Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Here is My servant . . .

     Sometimes, you just have to admire the timing and trust that God’s providence is in control despite our best efforts.  At the beginning of the week, I remarked to some in Bible study how I wished we had a baptism this week as we remember the baptism of our Lord in the lectionary calendar.  I was upset because we had two during Lent—three, if you count a Confirmation.  It makes a great opportunity to teach about what is happening, or what is not happening, as a result of baptism. 
     Of course, this week rectors and vicars and priests-in-charge received the e-mail from the Task Force on the Ministry of the Baptized, asking us to forward the survey link to the members of our congregation.  I read on one thread this was the first serious effort to use social media to gauge what people in the pews thought about things in the wider church.
     Certainly, some remarks about it bear out the idea that there is a big disconnect between ordinary churchgoer’s—you know, the baptized, and 815.  Some have used the survey as an opportunity to gripe about the stewardship of those in power in our church, others have used the survey to gripe about how bad the priesthood is in our church, some have used the survey to complain that the folks in power do not care about the folks living in flyover land, others have complained about the effort to make a new Prayer Book, and others have even used the survey as an opportunity to complain about our ecclesiology.  Not all of it, it sounds like, has been critical.  A few respondents, apparently, have remarked about how PB Michael seems to be talking about Jesus more.  And others have remarked that pastoral care seems to be improving.
     Then, swirling in the background as always, is the argument about Communion without Baptism—CWB or CWOB, as you may see in shorthand in some church webpages, or radically inclusive in others.  Our fights about sex garner way more headlines and clicks, but there has been a serious effort to remove the idea that one must be baptized before receiving communion from our rubrics and thought.  Looking at many faces, I see that most of you did not realize it is a thing.
     I first became aware of it at a national church planting seminar in Virginia back in 2004, I think it was.  A bishop in California proudly shared with a group of us that he had Hindu, Buddhist, and others non-believers receiving Communion at services.  Me being me asked why that was a good thing.  It was my first introduction to Episcopal power gone amok.  As we discussed the teaching in Scripture and the Tradition of the Church, the argument boiled down to a “I’m the bishop and I say it’s good thing” display of Episcopal power.
     To be fair, many proponents of Communion without Baptism or Open Communion mean well, I think.  Their justification is usually along the lines of Jesus ate with everyone, sinners and saints alike or the Gospel is good news to all people.  There is a thought that requiring baptism before communion is somehow exclusionary and mean.  So, what is baptism and why do we insist upon it before we encourage Communion?
     What is baptism?  Oh, come one, y’all just done two baptisms in the last five or six weeks.  You suffered through a bishop’s sermon on it and a priest’s sermon on it.  Not everyone was snoring those two days.  Thank you!  A covenant.  See, this is not rocket science or seminary.  So what is that covenant, why is it important?  Somebody’s reading the liturgy!  But that’s right.  It is a public profession of faith.  Those of us who are baptized, or those of us who bring children to be baptized as we did last month, make a public profession to trust God.  In fact we make promises about our behavior as a result of this public profession.  Those gathered also make a promise, right?  We promise to support those being baptized in their faith, to help them grow into the full stature of Christ, to use the words of the liturgy.  Right?
     Who else makes a covenant at baptism?  Godparents?  Sure, they promise to specifically help the child relate to God.  But Who makes a covenant with the baptized?  Say it loud and strong.  God!  In fact, who does most of the work in this new covenant relationship?  God.  You and I and all who are baptized have a few responsibilities.  We are supposed to live as if we believe Jesus is Who He says He is, as if we believe the Gospel is true.  We know we will fail, we call that sin, and so we promise to do what when we sin in the future.  That’s right, repent and return to the Lord.  Notice in the liturgy that’s a “when we fall into sin” and not an “if we fall into sin.”  There is a realization from the get go in our new relationship that we will sin.  But we promise to repent and try again.  And again.  And Again.  Until He returns or calls us home by death, right?
     We even promise to share in the Apostles’ teaching, the Breaking of Bread, and in the fellowship of the Church.  Basically, we promise to be part of a community of fellow believers.  The idea that we stay at home and worship God from our beds or head out to the golf course or fishing hole to worship God is not normal behavior for those who have made a public profession of their faith in God.
     The rest of the work, though, is God’s.  Do we transform ourselves, or does He transform us?  Right, He does.  By virtue of our baptism and adoption, Jesus prays to the Father to send the Spirit, and the Spirit comes and dwells with us.  Because of our public profession of faith, God promises to redeem us and use us, we consent to this, to His purposes.  To use the language of last season, we become little “i” incarnations who point others to THE big “I” Incarnation.  By virtue of our baptism, we become heralds of God and His grace in the world around us.  It sounds like last months sermons are coming back to you, and I see lost of confident nods, so here’s the big question: Whose faith really does the saving in this covenant?
     Does it?  Does our faith in any way, shape or form save us?  Think about your favorite stories that Jesus shared.  How big must your faith be to receive His grace and do mighty works that testify to His redeeming power?  That’s right, a mustard seed.  Are mustard seeds renowned for their coconut-esque size?  Of course not. They are tiny.  Do our efforts as a result of our faith, what some forebears might call proponents of works’ righteousness, testify to the saving faith that redeems us?  Good.  Y’all are on now.  We can never do enough to pay God back for our redemption.  No one ever can.  Not Mother Theresa, not the holiest person you know, not me, none of us!  It’s grace.
     But again, Whose faith saves us?  That was a tentative Jesus back there for a correct answer.  Jesus’ faith saves us.  Remember our vows?  We just renounce Satan and the spiritual forces who rebel against God and promise to repent when we sin.  Our work is pretty easy compared to Jesus’.  As a result of this act in the Jordan, to what is Jesus publicly committing Himself?  God!  Right!  More specifically, He is committing Himself to God’s redemptive plan of salvation for humanity.  Which means what to Him?  He will be rejected.  He will be humiliated.  He will be betrayed.  He will be scourged and tortured.  He will be crucified.  He will be mocked by those for whom He undergoes all that.  And lastly, He will die.  He becomes sin and is put to death so that you and I might live.  And He trusts that His Father will not abandon Him to the grave.
     Baptism is Jesus’ public profession of His trust in the Father.  That’s why He waves off John’s concerns.  His life will be all about God’s plan of salvation.  Period.  The Father, of course, knows the Son and His heart and tells us what?  He is well-pleased with His Son Whom He loves dearly.  Through all that pain and suffering, Jesus will trust the Father.  When Satan tempts Him to turn aside from this painful path, Jesus will trust the Father.  Even when the thief on the cross beside Him and the crowds whom He cam to save mock Him for His faith, still He will trust the Father!  And for His faith in the Father, what happens?  God raises Him from the dead and places all things under His authority.  Better still, the Father promises to see us in the Son and the Son in us, when we place our trust in Him.  Jesus’ faith is the keystone to salvation for humanity!
     Now, with that understanding, we can in no way diminish the importance of Jesus in salvation!  Does everybody agree with that?  Good.   I see mostly nods.  I’m in the office all week but midday Wednesday, so feel free to come chat if you are still struggling with the centrality of Christ’s work and person and faith in salvation.  As a result of our covenant with God and His faith, what happens to us?  Put a bit simpler, perhaps, what happens to us at our baptism?  We’re adopted!  Great answer.  By virtue of our adoption, you and I are made heirs in Christ.  To use modern language, we become princesses and princes in God’s family.  To use the language of the Old Testament, we become firstborn heirs.  Somehow, we all get a double portion inheritance in the kingdom that is to come.  I know.  It’s mind blowing.  How can we all be princes and princesses or double share inheritors?  I’ve got no answer.  I just take it on faith that God’s plan for me and for you eternally, is orders of magnitude better than what you or I or others in the Church can imagine. 
     Now that we are adopted, now that we are ambassadors or princesses and princes or heirs, what happens to us?  Let’s go back to Isaiah.  Here is My servant, whom I uphold, My chosen, in whom My soul delights; I have put My spirit upon him or her; he or she will bring forth justice to the nations.  We are, of course, conditioned to read this passage exclusively with a messianic filter.  It is Jesus Whom God has anointed.  It is Jesus Whom God has called to walk in righteousness.  It is Jesus Whom God has given as a covenant to the people.  Good, I see the nods.
     But, if God sees us in Jesus and Jesus in us, if we are truly heirs in Christ of God’s promises, this magisterial pronouncement of God-given responsibilities applies to us as well.  To use the language of Epiphany, we become little manifestations of God’s glory in the world around us.  To speak more missiologically, we are sent forth into the world, a dark world that rejects God and His instruction and His people, to point those in the world around us to the Light that has come into the world.  We cannot save anyone; only God can do that.  But it is our responsibility, it is our privilege to point others to the One who can save, Jesus Christ our Lord.  And believe me, the world desperately needs to know Him.
     Don’t believe me?  Consider the darknesses in which you and I are called to labor.  Just last week, how many of us were fearful of yet another war?  How many of us were concerned about loved ones, or loved ones of friends, who serve in the military, and the sacrifices which they might be called to make?  After some Twitter bluster, both sides backed down a bit.  But a likely scared, itchy trigger-fingered guy, fired an anti aircraft missile at a civilian aircraft.  Those travelers, likely fleeing a feared conflict as advised by their governments, lost their lives.  Their families get to struggle with finding meaning in pointless deaths.  That soldier, or small squad, gets to live with the knowledge that their actions, whether careless or unintentional, took the lives of more than 150 non-combatant lives.  That mistake will weigh on them for the rest of their lives, just ask a soldier among us.
     Closer to home, there is more than enough darkness to shroud everyone and everything.  Episcopalians are generally not a people who concern themselves with the justice system, but now we have a brother who, if we believe him and his new Episcopal lawyers, was railroaded by a racially unjust system and misrepresented by court-appointed attorneys, and now finds himself on death row for a crime he did not commit.  Certainly, there are enough questions to make us pause and wonder at his alleged guilt.
     Or take our wonderful state practice of rejecting federal dollars to cover the medical expenses of catastrophic illness.  President Reagan, that renowned political liberal of the 80’s, declared that no American family should ever be forced into bankruptcy caring for a loved one with catastrophic illnesses.  46 states eventually agreed with him, that fellow Americans helping offset the cost was the least we could do for a fellow citizen so as not to burden them more.  One of those states that has not is Tennessee.  Both Republicans and Democrats have been in power since the 80’s, yet that federal benefit has never been extended to Tennesseans.  Dick Blackburn, whom I would say is anointed by God for this work, as well as other colleagues, have worked hard and tirelessly to get this made available to citizens of Tennessee, instead of letting the money just go away.
     Again, that is the problem for other people, poor people, unlucky people.  Yet, now we all know a faithful Episcopal family that struggles with the financial weight and burden of caring for a loved one.  You all spent most of November and December praying for James.  Whether you knew his story and conditions or not, you prayed for him by name each and every time we gathered.  Now he’s back out of the hospital gaining back strength and weight even as the family is receiving bill after bill after bill.  You don’t think they appreciate Dick’s efforts?
     How about Body & Soul?  When I sort of pushed us off the ledge, nearly two years ago now, to begin that ministry.  A number of Adventers really thought we’d have nobody to whom to give the food.  Our area is blessed.  Those people do not live around here.  Yet, as we have learned, those people are sometimes much like us.  How many of us could survive our companies closing and not paying the last check or two?  How many of us could make the holidays meaningful for loved ones, in light of those circumstances?  Those who work the pantry and have had the fortune of being the face of Advent and of God to those in need of food can tell you heartbreaking stories, stories that make them realize how blessed most of us truly are, and how much the world around us needs God’s love.
     Today we will anoint with oil for healing.  In a church full of doctors and nurses and other healthcare related parishioners, this service ought to be like a lighthouse on the coast during a dark foggy night.  In this service we lay claim to God’s promise that we will be able to heal in His Name.  As most of us know, this is often done by the knowledge and expertise of our medical members, and the application of that knowledge and expertise.  But, far more often than the world expects, heck, far more often than we expect, God moves powerfully in our prayers!  In just the last two weeks we’ve had amazing testimony of God’s healing power among us.  This week’s was Landy.  Landy’s doctor knew he had colon cancer.  He knew it.  The tests were just a formality in the doctor’s mind.  Landy called asking for prayers.  It was a cool thing Friday to hear Landy calling as I was driving back from Virginia with joy in his voice.  Either the doctor was wrong, or God had done something really cool.
     Just to remind you, we launched that service as a principal worship service four times a year at Advent in response to Justin’s and Francis’ claims that churches have forgotten their inheritances and callings.  We are meant to be places of healings; it’s in our DNA.  But how few of us expect God to act; what’s worse, how few do our brothers and sisters expect God to show up and give us eyes to see and ears to hear how our suffering glorifies Him in the world around us?
     All of these examples, of course, are just a small samplings of the darknesses that seek to blind people to the Gospel, to the manifestations of God’s glory in the world around them.  They come hard and fast this time of year, almost as if there is a conspiracy to fight against the hope and wonder inspired by the story of our Lord’s nativity.  Family fights are probably still rolling along.  Bills are coming due for those who believed the myth that love is best evidenced by the amount of money spent on gifts.  Heck, even the weather seems to be conspiring against God here in Nashville, as we deal with the gloom of winter and the fairly constant rain.
     All of that, of course, teaches us why there is a proper order to the why in the way we do things.  Why do we participate in the Eucharist?  See, somebody listens but also wants to get home for the playoff game.  That’s right, we eat the Body and drink the Blood of our Lord Christ to remind us of the covenant God made with us at our baptism, to remind ourselves of the Gospel truths we believe, and to prepare us/feed us for the work that God is sending us back out into the world to do!  Eucharist reminds us of our share in Christ and of His promise to use us to His glory and His redemptive purposes.  So, why would the Church ever think it a good idea for someone to fortified for a covenant they have not made?
     To put it in easier to understand terms: If one does not believe that Christ died, that Christ rose, and that Christ will come again in power and great glory to finally and fully establish His kingdom for all eternity, what is the benefit of this pledge?  If you do not believe in God, or if you believe you are seeking to be one with the cosmos, or if you serve another God, why eat this meal and remind oneself of the pledge God has made with His people?  It makes no sense, right?  In fact, if Paul is to be believed, and we proclaim that he was inspired by the Holy Scripture when he penned the letters found in Scripture, partaking of this meal, this pledge, not repentant before God and not at love and charity with your neighbors, is to heap condemnation on oneself, is to mock the very purpose of this meal established by God in Christ.
     The Church does not restrict the Eucharist to baptized members because She is exclusive or mean or unwelcoming.  The Church teaches that baptism is the sacrament by which one gains proper access to the benefits and pledge found in the hope and promise of the Eucharist!
     Now, sitting here, what if you remember you took the Eucharist before you were baptized.  Are you condemned to hell?  Of course not.  How could you know unless someone explained it?  More importantly, if you were intentionally taking the Eucharist in an unworthy manner then, a kind of get out of hell free card, but you have since come around to believe in the Gospel, repented of your sins and proclaimed Jesus as Lord of your life in the Sacrament of Baptism, you have been cleansed!  God sees His Beloved Son in you and you in His Beloved Son.  Your decision to choose Him, to love Him, to trust Him, delights His soul.  And He promised on that day that He would uphold you, support you, and love you, that nothing would ever be able to separate you from His saving embrace, even if the manifestations of His love, His support, and His hold are not those things you think might be better evidences of His adoption of you.
     So, back to that great big question with which so many of us wrestle with but are often afraid to ask.  Why is it appropriate that Jesus be baptized by John?  Why does Jesus insist on this course of action, knowing that John is correct in their relative standings and calls in God redemptive plan?  It’s the public proclamation of trust in God and His promises.  Jesus’ baptism today publicly declared to all who saw it and all who heard about it later that He was here to do the Father’s will.  He understood the path He was to walk and all that came with that walk--the shame, the humiliation, the pain, and the death.  This was that outward sign of the inward and spiritual grace that He possessed.  He knew that, in spite of all that, the Father loved Him and would redeem Him from those sufferings, and that through His loving work, it would be possible for us to be born of that same Spirit, and to do those things which God has called us to do.
     We make that same profession in our own lives, mirroring that of our Lord and Savior, that we might become fit sons and daughters who can lead those who are blind to His Saving grace, that we can lead those imprisoned by sin to the Lord who can truly free them, that we can sing to those who are deaf to His healing grace of the joy to be found in His presence so that, in the end and by the working of His Spirit and power, glory will be found only in Him and no other!

In His Saving Grace!

Thursday, December 26, 2019

Flickers entrusted with His Light and Love . . .

     We have come to that wonderful time in the season we call Advent IV.  It’s that time when the world around us is full into Christmas mode.  Heck, who are we kidding, even the men among us have decided it’s almost, almost time to get serious about buying presents.  I learned this week from some colleagues in non-liturgical churches that this is actually Christmas Sunday.  Some churches celebrate Christmas today so that folks can spend time with family on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.  I know.  It seems to miss the point for me, too.  As a December child and the father of a December child, it smacks a bit of “hey, Jesus, here’s your combined birthday and Christmas gift.”  But it works for them.
     We, on the other hand, have one more opportunity, before the families descend or we travel, to remind ourselves of our calling as Adventers, before we dive full into the “remembering His coming among us in great humility.”  So what is going on?
      One of the chief takeaway’s we should have as a result of the season is that God is at work in the world around us making old things new, that He is using the common and ordinary to reach us, to instruct us, to woo us.  We argued a bit about this Thursday night at Wrestling with Faith.  Some think God should do more impressive miracles to catch our attention; others, of course, think we should get rid of the miracles in the Bible, a la Marcion, because God is bound by the systems He set up.  Among the various problems with that argument, of course, are the anecdotal experiences of those who have witnessed or been blessed by miracles but notice the world continues on without being destroyed.  But that is a sermon for another day.
     Today, we are focusing on our unique perspectives as Adventers.  Nothing is as it was, and nothing is as it’s going to be.  To use the language of Carola when she was your preacher and teacher, we are living in that tension between the already and the not yet.  I see some nods.  You remember her teaching!  I’ll tell her.  It might help her heal more quickly!  How do we know things have changed?  The Incarnation of our Lord Christ!  God came down as a fully human baby, born of a virgin in an outward province of the super power of the day.  He lived among us, taught among us, worked signs of power among us that testified to Who He was, He suffered and died among us, and gloriously He was raised among us.  Nothing is as it was before that magnificent and glorious event.
     And yet, we understand that the re-creation begun in the work and person of our Lord Christ is not yet completed.  We live in a world that is still not the way it will be.  Death still stalks us.  The consequence of sin still plays out in the world around us and in our lives.  Nature itself testifies to the collective sin and the weight of its guilt in the world around us.  Even as we gather to begin to turn our focus to the Incarnation, our brothers and sisters in Australia live in a modern Gehenna, of sorts, where wildfire rage and air quality is horrible, our brothers and sisters in California are bracing for a rainy season that will likely become mudslide season because of the burn scars from the late summer and early fall, droughts are still happening, tornados are still happening – pick your natural disaster.  In short, nothing is as it will be.
     But it falls to Christians, and especially to Adventers who are called to be looking back at the Incarnation even as they are looking forward to the Second Coming of our Lord Jesus, to see the impact of grace in the world around us.  You and I as Adventers, but as Christians in particular, are tasked with pointing out to the world how God is using the ordinary and everyday and re-purposing them for His glory.
     Our chief example this day, of course, is Joseph.  The story of Joseph is an amazing story, borderline heroic, yet he kind of fades from the story as a nondescript figure.  As we learn today, Joseph got the ultimate “dear John” “I think this will be better for us in the long run” confession from his betrothed.  Those of us who have had a spouse or prospective mate cheat on us understand all too well the emotional baggage that comes with such revelations.  John’s version is just a bit less common.  Uh, John, uh, this angel appeared to me and greeted me and asked if I was willing to bear God’s Son.  I said yes.  So, guess what.  I’m pregnant. 
     Those of us who have had to deal with cheating spouses and the corresponding implosions that come from such revelations understand all too well how this story should have played out.  Reality television and various blogs, as well as morning television shows, demonstrate to us the human response to such revelations all the time.  Matthew himself points out that Joseph, because he was a righteous man, determined to handle this quietly.  It would have been well within his rights to demand the trial of adultery as revealed in the torah and had young Mary stoned to death.  That we could all understand.  That is getting even with a cheater.  But Joseph determines to handle this quietly.
     It’s then that the angel appears to Joseph.  The angel appears to Joseph and tells him to believe Mary’s story.  Gentlemen, I want us to think about this for just a second.  Which would be more mind-blowing, finding out your fiancé had cheated on you and gotten pregnant or that you were going to be raising the Son of God?  I mean, on the one hand there is the emotional hurt and baggage that comes from betrayal, and on the other hand we get tasked with the ultimate responsibility of raising our Lord’s only begotten Son.  If ever there were a Scylla and Charybdis . . .
     Joseph, as we would expect of a righteous man, a man who depends upon God for teaching him how to live in right relationship with God through the torah, accepts the angel’s reassurance and honors the decision to marry and the responsibility to raise our Lord Jesus.
     In one sense, it’s an unremarkable story.  We have reality shows that speak to teen pregnancy and adulterers.  Heck, there’s a couple popular social media sites that make good money by showing how betrayed partners and spouses get even for the cheating.  This story, on the one hand, is rather trite, so far as the details are concerned.  Yet it was the Lord who used the common to begin to demonstrate His love of the world and all those in it, to tell a new story, to begin to remake those things that had grown old.
     So many of our biblical heroes have all kinds of fatal flaws.  Abraham and Sarah. Not to mention Adam and Eve, have some trust issues.  Jacob trusts a bit too much in his own conniving and strength.  David, well, among David’s faults is that he never met a woman he did not want “to know,” if you take my meaning.  Elijah is a bit to whiny to be considered heroic by most standards.  Peter takes us on a rollercoaster ride of faith, right?  Poor Thomas becomes the “doubter” when he was the one who encouraged the other Apostles and disciples to go with Jesus to Jerusalem to die with Jesus.  My list could go on and on.  No doubt you have your favorites.  Those stories exist to remind us, though, that God works through men and women and boys and girls just like us, flaws and weaknesses and other bits not to be esteemed or valued by others.  What makes them and us special is not something internal to them or to us.  What makes them and us special is that the Lord God chooses to work through us, that our Lord God calls us into relationship and then sends us out to point others to Him!  And it’s Him using us, Him dwelling in us, that gives us eyes to see and ears to ear how the old is being renewed and re-purposed.
     And because we know He has conquered the world, because we KNOW He was raised from the dead, we are fit heralds in a world whose cacophony seeks to drown out our voices, we little candles in a dark world pointing others to the Light who gives Life to the world!
     How does that play out in our lives?  There are as many different stories as there are Adventers in this congregation.  This week, I was reminded of two great stories.  One was from a woman we served through Body & Soul.  She lives in our neighborhood but lost her job.  Companies being companies and the compassionate places to work they are renowned to be, she did not get her last check.  Fortunately, she was overpaid for her work and had tons in savings, right?  Think about her plight for a second.  What if your employers ceased operations mid-December?  What would be its impact on you and yours?  Do you have enough saved to cover the mortgage?  To cover medical expenses?  To make you car and insurance payment?  To buy Christmas gifts for your loved one?  To pay your utilities?  To buy food?
     Fortunately, she heard about our work through my wife.  I know, crazy, isn’t it?  My wife, who is a huge introvert, heard her need and reached out.  The lady, of course, worried about whether she was in the right zip code, or needed an id to make sure she was not using us too much, or needed to be Episcopalian, or how she’d ever repay the help.  I heard the story, of course, from her perspective.  One of her rude discoveries is that people treat unemployment around here like a moral failing.  When asking for help, she felt judged.  Are you sure you really need this? Your car is only a couple years old.  Have you been here before and taken food?  She asked me why we don’t run our pantry like others?  I told her Hilary and Nancy and those most involved with it were trying to be intentional in mirroring or reflecting the grace that God had shown to us.  She asked if I was worried we’d get ripped off?  I told her not at all.  I lead people in the worship of the Creator of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen.  Everything is His; we are simply stewards.  What kind of God would I be following if I thought He could not provide something as simple as food?  She asked if there were people who abused our offer?  I told her I thought there were a few, but that I did not know the full story of those I thought might be abusing our pantry.  She asked how I justified that to my church.  And I told her that I did not need to.  We all knew ourselves to be sinners saved by grace and that we knew we had abused God’s grace in our own lives.  Make no mistake, I told her, I point out the spiritual danger of such attitudes toward cheap grace, but I was an equal opportunity teacher or offender or whatever she wanted to call me.
     Our conversation ended with her commenting that, if she were going to attend a church and worship God, this was that kind of church where she would want to go.  I smiled and apologized.  She asked why.  I told her that we were a terrible bunch of hypocrites, beginning with the pastor, and that if she strolled in here expecting us to be supermen or superwomen of faith, she was going to be sorely disappointed.  But if she wanted to join us on this faith journey, if she wanted to begin to plumb the depths of God’s love for her and those whom she loves in Christ’s work, we’d love for her to join us.  Y’all know she is not here as I am using her story.  SO much for humans lapping up God’s grace in a fairy tale way, huh?!
     My other illustration was far more grand and far more oppressive.  A colleague who left the Episcopal church and Anglican Communion and I were having a spirited discussion about politics.  Our discussion was about which party tries to be the party of God.  Now, I get that some liberals have no use for God and want no association with Christianity, I get it; but I also understand that there are many Christians drawn to some of the platform of the Democratic Party, or at least the platform that defined the Democratic Party two or three decades ago.  Living wages, accessible healthcare, a safety net for those on the margins – those are just a couple of easy touchstones to the Gospel, in my estimation.  But, some Democratic party leaders do try to blur political and religious theater to pander to voters.
      My colleague and I had a spirited discussion until one of the members of his congregation chimed in.  He decided to chastise me for being an apologist for Trump supporters and for comparing the sins of Democratic leaders with the sins of Republican leaders.  He was exceptional in his lecturing.  He knew who I was without needing to ask any questions.  I learned I was a stooge of the Republican party, which might amuse those Adventers who preferred Trump to Hilary in the last election, as they have wondered if I am a secret liberal.  I learned that it’s my job to judge the salvation of peoples’ souls based upon how they voted, and NOT leave that tough decision to the Man who died for all of us.  Heck, I even learned that calls to vote consciences, to really demand our Christian politicians govern as God would have them govern was naïve and stupid and part of the problem of letting so many people in small towns vote.
     In short, his lecturing testified to me and those in that thread that the Two-Party system had done precisely what it intended to do.  It had effectively divided a group of people called to testify to unity.  From many one used to be a description of America.  A melting pot.  Now we are effectively divided.  Here was a seemingly serious Christian publicly declaring that a priest was clearly not a good Christian because I dared to point out the moral flaws of those whom he followed.  When I reminded him later that God had reminded us repeatedly not to put our trust in other human beings, He was enraged.  What kind of moron claims we should trust God and think that things will improve?  It made folks uncomfortable on that thread.  The pm’s were illustrative of his temperament AND the sense of hopelessness some folks have about our divided state.
     But you and I have ultimate hope.  Which is harder, reforming a political system or raising someone from the dead?  If we believe He was raised from the dead, why should we not expect our politicians who claim the same faith to govern to live as if Jesus was serious about those things He taught, serious enough that He was willing to die for us and be raised, that we might know He was and is Who He claims to be!  That does not mean we agree on every jot and tittle of the laws passed to govern us, those are our creation and not God’s, after all.  But what if we allowed that people of the other parties, and yes there are more than two among us at Advent, were, indeed, making decisions based on their faith?  What if we allowed that countries had a right to protect their borders AND had an obligation to help those less fortunate than themselves?  What if we allowed that citizens were entitled to specific rights such as education, medical care, and living wages AND that people who made fortunes through hard work or great inventions or the luck of the lottery were not evil and entrusted to use their funds as they saw fit?
     And the benefit to public discourse?  Can you imagine?  I have a hard time watching what passes for news today.  I will listen to CNN yell about how stupid and evil Republicans are and to FOX yell about all the vast liberal conspiracies to empower deep state for about ten minutes before I have had too much.  How about the benefit to the Christian testimony to the world?  One of our Lord’s last prayers before His Passion and Death was that we would all be One even as He and the Father are One.  How are we doing living into that prayer of His?  How well are we modeling the relationship revealed in the Trinity?  And I’m not talking about the sycophants who claim the mantle of Christianity to be near the halls of power, I’m talking about our neighbors down the street, who attend whatever other normal Tennessee church and who should differ, really, only in the form of worship used.  How well do we relate with our Baptist neighbors, our Church of Christ neighbors, our Roman neighbors, or our Presbyterian neighbors?  How well do they relate with us?  The world watches and sees, even if we do not.
     The great news, the Gospel news, of course, is two-fold.  These injustices, these divisions—they are things about which God cares deeply.  He has revealed those cares and concerns to us over and over in His written word.  Better still, He demonstrated that care and concern in His work among us.  We do not have to guess what He thinks about the “other;” He has already told us!  And even when that other is an enemy, one truly committed to working against God and His purposes, we are instructed what?  That’s right, to pray for them and us.  That’s not exactly divisive activity, is it?  It’s not the ad hominem attack demanded by our current political discourse.  It’s an intentional conversation with God.  And if we use our two ears a bit more than our one mouth, we might learn something from God about our “enemy.”  We may learn that our enemy is not His enemy.
     The other fold in this Gospel reminder is that God did, indeed, raise Jesus from the dead.  We have that inescapable proof of God’s redeeming power in the Resurrection of our Lord.  If He can raise the dead, what can our Lord not do?  As messy as our systemic injustices are, their mess pales in comparison to the mess of death.  As divided as our politics are today, they pale in comparison between the division between life and death.  As breathtakingly unjust some of our systems are, their complexity pales in comparison to raising the dead to new life!   As hopeless as the idea is that we can be fit vessels for speaking God’s truth, acting as God’s feet or hands or whatever else is needed, as impotent as we are before all the evil and hopelessness in our own pathetic spheres of influence, even that pales when we confront the sin of the world or hopelessness we discover when we mistakenly think redemption is up to us.  God raised Jesus, in part, as a display of His power, that we might know He can do anything He purposes, even when it involves ordinary, plain old, flawed, and sinful us.  All He asks is that we trust and follow.  He will take care of the heavy lifting.  He will give us what we need to do His work in the world around us.
     Advent is a wonderful re-set in the Church year.  You and I are intentionally called to look back on God’s Incarnation and expectantly to His Second Coming.  Those events ought to encourage and compel us to do the work He has given us to do each and every time we leave this building.  How much does He love us and those whom we serve in His Name?  Enough to come down and dwell among us and, ultimately, to redeem us.  When we begin to buy into the myth of the Enemy that this is all that there is or that the problems are too complex for lil old us to make a difference, we forget our purpose as Christians and, especially as Adventers.  The world, my brothers and sisters, is dark.  It is incredibly dark and full of vitriol and hopelessness.  But you and I and all those who pay attention to the rhythm of the Church year realize that we are the ones sent out like candles into that world as heralds of His grace.  Were the candles or even the flickers of light our own, we would quickly be extinguished, and we, and the world, would be forced to stumble in darkness.  But God has given the privilege and the responsibility, fit for sons and daughters, to be His vessels of His redeeming love.  And we are called to carry those flickers of hope, of peace, of joy, and of love into that world around us, trusting that our flickers will point those around us to the Light that came into the world and to the Life that He calls each one of those whom He created!

In Christ’s Peace,