corporately to let Christ reign in our hearts and lives by serving him in the person of the poor.

In the dark days of Stalin’s rule, British journalist Malcolm Muggeridge worked for the British newspaper, the Guardian, as a correspondent. One day while walking in the woods outside of Moscow he came across a small church and noted that someone had given the church a fresh coat of bright, blue paint. Muggeridge writes that he felt that he ”belonged to the little disused church [the painter] had embellished, and that the Kremlin with its scarlet flag and dark towers and golden spires was an alien kingdom. A kingdom of power such as the Devil had in his gift, and offered to Christ, to be declined by him in favour of the kingdom of love. I, too, must decline it, and live in the kingdom of love.” (Malcolm Muggeridge, Chronicles of Wasted Time, Vol. 1, The Green Stick (1972), pp. 226-227.)

We, too, are invited to live in the “kingdom of love”, to give to the hungry and homeless, not in order that we might sit among the sheep when the Son of Man comes in glory, but because the King (who is also the Good Shepherd) sought and found us when we were hurt and hungry and lost and alone.