Monday, November 28, 2016

wake up!

St. Thomas' Church, Whitemarsh
Advent 1, Year A, 2016

We find ourselves once again at the beginning of the church year. Advent is such a lovely time: the twinkling lights adorning the streets, the chill in the air, the glorious carols. For many of us, our hearts are full from time spent with friends and/or family, and we are still trying to digest all that we ate for Thanksgiving.

But then we get to church this morning and hear the readings: keep awake! The day is near! Be ready! One will be taken and one will be left! And finally a reminder of all the people left behind when Noah and his family entered their ark. 

After stuffing our faces, watching football, and shopping till we drop, these readings can be a bit of a buzzkill. They’re jarring, but Advent readings are meant to rattle us, to shake us out of our complacency. 

Romans is Paul’s longest and probably his final letter. It is written when Nero was emperor of Rome—the same Nero who famously “fiddled while Rome burned.” In his letter, Paul is urging believers to return to holy living. The letter emphasizes God’s faithfulness in opposition to our faithlessness, something for which we are accountable to God. 

Romans is a perfect choice for Advent, because Advent is a season of introspection, an opportunity to reassess our choices and views to see if they align with the gospel. Just as we make our homes ready to welcome guests by sweeping, cleaning, and taking out the trash, so in Advent we make our hearts ready to welcome Christ. We do this by sweeping away the cobwebs from our prayer life, by cleaning up our act, and by getting rid of—trashing—the things that distract us from our relationship with God and one another. 

Lest we walk around with blinders on, heads down, just trying to make it from one day to the next, know that Advent is also a time of looking outside ourselves. The section in Romans we read today reminds us of our responsibilities to our neighbors. When Paul talks about putting on “the armor of light”, it’s supposed to bring to mind our baptismal clothing, and along with that, our baptismal vows (Romans 13:12). 

At our baptism, we renounce Satan, evil, and our own sinfulness (BCP 302). We also affirm our commitment to Jesus Christ, trusting, following, and obeying him (BCP 302-303). And then we vow to show up to church, to seek out Christ not only at the altar but in each other, to resist evil and repent, to share the Good News, to live a life of loving service, and to work for justice and peace, all the while acknowledging that we can only accomplish this with the help of God (BCP 304-305). 

We model our behavior on the behavior of the king for whose birth and eventual return we are preparing. What Jesus demonstrates in his short life is that people are not meant to simply coexist. We are meant to recognize the humanity in every one of us, to acknowledge that every one of us is made in God’s image and therefore has value in the eyes of God. Paul informs us that just as we are accountable to God, we are accountable to one another. Love God and love one another: that’s our call. 

God doesn’t just feel love for us as an emotion; God showed us how to love by sending Jesus--Emmanuel, God with us--to live among us, teach us, and wipe away our sins. Following that example, we must show our love for our neighbors through our actions. “To love someone is actively to pursue that person’s good, however we may feel about him or her emotionally” (Achtemeier*, p. 17). 

This means that when we see people treating others differently because of their religion, race, sexual orientation, gender, ability, age, nationality, or income level, we must call them out. When we have a choice between profit and people, we must always choose people. We cannot remain silent; remember, we have vowed to resist evil, and that is not a passive action. We are called to make this world ready for the return of Christ. To ignore the concerns of the world is, like Nero, to fiddle while Rome burns. 

Both Romans and the Gospel reading talk about the idea of waking up from sleep, to be informed, to be aware of what is going on around us. In the past few weeks, there have been at least 700 incidents of “hateful harassment” in our country, most of them occurring in elementary, middle, and high schools. But waking up does not only have to mean waking up to the reality of a broken world; it can also mean waking up to instances of goodness in the world, where we see glimpses of God’s kingdom in the midst of the world’s brokenness. For example, in the last few weeks, charitable giving has increased dramatically. 

We are called to educate ourselves on the issues of the day, to face the darkness and brokenness we will always find in the world, but not be overcome by it. When we encounter these things we don’t act defeated, but act as if we have already won, because we have through Christ! We live in hope, because we know that evil does not have the last word. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu says, “Don’t give up! Don’t get discouraged! I’ve read the end of the book. We win!” We stay awake because any day now Christ will return to bring about the kingdom of God on earth. O come, o come Emmanuel! 

image found here

*Achtemeier, Paul J. "Exegetical Perspective." Advent through Transfiguration, 2010, pp. 15-19. Feasting on the Word, edited by David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, Year A, Vol. 1, Westminster John Knox Press, 12 vols. 

Sunday, November 13, 2016

the hard work of witnessing

St. Thomas' Church, Whitemarsh
Proper 28, Year C, 2016

"As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down" (Luke 21:6).

The little apocalypse—that’s the nickname Biblical scholars have given this section of Luke and the parallels in Matthew and Mark. It’s easy to see why: in the passage we hear of wars, natural disasters, torture, and murder.

Jesus is teaching in the temple in Jerusalem. He overhears his listeners remarking on the beauty and majesty of their worship space. I imagine Jesus shrugs and says, “Don’t get too attached; it’s not going to last forever.” In response, Jesus’ disciples begin freaking out, wondering when the temple will be destroyed. You see, for the Jews, the temple is the symbol of God’s presence with them. Their whole identity is wrapped up in being the chosen people of God. Without the temple, who—or whose—will they be?

In a similar way, the cases of vandalism, arson, violent protests, beatings, and harassment that people have experienced this last week have highlighted the division in our country. These states are not united, but deeply, deeply fractured. And in a way, this polarization has caused a kind of identity crisis that has left many reeling.

Faced with the destruction of the temple and their identity, the Jews are confronted with their own mortality: “not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down”, “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” (v. 6). The things of this world, our creations as well as ourselves, are finite. Yet even at the grave we make our song Hallelujah. It may be a “cold and…broken hallelujah”, but it’s a hallelujah, nonetheless (“Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen).

The Good News is that through our baptism in Christ we are granted citizenship in another kingdom, the kingdom of heaven. The heavenly kingdom is not marked by division or schism, but is united in worshiping God. Still, the reality of that future kingdom requires us to act in this one. In the face of countless challenges, we are “given an opportunity to testify” to be a witness, of Christ’s love for all (v. 13). We witness by following in Christ’s footsteps; Jesus cared for children and widows, healed the sick, welcomed the stranger, and dined with sinners rich and poor. He also called people out when they were not doing the right thing, chasing money collectors out of the temple, discouraging violence, and pointing out the hypocrisy of the scribes and Pharisees. And on several occasions he was even moved to tears.

We need to be moved, too. In response to events this week, there have been voices, so many voices, clamoring for our attention and telling us how we should be acting or reacting. Pay attention to who is speaking the loudest; it is often only the people in positions of power who are able to effectively get their message or point of view broadcast. I invite you this week to search out the voices of people on the margins; what has life been like for everyday people not influenced by money or an agenda? Once you have listened—really listened—to what they have to say, based on what you hear, where do you feel Jesus calling you to action? I’d like to suggest that immediately after an occasion like this, sometimes the best action is to simply be present with people, to be a safe space for them to talk or rage or mourn or to just be.  

Human nature makes us yearn for easy answers and solutions. We don’t like to dwell in the uncomfortable, but would rather like to brush off our shoulders and just move on. We may be tempted to put the events of the last week behind us and move straight to the work of reconciliation. But the rift in our country is never going to be repaired as long as there is such a discrepancy between rich and poor. It’s never going to be repaired as long as people’s basic human rights are threatened. And it’s not going to be repaired as long as we are unable to recognize that every single person has value in the eyes of God. We do not seek a cheap or hurried unity. We should not want unity for unity’s sake, but instead work together to build authentic relationships.

We certainly have our work cut out for us, but, as Jesus mentions in today’s passage, he has always been clear that Gospel work very often is not going to be easy. Life in this world is difficult, but in the face of division and brokenness, we are called to do the hard work of witnessing to Christ’s love. The Good News is that God’s love is big enough to include all of us. God did not keep this love to God’s self, but opened up, poured out, and was broken for our sakes. God is present with us in this moment, and God will be present with us as we continue. And finally, in the end, “by [our] endurance [we] will gain [our] souls” (v. 19). 

At Prairie Home Companion last night the Dover Quartet played Samuel Barber's "Adagio for Strings" as it was originally written (for quartet). Its mournful tone, dissonance, and incomplete cadence was balm for the soul. Perfectly captured lamentation and the idea that we don't immediately move toward resolution but must work through the grief first.