Monday, January 26, 2015

Where is your Nineveh? Who is your Bennie?

     Did you know that today, the third Sunday of Epiphany, is the only day during our three-year lectionary cycle that we read from the book of Jonah?  Chances are, most of everything you know about Jonah comes from Sunday school.  You would think, since Jesus cited Jonah, that the book would figure a bit more prominently in our lectionary.  But maybe some of the themes are a bit difficult for us to struggle with in a simple sermon.  Maybe they are better suited to Bible study classes.  And before I get started, I have to admit I plagiarized the theme of today’s sermon a bit from Bishop John, Archbishop Justin, and Pope Francis.  It made sense as I turned it over in my head, but I sure did not want you all to think I came up with this on my own.

     That being said, we jumped into the narrative of Jonah after he has been vomited onto the land by the fish.  In case you have forgotten the story, Jonah received a call from God to go and preach His coming wrath on the city of Nineveh.  Jonah, naturally, does not want to do as God has instructed.  God usually has to fight with those whom He calls.  Moses argues three times about his suitability to go to Pharaoh.  Jacob has a hip dislocated.  Sarah laughs at God and gets a baby as she nears 100 years old for her scoff.  Poor Jonah wants to avoid Nineveh because he understands God’s character all too well.

     Nineveh was the capital city of the Assyrian Empire.  It was huge by ANE standards.  And it was the center of power for the superpower of the day.  If Assyria wanted something, they took it, usually at great cost of blood and material wealth to those from whom they took.  Israel, naturally, had been on the receiving end of a couple bloody and humiliating battles.  So Israel hated Assyria.  Hated.  I am far too new here to know our real rivals.  Maybe their attitude is not unlike Vandy’s fans towards Tennessee; maybe their attitude is like Tennessee Titans fans’ toward the Colts; maybe it’s like Brentwood Academy vs. Brentwood High.  Chances are some of you will offer me some suggestions later.  Maybe a good example would be ISIS now.  Bin Laden before his death.  A great example for those of us of a certain age would be the country’s attitude toward the Soviet Union during the Cold War.  My kids laugh when I tell stories of how judges voted according to blocs in Olympic Figure Skating and Gymnastics.  They used to think I had lost my mind when I talked about nuclear bomb drills where we had to get under our desks at school to protect ourselves.  Nathan used to ask if we understood the physics of nuclear weapons in West Virginia, clearly wondering why in the world we thought a desk would save us.  Then he learned that the drills were practiced country-wide.  The whole country practiced those drills?  I see from the nods of some that you also practiced those drills.  I also see some bemusement on the face of those young like my kids.  It’s true.  We hated the Soviet Union.  President Reagan would pretend he was ordering a full strike on the USSR as a sound check before his radio chat sometimes.  The Soviets would scramble to see if our birds were in the air, and many of us would think it so cool he could strike fear into the heart of the enemy.

     Now, those of you of that age, what if God had commanded you to go to Moscow and preach His judgment and coming wrath?  Would you have done it?  Or would you have argued with God?  And, just to make it seem a bit more realistically, do you think the Muscovites would have listened?  Or do you think you would have found yourself at a Gulag for the mentally ill?

     Jonah does not want to go because he understands the nature and character of God.  In his argument with God, Jonah basically casts Exodus 34:6-7 back into God’s face.  Jonah understands that if he goes and if he preaches faithfully and if Nineveh repents, God will not destroy the great city.  Jonah wants his enemies destroyed; Jonah does not want his enemies spared, especially when it comes to God’s wrath.

     This lesson was driven home to me in my ministry in human trafficking.  I would rather use a shared experience as a sermon illustration and not focus on me, but we do not yet have enough shared experiences.  As I have shared during the interview process and with the youth, I play a game called World of Warcraft.  I am a true veteran.  These words will mean nothing to those who remember the Cold War of which I spoke a moment ago, but the youth will understand all too well.  Back in the days of Vanilla WoW, there were no dual-specs, there were no cheat specs for the talent tree, heck there were 63 talents that needed to be spent “back in the day.”  I had been conned into the game as a holy priest.  My friend had begged me to start playing with him.  I could talk to people online about Jesus and heal people.  That was the real job of a holy priest—we kept everyone else in our groups alive.  Good healers were hard to come by in the game.  It was very much an incarnational ministry.  Holy priests had good power, but it was really only used to heal.  Guess who was the first guy to get targeted by the enemies?  Guess who died first trying to keep allies alive?  The holy priest.  I was very good at the game.  With another priest named Ellyn, we two-healed Naxxramas and the Lich King 10-man raids.  Let those with ears . . .

     Although I was primarily a healer, I had two significant offensive spells.  Levelling as a holy priest to level 70 was a challenge.  My favorite spell was holy fire.  Basically, I called down a lightning bolt from the sky that hit my target.  It was a rather slow spell because it was rather powerful.  The best part of the spell, from my perspective, was that after the initial damage from the bolt, the target would begin to be damaged by a slow burn.  I would hit them with the bolt and then attack them or heal myself as they continued to be damaged a bit by the fire the bolt had caused.  I know, now you adults are all a little freaked out that your priest thinks the burn after the bolt made for a good spell.  You are going to be a bit more disturbed, though, when your priest began to lament that he did not have that power in real life as he got more and more involved in the fight against human trafficking.

     When I got involved in that ministry, I spent more time trying to convince people that the evil was real than I did suggesting how they could help.  I would sometimes think, in those dark moments of frustration, how cool it would be if God gave me that holy fire in real life.  I had begged for God to use tornados to wipe out particular sites, but He had refused, even though I lived in “Tornado Alley.”  I thought, how seriously would people, but especially the perpetrators, take their sin and evil if God just let me hit a few with a bolt and burn them a bit.  Maybe the idiot “John’s,” who thought they could tell the difference between a sex slave girl who liked sex from those who were doing it for the money, would begin to understand the pain they were causing by the pain they were receiving.  Maybe the pimps, who would be all kinds of threatening if I did a horrific things such as buy their girl a lunch or cup of hot chocolate or coffee, would begin to realize where true power was to be found and feared.  Maybe the looming threat of muscle would reconsider their life’s work if they were forced to endure a supernatural punishment from God.  Maybe the indifferent business owner who closed his or her eyes or the homeowner that cared only about cheap cleaning or gardening would change their attitude as they experienced the shock of the bolt and the pain of the burn.  Yes.  Like Jonah, I wanted my enemies, God’s enemies, punished.

     Jonah, as the reading tells us today, does finally obey God.  He goes and preaches a strange sermon.  It is five words in Hebrew.  “Forty days more, and Nineveh will be overthrown.”  It is not exactly the best call to repentance any of us have ever heard, is it?  Can those of us older imagine the Soviet Union repenting back in the 70’s and 80’s with that kind of sermon?  Yet, all of Nineveh hears the words of the prophet and repents.  The king, we are told, is so moved by Jonah’s words that he declares that even the ashes will wear sackcloth and ashes as an outward sign of their inward sorrow.  Can you imagine?  It must have been a rather amusing scene.  I wonder how the animals were fitted with sackcloth?  How did they keep the sackcloth on the animals?  There was no super glue, no duct tape.

     Just as Jonah feared, God relents of His great wrath and decides not to destroy Nineveh.  Even though Jonah does not give the best evangelistic sermon recorded in the Scripture, one cannot argue with the results.  From here, the book goes on to teach us, as God teaches Jonah, about the love and mercy and power of God.  In the end, Jonah and we are reminded that we have no right to demand or to expect of God that He treat our enemies any less merciful that He treated each one of us.  All of us were created by Him; all of us are loved by Him.  All He demands of us is that we repent of our sins.  It is a lesson taught over and over in Scripture.  What separated the Gibeonites from the other ites in the Promised Land?  What really separates David from Saul?  Why is Jesus so mad at the Pharisees and Priests?  Why does He emphasize that we need to love our enemies?  Even evil people sometimes do good to those who do good to them.  God’s character, though, is revealed in our attitudes and actions towards our enemies.

     That lesson was driven home to me in an “aha” moment of my own.  As I said, I had it all figured out how God would best be glorified.  The Holy Fire would strike fear into His enemies.  They would all see and repent.  Better still, the rest of the world would notice and begin to take God seriously.  It was a good plan, an ok thought, right?  I see nods of assents.  The problem was that I had not internalized the lesson taught to Jonah and us.

     I received a call one day about some girls walking the streets downtown.  This was actually unusual.  So I headed downtown to see what was happening.  Sure enough, there were three or four ladies offering themselves from money not too far from our bridge and ballpark.  I struck up conversations with a couple ladies, asking if they wanted out.  As I was chatting with them, a man came up to drive his girls away from me.  If I was not buying them, I was wasting their time and costing him money.  Every now and then you will hear I do something really stupid and crazy that really works out.  This was one of those.

     I explained that I was a priest, in case the green shirt and collar around my neck was not obvious, and proceeding to ask the pimp to let me speak with the girls and talk them out of the life.  We had a back and forth and my words about having a bishop for a boss who would bust my butt if I did not do my job resonated with him, but he needed to make money.  So I asked if he and I could talk.  Yes, when I first related this story to my bishop he had very much the same intake of breath as y’all.  He suggested a bar, and we spent a few hours over the next several days getting to know one another.  For those that want the longer account, you can check him out on my blog.  His name was Bennie.

     I learned that Bennie was the product of a broken home.  His dad was never around.  His mom lost to a drug addiction and lost her kids.  Bennie grew up in about a half dozen foster homes.  Some foster homes are wonderful, but some only want the check generated by the state to take care of the kids.  Bennie claimed all his foster homes were the latter.  He learned rather quickly he could run away and they would not chase, not even file a police report, so long as the checks appeared in the mailbox.  Benny began to equate his intrinsic value, and the intrinsic value of all human beings with money.  The rest, as they say, is history.  Bennie grew up idolizing the pimp culture made famous in Chicago.  He wanted the money, the fame, and the respect that came from the lifestyle.  The idea that God loved him was a joke.  The idea that God would forgive him was ludicrous.  Don’t hate the playa; hate the game, Preacher.  I didn’t make the rules, I just win by them.

     I wish I was sharing this story with an ending worthy of Nineveh.  Jonah did a far better job than I.  There was no conversion moment for Bennie.  There was no repentance.  When he left town for his next stop, he intended to continue in his business.  He predicted he would continue to be hassled by cops.  He predicted he would continue to run afoul of gangs and other pimps when he set up shop in new locales.  He predicted that he would likely die long before he got old and before he could enjoy all the money he was making.  That was his life.  That was the deck stacked against.  My role in Bennie’s life, it seems, was one of sowing, and I pray even to this day that Bennie meets his Jonah, that Bennie repents and causes all heaven to rejoice.  I trust that other members of the Kingdom of God have followed where I sowed and have watered and manured.  And, if Bennie still refuses, I know it was not because he did not know.

     You see, sitting there on the stool one evening, as I listened to Bennie’s story, I realized how fortunate I had been.  Yes, mom and dad had divorced, twice, but both were active in my life.  Both took seriously their responsibilities to raise their kids to know right from wrong, to know that God loved us.  How many Bennie were not so fortunate?  How many places are like Nineveh and still have not heard God’s word?  Forgive him, Lord, he does not know what he is doing rang clearly in my ears.  Over and over as I listened to his story, I realized so much of Bennie’s foundation was missing.  He had simply filled the holes as best he knew how, equating bling and cash with respect and fear with love.  It is a wretched existence.  What’s worse, he expects a violent end.  Yet it was my job to remind this lost child of God that he could choose a different path, a more challenging path, that led to eternal life and love.  How I wish for Bennie’s sake I would have reached him.  Oh, I know, the idea of a priest and a pimp having a drink talking God and sociology and psychiatry and business is proof enough that God still does amazing things in our lives and in the world today.  But how much better would it be to tell you how he repented, freed his girls, and works to reach other pimps today?  But neither I nor you nor Bennie nor the people of Nineveh would have any hope had not God reach down into all our lives.

     At convention this week, Bishop John and Bishop Dabney reminded us all present that our primary responsibility, by virtue of our oaths taken at baptism, is to introduce people of the world to this person, Jesus.  We don’t proclaim a special knowledge like the Gnostics, we don’t have weird formulas, we don’t revere theology like some faiths, God is not some impersonal force moving inexorably through history.  We remind people, ourselves included, that we are reconciled to God through the work and person, Jesus Christ.  Jonah was right.  God is forgiving and merciful and slow to anger.  We know that best through His Son our Lord, Jesus of Nazareth.  In this season of the Church we call Epiphany, we remind ourselves that God manifested Himself in Christ that the whole world, the entire world, would turn, serve God, and glorify Him!  God, through Christ, is inviting everyone we meet into a reconciled relationship with Him.  It is an amazing story, a wonderful story—one truthfully not fit for mouths or ears like mine.  Yet that is the very responsibility He has placed on each one of us through our baptisms into His death and into His Resurrection.  The problem, of course, is that we are too much like Jonah.  We like to think we deserve God’s grace and that others do not.  And so we hoard our relationship with Him, and, in so doing, allow that others might be condemned.  The youth describe it as the “Brentwood bubble,” but we adults know it extends far beyond the city limits of Brentwood.

     You see, until we internalize the lesson God gave to and through Jonah, we have missed a large portion of our own relationship with God.  Until we grasp that lesson fully, we are but babes in our faith.  When our Lord hung on that Cross and breathed His last breaths and said, “Forgive them, Father.  They do not know what they are doing,” He was speaking of you and of me.  Before we grasped at His saving hand, we were like the Ninevites and Bennies of the world, not aware we were loved and not aware we needed a Savior.  And, what’s worse, when we begin that walk with Him, we forget that He calls us to go to the Nineveh’s and Bennie’s of the world, proclaiming His Good News of great joy and hope.

     In November at the conference, we got a note from Justin and Francis via their emissary David.  Both were pleased with our work and the attention we were paying to survivors and victims of human trafficking.  Then came the however.  Justin and Francis reminded us that if the Church is only working to serve those in need, if the Church is only working to draw in those on the margins, if the Church is only serving the poor, the widows, the orphans, and the lepers, She is only fulfilling part of Her calling.  The Lord calls His Bride, the Church, to call the world to repentance and a reconciled relationship with Him through Christ.  If we feed the working poor but do not call owners to pay living wages, we have missed an important part of our calling.  If we work hard to free and care for slaves but do not call those who use them and those who own them to repentance, we have missed a large chunk of our calling.  If we labor tirelessly to provide those victimized by sin but do not call those who sin and victimize into relationship with the Lord Jesus, we have failed to embrace the full mission given us.  Weighty words, are they not?  Not nearly so weighty, I believe, as that Cross He bore for all our sakes, even though we were at enmity with Him.

     Brothers and sisters, where and who are the Nineveh’s of your lives?  Who are the Bennie’s of your life?  Who are the people that you would loathe to escape the wrath of God?  Chances are, when I was talking about the rivalry between Vandy fans and UT fans, between Colts fans and Titan fans, between the US and USSR so many years ago, people began popping into your head.  My guess is that the Holy Spirit has reminded you this day of those foreigners, those others, those black sheep in your family, those co-workers, those bosses, those employees, maybe even that priest that you think does not deserve God’s grace like you.  Brothers and sisters, I am here to remind you that God calls you every bit to manifest His love and His glory to those who drive you nuts or who do evil in His sight, that His kingdom might grow yet again.  Our Collect today picks up on that calling every bit as much as does our reading from Jonah.  Give us grace, O Lord, . . . to proclaim to all people the Good News of His salvation, that we and the whole world may perceive the glory of His marvelous works.  Chances are, your life will be the best sermon they ever hear.  It has been given to you to proclaim tidings of Jesus, redemption, and release!  What kind of sermon will you give them?  Will it be one of humility and empathy, understanding in all truth that you were not worthy of such grace?  Will it be one that, empowered by the Holy Spirit, calls entire cities to repentance and into right relationship with our Lord?  Will it simply remind you, day in and day out, that you were once every bit at enmity with God but now, thanks to His mercy and His grace, prepared for that Wedding Feast prepared from the beginning of time for all those who have chosen to follow Him?



Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Speak, Lord, for Your servants are listening . . .

     In my short time among you, I have made a couple interesting and surprising discoveries.  There are a number of professional theologians in our midst, which poses a challenge because now I have to prove to them I know my stuff.  All who have quizzed me have been very kind, but they want to make sure their pastor knows his stuff.  Another discovery has been the Southern patience is not existent in a few quarters.  Part of what no doubt informs my sermon this week has been the “rush” by some to see where I am going to take Advent.  When I mention that I am not trying to take Advent anywhere and that the process of discernment can sometimes be lengthy, I have been on the receiving end of a few almost northeastern huffs.  It is all good.  I realize that some of you were ready to “get to work” a long time ago, that this period of transition has dragged on and on and on.  It is ok.  God is still in control.  This week’s readings, however, might inform us all a bit how the process works.

     Though I was sorely tempted to turn to Corinthians and talk a bit about pornography in light of Paul’s letter today, I think the lesson from Samuel will be more beneficial to us as individuals and as a community gathered in Christ’s name here in Nashville.  For those of you who do not know the story, the child Samuel is the product of a lot of prayer.  Samuel’s mother, Hannah, was considered barren.  She prayed to God to open up her womb.  So desperate was she to have a child that she pledged her firstborn son to God.  God heard her prayer.  His answer to her prayer provoked what many consider to be the Magnificat of the Old Testament.  More amazingly, she kept her vow.  When the child, Samuel, had been weaned, she took him to the priests, where he became a permanent acolyte.  Those of you sitting in the corner might give thanks that you only serve as acolytes an hour or so every six weeks!  Poor Samuel was on call 24/7/365!

     It turns out, of course, that the priest to whom Samuel was given was not a very good dad.  Why do I say that?  Eli had two sons who had decided to ignore the torah and take for themselves the choicest meats.  Priests prior to the Exile had more in common with butchers than with what I do today.  Every time people came with an offering of an animal, it was their job to slaughter the animal and offer it to God for those making the offering.  One of the perks of the job was that the priests got to take some of the meat and other offerings and use them to support themselves.  They could trade the meat for other items, or they could enjoy a nice steak when they were done working.  God had warned Eli that his sons were committing evil in His sight.  In fact, God told Eli they were blaspheming Him.  Eli gave the weak fatherly response, “Boys, you better stop.  God is going to lose patience with you, and then you will be sorry” response.  Those of you who have studied the torah know the punishment for blaspheme: death.  Those of us who are mothers or fathers can well understand a father’s unwillingness to kill a child, no matter bad the child has been.  But this is a priest who was supposed to be teaching his sons how to worship and how to serve the Living God.  As a father, he had failed his sons miserably.  Rather than nipping their selfish attitude in the bud at an early age, say Samuel’s age, Eli had chosen to ignore or put up with their attitudes.  Not only did they have no respect for their dad, they had no fear or respect for the Lord.  That showed in their dealings with the people.

     That is part of your background information for today.  Notice also the description of the time and of Eli.  The word of The Lord was rare in those days, and Eli’s eyesight was growing dim.  Samuel is in his sleeping area when he hears the voice he supposes is Eli’s three times.  Each time he runs into Eli’s quarters to see what the old priest needs.  Each time, Eli tells young Samuel that he has not called him.  Now, Eli may be old and going blind, but he is not stupid.  Eli instructs the boy that the Lord is speaking.  He tells young Samuel that, “if God speaks again, lie there and say ‘Speak, Lord, for Your servant is listening.’”  Samuel does as the old priest instructs.  For the first time in the young boy’s life, the word of the Lord comes to him.  God tells Samuel that what he is about to do will make the ears of anyone who hears it tingle.  Such may sound a bit silly to our ears, but it was a signal to Israel that God was about to do something significant.

     Curiously, this first word given to Samuel is not one that seems likely to blow the socks off of Israel.  Heck, it does not seem to truly reach Eli.  I have already explained some of the background.  Eli’s family is being punished because the sons have blasphemed God and because Eli has done nothing about it.  To Eli’s credit, he realizes that God is correct in His judgment.  To His discredit, He seems rather blasé about accepting the punishment.  There is no attempt to repent, no attempt to turn from his ways that have led to this point.

     We are told by the writer that Samuel was known from the far north and far south of Israel as a prophet of God.  In fact, God let none of Samuel’s words fall to the ground.  Can you imagine the honor and awesome responsibility?  Samuel will be responsible for speaking God’s words of judgment and mercy to the people of Israel.  From humble beginnings to that kind of relationship with God and with Israel.  Now you know another reason why we speak of God who can do more than we can ask or imagine!

     For the theologians among us, the passage lends itself to a nice three-point paper.  First, we are reminded that God’s word is sure and true, no matter what it is that He says or causes to be written.  We might like to think that things are written in stone when they are really important, but only those things promised by God are eternal and dependable.  The second lesson for the theologians among us this morning is the nature of the individual call.  Each and every single individual must give an answer to God’s call on his or her life.  No exception.  Even the “not today” is an answer in the negative.  Eli got the same message once before from God.  He chose to ignore it and its implications.  Now, God’s patience has worn thin.  He is about to act as He promised.  Lastly, God’s word is always transforming and shaping us to be the sons or daughters He would have us be.  Put in simple language, one cannot encounter the Living God and remain the same.  He is so utterly “other” that we would never be able to apprehend Him were He not unwilling to reveal Himself to us.

     Of course, the non-theologians among us now are trying hard to stay awake.  Most of us gathered today are not here to hear a three-point paper.  Most of us want to know why this passage should be considered important to us, why we should read, learn, mark, and inwardly digest this story.  These theological fine points really only encourage nap time for those of us not inclined, do they not?  We want answers to the “then what?” questions coursing through our heads.  Why is the story of Samuel important to you and to me?

     Two of our readings today speak to the idea that we are called by God.  Both the passage from Samuel and the passage from John speak to the idea that you and I are called by God.  It is an amazing thing, is it not, to think that the Creator of the heavens and the earth knows you by name, knew you before you were knitted together in your mother’s womb?  One of Karen and my early fights was about that nature of God’s immanence.  She would pray before taking tests or writing papers.  I always figured God had bigger things to worry about: you know, nudging asteroids out of earth’s orbit, Middle East peace, and things like that.  Like some of you today, I had forgotten some of these stories of call.  God calls to individuals by name.  Whether their names are Abraham or Moses or Mary or Martha, God knows them all by name, just as He knows each one of us gathered here and each one of those gathered at churches around this city and even those who chose to ignore His call on their lives this day.  Every.  Single.  One.

     I chose to focus on the idea of a call because a few people have started to get impatient with me.  Collectively, you have all spent a great deal of time between rectors.  A few of you wondered whether Advent would ever call another one.  Now that I am here, there is a desire is some quarters to roll up our sleeves and get to work.  I get it.  I understand it.  And truth be told, were I on the other side of this collar, I would probably be you.  The problem is that we need to spend some serious time figuring out God’s call on our lives, both individually and as a parish.  In the meantime, we get to spend some time getting to know one another.  When Dale and Dick visited this past August, and then when I meant with the Vestry in September, I was told I made my leadership style sound like luck.  As I said to them, I say to you, it was not luck.  It was my job, and the job of the parishes and the vestries, to figure out God’s call on our collective lives.  As the one who sits in the office, I get to hear the different stories.  Someone who sits back right at 8am might not even know the name of someone who sits front row left at 10:30am.  Neither of them may or may not know someone who comes on Wednesday at noon.  That is parish ministry.  But I get to hear the stories.  I get to hear the struggles, the crises, the blessings, the excitements, and the wonders.  If I am doing my job, I begin to hear God’s voice in all of yours.  Even then, though, we are not done.  I share with the Vestry, the Vestry considers and discerns.  If they agree, we take it to the parish.  The parish either recognizes that I and the Vestry have done our jobs, or they refuse.  It is a slow deliberate process.  But our readings today remind us that it is happening.  Just as surely as God will raise us from the dead on the Last Day, He has declared He has a plan or two for each one of us.

     So, how do we go about figuring out God’s plan for us?  Where do we meet God and give Him a chance to say while we are listening?  It seems to me there are three practices that give us a chance to hear Him.  First, where do we meet God each and every day?  In the Scriptures.  As good little Episcopalians, I know each and every one of you is reading Scripture daily, aren’t you?  Wait, why is there squirming?  We have a daily lectionary.  Heck, we have apps that do that work for us now.  Have none of us ever been reminded that we should take time to read a bit of Scripture every day in our life?  I am teasing you all a bit, but it is a tease with an edge.  If you really want to hear God speak to you, the Scriptures are a great place to start.  As you read, you will come across stories that make you feel uncomfortable, that speak directly to your current struggles, and you will read how God helped your spiritual ancestors through their own struggles.  Sound familiar?  And how many of us have been taught that we can just randomly open our Bibles and start reading?  I see some nods.  It is amazing how often one can do that and open to the exact spot that speaks to one’s issues or problems.

     And, lest you think I am crazy, why do you think we worship the way we do.  We start with the Liturgy of the Word and then proceed to the Liturgy of the Sacrament.  Why do we arrange our services that way?  Each time we gather, we have two chances to meet Jesus.  The Scriptures are read, a preacher preaches and teaches on them, and then we celebrate Communion.  If Jesus was true and certain when He claimed that all the Scriptures were about Him, every time we read Scripture we are giving ourselves a chance to meet Him, too hear Him, to be formed and transformed by Him!  That, brothers and sisters is why we read the Bible.  That, brothers and sisters, is why Christians study the Scriptures in depth.  They want to know Jesus better!  Not win at Jeopardy or Trivia Crack.

     And, in those cases where the preaching is bad, we are still not done for the day.  When we gather as a worshipping community, we expect to meet Jesus in the Sacrament.  All of us are good little Episcopalians/Anglicans, right?  We know that it is in the Sacrament when the veil between this world and the next is at its tissue thinnest.  We cannot explain it, but we expect to consume His Flesh and His Blood and remind ourselves that we are in Him every bit as He is in us.  This, of course, serves as our second way we meet and hear God in our lives.  You may come to the rail to partake of the Eucharist, but never be too surprised if you find yourself like Samuel, hearing a voice, hearing The Voice with a call on your life.

     Lastly, and I fear our attention to this way of hearing God is as lacking as the first one I mentioned, we meet God in prayer.  I know.  We think of prayer as personal nagging time or personal bargaining time with God.  Please, God, heal me.  Please, God, fix my boss.  Please, God, I need a new car.  Please, God, tell my long-winded pastor to shut up.  God, if you will give me a winning lottery ticket, I will split it with You.  God, if you give me an A on this test I promise I will never miss another Sunday.  You are chuckling because it sounds ridiculous.  But how many of us do just that?  And how many of us are in too big a rush to create a few minutes of silence that we might hear His still, small whisper in our lives?

     In addition to our normal Collect today, you all heard me pray the Collect for Martin Luther King’s feast day.  I know the feast day is moved tomorrow because we celebrate the Confession of St. Peter tomorrow, but the rest of the country will celebrate MLK’s day as scheduled.  There is much to admire about St. Martin.  He displayed a courage that this country sorely needed.  And while I do not think we are done yet in every nook and cranny of this great land, I dare say we have probably come farther faster than St. Martin would have ever expected.  And we have done this despite the efforts by evil to silence his voice.  There is much written about St. Martin and I trust a few of us will even watch the movie.  But where do you think it was that St. Martin found his courage and will to do the work that God had given him to do?

     If you read some of his memoirs and diary, you might be surprised to learn that St. Martin was fortified by prayer.  I was struck once by how he responded to the first of several death threats he received in pursuit of God’s call on his life.  St. Martin said that he did the only thing he knew he could do when he got those first threats: he prayed.  His prayer was probably not unlike our Lord’s in Gethsemane, asking God to take this from him.  He said, though, that as he prayed, this incredible peace descended upon him.  As a student of the Bible, snippets of Scripture and pictures in his mind of scenes popped into his head.  And he realized that God was truly with him in this effort.  He had nothing to fear because the Lord was with him.

     St. Martin did not quite write in the exact words of “the peace that passes all understanding” or “go in peace to love and serve the Lord,” but can you not hear the hallowed echoes?  Can you not understand a bit differently this morning what those words mean when we say them?  And look at the result.  Eventually, evil tried to silence the prophetic voice of St. Martin.  An assassin’s bullet tried to dull the roar of “Free at last.”  But because God was truly with him, because He knew himself called and beloved of God, St. Martin could speak and lead with a fearlessness that inspired a generation.  As with Samuel today, St. Martins’s words did not fall to the ground, even though his life was seemingly taken from him.  You see.  St. Martin gave his life unreservedly to God.  Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.  And God used Martin’s faithfulness to effect great change in our country and our world.  Martin’s voice might have been silenced that day in Memphis, but the Word of the One whom Martin followed continues even to this day.

     Brothers and sisters, we have spent some deep time in discussion this morning.  If I have done my job you have been chewing on some meat rather than being spoon-fed gruel.  Our lessons, though, spoke directly to a question many of us share: Does God have a call on my life?  Does God care about me?  The Lord has promised through His well beloved Son that He has great plans for you and for me, far more amazing plans than any of us could ask or imagine.  Even more amazingly, He gives us each the opportunity to accept or to reject those plans.  Poor Eli could not bring himself to follow the path the Lord set before Him.  Thankfully, and mercifully, though, we have the stories of those who did to remind us.  Look at what God wrought through faithful obedience.  He took an unexpected boy from a barren woman and made him a prophet and a king-anointer!  He took a man sitting under a fig tree who thought nothing good could come from Nazareth and made him and Apostle.  He took a black man born in the capital of the South in 1929 and turned him into a prophet and leader who is now celebrated like Washington and Lincoln and others who shaped our beloved land.  What can our Lord not do with you or with Advent, if only we mean and say, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening!”



Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Manifesting God's glory to the world around us this season of Epiphany . . .

A number of people asked me last week if i was always so intense. When i asked what they meant, they thought there was no real happy warm up period, that i just jumped right into the Gospel lesson and preached, as if they knew me and I them. As I explained to them and also now to you, the beginning of any pastoral relationship is tough. Both of us have been journeying toward what we all hope is Zion, God’s city. As a group, you have been walking a path over here headed that way, and I have been walking a path over here walking this way. Then, as if our paths cross for a second, we end up together on the same path. So far, we have not had many brambles, potholes, sprained ankles, or other diversions to give us much of a common story. But that will change as we continue along this path together.

I suspect that much of the perceived intensity comes from my ministries at my last cure. Around 160 individuals suffering from addiction would come through our doors each week, many of whom used me for their fifth step—what you and I in the Episcopal church call Reconciliation of a Penitent. In my last few weeks there, I was dealing with a possible murder and an attempted suicide, on top of what I would characterize as my “normal” pastoral ministry. At my kids school, they and their classmates and a few of their parents were dealing with the passing of a mother of four. Her two older boys were now orphans, their father passing away about eight years ago. At a place of some privilege, not unlike Brentwood, the idea of orphans and the loss of a mother was horrific to some. Such tragedies happen to other, less fortunate people, but not to them or those like them. Add to all that the normal depressions of the Christmas Season, the stress that comes with the season, my formal leave-taking of a ministry, and you get an idea why I might seem a bit more intense than what you expected. And, oh, did someone mention to you that I have seven children? And it was Christmas?

Part of why I jumped right in to Matthew and John was that there will be lots of time for us to get to know each other in the weeks, months, and years going forward. None of knows, however, if someone sitting here has never heard or never really considered the claims of the Gospel. As much as you might have wanted me to talk about myself and my family, I am here, I think by God’s command, to remind us all, but especially those who do not yet believe, that God loves us, that Christ died for us, and that we each, by virtue of His death and Resurrection, have been given unique gifts by the Holy Spirit to serve and to glorify Him. You have each set aside time to come and worship and to be fed by God, I would be anything but a good steward of the charge given me were I not to teach you a bit about God while you are here. Sure, I hope we have fun doing it, but our task is to worship God and be fortified by Him, through the preaching and teaching of the Word and the nourishment of the Sacrament, to head back out into our mission fields, prepared to witness to Him to our friends, our co-workers, our families, and even the strangers in our lives.

That all being said, if you think I was a bit hardcore, you should spend a time in Mark’s Gospel. 41 times he uses the word immediately in his text. It makes you feel like you have been running a long sprint . . . immediately . . . immediately . . . immediately. Mark tells this wonderful story of Jesus’ Baptism today. The parts of the story that have probably piqued your interest, however, are not in Mark’s version of the baptism. John does not argue with Jesus about the appropriateness of such an act. The voice of the Father is heard only by Jesus and not the crowds. Notice what happens, though.

John has introduced this baptism of repentance into the cultural awareness of the Jews. To understand what is going on, pretend you are a Jew living in this age. Your grandmothers and grandfathers and aunts and uncles tell of a time when Yahweh was actively involved with your people. God would declare that he was going to do something, He would do it, then He would point out how He had accomplished the very thing He had promised He would! Now for a couple hundred years, God has been silent. Not since Malachi has there been a prophet of God. Has He abandoned us? Are we a lost cause? Has God been defeated in some cosmic battle in the sky? Then comes forth John! No one doubts John’s calling. No one. John comes strolling out of the wilderness looking more like the Nazarene we talked about last week than does Jesus. He offers a baptism of water for forgiveness and then reminds them that the One coming after, the Messiah, will baptize with the Holy Spirit. Finally God is speaking again! Finally, God has remembered His promises to our ancestors! Can you imagine the hope? The joy? The excitement? People come from everywhere to be baptized into this baptism of repentance. They want God to stay with them. They want God to keep speaking to them. Now, perhaps, you understand a bit more of why John’s work was so important to the Jews.

Now, for a spiritual wedgie this morning, we are going to play a bit of interactive sermonizing. When you were baptized, or when you renew your baptismal vows when someone new to the faith is baptized, what are the first three questions asked of you during the examination once you state your public desire to be baptized? I’ll help. Do you renounce . . . ? Ring a bell? We renounce all that draws us from the love of God, do we not? We renounce Satan, evil powers, and even our sinful desires. We are baptized into a baptism of repentance. But do we stop there? Are there any more questions in the liturgy? Do you turn to Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior? Do you put your whole trust in His grace and love? Do you promise to follow and obey Him as your Lord? What do you think is going on in our liturgy? WE are baptized into a baptism of repentance and into a baptism of the Holy Spirit. Like those who came to John so long ago, we ask for forgiveness for those things which we have done wrong and for those things we failed to do. But our baptism, thanks to the work and person of Jesus Christ, goes further. Just as we die to the old self when we are baptized, we are raised to a new life in Christ. Sound familiar? We no longer live for ourselves but for God. And here’s some fantastic news, brothers and sisters. When we pledge to live as God would have us live, the Holy Spirit is there ready to embrace us and gift us with those things we will need to effectively glorify God in our lives! We are asking God to cleanse away from us those things which mislead us and fill us with those things that please Him. And, usually more than we can ever ask or imagine, that is precisely what He does! He wants us, to use Epiphany language, manifesting His glory in our lives so that the world might be drawn to Christ’s saving embrace.

The real challenge to an effective sermon, I think, is to make it applicable in your lives. No doubt all of you can see what John was talking about and what Paul was talking about in our readings assigned for today. But I am sure that some of you have doubts. Some of you sitting here wonder if such is really true. Maybe some of you doubt that there is any significant regeneration occurring in your hearts. Thankfully, I had time to spend in the car again this week. I had about 31 hours to reflect upon our short life together and to see if I could think of an illustration of what I mean. Now, my usual practice is to ask people whether I can use their story as a sermon illustration. Had I realized when they happened that I would need them this week, I would have asked Lynne and Jerry if I could use them this week. As it is, I will use them and then seek those waters of repentance for causing them any embarrassment. I think they get it, so I do not think I am taking a huge risk. Besides, both of them said that if I needed any help . . .

Sunday, after the concert, a lady appeared at our door. She needed help to do laundry. Lynne, our youth pastor, was the one who first saw her and struck up the conversation. As we were exiting to the Parish Hall, Lynne grabbed me and asked me to stay with the lady while she raided the coke machines, wherever those are. As it turned out, the lady was desperate for quarters to do laundry. She was broke, she had laundry to do, and she was more concerned for her kids going to school than her own clothes. Lynne had already decided she had means to meet this need and was doing that, while making sure the lady was made to feel welcome. As the lady and I got to talking, it turns out the fact that our lights were on and that there were cars in the parking lot caused her stop in and ask. She had only been to Advent once, many years ago, when Advent was hosting a group called “A Night in the Inn.” You all are nodding, so you know the name of the ministry. She stayed here one night, ate a couple of great meals, and was able to get cleaned up, all before heading back out into the streets of Nashville the next day. That was before she got married and had kids. She always remembered Advent fondly whenever she passed it on the interstate. Now? She was taking a shot that we were people who still cared for those on the margins.

Pay attention to what happened last Sunday, brothers and sisters. Lynne’s job is youth and young adult ministry—we do pay her to do that, don’t we? Her focus ought to be on her job and our youth, right? Yet, when confronted with a need that made sense and pulled at her in ways she probably has not considered, Lynne thought quickly how to meet the need. Now that lady has had two interactions with Advent. Once, she was ministered to when she was younger and single. Now, we have helped her be a mom to her kids. They will go to school this week in clean clothes. And how did the Holy Spirit work? A youth pastor doing adult needs, change in the pop machine, and a fond memory. To those outside the faith it might seem silly. But what just happened? perhaps those outside the faith and maybe even some of us within think this silly when compared to parting the Red Sea or giving sight to the blind, but it was every bit as important to this lady Lynne helped? She leaves Advent for the second time, having met another star in Lynne that was trying to point her to The Star, Jesus Christ, of salvation history.

Jerry’s ministry was a bit more difficult in some ways. I don’t know the full background story yet, but Jerry noticed the obituary for a Mary B, a member of this parish. Anyway, I suppose after his morning cup of coffee and a bit of time engrossed in the newspaper, Jerry noticed Mary’s name in the paper. He came over to the office to make sure I was aware. As you all know, I was in Iowa, retrieving my car on my “off day.” Jerry and Tina thought for a bit, Tina checked in with the Funeral Home who said arrangements were still pending, and then she decided, rightly, I should know. There was also a bit of back history to this particular call. I see a nod or three, so I am guessing some of you know better of what I am speaking than do I. But, I got the numbers from Tina and called the husband and the daughter trying to offer our willingness to assist, our condolences, and an apology for our perceived or real failure with respect to Mary. How easy would it have been for Jerry to assume that someone else was aware of all this? How easy would it have been for him not to go out in the cold to come see me? Yet, Jerry embraced the tug on his heart and made sure, made absolutely sure, that someone was reaching out to the family of a deceased parishioner now. Ironically, perhaps the best part of Jerry’s ministry Friday was that it prompted me to leave them an apology. As I said, I cannot speak to the full story yet, but I can remind a family that God loves them, that He is there in the midst of His suffering, and that His people at Advent would sorely like to help in any way possible at this time. Manifesting God’s glory, even through repentance, to the world around us.

The last illustration comes from the area of human trafficking. I would be remiss and you might get weird looks at work tomorrow if your priest, the Church Fellow who just return from the Consultation in Rome, did not mention something on the National Day of Human Trafficking . . . (those there can share this story with those not. It was about Christian business owners taking the extra step to make sure their temporary workers get paid)

It sounds rather simple, does it not, that we are called not only to repent, but to obey and follow Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit? Certainly the illustrations that I used are not “knock your socks off” miracles, unless you were one of the ones on the receiving end. There is one last lesson we need to share because it speaks to our life in the Holy Spirit. When Jesus is baptized and hears those words, what does He immediately do next? He goes off into the wilderness for what the Church calls the Messianic Temptations.

Our baptisms, brothers and sisters, does not mean things are going to get easy. Hopefully, when you were baptized, someone told you that life’s vicissitudes would still happen. Baptized people still experience financial problems. Baptized people still experience health issues. Baptized people still experience relationship woes. Baptized people still get stabbed in the back by co-workers. We deal with all the same issues we had before we were baptized. But notice the big change. In our reading from Genesis today, the Spirit broods over the waters. Water, as many of you know, symbolized chaos to the world of the Ancient Near East. It makes sense when you think about it. The sea was unpredictable. Big storms would blow up with no warning. Most ships were coast huggers. One of the teachings of Genesis is that God brought order to chaos. But think about what God is promising each of us in that baptismal covenant. Yes, you will encounter chaos in your life, son or daughter. But that same Spirit which brought order to creation will be with you to bring order, My Word, to the chaos of your life. That is My covenant with you. Have you ever really pondered the significance of your baptism? Have you really ever thought that as you are embracing God, that same Spirit that brooded over the waters at creation is embracing you? Promising you, that He will redeem whatever circumstance in which you find yourself?

I did not intend for this to be either a study of baptism or a Holy Spirit Sunday, but, as you have seen, sometimes these things are so intertwined it is impossible to separate them. Perhaps, as we enter this season of Epiphany, that is appropriate. You and I are called to manifest to the world the saving grace of God in our lives. How could we ever hope to do just that with only a few snippets? Perhaps it is just as well that our stars point to The Star, that the world might turn and embrace the Lord who, since the beginning of time, has been reaching out His hands of love to embrace them.



Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Manifesting and sharing His glory with us . . .

     In the office today, I learned that Tina’s husband is a bit of an amateur astronomer.  What brought that to light was our discussion of the comet that is currently in our celestial neighborhood.  Tina talked about living a bit out of the city, so I asked if she was far enough out in the country to see the comet.  For those of you unaware this evening, there is a comet that is either about to or just completed its orbit of the sun.  That means it is burning rather brightly in the night sky.  It started off in the constellation Orion, which is easy enough for most folks to find, and will progress at some 3 degrees per day to the north.  Once it gets up somewhere around the constellation Taurus, it will become impossible for us to see with just our eyes.  Not too long after that, it will become a challenge for most of us to find even with our telescopes and binoculars.

     Why the focus on the comet?  As we were talking, we remarked about the beauty of the night sky.  No matter where we live, there is an amazing view when we cast our eyes to the heavens.  Yes, the constellations may be in different places or there may be different constellations visible, but the immensity of the universe cannot be ignored.  And then, every so often, something spectacular happens.  It might be a meteorite streaking across the sky and exploding.  It might be a wonderful green-tailed comet such as the one you will all be looking for later this week.  It might be the birth of a nebula or the sight of a new, different colored star.

     More amazingly, from our perspective, this vastness seems so ordered and predictable that we begin to name the objects and mark their paths.  Our constellations and planets follow a predictable path across the sky.  Comets such as the one that bears the name of Mr. Halley return on predictable dates.  And now, thanks to the unfiltered view of the Hubble telescope, we can watch stars and black holes collide, see quasars spewing forth their energy in light, and we can even watch for bobbles in other stars that help us determine the presence and size of planets far outside our solar system.  It is incredible to behold, and it is far more incredible to fathom.  How much are we not yet seeing?

     This night we celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany.  This is the night when we remember the arrival to the household of Jesus of the three magi who followed the Star.  A couple years ago, I came upon an internet site that allows us to plug in dates and locations.  Essentially, it recreates the window of the sky for a particular area.  My focus tonight is not the symbolism of what can be seen, but it sure was clear.  There was a conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn and one other planet, I cannot remember that moved through Leo three times.  Together these “wanderers” kept pointing to the fact that something important was happening in Judea.  So significant was this celestial event that the three magi packed up their presents and necessary items for such a journey and headed off.  To them, this conjunction and its travel signified that the king of the Jews had been born.  As the planets journeyed, it led them to Jerusalem and then, as we read tonight, even to Bethlehem where the motion stopped from their perspective.

     A couple years ago, when I discovered this site and preached upon it a bit, I spoke of the care and concern our Lord must have had when He set the planets and stars in their courses.  All those stars and planets, each travelling at various speeds and distances from us in different orbits and different rotations around the galactic center aligned this season to alert the world that something significant had happened.  God had become Incarnate in human flesh.  To put it in the words of St. Hilary, whose feast is just next week, the voice of the God who thundered on Sinai could now be heard in the wail of a baby in His crib.  Can you imagine?  How could He remain silent?

     The significance of that event, of course, directly impacts most of us gathered here tonight to remember that day.  I daresay few of us have Jewish ancestry.  That means this manifestation of the glory of God was intended for our ancestors and for us, that we and they might turn to the Living God and be saved!  Epiphany, as the name suggests, is all about manifestation—seeing and understanding.  The magi, from their homes in India or Persia or wherever they were from, saw something significant in the skies.  That event led them on a journey where, face to face, they encountered the glory of God.  The Child to which they paid homage, the Child to which they brought those wonderful gifts, was not an illusion, a figment of the mind, or a quaint idea.  That Child was the Incarnation of God.  Rightly they fell down in worship.  Rightly they gave those treasures.  Rightly they returned home telling those from whence they had come, what and Who they had seen.

     Our responsibility, brothers and sisters, is not all that different from the magi in the story.  You and I have been drawn into His saving embrace.  Maybe you never saw the Star, but you saw or experienced something of the Child whom the Star marked.  From that moment of your encounter with the manifestation of the glory of God, nothing for you has ever remained the same.  Once experienced, that manifestation cannot be ignored.  His glory can be accepted or rejected, but it cannot be ignored.  And then, like those kings who journeyed long and far, through storms and wildernesses and cities and wastelands, you and I are sent on our journey, proclaiming His glory to those whom we encounter, manifesting His glory to those around us!

     Epiphany has always been one of those fun seasons in the life of the church, not that the others are bad.  Epiphany, it seems to me, tries hard to remind us to be bridges between the immanence and transcendence of God.  We will always fall short because it is, in the end, a holy mystery, but consider: it falls to you and me, as we pick up our crosses and follow the One who picked up the Cross, to manifest God’s glory to the world around us.  How we do that, empowered by the Holy Spirit, is probably as countless as the stars that dot the night sky.  Whether it is through feeding someone hungry, clothing someone poor, providing coins for a mother to do her laundry, making sure the church leadership is aware of the needs of a family, rescuing a slave, or simply a smile or a hug in His Name, you and I are called to be His hands, be His feet, be His smile, be a part of His mystical Body here on earth that all might be drawn into His Kingdom, His family.  But even as we do that, even as we work to share His love and His hope and His joy with those around us, you and I are reminded that He has plans for each one of us who claim His Son as Lord.  As magnificent as what He did with the heavens to signify the birth of His Son, as awesome as the theophany from Sinai sounded when He gave Israel the torah, and impressive as was the deliverance from Egypt, all pale compared to what He has in store for each of us.  That same Lord, that same Father who so glorified the birth of His Son and manifested His glory to us, has promised that we will share in His glory for all eternity.  The next time you look up and see a star, a planet, a comet, or any other body that reminds you of His magnificence, remember that He who ordered those things you see, in some cases thousands of years in the past across interstellar distances, has put in the same planning, the same care in you and your future with Him.  Can you even begin to imagine what He has in store for all of us, His beloved children?



Parenting is tough . . .

     Our story today catches some people who are relatively new to the faith, or perhaps a better word would be not intimately familiar with the story, a bit off-guard.  In all ways, the Feast of the Incarnation is the greatest love story ever told.  But, in the midst of this season that lasts a whopping twelve days, we find that what happens probably does not coincide with what we think should happen.  Christmas is all about Silent Night and presents, is it not?  At times, I have had people in orbit of past parishes complain that we need to reorder our church calendar.  We celebrated the patronal feast of St. Stephen’s on December 26 at a parish I served in Ohio.  It seemed a bad time to some in orbit that we in the parish would celebrate the life of the first martyr just a day and a half after celebrating the birth of Jesus.  Would it not be better to celebrate Stephen’s day in Lent?  At my last parish, the Feast of the Holy Innocents really riled some of those who were not members of the parish.  Why do you focus on the death of innocent babes and toddlers when you are supposed to be celebrating the birth of Jesus?  As human beings, we have clear ideas as how stories should go, right?  We expect to cry at tragedies, we expect to laugh at comedies, we expect misdirection and confusion in mysteries, and we expect explosions in action stories.  It’s the curveballs, the unexpected that really get us going, aren’t they?

     One of my favorite movies is called The Princess Bride.  There is a wonderful scene in the movie where Peter Falk is reading to his grandson played by Fred Savage.  Prince Humperdinck introduces his new queen, Princess Buttercup, with a statement like “and my father’s final words were, love her as we loved her, and there will be peace in the land.”  The grandson interrupts with a “Hold it, grandpa.  You are messing up the story.  She can’t marry Humperdinck; she has to marry Wesley.”  He has a similar explosion, as do we, when Wesley dies at the hand of Prince Humperdinck in the Pit of Despair.  Stories do not go that way.  They are supposed to go the way we want, the way we expect.  And yet, our story today does not go the way that any of us would want or expect.

     After the wise men come and deliver their gifts to the One born King of the Jews, they head back to their native lands by a route that takes them around Jerusalem.  An angel appears to Joseph in a dream and tells him to take Mary and the baby and flee to Egypt because Herod is going to try and kill Jesus.  The Greek text is actually identical to the plotting that will take place during Holy Week, but that is a different sermon.  Joseph, ever obedient and ever faithful, does as he is instructed.

     Herod dies.  By the way, that in itself is the subject of a great deal of writing.  Jospehus remarks that Herod’s death was clearly a punishment inflicted by Yahweh.  Herod dies of a very painful belly flux that gnaws at him as if he were being eaten from the inside out.  Herod divided his kingdom among his sons.  Archelaus was as ruthless as his father, and he inherited the area of Jerusalem and its surrounding lands.  His rule will be so vicious that Augustus will depose him in a couple years and exile him to Gaul, I think, for fear of fomenting a rebellion.  From that time forth, prefects will govern Jerusalem.  You know one at least.  His name was Pilate.

     Meanwhile, when Herod the Great dies, the angel reappears to Joseph and tells him that the threat has passed and to return to Israel.  Once again, Joseph does as he is instructed.  When he gets back to Judea, however, he learns that Archelaus is ruling and chooses to settle in Nazareth.

     There are a lot of lessons upon which we could think in today’s reading from Matthew.  For example, Matthew is telling the story in such a way as to show how Jesus fulfills the role to which God had called Israel.  “Out of Egypt I have called My Son.”  Matthew is also highlighting the lesson taught by John in the first chapter of the Gospel that bears his name.  In the beginning, the political powers seek to thwart God by killing Jesus.  At the end, it is the religious leaders who are fighting God’s redemptive plan.  “His own did not know Him.”  This bit about being a Nazorean is pregnant with meaning.  Jesus is the branch, the neser, that fulfills God’s promises in Isaiah.  But, and you see the wordplay even in English, Nazareth was an out of the way place.  It served no vital purpose economically, politically, or religiously.  It would be like bragging you are from West Virginia or maybe Knoxville?  Who really cares?  So what? Can anything good come from Nazareth?   In that sense, it was a perfect place for Joseph to choose to raise God’s Son.  He would be close enough, but not too close, to Jerusalem, to the trade route, and to His future ministry.

     What I wanted to look at this morning was in light of the only non-Vestry, non-Search related gathering I have attended so far, or rather one of the two I attended.  Karen and I brought the younger kids down to visit and to get to work on figuring out how we were going to cram 7-9 of us into a house built for four, depending on the time of year.  Plus, Karen and her mom had interior things to discuss like paint colors, furniture, and stuff like that.  Like a good, dutiful husband, I got out of the way and came into the office and worked a couple days, meeting a couple dozen parishioners in the process.  Barbara Light invited me to a gathering the second evening over in the parish hall that was helping parents parent their adult children, or so I thought.  Imagine my surprise when everyone seemed to be bidding on rocks.  You all are laughing because you know, unlike me, that that was also the night the Geological Society had their auction at Advent.  I’m sitting there wondering what in the world is going on.  Barbara did not seem to be joking when she invited me.  I sure as heck did not want to accidentally gesture and buy a rock when my kids seems to be so adept at finding rocks for free and sneaking them into the house.  Eventually, one of the members leaned over to me to ask me which one I was waiting to bid on.  Through our conversation, I learned who they were and what they were doing.  Then she asked if I was looking for the Bible class or whatever that was going on that night.  Keep in mind I was in my collar.  Eventually, I was sorted out and steered to the appropriate room, sans any rock purchases.

     It was there, of course, that I got to hear some of the stories of the parents of adult children in this parish.  There was a lot of concern and a lot of love expressed in the room that evening.  I imagine it would have been a bit more emotional, but everyone had to pretend they had their act together for the soon-to-be new rector.  The struggle is not unique in our country any more.  Parents have raised their kids, sent them off to college, in some cases seem them get jobs, or spouses, and kids, only to see them move back because of job loss, or relationship failure, or even “to find themselves.”  There is a fine line between enabling and loving.  And the parents that evening were determined not to be enablers, but they were also determined to love their adult children.  Nobody asked my opinion that night.  They had an expert from Vandy or somewhere like that working through his book with them.  But I confess that I thought there was a lot of Scripture that spoke to the difference between loving and enabling children.  Jacob and Eli immediately popped in my head as enablers; Hannah and Joseph as parents who loved their children.

     For all his importance, little is known about Joseph.  We know he was a righteous man, Scripture tells us that.  We know he loved Mary his betrothed.  Rather than putting her away and shaming her when she shared what the angel had told her, as was his right, Joseph resolved to do it quietly.  Then, when confronted by the angel and assured that Mary had not cheated on him, Joseph quickly and quietly assumes the role of the father to the Son within her.  Luke’s Gospel focuses on Mary.  Thanks to Luke, we have the Magnificat.  But what do we have from Joseph?  Matthew is the only one who gives us any sense of Joseph.  Joseph heeds the warning of the angel and leaves immediately for Egypt.  We might think him a bit crazy for not asking any questions, but Joseph has met an angel once and chosen the path of obedience.  He has witnessed the coming of and the stories of the shepherds.  He has received the congratulations of the magi.  It is not as if he, being a righteous man, has no sense that God is really doing something significant through this baby entrusted to his care.

     So he takes his wife and child and heads to Egypt.  Some commenters will downplay this act.  After all, Joseph likely heads to Alexandria, where there are probably a cousin or three among the million residents.  He can take his tools with him and do woodworking there as well as anywhere.  Plus, thanks to the magi, he may not have to work because he has gold.  But Joseph is being asked to give up all that he knows and to flee his homeland.  Worse, there must be some religious crisis in play.  Joseph was a righteous man and ought to be recognized by his king as such.  This king, though, does not rule God’s people to His glory.  This king wants to kill what God has brought forth from Mary’s womb!

     Then, after maybe a year or, at most, a couple years, the angel comes again and instructs Joseph to return to Israel.  Joseph does not complain at all.  He simply obeys.  What if you were in his position?  You have just laid down roots.  The business is finally up and running.  Life seems to be going rather normally.  Now, God, you want me to leave again?  I promise you all here this morning that I would be griping big time.  I can easily imagine the angel pulling his flaming sword and threatening to cut out my tongue if I didn’t get moving already.  But not Joseph.  He does as he is instructed with no complaints. 

     In his own way, Joseph is magnificent.  He chooses to put away his betrothed quietly rather than with loud protestations and condemnations.  He marries her despite the obvious proof that she had been unfaithful to him, from the human perspective.  I can imagine that the town gossip was not kind.  Poor Joseph, cuckolded before he was even married.  She thinks she is giving birth to God’s Son.  Ha!  He relocates the family to a foreign land and then brings them back when the threat to the child’s life is passed.  And, that threat are the very people who should be happy that God’s promises are finally reaching the point of fulfillment.  The nezer that God made to Abraham is being fulfilled in the birth of this Son, but those in power want Him killed.  It is a tragic story, were not the Lord of history in charge.  Thankfully, Joseph recognizes God is in control.

     What truly amazes me about Joseph’s faith and love is the fact that the child he so fiercely protects is not his own.  It did not surprise me when I sat in on that class in November and heard stories of parents trying to care for their loved ones.  Some have really struggled and sacrificed to give their children a great start in life.  Some children appreciated the sacrifices; others have treated those sacrifices as things owed to them.  It would surprise none of those attending that night were I to say that Karen and I are very protective of our kids.  Within the bounds of morality and the law, there is little that we would not do for our children.  And woe to the one who thinks to use our children to harm us!  All of you nodding your heads understand that kind of love of flesh and blood.  We are supposed to be protective of our children, just as they are supposed to be respectful and loving towards us.  Joseph, though, acts this way for the benefit of the Child who is not his.  Joseph becomes a true model for us of the way in which our Father in heaven loves us when we are adopted into His family by the work and person of His Son.

     Joseph’s love of this Babe derives from His love of the Father of that Child, His Father in heaven.  Joseph recognizes that God is again speaking and acting in the world to fulfill His promises to Abraham & Sarah, Isaac & Rebekah, Jacob & Rachel, to Moses, to David, and to all who have come before him.  This may not be the way Joseph would do things, but he recognizes that God will not fail.  Rather than argue, rather than wrestle with his Lord, Joseph chooses the wiser path of obedience.

     Joseph’s obedience is important, in part, because his obedience serves as a reminder to us all that we do not own our children.  We parents are stewards of those children given to us.  God grants us the privilege of raising them to come to know Him.  Our primary task is to teach them to love and fear the Lord, their real Father in heaven.  All else is secondary.  In the Developed World, I think we take childbirth to large extent as a right.  As careers have interfered with the life of potential parents, some have put off having children until their bodies are unable to conceive or bear a child without the help of some expensive healthcare options.  And then, as we spend the money, we complain about the cost or, worse, the failure in spite of the cost.  In my dealings with college kids, in particular, and with young adults trying to climb the corporate ladder first, pregnancy is often perceived as a problem.  I’m sorry folks, if no one told you before today, but pregnancy is a sign that sex worked!  I know; it’s shocking.  We speak in terms of birth control failing rather than of life succeeding.  Ross and Rachel in an episode of Friends made the 2% failure rate of one birth control method really famous.  But pregnancy means that the sperm made it to the egg.  Yes, sex is meant to bind a husband and wife together as one.  Yes, sex is meant to feel good.  No, sex does not always have to lead to pregnancy.  But we need to remember that pregnancy is a direct result of the physiology working.  How many of us, though, freak out when we find out “we’re pregnant?”  How many of us worried “how am I going to support this one?” rather than giving thanks to God that He entrusted us to be stewards of another life?

     Sadly, this idea of being stewards of our children really comes into focus when we lose one.  Speak to a parent who has lost a child or a mother who has miscarried, and you will begin to understand how precious a gift children truly are.  This idea of being owed the right to become pregnant causes us to forget the real Author of life and the responsibilities that come with that new life.

     Joseph embodies that understanding in how he obeys God with respect to the baby Jesus.  We do, too, when we baptize our children as infants.  In that rite there is a tremendous obligation taken on by the parents and godparents.  Will you be responsible for seeing that the child you present is brought up in the Christian faith and life?  I will with God’s help.  Will you by your prayers and witness help this child to grow into the full stature of Christ?  I will with God’s help.  Are we crazy?  Do we really have any idea what it is we are pledging to do when we do it with our first child?  Our second?  Our seventh?  Yet when we take that oath upon ourselves, we are really committing to model the behavior of our Lord’s earthly father, Joseph.  We are pledging that we will do everything within our power to love, to protect, to nurture, to teach, to discipline, and to set on the path of God that child He has given us to raise.  And, unfortunately, that is the limit of what we can do.  We can be perfect Joseph’s or Mary’s for our charges, but sometimes that is not enough.  What’s worse to some of us, we are called to this ministry of parenting children anonymously.  Most of us crave the pat on the back when we do something well.  Good parents labor faithfully out of the limelight, just like Joseph. 

     We are, brothers and sisters, raising our children in a fallen world.  We see the consequence of sin each and every day.  There are accidents, there are diseases, there are wars, and there is a pesky thing we call free will.  In God’s infinite wisdom, He decided we should have it and be free to love Him or to reject Him.  As a parent of seven, I can tell you He and I sometimes go round and round on this one!  You and I can do everything our Lord asks of us as parents, but at some point that stewardship ends.  At some point in their maturation process, the children become responsible for their own decisions.  They become like the second generation of Israel in the book of Numbers; they get to choose whom they will serve and how they will live.  We can teach them everything we know, do everything right, teach them to know and love God, be the very opposite of those parents who show up on television talk shows, but at some point they become responsible for their own actions.  They must choose how they will act.  They must choose whom they will obey, God or their heart’s desires.

     It is agonizing to watch a child choose a wrong path.  We can see the disaster looming clear as day, and yet children will not always listen to our warnings.  Sometimes, our children have to learn the lessons we would freely give at great cost to themselves.  They must test the words of the world against the words of the previous generation to see which, if either, are speaking the Truth.  But, and this is where we need to pay particular attention as parents, their bad choices do not make us bad parents.  Do not mistake me, we should always be evaluating ourselves and how we parent in light of Scripture and in discernment with people who love us and our children.  Amanda will tell you I am a much different parent than I was for her and Sarah, mostly because their mother is, in her own way, as fiercely protective of her children as Joseph was of his child.  But when we reach that point where we have discerned we have done nothing wrong, we must let it go and let God.  We must let the child choose their own path, trusting that one day, he or she will return to those grace and love lessons we taught day in and day out, week in and week out, month in and month out, year in and year out—examples which serve as far better sermons than the words of any mere priest or pastor.

     What if, in the course of your self-evaluation and discernment with others you discover that you were not a good parent?  Is all hope lost?  Of course not.  All the Lord requires is that we repent of our sins.  He died even for those mistakes we would make with those wonderful gifts He gave us.  But He rose again to teach us that nothing is beyond His power to redeem!  It may not be an easy path.  It may be a very painful path.  But His example reminds us that all things are within His power.  Own your failure or failures with your children, and ask them to forgive you.  Even in such “countercultural action” you are modelling, you are preaching, the forgiveness which God offers us all.

     Thankfully, none of us are dealing with a king dead set upon killing our children, but some may be worried about enemy soldiers or religious fanatics if our child is serving in the military.  We may not have to worry that our child will be dying for the sins of the world because they have been paid in full by the Babe raised by Joseph, but that does not mean that our child may not face terrible diseases or even other people who care little for human life.  Some professions chosen by our children are rather dangerous, and some career paths place our children among those who do not share the values which God demands.  No matter the assaults against your children, remember the faithfulness displayed by Joseph.  Joseph obeyed His Father and raised His Son as if He were his own.  He saw the true image of God in that Babe and little boy and labored hard to set Him on the path for which He came down.  All you and I can do, all any good parent can do, is the same.  We can see in our children the image of the One who gave him or her to us, and then seek to raise that child as the precious gift that they are.  You may not get lots of notoriety for your faithful obedience, but then you are in great company, the company of countless saints who number among your ancestors just like Joseph, who shared their love of God with each succeeding generation, that you and they might spend eternity together celebrating the One who made it all possible.  That is the happy ending for which we all truly strive, the is the only story that makes the faithful labors of countless saints like Joseph and you worth while.