Friday, December 25, 2009

See What Wonderful Things Come of It

Sermon preached on Christmas Eve at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene with St. Stephen's Church: Luke 2:1-20

I remember vividly when my sister had her first baby—my first nephew. I mentioned it briefly a few weeks ago but now I want to go into a little more detail.

There was a great deal of excitement and anticipation in the air. This was the first of the next generation on my mother’s side of the family. There were a dozen or so pretty keyed-up people in the waiting room.

It was a long, hard labor. After ten hours or so I was allowed to see my sister. I walked in the door and stopped short. She looked awful. I had a terrible flash back to a few years before when I had visited my dying grandmother for the last time. I was struck how giving birth could take one so close to death.

After eight or so more hours of trying, the baby was finally delivered by Cesarean section, to which my sister had reluctantly but enthusiastically succumbed. The new baby came down from the operating room to the nursery looking like c-section babies do, quite perfect, and he was howling at the top of his lungs, announcing for all the world to hear that he was alive.

Before I left the hospital, my mother and I went into the recovery room to see my sister. She was still very much out of it, looking worse than she had when I had seen her before. I must have looked worried because the nurse said to me, “She’ll be just fine.”

But I was wondering again about how such new life had come out of so much pain and a walk just this side of death.

We all come into the world with a loud cry. No doubt Jesus did as well. The verse of “Away in a Manger” that speculates that Jesus didn’t cry is just nonsense.

The actual birth of Jesus is not a part of the story we just heard. Did Mary have to do it alone, with only Joseph as her helper? Was he really no help at all as most men would have been in those days (and for the next 1970 or so years)? Did someone come from the Inn, perhaps the innkeeper’s wife, to encourage Mary through her pain and with her and Joseph and the animals of the shed hear the first cry of the newborn baby? How close to that line of death did Mary have to walk to bring her baby into the world?

These questions can be a point at which the birth of Jesus can get beyond a sweet story about which much sweet music has been written to meet our own lives and the world in which we live.

Yes, we all enter the world with a loud cry, and like my nephew Robbie, and Jesus born in a Bethlehem cowshed, and you and I, that cry echoes through our lives. Life gets better, but it also gets worse. The cry never stops altogether, and often we leave this world in the same way we entered it, with a loud cry. Jesus did.

That’s the reality that bumps up against the sweetness of this night. This world that Jesus entered, and in which we live, is a mixed bag. Life gets better, but it also gets worse.

So what’s the point? Eventually we all ask that question. Why was I born? Why am I me? What is my purpose? What is the purpose of life?

Most often we ask these questions when we are up against something about life that we cannot control. That’s a corollary to the statement “Life gets better but it also gets worse:” “There are a lot of thing about life you can choose, and a lot of things you can’t.”

And we know from the rest of the story of Jesus that he had moments like this too, moments he wondered “Why?” and cried out. The man in the Garden of Gethsemane facing his own death is not so far from the babe in the manger crying out his first breaths outside the safety and warmth of his mother’s womb.

The gospel writer Luke tells his story about Jesus’ birth so that the “Why?” can be answered. Why this birth? For what purpose? And, of course, he tells the beginning of Jesus’ story knowing full well how it ends. His answer to the “Why?” of Jesus’ birth is also an answer to the death of Jesus.

The answer comes most explicitly in the message of the angels to the shepherds. What is the purpose of this birth? “Glory to God in the highest heaven and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

Glory for God. Peace for the earth. That is the purpose of his birth. And they are not two separate purposes. The rest of Jesus’ story will bear that out. God’s glory is peace among the people of the earth. Peace among us is God’s glory.

The Greek word we translate as “glory” (doxa) also means “honor” or even “reputation.” God’s honor is peace among us. God has a stake in our peace, in our salvation.

How so? And what is this peace of which the angels sing?

The answer to that can be found in the rest of what the angels sing, which has always given translators and interpreters a very difficult time. The translation we heard this evening is “On earth peace among those whom God favors.” Other translations say “among people of goodwill” or “among those with whom God is pleased.”

All those translations seem to leave open the possibility that God might choose not to give peace at least to some people, either those with whom God is not happy or those who are not of goodwill.

The Greek words, however, don’t really contain that sense of peace being conditional. And a conditional peace also doesn’t match the angel’s earlier saying, “I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people.” No conditional expression there.

The Greek word used in this difficult phrase is eudokias, among whose possible translations is “delights.” Peace on earth among those in whom God delights.[1]

This is the message of the birth at its very core. God delights in you, O people of the earth. The angels dancing in the heavens before the shepherds are just an extension of God’s dance of delight over the creation.

Peace is knowing and living within this delight of God for us. The purpose of our life is to bring delight to God. And how do we do that? Just by being, and especially by faith that this delight is true no matter the circumstances of our life. It is an objective, unconditional delight, so much so that Jesus, God incarnate, the one who fully reveals to us what God is like, was born and died with our same loud cry.

Can we this night catch a glimpse of the angels dancing around us, singing of the glory of God and the delight of God in us? Can we believe the power of this delight to bring us both gratitude in joyful times and hopefulness in our dark ones?

How can those things about which we justifiably cry out—even death—ever be anything but a temporary state of affairs, if God himself dances over us in delight? If God so delighted in human life that he choose to enter it himself? God will not let us go. God’s honor is at stake here and God’s attachment to us is not objective in the least. God is positively head-over-heels in love with you and me.

Can we believe it? And can it make a difference day by day in our life?

There is a scene from the movie Little Women in which one of the daughters has a “crying out” moment. She has been desperately seeking a man to ask her to marry him, but to no avail. She is troubled that she will never lead an “ordinary” life.

Her mother responds, “My daughter, you have such extraordinary gifts. How can you expect to ever lead an ordinary life? Go, embrace your liberty and see what wonderful things come of it.”

That’s a mother ahead of her time.

It is also the God of Jesus Christ.

Tonight we have been reminded that we have been given an extraordinary gift. It is not the babe in the manger, although we would be much less likely to know this gift without him. We have been given the extraordinary gift of God’s delight in us.

Embrace that gift tonight and don’t let it go. Leave with it taken within yourself in this Eucharist and see what wonderful things come of it.

Just don’t let it go. God delights in us, my sisters and brother. We are loved beyond our wildest imaginings. Happy Christmas!

[1] The translation of the Revised English Bible.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Christmas Eve

Baruch 4:36--5:9
v. 6 For they went out from out on foot, led away by their enemies; but God will bring them back to you, carried in glory, as on a royal throne.

[Note: If your Bible does not have an Apocrypha (usually printed btween the Old & New Testaments), you won't be able to find Baruch. You can find the text on-line at].

Baruch is writing to those left behind in Jerusalem during the exile to Babylon. Not everyone had been taken. A small number of mostly poor farmers had been left to scratch out a living in the decimated city and countryside. Baruch is encouraging them that their countrymen and women are returning. "Look east," he keeps saying.

I love the image in the verse above, "carried in glory." I think of the story we will hear tonight. All the characters are "carried in glory," and in circumstances where glory is not a word that would normally be used: a stable, a sheep pasture.

But the message of Christmas is that glory has been born among us, and we are this glory's adopted brothers and sisters. Christms morning John will tell us in his Gospel: "to all who believed in his name he gave power to become children of God."

To be carried in glory means, I think, to be fully alive in our own dignity. May that be your greatest Christmas gift this year.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Can you hear Mary singing?

A Sermon preached on the Fourth Sunday of Advent by The Rev. Canon Dr. C. Denise Yarbrough on Sunday, December 20, 2009 at St. Luke and St. Simon Cyrene, Rochester, New York

51He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. 52He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; 53he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. (Luke 1:51-53)

Earlier this month, I had the strange experience of living the same day, twice. And of losing another day altogether. I travelled to Australia for the Parliament of the World’s Religions, crossing the international date line as I did so. Going over you lose a day. Coming back, you arrive before you left! Closest thing to time travel this side of science fiction movies! I can’t help but think of time travel when I hear Mary’s beautiful Magnificat. You will notice that in this poetic song that she sings upon arrival at her cousin Elizabeth’s home, she speaks of what God has already done in the world, of the reversals that God has already accomplished. God has scattered the proud, God has cast down the mighty from their thrones, God has lifted up the lowly, God has filled the hungry with good things. All these prophetic statements that she declares in her song are in the past tense, as if they have already occurred. And yet, in the context of Luke’s narrative, they haven’t, exactly, happened yet. She has only just gotten pregnant with the holy child. He is not yet born. Neither is his cousin John, who will be the voice crying out in the wilderness announcing his coming. And, in fact, as we look around our world today, we might wonder about that past tense in Mary’s song. Two thousand some years later, it still doesn’t appear to have happened yet. But Mary speaks as if it has happened. As one commentator on this passage puts it, Mary is remembering forward, that is, she is remembering the future.

Our apocalyptic Advent themes continue this week, even as our celebration of Christmas looms just days away. End times and beginnings, comings and goings, old giving way to new, the already but not yet of redemption, the grand cycles of time and space with a cosmic flourish are the images and themes of Advent. Mary and Elizabeth, a young, poor, unwed teenager and an old, barren woman, the wife of a temple priest, take on significant prophetic roles in this story of the inbreaking of the divine into human history. That in itself is apocalyptic – women prophets. Women? In the early first century, in the patriarchal culture of the Roman Empire and first century Judaism? Right there we’ve got the divine reversal. God has reached down into human history and is doing wondrous things through an old barren woman and a poor unwed mother. And even shepherds, very low folks on the social totem pole, are heralds of this amazing story, witnesses to the inbreaking of God into human history. Luke pulls out all the stops in this first chapter of his gospel, setting the stage for his narrative in which women will be active players, Jesus will bring a prophetic message of social justice into the world and God’s saving grace and compassion will be spread beyond the small Jewish community into which Jesus was born and out to the entire world, scooping up all those people who have lived on the bottom of the social order.

Mary’s Magnificat is one of my very favorite passages in the New Testament. As a child I sang it as a canticle at Evensong and sometimes, Morning Prayer, absorbing Mary’s song into my psyche even as I lived in a church that was not, at that time, honoring the gifts of its women in their fullness. The young teenage girl who longed to be a priest in a world that wouldn’t ordain women, now knows the fulfillment of that yearning and that call. The hope that the Magnificat embodies resonates for many of those who still live as oppressed, poor, humble, lowly members of the human family, even in our modern day. The mind bending, time traveling remembering the future of the Magnificat is what drives modern day prophets and disciples to make that past tense of Mary’s syntax a present reality. The divine reversal of which she sings happens in our midst when those who love God accept God’s call like Mary did, and the promise of a redeemed future, becomes the reality of the broken present.

“God has cast down the mighty from their thrones.” When President Obama appeared on 60 minutes last week and lambasted the Wall Street “fat cats” whose greed and mismanagement of other people’s money brought down our entire economy and that of the global community, I could hear Mary singing, “God has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.” When President Obama expressed his intention to have what I would call a “come to Jesus” meeting with those “fat cats” I could hear Mary singing.

When I was in Melbourne at the Parliament of the World Religions, I had the privilege of worshipping, praying, talking, reflecting, singing with people of myriad religious traditions. They have different sacred stories than do we, but they sing songs very resonant with Mary’s song. Despite centuries of discord and conflict, fueled by the abuse and misuse of religion and religious texts, thousands of us came together to show the world our commitment to the God we all worship and to our belief that God calls us to live in harmony and understanding one with another, exercising compassion and mercy even when we disagree on important issues and indeed, celebrating our differences as part of God’s divine plan for this world. We talked about addressing global warming, achieving the Millennium Development Goals, empowering women, working to eradicate global poverty, working for peace and justice in many troubled places throughout the world, trying to hear each other’s stories and appreciate each others songs. And we could hear Mary singing as we told stories of on the ground, grass roots work for justice, peace, human rights and freedom all over the world.

When I screened the film “Traces of the Trade” and saw the tears on the faces of blacks and whites alike, as we all grieved our human history of racism and oppression, and yearned for reconciliation, I could hear Mary singing. When I heard the story of Uncle Bob Randall, a member of one of Australia’s indigenous tribes, who is a member of what they call the Stolen Generation, those who were taken from their tribes as young children and raised by Christian missionaries, who stripped them of their culture, their religion, their land, and their families, I wept. But I also heard Mary singing, as Uncle Bob chuckled and told us how when he first heard the stories of Jesus in the Christian testament, he wondered why the missionaries who told him the stories didn’t actually do what Jesus taught! He was the most eloquent bearer of the gospel of Jesus Christ that I’ve heard in a long time, and he is not even a Christian! But he’s heard Mary’s song.

When President Obama received his Nobel prize, I could hear Mary singing. Who would have thought a mere fifty years ago that a Barack Obama would be President of the United States and recipient of the Nobel prize? When I heard of the many groups of people of faith throughout the world who are coming together across divided religious lines to work for peace, to address extreme poverty, to empower women – Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Zoroastrians and Bahai’s, indigenous peoples, Sikh, Jain and many versions of Christian, I could hear Mary singing.

If you just look at the newspaper or listen to CNN or Fox News or even NPR, you might not hear Mary singing. For some reason, our media don’t seem to want to talk about the prophetic witness of so many people of faith around the world, people of reknown, like the Dalai Lama, and ordinary people of faith who climb over the fences of fear and ignorance and move forward to learn to love their neighbor, even when the neighbor is of a different race, sex, ethnicity, religion or social class. Jews and Christians, Muslims and Jews, Muslims and Hindus, Hindus and Christians – all over the world people of faith are building bridges so that the future that Mary remembers in the Magnificat becomes at least for a short while, a present reality, not just a future hope.

When former Israeli soldiers and former Palestinian freedom fighters sit together at a dialogue table and build playgrounds for children in the occupied West Bank I can hear Mary singing. When Arabs and Jews in the West Bank intentionally live together in a village called Neve Shalom/Wahat al Salaam, committing to raising their children together in the same village, attending the same schools, learning Hebrew and Arabic, I can hear Mary singing. When Daoud Nasser, a Palestinian farmer on a hillside hear Bethlehem opens his family farm to international visitors and invites the Jewish settlers who are trying to take his land to sit down and talk, I can hear Mary singing. When Israeli rabbis risk their lives to help Palestinian farmers harvest their crops, I can hear Mary singing. When brave Democratic New York senators speak eloquently in favor of marriage equality, notwithstanding threats to boot them out of office and even in the wake of the defeat of that legislation, I can hear Mary singing. At the end of the Integrity Eucharist at General Convention, as hundreds of GLBT priests joined Bishop Gene Robinson at the altar, a sight that would have been unthinkable just twenty five years ago, I could hear Mary singing.

Mary’s Magnificat is eloquent poetry and beautiful song. It is also sacred text for we who call ourselves Christians. To live the Magnificat is to sing justice into being, to vision the future right into the present, even if we can only manage to do it very locally, in small and quiet ways, in our own neighborhood, congregation, school or workplace. Our Advent texts remind us that God lives outside the constraints of our timebound world, and the promise and hope of which Mary sings is a present reality when we live as if it is, when we commit our own hearts and souls and the stewardship of our lives to singing Mary’s song.

In just a few days, we will celebrate Christmas. We always do a lot of singing on Christmas. As we live these last days of Advent and move to the songs of Christmas, listen hard, be awake, be alert, be watchful. Can you hear Mary singing?

Wednesday in Advent 4

Luke 1:39-56
v. 41b-42 And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb."

From the very beginning of the church's life, these words have been extremely important and used in a devotion to Mary that has never waned.

Devotion to Mary was deep in English culture prior to the Reformation, so it is no wonder that the English Reformation did not completely do away with it. Nevertheless Anglicanism has always had a deep suspicion of excessive devotion, the treating of Mary as if she were on equal par with her son.

But these words from Luke's Gospel can still be vitally important for us, and many Anglicans (myself included) pray the "Hail Mary" or "Angelus" as a regular part of our devotional life (the words from Elizabeth above are central to this prayer).

Mary is one of us, called to bear God to the world. Her vocation is our vocation, for we too are called to be pregnant with God and deliver God to the world. The birth we are about to celebrate was not a one-time, isolated act in a small Palestinian town two millenia ago. It is an act that has been and is being repeated in the lives of countless Christians, including you and me. To whom are you called to deliver God these days?

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Tuesday in Advent 4

Luke 1:26-38
vv. 37-38 "For nothing will be impossible with God." Then Mary said, "Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word."

"For nothing will be impossible with God" is one of those dangerous little bits of Bible text. It sounds so good! We want to believe it just as it is said, a little "proof text." See, God can do anything.

But like all bits of the Bible it has a context which gives it meaning. One of those contexts for this saying is that first Elizabeth, earlier in the story, and then Mary have to say yes. God is "powerless" without their acquiescence. "For nothing will be impossible with God" depends on "let it be with me according to your word."

This tells us a couple things. The first is that God works through us. God rarely chooses to work around us. Such is God's commitment to us. The second is, the whole of our life is a constant saying "yes" or "no" to God. Sometimes when we say no it is because we do not yet have enough information. It is not yet clear to us what God is asking. That's OK as long as we are committed to the path of finding out. It would be nice if God sent us an angel to make it clear but that seems to be a very rare occurrence. For us, we just have to pay attention, look for signs, continue to feed ourselves with word and sacrament. God's desire will come to us. Our opportunity to say "let it be with me according to your word" will come.

Monday, December 21, 2009

St. Thomas' Day

John 20:24-29
v. 29 Jesus said to him [Thomas], "Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe."

That would be us. And our countless ancestors for some 2,000 years. All those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.

St. Thomas' Day is an intrusion in the waning days of Advent. Here we are trying to get ready for Christmas and we are aked to contemplate an Easter story. And is it wise to think of doubt at this time of year? The uncomfortable juxtaposition has caused some churches to move this feast to July 3, about as far away from Christmas as you can get. We've kept it here.

But I think St. Thomas does have something to do with Christmas. What Thomas asked for was an incarnation. If he was to believe in the resurrection he needed to see it in the flesh.

Christian faith--even Easter faith--depends on the Incarnation, the enfleshment of God in Jesus Christ. Of course, we don't get to see that. Jesus is gone from us. But he is still enfleshed, and not just in heaven. He is enfleshed in us, his brothers and sisters, who have received the Holy Spirit and so are called his Body. In one sense, every baptism is a little Christmas as well as a little Easter.

We are given one another "in the flesh" to bring about the miracle of faith. If I can see God born in you than I can believe God born in me.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Saturday in Advent 3

Zechariah 8:9-17
vv. 16-17 These are the things that you shall do: Speak the truth to one another, render in your gates judgments that are true and make for peace, do not devise evil in your hearts against one another, and love no false oath; for all these are things that I hate, says the Lord.

Here is a different "summary of the law" than we are used to, a little more elaborated, particularly on the "love your neighbor as yourself" side. In today's passage, God has just said what good he proposes to do to "the remnant." Then, he says, these are the things that you are to do.

It's a good list, one for which most of us can easily sign up. Doing the things on it, however, are quite a different matter. If we used this list as a tool for self-reflection before going to Confession, we would all have plenty to confess. In fact, that might be a good exercise before Christmas (you don't have to call and make an appointment for Confession but it would be perfectly fine if you did!).

How easy it is to get caught up in the world of unjust and unpeaceful judgments, of false promises and unhelpful, if not evil, schemes. God is pretty clear what he thinks about these things: I hate them. What about us?

Friday, December 18, 2009

Friday in Advent 3

Zechariah 7:8--8:8
v. 8:3 Thus says the Lord: I will return to Zion, and will dwell in the midstof Jerusalem; Jerusalem shall be called the faithful city, and the mountain of the Lord of hosts shall be called the holy mountain.

For the exiles returned home to a destroyed and desolate Jerusalem these were words of great hope. They had not been abandoned for ever. There would be a new Temple (where else would God "dwell?"), and this place ("the mountain") would once again be set apart for a special, divine purpose.

Christmas is the annual celebrative reminder that God dwells in our midst, once in real physical form, but now in mystery (not physical but no less real). No longer is God understood to dwell in a particular place, among a particular people. God dwells in each human heart and all ground is sacred ground.

Over the year, since the last Christmas, it has perhaps been easy to gradually lose touch with these spiritual realities. Now, at year's end and at Christmastime, is our opportunity to reclaim them. Reclaim the God who dwells in you, whoever you may be. Reclaim the God who makes your ground sacred, wherever that ground may be.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Thursday in Advent 3

Zechariah 4:1-14
v. 6 He said to me, "This is the word of the Lord to Zerubbabel: Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit, says the Lord of hosts."

Zerubbabel was the governor of Judah, charged by both the prophet Haggai and the prophet Zechariah with rebuilding the Temple. Here, in the midst of one of Zechariah's vivid visions comes a clear word to him, and so it comes to us as well.

At least some small measure of "power and might" (i.e., control) is what all of us are trained to attempt to gain in and over our lives, and if over a few other lives all the better. This is at least partially how we define success and it is, again at least partially, the fuel for our self-esteem. The prophets, including Jesus, all witness to us that this attempt at control is doomed, it is futile. It is doomed because God cannot be controlled, nor can life itself. It is doomed because we human beings are flawed and our flaws catch up with us sooner or later.

What would it mean to live alternatively by the spirit? It is not a life without ambition. God does not simply want puppets for his children. It means to completely offer one's ambitions, desires, talents, and flaws to God and seek to be God's partner in building your life in the midst of others building their lives. It means to live a life of Eucharist--Thanksgiving.

We have a chance next week to offer our life--for the first time or simply "again"--to the Christ child. Let's take it.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Tuesday in Advent 3

Zechariah 2:1-13
v. 10-11a Sing and rejoice, O daughter Zion! For lo, I will come and dwell in your midst, says the Lord. Many nations shall join to the Lord on that day; and I will dwell in your midst.

Upon the return from exile, as a part of the rebuilding of their society, the Jews appear to have had a lively debate about their relationship to the nations around them. Zechariah and (Second) Isaiah spoke passionately about "the nations" being brought to God. Their vision was of a universalized Judaism. Haggai, Ezra, and Nehemiah argued for strict barriers to re-establish Israel's unique relation with God. The latter won the day. The sentiment of Zechariah and Isaiah would have to wait for Jesus and his followers to be articulated again and enacted.

Open or shut? Every society must wrestle with the question, and every individual as well. Will I live my life as closed off from others who are different from me as possible, or will I live an open life, willingly, and even proactively, engaging those who are different from me?

The Church has one of its bottom lines here. We must do the latter. Our sacramental practices demand it. "Baptism catches us up into solidarities not of our own choosing," says Archbishop Rowan Williams. And the Eucharist draws us around a Table as equals with all sorts and conditions of people.

Of course, the Church has not always acted this way. The Church has acted as a closed society. In doing so, however, it was not following its Lord.

Who do you need to open yourself to in order to have a more meaningful Christmas?

Monday, December 14, 2009

Monday in Advent 3

Zechariah 1:7-17
v. 14 So the angel who talked with me said to me, Proclaim this message: Thus says the Lord of hosts; I am very jealous for Jerusalem and for Zion.

This week we read from the prophet Zechariah. Zechariah and Haggai were contemporaries, both prophesying during the restoration period as the exiles were returning from Babylon and Jerusalem and Judah being rebuilt. The specific dates for Zechariah are 520-518 B.C.E. This was a time of great ferment. Great questions hung in the air: what priorities in rebuilding? how to rule Judah? what was the peoples relationship to God after the experience of abandonment in Babylon?

Zechariah tells the people that God is "very jealous for Jerusalem and Zion." Not infrequently in the Bible, jealousy is attributed to God, a very curious thing because we normally think of jealousy as a negative thing. Yet here it is clearly a sign of God's steadfast love for his people, his overwhelming commitment to them so that even after the extreme punishment of the exile, he cannot let them go. He will work for their well-being.

Advent is a time of turning back, re-turning to God in preparation for the celebration of Jesus' birth. One of the dynamics of this returning should be the knowledge that we are returning to a jealous God, jealous for our attention and love, the one who wants to be with us, our Emmanuel.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Friday in Advent 2

Haggai 1:1-15
v. 14 And the Lord stirred up the spirit...of all the remnant of the people; and they came and worked on the house of the Lord of hosts, their God.

Haggai was a prophet from the time after the exile, when the Persians had allowed the return of the exiles to Jerusalem from Babylon. The prophet calls this people"the remnant." They had arrived back in Judah to find the city of Jerusalem and the surrounding land desolate. Their first leaders had inspired them to begin the rebuilding of the Temple but after the foundations were laid the work ceased. Haggai's task as a prophet is to exhort the people to re-build the Temple, so that it can be the center of the peace and prosperity (shalom) it is inended to be.

In our passage today, Haggai makes the case that it is wrong for the houses of the people to be inhabitable while God's house is not. He suggests that the continued struggle in their homeland to which they have returned is directly related to this situation. The people and their leaders respond quickly and positively. But it is said in verse 14 that it was the Lord who stirred up the spirit.

I think it is often the case that we wait for our own motivation for acting, which often must come after a good case is made about what's in it for us. We ought to cultivate a greater openness to the Spirit of God to be at work in us, "stirring us up." If this is the case, I think we will often find ourselves doing the right thing without much regard for "what's in it for us."

In the world around us this is the supreme "what's in it for us" time of year. Perhaps one of the works of Advent is to open oursleves in this time to what God is stirring up in us.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Thursday in Advent 2

Amos 9:1-10
v. 8 The eyes of the Lord God are upon the sinful kingdom, and I will destroy it from the face of the earth--except that I will not utterly destroy the house of Jacob, says the Lord.

A characteristic of the prophets of Israel is that no matter how thoroughly they condemn the people, God's mercy always leaves an out. I will destroy it--except that I will not.

One of the things we celebrate at Christmas is the permanent, "once for all," out we have been given in Jesus. This came about through his taking on human flesh, living our human life, and dying our human death. We must never forget how costly this was (and is) to God. All the wrath spoken of by the prophets built up by the accumulation of human sin had to be set aside, and not one time but for ever. God had to choose not to be an angry God. When we are rightfully angry, it is hard to let go of it, especially when the one we are angry at shows no sign of turning. Yet God's doing this precise thing is what we celebrate at Christmas. God chose peace over anger: "Glory to God in the highest and peace to God's people on earth."

Amos has not been an easy read, but he has put before us the centrality of justice, especially economic justice, especially in a time of prosperity. That alone makes him an important voice for us today.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Wednesday in Advent 2

Amos 8:1-14
v. 11 The time is surely coming, says the Lord God, when I will send a famine on the land; not a famine of bread, or a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord.

We all have dry spells in our spiritual life: personal famines one might call them to use this image from Amos. They can be anything from annoying to frightening. It can be a terrible thing to feel cut off from God. One of the consolations during times like these is that others in your faith community remain connected, and so faith continues. Sometimes I need others to have faith for me, and thank God they can.

Amos raises the specter, however, of an entire community cut off from God. Now that would be truly frightening. Is this one of God's ultimate punishments?

Perhaps. But Amos tells the tale of how this is in many repects the logical consequence of Israel's behavior. He says (vv. 4-5):

Hear this, you that trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land, saying, "When will the new moon be over so that we may sell grain; and the sabbath so that we may offer wheat for sale?"

They cannot wait for the sabbath to be over to carry on their unjust practices. This signals to God that they don't want to hear his words. The word of God no longer sustains them, only making themselves richer (no matter at who's expense) sustains them. In essence Amos is saying on behalf of God, "Fine. Have it your way."

One of the messages of Christmas is that God communicates to us in the flesh. How can we better put ourselves in a position to hear this communication? What is getting in the way of hearing it? Is something else sustaining us other than this communication?

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Tuesday in Advent 2

Amos 7:10-17
v. 14 Then Amos answered Amaziah, "I am no prophet, nor a prophet's son; but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees, and the Lord took me from following the flock, and the Lord said to me, 'Go, prophesy to my people Israel.'"

The religious establishment has had enough and, with the political establishment's blessing, arranges a showdown with Amos. He is disturbing the peace and threatening the prosperity. "Go back to Judah where you belong," is his basic message.

Amos' reply is almost funny. "I am no prophet." Amos is not a professional. If he is a prophet, he is an amateur prophet. He is just doing what God told him to do.

There is a sense in which we are all called to be amateur prophets. Advent is the season for the renewal of this calling. We are all called to "speak the word of the Lord" to the world. Not all of us are called to do so on the street corner or in the pulpit, but all of us are called to apply the word of the Lord to our little world so that all our decisions are made with it foremost in mind.

Sometimes "Amaziah" may wonder who you think you are. Like Amos you can respond I am just who I am. But I am called, I know that from my baptism. I am called.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Monday in Advent 2

Amos 7:1-9
v. 7 This is what he showed me: the Lord was standing beside a wall built with a plumb line, with a plumb line in his hand.

There is not much good news in this passage. The verdict is that Israel (also called Jacob and Isaac in the passage) will be destroyed. Their crimes against justice have simply been too much, are too systemic. That is what the plumb line is about. The plumb line was used to ascertain true vertical for a structure. Israel's was so far out of true that it could not be recovered from. There is deep sadness in the text, especially for anyone who reads and knows what is to come. Israel will indeed be destroyed by the Assyrians and, unlike the exile in Babylon of the southern kingdom sometime in the years ahead, they will never be heard from again. They will for ever become "the lost tribes of Israel."

In the passage Amos has three visions. After the first two he pleads with God to relent and God says, "It shall not be." But after the third he doesn't even try to plead. He seems to know it would be useless.

The good news for us is that we have one who pleads for us, Jesus, and he will always be heard. And he constantly is our plumb line, the standard by which we measure what is true and, in fact, the way in which true is made right again.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Saturday in Advent 1

Amos 5:18-27
v. 24 But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

This verse is one of the quintessential "justice verses" of the Hebrew Scriptures, all of which make clear that the God of Israel is primarily committed to justice. He wants this justice even more than he wants our worship, which he has condemned in the previous three verses, beginning with, "I hate, I despise your festivals..."

We who love our worship and are in many ways very proud of it need to take pause here. It is obviously not worship by itself which is important to God, but worship that comes out of something and leads to something. And that something is justice.

What exactly is this justice of which God speaks through his prophet Amos? It is what it has always been, the ethical behavior outlined in the 10 Commandments and what we call "the Summary of the Law" (you shall love the Lord your God...and your neighbor as yourself). We express it also in our Baptismal Covenant primarily in the last two questions: Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself? Will you strive for justice and peace among all people and respect the dignity of every human being? With God's help we do these things and justice rolls down like waters.

Justice is a twenty four-seven activity. It is a matter of my relationships at home, the decisions I make in establishing and running my household, the way I conduct myself in the work place or where I volunteer, how I vote and otherwise participate in the political process, how I treat the ones Jesus called "the least of these who are members of my family." The demand of justice is always present, but, then, so is God's help.

Friday, December 4, 2009

It is about Courage

Amos 5:1-17
v. 7 Ah, you that turn justice to wormwood, and bring righteousness to the ground!

The prophet Amos continues to warn Israel about the nature of its sins in our reading this morning. Again the key words are justice and righteousness. Israel's prosperity is built on the backs of the poor. A society has been created with haves and have nots, which is an affront to God. It is not the creation as God intended it.

I suppose there are many ways we can turn "justice to wormwood," and I have no doubt that we do it all the time. None of us is innocent in this regard and Advent is a time to examine ourselves, find ways we are doing this or participating in it, repent, and seek a new way of being.

There certainly was a fine example of turning justice to wormwood in the paper this morning (the Democrat & Chronicle). Denise-Marie Santiago reported on a conversation she had with Senator Jim Alesi on his vote against equal marriage. A YouTube video showed him voting with his head in his hands. He explained that the vote was purely about politics. "I live in a political world...It's not about courage."

Amos would disagree and be supported by every other Old Testament prophet, and Jesus himself. It is about courage. It's always about courage. No wonder our political system is in the state it is in when this is the defining purpose statement. It is, of course, naive to think it could never be about politics, and not all manifestations of politics are bad. But politics without courage equals wormwood. And for some of us the wormwood tastes pretty bitter this week.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Thursday in Advent 1

Amos 4:6-13
Refrain: Yet you did not return to me, says the Lord.

In these verses the prophet reminds the people of all the signs they have received that should have woken them up, given them a clue to what was going on, and caused them to turn back to God. As you read them you can sense the real sorrow in God's heart as the refrain is repeated again and again: yet you did not return to me.

We usually associate repentance with Lent, but it is also an Advent theme. What is the difference? I suggest it is this. The repentance of Lent is of a more personal nature, related to that question from Baptism, "Do you renounce all sinful desires that draw you from the love of God?" The repentance of Advent is more corporate in nature, related to the question from Baptism, "Do you renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God?"

Our self-examination during Advent needs to be how we participate in social injustice, social evil. That may mean taking it upon ourselves to learn more about a particular issue. It may also mean taking on in prayer a social injustice with the kind of fervor we usually reserve to individuals, particularly those who are close to us.

We often think of repentance as the end of a process of change, when really it is about the beginning of that process. Only when I repent of my participation in a social injustice can I then begin to change how I participate in society. Not surprising for us Episcopalians, repentance is a process, not a magic moment.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Wednesday in Advent 1

Amos 3:12--4:5
v. 4:1 Hear this word, you cows of Bashan who are on Mount Samaria, who oppress the poor, who crush the needy...

I've missed the first few days of Advent and I can't guarantee this reflection will happen every day, but here it is for what it is.

In Year 2 of the Daily Lectionary during the first three weeks of Advent we get to read from three of the "minor" prophets: Amos, Haggai, and Zechariah. Amos is first. Amos ministered in the middle of the eighth century B.C.E. in the Northern Kingdom--Israel (although he was a native of the Southern Kingdom--Judah). These were prosperous days for both kingdoms under the reigns of Jeroboam II (Israel) and Uzziah (Judah).

Amos has come to announce God's judgment on the practices that this prosperity is built upon, namely the abuse of the poor by the rich. The verse cited above can be taken as a summary of this indictment.

Thoughts about Advent often lead to thoughts about the second coming, which often lead to thoughts about Judgment Day, which often lead to anxiety about not measuring up on a personal level. From Amos' perspective (and the vast majority of prophetic writing in the Old Testament) this is not the issue. The issue is justice. The Day of Judgment is the Day of Justice, when everything will be set right according to God's vision.

Not much of the prophets would be left if you cut out all the bits about justice. It was one of their overriding themes. It makes it hard to read for us who have so much. Yet read we must, for the sake of our souls, but, more importantly, for the sake of our world and those in our world who, mostly through accident of birth, have ended up among the world's poor. In the days of Amos, Israel's days were numbered. The powerful Assyrians were on their way to destroy the northern kingdom. In our day, it appears we still have time to act. May Amos inspire us to do so.