Sunday, December 11, 2011

Make straight the way of the Lord

Our lesson from Thessalonians today tells us "Rejoice always." And today is a day for rejoicing indeed. Today is Gaudete Sunday, the Latin word for "rejoice." In a time when Advent was known as a penitential season, like Lent, the third Sunday of Advent was a time to interrupt the somber mood with a time of rejoicing. The purple vestments gave way to pink. And the message of the day was "Rejoice."
Now our Gospel today tells us about John the Baptist. We heard about him last week also, so perhaps we need to dive a little deeper into the story of this wild man out on the fringes of civilization and see what there is to rejoice about in his message.
So the religious establishment of the time learns that people are flocking out to see this guy who is bearing witness to -- well, to something, and they want to know something pretty basic: who is he? And he starts by making it clear: he's **not** the Messiah. So they run through the list: are you Elijah? Are you another prophet? And John identifies himself: "I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, 'Make straight the way of the Lord,'" as the prophet Isaiah said.
Rejoice always.
Now this message "in the wilderness make straight the way of the Lord" -- what does it mean, and why is *this* what we hear on Gaudete Sunday? Wherefore rejoice?
When we hear "make straight the way of the Lord," people often think this is a message of repentance. Straighten out your life and make it good with God. Repent. Clean up your act.
Frankly, the message that "you're doing it all wrong. Change your life so you live like I tell you you should" might be a constructive message in many circumstances, and people may indeed be happier with their lives after they make the changes, but the message "straighten up your life" is hardly a joyful one.
But John didn't just say "straighten up your life." He said "I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, 'Make straight the way of the Lord,'" as the prophet Isaiah said. So what is Isaiah talking about?
Last week, we heard the reading from Isaiah to which John refers, and it's one of the more beautiful readings in all of scripture: Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord's hand double for all her sins. A voice cries out: "In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken."
Some context. For over four hundred years, the house of David ruled the Kingdom of Judah from Jerusalem. For over four hundred years, the city of Jerusalem remained unconquered. For over four hundred years, the people of Judah believed that as the Lord’s chosen people, they would be ruled by the house of David forever. This was no small claim for a fairly minor kingdom nestled between the great empires of Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Assyria. Then, in 586 BCE, the unthinkable happened. The sky fell in. The Babylonian empire conquered Jerusalem and forced many of its inhabitants to relocate to Babylon. This exile reduced to ruins not only their homes, their livelihoods, and their ordinary way of life, but also their very sense of identity relative to God and the rest of the world. So they moved to Babylon.
This was how the Babylonians built their empire: if they relocated a conquered people, those people would more easily give up their old ways and identity and become assimilated into Babylonian culture. But, miracle of miracles, the people of Judah retained their identity. They told their stories. They sang their songs. They preserved their way of life. They worshipped their God. And when Cyrus the Great, King of Persia, conquered the Babylonian empire and told the conquered people that they were allowed to go home, there was enough of a sense of identity left among the descendants of Judah that they knew who they were, and where home was. Which is where Isaiah's message comes in: Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term. It's time to go home. It's time to return to where you belong, and return to your proper relationship with God.
And yet... they had been in exile, and their exile was over, but while going home is an occasion to rejoice, it's not always an easy thing to do. They were in exile in Babylon. Babylon, the heart of an empire. Babylon, one of the greatest cities in the world. Home to one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, a center of architecture, culture, art, literature. It wasn't their home, but they had a life there. The people of Judah weren't rich in Babylon, and they weren't home, but neither were they slaves, nor living an unpleasant life.
Then there was the journey. 500 miles as the crow flies, if the crow could fly over the open desert without searching for an oasis. For people, on foot, carrying whatever possessions they had to bring back with them, the journey along a survivable route would be considerably longer.
And then there was the destination. The Isaiah reading today puts it so poetically: "They shall build up the ancient ruins, they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations." The fact of the matter is that the land to which they were invited to go home wasn't in the best of shape. Jerusalem had once been an amazing place, but the land was devastated. The temple had been destroyed. The city walls smashed. Their barns, their homes, their fields -- not in the prime of their maintenance.
When Isaiah told the people that it was time to go home, it was not exactly an easy sell.
And so, Isaiah's call to those who were doing God's work was this: make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Do what you can to make it easy for people to return. The work is hard and the journey rough, but do what you can to make it easier for God's people to return to where they belong. Make the journey back to God easier on each other.
And that is who John the Baptist is: the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, 'Make straight the way of the Lord,' as the prophet Isaiah said.
"Make straight the way of the Lord" isn't an individual call to repentance. It's a call to make it easier for everyone to return to God. It's a call to remove barriers. It's a call to make the mountains and hills low, and the uneven ground level, and the rough places a plain. It's a call to set aside pride, to set aside division, to set aside grudges, and help one another do what is right.
And so, rejoice. We're all in this together. Yes, God does call us to repent. God does call us to turn away from sin, and embrace the Gospel. God does call us to leave what is easy and comfortable and to undertake some amazingly difficult work: to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners. But God also calls us to help one another remove barriers from doing that work. To lighten one another's load. To build a highway through the wild places that our fellow travelers can use on their journey.
Our work in bringing forth the Kingdom of God isn't easy. But we're not alone, and we're each charged with the task of helping our fellow servants of God along the way. Therefore, rejoice!
And with the psalmist, we too can say:
When the LORD restored the fortunes of Zion, then were we like those who dream.
Then was our mouth filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy.
Then they said among the nations, "The LORD has done great things for them."
The LORD has done great things for us, and we are glad indeed.
Restore our fortunes, O LORD, like the watercourses of the Negev.
Those who sowed with tears will reap with songs of joy.
Those who go out weeping, carrying the seed, will come again with joy, shouldering their sheaves.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

We need a little Christmas right this very minute

Haul out the holly/ Put up the tree before my spirit falls again/ Fill up the stockings/ I may be rushing things but deck the halls again now!/ For we need a little Christmas/ Right this very minute/ Candles in the windows/ Carols at the spinet/ Yes we need a little Christmas/ right this very minute/ It hasn't snowed a single flurry,/ but Santa, dear, we're in a hurry.
I love how that song captures the spirit of these times. So incredibly manic. So driven. So frantically in pursuit of – of something. Because there's a great un-ease in the world today. The tension is building, building, building. And something's got to give.
The song is a frantic call for Christmas celebrations to begin, and to begin right away. Things are wrong, but perhaps celebrating Christmas will make them right. And how do we celebrate Christmas? Holly, stockings, trees, carols, candles. By themselves, these empty outward signs are unlikely to resolve any of what is wrong with the world. But a prompt celebration of the underlying reality of Christmas may indeed heal what ails us.
The spirit of the times seems to harbor a deep sense that there's something profoundly wrong with the world. Things are fundamentally not as they should be. These are unsettled times. Like in a work of music, the dissonance is building. And the more the dissonance builds, the more it seeks resolution. And so, in these uneasy times, we arrive at the First Sunday of Advent.
The holly has indeed been hauled out, and the trees put up. To the extent that they aren't made of plastic, they're already starting to wilt, since Christmas decorations have been up for a month already in many public places. But the malaise that they so desperately seek to mend continues unabated. We're celebrating with greater and greater energy in the hope that it can bury what's wrong. Because what's wrong is very very wrong.
The economy, that amazingly complex, interconnected system that organizes our production and consumption, is profoundly out of balance. On the one hand, we're making more stuff, on a per capita basis, than has ever been made in human history. But all is not well. We're going on almost three years now where the national unemployment rate is above 8%. For the state of Michigan, it's been above 10% for that entire same time period. We're producing more wealth than ever, and yet poverty rates are climbing, and so many people who want to work can't find any job at all, let alone one that uses their skills and pays a living wage. We frantically make more and more, yet the human condition still languishes.
And to produce and haul all this stuff, the world’s factories are emitting exponentially higher levels of greenhouse gasses each year. The number of deadly heat waves, blizzards, floods, tornados, and other natural disasters is rising. We, here in Michigan, have been spared so much of the brunt of it, thus far. But in the world and even around this country, the severity of these "Acts of God" is on the rise. Can any particular one of these events be definitively attributed to global climate change? No. But disruption to climate patterns linked to greenhouse gasses make them all more likely.
The human world and the natural world are on edge. And people have noticed.
Harold Camping had been broadcasting his take on the Gospel on the radio since 1958. Some people have tuned in, to be sure, and most of the country mostly tuned out and ignored him. But this year, he predicted that the end of the world was at hand. Specifically, May 21, 2011. And then, what attention the world paid to him. People quite content to ignore him for fifty three years suddenly started paying a great deal of attention. Yes, there was plenty of mocking. Yes, to some extent people tuned in because they thought what he said was absurd. But I believe he wouldn't have received the coverage he did if he hadn't struck a nerve. In these uneasy times, people were ready to hear something about a Big Change Coming.
The Mayan civilization in Central America seems to have collapsed around the year 900 of the common era. We seem fairly content to ignore the Maya most of the time. And yet, their calendar system enters a new "long count" a little over a year from now. And suddenly, people are paying attention to the Maya. Does the completion of one of their "long counts" mark the end of an era? Will the world be fundamentally changed at this point? Not that we pay attention to anything else they said, but there's this hunger, this receptiveness to something that will cause a fundamental change in the world, an end to the world as we know it.
Things are amiss. This must be the time that things change.
Turning and turning in the widening gyre/ The falcon cannot hear the falconer;/ Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;/ Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.
William Butler Yeats wrote that back in 1919. You see, this isn't the first time the world has been in a state where we've believed that things fall apart.
In Europe in the wake of the first World War, as the dead were mourned and the damage surveyed and the surviving crops gathered in the hopes that the food would last through the winter, amidst political turmoil and hunger and the hope that it might have been the war to end all wars, Yeats used these end-times images to talk of some sort of Second Coming, some sort of change from this age to a new one. He continued:
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;/ The best lack all conviction, while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity./ Surely some revelation is at hand;/ Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The people of the time of the third part of Isaiah knew that things were not right. Cyrus the Great had liberated the Jews from captivity in Babylon. They had returned to The Land. But they were in a time of profound identity crisis about how they were to live, and how they were to follow God in this new era. Before the Babylonians came, they had a divinely appointed King to enforce God's law in the land God gave them. Now, they were back in the land, but without their own king, and subject to the law of the Persians. Their former understanding of how the world worked no longer held, but neither had they settled into a new one.
The prophet lamented how his people had turned away from following the Law and from worshiping the Lord. As his society went through the moral decay associated with having no social code of religion or ethics in place, Isaiah sounded the common theme: "O that you would tear open the heavens and come down". God, things are messed up here. Come into the world and make it right. They prayer of Isaiah is for the arrival of a Messianic Age.
The inhabitants of Palestine at the time of Mark's gospel knew that things were not right. Roman rule was growing more and more oppressive. Revolution was in the air. The grand bargain between the temple elites and the Romans was starting to break down. The people of Mark's time knew that the present situation was unstable. And so, when they heard Mark's Gospel talk of the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory, this was a tale of hope. God would shake things up. The unstable, oppressive era would end, and God would make things right. As Mark's Jesus said, "From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates."
This was welcome news. The end of an awful era was at hand. The fig branch was tender. Things were about to change.
In Mark's account, Jesus said "Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place."
And yet.
The historical record indicates that things changed, all right, but the change was hardly the dawning Messianic era in which all was made right. Shortly after the Gospel of Mark was written, tensions came to a head. The Jews revolted against the Romans, and the Roman army utterly crushed the rebellion. Jerusalem was sacked. The temple was destroyed. The inhabitants of the land were scattered.
Despite any expectation raised by today's Gospel, the full reality of the kingdom of God, the fullness of the Messianic era, the time when God tears open the heavens, comes down to earth and makes everything right -- that long-awaited time did not come before the generation that first heard Mark's gospel passed away. Harold Camping is hardly alone in unsuccessfully predicting the arrival of the final end times.
But in a very real sense, the end of the present era is indeed near. The kingdom of God is at hand. Perhaps the transition isn't as dramatic as we might want, but that doesn't make it less real.
So if there isn't going to be some dramatic flurry of fire and brimstone to make everything right, what will fix it? Maybe the remedy to our society's ills is that we do need a little Christmas right this very minute. Maybe this early appearance of Christmas isn’t untimely, but necessary – it’s just that we're looking for the wrong things in the wrong places.
If fire and brimstone ending the age isn't the way to escape what's wrong with the world, neither is drowning our sorrows in plastic holly and mounds of presents. We need a little Christmas right this very minute. We need to celebrate Emanuel: God with us. We need to celebrate that the divine took human form and dwelt among us, and empowered us to be the Church, the body of Christ in the world. Christmas is a celebration of the arrival of the kingdom of God, the birth of the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. Today more than ever, we need to celebrate the presence of the kingdom of God.
When we pray "Our father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as in heaven," we are describing the reign of God. The kingdom of God arrives when we on earth do God's will as do those in heaven. To the extent that we live the Gospel, that we persist in doing what is right, that we proclaim the strength of the weakness of Christ crucified, feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, care for the sick, and visit the prisoners. To the extent that we go and make disciples of all peoples, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and empowering them to likewise go and serve those in need -- to the extent that we do this, we are a living proclamation of good tidings of great joy for all people: that unto you this day is born a savior, which is the Messiah, the Lord. That this world moves toward taking the shape of the heavenly kingdom. We need a little Christmas, right this very minute. Not presents and bows, not carols and plastic greenery, but celebrating the appearances of Christ in the world.
Christ arrives when we, the Church, the body of Christ in the world, can respond to our call to be Christ to all in need. But how do we know when the time comes to be Christ serving a hurting world? How do we know when the moment is ripe for Christ to be more present? The opportunities present themselves at all sorts of unknown moments, like a thief in the night. Jesus' answer in the Gospel of how we can find them is this: “what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake!”

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Again and again, let us pray to the Lord, saying "Lord, have mercy."

The summer when I was nine years old, I had a very definite belief in the power of prayer.
Every Sunday, I approached the altar and received communion. And in the silence after communion each week, I knelt and prayed. Having just received the Body of Christ, I *knew* that at that moment, I was particularly close to God. So what did I do? I placed my order for next week. I told God what blessing God should give me when I next received communion. That's how it works, right? We pray, and God gives us what we want.
I can picture the stained glass windows that surrounded me that summer when I prayed, with pictures of the miracles Jesus performed. And I remember my fervent prayer, week after week, that the baby my mother was about to have would be a little sister. God, give me a little sister. A simple, fervent prayer, repeated over and over, week after week.
And then, that October, I was in French class. A note came from to the principal's office. I needed to leave class for an important phone call. It was my dad, calling from the hospital. I had a healthy… new… little… brother.
My belief in the power of prayer was shattered.
I don't even remember why I wanted a sister and not another brother. I just remember that I asked God for it, and God didn't come through. It was an arbitrary, almost whimsical request. I don't know why I focused on it, why I prayed for it all summer long. But perhaps it was a blessing to be disappointed in prayer for the first time about something not-so-earth-shattering, rather than one of the big ones. Please, God, let me get the job. Please, let the doctor say the test came back negative. Please, let her be ok. Because again and again we pray to the Lord, saying Lord, have mercy. And sometimes the Lord's mercy takes the form we're asking for. But sometimes it doesn't. And then… what?
My non-sister who was born 25 years ago last week has been an amazing blessing in my life. He's a wonderful human being, and I can't imagine my life without him. At the moment I heard about him, I was sure God had let me down, but I didn't know yet the blessings God had given.
We pray, and we believe that God is good, and that God is all powerful, and yet evil persists.
So what good is prayer?
So what good is prayer?
We are not the first people to wonder about this. The ancient Israelites wrestled with this. So did the people of Philippi.
There's a lot of prayer-related content in that first lesson from Exodus, so let's start where it ends.
The Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.
Moses implored the Lord his God, and the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.
Isn't that what we're hoping for so often when we pray? That's the jackpot. That's the big payout. We pray, and God changes God's mind about The Plan. We pray, and God intervenes and the course of history is altered: either big-H History of the World, or the little histories of each of our lives that are giant in our personal worlds. We pray, we alter the mind of God, and life unfolds differently.
And the Exodus story tells us that this happens. The mind of God is not set in stone, like the tablets of the commandments. God has a plan, but it can be al tered by prayer. Powerful stuff.
But that's not the only lesson from today's Exodus lesson about prayer, because this same story cautions us against counting too much on changing the Mind of God.
The Israelites asked Aaron to "come make gods for us." This cloudy, nebulous, unpredictable, uncontrollable conversation between God and Moses up on Mount Sinai -- who knows what will happen there. It's been going on for a long, long time. Will Moses ever come back? Will this lead to anything? We want a way to interact with the divine that we can understand and predict. That we can control.
We often think of this story as the Israelites rejecting the Lord (And when "the Lord" appears in all caps in Hebrew scripture, that means the Hebrew text actually contains the letters Yod Het Vav Het, the unspeakably holy personal Name of God revealed to Moses at the burning bush). But the story of the Golden Calf isn't about the Israelites praying to a different divine power. In building the calf, Aaron says that the festival they will hold is a festival to "the Lord" -- that is, to Yahweh. And when building the golden sculptures for worship, Aaron attributed to the golden statues the great act of the Lord -- bringing the people out of slavery in Egypt. Aaron and the Israelites weren't rejecting Yahweh. They were rejecting the unpredictable, uncontrollable *interface* they had with Yahweh. They wanted golden statues that they could control -- mold in to shape, have them present right when they wanted them, and use as they saw fit.
They didn't reject the Lord. They rejected way of interacting with the divine that they did not control. They wanted a God they could carry around, a God they could manipulate, a God that was always where they wanted it.
And the Lord didn't take so well to that idea. The Lord got violently upset about performing on command. Our God is not a domesticated God. Our God is a wild force beyond our controlling. And if our prayer and worship assume that God is in our control, the story tells us that God is most displeased.
When we pray, again and again, Lord have mercy, we pray, confident that there is room in the divine plan for some of God's mercy to be released by our prayers. The great theologian Thomas Aquinas, in his master work Summa Theologicae wrote something that can be translated as “We do not pray to change divine decree, but only to obtain what God has decided will be obtained through prayer.” Now Moses gives us hope that perhaps, despite Aquinas's view, we *can* change the divine decree, but Aaron's experience warns us not to *expect* gods we can mold and manipulate. We pray in the hope, but not with the arrogant expectation, that the world will change as a result of our prayer.
To the Philippians, St. Paul writes:
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.
Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near.
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.
So what's Paul saying? Let your requests be known to God, and the peace of God will guard your hearts and minds.
St. Paul does not reassure us that whatever we ask for will be granted as we ask it. Moses implored the Lord his God, and the Lord changed his mind. Sometimes it happens. But Paul writes to the Philippians that if we turn our worries over to the Lord, and let our requests be known to God, God will not necessarily grant them, but will keep our hearts and minds in peace -- in the peace of God which passes all understanding. Turning our troubles over to God just might make them go away, but it might not. It will, however, give us an incomprehensible peace as we face them.
A god we can manipulate, a god that always takes the form we want and mechanically grants our requests is the golden calf so desired by the people in the Exodus story, and yet so offensive to the Lord. The dynamic, incomprehensible God of Mount Sinai is messier than that. We might want mechanical solutions: you pray for something, you get it as ordered. It's so appealing. But Paul tells us that if we pray, we will have not solutions to our problems, but peace.
An Paul continues: Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.
Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.
We turn our concerns over to God in prayer, and then we keep on doing the things we have learned. We persist in feeding the hungry, welcoming the stranger, caring for the sick, visiting the prisoner. But in place of worry, in place of despair, in place of hopelessness, God gives us peace.
Sometimes we pray, and the world changes. Moses implored the Lord his God, and the Lord changed his mind. Often, we pray, and we don't get the things we asked for. Prayer transforms us internally, and we have peace while we persist in doing the things we have learned, but the bad stuff goes on in the world.
And yet, again and again, let us pray to the Lord, saying "Lord, have mercy."

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Answer Key?

We just got a new dog this week. When you're first plunged into a new situation with profound responsibilities, whether a new pet, a baby, or a change in your own life, it would be great to have an instruction manual. A book with all the answers to help us navigate a scary and complex world. It would be a comforting and wonderful thing to have the answer to life, the universe, and everything.
And while Douglas Adams fans might tell you the answer is 42, others will look elsewhere.
The lesson from Matthew talks about "One who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, in another thirty." The lesson from Isaiah talks about "the word that goes out from my mouth" that shall not return to God empty, "but shall accomplish that which I purpose and succeed in the thing for which I sent it."
So I'm here to talk to you today about the efficacy of what Matthew calls "the Word of the Kingdom." I'm here to talk to you about the power of the Bible.
Before you get alarmed, yes, you are still at the same church. This is an Episcopal Church, one whose website bills its as "one of the most progressive parishes in Michigan." Despite all the baggage The Bible brings with it, I'm here to talk to you today about the power of the Bible.
I just spent a week out in Iowa celebrating my wife's aunt and uncle's 50th wedding anniversary. On the way there and back, and while we were out there, we passed a lot of churches. A number of churches announced on their signs that they were "Bible Churches."
Now there are a lot of churches where you can spend most of the time gathered in church hearing about the bible. Maybe there will be a verse or two read up front, or maybe the preacher will talk about the bible and quote verses during the sermon, but the bulk of the service is hearing someone talk ABOUT the bible, or at least about what he -- it's usually a he -- thinks that the bible says, and how he thinks people ought to apply it to their lives.
But when you think of "Bible Churches," I want you to think of this one. Because for all the churches out there that call themselves "Bible Churches", I have a hard time coming up with a more bible-based church than the Episcopal Church.
Christopher Webber, in his book "Welcome to the Episcopal Church," points out just how much time we spend when we gather for worship not just hearing about the bible, but hearing the bible itself. Today, like almost every Sunday, we heard four different readings from the bible, from Isaiah, Psalms, Romans, and Matthew. We sang hymns, which largely draw their imagery from the bible. We pray prayers from our Book of Common Prayer, and many, many of these prayers take their language directly from the bible. At the peak of our liturgy, the celebration of Holy Eucharist, what do we say and do? We hear and recite words from the bible: Jesus' Words of Institution and the Lord's Prayer. Yes, there is some reflection that isn't directly from the bible (like this sermon), but the bulk of our gathering is spent not hearing second-hand about the bible, but hearing it.
Webber's book is a truly outstanding one; even if you've been an Episcopalian for years and years, I recommend it to read. He has a lot more to say about the role of the Bible in the Episcopal Church: how hearing it read in community is different than reading it alone. How much this repeated reading and singing and praying and listening to the word about the kingdom shapes our language and thoughts and prayers and the life of our church. If being Bible-based is about process: hearing, reading, marking, learning, and inwardly digesting before and while and after we take each of our actions as Church, it would be hard to find a more Bible-based church than the Episcopal Church. Our corporate action is strongly rooted in a tradition of reading and reflecting on the words in the bible.
But personal bible reading is a big piece of the story about the bible, too.
My relationship with this book is not an easy one. On the one hand, I read it. A lot. I got my first bible for Christmas when I was ten years old. Here it is. Now I was raised Roman Catholic, and traditionally, Catholics didn't read the bible much. But I was a voracious reader, and this thick book with thin pages was too fascinating to put down. You can see all the bookmarks I tucked into the pages when I found a fascinating passage. The proverbs, the law, the poetry, the Gospels, the epistles, the revelations.
When I was in English class my sophomore year in high school, I recognized many biblical allusions that came up in the poems and stories we read. My English teacher, a former Jesuit, guessed I must be a Protestant, because no Catholic would know the bible that well.
But the more I read it, the less comfortable I was with some of what it had to say.
The God described in some stories in the Bible didn't sound like a good God. Jesus said that all the law and the prophets hang on "Love the Lord your God with all your mind and all your heart and all your soul and all your strength and love your neighbor as yourself," but when you read the law and the prophets, killing off all the inhabitants of the land, and the various prophesies of vengeance against the enemies of the Lord, that doesn't sound like love of neighbor. And God is a God of justice and mercy, we're told, but Abraham seems to be praised for the binding of Isaac, while I can't tell you how many times I re-read Exodus to no avail trying to figure out just what awful thing Moses did at Meribah that got God so upset that Moses couldn't enter the Promised Land.
So on the one hand, there's not liking the answers that the bible gives. But then, there's a deeper problem: even if you decide to suck it up and obey the bible's answers, they aren't internally consistent. Are we supposed to beat swords into plowshares or plowshares into swords? Are we supposed to love our enemies or exterminate them from the earth? Was humankind created before or after plants and animals? Are followers of Jesus supposed to wear sandals or not wear sandals?
These moral quandaries and factual discrepancies seem to produce two strong reactions: people who suppress the conflicts, harmonize the texts, and cling to the Bible as the definitive Book of Answers, and those who emphasize the conflicts, mock the texts, and reject the bible as a failed Book of Answers that can explain much of the zealotry and mayhem in Western Civilization. Less strident members of each camp still fall on the same axis: those who affirm the bible as the Book of Answers about faith, but not about history or science; those who don't reject the bible, but are mostly embarrassed by its uglier parts, so they either ignore it, avoiding talking about it as much as possible, or just focus on the parts they like -- the "Good Parts Version".
For much of my adult life, I fell into this last camp: I didn't reject the bible, but I was pretty embarrassed by its uglier parts. I'd focus on the Gospels and selected poetry from Hebrew Scripture, and ignore Paul's pesky letters with their apparent misogyny and reactionary social tendencies and the Pentateuch with its bloodthirstiness for both minor transgressors and those who didn't happen to be born in the right tribe.
But I'd propose that judging the Bible on whether it's a good or bad book of answers might be missing the greatest richness it has to offer. Yes, the Bible contains answers. But even more, it's a journal of millennia of humankind wrestling with the questions. For me, this realization turned the Bible from an embarrassingly dysfunctional book of answers to the holiest of gifts from God: a treasury of the process of humanity wrestling with the questions of the hows and whys of living one's life.
For over four hundred years, the people of Judah believed that as the Lord’s chosen people, they would be ruled by the house of David forever. This was no small claim for a fairly minor kingdom nestled between the great empires of Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Assyria. Then, in 586 BCE, the sky fell in. The Babylonian empire conquered Jerusalem and forced many of its inhabitants to relocate to Babylon. This exile reduced to ruins not only their homes, their livelihoods, and their ordinary way of life, but also their very sense of identity relative to God and the rest of the world.
Years later, a miracle occurred: the Babylonians were defeated by the Persians, and the new king saw that unlike any other conquered people that the Babylonians relocated, they had not been assimilated. They were still Jews, not Babylonians. And King Cyrus told them they could go home.
So they were back in The Land that God promised their ancestors. But they weren't a kingdom of their own. And the question they faced was: "Now what?"
Some folks thought that the lesson of the exile was that they hadn't been following the commandments closely enough, so they should double their zeal for the Law, and be extra-careful not to break any of the rules. Some thought that foreign ways had corrupted the people, leading to God's displeasure, and purging foreign blood and foreign influence from the Jewish people was the solution. Some thought the lesson of the exile was that the world is far bigger than just the Jewish people, and that they were to serve as an example to draw the whole world to God. Some saw the exile as a reason to focus not on the particulars of their own tradition, but on universal wisdom and good conduct. And some saw the chaos and tumult they endured as a sign that the world was inherently so evil and incomprehensible that all one could do was endure it and wait for God to one day step in and make it right. As the survivors of the Kingdom of Judah returned to the land, they wrote down and compiled the oral traditions of their relationship with their God, and collected the earlier writings they could find, and complied it into a giant reading list to help them sort out the great question: "now what?" But rather than searching for the one tradition that was "right," they included it all. Purify. No, embrace the rest of the world. No, just focus on the law. No, focus on universal wisdom. No, cling to God through the chaos. And in compiling what we now know as the Hebrew Scriptures, they included "all the wisdom that's fit to print." Which is a chaotic jumble that contradicts itself and tells the same stories multiple times, and yes, includes many, contradictory answers to some questions. It's a book about a process, a process of "Israel" -- which means wrestling with the Divine. They immersed themselves in their writings of past wrestling with the divine so that any decisions they made going forward would be informed by that past.
Which brings us back to our favorite Bible Church, the Episcopal Church. I would argue that our use of the Bible is in its most powerful tradition. We hear the bible, constantly, together. We read, we pay attention to particular parts that jump out at us, we learn. We inwardly digest it. And it becomes a part of us. And then, everything we do is done by the "we" that is formed by this hearing, reading, marking, learning, and inwardly digesting.
The Bible isn't an answer key. It's more of a guide to past questions and attempts at answers, and reflections on how those answers turned out. And therein lies its power and its beauty. Because we have the gift of the Bible, we are not, like Garrison Keillor's Guy Noir, alone trying to find the answers to life's persistent questions. In our search for how to live, we have the accounts of millennia before us. And that indeed bears fruit and yields, in on case a hundredfold, in another sixty, in another thirty.

Thursday, June 2, 2011


The Prayer Book lists Ascension Day second on the list of Principal Feasts of the Church. It ranks up there high enough to have a psalm reserved for this special occasion (Psalm 47), and to get its own version of “Hail thee, festival day!” And yet it falls on a Thursday, so many churches around the world don’t gather to celebrate this highest-importance feast. But what’s the big deal? What are we celebrating (or forgetting to celebrate) on Ascension Thursday? Why does this day matter?

There’s a fundamental tension in Christianity. We believe in an incarnate God, who was born and dwelt among us. We believe in a bodily resurrection, where Jesus came back from the dead not as a spirit, specter, or ghost, but as an embodied soul, a living human being, with physical scars from his crucifixion and breath in his lungs, who ate and drank and embraced his followers. A living human being who can never die again, who can never become an disembodied spirit. If Christmas is about the incarnation and Easter about the resurrection, they both celebrate a world in which God, in the person of Jesus Christ, walks around us still wholly God yet also a human being with a physical body.

So where is Jesus? If incarnation and resurrection are at the core of our belief system, and they are indeed, then the incarnate, resurrected God should be here. Like Thomas, we should be able to touch his hands and his side, and embrace our Lord and God. We too should be able to walk by sight, and not by faith. Because if we can’t, it rather puts a damper on this bodily-resurrected, incarnate God of ours, no?

Despite our faith in Christmas and Easter, we live in a Pentecost world, a world marked by God as Spirit. We walk by faith, and not by sight, and depend on the gifts of an unseen Holy Spirit to perform our ministry in the world. In this Pentecost world, we are called to see Christ in the least of us, and to be the hands of Christ to one another. This understanding of God is no less real, but more spiritualized — the ordinary people, things, and institutions of the world are imbued with the Spirit of God to take on divine significance. In this Pentecost world, the Body of Christ less resembles a particular literal human body and becomes more elastic, more conceptual. The Body of Christ can be the Church, a consecrated loaf of bread, the poor, a particular person in need, a particular person doing God’s will — all at once, and in many places simultaneously. That’s a different reality than seeing a person called Jesus standing on a particular hillside outside Jerusalem.

Which is why the Feast of the Ascension isn’t optional. This isn’t something we can afford to skip. This is the bridge between the Pentecost reality we live and the Christmas and Easter faith we profess. At its core, Ascension is an acknowledgement of this juxtaposition: Jesus used to be a person who walked around on the earth like other human beings, and continues to really be present with us, but our experience of Jesus’ presence isn’t the same as the disciples’ experience. Encountering Jesus after the Ascension is not the same experience as encountering him before the Ascension. He was with us then, he is with us now, but something is different.

And really, that’s the heart of this feast. Artists have tried to capture the moment over the centuries, but the fact is, it’s a mystery. We don’t understand how Jesus “went away” while simultaneously remaining with us. All we know is that that the Body of Christ, to Mary, was a baby she gave birth to. The Body of Christ, to Joseph of Arimathea, was a dead human body he took down from the Cross and laid in a grave. The Body of Christ, to the women at the tomb on Easter morning, was missing from the grave, until they recognized that the man, alive, speaking to them, was, in fact, the Jesus they were seeking. To all of them, the Body of Christ referred to a particular human body. And the Body of Christ to us today is just as real as it was to them, but it’s not one particular human body. It’s a much more elastic concept. Something is different.

Our lessons for Ascension Thursday give us not one but two accounts of the Ascension event. These two accounts, like many accounts in the Bible, conflict with each other. But these particular accounts’ conflict is especially jarring because they are attributed to the same author. The Gospel according to Luke and the Acts of the Apostles both come from the same writer or school of writers. The central message of the stories is the same in both accounts: Jesus was “there,” and then, rather abruptly, he wasn’t “there” in the same way anymore. One might even be tempted to say he was gone. On that fundamental, the stories agree. But why would Luke tell two different accounts of the story?

In the gospel account, this is a happy ending. The disciples get it. Jesus opened their minds to understand the scriptures. They walked out of Jerusalem with him, he blessed them, he disappeared, they praised God and worshipped Jesus, then went back into the city with great joy, continually blessing God in the temple. And they lived happily ever after. What a spectacular finish to the Good News according to St. Luke.

And then there’s the Acts account. The author of the Acts account claims ownership of the gospel account, but retells the story with some key differences. Again, the disciples gather with Jesus, but this time, rather than having divinely granted understanding of scripture, they show Jesus they clearly don’t get the meaning of scripture. After everything: all Jesus’ preaching, and healings, and passion, and resurrection, they still don’t get what it’s all about. They ask, “Now is it time to restore the kingdom to Israel?” Jesus’ exasperation must have known no limits at that point. After all they’d seen and been through, they still expected he was about to build a royal palace. That the Kingdom of God would look like the Kingdom of David. And then, Jesus ascends. In the Acts account, the disciples respond not with joy, but with confusion. It takes some angelic explanation so they can figure out not to just stand there staring at the sky wondering where Jesus went, and the angels assure them that Jesus is coming back.

The thing about these two stories is that despite the fact that they say different things, they could both be true. The Ascension story occupies a liminal place in Luke’s account of Christian ministry. It falls at the end of the Gospel. It is also the first story in Acts. This story is the end of something, and the beginning of something else. It marks a fulfillment of one kind of presence of Jesus, and the beginning of another. And yes, it is the source of both consolation and confusion.

If the two accounts emphasize different reactions by the disciples, it is perhaps because both are true. The disciples simultaneously “got it” and were completely baffled. The disciples rejoiced at the fulfillment of Jesus’ earthly ministry and were utterly in awe and confusion about what they were to do next. It’s not unlike other liminal moments in life: graduation, the birth of a child, getting a job. There’s joy and fulfillment and celebration that at last, things have come together and finally make sense. And then, the bewildered realization that now you have to live in that different new world. Now you have to find what comes next after graduation! Now you have to actually take care of this new baby! Now that you've got a job, you actually have to figure out how to do it! Now that Jesus has ascended, he isn't standing there talking to you any more! What comes next beyond the comfortable world you knew? The disciples praised God at the conclusion of the Gospel, and stared into space, lost, at the beginning of Acts. Because this transition from the Christmas/Easter world to the Pentecost one is both awe-inspiring and terrifying.

And so, with great rejoicing and great bewilderment, we celebrate the Feast of the Ascension. We mark the transition from the obvious certainty of a physical person Jesus in the presence of the disciples to a presence that requires a leap to faith to find. We celebrate the fact that Jesus is no longer confined to a hillside in Palestine, but is with us everywhere, even to the ends of the earth. And we wait, with the assurance that again the day will come when we, with our physical bodies, will see the physical person Jesus at the resurrection of the dead. Even so, come Lord Jesus!

Sunday, March 13, 2011

The questions

Two weeks ago, my wife and I were walking when we looked across the street and saw a hen run out into traffic. We immediately were filled with questions. Would the hen make it? What was it doing here. Whom did it belong to? Would there be a car accident? Would it make it past that jeep? Past that VW? Why, why, why was it in the middle of traffic? And then, with palpable relief as it emerged unruffled onto our sidewalk, we turned to each other and laughed as we simultaneously voiced the question we had suddenly come to truly get for the first time in our lives? Why DID the chicken cross the road?
Sometimes our moments of clarity aren't answers; they're just a newfound appreciation of the question.
There's an image of a person making a moral decision that's popular in cartoons: a little angel perches over one shoulder, urging a person to do good, while a little devil perches over the other shoulder, urging the person to do evil. The two make their cases, and then the person decides whether to do good or to do evil.
In reality, though, it's rarely like that. People, I believe, do a pretty good job choosing good over evil. When there is a clear choice between right and wrong, people tend to do what's right. Where it gets more complicated is when there's a choice among goods. It gets more complicated when there is a choice among options that all have good to them, but none of them seem quite perfect. That's when moral decision making gets harder.
In our first lesson today, God tells Adam "if you eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, you shall die that day." Our reading skips a few key verses after that, when Eve is created. At some point, either Adam or God must have shared the message with Eve, because when Eve is talking with the serpent, she says "if we eat from that tree or touch it we shall die."
Like a game of telephone, the message changes as it gets passed along. Now the serpent says this is all nonsense. "You won't die," he says. "If you eat from the tree, you will know about good and evil, like God does." Eve touches the fruit. She eats the fruit. Guess who was the only one telling the truth? That's right, the serpent. Humankind acquires knowledge of good and evil. They are expelled from the Garden. But did they die that day? No.
In the garden of Eden, when it was a choice between obedience and disobedience, there was never any struggle. Obedience equals life; disobedience equals death, and Adam and Eve stayed away from the tree. Indeed, it seems that Adam amplified God's original prohibition on eating from the tree so it included not touching the tree just to play it safe.
But then the serpent enters the mix, and makes the situation more complicated: it's not a choice between obedience and disobedience. It's a choice between obedience and wisdom. Wisdom is a good thing, right? Adam and Eve never embraced disobedience for its own sake. It was only when Eve observed that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that it was to be desired to make one wise that she and Adam touched and ate the fruit of the tree.
Did they make the wrong choice? Even that isn't an obvious call. The highest feast in the Christian year, the Great Vigil of Easter, begins with a song known as the Exsultet that proclaims the feast. The song is ancient, and the 1979 Prayer Book reintroduced it to the Episcopal Church. The version we use, though, is shortened in a few sections from the original. One of the parts we omit begins "O felix culpa" -- Latin for "O happy fault, O necessary sin of Adam which gained for us so wonderful a Savior." Christian tradition often refers to the story we heard from Genesis as "The Fall": the introduction of sin into the world. The serpent represents the devil, the fount of temptation. Adam and Eve did wrong, but by doing so, they set the stage for Christ's redemption of the world later, so perhaps they did the world a favor. Jewish tradition rarely refers to the events in today's story as a "Fall" at all. In this telling, Adam and Eve's actions are not sin (indeed, story of Cain and Abel contains the first sin in this account) but rather a coming of age: Adam and Eve, in choosing wisdom over blind obedience, move from an infantile relationship with God to a more mature one.
Choosing between obedience and disobedience is easy. Choosing between obedience and wisdom is a much more ambiguous choice. Millennia later, we still don't have it all sorted out. Our Gospel today tells of Jesus in the wilderness. He faced three temptations. In each case, the answer wasn't obvious. With wealth, with fame, with power, Jesus could have done a lot of good. The tempter didn't offer Jesus obvious bad things.
Turning stone to bread could feed many hungry people. And later on in his ministry, Jesus did miraculously produce food in the wilderness. Moses and Elijah miraculously produced food. What made it right in those cases, but wrong when the tempter asked Jesus to? Yes, 'One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God,' but the offer from the devil wasn't to ignore God's word; it was to produce bread, too. And on other occasions, Jesus was quite willing to offer both bread and words from the mouth of God. The second temptation, to leap from the pinnacle of the temple, knowing that his fall would be cushioned by angels, would look to the assembled crowds like he descended from the heavens in glory. With a miraculous entrance like that, he could have surely attracted a greater following. More people would have heard his Sermon on the Mount. More people would have the chance to be his disciples. More people could have drawn near to the Reign of God earlier. This is a good thing. But Jesus replied that it wasn't the right thing. Counting on God to keep him safe through these apparently unnecessary theatrics would be putting God to the test. Relying on God's miraculous help would have its time, and that time wasn't to be rushed. Finally, the devil offered him power over all the kingdoms of the world if Jesus would just bow down and worship the devil. Just some mere words, and Jesus would have the power to end all sorts of wrongs and injustices. Untold human suffering could come to an end, for all the kingdoms of the world would have a wise and just ruler in the Prince of Peace. And offering worship to the devil wouldn't change the fact that splendor and honor and kingly power all belong to the Lord God, who created everything that is, and by whose will they have their being. A few mere words of flattery, and Jesus could have the power to make all kinds of changes in the world.
And yet despite all this Jesus said no. How do you know when you're rejecting temptation and when you're missing out on an opportunity? Is it only temptation when the devil offers it? And if so, how do you know when it's the devil talking? In our lives, the tempter rarely has horns, a red cape, and a pitchfork. The angel giving good advice doesn't wear a white robe and a halo. Like Adam and Eve, like Jesus, we're faced by many decisions where good and evil are far from obvious. As I said earlier, sometimes our moments of clarity aren't answers; they're just a newfound appreciation of the complexity of the question. The disposable diapers send more waste to the landfill, but the cloth diapers pollute more water. Stopping to help the person whose car broke down aids someone in need, but it means being late for your niece's violin recital. Volunteering to organize the dinner for the homeless shelter feeds the hungry, but takes time away from caring for your own family. In all manner of things large and small, we face decisions on a daily basis where there isn't just one clear good choice and another clear evil choice. How can we hear the word of God in the midst of all this?
What hope do we have of finding which way we should go? If good masquerades as evil, and evil as good, how can we mere mortals hope to recognize, let alone do what is right? Jesus in the wilderness gives us a threefold example of how to listen for the still, small voice of God amidst the fever of life: fasting and prayer, scripture, and the community of God's followers.
Jesus spent forty days in the wilderness fasting. He removed himself from the busy-ness of his life. As we observe a holy Lent, by self examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self denial; and by reading and meditating on God's holy Word, this should sound familiar to us. By making more places for God to enter in to our lives, by silencing some of the distractions, and by spending more time in prayer to listen to God, Lent offers us a chance to listen for God's words to us. Lent gives us an opportunity to try to discern what God is calling each of us to do. To pray over what are the temptations and what are the opportunities.
Jesus' second example from today's lesson is scripture. How can we know what God is calling us to do? We have an amazing gift: holy scripture. Now it might be nice if we had all the answers bound together in one neat volume. And at first glance, the bible looks like it might be a book full of answers. There's all those laws in Exodus, and Leviticus, and Deuteronomy. There's all those pithy sayings in Proverbs and Wisdom. There's all those stories with morals, from Genesis to the Gospels. There's letters giving instructions to various churches. And there's visions of direct encounters with God, from the prophets to the Revelation to St. John. Lots of people look to the Bible as a book of answers. How do we know whether something is a temptation or an opportunity to serve God? Look to the Bible and see if it has the answer. The trouble with the Bible as a book of answers is that its answers aren't terrible consistent all the time. Isaiah 2:4 calls for the faithful to beat their swords into ploughshares. Joel 3:10 calls for God's people to beat their ploughshares into swords! Mark 6:9 calls for Jesus' followers to wear sandals, while Luke 10:4 prohibits their use. Matthew 5:44 calls God's people to love their enemies, while Joshua 6:17 calls for their swift slaughter. The Bible as a book of answers can be disappointing and contradictory.
But Holy Scriptures are an even greater gift than that: Just as Adam and Eve had to move past an infantile relationship with God in the garden and had to discern good from evil without simple commands to guide their every step, so our faith matures also. If Holy scripture is not a book of answers, it is, even better, an account of thousands of years of humanity wrestling with the questions. We are not alone in our struggle to discern the will of the divine. The scriptures contain a treasure trove of accounts of humans wrestling with God. By reading the accounts of those who have gone before us, we can better listen for God in our lives.
Finally, our testing of God's call to us can be confirmed by the community of believers. When Jesus rejected temptation, the angels came and ministered to him. Likewise, when we try to listen for God's voice in our lives, we are not alone. We have the witness of those who have gone before us, yes, but we also have those who struggle alongside us today. We can help one another listen for the voice of God in our lives, and help each other tell temptation from opportunity.
Perhaps the greatest gift, though, is to live with the certainty of uncertainty: to recognize that listening for God's voice is always an ongoing process. That however sure we are of who are the good guys and who are the bad guys, where we hear angels and where we hear demons, what is opportunity and what is temptation, we never know the answers for certain. We need to always stop and listen and pray to find how God speaks to us. Which may be why the Church has this gift of the forty days each year. May we all have a blessed, quiet Lent to listen to God.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Come and see

A little less than twelve years ago, I had just graduated from college. I was Roman Catholic, which was very relevant to my formation, but in terms of my practice at the time, it mainly meant that it was Roman Catholic churches that I occasionally tried to attend – maybe once every few months or so but didn't quite feel I belonged at. I knew I wanted God to be in my life, but didn't quite know how that worked in my new-found adulthood.

My fiancée told me about a small church on Fourteen Mile Road where she had attended an Earth Day program a few months earlier. She read about the program in the Oakland Press, attended, and thought that the church seemed like a place with warm, welcoming people and a very real sense of the presence of the Holy Spirit. She suggested we could try going there together.

I was a little wary of this "Episcopal Church." When I was younger, I went to my piano teacher's funeral at St. James in Birmingham. I mainly remembered that they used odd, old language; all the verbs seemed to end in "eth": abideth, comforteth, endeth... Growing up, the Catholic Church I attended was called "St. Thomas More," and I had the vague awareness that its patron was killed by some predecessors to the Episcopalians. I told my fiancée about my apprehension that the Episcopalians might end up chopping off my head also. She didn't think it was likely. I asked, "Really?" She said, "Come and see." I came here. My eyes were opened. It changed my life. And so far, my head still seems attached to my shoulders. So thank you.

We find ourselves here today in the midst of the Epiphany season. Epiphany comes from the Greek word for "appearing" or "becoming visible." Back in December, I talked to you about faith. If faith is about believing even when we can't see, Epiphany celebrates the times we do begin to see God in the world.

This whole season is about God's presence in the world coming into focus. We start with those Magi: wise folks from far away, outside the Jewish tradition, who recognized that something great was going on, and came to see the newborn Jesus. In the Eastern Orthodox tradition, Epiphany is a three-fold celebration. First, it celebrates the Nativity: Jesus' birth, and appearing to shepherds and magi. Second, it celebrates Jesus' baptism, when Jesus' divine nature became more widely known (how much more widely known varies by which Gospel account you read). Third, on that same day January 6th, they celebrate the Wedding at Cana, Jesus' first miracle, that let more people see that awesome power was at work in the world.

In the Episcopal Church, we stretch these readings out over an entire season between Christmas and Lent, and add even more examples that reveal the awesome power of God in the world, starting with the star and the Magi, and ending with the Transfiguration right before Lent. Splendid accounts of God making Godself known not only to the faithful, but to all sorts and conditions of people.

But today's lessons put _us_ on the spot. Today's lessons remind us that we have a role in this process of Epiphany. We are baptized into the body of Christ, which means that sometimes that hands and mouths and hearts that do God's work of revealing Godself to the world are our hands and mouths and hearts. Sometimes it is we who are called to show Christ to the world. The lessons today talk about this. Come and see…

In the Isaiah lesson, the Narrator, who bible scholars often call "Deutero-Isaiah," is speaking not to the exiled people of Judah, captive in Babylon at the time the story is set, but rather to other peoples: the coastlands, and peoples from far away. We most often think of Prophets in Hebrew Scripture primarily playing the role of calling the Hebrew people back to God. Indeed, calling God's chosen people back into covenant is a primary function of the Prophets. But Deutero-Isaiah's message is that the Babylonian exile is a pretty huge thing, and God wouldn't waste an opportunity like this to do something as "insignificant" as merely restore the house of David to the throne of Kingdom of Judah and bring the survivors back home. Now to any ordinary listener, that would be a pretty spectacular accomplishment, but Isaiah says God has something even bigger in mind. Judah will no longer be "merely" a people with a special relationship to God. Now, God intends for his followers to be "a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth." No longer is it enough that God's people live in covenant with God. Now, the new task Isaiah prophesies is to be a light to show the way to God to the entire world. Live so that you tell the world "Come and see the Lord of Heaven and Earth!"

In the Gospel lesson, John the Baptist begins by announcing "Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world." He announced it to the crowds. The next day, John announced it to two of his own followers. They left John and followed Jesus. One of them, Andrew, went and found his brother Peter, and announced "We have found the Messiah!" Andrew brought his brother Peter to Jesus.

Isaiah, John, and Andrew all acted as a light to the world. They all illuminated the way to God, and invited others to come and see. In this Epiphany season, when so much of the lighting up of the way to God comes from miracles, whether a star, or a lot of good wine, or a shimmering mountaintop experience, today's lessons remind this isn't the entire story. A big part of the lighting up of the way to God comes from the actions of God's servants: Isaiah, Paul, John the Baptist, Andrew, us. It is our task also to invite others to "Come and see."

Evangelism can be pretty close to a dirty word among Episcopalians. I know I personally find it really challenging to be a salesman. I'm no good at asking people to buy something. I don't like being pushy; I don't want to impose on people; I don't want to assume that my way of seeing the world is better than what they've already got going for them.

The first thing we have to remember is that this isn't sales at all -- it's sharing. If we truly believe we've got something great and we care about others, we want them to have the opportunity to have it too. As today's Psalm tells us, " I have told the glad news of deliverance in the great congregation; see, I have not restrained my lips, as you know, O LORD." Andrew knew Peter would be excited to hear about the Messiah. My fiancée knew I'd be excited to find a church.

But evangelism isn't just asking the unchurched if they've heard about Jesus. Epiphany, and our role in it, isn't about telling people what to do, or even telling them about our great God. It's about showing them. "I will give you as a light to the nations," says the Lord, "that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth". "_Behold_, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world". "Come and _see_".

When we live God's presence in the world, Epiphany can be a shining forth of the Light of God that is within us. A sharing of what God empowers us to do, and can empower others to do also. A glimpse into the world to come through our life as if it is already arrived.

Isaiah wrote about salvation reaching the ends of the earth. John proclaimed the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Evangelism isn't about inviting people to change the name of the God they worship, so their prayers are now aimed at the "right" God. Making visible God's salvation in the world points to a reality most clearly illuminated by the cross.

John pointed to Jesus as the Lamb of God. That might be muted for us, as people who hear those words every week, but in calling Jesus the "Lamb of God," John points toward his death. The salvation of God comes in the triumph of the Cross: the empires of this world threw all the evil they had at Jesus. They mocked him and tortured him and killed him. Jesus stood before the evil of the world, and somehow, through amazing grace, he didn’t use his infinite power to drive it off.

He let evil do its worst, and it did not prevail.

The good news that our lives are called to illuminate is that evil can’t win. We are called to live the reality that we do not need to repay evil with evil, because evil cannot win. To witness to Jesus’ facing all the terrible suffering that the mightiest empire in the world could throw at him, and not resisting it precisely because the worst they had to give was incapable of destroying him. The man who said “Love your enemies. Do good to those who persecute you. Bless those who curse you.” didn’t need to add a clause “unless they’re about to kill you; then, smite them with the hosts of heaven.”

Isaiah bore witness to the same truth that loving service needn't fear the mightiest powers on earth. He wrote "Thus says the LORD, the Redeemer of Israel and his Holy One, to one deeply despised, abhorred by the nations, the slave of rulers, "Kings shall see and stand up, princes, and they shall prostrate themselves, because of the LORD, who is faithful, the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you."

The triumph of the cross is that Love is greater than all the forces of coercion and fear. Evangelism – spreading the Good News, revealing God's salvation – is living our lives to reveal the incredible gift we have that, when we believe in it, empowers us to love and serve without fear. We can do good without fear because Jesus showed that the worst that can happen to us cannot stick. It enables us to live as if the Reign of God were already fully present. And when we live in the Reign of God, we are light to the world, so others can come and see the Reign of God also. Amen.