Saturday, December 3, 2016

Not as the World Gives

Advent 2A, 2016, scripture readings assigned for this day can be found here


Peace, But Not as the World Gives

Every year at this time, I start looking for our family’s Christmas Card.  Or, to be more accurate, I start wondering if we’ll manage to get a card out this year. 

And, as I wonder, I find myself perusing the offerings at the local stores and on the internet.  Glittered, snowy scenes. Sweet nativities with babe and child.  And, one by one, I reject them.

First I eliminate any card that features my name prominently.  Then, I consider the traditional Mary, Joseph, Jesus iconography. Then, I cross those off the list--not all of the people on our list celebrate Christmas. 

Then, there are Angel cards…I rather like those. But, trumpet blowing angels and haloed figures don’t quite make the cut either. The angel iconography seeming so very tame, all things considered.

Because, truthfully, I’m not quite sure how to reconcile these images with the many winged seraphim or the flaming swords described in scripture.

Those angels were the sort that inspired fear…and hence, their repeated injunction, “be not afraid”!

Be not afraid, they had to say that, because they WERE scary, they were wild creatures, not tame ones and that is the tension I want to draw our attention to today...when we “tame” and subdue scripture it becomes a bit too easy to turn our faith into the stuff of Hallmark cards and neglect the awful and awesome realities in which these stories took place and in which we live.   

Our scripture on this second Sunday in Advent offers very striking and different visions of the reign of God--and only one of those visions has made it onto a Christmas card.  And, that glittered landscape with the lion and lamb nuzzled up in a heap and the text “Peace on Earth” leaves out most of the story...this is not an easily won peace, this is not cheap grace.  It is a peace and grace that have come at great cost and followed fearful times.  

The book of the prophet Isaiah arose out of the 8th century and a very specific crisis--Judah’s war with Syria and Israel.  Weak governance and a lack of trust in God in public life was deemed by the prophet to be the source of the struggles for the people of Israel.  Throughout the book those in power, those who would exploit the poor and oppress the needy are castigated and called to remember that the justice of God will ultimately prevail.  Then, once human abuses are rectified, the earth will return to the state that God intends--a place of peaceful coexistance.  This is the hope that carries the people, the hope that ills be set aright and that God WILL intervene.  Now, this intervention is both a hope AND a threat in Isaiah--for those who are suffering at the hands of oppressors it is a hope, for those who oppress, well, for them it is a threat. 

Now, that would be quite the Christmas card--”he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked”.  That’s a far cry from the romantic notion we have of the halo’d boy child lying in slumber.  And, it is far more akin to the message that John the Baptist carried for his listeners.  And, once again, that is NOT a Christmas card I’ve ever seen--John, hair matted, with camel skins gird about him warning those who have come for his baptism that “one is coming who will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire”.  Merry Christmas, you brood of vipers! “Sleep in Heavenly Peace” comes across fairly ominously given that message! 

Our faith is FAR more complicated than a Christmas card--and Advent is a time when we live in the midst of those complications.  The tension between our hopes and dreams for peace and the often painful realities in which we live.  The tension between our joy at the fulfillment of God’s promise in Jesus and our fear of having to change and work in order to bring that promise into the world.  It becomes clear in Advent that transformation, that birth itself, will be a harrowing thing.  Yes, the baby is sweet and the scene bucolic--but there are soldiers in the hillsides hunting and Herod willing to kill the innocent in order to preserve his throne. 

We don’t often think of the political backdrop of the nativity story.  Of the Roman rulers and imperial powers that were abusing, enslaving and indeed, slaughtering those who dared to rise up against them.  We don’t often think about the terror that caused Jesus’ family to flee with him into Egypt.  But, that’s the world in which these texts emerged...that was the reality. 

And, yet, and yet...the other reality was that these authors, these people VERY much believed in the power of God to transform the world--the God Paul describes as being “of steadfastness and encouragement” the God “of hope who may fill you with all joy and peace in believing”.  

And, there’s the rub, the point in which I find myself challenged to see God in the mist of hard realities--of the war, violence and oppression that seem rife.   Because, war and oppression are real, intrigue and political abuses are real...yet I also hold that something else is real.  And, that something is witnessed to in the Christmas cards that I seem to have so strongly maligned. 

Merry Christmas, God Bless, Peace on Earth—these seem but meager efforts at whistling in the dark. But, with these words comes a reminder of God’s persistent promise that there is something more...that God’s hope and love will ring clear and that indeed, a little child will lead us all into a new way of being.  That there is a greater power, a power that casts out fear and raises up the lowly, a power that upholds the meek and contains more promise than any newscast can contain.   

And THIS is the true reality of the Gospel, THIS is the true hope of the prophet, THIS is the power of the Holy Spirit--to bring us hope in true believing. 

We are called as Christians, in this Advent season, to live like John the Baptist.  And, by this I do not mean that we should take up camel skins and feast on locusts and wild honey.  I mean that we are called to live like our hopes and dreams are real, obtainable and most of all TRUE.  We are called to embrace the image of the lion lying down with the lamb, we are called to follow a helpless infant who held no power by the rules of the world but all power by the rules of the creator, we are called to listen up and be transformed by the purifying Spirit and we are called to do so even when it seems hopeless and naive. 

We are called, to preach, teach, tell and live in a way that reflects the hope that seems so far off—and in doing so, draw us ever closer to

Oh and in case you’re wondering about our own family’s Christmas cards—when we DO manage to get those out they are usually some form of family photo with a message of Peace…

A message of peace that for me echoes the words of Jesus in the Gospel of John, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” (John 14:27)


Sunday, November 20, 2016

Clement Bows to Christ the King

St. Clement’s Feast Day, 2016
Beyond the here and the now…

The Gospel appointed for today is Luke 6:37-45

Truth be told, until I began my ministry here at St. Clement’s, I had never heard of St. Clement.

Francis, yes, we bless our pets and care for creation holding him as a model.

Nicholaus, yup, the kinderchoir is learning some music about waiting for this blessed Saint.

Clare, whose blessing, I will use today

“Live without fear: your Creator has made you holy, has always protected you, and loves you as a mother. Go in peace to follow the good road and may God’s blessing be with you always. Amen.” (source: from Saint Clare)

And, then, of course, Julian of Norwich whose faith was such that her assurance “All will be well, and all will be well, and all matter of things shall be well” continues to comfort and reassure us.

But, I had never heard of Clement.   

Clement, swallowed up by the Black Sea and by time. Clement, whose feast day we celebrate today. Clement whose anchor is set within our windows amongst the other symbols of our faith.

Clement, a relatively obscure saint, was part of what is called the first post apostolic generation.  His generation of leaders in what had become the early church, had no first hand experience of the life of Christ. What they had was the experience of the faith as lived together--a faith and a way that ran counter to the culture of the time, a way that was one of following Christ rather than empire.

This was no easy way, in fact it was a way that all too often led to persecution.

But, for those early followers it was the only way.

And, in this way they declared the belovedness of all of God’s children--God’s children, not by virtue of blood, but by every virtue of grace. Loved, not out of merit, but out of compassion. 

And, this was the way followed by the first post apostolic generation of Christan leaders and it would be the way of the the second, the third and the fourth…

So on and so forth. 

In a story that extends to us. To us, because as Clement himself makes clear, we are in this TOGETHER!

As the next post apostolic generation. And, while we did not see Christ in the flesh, we have been called to be Christ in the flesh.  In our gather, we are the body of Christ, and carry the love of Christ out into the world. And in that truth, we extend and expand the story of God’s boundless love by making Christ visible in this place and this time.  

We are the Church. And, the story of the Church is our story. And the story of God’s love is our story.  There are those who would deny our place in the story, but this is a story that cannot be denied nor can it be limited to one particular way of being part of the story.  This is our story.  And, it is one of hope. 

Which brings me back to Clement, whose story is part of our story…

In the stories of Clement, not necessarily truth but tradition, his final months are spent in exile and hard labor when Clement is sentenced to work in a stone quarry in Crimea by Emperor Trajan.

And, hence today’s Gospel, one appointed for the feast of Clement. The verses we hear today precede the admonishment that the wise build their house upon the rock—a solid foundation that allows the house to withstand the winds and the waves. 

So, what is the rock upon which we will stand in the midst of the storm?

What is the hope that we hold that will allow us to be the Church in this generation?

The Gospel tells us it is forgiveness, generosity, companionship with those who need our gifts in order to see that we are in this together--the joyful and the suffering--all in this together.

And from this place of togetherness, I find hope and I find additional hope in the convergence of the Feast of Clement, OUR feast, with the Christian calendar declaration that this Sunday celebrates Christ as King. 

As I mentioned last week, in my first sermon post-election, last week’s apocalyptic text was meant to set the stage for this week’s celebration of the Reign of Christ. The scripture standing as a means of reassuring us that if it’s not okay, then it’s not the end, and that the reign of Christ will come and overturn the oppressive and exploitative powers of this world.    

The Reign of Christ represents a new way of being. Jesus turned our notions of kings and kingdoms upside down--operating outside of the rules that everyone “thought” they knew about how to live and who to serve.  This kingdom didn’t exist in order to justify or sustain the domination of the powerful.  

This kingdom exists for liberation, this kingdom exists for love, this kingdom exists as a place where ALL are welcome. There are no walls around this kingdom!

And we have been heirs to this kingdom and to this story, but have also been gifted with the power to shape the story. The house is still under construction, and we are being bid today to remember that if this house is weather the storm we must set our hope on Christ. 

And in setting our hope on Christ we are asked to carry that hope to those who live in fear of the powers and principalities of this world. 

In one famous passage from St. Teresa of Avila (1515–1582), she writes

Christ has no body but yours,No hands, no feet on earth but yours,Yours are the eyes with which he looksCompassion on this world,Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.

We carry Jesus within us.  Our privilege and power become tools to serve, to love and to share the truth of God’s love and redemption.  We can testify to the truth and in so doing we can continue to set our hopes on Christ and build upon the rock that no earthly power can move.   Amen.