Sunday, December 15, 2013

the desert shall rejoice

Advent 3, Year A, Dec. 15, 2013
All Saints’ Church

May the words I speak and the words you hear be God’s alone. Amen. 

What comes to mind when you think about deserts? Probably the first thing you picture is sand and dirt--lots and lots and lots of it, everywhere you look. Maybe you see a few shrubs and cacti here and there. The hot sun beats down as a vulture circles lazily in the sky, waiting for its next meal. Lizards watch you warily from the rocks and somewhere nearby you hear a faint rattling sound, warning you to keep away. In the distance you can hear the mournful howl of a jackal.

Deserts are dangerous places. But in today’s reading from Isaiah, the deserts are getting a makeover. Instead of dry, thirsty ground, the deserts will be a place of blooming flowers. There will be so much water that it will form pools and streams, and grass will grow along the banks. In the middle of this newly-formed oasis, a path will spring up, out of harm’s way. On this path, called the “Holy Way,” God’s people will travel in safety, knowing that not one of them will be lost, “not even fools” (v. 8). 

This makeover transforms the deserts into rich havens, places of sanctuary in a formerly dangerous environment. The vision of sanctuary, of safety from threatening forces, is written just before the people of Israel are exiled. Things are getting tense, and their enemies are approaching them on several sides. As things escalate and the Israelites are conquered, Isaiah’s vision is a source of hope that the exile will not last forever. “Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God...He will come and save you” (v. 4). 

In Isaiah’s vision, deserts are not the only things being restored. God’s people are being restored as well. Weak hands are made strong. Feeble knees (like mine) are made firm [pause]. Sight is restored to the blind, hearing to the deaf, mobility to the lame, and speech to the mute. The lame not only walk, they “leap like a deer!” (v. 6) The speechless not only talk, they “sing for joy!” (v. 6). And finally, when the “ransomed of the Lord...return...with singing... sorrow and sighing shall flee away” (v. 10). 

Some 700 or so years later, during the time of the Roman occupation, Isaiah’s vision of restoration is continued by Mary. In her vision, rulers are overthrown; the system is overturned so that those on top are “cast down” and the humbled are “lifted up” (Luke 1: 52). The rich will no longer take advantage of the poor, and the poor will no longer go hungry. Mary proclaims that God “has come to the help of his servant Israel...and remembers his promise of mercy” (v. 54). She waits expectantly for the birth of this hope in the form of her son.

Thirty or so years after Mary’s proclamation, Isaiah’s vision is echoed by Jesus himself. When John the Baptist, sitting in a jail cell awaiting his death, asks Jesus if he is “the one who is to come,” Jesus replies, “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them” (Matt 11:3, 5). In Jesus Christ, the vision of Isaiah, is being realized through the restoration of God’s people. In Jesus Christ, the vision of Mary, his mother, is being realized through his teaching the reordering of societal structure and the miracles like the ones of the fishes and loaves. 

At times it may feel as if we are still living in a desert. Most of us can’t remember a time when there wasn’t a war going on somewhere around the world. The gap between the rich and the poor in this country is rapidly increasing. Yesterday marked the one year anniversary of the shootings in Newtown, Connecticut. Since then, over 32,000 people* have died in gun-related deaths in this country. Jesus has come and gone, but where is the relief? Where are the refreshing springs in the flowery desert? Where is the path that will lead us away from all of this?  

Jesus has already shown us this path. In his life on earth he advocated for peace: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” (Matthew 5:9). Jesus taught us how we should treat those on the margins of society: for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me...just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’” (Matthew 25: 35-36). He showed us how to act toward people with whom we do not agree: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you” (Luke 6:27-28). Jesus has shown us the path; we are called to take his message to heart and follow Him. “Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Eph. 5:1-2).

These past 3 weeks we’ve heard John’s voice calling to us from the wilderness, piercing the darkness and urging us to repent, to makeover our hearts. We know we all have fallen short in many ways; it’s part of being human. We acknowledge our shortcomings every Sunday when we confess our sins together. When we say it together today, pay attention to what we’re confessing. Take it slowly and say it like we really mean it. Listen to the words of God’s forgiveness that follow. Then be strengthened for the journey in the sharing of Eucharist, Christ’s body and blood shed for us “for the forgiveness of sins” (BCP 363). 

Today, the third Sunday in Advent, is often referred to as Gaudete Sunday. Gaudete means “rejoice” and comes from verses from Paul’s letter to the Philippians: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near” (Phil 4:4-5). “But Mother Lara,” you might say, “you were just talking about deserts and our sins...that’s not exactly joyful stuff.” 

In Advent we are not just preparing to celebrate the historical event of the birth of Christ. We are also preparing our hearts for Christ’s presence today and looking to the future, when Christ will come again. We find joy in the fact that God loved us so dearly that God came to us in human form, to walk the earth in our shoes and help us to reconnect with the God with whom we had lost touch. We find joy in the many ways we see God at work in the world and in us today. And we find joy in the hope of what God will do in the future. We, like “[t]he desert[,] shall rejoice and blossom” (Isaiah 35:1). Thanks be to God!

Sound bite: "The Desert Shall Rejoice" by the Schola Cantorum of St. Peter's in the Loop, Chicago

Artwork found here


*gun deaths since the shootings in Newtown:

Gaudete Sunday:

Sunday, December 8, 2013

voices in the wilderness

Advent 2, Year A, 2013
St. George’s Chapel

May the words I speak and the words you hear be God’s alone. Amen. 

Of all the jobs in the world, probably the most hated one (even more than lawyers and tax collectors) is that of a prophet. Prophets are never satisfied; they seem to always be complaining about the status quo. They make us uncomfortable because they urge us to change. All that doom and gloom is just plain annoying, plus, some of them can be quite...what’s a nice word for it? Eccentric. 

“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness” in today’s Gospel reading is coming from a man in camel-hair clothing who subsists on a meal of insects and honey. He lives outside of town, in the “wilderness” (Matt 3:1), but the distance and his whacky appearance don’t keep people from traveling to get a glimpse of him. In fact, people are coming from all over, and what’s more, they’re actually listening to him! John is telling people that they need to repent because “the kingdom of heaven has drawn near” (Matt 3:2). 

Now when you think of the word repent, what comes to mind? I think of feeling bad or guilty for things I’ve done wrong. But repentance involves something more. To repent also means “to think differently afterwards,” to change directions, to reorient. When we repent, we don’t just say we’re sorry and continue to go along our merry way as if nothing has happened. When we repent, we are admitting that we are no longer able to live the way we once did. When we repent, we are committing to changing directions, to reorienting our patterns of thought and action. 

John was able to bring people from different backgrounds together. From near and far, people heard his call to repent, to reorient their lives. The people confessed their sins and then marked their commitment to change with the waters of baptism. 

In the Bible, prophets are not just wild, crazy people who can predict the future. A prophet’s main job is to tell us when we have gone astray and to help us to get back on track. They point the way to God. There are many prophets in the Bible: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Elijah and Elisha, to name a few. Since their time, there have been a few prophets out in the secular world, as well. Modern-day prophets include Harriet Tubman, Mahatma Ghandi, and Martin Luther King, Jr. The world lost another great prophet this past week: Nelson Mandela. 

Mandela was a voice in the wilderness of apartheid. When people on both sides were killing each other, Mandela’s words and his actions inspired change. Rather than let bitterness and resentment eat away at him while he was imprisoned for 27 years, upon his release he demonstrated compassion. His message was one of reconciliation. Reconciliation to him was not simply, “Ok, we have to work together, so let’s just make it easy and agree to do it my way.” No, reconciliation was more difficult than that. It required both sides to take the time to listen to one other. It required both sides to admit their faults and to change the way they were going to move past the pain in order to journey forward together. Was reconciliation easy? Of course not! The road to peace is a long and heavy one. But, as Mandela once said, “If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy. Then he becomes your partner.” This is what reconciliation is all about. Restoring broken relationships. 

There was yet another prophet who spoke of both reconciliation and repentance. He called out leaders for their hypocrisy and defended people on the margins (the poor, especially widows and orphans). He taught and lived a way of peace. This man was not only a prophet, he was also the Son of God. 

Somewhere along the way in our journey with God, we had grown out of touch. Christ came into the world as a person to repair the broken relationship between God and God’s people. He experienced the joy and pain, the limitations and the wonders of humanity. Through his death and resurrection, he promised forgiveness of sins and opened up for us the gates of salvation, the promise of eternal life. 

In the season of Advent, we not only prepare to remember and honor the miraculous birth of Christ, we open up our hearts to receive him in the present while we look for “his coming again with power and great glory” (BCP 342). In the next few weeks, take some time to ponder where God is calling you to repent. How is God calling you to change your outlook, to reorient your life? Which relationships in your lives could use some strengthening, some reconciliation? 

Finally, this Advent, as you await Christ, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit” (Romans 15:13).

In memory of Nelson Mandela, 1918-2013
Image found here.

Sources for information on Nelson Mandela: 

Sources for definitions:

Monday, December 2, 2013

giving thanks

St. George’s Chapel
Thanksgiving, Year C
Nov. 28, 2013

May the words I speak and the words you hear be God’s alone. Amen.

The past week and a half, my Facebook feed has been littered with thanksgiving-related posts. The range from blogs of the latest trendy recipes, to articles on the real story behind the holiday, to debates over the ethics of shopping on Thanksgiving Day. The ones that really took me surprise, however, were articles telling conservatives how to deal with their liberal in-laws and liberals how to deal with their conservative in-laws during the Thanksgiving meal. Wait a minute! This isn’t a game of survivor! Isn’t this supposed to be a time of joy and peace, when we reflect on the good in our lives and thank God for it?

The first national celebration of Thanksgiving was established by President Abraham Lincoln in 1863. Right in the heart of the Civil War, the atmosphere was anything but conducive to giving thanks. Yet this is precisely why he felt it was so important to have this celebration. That first last Thursday in November, only the northern states participated. In his Thanksgiving address, President Lincoln acknowledged the sin and brokenness that had divided the nation. He bid prayers for the widows and orphans, the wounded, and all those who had suffered in any way because of the war. Finally, he bid prayers for unity and peace, so that the nation would one day be restored. 

In the midst of the Civil War, I imagine Christians took comfort in the words of Paul, who encouraged the Philippians, “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Phil 4:6-7). If we think that Paul’s call to rejoice was too far removed from the hardships that the North and the South were facing, remember that Paul was writing to Christians in the first century, who were being persecuted and even killed for their faith. And yet, rather than lament the situations he and his fellow Christians were in, he urged them to “keep on doing the things that [they] have learned and received and heard and seen in [him]” (v. 9). Paul preached perseverance in the face of persecution. He was no stranger to persecution himself; he wrote these words from a prison cell while awaiting his execution. “Rejoice in the Lord always. Rejoice...the Lord is near” (vv. 4,5). 

Jesus promised that “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” (Matt 18:20, KJV). This is why we gather together every week and on special occasions like today. We come together to pray, rejoice, ask forgiveness, and to celebrate the Eucharist. The word Eucharist means to show gratitude, to give thanks ( Every time we break bread together we are showing gratitude for God’s Son, whose body was broken for us: “The Body of Christ, the bread of heaven” (BCP 365). Every time we break bread together we are getting a sampling of the heavenly meal: “the Body of Christ, the bread of heaven” (ibid.). Every time we break bread together we are thanking God for our abundant blessings: “The Gifts of God for the People of God. Take them in remembrance that Christ died for you, and feed on him in your hearts by faith, with thanksgiving” (BCP 364-365). 

God is with us, my friends. In response to the unconditional love and peace of God which passes all understanding, we give thanks to God every day for “the bounty that the Lord [our] God has given to [us] and to [our] house” (Deut 26:11). Not just when everything is going well. Not just when we are in church. And not just one day a year. 

Nourish yourselves for the journey with the bread of heaven broken for us. In good times and hard times, give thanks for the gift of this wild, beautiful, and unpredictable life this day and all the days to come.

(image found here)

Information about President Lincoln and the first national Thanksgiving found here.