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Sermons

190113

January 13, 2019

First Sunday after the Epiphany:
The Baptism of our Lord
Grace Church, Trumbull
The Rev. Dr. Paul Jacobson
 
In the Name of God, into whose life we are baptized:
Father, Son & Holy Spirit. Amen.
 

Sometime in the latter half of the 4th century, Gregory Nazianzus, the Archbishop of Constantinople wrote. Christ is bathed in light; let us also be bathed in light.[1] These beautiful words are particualry apt, because today you and I stand on the banks of the River Jordan with the whole Church – with all who have been baptized into Jesus’ Name – recalling his baptism by John. (point) Just like in that window. Just a little bit ago we sang:

On Jordan’s bank the Baptist’s cry / announces that the Lord is nigh;

Awake and hearken, for he brings / glad tidings of the King of Kings.[2]

But, wait. Didn’t we start Advent with those very words? Why are they here again? For the past six weeks, we have been seriously involved with prophecies of the Messiah, the commemoration of Jesus’ human birth, and finally, today, Jesus’ entrance into public ministry. And, yet, we’re back where we began. Sort of.

We generally prefer stories that go in one direction; stories that have a beginning, a middle, and an end. But we rarely get that kind of storytelling here in church. Instead, we usually get stories that fold back and forth, then overlap in sometimes unexpected ways. Just think about how the threads of John the Baptist and his mother, Elizabeth, appear in the weaving of our story since December began.

This overlap occurs not only in the stories themselves, but also in the language of symbols. Today is such a day. The baptismal font, the source of our new life in Christ, is filled with the same water that has marked the whole history of God’s relationship with humanity. Because this is so, the waters of the font are not just the River Jordan, but also the waters of life at Creation, and the waters of death and new life at the Flood. The font is the Red Sea bringing both liberation and death, then new life from the rock at Massa in the desert. The font is the dew from heaven which is both manna in the desert and the Just One of Israel.

True, water can sometimes seem to offer only destruction: Katrina, Harvey, Maria, Sandy. Yet, at the end of the day, the font contains the living water that Jesus promised the Samaritan woman — water and blood flowing from the side of Life itself, freely given.

Well, if that’s all about water, what do we think about baptism? I suspect that most of us (at least on occasion) think about baptism simply as a cleasing bath that washes away our sins. This is baptism as a problem solver, as fire insurance. All joking aside, to think of baptism only as a get-out-of jail-free card is to see baptism as an end-point, a one-and-done event.

But wait, there’s more! In baptism, God offers us a share in Christ’s death and resurrection. In Romans (6:8) Paul writes, if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. This is not about baptism as freedom from something, but freedom for something. This is baptism as a beginning of a new life, not simply the ending of an old life. This is baptism into something, a rising into a new life in Christ, as members of Christ’s body.

If our baptism is a beginning, where do we go from here? How do we live a baptismal life, raised with Christ in the Spirit? How do we avoid the plight of Narcissus, so that when we peer into the waters of the font, we don’t see just our own reflection, but we can begin to glimpse that which is of God? To put it antother way, what does it mean to live a baptismal spirituality? I propose three simple words — Get Over Yourself.

We are surrounded every day, and in every way with what I sometimes call “galloping Pelagianism.” Pelagius was a British theologian who lived in Rome in the late 4.c., and taught that we make our own salvation. Now, this may seem remote to our own experience, but look around you.

If you buy this sports utility vehicle, go to this gym or club, shop out of this catalogue, buy these self-help tapes, books, and seminars … you will have it all - the American Dream. I don’t know about you, but this sounds a lot like making our own salvation to me. But the American Dream is not the dream of Jesus Christ, because in the dream of Jesus Christ — being born in water and the Spirit— it is always God who makes the first move. Living a baptismal spirituality requires a close look at how we respond to God’s initiatives in our lives.

Daniel Erlander [writing within the Lutheran tradition], says “Never does our status before God depend on … how we feel, having the right experience, being free of doubts, what we accomplish, our success, or our position. We are Christians because God surprised us. Coming in water, God washed us and grafted us into Christ. Our identity for all the days of our life is set!” We are now the bringers forth of justice; we are now the “proclaimers of the wonderful deeds of God in Christ in [and for] the world today.”[3]

This is the reality of God always taking the initiative, and the story of God’s interaction with humanity is filled with examples of God insisting that we get over ourselves — to be vulnerable and open to God, to others, and, what is often the most difficult, to ourselves. This is the lesson we hear repeated in the stories of Abraham & Sarah, of Elizabeth & Zechariah, of Mary & Joseph.

This is also the lesson that I saw played out in a swimming pool, one hot July day in the mid 1970s. During my many summers of working at a Boy Scout camp outside of St. Louis, I often had the occasion to work with groups of developmentally disabled guys – both young and old. One particular incident is as clear in my mind this morning as it was that day, now some forty years ago. I was working with a group of “Boy” Scouts in their late 40s, most of whom were terrified to be in the water, even just up to their knees. The goal of the week was to get them comfortable enough to put their heads under the water, no simple task for the terrified. We played every game imaginable to increase their comfort level, apparently with no success.

On Friday, the last day of camp, one of my would-be swimmers, John, came up to me in the shallow end of the pool and said, “I really want to put my face in, but I’m scared. Will you go under the water with me?” I said, “Of course.” “Will you hold my hand.” “Sure.” “And don’t let go!” “Of course not.”

Then followed several attempts, resulting in just me underwater. Eventually, with one hand grabbing mine, and the other pinching his nose, John let go of his fear for long enough to thrust his face beneath the surface of the water. When we emerged only seconds later, I saw a look on his face that said volumes more than the “Thank you” that came from his lips.

What I saw written there in big letters and enormously bright lights was, “I Did It!” I forgot myself, took the plunge, and I’m not only OK, I’m changed.

In fact, John spent as much of that last day as possible with his face in the water, still holding his nose but no longer my hand, exploring this new part of his life, born of water. From that day to this, John’s experience in the swimming pool of Camp May has been a powerful icon to me of the baptismal life.

After taking the initial plunge, living into a baptismal spirituality also means being open and vulnerable enough to recognize our need to be fed — fed at the table of human love and friendship; and even moreso at this table of God. If we can get over ourselves, even for just a little while, we may be able to see God in the faces and touch of our friends and those around us. And, stepping outside of ourselves, we find God in a simple meal of bread and wine that is prepared daily in the heart of God with such extravagant lavishness.

In a few moments we will renew our baptismal vows, reminding us of our own re-birth in water and the Spirit. If you are wondering where you can fix your heart so that you can find your true self, look no further than the commitments which we pledge to fulfill in word and carry out in action – with God’s help. Listen to the verbs, the “how” of your response to God’s call in your life: continue, persevere, proclaim, seek & serve, and strive.

Through the renewal of our baptismal vows, and continual dining at the table of the Lord, we are called, like Mary & Joseph, to return to our own country — whose landmarks are this font and this table — so that we might discover, again and again, “a welcome place in our dis-placed lives.”[4] 

Finally, then, we return to Gregory’s call to each one of us—Christ is bathed in light; let us also be bathed in light. Come on in—the water’s fine. Amen.


[1] Gregory Nazianzus, Oratio 39 in Sancta Lumina, 14.

[2] Charles Coffin, Jordanis oras praevia. Translated John Chandler.

[3] Daniel Erlander, Baptized, We Live: Lutheranism as a Way of Life (Chelan, WA: Holden Village, 1981) 4.

[4] Maxwell E. Johnson, “Back Home to the Font: Eight Implications of a baptismal Spirituality” Worship 71: 482.First Sunday after the Epiphany: The Baptism of our Lord Grace Church, Trumbull The Rev. Dr. Paul Jacobson

 

 

 

 


190106

January 6, 2019
Epiphany Lessons & Carols
Grace Church, Trumbull
The Rev. Dr. Paul Jacobson
 

Meditation

“A cold coming they had of it at this time of the year, just the worst time of the year to take a journey, and specially a long journey. The ways deep, the weather sharp, the days short, the sun farthest off, the very dead of winter.”[1]

On Christmas Day in 1622, Bishop Lancelot Andrewes preached on the visit of the Wise Men to the Christmas Court of King James I. He was imagining what it might have been like to be one of those travelers, following a star through rough & dangerous terrain, to who knows where.

As we gather today to celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany, we might ask, who are these Wise Ones? And why do they so capture our imagination?

The writer of Matthew’s gospel is the only one to mention the Wise Men, or the Magi. Matthew tells us that they came “from the east” (“from the rising of the sun”) to worship the “king of the Jews”. The gospel never mentions the number of Magi, but most Christians have traditionally assumed them to have been three in number, based on the number of gifts: gold, frankincense and myrrh. In some Eastern Churches, there are as many as twelve.

Although the Wise Men, or Magi, are commonly referred to as “kings,” there is nothing in Matthew’s account that implies that they were rulers of any kind. The identification of the Magi as kings is linked to Old Testament prophecies that describe the Messiah being worshipped by kings especially Psalm 72:10, which reads, “Yea, all kings shall fall down before him: all nations serve him.

In cases like today, when we have few details, we often elaborate. For example, various traditions have given these important visitors a wide range of names. We know them as Melchior, Caspar and Balthasar. Then, there’s the question of where they came from. The same country? Different places? Foreign, certainly. Perhaps even exotic. What seems most important to Matthew is that God was revealing the birth of Jesus to the wider world, to the lands beyond the people of Israel.

This Feast of Epiphany brings to a close the Christmas celebration, our waiting for Jesus to be born in Bethlehem. At the same time, along with Simeon and Anna in the Temple, we now shift our focus to the work of God in Jesus in the world. In the coming weeks, we will hear Luke’s account of Jesus’ baptism in the River Jordan, the call of the Disciples, and his ministry of teaching.

But, before that, let’s have one more bit of Christmas fun, shall we?


[1] Lancelot Andrewes’ Sermon on Mt. 2:1-2, preached in the presence of James I on Christmas 1622. The opening five lines of T.S Eliot’s The Journey of the Magi (1927) are borrowed directly from Andrewes.

 


181230

The First Sunday after Christmas
December 30, 2018
Grace Church, Trumbull
The Rev. Dr. Paul Jacobson
 
Isaiah 61:10-62:3
Psalm 147
Galatians 3:23-25;4:4-7
John 1:1-18

 

In the name of the Incarnate God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Some years ago, on a misty Christmas morning, I made my way through the streets of San Francisco to the inner-city parish of St. John the Evangelist, where I was serving as Director of Music and Liturgy, for the Christmas Day service. After the usual late evening before with all the excitement of Christmas Eve, children, food and drink, and the elaborate midnight service, I found that although I was tired to my bones, I looked forward to the smaller, simpler morning service.

As usual, the streets that Christmas morning were nearly deserted. Most families were at home, still asleep or sitting around in their pajamas, opening presents. My normal drive to the church took me beneath a freeway overpass. As I approached the freeway, an odd sight caught my attention; and it made me look again.

It was a pink aluminum Christmas tree, about three feet high, set up on a small triangular littered patch of grass between the bridge and the onramp to the freeway.

There, amid the wind-blown trash and grimy rubbish of an inner-city overpass was this strange, glittering piece of pink brightness. It made me smile, and it filled my heart.

As is too typical in urban areas, there, under the bridge where the steel girders and the slope of the concrete meet, a number of people had made their home. From a variety of backgrounds and for a variety reasons, these folks had found themselves homeless, living on the streets. The overpass provided shelter from the wind and rain.

I imagined that the pink aluminum Christmas tree I saw might have been repurposed from the side of the road somewhere by the residents of this place, and put it there as their own, perhaps their only, celebration of Christmas joy.

A garish pink metallic sermon, shouting out for all the world to hear: The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

Today is the first Sunday after Christmas Day. It’s also the Fifth Day of Christmas. You know, the day of Five Golden Rings? On Christmas Eve, I heard a television anchor begin by saying: “Now that the Christmas Season is coming to a close....” And I thought, well … actually, we’ve only just begun.

Even though the Wise Men are getting closer, today we don’t hear any “real” Christmas stories. No Mary or Joseph, no angels, or shepherds or Magi.

Where, in fact, is that sweet little baby? Today, we just have In the beginning…Ho, ho, ho-hum. It’s sort of an anti-climax, isn’t it?

But, what if? What if we could hear John’s prologue not as something egg-headed and airy-fairy? What if we heard it as something, well, unexpected? Like a pink aluminum Christmas tree? Unexpected, maybe even a little atilt, but insistently shining in the darkness. What if?

So, let’s go back to the beginning. In the Beginning, John says. The Word of God who was present when everything was created. (Pencil demo – God creates a pencil simply by saying “pencil,” not an ideation, but an utterance).

Genesis tells us that God said, “Let there be …” and there was. God spoke day and night, heaven and earth, land and sea, plants and animals, and humanity into being. Jesus is that utterance. Jesus is God’s eternal speech, which existed before anything else and called everything into being.

One of the stanzas of “Of the Father’s Love Begotten” that was omitted from the Hymnal 1982 reads:

At his word the words were framèd;
he commanded; it was done:
heaven and earth and depths of ocean
in their threefold order one;
all that grows beneath the shining
of the moon and burning sun,
evermore and evermore!
 

Already in the late 4th century, a poet named Marcus Aurelius Clemens Prudentius (348-413), was making a singable version of John’s Prologue.

So, here we have John waxing rhapsodic about the Eternal Word, and then comes: There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. Almost certainly a nod to the followers of John the Baptist, who were almost as numerous as followers of Jesus in those early years. I suspect that John the Evangelist needed to acknowledge the importance of this large sect, while holding firm to his claim that the Baptist was the forerunner, not the Light.

And the Light had been prophesied and sung about since the beginning of time. Again, Prudentius:

This is he whom seers in old time
chanted of with one accord;
whom the voices of the prophets
promised in their faithful word;
now he shines, the long expected,
let creation praise its Lord,
evermore and evermore!
 

In the Incarnation, God’s eternal Word was articulated within our world and within human history in a particular person. Jesus, then, is God’s sermon preached to us in the living out of a human life. Jesus became the enfleshment of what God has been trying to get us to hear since the beginning of time.

And just what is it that God is saying to us? First off, God says, “This is who I am!” In Jesus, God speaks to us as in no other way; not as in the Bible, not as in nature, not as by human reason or accomplishment, not as by listening to inner voices. Jesus tells us who God is. Jesus also tells us who we are; who we were created to be.

In Jesus, we hear that God heals, forgives, embraces outcasts, and prays for those who hurt him. In Jesus, we hear that God understands betrayal and denial, suffering and pain, humiliation and death. In Jesus, we hear that God brings victory over despair, defeat, destruction, and death. In Jesus, we hear that God wills and shares that victory with us, with humanity and with creation.

God the Creator takes on flesh, our flesh, and becomes one of us, lives among us. In the midst of our darkness, in the midst of the chaos of our lives, Jesus comes, like a pink aluminum Christmas tree, proclaiming life and not death. Later in John’s gospel, we will hear Jesus say, “I come that you may have life and have it abundantly.” In and through Jesus, we are shown how we are meant to be, full of life, full of hope, full of joy. God has poured upon us the new light of God’s incarnate Word. Our task is to figure out how to allow this light to shine forth in our lives.

The God who takes on our flesh does not ignore the darkness but shines in the very midst of it. And sometimes that shining light looks a great deal like a pink aluminum Christmas tree!

Inevitably, the Christmas spirit will wane. What then? Do we have to wait until the 2019 Shopping Season cranks up to remember the stories, the spirit of Christmas? We don’t want to have Febulights, do we? But how, then, do we remember that we are beloved Children of God? And that Jesus is the mirror of the best that God has made us for, and desires for us?

Let me suggest the wisdom of Howard Thurman. Thurman was perhaps the leading African-American theologian of the 20th century. His poem, The Work of Christmas, was published after his death, and reminds us how to see pink aluminum trees around us all year.

The Work of Christmas

(1985, posthumous)

When the star in the sky is gone,
When the Kings and Princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flocks,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost
To heal the broken
To feed the hungry
To release the prisoner
To teach the nations
To bring Christ to all
To make music in the heart.
~ Howard Thurman (1899-1981)
 

In becoming flesh, God dignifies us – our flesh, our frail flesh – calling us to new life…the life God always intended us to have…from the beginning.

And the Word became Flesh
and dwelt among us,
full of grace and truth. Amen. 
 
 

181223

23 December 2018
Fourth Sunday of Advent, Year C
Grace Episcopal Church, Trumbull
The Rev. Dr. Paul Jacobson
 
Micah 5:2-5a
Canticle 15 + Magnificat
Hebrews 10:5-10
Luke 1:39-45
 

In the Name of God, whose coming we await. Amen.

Please be seated

In today’s Gospel, we hear the story of the Visitation, when Mary set out and went with haste from her home in Nazareth to meet her cousin Elizabeth in a Judean town in the hill country. Tradition tells us that this town is called Ein Karem, now a suburb on the southwest side of Jerusalem. The distance from Nazareth to Ein Karem is about 90 miles.  

I like to think about this story as “the meeting of the mothers.” It is remarkable enough that two women take center stage in a biblical story. We might think of Martha & Mary or Ruth & Naomi, but such instances are rare. And it is more remarkable still that these are two mothers.

And these two mothers, Mary and Elizabeth, are quite a pair, aren’t they? Neither is exactly what we would call conventional. Not quite our view of “acceptable,” right? One was a little too old. The other was a little too unmarried.

Just imagine the tabloid headlines - “Elderly Matron Pregnant! Aliens suspected!” or “Village Girl in Trouble. Local boy under investigation!”

Lest you think that I am equating the Bible with the National Enquirer, let me put your minds at rest. I am not. But biblical stories – especially the stories that surround Christmas – too often become normalized, housebroken, harmless… And the story of these two mothers is anything but harmless!

For Elizabeth and Mary are biblical revolutionaries. Biblical revolutionaries? There’s a term that might stop you in your tracks. What do we think of when we say revolutionary? In this neck of the woods, the first person that comes to mind is Nathan Hale. A short list might include Lenin, Trotsky, Mao, maybe Che Guevara, all associated with armed conflict or violent resistance.

Today, I want to suggest that there’s a less violent, but no less radical, way to think of a revolutionary. Remember Ghandi, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Oh, and let’s not forget Jesus.

A revolutionary, after, is only someone who advocates a profound social or political change. But a revolution can also, simply, be a turning. The earth revolves around the sun every 365 ¼ days (rounding it off!).

I call Mary and Elizabeth revolutionaries because they turn. They turn to God. Sure, there are angelic messengers involved in their stories, but the point is that they each respond to the particular call that God gives them.

If your Sunday School experience was like mine, you learned that Mary “meekly” did what God asked. As if saying yes to God involved no actual thinking at all. Surely, somewhere along the road to Elizabeth’s house, or Bethlehem, or hiding from Herod’s soldiers in Egypt, or throughout Galilee, or at the foot of the Cross, Mary must have uttered something like “I really didn’t know what to expect…this wasn’t it.”

And we can hardly expect less of the calls that God makes to each and every one of us. The Magnificat, the canticle we said between the first two readings, reminds us that God’s world is a world of reversals, of things being upside down, not at all what we had expected. God’s world is a world where the oppressed get good news, the brokenhearted are comforted and those who had wept now laugh. This is the world where the God and Creator of us all is born in a stable, in Bethlehem, the least of the cities of Judah!

In the Magnificat we recall that God is constantly making new life where there was none before. And that new life is not limited to children. Think of Peter at the lakeside, or Moses and the burning bush. These are but two other stories of God’s calling to us – of God constantly revealing himself in newness…in often uncomfortable unexpectedness.

I’m not ordinarily a betting man, but I’m willing to wager that each and every person in this church today has had some experience of God calling us into some kind of new life or other.

“Call” isn’t restricted to those of us who end up wearing clerical collars. God calls all of us, constantly, into deeper relationship with him and the world. Maybe God calls you to tutor a woman at Mercy Learning Center. Maybe God calls you to start a Bible study, or to attend one Maybe God calls you to make sick calls. Or maybe God is calling you to find a way to live without drugs or alcohol.

How does this happen? Most of us don’t see angels in our living rooms. Sometimes a call might come in a cumulative fashion – a persistent, long-term voice that you realize only late in the day that you’ve been hearing all along. Or maybe it’s in a quiet conversation over lunch; a casual comment by a relative stranger at a party; or the simple touch of a friend’s hand. We may even hear its echoes upon waking from a dream.

God’s calling to us is what the whole fuss at Christmas is really about, isn’t it? In the coming of Jesus into a particular time and place, God was trying to make a point to a world that had forgotten that to be a human being is a good thing. God is calling us to be human – to be ourselves.

We don’t ever seem to be happy with what we ARE – we’re always trying to be something different (better) – richer, thinner, smarter, less bald – something! We spend huge amounts of our time trying to conform to some, or someone else’s, notion of someone/something that we’re supposed to be. Those of us with in-laws feel this particularly keenly as holiday dinners approach.

Do we ever really listen to what it is that we tell our kids when they complain about, say, not being popular? We say something like, “don’t worry – there are people out there who value you for your unique and wonderful qualities.” Our parents told us that, and it would be GREAT if our children could believe it, too, but they often see us model something else entirely.

In the birth of Jesus, God gives us a different model. The birth of Jesus (the Incarnation) is God’s own revolutionary restoration of normalcy. In Jesus, God is saying, “See? It’s really not so bad to be an ordinary human being! Remember, back there on the 6th day when I created you, and called you good? OK, so things got a little messed up. But you’ve completely forgotten the point that you’re created in my image. Instead, you spend all your time trying to be me. So, look, now! Pay attention! I’m becoming one of you myself, just to make the point so clear that you can’t miss it!”

In the second century, a bishop by the name of Irenaeus summed up the Incarnation. Irenaeus wrote, “The glory of God is humanity fully alive.”

God’s call to us throughout this Advent season has been to become more fully human. That means to become more fully who God created us to be. More loving, more present, more compassionate, in ever deeper relationship with God and with each other.

And, maybe most importantly for us, it means learning to be OK with being just us – prone to messing up, beset with all manner of insecurities – at least for now. It’s OK to be ordinary, to be mundane, even to be ungifted (at least in the world’s eyes). Like being the least of the cities of Judah, it may not be at all what you expect…but that’s OK.

In the “meeting of the mothers,” Mary and Elizabeth witness to each other the extraordinary call of God in their ordinary lives and, as good biblical revolutionaries, they turn toward God, responding with joy. I want to leave you with a poem by W. H. Auden, about the power of Jesus coming into our actual, ordinary, lives.

Blessed Woman,
Excellent Man,
Redeem for the dull the
Average Way,
That common ungifted
Natures may
Believe that their normal
Vision can
Walk to perfection.

And, so, as we stand on tiptoe at the threshold of Christmas, we pray…

O Come, O come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive…us. Amen.

 


 

[1] Blessed Woman: from W. H. Auden: Collected Poems, Edward Mendelson, ed. Copyright 1944; renewed 1972, W. H. Auden. Reprinted by permission of Random House, Inc.

 


181216

15 December 2018
Advent III - C
Grace Church, Trumbull
The Rev. Dr. Paul Jacobson
 
Zephaniah 3:14-20
Canticle 9 – Ecce Deus
Philippians 4:4-7
Luke 3:7-18

 

In the Name of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

On this third Sunday of Advent, you may notice a few things that are different. At the start of the service, we lighted two purple candles, and a rose-colored candle. The vestments I wear today are less purple than those I wore over the past two weeks.

Since ancient times, in the Western Church, this Sunday has been known as Gaudete Sunday. Gaudete is a Latin word meaning rejoice. It’s in the imperative, so it’s a command, not a suggestion. And, it’s taken from Paul’s exhortation to the church at Philippi: Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.

The Church offers us a little bit of a breather in our getting ready to celebrate the birth of Christ. There’s a shift from alert, watchful preparation to an encouragement to rejoice. Rejoice always.

The readings are full of joy! The prophet Zephaniah tells the people of Israel: Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem! he will exult over you with loud singing as on a day of festival.

Isaiah strikes a similar chord: Therefore, you shall draw water with rejoicing from the springs of salvation. Cry aloud, inhabitants of Zion, ring out your joy, for the great one in the midst of you is the Holy One of Israel.

And, again, from Paul, writing from prison: Rejoice. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything.

So far so good, on this Sunday we call Rejoice! And then, we find ourselves back in the wilderness with John the Baptist shouting, you brood of vipers. Vipers? So much for rejoicing, right? Well, maybe.

Last week, we discovered John the Baptist crying in the wilderness to prepare the way of the Lord. Today, we hear this rough-voiced, old school prophet, warning us of the end times and telling us how to prepare.

He shouts at us to bear fruits worthy of repentance. Repentance. Sometimes words are used like hammers so often that we turn off the ears of our hearts. In his translation The Message, Eugene Peterson offered this reading: “It’s your life that must change, not your skin…What counts is your life.”

So, the people ask – we ask, if we are to change our lives, what then should we do?

Plain-speaking John tells them that they ought to be honest, kind, and hardworking.

Honest (“Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you”). Kind (“Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise”). Diligent (“Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”).

What then must we do? Honesty. Kindness. Diligence. Three simple, basic things. But, as that eminent theologian Peggy Lee might have said, “Is that all there is?” Honesty? Kindness? Diligence? Apparently, according to John, the answer is, Yes.

Can it really be that simple? Remember last week? That, in spite of all the circles of worldly power, the Word of God came to John in the wilderness. So, it’s not such a stretch to believe that, in the simple acts of sharing, honesty and resisting the urge to be bullies, we are preparing the way for the Lord.

Let me be clear. I know that we don’t bring the kingdom; God does. But we can join with John in pointing to the coming of God’s kingdom by living like it’s already here, like we believe that it’s really coming, like we think is actually matters.

Augustine once wrote, “Without God we cannot; without us, God will not.”

We are surrounded with opportunities to be the ordinary saints John calls us to be. And if you think your everyday actions don’t count or don’t matter, ask yourself this: What would it look like if our elected leaders acted this way? Or all of our public officials? I suspect our world would work a whole lot better.

But let’s not point fingers at others. What would it look like if we went out from here looking for opportunities to live like we believed that being honest, kind, and hardworking in a culture that is impatient, immature, and fearful really makes a difference? Because, it does make a difference. It makes a difference because God is love.

Michael M. Rose, author of Becoming Love. Avoiding Common Forms of Christian Insanity, wrote “Love always precedes repentance. Divine love is a catalyst for our turning, our healing. Where fear and threat may gain our compliance, love captures our heart. It changes the heavy burden of the ‘have-to’s’ of imposed obedience to the ‘get-to’s,’ a joyful response to the genuine love of God.”

John doesn’t tell the crowds to move to the wilderness, or stop being tax collectors, or to quit the military. Instead, he points them to the very places where they already live and work. He calls on them to change their lives in those very places, for the love of God, for the sake of the world, and to prepare the way of the Lord. There’s a 20th century saying for this: Bloom where you’re planted.

Because of God’s promise to save the world through Christ, you and I are freed (thus, we are also called!) to be attentive to caring for our little corner of the world; right here, where we are planted. Whether you work in an office, or drive an Uber, or teach school, or visit the sick, or play the piano, you are free to nurture and love those around you, right here, confident that God will complete the good work already begun in you.

So, my sisters and brothers in God, as you continue to prepare for the coming of Christ, remember these three things: The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything. Rejoice…always! Amen.

 
 

181209

9 December 2018
Advent II - C
Grace Church, Trumbull
The Rev. Dr. Paul Jacobson
 
Malachi 3:1-4
Benedictus Dominus Deus
Philippians 1:3-11
Luke 3:1-6

 

In the Name of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

May I have your attention, please?

There are only 15 shopping days left before Christmas.

Now there’s a voice that gets our attention, isn’t it? We are surrounded by shrill, competing voices, calling us to countless places.

It’s only the beginning of Advent, and we’re constantly called to look to the past and to the future at the same time. Where are we supposed to look? The past? The future? It’s a little like the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz: “look that way” (gesture).

So, we’re already stretched pretty thin when, into the midst of this tension steps the scruffy figure of John the Baptist calling us to pay attention to the now…now!

If we focus only on the past and/or on the future – we will miss what’s going on right in front of us – here and now. And what IS in front of us, here and now? That, that now, is the Word of God.

With so many voices competing for our attention, just where do we find the Word of God? Let’s look at the opening verses of today’s Gospel.

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea (ih-TCHUR-ee-uh) and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness (Luke 3:1-2).

Now, there’s an introduction. Luke’s gospel is meticulous in spelling out the details of the moment. We learn what year it is, who is in charge, exactly where earthly authority and influence are situated. Luke paints for us a seven-fold picture of Roman and Jewish power: Emperor, Governor, Rulers and Priests. And yet, within and beyond these circles of worldly power, the actor is God. As we will see over the coming year, Luke constantly shows us that God is acting where you and I least expect it.

So, allow me to paraphrase: “Despite Tiberius being Emperor of Rome, despite Pontius Pilate, Herod, Phillip and Lysanius being provincial rulers, and despite Annas and Caiaphas being the high priests, God chose to speak to a nobody named John living in the desert.”

You and I have witnessed an endless parade of powerful, professional, pontifical people pass into obscurity. They have held the headlines, transformed the tabloids, been called news makers, been honored as Woman (or Man) of the Century. Imagine!

But did any of them, like John the Baptist, call us to prepare for God’s Kingdom? To turn from self-interest and look toward the good of the whole – even the whole planet? What do you think? I think, probably, not so much.

I’m not just picking on the politicians and celebrities here. The same could be said for preachers and pastors who have paraded themselves in the same public arenas, as did Annas and Caiaphas. I think the Word of God seldom enters history through a flashy and powerful religious industry.

For me, Advent is an annual reminder that the Word of God came, and continues to come, not to the powerful, to the great and good nor, very often, to the religious establishment. Instead, the word of God came to John in the wilderness.

This is why I try to walk through Advent slowly. I need some wilderness – to be quiet, to focus, to breathe – to take time to listen for the Word of God. It’s too easy for me to get caught up in the work of the season, to be distracted by the stores and the number of shopping days, by the news of famous and infamous people. Without some wilderness, I can forget that God is acting at the centre of all things.

The Word of God often comes to me through people that history will not remember and often, I suspect, through those that we would not call religious: folks in 12-Step programs, grandmothers and God-Mothers, and little children, co-workers and folks who live on the very edges of society. These are wilderness voices who, like John, receive the Word of God and share it, constantly calling for something new.

Advent slows us down so that we can hear this message of God’s upside-down kingdom coming into the world, smoothing the rough ways. Of course, that sometimes means political things because, when people are involved, it’s always political. But it starts with God’s action. God is acting at the centre of all things, often where we would least expect it.

Once we believe that God is at work in the world, our expectations are bound to be overturned. The God who appears as a vulnerable baby in a manger and, again in glorious majesty at the end of time, doesn’t need the validation of a palace, a priest, or even the press.

Instead of expecting the word of God to come on CNN or Fox News, or even in church, this Advent I am trying to be mindful of listening for the Word of God in the actual people who surround me every day in my actual life. If you have not already found a spiritual practice for this Advent, I invite you to join me on this particular journey to Bethlehem.

The quiet of Advent gives us all the chance to re-tune our ears, to pay attention – real attention – to the now. Sometimes in shouts, sometimes in whispers, the Word of God is coming. Prepare the way of the Lord; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’

Amen.

 
 

181202

Advent Sunday, Year C
2 December 2018
Grace Church, Trumbull
The Rev. Dr. Paul Jacobson
 
Jeremiah 33:14-16
Psalm 25:1-9
1 Thessalonians 3:9-13
Luke 21:25-36

 

In the name of God-With-Us: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
 
Sometimes it’s hard to figure out how to begin, isn’t it?
How to start a term paper?
How to start a musical composition?
How to start a difficult conversation with a loved one?
For that matter, how to start new liturgical year?

Sometimes it seems that the best way to start is to think about where you hope to end up. Of course, you must accept that the road will curve along the way, but still, it’s often easier to reverse engineer – to work your way backwards from the end.

This is what the Church invites us to do today.

But here we are, bustling around, preparing for a serious holiday season. Don’t we all want to skip forward a bit? To get to the beautiful prophesies of Isaiah? To the cherished Nativity stories of Matthew and Luke? And yet, here we are, all done up in purple, slogging through another set of readings about the End Times. I mean, really, it can make us a little cranky. After all, Advent is only four Sundays long – can’t we just move on?

No, in fact, we can’t. One of the challenges in living the Christian life is that we’re an “already, but not yet” people. We are always looking in at least two directions at once – retelling our history and re-imagining our hope, all at the same time. Knowing and not knowing. Our ending is our beginning, and we always begin at the end.

There is a platitude that goes, “it’s all about the journey.” What I want to suggest to you today is that it’s all about the journey-ING – the journey is a given. But it’s how we start, what we put in the car, and how far down we roll the windows of our hearts that make all the difference.

+ + +

When we begin to hear the code words of apocalyptic writings – signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and roaring seas – how many of us turn our headsets to the “do not disturb” setting? After all, these passages can be embarrassing, can’t they? Sure, we can process the thought of a glorious, well-garbed, Christ the King ruling over the whole earth. But all that fear and foreboding and judgement? My mother might have said, “it’s just not very nice.”

On the other hand, many of us have been bludgeoned by fear-mongers in Christian clothing who spread a sort of brass knuckles “straighten up and get right with God or you’ll get left behind” theology.

But either of these responses – dismissal or fear – result in the same things: paralysis and inaction. There is another option – hope. And to help us get there, let’s look at the readings again, turning our headsets back to the “on” position.

Today, we hear the prophet Jeremiah speaking to the people of Israel during the Exile. The Babylonians had destroyed Jerusalem, and the Temple, and had transported the people some 900 miles from the promised land. It’s hard to imagine a greater catastrophe for the ancient Israelites: Jerusalem and the Temple were in ashes, and they were forced to live in a land not their own.

In the midst of this darkness, Jeremiah speaks God’s promise of hope: The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. The days are surely coming. Now, that’s good news!

But, listen! Jeremiah goes on! In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. Justice and righteousness. And a righteous Branch Here is more good news! And our next question is always “when?” “At that time.” Another case of already-but-not-yet.

Some five centuries later, Luke invites us to think about coming times of disaster and loss. Yes, some people will faint with fear and foreboding, but we are told to STAND UP and RAISE OUR HEADS. Raise our heads? Surely not so that God can lop them off!

We are commanded to raise our heads, to pull them out of the sand, so that we can see our redemption drawing near. This, too, is cause for hope. And rejoicing.

Let me be clear. I’m not talking about a “don’t worry, be happy” theology. The judgment of Christ at the end of the ages ought to cause all of us some concern. All of us have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God – the glory in which God created us to participate, to enjoy, to be.

And yes, it’s true that there will be very real pain at the convulsions and upheavals that come when God re-forms the earth; when God re-forms our very lives. Even we in the Episcopal Church are faced with some rather substantial ground-shifting lately.

Now, I’m never accused of being a biblical literalist, but on this Advent Sunday, pain and agony are not what we have from Jeremiah or Luke. But, if we can’t respond with paralysis and inaction, what in the world are we to do? My friends, we can rejoice!

The more we’re stretched with the tension of trying to look both backwards and forwards at the same time, the grumpier we become. But I invite you today to hold both past and future together and to let your eyes linger for a moment on the present. The here. The now. Today’s collect calls us to just such a stance. We ask God to give us the grace to cast away the works of darkness and put on the armor of light… now (in the time of this mortal life).

It’s too easy, after all, to see only the distant cosmic in these visions, to make them theologically important and personally irrelevant. One of the temptations of Advent is to let ourselves off the hook – not to see the signs of the Lord’s relentless and ever-present advent…now. It’s relatively easy to believe that God has spoken and will speak again in the future. But do we dare to believe that God speaks now? To you? To me? To us?

Do we dare to raise our heads from of the clutter and confusion of natural disasters, politics and cable news to see that Jesus is continually invading our lives in ways both large and small?

+ + +

In a few moments we will affirm that we believe in Jesus who will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead. But I don’t think that this judgment is Jesus coming to “fry” those who are in some way deficient. No. We await the coming in glory of our Savior who will embrace and restore everything in us that reflects God’s image.

Everything else – what we call sin – is done away. For we believe that our sin, every sin, all sin, was nailed to the cross when Jesus was. You see, we believe that the Cross was the Righteous Branch that Jeremiah spoke of. Our sins and shortcomings were paid for by Jesus’ passion, and its lasting effect done away when he rose from the dead.

The gift the church gives us every year is one more opportunity to encounter this deep truth -- and then to constantly re-shape our lives in response to that self-giving, forgiving love revealed in the life and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

So then, in your journeying through this Advent, what will you make of those unexpected moments on your trip when your plans and expectations are shaken, when roads are closed, when the map has blown out the window, when the sun, moon and stars stand still, when the waters roar and the waves rush in? What will you make of these moments? For they will surely come. Will you dismiss them with a shrug? Will you roll up the windows and turn up the radio in fear? Or will you see in them signs of the Lord’s coming to you in the midst of life and respond with repentance, trust and hope? Perhaps, even, a little joy?

“When these things begin to take place,” Jesus tells us, “look up and raise your head, because your redemption is drawing near.”

My prayer is that, when you see the power of God coming, you might have the grace to raise your heads, look far down the road and, run, don’t walk; run out to be embraced by the One who is our life and our light and our hope. Rejoice, rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee!

A blessed Advent to you all. Amen.

The stalk, the cross