Monday, December 31, 2018

On suffering and loss and the Holy Innocents

     In some preparation for this service, I did some extra reading on the Feast of the Holy Innocents and its place in the Church.  Some of the things I read were unsurprising.  There is thought that the day was remembered with the Feast of Epiphany for the first couple centuries, but by the fifth century, the feast was celebrated on its own.  The babies and toddlers slain by Herod in an attempt to keep the king of the Jews from usurping his place were considered by the early Church to be the first martyrs for Jesus.  Because of their deaths, Herod presumed he’d gotten the child the wise men sought to visit, so he was able to drop his guard.  They were not martyrs of the Church, like Stephen on Wednesday, but they died all the same for Jesus.
     Some of the traditions around the feast did surprise me.  In monasteries and convents, the youngest monks and sisters ruled for the day in place of their abbots and mother superiors.  Bishops took to selecting a youth to serve as the diocesan for the celebration of the feast – sometimes this seems to have gone on for a week.  Of course, sin being ever present, these ideas of elevating the ministry of children were corrupted.  What was meant to honor these slain children and Christ’s teaching on children eventually became a mockery.  By the time the 15th century rolled around, the Council of Basel had to outlaw the practice.  Another practice that has fallen by the wayside, thankfully, over the years, was one developed by our British ancestors.  Parents or pastors would wake the children this day by beating them in their beds, thereby putting them in the appropriate somber and reflective mood of what had been suffered by the Holy Innocents so many years before.  Yep, like y’all, I’m thinking maybe there’s a place to revisit that practice!  For some reason, my kids disagree.  They’d much rather serve as bishop, rector, or parents for the day!
     In the modern Church, and in particular our Anglican church, the day is increasingly being used to remember those children or youths who have died untimely deaths.  I know my sermons and Randy’s on Job this past fall caused the subject of miscarriages and stillbirths to be discussed in many quarters.  A few Adventers even lost growing children due to accidents or diseases.  I know my pastoral conversations that month convinced me that Liturgy & Worship had done a great thing in adding this feast to our parish calendar.  I had hoped two or three dozen folks would come tonight.  I certainly figured it would be far better received than a Bible study on Job.
     In other corners of the Communion, the feast is used to commemorate those who suffer any injustice in the world.  I can well imagine our brothers and sisters lamenting the deaths of two children in our custody while their parents tried to claim asylum.  I can certainly imagine our brothers and sisters around the world using a similar liturgy to mourn those who lost their life due to natural disasters such as floods, fires, or tsunami.
     What we celebrate tonight was approved at General Convention this summer and, for what it is worth, has intrigued the bishop.  If you are new to us tonight, the idea of complaining to God and lamenting before God may seem out of place in a church service.  Many in the wider church community buy into that narrative that everything that happens to us God planned for us.  It may seem a subtle difference to some, and crazy to others, but God is working to redeem us and all that we suffer.  He is not some omnipotent monstrosity sitting up in heaven saying “Billy needs to lose his job today at Christmas so that he learns to trust Me,” “Susie needs to come down with cancer so that she learns to worship and pray to Me,” “Fred failed as a husband so I need to punishing him by doing this to him.”  Those things happen, as part of life, but only because we rejected God and allowed sin to enter into us and the world around us.  The Litany of Complaint reminds us that we can rail at God about our life’s circumstance.  Not only is such complaining NOT a sin; God encourages us to complain to Him.  Think of the psalms of Imprecation.  Think of the complaints of the prophet.  God has given us those examples in Holy Scripture Himself.
     The same is true of laments.  An entire book, albeit rather short, is devoted to lamentation.  It is more than appropriate that we share in deep sorrow with God with the events that beset His beloved children.  Laments recognize at a fundamental level that things are not as they are supposed to be.  And so, tonight, we use a liturgy that formalizes that understanding, encourages us to cry out to our Father in heaven to make it right, whatever the right is, and to remind ourselves to trust in His grace.  The liturgy we celebrate tonight is specifically designed for those who suffered the loss of children, in that we share with the Psalmist and the prophet, but there may be lots of other appropriate losses or sufferings that cause deep suffering within us.  We are reminded this night that our Father, Whose only Son we killed, knows all too well our pains, our hurts, our anger, our raging impotence, and our need.  Like all those who suffered before us and threw their cares on God, we, too, will ask God for the grace the bear the cross we have been given. 
     One such corporate suffering is the loss of babies.  We live in a culture that takes for granted the idea that women get pregnant when they want and have babies when they want.  I shared with Adventers over the readings on Job how that illusion was smashed by my experience in seminary.  I think at one point seminarians had suffered something like fourteen miscarriages.  We also had a couple babies die at birth.  I shared at the time how one of my children refused to get excited about pregnancies because “what’s the point, they are going to die anyway.”  I think the stories resonated with Adventers because ordinands, those seeking to become priests in Christ’s church, ought to be the ones most protected by God in the minds of many.  Yet here seminarians were, toiling for God and suffering similar loss.
     The wider Church and the wider world makes it even harder, doesn’t it?  When folks find out a lady has suffered a miscarriage or stillbirth or some other tragic loss of a child, what’s the response?  My guess is that many of you gathered here tonight have heard those cruel words of comfort: “It’s just as well.  There was probably something wrong with the baby, and you would not want THAT burden.”  “At least the child is no longer suffering.”  “God needed another angel,” as if angels and human beings are interchangeable and God could make the heavens and earth out of nothing but He couldn’t make one more angel?  And my personal favorite: “You are young.  You have plenty of time to try again.”  I see that some of you have heard those words.  No doubt some of you have heard worse.
     And, although only one Y chromosome is represented among you tonight, men have shared with me here at Advent their lack of outlet to mourn that loss.  In some ways it is harder for women, as you ladies feel the new life getting active within you.  For us, it’s a theoretical experience until a doctor places that infant in our arms.  But some men begin dreaming and making plans the moment they find out their wife is pregnant.  Some men begin to plan out sporting events, hunting trips, fishing trips, and all kinds of bonding experiences for that life growing within our beloved wives.  And when that life is lost, what do we do?  Our friends say even meaner things to the guys.  We know intuitively that our wives often feel guilt and worry they did something wrong.  How can we add to her burden?  And so we suffer.  In silence.
     And in that silence, the voice of God’s speaks to our hearts.  “Father, do you think this was God’s way of punishing me for sleeping around when I was younger?”  Father, do you think that was God’s way of trying to get my attention when I was younger?”  “Father, do you think that was God’s way of telling me I really shouldn’t try to be a father?  I mean, it turns out I was not as good at it as I thought I would be.”
     We gather tonight and remember the Innocents who died while the Holy Family fled to Egypt for both comfort and encouragement.  Some theologians and ancient historians like to debate whether the events described in Matthew’s Gospel really happened.  I get the questions.  I understand how some of us might wish there were more sources that described the events of that time.  But God is famous throughout His Scriptures in lifting up the marginalized and working through the lowly.  I read a couple articles this week in preparation for this service that figured fewer than two dozen babies or toddlers were killed by Herod’s men.  Given the size of the town of Bethlehem and human statistics, it is likely no more than 24 toddlers around Jesus age existed.  The killing of them in a backwater province, in an Empire which routinely extinguished lives like we do candles, such deaths could pass relatively unnoticed.  Yet here’s Matthew spending a few lines of his Gospel and relating to us the unimaginable horror experienced by those families at that time.  Could it be a fanciful retelling of Pharaoh’s edict in Exodus 1?  It’s possible.  Once you have accepted that God can create from nothing and raise a dead man to life, though, what need has He of such fanciful stories?  Given that Herod killed three of his own sons, is it really that hard to accept he killed another 15-20 infants and toddlers to ensure that he remained in power?
     I think Matthew includes the story because it is true and it reminds us of the heart and attention of our Father in heaven.  In an Empire where life was cheap, of what value are a few more?  In a kingdom where a king killed his own sons, why do our modern sensibilities find these deaths so shocking?  God, of course, misses nothing.  God sees and knows all.  In His kingdom nothing is beneath His notice.  There may have been as few as a dozen children killed, yet God caused their deaths to be memorialized in the Church as a reminder that He never forgets, He never does not pay attention.  And so we who see or experience such sufferings can take hope and encouragement.  We may have felt alone when we lost a child, but we are reminded in this story that God most definitely was paying attention.  We may think our personal tragedies irredeemable, but God reminds us, through the work and Resurrection of His Son our Lord that nothing is beyond His power or will to redeem.  And, just as significantly in these stories, we remind ourselves that this, all that happens around us, be they good things or bad, are not what He intended for us.
     And so, once again this night, we cast our fears, our hurts, our failures, our anger, and everything else that works to enslave us, that works to seduce us from His fatherly embrace of each one of us, on His most capable shoulders, knowing that He who redeemed sin and death can redeem whatever evil brought us to this service tonight and bend that event, no matter how terrible its impact on us and others in our lives, to the point that He is glorified.  Make no mistake, you will likely still bear some sense of loss.  You will still bear some possibilities of “what if.”  Until our Lord calls you home or until He returns and re-creates everything as it was supposed to be, you may suffer moments of melancholy.  That’s ok.  There’s nothing wrong with your faith.  There’s nothing wrong with wanting God to fix everything.
      But that same God who sent His Son so that we might experience the wonder of that Silent Night Holy Night of Monday night, and the hope we should feel when we recount the story of Easter, is the same God who promises to redeem all things in your life, even that unimaginable hurt you bear this night, that in the end, He may be gloried in you and you in Him.

In His Peace,

Thursday, December 27, 2018

The Birth story of all birth stories . . .

    I learned a couple valuable lessons at the earlier service tonight, the 4pm family service that I hope will make this a better sermon.  One, I think I will avoid all but one attempt at stupid jokes.  One of the great things about working with youth is that they are so trusting and so literal.  One of the bad things about youth is that they are so trusting and so literal.  Imagine this scene, I’m standing at the rail and going to offer a young boy a blessing, his mom and dad to his right, and he stops me and asks if I really almost dropped my son but then gained control and spiked him like OBJ catching a touchdown pass.  Now I have your attention, right?  Spiking babies like OBJ in a Christmas sermon?  Who does that?  In my defense, I did not name a receiver.  Was I to name one, I would have naturally gone with a past or present Steeler great like Lynn Swan, AB, or even JuJu.  But we will get to that in a moment.  The other lesson was the nearly singular focus on the Incarnation.  Christmas and Easter sermons are tough on preachers.  Many feel incredible pressure at those times to wow the folks present.  Vestries are always looking to add new members.  Members want their families to be impressed with their choice of church.  And, let’s face it, for many preachers, those two services are their opportunity to preach to the most people.  So, next time you suffer through a theology dissertation disguised as a sermon or have to put up with some horrible out of touch jokes from a pulpit, show some grace.  I hope you won’t have to tonight, but if you do, please show some grace.
     What is the story of your birth?  If we were sitting over in the parish hall finished with tonight’s liturgy and I asked you that question over egg nog, what would be the important notes about your birth?  What, nobody warned you I made those gather participate?  Ok, I get it, y’all are far too modest to talk about yourself.  Let’s try something easier.  If you were sitting around the dinner table tomorrow afternoon and your kids asked you about their birth or your grandkids asked you about the birth story of their parent/your child, what details would you share?
     We all have birth stories, don’t we?  Those of us of a certain age grew up listening to stories how a prior generation had to go up hill through snow over winding mountain roads both ways to get to and from the hospital.  I’m not wrong.  I see your faces and hear the chuckles.  It looks like a few of you have heard those stories, too.  Those of us from a younger generation, particularly after they let dads in the room during the birth, may have different details to share that stories than those told from the perspective of a waiting room.  Am I wrong?  Who does not laugh at the stories of Dad passing out?
     Adventers know I have seven children.  That means I have seven different birth stories.  I shared with the kids at the earlier service a couple of them.  My oldest, a daughter, was for the first and only time in her life, I’m pretty sure, was early, 3 ½ weeks early to be exact.  She was so early that I had not yet gotten a crib, a changing table, or diaper genies or whatever else I had to get.  And poor Karen had to trust her nerve-wracked husband would buy the right stuff with only her mother to check my naturally wrong impulses.  Hmmm.  That story must resonate on some level with the moms here, given the murmuring.  I’m guessing it’s the “early” comment and not the purchasing habits of their husbands.
     My second son also could not wait to get here.  We had a nurse who, for the first time, was working without a net in a birth in L, D, R.  Once you pass three kids, you find that hospitals love to use you for training purposes.  Karen went from 4cm to Robbie crowning in a split second.  The nurse could not get the doctor to come because he’d just checked Karen and the baby.  So, I had to catch Robbie.  If you have ever seen a newborn baby, they are quite messy and bloody or amniotic fluidy or whatever.  That white stuff that helps them come out is probably the best lubricant I have ever encountered.  Why is it not used in engines?  Wait, y’all are laughing before I get to the joke!  Robbie came out into my hands, I nearly dropped him, but I finally controlled his little body in my hands.  Adventers who know me know I played football for fourteen years, including a couple years at a D3 college.  You don’t know how deep muscle memory goes until you are fumbling a kid, you gain control, and then you go to spike your newborn son while doing your best Billy “White shoes” Johnson imitation!  Those faces that are nodding thoughtfully are simply acknowledging that now they know why Robbie is the way he is.  I should add, the real joke was on me.  When the doctor arrived, I told him that would be $6000 please.  He said, “what?”  Back then a birth cost around $6000.  Since I had done his job, I figured I deserved his pay.  That joke, of course, was on me.  Somehow, Karen did the hard work, I did the doctor’s job, and he still got paid!
     David was our child born in an actual blizzard and the one whose birth impacted church services.  He was born in the middle of a Saturday night .  A couple of my kids came out sunny-side up, with one breaking the tip of Karen’s tailbone with his face.  One was born in Dallas, three in Des Moines, Iowa, one outside Pittsburgh, PA, two in Davenport, Iowa.  One had perhaps the absolute worst neonatal attending in the world.  It’s possible there may be worse ones, but he wins the “worst bedside manner” trophy, for sure.
     You are intrigued, aren’t you?  If I showed up at your celebration dinner tomorrow unannounced, we might avoid that uncomfortable silence we both get when I, or any other pastor or clergy, is present for social functions.  Now we have something about which to talk, something that allows us to relate to one another.  Now you know part of the reason why you and I are given so many details tonight.
     The feast of the Incarnation, the Nativity of Jesus, is a story that transcends reason and predictability.  What we know of God, His character, His power, His mercy, and all those other attributes, we know through His revelation.  The Bible exists to teach us about God and about ourselves.  What would cause such a God to become fully human?  Is becoming fully human important in the narrative of salvation history?  To be sure, part of the remembrance tonight is mysterious—we call it a holy mystery—and the angles testify to its supernatural root, but the details are recorded, as the births of nearly every baby born into a loving, cherishing family for two important reasons, reasons which are as important to those who heard the story for the first time more than 2000 years ago in Bethlehem as they are in modern Nashville.
     So often, when folks speak of God, they speak of Him as an external force or external presence.  It is, understandably, hard for us to get our finite minds around the existence of an infinite being, so our language tends to increase the chasm that exists between us an God.  God knew even before the events in the Garden that sin would be the real barrier between us.  So, His great rescue plan, which was conceived before He even made the cosmos, all that is, seen and unseen, reached the beginning of its end during the events of this night.  Before the beginning of the service, I read what is known in the Church as the Christmas Proclamation.  The Proclamation is read as both a transition from the season of Advent into the season of Christmas and as a reminder that this event occurred in history.  What we celebrate and remember tonight is not a theoretical event.  It really happened.  After Creation, after the Flood, after Abraham and Moses and David, in the 194th Olympiad, in the 752nd year of Rome, and in the 42nd year of Augustus’ reign, Jesus of Nazareth was born in Bethlehem.  It really happened.  We know this from both Church historians but also ancient, secular sources.  It happened.
     Luke, of course, fills in other details for us.  We know that Joseph and his fiancĂ© are traveling to Bethlehem late in her pregnancy because the emperor has ordered a census.  We know Mary gives birth where the animals are kept, likely beneath a family dwelling.  I know, many of us grew up on the “full inn” story.  It makes for great theater and plays.  But how many of you know a Jewish or other Middle Eastern matriarch that would not make room for a pregnant “daughter”?  I’m trying to picture our Armenian sisters telling a “daughter” she had no room for them.  Such a notion flies in the face of their devotion to family and hospitality.  Besides, the animals would be protected and provide some extra heat for the dwelling, but that’s another suggestion.  The baby is born, wrapped in bands of cloth, foreshadowing for some the purpose for which He came into the world, and placed in a feeding trough (a foreshadowing of “bread” of life, as one Adventer asked earlier?).
     Meanwhile, angels appear to shepherds to announce the birth.  The bands of cloth figure prominently again as they will be the signs of the Child which they will seek.  Then the angelic choir signs, and the glory of God is, for a brief time, perceivable by those present to their voices.  The shepherds go to see this sign made known to them—it’s always a good idea when God or His angels tell you to go see a marvel to do as He or they instruct--, and then they share what was told them by the angels.  The crowd is amazed, and Mary ponders these things in her heart.
     The story is well known.  Folks who do not come to Church, who count themselves among atheists and agnostics know this story well.  Those of us who are fans of Peanuts probably hear it in Linus’ voice telling the story in our own heads.  Yes, the story is as well known to us as our own birth stories or those of our children or grandchildren.  Why?  Why, do you think, are we given these details?  Why, if Scripture is God breathed, are these details considered so significant?  What is it about this story that causes our hearts to long, that causes our imaginations to dream?  A significant reason is that the story helps make God more relatable to us.
     I said earlier that there are a couple reasons upon which I want to focus our attention this Holy Night.  The first is that the story teaches us a great deal about God’s character.  Those Adventers who come to church regularly get a dose of Ancient Near East cosmology all the time.  The gods of the ANE were every bit as capricious and unpredictable as human beings.  In fact, the gods are often portrayed as human beings with greater powers.  If you or I or any typical human were going to be born into a world, how would we go about it?  If you could be God for a second, what details would you have caused to attend your birth?
    The children at the earlier service were not at all bashful about how they would have been born.  They would have been born in a palace or big temple.  All the important people would be there.  They’d have a real crib and they’d have those soft footy/onesy things rather than a manger and bands of cloth.  They’d want it to smell nice, too.  My guess is that those children, who have not yet been conditioned by society to hide some of their selfish impulses, speak for most of us.  Even those of us who are faithful, or those of us who struggle with trying to be faithful, have ideas as to how the story could be tweaked to make it easier to believe.  Maybe we want more folks to see and hear the angels?  Maybe we think the Babe should have been born in Caesar’s palace or the Temple.  Maybe we just want the night to mark that exact moment when all the evil, all the injustices, all the broken relationships, all the diseases, and all the tears in this world stopped.
     In this birth story, though, we get wonderful insight into the character of God.  Truthfully, it merely confirms for us what we already know about God.  When God thunders about His power and magnificence, when God reminds us of all that He can do and has done, what remark appears on the other side of the descriptive comma.  I the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth; I love the widow and the orphan.  Sound familiar?  It should.  Nearly every time that God proclaims His might and majesty and power He proclaims His love for those on the margins of society.  Those of you who wonder whether you are beneath the notice of God, what does such a reminder do for you?  Does it not give you hope?  Does it not make you dream?  Does not your soul long in ways you cannot fully understand or discuss?  Some of you gathered here tonight have known the death of a loved one, a spouse, a parent, a child.  What does such a proclamation by God do for you?
     And it’s easy, right, in our separated-ness from God to say to ourselves or others, “yeah, right.  Sure He does” and try hard to maintain our cynicism and disbelief so that we won’t be crushed when we learn that such is not truly the case, that God just lies to us like politicians or family members or friends.  The Incarnation, my friends, is the exclamation point on God’s description of Himself.  How do we know He really loves us?  How do we really know that He has not forgotten us?  He came to live among us.  He really is the Emmanuel that He promised He would be.  Yes, the Incarnation serves other purposes, yes there is a systematic theology that flows from it, but this night we are reminded of the wonder and awe that love might cause God to come and to enflesh Himself among us!
     While the Incarnation teaches us much about God, it should have an incredible impact on us.  When a god is an impersonal force, beyond our ken and experience, how well do we relate to it?  That’s right, not very well.  But here, we are reminded that God became one of us, not one of the exceptional us, but one of the ordinary us.  There was no silver spoon in His mouth, though maybe there was some hay.  There was no paparazzi noting His birth and looking for that first picture, just marginalized folks.  He was not born anywhere near the cultural centers of the day.  It was worse than being born in West Virginia or eastern Tennessee or anywhere in the Appalachians in this country today.  Nobody in the civilized world wanted to live in Jerusalem, except the Jews.  The Greeks and Romans and Assyrians and Persians and Babylonians and even the Egyptians all looked down on them.  Yet God became human in an out of the way village in an out of the way province in the civilized world.  Dad was a carpenter; mom was a carpenter’s wife.  Is there anything or job more insignificant?
     And yet this birth is significant for us because it allows us to see that God really loves us and really knows, really knows, what our daily life is like.  In nine chapters or so, Luke will recount the disciples of the Babe asking Him how they should pray.  He will teach them a version of what you and I know to be the Lord’s Prayer.  And in that prayer you and I will be taught that we should have the boldness and shamelessness to approach our Father in heaven for whatever we need, be it just food for the day or something we esteem more significant for a time.  We can approach Him and complain of hunger, of poverty, of broken relationships, of injuries, of illnesses, of injustices, or anything else we feel the need, and the Creator of all that is, seen and unseen, will listen to us as a Father.  Can you imagine the audacity?  Do you know the comfort of such shameless and boldness?  Why do you think the Lord’s Prayer is a part of our spiritual DNA, even those of us who long ago gave up on God?
     The scandal of the Incarnation my friends, and make no mistake it is a scandal, is that you and I learn a great deal about the character of God and, through that knowledge, become a bit more encouraged, a bit more emboldened, to seek Him and His will in our lives and in the world around us.  Birth stories are often passed down because they are so full of possibilities, of promise, and of roots.  Our birth stories remind us of our beginnings, our roots, and, if your dad spiked you, why you are who you are.  This birth story does the very same thing.  It reminds us who hunger for peace and long for justice and crave love that God is all about bringing those into our lives and the lives of all those around us.  True, He seldom acts in ways that we ask or imagine.  Who among us would have ever conceived of this story leading to the Cross or beginning its ending in the Resurrection and the Ascension?  This story serves as God’s most important reminder that He is always acting, always working, always redeeming.  And such makes marvelous and wonderful sense this night, this Holy Night, when we remind ourselves of THE birth story, the birth that makes it possible for us to be delivered from the bondage of sin and receive power to become children of God, and go even unto Bethlehem to hear again the story of the shepherds, the angels, and the marvel of God’s Son our Lord, coming to dwell among us as one of us.

In His Peace,

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

You brood of vipers and heralds of the Gospel . . .

     My social media feed has blown up this week with John the Baptist memes.  It’s not too surprising.  More of those to whom I am connected are colleagues, pastors in various churches and denominations around the country.  More, of course, are active Christians from around the world.  Since we are transitioning from the look toward Christ’s Second Coming to begin to remember His Incarnation (remember, Advent has a dual focus), it makes sense in light of our readings.  A few folks are mad that we celebrate Mary Sunday but the focus is on John the Baptist—that’s why we lit the gaudete candle.  By the way, it is a rose colored candle and not pink, for those of you who wondered.  And yes, I understand I am not wearing the correct shirt today.  Apparently, Almy does not make pink or Gaudete shirts for men.  I think the reading makes it clear that John’s ministry is one of pointing to someone else.  What’s important about His message is that He’s NOT the important one.  That someone else is Jesus, who becomes Incarnate thanks to the faithful obedience of his mother, Mary.
     Of all those memes and funny cartoons I’ve seen and received, my favorites have been the ones that complain they cannot find cards that begin with “You brood of vipers!  Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”  Can you imagine receiving Christmas cards during Advent with that greeting on it?  Can you imagine sending cards with that greeting to you family, friends, and co-workers?  By way of confession, I should probably mention I have longed for such cards, especially since I was called to serve at Church of the Advent.  I know.  It’s not particularly surprising to anyone here except the visitors.  But, to be fair, it is our paternal season.  We are supposed to have an eye looking forward to the Second Coming and an eye looking backward towards God becoming fully human and fully divine.  In sending such cards I would be doing what Advent is meant to cause in each of us, plus maybe scaring some recipients a bit!  See, y’all aren’t the only ones who can rationalize sin.  When I say I am the professional Christian, I mean it!  And now, thanks to your chuckles, the visitors are wondering if they inadvertently strolled into a cult this morning . . .
     When we think of John the Baptist, what do we think of?  Some of us think of the camel hair robe, the big beard, the locusts and wild honey, and the “you brood of vipers!”  Those of us who study the Scriptures might eventually get to the doubts of John during his imprisonment before his beheading, but most of us go to that austere picture and hellfire and damnation preaching when we think of John.  For what it is worth, it plagues my colleagues, too.  Some of us had some passionate discussions about whether John is truly a preacher of the Gospel.  For those who think John is too judgmental, too mean, he clearly is not.  For those of us who pay closer attention to the entirety of Scripture, John clearly is.  And I should be fair to those on the other side and remind us all today that Jesus reminds us that John is the greatest of the Old Testament prophets and that all who come after Jesus, including you and me, rank higher.  So there are clearly some passionate discussions to be had.  The question for us, though, is whether John is mean or whether he is full of grace.  I argued with folks this week that when we focus on the viper and hypocrite proclamations of John, we make the same mistake as those who read Exodus 20:5 but forget that Exodus 20:6 completes the sentence and teaching, or those who read Deuteronomy 7:10 absent the light of 7:9, or even Ephesians 5:22-24 without considering teaching of the next three verses.  And this text, in particular, better illustrates the depth and breadth of the teaching of John the Baptist, and might help us understand why people were drawn to hear him preach.
     There is a tradition in the Church that is seemingly secular in its origins that the job of a preacher is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.  What is meant by the statement is that it’s the job of a preacher to remind those suffering of the real and active presence of God’s grace and the truth of His promises even as we give spiritual wedgies to those who are self-righteous or to those who are quick to point out the motes in the eyes of others while missing their own logs.  That’s part of what makes preaching so difficult.  How can I comfort you and make others uncomfortable at the same time?  Or how can I prick your conscience and comfort someone else who sorely needs that at the same time?  The truth is, of course, I cannot.  Only God can really do that.
     If I preached about your miserable sins day in and day out, week in and week out, how drawn would you be to come to church?  If I spent all my time pointing out the sins of those in the pews, how long do you think it would be before they began to empty?  To be sure, some would come to smugly hear me pick on others in the congregation, but once I got around to their smugness and their sins, the moral outrage would likely cause even them to depart the pews and the parish.  Any disagreement?  Good.  You all are pretty good students of human psychology.  Now, if my preaching was like that, how many of you would spend hours getting to church to hear it?  It’s ok, I wouldn’t want to hear it either.  I point this out because human nature is human nature.  If John was only judging folks, who would bother to make the trek to hear him preach?  It might be fun for a few minutes to hear him slam the Temple leaders, but once he got around to our sins, most of us would have wondered why we bothered to come out in the first place.  Folks flocked to hear John preach.  They walked hours, both to where he was and back to their homes, to hear him preach.  Clearly, there was more to his preaching that caused them to want to hear it.  Even the Temple leaders, who will later conspire to put Jesus to death, sent folks to hear what he was preaching.  There is no record that they were at all threatened by him like they were Jesus.  Why?
     On the one hand, John afflicts the comfortable.  He addresses them as dangerous snakes, snakes whose bites hurt and kill.  He even goes so far as to remind them that their birth right, in the end, will do them no good when the Judge comes.  And what happens?  Those there want to know what will save them?  So, what saves them?
     Repentance.  It is hard for us to understand the cultural shift, the corporate understanding of God’s people, articulated by John.  We, particularly we Christians, are immersed, pun intended, in the idea of baptism.  Even folks who do not know much about Christianity know about baptism.  John’s audience, though, understood the rite of purification that were done in mikvehs (mikve’ot).  Famously, we focus on the mikveh and women.  Part of the myth that God and His people in the Old Testament were misogynistic arises from the practice that women had to be cleansed before their marriage, after their menstrual cycle, and after child birth.  That’s perhaps our most famous modern understanding of the mikveh.  In truth, the mikveh was, and still is in some place, used for a number of rites of purification.  Think of it not unlike our Christian discussions of sprinkling and immersion and everything in between among our varied denominations.  Some Jews required prospective grooms, like their intended brides, to be purified.  Some, male and female, were immersed in mikvehs on the eve of yom kippur or on the eve of the Sabbath.  Nearly every teaching within Judaism required that converts to the faith be cleansed in a mikveh.  The Jews understood, and many still do, the immersion to provide ritual purity.
     Repentance, though, was a different animal.  In the days of John, how did one atone for one’s sins?  That’s right, sacrifice.  If I was a priest in the Temple and you needed to atone for sins, you would bring your appropriate sacrifice.  I would prepare and hold the animal still for you and then instruct you where to strike to kill your animal.  It would be my job to butcher the animal for you, and offer the burnt offerings to God.  But it was your job to take the meat not offered to God back out into the world, offering your sacrifice to others as a fulfilment of the Shemah and a sharing in the joy you had at being atoned.  People could be scrupulously righteous under the law in those days.  When Scripture describes individuals as righteous, it’s not propaganda or false.  Paul, for example, sacrificed when he sinned, when he was a zealot under the law.
     John’s teaching that one could be baptized into repentance was unheard of in those days.  To get “right with God” meant one had to offer blood, the blood of a specified animal to be exact.  Yet John was teaching and preaching that God accepted repentance, that what God truly wanted was penitent hearts.  For those struggling to make ends meet, this was amazing news.  How can I be made righteous in God’s eyes and not have to go through the hoops of the Temple?  Make no mistake, what the Temple leaders taught was supposed to be grounded in the torah.  But they, like the Church leaders of today, were also sinners.  They added to God’s teaching.  Often, they made the worship of God a burden for the people rather than the release and joy which He meant—a practice for which Jesus will strongly criticize them during His earthly ministry.
     Those who have truly studied the Scriptures understand that what makes us righteous is faith.  Abraham believes and the Lord credits Him with righteousness.  Though David sins a lot, he always repents and returns to the Lord.  In the end, God’s people are those who trust in Him and in His promises, regardless of their ethnic heritage or their sex.  John is simply calling us all back to the basics just before the true man of faith, Jesus of Nazareth, enters the picture.  In the end, it will be His faith in the Father and His blood which saves us.  It will be His wounds that heal us and His blood that reconciles us to God.  We call the outward sign of that inward faith and trust in God baptism.  Baptism is our modern version of that baptism of repentance.  We die to selves and seek to do God’s will.  God, by virtue of Christ’s faith in Him and our trust in Him, assures us of salvation and eternal life.  I have glossed over a lot, but I think I connected enough dots that you should begin to see John’s ministry a bit differently than the caricature offered by so many.  Good.  I see some nods.  If you want the non-cliff-notes version, feel free to grab me after church or during the week.  I love connecting the dots.
     Back to this baptism of repentance.  The fear of the people is not unlike our own.  John instructs them to bear fruits worthy of repentance, and they wonder exactly what that is.  How much is enough fruit?  Did I focus on the right fruit?  We often ask the same question during our end of life reflections.  I cannot tell you how many times I have been asked if I thought the dying person did enough, either by the one dying or loved ones.  It is my job, it is the job of every single priest, a la John the Baptist, to say “of course not, but Jesus did!”  Then I remind saints of their life’s work and callings, much as Jesus will remind John during the season of his own doubts.  What saves us is Jesus’ faith and our trust in His offer and His promises.  As a Church, we have long since abandoned work righteousness, right?  Yet individually, that is where we all go in our Gethsemane moments.  We hear the whispers; we hear the voice that expresses doubt.  And like Adam and Eve before us, we begin to trust that voice rather than the promises of God.
     Like you all now, John’s audience wanted answers.  What is repentance fruit for me?  The crowds ask, and what does John say?  Those with more should share with those who lack.  It sounds like a teaching rooted in the Shema we studied last summer.  Love your neighbor as you love yourself!  Is your neighbor hungry?  Feed them!  Is your neighbor cold and do you have an extra coat laying around?  Give it to them!  Does your neighbor need a ride to the doctor and no car?  Drive them!  Is your neighbor lonely?  Spend some time with them!  I could go on and on.  If you notice a lack and have the means yourself, meet it!
     The tax collectors, of course, realize that they are not well liked by their neighbors, a conditioned well-earned by many.  I have shared repeatedly how tax collectors were a modern version of ISIS supporters who could make us pay them whatever they desired—that’s how much the tax collectors were valued in their day.  They conspired with the invaders that occupied Israel and got rich for doing it!  They hear John’s teaching and ask “What about us?”.  John’s Gospel, loving neighbor as themselves, is so well recognized that Luke begins his introduction of the tax collectors with an “even.”  It’s Luke’s way of saying “John’s preaching was so good the traitors even asked how they could repent.”
     Think modern politicians, if you need an up to date example.  My cynicism toward the overwhelming majority of politicians is well known.  In many ways they are like the tax collectors of John’s and Jesus’ day.  Did they think they were helping keep the peace and order?  Of course.  Did some really think they were doing good for the country—better me to be collecting taxes than a Gentile dog?  Most likely.  Did they get so rich from their work they were effectively cut off from their neighbors?  Yes.  If that makes you uncomfortable because you like politicians, then think of politicians from the opposing party.  What kind of preaching would it take for a Trump supporter or Hillary supporter to find God?  Ouch!  That one too close to home?  Maybe I’m afflicting the comfortably self-righteous this moment . . . What would it take?  They recognize God’s voice in John’s teaching.  So they ask what must our fruit look like.  John tells them to do the job they have been given to do.  Collect the taxes for which the Romans contracted with you to collect, but take no more.  Embezzling and extortion have no place in repentance!
     Luke then shares that even the soldiers come to John, after the tax collectors, to inquire of him what they should do.  We don’t pay much attention to this today, but most of the soldiers would have been shipped in from other provinces in the Roman Empire.  Where possible, emperors preferred that the soldiers be from an ethnic group that hated those where they served.  Why?  How likely would Jewish soldiers be to force their brother and sister Jews to pay their taxes or keep the peace?  Other kings in the Ancient Near East learned the hard way that soldiers’ loyalty was not always to the king.  If they served among their family and friends and countrymen, their loyalties were not absolute.  But if they served among those whom they hated among those who hated them, ah, then, there was no need to worry about rebellion or insurrection.
     Whatever province these soldiers came from, they had to be seen as the mighty arm of the oppressor.  They were viewed as Gentile dogs with swords and spears for teeth, armor for tough hides, and a large pack.  They hear John’s message and they ask how they can bear fruit worthy of repentance.  Think yet again.  Gentiles want to be part of God’s people!  Does John tell them go away?  No.  He tells them to be content with their pay, do not participate in extortion.  Pretty simple, no?
     In fact, all of John’s instruction is pretty simple and full of good news.  Hopefully, as I have described it, you have heard your own questions and John’s answer to your questions through the Holy Spirit.  This pericope, which begins with that famous address of vipers and the promise of judgment, with a bit more sprinkling in of judgment for good measure, spells out for us our mission, individually, in the world out there.  So often, folks come in to ask or argue about whether God can use them to spread His Gospel.  Again and again I remind people that God can do whatever he wants.  Gloriously, and admittedly confusingly at times, He has chosen us to be His ambassadors and heralds.  He has chosen normal folks like you and me to be the ones to preach about His Incarnation and Second Coming.  How do we do that?  By living a life dedicated to Him?
     What does that look like?  Look around you.  It’s as individual as the saint sitting next to you or behind you or in front of you in the pew.  How do doctors glorify God in their lives?  By being the best doctors they be to the glory of God!  They treat those who come before them and seek physical healing for their patients to the best of their abilities.  There are no shortcut, no sloughing.  God gave His best and so they give their best, day in and day out, confident their Lord wants them to bring health in their patients and the world.
     How about lawyers?  They are kind of the modern day tax collectors, right?  How do lawyers glorify God?  By being the best lawyers they can be to the glory of God!  Our system of justice is highly dependent upon the effort and expertise of lawyers.  Cynically, we often say that there is justice for those who have money and those who are poor.  Why?  Because the folks with money get the best effort from the best lawyers.  Christian lawyers should be giving their best effort whether defending a traffic ticket or an innocent murderer or anyone in between.  And even if a Christian lawyer is assigned a client because of our system, they give their best effort because that’s the adversarial justice system that governs us.  Christian lawyers don’t overbill (that’s stealing).  But Christian lawyers do their work knowing their work glorifies God’s love of justice.
     What about teachers?  God wants you to give your best as He is knowledge and Truth!
     What about accountants?  The same!  God is a God of order, not chaos.  Accountants keep businesses aware of financial resources, the government properly funded, and people paid!  The workman deserves His wages, so God loves even accountants.
     The truth is, as taught by John the Baptist today, is that everyone is called to serve God where they are planted, that includes locations and occupations and ethnicities and whatever other distinction we like to make.  We can serve God whether we are black or white, play sports or instruments, like to play computer games or board games, whether we are well educated or just street smart – there is no limit to His ability to use us for His purposes and Kingdom!  None!  Our work may be very different, but we are each called to live our lives glorifying God.  We may go about our life, day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year, repeating what others call drudgery.  But we know, we absolutely know, God uses us in ways we cannot begin to understand or expect.  The best sermon that folks hear is never from this pulpit, especially this pulpit; rather, the best sermon they hear is in the way God’s people live their lives.  When we live as if He is running short on resources or healing or compassion or courage or whatever virtue He values and extols, we preach a false Gospel and dishonor Him.  But when we engage our life’s work to Him in His glory, then brothers and sisters, we are John the Baptists in the lives of others, pointing them to the Redeemer, the Judge, the One who came to save them, and the One who died for them that they might live for all eternity with Him.  And the wonder of that kind of offer, that kind of love, brothers and sister, is the kind of wonder that will cause others to seek you out so that they might find Him, just as folks and tax collectors and even soldiers and even the vipers sought John, that they could meet Jesus!

In Christ’s Peace,

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Heralds of His justice, His mercy, and His peace . . .

     The sermon focus for this week was remarkably easy, especially given that Tina was out of the office on vacation and I got to play nag with folks about getting reports in for the Annual Meeting, never mind having to play IT guy when the inevitable technical glitches appeared while trying to put the booklet together.  Tina and I started talking a bit about Baruch on Monday.  In her denomination, Baruch is not in a Bible.  In ours, it is in the Apocrypha, which means we have a . . . difficult relationship with whether it is good writing or God-breathed writing.  Naturally, we got to looking, and it would appear that Advent has never read from the book of Baruch, which made me think you’ve never heard a sermon on Baruch.  I see the nods and smiles.  That means you’re getting the best sermon you have ever heard on Baruch today.  Of course, I cognizant that for most of us it will be the worst sermon you’ve ever heard on Baruch.  If it makes y’all feel any better, it will be the best and the worst sermon I’ve ever preached on Baruch in over fifteen years of preaching!
     To set the scene a bit, and prove to you I did my sermon preparation this week:   Baruch is believed to have been written somewhere around the third or second century before Christ.  Given its setting, that may surprise most of us.  The book is named for the manumissive of Jeremiah.  Think of Baruch playing the role of Luke and Jeremiah playing the role of Paul.  Scholars are fairly certain the book was written significantly after their lifetimes for two reasons: (1) there are too many historical inaccuracies for someone who lived through them, and (2) Baruch focuses on the captivity in Babylon rather than Egypt.  Jeremiah, of course, reports that he and Baruch were carried off to Egypt in captivity.  If you want more background information on all this, go read the book of Jeremiah!
     The fact that the book is not written by the man who inspired the name does not make it a useless or necessarily “not God-inspired” book.  As I have shared with you for almost four full years now, one of the ways that students paid homage to a revered master or teacher and drummed up business for themselves was to write a book named for or after the master.  If the master did not disavow the teachings contained in the book, it was viewed as a sort of commercial endorsement of the former student.
     The author of Baruch seems to have been more inclined to rework the teachings and interpretations of some significant passages found elsewhere in Scripture.  Scholars call this ancient technique a mosaic technique.  Our college professors or peer reviewers would call it plagiarism today.  The author of Baruch clearly drew on passages and teachings based on Isaiah 40-66, Job 28, and Daniel 9, to name a few.  Even those of us Adventers not too familiar with Scripture should see the relationship with Isaiah and Daniel today and understand why our lectionary editors include it for the second week of our patronal season.
     As we just read in the lighting of the second candle, our focus this week is on the justice and mercy of God and the peace that we should have knowing that God, in the end, will see that His justice and His mercy wins.  If you are visiting today or unused to a liturgical tradition, Advent is a season of expectation.  In the beginning of the season, we look forward to the Second Coming of Christ in anticipation, confidant that He will keep His promises.  Toward the end of the season, our focus will become less anticipation and more remembrance, reminding ourselves that He came and dwelt among us.  As Adventers, we are called to remind people of those two defining truths.  God has come among us, and He will one day return.
     Baruch, of course, takes up this anticipation of the coming of God as we do His Second Coming.  Written before the birth of Messiah and inspired, if not outright plagiarizing Daniel and Isaiah, the author looks forward to the Day of the Lord.  True, the terms are expressed in ways that seem strange to us, at least at first.  Take off the garment of your sorrow and affliction, O Jerusalem, and put on forever the beauty and glory from God.  Put on the robe of the righteousness that comes from God; put on your head the diadem of the glory of the Everlasting.  Clearly, the author envisions the people of God afflicted by sorrow and troubles.  But, as the Day of the Lord approaches, they are instructed to put on the garments of righteousness and the diadem of God’s glory.  We speak about such raiment differently today, but we should have the understanding that we are cleansed in Christ’s offering and have a promised share of God’s glory.  For those who study the Scriptures around here, you know the relationship between justice and righteousness.  They are courtroom terms and were applied, at least in the Jewish culture, in disputes where elders or judges needed to figure out who did something the “most Godly.”  As to the glorious diadem, we should hear the echoes of shekinah and those wonderful Christian hymns that sing of the crowns we cast at His feet.  I see the nods.  The language is not as unfamiliar as you thought at first, is it?
     What of the sorrow and affliction?  Who here does not suffer sorrow and affliction?  One of the great blessings of our sojourn through Job this fall has been Adventers’ willingness to share those secret sins with me which they thought might be irredeemable.  My chief job in October and November was to remind Adventers that no sin is beyond God grace, that it really was hard work for Jesus, and that He stayed by force of will to redeem each and every one of us!  This is not all that there is.  This, the world around us, is not what God planned for us when He created us!  A number of Adventers have continued to deal with disease and injury.  Heck, we are an aging congregation and our aching joints and muscles remind us of that truth every morning we struggle to get out of bed.  Some of us are irascible and make it hard on ourselves to keep long and deep relationships.  Others make it hard for us to stay in relationship with them.  Some of us have questions of provision.  Some of us are dealing with death.  Some of us are dealing with the fall out of natural disasters.  I could go on and on.  If you don’t think the prophet is correct in his or her observation that we are wearing sorrow and affliction, open your eyes.  Open your ears.  Pay attention to the world around you.  It’s tough slogging out there.  But, and this is a wonderful but, one day this all will pass.  When Jesus returns, He will gather His people and re-create the world.  Until that Day, though, all we can do is the work that He has given us to do.  And today, this second Sunday of Advent, we are reminded that we are heralds of His justice, heralds of His mercy, and, because we know that on that Cross 2000 years ago His mercy kissed His justice, heralds of His peace!
     In truth, I struggled this week with the illustration part of this sermon.  It sounds great to say we are heralds of His justice, His mercy, and His peace, but you want concrete examples.  You want to know these aren’t just fancy words, that these are truths that surpass human wisdom.  Thankfully and mercifully, God met me in that struggle this week.  Nearly two years ago, a group called Good Neighbors formed in the congregation.  I cannot claim that I was involved, other than to give encouragement.  A few were concerned about how the formation of their group would impact Church of the Advent, but most were far more concerned that the evils facing immigrants and refugees were far greater than the group could tackle.  I would say it took the group a few months to find their stride, but now they are plugged into similar groups around Nashville and help meet the needs of immigrants and refugees in our midst and continue to educate us, their brother and sister parishioners, about the challenges and evils the foreigners in our midst face on a day to day basis.  One of those education events was yesterday.
     Many of you have heard that we are trying to put together a community event to educate those around us about the issue of immigration.  Right now, immigration is simply a tool for politicians to get elected and stir up their bases.  On one side, Republican politicians want us to fear that immigrants are overrunning our country and taking necessary services and money from American citizens.  On the other side, Democratic politicians want us to look the other way when it comes to border security and to believe our Republican brothers and sisters are completely heartless.  Have I offended both sides now?  Good.  There is blood on the hands of both parties.  And this discussion ought to transcend partisan debates.
     After the raid on the meat packing facility in Morristown last year, I mentioned to a few members of the group that I knew Luis Argueta, an Oscar-nominated filmmaker.  We had met in the aftermath of the government’s raid on the meat packing facility in Postville, Iowa.  I wondered if Adventers would be interested in learning what Luis had to teach us about all of this.  Naturally, the Good Neighbors agreed.  I, unfortunately, shared this idea with our bishop, who decided I and they were thinking too small.  This needed to be a community event.  And we should be able to raise significant funds from the community for those who work in this area.  That’s the background for that event.  We hoped to pull it off late this year, but it makes herding cats look easy by comparison.  Hopefully we can pull it off by spring of next year.
     Few of you are familiar with Postville, Iowa.  I lived in Iowa for more than ten years before the raid, and I had never heard of it until the day the gun ships and armored vehicles invaded a town of almost 2000 people in the middle of nowhere Iowa.  Truthfully, that’s an unfair description.  Postville is about 45 minutes west of the Field of Dreams, and thanks to Kevin Costner, everyone knows where that is, right?
     Postville was unique in Iowa because of all the ethnic groups living there.  Some claimed their restaurant choices were far greater than Iowa City or Des Moines.  They certainly had quite the number of ethnic restaurants for a town so small.  Why the influx of ethnic groups?  Meat packing.  A family in NYC bought a meat packing facility in Iowa to create kosher meat for Jews living throughout the United States, but especially NYC.  As is the case with all meat packers or livestock processing, Americans, by and large, want to avoid the jobs.  Think of Carl Sanburg’s descriptions of Chicago’s meat packing businesses and make it worse.
     How is it worse?  Since Americans won’t work the jobs, they target immigrants, both documented and undocumented.  In truth, many like to employ undocumented immigrants because they are far easier to manage.  If you are an employer, you can take away breaks, lunch hours, overtime pay, vacations, safety equipment and add sexual harassment and rape and who will tell on you?  If law enforcement comes, you just mention that Jose or Margarita is an illegal and the problem literally goes away thanks to ICE.  That was the business in Iowa, with a bit child labor violations tossed in for good measure.
     Now, I messed this up at 8am, but picture yourself an immigrant from Mexico or Central America.  You live in a tropical environment.  What would draw you to employment in Postville, Iowa, given the job description I just gave you?  That’s right, desperation.  The working conditions in Postville were better than the working conditions in your home country, if working conditions existed at all.  And lets add the weather for good measure.  You live in a tropical climate.  People invite you to move above the Artic Circle.  Would you go?  Seriously, 34 and rainy/icy like this morning is a good spring day in Postville.  What would it take for you to go?  And, if the press covers the political lobbying of the country where you are headed, how inclined are you to take the job offer?  That is what those folks did.  It’s not nearly a simple question as our political leaders would have us believe, is it?  These are human beings trying to scratch out a living as best as possible.  And, just to be clear, Iowa is not California.  Iowans don’t give you healthcare, food stamps, Section 8 housing or anything else.  You have to scratch and claw, just like Iowans used to from the land, to make your way in the world.  If a group of people wears a garment of sorrow and affliction, it was those who depended upon the meat packing company in Postville, Iowa.
     Thankfully, the federal government helped make their life more difficult.  They raided the town with gunships and armored vehicles.  Folks were rounded up and chained together and hauled off to the cattle pens in Cedar Rapids where they were treated like, well, cattle.  The lucky ones were left at home but fitted with ankle bracelets and not permitted to work.  The United States proclaims itself a nation of law, and we have a billion lawyers to make sure those laws are not violated.  Few of those lawyers are immigration lawyers.  There’s little money to be made in that expertise.  Those arrested were given lawyers who knew next to nothing about immigration law.  The outcomes were predictable.  Most were deported.  More than 300 were deported illegally, according to the United States Supreme Court.  Victims of slavery and federal and state laws were rewarded, not with U or T Visas, as our Congress intended, but with nightmares of an invading army, separation from their families, and deportation to the country they fled to begin with.
     Those of you smugly thinking this was clearly a Trump/Republican thing can wipe the self-righteousness off your face.  The President through all of this was President Obama.  At no time did he step in to humanize this process.  The lady who organized the herding in the cattle pens and the assigning of lawyers was, thanks to the nomination of Democratic Senator Tom Harkin, made a Federal Judge in Iowa, the first woman to be so named.  Those of us who protested her appointment were told that while the events were unfortunate, it was far more important in the bigger picture to get a woman, and a Democratic woman at that, onto the Federal bench in Iowa.
     Does everybody feel dirty?  Does everybody feel a bit tarnished?  Do you feel a bit oppressed by evil?  Do you feel impotent?  We should.  Sometimes we follow party politics way better than we follow God’s torah.  That is why that education event needs to happen.  People in Morristown, TN are going through the exact same aftermath as the folks in Postville, Iowa.  Businesses are closing.  Government services are being strained.  Cost of goods will go up for all of us.  It impacts us here in Nashville even more.  We are the modern Ellis Island.  Only Minneapolis has more immigrants and refugees settled in it than Nashville, Tennessee!  Last I heard, we have something like 86 different ethnic groups settled in our community.  You know the stories of the Karen people thanks to All Saints Smyrna and maybe some of the Sudanese thanks to St. B’s.  There 80 more group stories out there.  How many individual stories are there?
     We serve a God who calls us to champion his justice and His mercy in the world.  Thankfully and mercifully, we know that at the end His justice and His mercy will reign.  His justice and mercy kissed on the Cross of Jesus, and His redemptive power showed forth most gloriously at that Empty tomb.  We know, like the prophet of the book today, that He will finish what He started that Good Friday through Easter two thousand years ago.  But in that tension between the already and the not yet, as Carola taught you for almost two years, we are called to live, to serve, and to proclaim, by word and deed, His justice and mercy.  We proclaim and serve in the face of such injustice because we know His redemptive power and we know, we absolutely know, He delights redeeming those individuals and things which seem nigh impossible.  Postville serves as a wonderful illustration.
     How, do you ask?  In the aftermath of the raid, prosecutors decided that the child labor violations offered the best chance of convictions of the owners and managers of the facilities.  Tom, the assistant AG, called Luis one day and asked if he could hunt down 4 minors who had been deported back to Guatemala.  They were placed on airplanes and shipped back to Guatemala.  Not much else was known about them.  Luis found them, and three others.  After some time, he convinced them to return to the United States as material witness to testify at the criminal trials of the owners and plant managers.  After some months of trials, all the managers and owners were found “not guilty” by the juries.  The young men were returned to Guatemala, the American justice system had failed them . . . again.
     Of course, God was at work in that mess.  The people of Iowa, Roman Catholics, Lutherans, Episcopalian, and even agnostics and atheists, had responded.  We fed and clothed those who were not allowed to work while they waited for their trials.  Doctors provided medical care to the sick; dentists took care of teeth.  Some folks welcomed the immigrants into their homes.  Clothing and food came from all over the region.  Immigration lawyers came from all over the country, mostly for free, to provide legal expertise in this swampy setting.  Politicians were harangued and found themselves on the defensive.  Who raids an American town with gunships?  Who are we that we ignore our laws?  You might think events the way that I described them were an abject failure.  The poor and destitute were victimized again.  The rich and powerful got off . . . again.  Where was God’s mercy?  Where was His justice?
     As it turns out, His heralds were in the midst of all that mess.  In the muck and misery God called for the His servants and those around them to meet the needs of the downtrodden, and meet them they did.  The boys, now young men, were amazed at the number of people who supported them, who donated necessary items, who took others in, and who added their voices to their own.  I met one of the young men at an event at St. Ambrose, I think it was.  I was sorry for what he had gone through.  I wished there was a way we could have gotten more Americans to listen.  He thanked me for my work on behalf of his sisters who had been sold as sex slaves—Luis had shared my work and inflated it, and he thanked me for letting him share his story at events like these.  And then he reminded me that sometimes we do not reap the benefits of the work that we do.  Just as I preached the Gospel and trusted God to do the harvesting, he did what he was called to do, and trusted God that those who came after would experience the justice for which we all longed.
     He returned some weeks later to Guatemala.  But his story did not end there.  One of the attorneys took on their cases for free.  Over the next year or so, they were awarded a U-Visa.  As a condition of their visa, they were allowed to bring those who lived with them.  They were allowed to settle where they wished.  They had like 9 months or something like that of support from the government.  Did I mention in the beginning they were from tropical climates?  Guess where they chose to settle?  They who fled their homeland to those working descriptions I shared with you in the beginning, chose of all places to settle in parts of Iowa.  They had found community in the midst of their suffering.  They had found people who cared for and about them.  And that was where they wanted to raise their family.  It did not matter that snow and cold would be a part of their lives every day from now on, except those days when the snow let up and tornados blew through!  They were living among a community that cared.
     That’s a good story, but not a Gospel story, because God never settles for good enough or fairy tale endings.  Though Iowans could not get the Federal government to reform all its ways (though no gunships were used in Morristown), we had a much stronger impact on our own politicians.  Before the events of Postville, prosecutors had to be able to prove that owners and managers knew about violations of the law.  Now, the burden of proof is on them.  They must take the necessary steps to prove to the government and juries that they do not want children working illegally.  And, the fines per violation changed a bit.   Before Postville, violations were $100 each.  Today, they are $10,000 each.  Guess what has happened to those businesses that did not like the new laws?  That’s right, they fled to states around Iowa that have not yet had to face the garments of such sorrow, affliction, and injustice.  And, while I am sure such evil is not eradicated yet entirely from Iowa, I do know it is greatly reduced.  In our calls for justice, politicians were forced to act.  The result is that the Kingdom of God crept forward a bit closer in that small part of the world.  Better still, now that Tennesseans have heard the story, the testimonies, they know they can tackle such evil in our midst, even more confident that God can do more than we ask or imagine!  Knowing and following His justice, proclaiming in word and deed His mercy, we can becomes herald of His peace, just as the prophets of old called us to do in the days of Isaiah and Jeremiah and Baruch, just as His prophets call us to do in this day, the Second Day of our patronal season of Advent, and in this place we call Nashville!

In Christ’s Peace,