Sunday, November 27, 2011

Getting Ready for the Baby

This is the season of Advent – a season of joyful preparation and solemn anticipation. We know that the Child will come – but the season begins with portents of the end of time.

We know that at the end of all things, when the constructions of the last empire are down for good and all creation groans for redemption, our savior comes. He comes to judge and he comes to redeem.

He comes, not on our timetable, not when or where we want him to come, nor how. He does not come riding to our rescue in the last reel of the movie. Much as we want him to.

He comes to us, first, not in power and might, but in mystery and quiet.

He comes to us, he is already here.

Here, in our hearts – if we follow the one true God, adoring and worshipping him who created all things.

Here, in our hearts – if we ask him to come.

If we are ready.

On my mother’s kitchen bulletin board is a snapshot of a mother with three children, one standing and looking toward the camera, one squirming out of her lap, and another holding in his hand a cowboy hat on top of a stick. Why?

Because this is to be a photograph of my mother with all her children – and the one with the hat knows a fourth child is coming. So he represents the fourth child with a cowboy hat. He does not know much else about the coming child – he just knows that the child is coming and that the family is getting ready for the baby.

The family with the snapshot (you can see Dad’s shadow from behind the camera) knows they want their new member to be safe, and they want to get the stuff together they will need to welcome the baby. They are getting excited.

Maybe they will paint the baby’s room – not sure whether to paint it pink or blue they might paint it yellow or green. They are going to be getting gifts – things they will need to take care of the baby, things that will be fun or silly, toys for the baby to play with, or objects that it will admire.

They will want to nurture the baby. And they will be thinking about names.

Mary and Joseph had a slightly different situation. They knew some things about the baby that was on the way. In fact, a lot, if they had been reading the Hebrew Scriptures.

They had already received a suggestion of what to name the baby – Emmanuel, “God with us.” They probably counted on a boy. They certainly wondered if the baby would be safe. And if they had any ambitions about painting the baby’s room first they would need to know where that room would be.

They were soon to be amazed with an array of gifts. Gifts were coming that would tell them a lot about their baby – or confirm for them what they already suspected.

Strangers would deliver the gifts they were going to receive: first came shepherds and angels, and then Magi, wise people from the East who had “seen his star.” (Other visitors would come but they would come too late – and miss the baby.)

This baby was bound to cause excitement. All babies do. And each baby is special. This one had some extra excitement to generate.

The wise people came to adore him. They greeted him as King of the Jews.

Nobody else would call him that for a long time. And when anybody did again, it would be – a sign that he was not safe, and confirmation that his name really mattered and that he really was King.

But for now – there is a baby on the way.

A baby – not very royal looking at all. A baby – defenseless, quiet or crying, in need of nurture and safety and warmth, and in need of love.

A baby – in whom the hopes of all humanity are raised.

A baby…

The One who will come in power, the one who will bring with him the consummation of time – the Alpha and the Omega – first comes to us like this.

He comes to us, quiet, mysterious, in longing for us just as we are longing for him.

How shall we get ready for the baby?

+ for broadcast the first Sunday in Advent 2011


Sunday, November 20, 2011

Where have you seen the King?

Where have you seen the King?

Where have you seen the King this week?

How did you recognize him? How did you expect to find him?

Did you see him in royal robes, riding on a chariot of clouds, heralded by angels?

Did you see him down and out, hungry, thirsty, naked or ill-clothed, sick, or in prison?

How did you greet him? Like any other person? Is that good or bad?

Did you greet him when you greeted the stranger, the lonely, the forgotten, the ill-favored?

Did you greet him when you greeted your mother, your brother, your sister, your least-favorite aunt or cousin?

Did you greet him at the bank or the bar? Was he the barista or the cashier?

How did you treat him?

We do not expect this Jesus. We do not expect the Messiah to appear to us like this. We expect something a little more… royal.

And yet we are told, in this vision of the Apocalypse, of the consummation of time, that this is what a king looks like – this is what the King looks like.

He looks like us.

He looks like us because in him God became one of us. The eternal Word took on human flesh and became a man.

He walked among us, he laughed and suffered, he spoke Greek or Aramaic or Hebrew, he listened to the wise old men by the village well. He helped his father in the shop. When he was young he drew water for the kitchen. He went on a journey. His cousin John baptized him – and then he went into the desert wilderness.

And then he gathered some friends together and he went on a longer journey, a harder journey. At first they seemed just to be wandering around Galilee and the country east of the Jordan, causing trouble for local officials and pig keepers, drinking at a wedding feast, telling some stories. And then it changed.

If you want to follow me, you must take up your cross. You must come with me to Jerusalem. To the great festival of Passover. But I myself will be the Lamb. I will be the offering. And sins will be forgiven.

The people will be released – they will be free to love God. Because they will know God has been willing to pay the price, to bring them home to him.

I will be treated like the least of God’s creatures. I will be hungry, and thirsty, and naked, and sick, and in prison. I will be tortured. I will be crucified.

It is the way of Glory.

Mockingly they will hail me, “King of the Jews.” And they will be right.

I will be their King and they will be my people.

I will be their shepherd and they will be the sheep of my hand, my own people.

I will gather them to me. And at the last day, I will bring them home.

Knowing now that you did - that as you treated the least of his children you were treating him the same - are you glad?

Will you be looking at people differently this week?

When Jesus comes, we say, when the Messiah comes, everything will be different.

He will change things. He will make them new.

Or: He will restore Israel. He will make all things well again.

Won't he?

That is what the Messiah is expected to do - that is what he is expected for - to set things right, to make them the way they should be, or were... or we wish they were.

We cannot have back what we used to have. We cannot have Eden before the Fall, Israel before the Exile, Jerusalem before the Temple came down.......

The Messiah - isn't he the One who would rebuild the Temple?

But Jesus did not do any of those things.

He did not come in power on clouds of glory, electrifying might blasting from his fingertips. He did not come and sweep Caesar aside. He did not cleanse the Temple as the Maccabees did; he -

He called for something more. He called for us to prepare our hearts - to make him room. He called for us to pray Messiah down - right into our own lives. He asked us to transform our lives, from the inside out. The domain of God begins -

The reign of God starts - not with a great military victory but with a change in the human heart. "Change your minds", Jesus said - change the way you think and act and move. Change your way of being in the world.

Then we can talk about the consequences.

What we do now - we cannot hide it - is our preparation for the victory of our God. How we act now - we cannot avoid it - is our proclamation of the reign of God.

We could dress up and show off like some of the people Jesus denounced. We could go through the motions. We could look pious, or righteous, or holy. But who cares? Too many could see through us.

What you cannot fake is this: to treat your neighbor as you would yourself - or God.

Love your neighbor as yourself. Love your neighbor, Jesus says, as if it were me.

Love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your mind and all your strength, and love God through your neighbor.

That will be the beginning of the kingdom of heaven, right there in your life and mine.

God the Father,
help us to hear the call of Christ the King
and to follow in his service,
whose kingdom has no end;
for he reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, one glory.


Notes for sermon given on the feast of Christ the King, St Alban's Church, Edmonds WA.

In addition to the Sources & Resources Year B (listed in a separate post) there are two unexpected influences on this sermon:

John Fisher, "Have you seen Jesus my Lord?" song (1970)

God-sighting testimonials - from Bill Talen (


Sunday, November 6, 2011

All Saints Sunday 2011

When I think nowadays of what I am thankful for it turns into a list of saints – living ones included. Saints include people around us who draw us deeper into holiness ourselves, even as they themselves appear as a kind of sign or symbol of God’s presence in the world. Saints – believers – are sanctified people – people set apart for a holy purpose.

Some of them would gladly tell you that they do not deserve the label of “holy person.”

They might say, “Oh, yes! Make me a saint – but not yet.”

Or they might say, “I just don’t deserve this” – meaning they don’t deserve to be put through the training program they figure sainthood would imply. It is too hard, they would say, for human beings to bear.

Nevertheless I find myself making a list of unknowing saints. These are people in whom God is at work for visible or invisible holiness to take place.

As Jesus began to teach on the mountain, he enumerated for his disciples some of the kinds of people whom God makes saints – whom God blesses. They are people like the Psalmist knew – the humble and meek, who are called to rejoice; the afflicted – who will be heard and are vindicated; the hungry or thirsty or poor – who will receive fullness.

The Lord is their Shepherd; they shall lack nothing.

Those who trust in him – those who believe in him with their whole hearts – will not be punished, but saved.

To whom does salvation belong? From whom does it come?

Salvation, the multitude cries, belongs to our God who is seated on the throne and to the Lamb, to the One who judge, the One who redeems.

Those who have suffered hunger or thirst, sunstroke or heatstroke, they will be guided by the good shepherd to a place of wellbeing and comfort.

So saints are those whom God redeems. Sanctity is not a reward for meritorious service. God saves: the saints are justified by faith not by works. There is no boasting save in the Cross of Christ, the paradoxical victory that looks so like defeat – that pulls us beyond the end of the world, beyond death itself, onto new and holy ground. Holy ground – where we already stand, if we only knew…

We are God’s children, now – already – and we have hope in him, the One who will be revealed to all as God’s son and our Lord.

This is the vision of Revelation.

Sometimes seekers of holiness have their own great cloud of witnesses about them – assembled as friends of the heart or companions on the way.

When I would go visit a professor of mine in college, Donald Nicholl, I could see that in his office he had assembled around his desk photographs and portraits of “friends” – as he called them – people whom he wanted around him as witnesses or encouragers. And decades later his widow Dorothy showed me the room where he spent his last days, still surrounded by a cloud of witnesses as he laid on his daybed and composed himself for eternity. Dorothy kept her own cloud of witnesses about her into her final years.

The “saints” on their walls might be different from yours or mine. Some were familiar faces, some were notable people they introduced me to, and some were unknown. All bore witness to the reality of God and of our presence in God, and God’s presence in us.

They became as windows or lights, letting some of the eternal brightness shine into our lives, and our worlds. They do not have to be famous or extraordinary to give us a vision of effulgence – the brilliant radiance of the people of God. In fact it may help some time if they are not, if they are just regular people.

One day in 1959 a monk was waiting for a ride home to the monastery. He had been to the dentist. He was standing on a downtown corner in Louisville, Kentucky.

And this is what he wrote, in his book, "Conjectures of A Guilty Bystander":

In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream ...

This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud. And I suppose my happiness could have taken form in the words: “Thank God, thank God that I am like other men, that I am only a man among others.”

It is a glorious destiny to be a member of the human race, though it is a race dedicated to many absurdities and one which makes many terrible mistakes: yet, with all that, God Himself gloried in becoming a member of the human race. A member of the human race! To think that such a commonplace realization should suddenly seem like news that one holds the winning ticket in a cosmic sweepstake.

I have the immense joy of being man, a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now that I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.

Then it was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in God’s eyes. If only they could all see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time. There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed… I suppose the big problem would be that we would fall down and worship each other. But this cannot be seen, only believed and “understood” by a peculiar gift.

The monk, Thomas Merton, was seeing his fellow human beings “in aspiration” as Donald Nicholl would put it – he was seeing them “in the Spirit” as they were made to be, as they were called to become – as people who could blossom into the fullness of life as God intended them to experience it.

Robert Ellsberg makes this point in his essay on the feast of All Saints, in his book of the same name:

Since the early centuries of the church the liturgical calendar has reserved one day to honor, collectively, all the saints, both those officially recognized and those known only to God. Thus we are reminded that the true company of saints is far more numerous than the list of those who have been formally canonized. There are many anonymous saints who nevertheless form part of the great “cloud of witnesses,” surrounding us with their faith and courage and so participating in the communion between the living and the dead.

This collective feast, All Saints, is also an occasion to acknowledge the varieties of holiness. Though they share a certain family resemblance, the saints are not formed in any particular mold. Some are renowned for contemplation and others for action; some played a public role while others spent their lives in quiet obscurity. Some demonstrated the vitality of ancient traditions while others were pioneers, charting new possibilities in the spiritual life. Some received recognition and honor within their lifetimes, while others were scorned or even persecuted.

The feast of All Saints does not honor a company of “immortals,” far removed from the realm of ordinary human existence. The saints were not “super” human beings but those who realized the vocation for which all human beings were created and to which we are ultimately called. No one is called to be another St. Francis or St. Teresa. But there is a path to holiness that lies within our individual circumstances, that engages our own talents and temperaments, that contends with our own strengths and weaknesses, that responds to the needs of our own neighbors and our particular moment in history. The feast of All Saints strengthens and encourages us to create that path by walking it.

We are called – all of us – into the fullness of the joy of being God’s children, of being set apart for a holy purpose: to become what we are called to be, to become saints. And so,

“There is only one sorrow – not to be a saint.”—Léon Bloy

And in the end there is one joy, to be shared by all: to greet one another, in the Spirit, as the people God has created and called us to be, as his own beloved children, as Saints.

Almighty God, you have knit together your elect in one communion and fellowship in the mystical body of your Son Christ our Lord: Give us grace so to follow your blessed saints in all virtuous and godly living, that we may come to those ineffable joys that you have prepared for those who truly love you; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

-- -- -- --

Ellsberg, Robert, "All Saints: Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses for Our Time," New York: Crossroad, 1997, 475-476.

Merton, Thomas, "Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander" (1966).

From the Shorter OED:

fullness: 1. The condition of containing something in abundance. b. In biblical language, all that is contained in the world. [J Wesley: The Earth and all her Fullness owns Jehovah for her sovereign Lord!] c. Abundance, plenty. 2. Completeness, perfection. [G. Priestland: Christianity … hasn’t yet been tried … What right have we to expect its fullness in our time?]

in the fullness of time – at the destined time; eventually.