Monday, December 14, 2015

bearing fruit

St. Thomas’ Church, Whitemarsh
Advent 3, Year C, 2015

You brood of vipers!!

John the Baptist: that wild, locust-eating, camel-clothed cousin of Jesus; he never could keep his mouth shut, could he? To be fair, my imagination probably unfairly caricatures his ranting and raving. I’m sure that he was less like a yelling caveman from the GEICO commercial and more like an Elijah or MLK, Jr. figure, a dynamic, passionate, earnest speaker who had a vision of what a righteous life was supposed to look like and called people out when they strayed from the path.

In Matthew and John’s gospels, the brood of vipers is referring to the Pharisees and priests, the elite religious leaders of the Jews. John was calling them out for taking advantage of their faithful people, of placing more emphasis on following the letter of the law than actually taking care of the people they served.

But today we hear from the Gospel according to Luke, who emphasizes God’s love for the poor, the downtrodden, the outcast. And in Luke’s version, the people who get called a brood of vipers are not religious leaders who have come just to spy on John or to see a spectacle, but people who have traveled to the wilderness to be baptized by John. Not exactly the way to win the hearts of the people who want to follow you—or so you would think. But John doesn’t want fair-weather followers. He tells them straight up that if they really want to prepare for what is coming they can’t just get baptized and then sit back on their haunches, self-satisfied. It is not enough to say they are children of Abraham, God’s chosen people; they need to show their contrition by bearing “fruits worthy of repentance” (Luke 3:8). If they are truly repentant, they will have had a change of heart and their actions from that time forward will demonstrate this change of heart. This means no more taking advantage of one another! The tax collectors can’t take extra money on top of what they are required to collect, and the soldiers can’t bribe or falsely accuse people to get more money, but should be content with the wages they earn (vv. 12-14). These actions seem to be simple, obvious things: don’t contribute to making the poor poor, but help out the people disadvantaged by the system, the same system that allows you to take more than you need.

The tax collectors and soldiers—the ones with some power over their fellow Jews—were not the only ones called out. The crowd asked John how they could prepare themselves, and he told them to share their coats and food with those who don’t have any (vv. 10-11). Even if you are not wealthy compared to those in the upper classes, you are still able to help others out.

To all of these “exhortations” the people didn’t leave dejected but responded by being “filled with expectation” (vv. 18, 15). They wondered if John might be the Messiah, the one they believed would overthrow the oppressive Romans and bring about the reign of God. But John told them that they were waiting for someone greater, someone for whom he was not even good enough to be a slave (vv. 15-16).

So what message is John telling us today? We have the advantage of knowing how the story of John and Jesus not only begins but ends. Soon after this passage, John is arrested, effectively ending his ministry, and Jesus is baptized, marking the beginning of his ministry. In his teachings, the thing that Jesus emphasized more than anything else was to love God and love our neighbor. It’s simple enough on paper but difficult to actually put into action.

Like the warning John gave the Jews he was preaching to, we too must be careful not to become complacent. If we call ourselves Christians but then ignore the needs of our neighbors—not just our literal neighbors but all children of God—then our behavior does not reflect one of true Christianity.

Judith Jones, professor of religion at Wartburg College, asserts that “Economic issues are spiritual issues. If we ignore God’s commands to practice social and economic justice, how can we claim that we love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength? If we prioritize our pleasures above our neighbors’ basic necessities, how can we claim to love our neighbors as we love ourselves?”

At our baptism, we—or people on our behalf—made promises to follow Jesus Christ, to “seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbors as [ourselves],” to “strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being” (BCP 303, 305). This means that we cannot sit idly by as our sisters and brothers suffer; everyone is called to contribute what they can to bring about the kingdom. 

We also promise that when—not if, but when—we fall short, we will “repent and return to the Lord” (BCP 304). Yes, we are made in the image of God, and reborn in the waters of baptism, but we are hardly perfect.

When John talks about Jesus coming to baptize people with the Holy Spirit and fire and to separate the wheat from the chaff, it’s easy to assume he means separating people according to their goodness. But as Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling writes in book five of the series, “the world isn't split into good people and [bad]. We've all got both light and dark inside us. What matters is the part we choose to act on. That's who we really are.”

What John is trying to convey is that in the same way that we occasionally have controlled burns of forests to allow for new growth, when Jesus comes, the parts of us that separate us from God will be burned away. All of our prejudices, anxiety, perfectionism, anger, regret—it will all be removed so that we can finally love God with all our heart, mind, and soul, and our neighbors as ourselves. This is Good News!

In this Advent season we cannot simply stand still. Like the crowd in front of John, we are called to bear fruits. We do this by remembering the vows we made at our baptism: to take care of one another, demonstrating God’s love to those around us, both stranger and friend, until the day when Jesus returns once again. 

(image found here)

Monday, November 30, 2015

we cannot wait

St. Thomas’ Church, Whitemarsh
Advent 1, Year C, 2015

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

We are fresh from spending time with family or friends, filling our bellies with delicious foods and giving thanks for the many blessings in our lives. The streets of Chestnut Hill and other neighborhoods are lit with lights and the shops and even some of our homes are decorated in preparation for Christmas. Last week radio stations began playing carols and the Philly Christmas Village opened up; it is a festive time of year, a busy time of year, a joyful time of year. 

And then we walk into church this morning and are presented with “distress among nations” and “roaring of the sea and the waves” and people fainting “from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world” (Luke 21:25-26). You might be feeling like there’s a bit of cognitive dissonance between the readings and the cheerful atmosphere. 

But if you’ve been paying attention to the news over the past two weeks, the readings don’t seem that far off target. First there were attacks in Lebanon, Iraq, and France. Then Turkey shot down a Russian plane on their border with Syria. Then there was a mortar attack at a UN base in Mali and an attack at a Planned Parenthood in Colorado Springs. In light of all these terrible events, it is very easy to relate to the “distress among nations” and “fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world” mentioned in the readings (ibid.). 

But even though they just so happen to be relevant to today, why do we have these readings? Why not read about Mary and Joseph’s encounters with angels, or at the very least their journey to Bethlehem? Why do we read about how we will see the “Son of Man coming in a cloud,” being on guard, and escaping what is to take place (vv. 27, 34, 36)? 

Advent actually is a penitential season, like Lent; that’s why in many Episcopal churches you’ll see purple or blue vestments instead of green or white. We are preparing ourselves not only for the birth of baby Jesus in the manger, but for the day when Christ returns. And the news of the past few weeks serve as a reminder that we have a lot more preparation to do.  

Speaking of preparation, Daniel and I are obviously getting very close to the arrival of our child. All during the pregnancy we have been doing our best to make ourselves ready, from making regular visits to the doctor, to rearranging our apartment to make a place for the baby to sleep, to packing a go-bag for the hospital. Thanks to the amazing generosity of the people of St. Thomas’, we are much more ready than we would be on our own. But no matter how prepared you try to get, and how ready you think you are, the baby always comes before you’ve got absolutely everything together. 

Christ came into the world the first time before Mary was ready, and certainly before the world was ready.

Madeleine L’Engle, author of A Wrinkle in Time, wrote a poem that spoke to this, called “First Coming”:

He did not wait till the world was ready,
till men and nations were at peace
He came when the Heavens were unsteady
and prisoners cried out for release.

He did not wait for the perfect time.
He came when the need was deep and great.
He died with sinners in all their grime,
turned water into wine. He did not wait

till hearts were pure. In joy he came
to a tarnished world of sin and doubt.
To a world like ours, of anguished shame
He came, and his Light would not go out.

He came to a world which did not mesh,
to heal its tangles, shield its scorn.
In the mystery of the Word made Flesh
the Maker of the stars was born.

We cannot wait till the world is sane
to raise our songs with joyful voice,
for to share our grief, to touch our pain,
He came with Love: Rejoice! Rejoice!

(From The Ordering of Love: The New and Collected Poems of Madeleine L'Engle)

Christ came into the world before it was ready, and Christ will come again before we are ready. Yet even though we can never be fully prepared, it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t prepare the way as best we can. We still need to pack our bags, we still need to plan our route to the hospital, we still need to make straight the path of the Lord. 

Amidst the strife in the world that shows we aren’t ready for Christ’s return, we come together each week to fulfill our Baptismal covenant by praying to and worshiping God, seeking and serving Christ in all persons, and striving for justice and peace among all people (BCP 305). 

This is what we do in order to prepare ourselves as best we can.  This is our hospital go-bag. This is how we keep on guard so we can celebrate not only the joy of the birth of Christ, but of his second coming.

With all of the terrible things going on in the world, it can be easy to get paralyzed by fear or to sink into hopelessness. But Jesus warns us to “be on guard so that [our] hearts are not weighed down with…the worries of this life” (v. 34). 

Believe it or not, the theme for the first Sunday in Advent is hope. The Good News I see in today’s Gospel is that in the midst of preparation in anticipation of Christ’s birth and return, our life is given meaning, is given purpose. The world will not always remain the way it is now. Evil and suffering and pain will not have the last word. At some point, “the Son of Man [will come] in a cloud with power and great glory” to restore creation (v. 27). Until that time, we must not lose hope or cower in fear but “stand up and raise [our] heads, because [our] redemption is drawing near” (v. 28). 

image found here

Sunday, November 15, 2015

the destruction of the illusion of security

St. Thomas' Church, Whitemarsh
Proper 28, Year B, 2015

Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down" (Mark 13:2).

After the Israelites escaped from slavery in Egypt and were making their way to the Promised Land, God traveled with them in a tent. When they finally made it to the Promised Land, the Israelites were able to build a proper temple in which God could reside. The temple in Jerusalem was a sign of God’s presence among the Israelites. They believed God dwelt in a sacred space within the temple, called the Holy of Holies. The Israelites felt safe knowing that God was right there with them, that God was on their side. 

Now, the stones that made up the temple were massive. They were not small like those that make up the walls of St. Thomas’, but were several feet long by several feet wide by several feet tall. They weren’t easily moved; God’s dwelling place was secure, and so the people of Israel were also secure.

But in 70 AD, the temple was destroyed by the Roman army in response to a rebellion, and any illusion of God’s divine protection vanished. As Jesus predicted, the stones were thrown down, and it seemed to dash the Israelites’ hopes, as well. I imagine they must have felt abandoned by God.

a mourner at one of the sites in Paris

The past few days have been difficult. On Thursday, 67 people were killed by a truck bomb in Baghdad, Iraq. Also on Thursday, suicide bombers killed 43 people in Beirut, Lebanon. And on Friday night, 132 people were killed in multiple suicide bombings and shootings in Paris, France. The last one, in particular, seems to have struck a chord throughout the world. Like the Israelites in the aftermath of the sacking of Jerusalem, our temple, our illusion of security in the West, has been shattered. We have once again been reminded that just because we are faithful Christians or decent human beings doesn’t mean that we are immune to bad things happening to us and to the people we love. Unfortunately, this is not the way the world works. Like the Israelites, we may be feeling abandoned by God, too.

I can’t tell you why God doesn’t prevent bad things like this from happening. I can’t tell you why God allows us to commit these violent crimes against each other. I do believe with all my heart that God doesn’t want to see us suffer, and indeed that it must tear God up inside to watch us destroy one another this way. After all, God created this world, God “knit [us] together in [our] mother’s womb,” God counts the number of hairs on our heads and calls us each by name (Psalm 139:12; Luke 12:7). But God didn’t create us to be automatons; God wanted us to love freely, and because we are flawed creatures, this means that we are free to make both good and bad decisions, free to love as well as to inflict pain.

God does understand what it means to be human, though. What it means to be faced with difficult decisions and to see people you love treated poorly. To know that for every one person you help, there are 10,000 more who need it just as desperately. How it feels to be betrayed and abandoned and abused and tortured and finally killed.

If we put our faith and hope solely into this world, we will come away disheartened. But as Christians, our hope is not in this world; Jesus spoke of another, greater existence—the kingdom of God. And if we look closely, there are signs of the in-breaking of the kingdom of God—and of God’s presence—all around us, even and perhaps especially in times of tragedy.

The much-loved Mr. Rogers once said, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’” When the attacks in Paris happened, a hashtag that translates to “Open Door” began surfacing on twitter, offering people stranded in the city a safe place to escape from the violence. Taxis turned off their meters and drove people to home or to safety free of charge. Yesterday hundreds of Parisians lined up to donate blood to assist the more than 350 people injured in the attacks. And perhaps the best example of all, last Thursday, right after the first suicide bomb went off in Beirut, Adel Termos left his daughter’s side and tackled a second suicide bomber headed for the crowd, saving hundreds of lives by giving up his own.

Love is not merely a feeling; it is an action. Love put into action is a sign of the kingdom of God breaking into our world. The love put into action in Paris and Beirut and the many examples of people all around the world, from India to Israel to Korea to Iran, expressing sorrow in solidarity with Parisians, is where I find hope in the midst of this tragedy.

Jesus warned his disciples, “When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed…” (Mark 13:7). This is perhaps easier said than done, but I think what he was trying to convey to his disciples is that they should not be “thrown into an emotional uproar,” to be overcome by all the evil that exists in the world. Despite our best efforts, the world will never be a truly peaceful place, and there will never be a time when the world is in complete harmony.

Several of my friends have been sharing this poem by the Somali-British poet Warsan Shire:

later that night
i held an atlas in my lap
ran my fingers across the whole world
and whispered
where does it hurt?

it answered 

We are reminded daily that this world that we live in is not the kingdom of God.

And yet. 

And yet God is calling us to overcome the evil we experience by putting our love into action and helping to bring about the kingdom of God. To be the voices speaking against violence and working to bring about justice and peace. To show compassion for our neighbors, which as much as I hate to admit it, includes our enemies.

If the task seems too great, if the cause seems hopeless, if all of the pain and suffering and death is too overwhelming, remember that we do not walk this road alone. Jesus showed us the way of peace, love, and mercy, and promised that we would never be abandoned on this path, though it may feel that way sometimes.

We are assured of God’s abiding presence in the Old Testament (Psalm 139, 6-9):

Where can I go then from your Spirit? *
    where can I flee from your presence?

If I climb up to heaven, you are there; *
    if I make the grave my bed, you are there also.

If I take the wings of the morning *
    and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,

Even there your hand will lead me *
    and your right hand hold me fast.

God is with us.

And we are assured of God’s abiding presence in the New Testament (Romans 8:35-39):

Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written,
“For your sake we are being killed all day long;
    we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.”
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

God is with us.

All this death and destruction is “but the beginning of the birthpangs” (Mark 13:8). And what follows the birthpangs? A birth, of course! In two short weeks we will begin the season of Advent, in which we prepare for the birth of Jesus, Immanuel, God with us. It is also the time of year in which we prepare for Jesus’s second coming, when God and God’s kingdom will once again break into the world, and we will see a new heaven and a new earth, God will make all things new, God will wipe away every tear from our eyes and will—once and for all—put an end to suffering (Revelation 21).

Until that day, we carry on, putting love into action, doing our part to bring about the kingdom of God.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

answering the call of Christ

The Feast of St. Martin of Tours
November 11, 2015

Lord God of hosts, who didst clothe thy servant Martin the soldier with the spirit of sacrifice, and didst set him as a bishop in thy Church to be a defender of the catholic faith: Give us grace to follow in his holy steps, that at the last we may be found clothed with righteousness in the dwellings of peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.

Martin of Tours
Martin was born in 330 in what is now roughly Yugoslavia. His dad was in the military; when Martin was 15, his dad enlisted him in the army. Martin saw a beggar one winter’s day who didn’t have clothes for the cold weather. He tore his cloak in half and gave ½ to the beggar. That night, Martin dreamed that he saw Christ wearing ½ of his cloak. He was baptized soon after this. 

Martin asked to be released from his military service after the next campaign: “Hitherto I have faithfully served Caesar. Let me now serve Christ.” The army didn’t take too kindly to this and accused him of cowardice. In response, he offered to stand unarmed between the armies. They jailed him, but released him when the armies signed a peace treaty.

Martin became a student of Hilary of Poitiers, who opposed the Arian denial of the full divinity of Christ. He went back home and argued so effectively against the Arian view that he was chased out of town. He made his way back to France and founded the first monastery there (which remained open until the French Revolution!).

Martin was elected Bishop of Tours in 371. Tours was mostly pagan. There is a legend that the pagans worshiped a large tree in the town center. The pagans offered to cut it down if Martin would volunteer to stand in the path of its fall. He agreed and the tree narrowly missed him. Also in Tours, Martin intervened when the Imperial Guard were going to torture and execute a batch of prisoners. He was able to get them released.

In 384 a man named Priscillian and 6 of his followers were found guilty of heresy. A group of bishops gathered and asked the emperor to execute them. Martin spoke up and said that heretics should not be tried and punished by the government but within the Church; up until that point excommunication had been sufficient, and he argued that this should be their punishment rather than death. Martin waited for the emperor to agree to this and then left. As soon as he left, some remaining bishops convinced the emperor to break his promise; Priscillian and his 6 followers became the first people to be killed for heresy. In turn, Martin excommunicated the bishops that had done this. He eventually brought them back into communion, however, in exchange for a pardon by the emperor for some men who had been sentenced to death and for the emperor’s promise not to kill any more of Priscillian’s followers.

Martin died around November 11th 397. His shrine is a stop along the Camino de Santiago de Compostela.

November 11th is also Armistice Day, the day when fighting in WWI, the “war to end all wars” ended. It was intended to be a day “dedicated to the cause of world peace.” In 1954, after the horrors of WWII had ended, President Eisenhower changed the holiday to Veteran’s Day, a day to honor veterans of all wars. This is not to be confused with Memorial Day, which honors those who have given the ultimate sacrifice—their lives—in service to our country.

It is appropriate that St. Martin’s Feast Day coincides with Veteran’s Day. As a veteran himself, dedicated to peace and mercy, Martin is emblematic of the original intent of Armistice Day: to focus on world peace.

Martin served his country faithfully and then devoted his life to faithfully serving Christ and the Church. May we be inspired by his example to be dedicated to the cause of Christ and the way of peace, where the focus is on different battles (and I’m not talking about the "war" on Christmas): rather, the war on poverty, war on discrimination and racism, war on mass incarceration. These are the battles of Christ. It is for these causes that we fight.

Today we honor those who answered the call of country. May we, in the same way, be moved to answer the call of Christ. Amen.

My grandmother, a cradle Episcopalian and veteran who served in WWII, 
on her 90th birthday (2012). In her service to both God and country,
she has had and continues to have a profound impact on my faith life. 
(photo credit: Jim Shine)

Here's a picture of my grandma when she served in the psych department during WWII.

Collect and Information on St. Martin: James Kiefer

Information on Armistice/Veteran’s Day: U.S. Dept. of Veterans Affairs

Monday, October 19, 2015

the desire for greatness

St. Thomas’ Church, Whitemarsh
Proper 24, Year B, 2015

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

Sometimes I just have to laugh at the disciples. They are so thick-skulled at times that Jesus has to repeat himself in order for them to understand the lesson he’s trying to teach. 

Just before this passage, Jesus has predicted his death and resurrection for the third and final time. After the first time, Peter refuses to believe him and is reprimanded (Mark 8:31). After the second time, the disciples argue among themselves over who is the greatest (9:33-37). And this time, James and John have once again proven they’ve missed the mark when they tell Jesus they want to be seated right next to him in all his glory (10:37).

You see, the disciples believe, rightly, that the Messiah will come to usher in a new kingdom. But they interpret this to mean that Jesus is going to overthrow the Roman empire, or at the very least kick the Romans out of Jerusalem. And so when James and John ask to be on Jesus’ right and left side, they envision him as being a powerful, earthly king. They are trying to be great by association. 

Can you believe such arrogance? No wonder the other disciples were incensed! But the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in one of his sermons, cautions us that “…before we condemn [James and John] too quickly, let us look calmly and honestly at ourselves, and we will discover that we too have those same basic desires for recognition, for importance. That same desire for attention, that same desire to be first…It’s a kind of drum major instinct—a desire to be out front, a desire to lead the parade, a desire to be first. And it is something that runs the whole gamut of life.”

Each and every one of us has the desire to be first or best; it’s what Dr. King calls our “basic impulse.” It’s an instinct that has led to war and division, slavery and discrimination. It’s an instinct we have to keep fighting against all of our lives. 

Or perhaps, it’s an instinct that just needs to be re-framed

In his sermon, Dr. King continues, “ ‘[Jesus] reordered priorities. And he said, ‘Yes, don't give up this instinct. It's a good instinct if you use it right…It’s a good instinct if you don't distort it and pervert it. Don't give it up. Keep feeling the need for being important. Keep feeling the need for being first. But I want you to be first in love…I want you to be first in moral excellence. I want you to be first in generosity. That is what I want you to do.’ …and he transformed the situation by giving a new definition of greatness.”

In our world, greatness is measured in power, wealth, and prestige. But in the kingdom of God, greatness is turned upside-down; “whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all” (Mark 10:43-44). In his sermon, Dr. King proclaimed that “Nineteen centuries have come and gone and today [Jesus] stands as the most influential figure that ever entered human history. All of the armies that ever marched, all the navies that ever sailed, all the parliaments that ever sat, and all the kings that ever reigned put together…have not affected the life of man on this earth…as much as that one solitary life” ("The Drum Major Instinct" by Dr. King). 

Unlike the disciples, you and I have the benefit of hindsight. We know what happens when Jesus goes to Jerusalem. At first, it appears the disciples are correct, and Jesus is paraded through cloak-and-palm-lined streets on a donkey to cheers of “Hosannah!…Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!” (Mark 11:9-10). But in less than a week the crowds change their tune and Jesus is betrayed, tried, convicted, and put to death on a cross.

James and John are probably surprised when they realize that the two people actually on Jesus’ left and right when the kingdom of God is ushered in are the two “bandits” crucified with him (Mark 15:27). The last will be first, indeed. 

To truly follow Jesus is to live a life of service to others, “translating love from easy and possibly empty words into meaningful deeds” (William J. Byron, SJ, The Word Explained, Year B, p. 232). Jesus redefines greatness, and “by giving that definition of greatness, it means that everybody can be great…because everybody can serve” ("The Drum Major Instinct" by Dr. King).

My youngest sister once told me, “Lara, you may have set the bar, but I’m gonna raise it.” Before us today lies a challenge, to raise the bar with a new definition of greatness. May we follow Jesus’ example and help usher in the kingdom by serving one another, so that we can “take over the world not with the love of power but with the power of love” (N.T. Wright, How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels).