Sunday, November 29, 2020

1 Advent

 


November 29, 2020

 

1 Corinthians 1.3-9; Mark 13.24-37

 

+ Well, it is the first Sunday of Advent.

This season in which we, as the Church, turn our attention, just like the rest of the world, toward Christmas.

It is a time of preparation.

 It is a time to remind ourselves that our time is limited.

 It is a time in which we realize we need to get our affairs in order.

 And there are many ways we can do that.

 In my life, I had an interesting situation arise over the last few months.

 I have shared this with many of you.

 And in Friday, on Facebook, I shared a bit more about it.

 It involves my sister.

 So, in case you didn’t know, for many years—for most of my adult life—my sister and I were estranged from each other for various reasons.

 This past summer, following the death of my brother (from whom I was also estranged), we realized that we needed to get past our differences.

 And in doing so, we realized that the reasons we were at odds with each other had to do with a manipulative third party in our family.

 I won’t get into all of that ugliness.

 But it was a great lesson for me.

 I realized that so much of what happened, so much pain and sorrow and suffering in our family occurred because of one person who could wreak so much discord and unhappiness.

 And that the two of us, who prided ourselves on being “smart” and “seeing through people,” failed to do so in this situation, and as a result, we lived with division and anger.

 Which only makes reconciliation so much sweeter!

 For me, the reconciliation with my sister is a great story to carry with me as we enter the season of Advent.

 We are forced, during this season, to realize that in God’s own time, in God’s own ways, everything will one day be made right.

 The imbalances of this life will one day be balanced.

 And that those things that divide us will one day be healed.

 And that when all of that happens, there will be a true and abiding joy.

 I am grateful on this first Sunday of Advent for the reconciliation in my own life.

 I am grateful to have a relationship with my sister that I never had before.

 Life seems a little less lonely now.

 Life seems a little less dangerous and dark.

 And, for me anyway, that is the real message of Advent.

 We go through Advent as a way of preparing, spiritually,  for Christmas, for the birth of the Messiah.

 We do so by striving to shed ourselves of those dark things in our lives.

 We do so by striving to shed darkeness and division and anger and fear.

 And in this way, I think the Church year reflects our own lives in many ways.

 That is what Advent is like.

 We know this joyous event is coming, but to truly enjoy it, we need to prepare for it the best we can.

 To truly enjoy this great Day, we need to try to shed those things in our lives that prevent us from feeling true joy.

 Advent then is also a time of deep anticipation.

 And in that way, I think is represents our own spiritual lives in a way other times of the church year don’t.

 We are, after all, a people anticipating something.

 We are hoping for something

 Something.

 But what?

 Well, our scriptures give us a clue.

 But what they talk about isn’t something that we should necessarily welcome with joy.

 In our reading form Isaiah this morning, we find the prophet saying to God,

 O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,

so that the mountains would quake at your presence--

as when fire kindles brushwood
and the fire causes water to boil--

to make your name known to your adversaries,
so that the nations might tremble at your presence!

 That doesn’t sound like a pleasant day to be anticipating.

 Even Jesus, echoing Isaiah, says in our Gospel reading:

  In those days, after that suffering,

the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light,

and the stars will be falling from heaven,
and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.

 

Then they will see “the Son of Man coming in clouds” with great power and glory. 

Well, that’s maybe a bit better, but it’s still pretty foreboding.

 However, it doesn’t need to be all that foreboding.

 Essentially, all of this is talk about “the day of the Lord” or the day when the Son of Man will come in the clouds” is really  all about waiting for God, or for God’s Messiah.

 It is all about God breaking through to us.

 That is what Advent is all about.

 God breaking through to us.

 God coming to us where are we are.

 God cutting through the darkness of our lives, with a glorious light.

 For the Jews in Jesus’ time, waiting like we are, for the Messiah, they had specific ideas of what this Messiah would do.

 Oppressed as they were by a foreign government—the Romans—with an even more foreign religion—paganism—, they expected someone like themselves to come to them and take up a sword.

 This Messiah would drive away these foreign influences and allow them, as a people, to rise up and gain their rightful place.

 And for those hearing the prophet Isaiah, the God who came in glory on that day would strike down the sinful, but also raise up those who were sorry.

 The fact is, as we all know by now,  God doesn’t work according to our human plans.

 We can’t control God or make God do what we want.

 And if we try, let me tell you, we will be deeply disappointed.

 The Messiah that came to the people of Jesus’ day—and to us—was no solider.

 There was no sword in his hand.

 The “Son of Man” that came to them—and to us--was a baby, a child who was destined to suffer, just as we suffer to some extent, and to die, as we all must die.

 But, what we are reminded of is that God’s Messiah will come again.

 It is about what happened then, and what will happen.

 This time of Advent is a time of attentiveness to the past, the present, and the future.

 Attentiveness is the key word.

 Actually, in our Gospel reading for today, we get a different way of stating it.

 

We get a kind of verbal alarm clock.

 

And we hear it in two different ways:

 

“Keep alert.”

 

“Keep awake.”

 

Jesus says it just those two ways in our reading from Mark: It seems simple enough.

 

“Keep alert” and “keep awake.”

 

Or to put it more bluntly, “Wake up!”

 

But is it simple?

 

Our job as Christians is sometimes no more than this.

 

It is simply a matter of staying awake, of being attentive or being alert, of not being lazy.

 

Our lives as Christians are sometimes simply responses to being spiritually alert.

 

For those of us who are tired, who are worn down by life, by pandemics and political strife, who spiritually or emotionally fatigued, our sluggishness sometimes manifests itself in our spiritual life and in our relationship with others.

 

When we become impatient in our watching, we sometimes forget what it is we are watching for.

 

We sometimes, in our fatigue, fail to see.

 

For us, that “something” that we are waiting for, that we keeping alert for, is none other than that glorious “day of our Lord Jesus Christ,” that we hear St. Paul talk about in his epistle this morning.

 

That glorious day of God breaking through to us comes when, in our attentiveness, we see the rays of the light breaking through to us in our tiredness and in our fatigue.

 

It breaks through to us in various ways.

 

We, who are in this sometimes foggy present moment, peering forward, sometimes have this moments of wonderful spiritual clarity.

 

Those moments are truly being alert—of being spiritually awake.

 

Sometimes we have it right here, in church, when we gather together.

 

I have shared with each of you at times when those moments sometimes come to me.

 

There are those moments when we can say, without a doubt: Yes, God exists!

 

But, more than that.

 

It is the moments when we say, God is real.

 

God is near.

 

God knows me.

 

God loves me.

 

And, in that wonderful moment, in that holy moment, the world about us blossoms!

 

This is what it means to be awake, to not be lazy.

 

See, the day the prophet talks about as a day of fear and trembling is only a day of fear and trembling if we aren’t awake.

 

For those of us who are awake, who truly see with our spiritual eyes, the day of the Lord is a glorious day.

 

For us, we see that God is our Parent.

 

Or as Isaiah says,

 

 O Lord, you are our Father;

 

 

We are God’s fully loved and fully accepted children.

 

And then Isaiah goes on to say that

 

we are the clay, and you are our potter; 
we are all the work of your hand.

 

 

Certainly, in a very real sense, today—this First Sunday of Advent— is a day in which we realize this fact.

 

Advent is a time for us to allow God to form us and make us in God’s image.

 

It is a time for us to maybe be kneaded and squeezed, but, through it all, we are being formed into something beautiful.

 

The rays of that glorious day when God breaks through to us is a glorious day!

 

And it is a day in which we realize we are all God’s loved and accepted children.

 

In this beautiful Sarum blue Advent season, we are reminded that the day of God’s reaching out to us is truly about dawn upon us.

 

The rays of the bright sun-lit dawn are already starting to lighten the darkness of our lives.

 

We realize, in this moment, that, despite all that has happened, despite the disappointments, despite the losses, despite the pandemic, despite politics, despite the pain each of us has had to bear, the ray of that glorious Light breaks through to us in that darkness and somehow, makes it all better.

 

But this is doesn’t happen in an instant.

 

Oftentimes that light is a gradual dawning in our lives.

 

Oftentimes, it happens gradually so we can adjust to it, so it doesn’t blind us.

 

Sometimes, our awakening is in stages, as though waking from a deep, slumbering sleep.

 

Our job as Christians is somewhat basic.

 

I’m not saying it’s easy.

 

But I am saying that it is basic.

 

Our job, as Christians, especially in this Advent time, is to be alert.

 

To be awake.

 

Spiritually and emotionally.

 

And, in being alert, we must see clearly.

 

We cannot, when that Day of Christ dawns, be found to lazy and sloughing.

 

Rather, when that Day of our Lord Jesus dawns, we should greet it joyfully, with bright eyes and a clear mind.

 

We should run toward that dawn as we never have before in our lives.

 

We should let the joy within us—the joy we have hid, we have tried to kill—the joy we have not allowed ourselves to feel—come pouring forth on that glorious day.

 

And in that moment, all those miserable things we have been dealt—all that loss, all that failure, all that unfairness—will dissipate like a bad dream on awakening.

 

“Keep alert,” Jesus says to us.

 

“Keep awake.”

 

It’s almost time.

 

Keep awake because that “something” you have been longing for all your spiritual life is about to happen.

 

It is about to break through into our lives.

 

And it is going to be glorious.

 

Let us pray.

 

O God of glory, our God and parents, we are longing for you in the darkness of our lives to break through to us; to come to us in this place and shed your Light upon us. And we know that when you do, it will truly be a glorious Day. We ask this in the name of your Messiah, Jesus our Savior. Amen.

 

 

 

 

Sunday, November 22, 2020

Christ the King


 November 22, 2020

Ezekiel 34.11-16, 20-24; Matthew 25.31-46

 

+ Today is of course Christ the King Sunday.

 

 

Now, as most of you know, I have issues with authority.

 

I bristle at talk of rulers and kinds (and Presidents).

 

But for some reason, I don’t have much of an issue with the idea of Christ as King, despite my deep-seated issues with authority.

 

I love this idea of God as Ruler.

 

And, as you know, I love preaching about the Kingdom of God.

 

Jesus did it all the time.

 

The Kingdom of God is a good thing to preach about.  

 

But, it’s an important Sunday for another reason.

 

It is the last Sunday in that very long, green season of Pentecost.

 

Today, for the Church, it is New Year’s Eve.

 

The old church year of Sundays—Church Year A—ends today.

 

The new church year—Church Year B—begins next Sunday, on the First Sunday of Advent.

 

So, what seems like an ending today is renewed next week, with the coming of Advent, in that revived sense of longing and expectation that we experience in Advent.

 

Today, we get a great reading from the Prophet Ezekiel.

 

We hear God saying things through Ezekiel  like,

 

“I will seek out my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness.” 

 

And (I love this one)

 

“I feed them with justice.”

 

We also get to hear Jesus tell us that story of the sheep and the goats, echoing in many ways our reading from Ezekiel.

 

Now, I actually love this parable—not because of its threat of punishment (which everyone gets hung up on), not because of its judgment.

 

I love this story because there is something beautiful and subtle going on just beneath the surface, if you take the moment to notice.

 

And that subtle aspect of this story is this:

 

If you notice, the reward is given not to people who work for the reward.

 

The reward is not given to people who help the least of their brethren because they know they will gain the reward.

 

The reward is granted to those who help the least of their brethren simply because the least need help.

 

The reward is for those who have no regard or idea that a reward even awaits them for doing such a thing.

 

Now I don’t think I need to tell anyone here who the least of our brethren are.

 

The least of our brethren are the ones who are hungry, who are thirsty, who are naked, who are sick and who are in prison.

 

I think this ties in beautifully to our own ideas of why we do what we do as followers of Jesus.

 

I preach this a lot!!

 

Why do we do what we do, we must ask ourselves?

 

Do we do these things because we think we’re going to get a reward for doing them?

 

Or do we do these things because by doing them we know it goes for a greater reward than anything we ourselves could get?

 

In our Gospel reading today, we find that the Kingdom of God is prepared for those who have been good stewards, who do good for the sake of doing good.

 

It is prepared for those who have been mindful of what has been given to them and have been mindful of those around them in need.

 

It is a great message during this stewardship time

 

For us, we need to realize that the Kingdom is prepared for us as well.

 

It is prepared for us who have sought to be good stewards without any thought of eternal reward.

 

For us who strive to do good for the sake doing good.

 

It is prepared for us who have simply done what we are called to do as followers of Jesus.

 

To love God, and to love others.

 

That is why we do good.

 

For us, in our own society, we find that these same terms found in Jesus’ parable have a wider definition.

 

Hungry for us doesn’t just mean hungry for food.

 

It means hungry for love, for healing, for wholeness.

 

Hungry to be included, and treated as equals.

 

It means hungry, also, for God.

 

Thirsty doesn’t just mean for water.

 

Thirsty for us means thirsty for fairness or justice or peace.

 

And thirsty for God.

 

Naked doesn’t just mean without clothing.

 

It means, for us, to be stripped to our core, to be laid bare spiritually and emotionally and materially, which many of us have known in our lives.

 

We have known what it means to be spiritually and emotionally naked.

 

To be sick, doesn’t necessarily mean to be sick with a disease in our bodies.

 

It is means to be sick in our hearts and in our relationships with others.

 

It means to be sick with despair or depression or anxiety or spiritually barrenness.

 

And we all know that the prisons of our lives sometimes don’t necessarily have walls or bars on the doors.

 

The prisons of our lives are sometimes our fears, our prejudices, our anxieties, our addictions, our very selves.

 

To not go out and help those who need help is to be arrogant, to be selfish, to be headstrong.

 

To not do so is to turn our backs on following where Jesus leads us.

 

Because Jesus leads us into that place wherein we must love and love fully and give and give freely—of ourselves and of what we have been given.

 

It means to “feed with justice,” as God tells us in Ezekiel.

 

I like that because that is definitely what we have all been striving to do here at St. Stephen’s.

 

We practice our radical hospitality to everyone who comes to us in any way.

 

And, I think, we accept everyone who comes to us fully.

 

Here, we not only welcome people, but I think we allow people to be the people God created them to be—without judgment, without prejudice, just as the Kingdom no doubt will be.

 

And is.  

 

Again, that brings us back to Jesus’ parable.

 

The meaning of this story is this: If you do these things—if you feed the hungry, if you give drink to the thirsty, if you welcome the stranger, if you clothe the naked, if you visit the sick and imprisoned—if you simply respond to one another as loving human beings—if you do these things without thought of reward, but do them simply because you, as a Christian, are called to do them, the reward is yours.

 

The Kingdom is not only awaiting us in the next world, on the other side of the veil.

 

The Kingdom, when we do these things, is here.

 

Right now.

 

Right in our midst.

 

As Christians, we shouldn’t have to think about doing any of those things.

 

They should be like second nature to us.

 

We should be doing them naturally, instinctively.

 

For those of us who are hungry or thirsty, who feel like strangers, who are naked, sick and imprisoned—and at times, we have been in those situations—we find Christ in those rays of hope that break through into our lives.

 

It is very similar to the hope we are clinging to in this moment as we enter Advent—that time in which the Light of Christ is seen breaking into the encroaching darkness of our existence.

 

And we—in those moments when we feed the hungry, when we give drink to the thirsty, when we welcome the stranger, when we clothe the naked, when we visit the sick and imprisoned—in those moments, we become that light in the darkness, that hope in someone else’s life.

 

We embody Christ and Christ’s Kingdom when we become the conduits of hope.

 

So, as we celebrate the end of this liturgical year and set our expectant eyes on the season of Advent, let us not just be filled with hope.

 

Let us be a true reflection of Christ’s hope to this world.

 

Let us be the living embodiment of that hope to those who need hope.

 

And in doing so, we too will hear those words of assurance to us:

 

“Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for….”

 

I am going to close today with the prayer they pray at All Saints, Pasadena on this Christ the King Sunday.

 

It’s a beautiful prayer.

 

So, let us pray,

 

Most Gracious God, who in Jesus of Nazareth showed us an alternative to the kings, queens and emperors of history, help us to revere and emulate Jesus’ leadership: To love, and to seek justice for all people. Help us to recognize the true grandeur and life-changing power based in loving you and all of our neighbors. In Christ Jesus with you and the Holy Spirit, may we co-create a world ruled not through domination, but in that radical and all-powerful compassion and love. Amen.