Sunday, December 16, 2018

Advent 3 C - Sunday, December 16, 2018

Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY
Br. Josép Reinaldo Martínez-Cubero, OHC
Advent 3 C - Sunday, December 16, 2018

Zephaniah 3:14-20
Philippians 4:4-7
Luke 3:7-18

Click here for an audio version of the sermon.

Today is the Third Sunday of Advent, traditionally called Gaudete Sunday or Rejoice Sunday. The name is taken from today’s second lesson from Paul’s Letter to the Philippians: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice” The reading from the prophet Zephaniah also calls for shouts of joy: “Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem!” And in the lectionary, for today, there is also a canticle (not included in this liturgy) with the words of the prophet Isaiah calling people to sing praises and ring out their joy, for the great one in the midst of them is the Holy One of Israel.

But, ah, today we also have our gospel lesson with John the Grouch Baptist. "You brood of vipers!" he shouts. "Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?  Bear fruits worthy of repentance." According to the Gospel of Luke, great crowds streamed into the desert to get yelled at by John. Why? Well, a clue in the gospel passage is the question they ask at the conclusion of John’s sermon.  "What should we do?" That's not a question people ask when things are going well. It's the question we might ask when we've come to the end of our rope, or when what we have thought to be wisdom has failed. It's what we ask when we are desperate. "What should we do?" 

What did the crowds think such a character as John, ascetic, rough, dressed in camel’s hair, an appearance that bespeaks the margins, would say in answer to their question? Abandon your homes and families? Dwell in the desert? Start a revolution? Oh, no. The answer he gave is much more radical than that. To the tax collectors, he said, "Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you." To the soldiers: "Don't extort money by threats or false accusations; be satisfied with your wages." In other words, he tells them to go home. He points them to the very places in which they already live, and work, and suggests that these places are precisely where God calls them to be, and where God is at work in them, and through them. 

So the message for us is to stop escaping, and insisting God is somewhere else. God is present. God is here, amid our imperfections and failings, blessing our efforts to reflect God’s love, and claiming us as God’s own, even when we fall short. John calls us to inhabit the stuff of our lives as deeply and as generously as we can. Our Messiah is closer than we think. We are to inhabit our lives, no matter how plain or obscure or unglamorous or difficult.  And why?  Well, because the holy ground that matters most is the ground beneath our feet.

Holiness is not the ethereal and mysterious thing we tend to make it. If we're willing to look closely, if we're willing to believe that nothing in our lives is too mundane or secular for God, then we'll understand that all the possibilities for salvation we need are embedded in the lives God has already given us. We don't have to look "out there." The reign of God is here, within and among us. God meets us where we are, accepts us as we are, and makes good use of us to care for (NOT take care of) those around us. John, in this gospel lesson, challenges us to right relationship not only with God, but also with our neighbors because, really, that is the only way to be in right relationship with God. So bearing fruits worthy of repentance has to do with how we are living out God’s love with each other.

John concludes his sermon in the wilderness with a harrowing description of the coming Messiah: "He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.  His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire." The Gospel writer calls John's exhortation "good news." My first reaction to that was: “Say what??” How is the portrait of a Messiah who judges, sorts, and burns us good news? After much pondering, I decided to look up the word “judgment” in the dictionary. I was shocked, and enlightened. Synonyms for “judgment” include discernment, acuity, and perception. We can think of judging something as seeing it clearly, or knowing it as it truly is. 

Perhaps John is saying that the Messiah who is coming really sees us, and knows us at our very core. Perhaps the winnowing fork is an instrument of love, wielded by the One who discerns in us rich harvests still hidden by chaff.  It is by surrendering to God every part of our lives that we consent to God to separate all that is destructive from all that is good, beautiful, and priceless in us. Perhaps this Messiah who is coming to save us is actually coming from within us. All we have to do is take responsibility for our actions and our lives.

To conclude, I’ll share an interesting thing I learned recently. John the Baptist is the patron saint of spiritual joy. That’s right, John the Grouch Baptist. It makes sense. He was still in his mother’s womb when he first leapt at the presence of Mary and Jesus. When it came time for him to “decrease” and for Jesus to “increase,” he did so willingly, saying, “…my joy has been fulfilled.” Clearly, John understood something unyielding about joy. Joy is not just happiness, but as my Spiritual Director reminded me recently, joy needs sadness, and heartbreak to be complete. Joy will cost us. We are to bear fruits worthy of repentance, yes, bear fruits, as in bring them forth, but also, bear them, as in carry them, shoulder them, endure them. Gaudete! ¡Que así sea en el nombre del Padre, del Hijo y del Espíritu Santo! ~Amen+     

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Advent 2 C - Sunday, December 9, 2018

Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY
Br. John Forbis, OHC
Advent 2 C - Sunday, December 9, 2018

Click here for an audio version of the sermon.

Luke more than the other Gospel writers seems to place curious emphasis on who the political and religious leaders are during certain events that take place in his Gospel.  You will hear him do this again not too far from now on Christmas Eve when he also names who the rulers are at the time of Jesus’ birth.  One possible reason for this is Luke’s desire to make sure that what he deems important is placed in a concrete historical time and place, as if you could place a point on the timeline when the good news takes place as if to say that this is real folks, it has really happened!  

But Luke also lists no less than seven names and their positions.  These are people who perhaps warranted the attention, who were feared even and many followed their every word.  And in history, what we also know about them from other passages in the Gospel and from other histories is that they were authoritarian, corrupt and oppressive.  They had the privilege and therefore, they called the shots.  They were the closest thing to being a god or even to being God himself.  Especially, in the case of the religious leaders, Annas and Caiaphas, (for let’s name them as Luke does), in their own minds, they were at least the voice of God.  

However, God seems to have passed them all by and came to the wilderness.  The Word did not come to those we all would have expected.  They were mentioned only to provide a glaring contrast to the true recipient of the Word, a very strange man baptizing and making ominous proclamations in the barren land of the River Jordan.  One rather visceral description of John the Baptist from the New Hampshire, Congregational Church minister, Nancy Rockwell, may help us get a picture for our imagination of who he might be:  

“Wildman John leaps into Advent’s second Sunday, taking my breath away with his matted black dreadlocks, that camel skin he wraps around his bony body, gnarled bare feet sticking out below.  His eyes seize me the way his rough hands seize the locusts he eats, the honey he snatches from wild bees.  He roars warnings: dire times, dereliction of duty, the brink of doom.  Advent seems too small a stage to hold him.”

God chooses to place his Word firmly in the hands of this fanatic.  And thousands flocked to him.  The people have not heard anything like this before as he preached his message of baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.  If we were to read on in the Gospel, we would hear how John is calling the crowds who come out to him a brood of vipers who have nowhere to run with the wrath that is to come.  Not even their descent from Abraham can save them.

As the quoted passage from Isaiah tells us, mountains will be leveled, valleys will be filled in, rough places made smooth like a plain and paths will be straightened.  Dramatic even violent shifts are going to take place, and all of this seems to be equated with John and his message.   

We could certainly look at John as a figure of doom or we could see John as a prophet of hope for us.  The passage from Baruch has a very similar image to Isaiah’s only it is not God’s coming to us but God’s leading us to himself.  Yes, the high mountains and hills will be made low, the valleys will be filled up and there will be level ground but it is so that the children of Israel in exile can come safely home, so that the community can be whole and be at home in God.  Nothing will get in the way of God’s calling his children home and he will enable this journey to take place easily and joyfully.  

The language of Advent is seen as a language of doom and gloom only when we try to see ourselves as gods or even God, consumed by trying to control the world around us, by privilege, by power and even more by entitlement.  God does not stand for this.  God does not tolerate the oppression, the constant debt that we supposedly owe each other and even ourselves.  Whether it is external or internal it is still oppression.  

What God offers is the gift of forgiveness.  No debts are to be paid.  It is only the freedom of repentance and forgiveness, to turn to God and receive unconditionally.  God wants to offer this so much, he will level mountains and hills, fill in valleys, make rough places smooth and straighten paths to ensure this happens.  And to prove it even further, he will shove kings, princes and even high priests aside to bring the message to a wild man out in the wilderness so that there is no mistake of the meaning.  Only a wild man, an outlander, can speak it in truth.    

What is coming is unheard of, perhaps to many even unlikely.  And to a certain extent it is terrifying because nothing or no one can stop it.  This is one thing we cannot control.

Even death is not enough to stop it.  Death has no power against the love of Christ, the Messiah who will transform the world, who will give his life away to show us exactly just how potent love really is.  Yes, we have much to celebrate this Advent season.  We have a good reason to repent, to turn to God, to anticipate with eagerness the gift that is to come and to come home.  What is approaching is inevitable, universal and freely offered.  

What the Philippians are learning from Paul only reaffirms the celebration of losing this control.  We have an opportunity to live and I do mean “live” a life that expresses the abundance and generosity of this gift.  We can be partakers of grace in Christ.  We can love with all the fullness and wisdom of Christ, bringing each other home to the “beauty of the glory of God”.  We can be prophets for each other proclaiming this good news.  This message is given to us as much as it is given to John.  We may feel like we are nothing more than voices crying out in the wilderness, but it is here where the Word of God comes and the preparation begins.  Not to the great political and religious structures and ideologies of the world.  It comes to us when we are at our most vulnerable, when many might deem us crazy and outsiders, a powerful force that could seem quite threatening to some, a parade towards salvation as Eugene Peterson would put it.  

We can make our way living in the grace of God’s love and God levels the landscape to come to us.  At the meeting point is the coming of the Christ child into the world, and we can never go back.  Amen.

Sunday, December 2, 2018

Advent 1 C - Sunday, December 2, 2018

Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY
Br. Scott Wesley Borden, OHC
Advent 1 C - Sunday, December 2, 2018

Click here for an audio version of the sermon.

First, let me wish you a Happy New Year... since the beginning of Advent is just that – the beginning of a new liturgical year. At the end of December there will come a time that also calls itself New Year's... but it's an imposter.

Advent is the beginning of something, but it can feel like little more the prelude to Christmas. Everything in Advent seems to point to Christmas – whether it is candles on a wreath or chocolates behind little doors in a calendar... Advent is only important because what comes next is extremely important... And that is just not true, even though it is not false.

I’ve been reading a new book by Murray Stein. He may not be a household name, but he is perhaps the greatest teacher and interpreter of Carl Jung alive today. And not just Jung the Psychotherapist, but Jung the Theologian. In this new book Stein begins a section with a quote: “Look afar and see the end in the beginning.” Be sure to note that is IN the beginning, not FROM the beginning.

Where does this pearl of wisdom come from? Not scripture. Perhaps in Jung’s writings... maybe in some eastern source that Jung was fond of. Surely Stein is referencing some weighty source, but surprise! Stein found it in a fortune cookie. God works in mysterious ways.

See the end in the beginning. Here we are, just at the beginning of Advent. What of an ending can we see?

It would be no fun at all if there were only one ending showing itself in this beginning, but the most obvious end that shows up now is Christmas. We are waiting for the coming of Jesus – that is an end of Advent that we can see in its beginning.

As a sort of collective secular/sacred amalgam we have a social concept of Christmas. It is a happy, warm, lovely thing... all sweetness and light... all Currier and Ives and Grandma Moses paintings with young people on sleds in the snow and chestnuts roasting on an open fire... yuletide carolers outside and hot, spiced cider inside. This is what I want to prepare for in Advent. I see this in the beginning of Advent.

This is, sadly, not a very substantial view of Advent nor the reality of Christmas and Jesus doesn’t come into a fantasy world. However well we decorate, this is not a world of joy and happiness. It has great beauty, but it is also a world of sorrow, of injustice, of genocide, of prejudice, of corruption. In other words, it the same world into which Jesus was born two millennia ago.

It was a cruel and a dangerous world then as now. Jesus did not arrive in a world of decorated trees and eggnog and cozy scenes. They didn’t have tear gas then, but if they did, it surely would have been in use. Jesus arrived in a world that had no space for him at all. He arrived in a barn and bunked with animals – because the polite society (that’s us) couldn’t accommodate him – we live in the same world.

Anyone with their heart set on a silent, holy, calm, and bright Christmas night, needs to look afar and see the end in the beginning. Pay attention to Luke. In the Gospel for today, Jesus tells us there will be signs among the stars (these are warning signs) and there will be distress among the nations. People will faint from fear. It's completely inappropriate, but I hear Bette Davis in All About Eve warning us to fasten our seatbelts... it's going to be a bumpy ride.

Welcome to Advent.

I gave serious thought to ending this sermon here... it would be dramatic and clever... but it wouldn't be right. A message that says things are bad and they will only get worse is not the message of Advent. It is true that things are bad, and they likely will get worse. But that isn’t seeing the end in the beginning. It is only seeing the beginning.

The message of the Gospel, the good news of Jesus, is not one of sorrow. At the same time, it's not one of simple happiness. In a culture of sound bites and slogans, the complex and rich good news of Jesus too often gets simplified into one of two messages – Jesus loves you very much, so repent or you're going to hell; or Jesus loves you very much and wants you to be very rich. Neither of these has much to do with Jesus. Neither of them is the message of Advent.

In the middle of this, according to Luke, there is a fig tree. As summer approaches, its limbs grow tender and it puts forth leaves. It does what fig trees do.

Please – could I have a much more obvious illustration...

Jesus seems to be saying that as you can tell summer is coming by watching the fig tree, so too you can tell that God is coming by watching... something...

But the fig tree doesn’t do anything out of the ordinary. It doesn’t do anything unexpected. A philosopher might say it expresses its essential “fig-tree-ness.” As summer approaches, its limbs turn tender and it puts out leaves. But it wouldn’t be a fig tree if it didn’t. And a skilled agricultural society, like the world into which Jesus was born, hardly needs a fig tree to tell them summer is coming...

Perhaps this fig tree is telling us something more complex. Perhaps its lesson is not about changing seasons, but about ways of living. It lives in the world and responds to it by doing fig tree things.

Trees turn up in a number of places in our tradition. We start in the beginning with the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. The tradition is littered with fig trees. When post-apple Adam and Eve seek to cover themselves, they turn to leaves of the Fig Tree and the Land promised in Deuteronomy is filled with milk, honey, and fig trees. In the Gospels, Jesus curses a fig tree and it withers. And in this morning's Gospel, we are asked to consider a fig tree. But the great tree reference is, of course, the cross. Jesus is nailed to the tree. See the end in the beginning.

So, this image that Jesus gives us to consider, the fig tree, is ancient and complex... Beautiful and terrible.

In asking us to contemplate the Fig Tree, I think Jesus is calling us to live in the world and be present. As the fig tree does what it is called to do, so we, followers of Jesus, are to do what we are called to do. Signs and warnings notwithstanding, we are to get about the business of following Jesus.

What Jesus calls us to do is not obscure. If we are to live our baptismal covenant with integrity, then we will have to care for the sick, the poor, those who have no power and no defense. We will have to pray and worship God and be prepared to treat the least of God’s children as nothing less than God’s children. We will have to resist the seductive call to accumulate wealth. We will have to be humble. We will have to love our neighbors and ourselves. We will have to make peace. Simple enough... Can we see these ends in this beginning?

Be on your guard, Jesus says, so that your hearts are not weighed down with drunkenness, dissipation and worries. Now maybe it's just me, but I thought drunkenness and dissipation were the things we do to keep our hearts from being weighed down...

Being on guard is not a waiting game. Maybe this is another lesson of the fig tree. The fig tree isn’t in any way waiting for spring, or anything else. It's just doing the right thing at the right time. This is a lesson we can well learn in Advent.

We look for the coming of Jesus, but we do not wait for the coming of Jesus. It would be nice if, as soon as Jesus gets here, then we can get to work following Jesus, but it doesn’t work that way. We stay on guard, awake in our faith... faith that must be lived. Christian faith is active. We live our lives in the faith that Jesus could return at any moment and we live our lives in the faith that Jesus has already returned, is already with us. We see the end in the beginning.

Being on guard doesn’t mean sitting around silently, pensively, nervously drumming our fingers. It means using the gifts we have been given to build God’s kingdom just as the fig tree gets about the business of being a fig tree.

This is Advent, the start of a new year. If we look afar, we can see the end in the beginning and the beginning in the end.

Is there a place in what we see for eggnog and carols... decorated trees and scenes from Grandma Moses? I surely hope so. A vision without beauty is no vision. It’s a horror show.

But if we think we have made the world beautiful because we have decorated, then we are living an illusion. In this beginning time, this Advent, we don’t just see the end, a beautiful world where justice flows like a mighty river... we become the end in this beginning. We become the healing power of God’s love in a very hurting world.