Wednesday, December 17, 2003

Advent: The God who comes in time

3 Advent. John 5:1-9, The Message

People told the story in that ancient time and place, that occasionally a messenger of God would come and stir up the waters of the pool. The first sick person to touch the water would be made well. The rest would remain, waiting for it to be stirred again. The sick, the infirm and the desperate gathered to await the movement of God.

The man Jesus encountered had specific expectations of the work of God. When Jesus asked a silly question, as he was wont to do, the man replied, “I cannot be healed because I am too weak to step into the path of God.” But Jesus demonstrated that God’s path takes him directly to the hurting and broken. No dipping in a pool. No magic words or special ceremonies. Jesus showed up and exploded his expectations and ours, telling him simply, “get up.”

It is Advent, a season to remember that God shows up at just the right time, in very unexpected ways. God came to us in the form of a gurgling, drooling baby. Can you imagine the incarnate deity spitting up on your shoulder? He comes to us in bread and wine. He comes to us in the Christian Community he called together.

We believe this. This is a God we can trust. So we open ourselves up to him in the silence, and await his presence. We will discover, just as the folks at the Pool of Bethesda did, that he is already with us. He will come and heal us physically, emotionally, and spiritually.

He may guide us into the consummation, when we will be raised up to be with him. He may strengthen our bodies, sometimes very quickly, and sometimes through a long rehabilitation. He will give us the grace to forgive others, and teach us to entrust ourselves to the Body of Christ. These are the signs and wonders we await.

The one who has begun a good work in us will bring it to completion.

Sunday, December 14, 2003

Advent Hope

You know I've been unfaithful
Lovers in lines
While you're turning over tables
With the rage of a jealous kind
I chose the gallows to the aisle
Thought that love would never find
Hanging ropes will never keep you
And your love of a jealous kind

- "Jealous Kind," from who we are instead, Jars of Clay
When we distance ourselves from the Lover of our souls, strangling ourselves in that familiar noose of self-recriminations and unanswerable questions, Jesus yet pursues us. We might be tempted to give up on ourselves -- and do just that -- a dozen times in a day, but he never does.

Who are the lovers to whom we turn for comfort? Success? The respect of others? Money? Sex? Power? It's all about money, sex and power, you know. Or is it?

One day he will appear. He will shine through the fog of our secrets like a blazing star, and we will really know for the first time just how deeply loved we are. We will see ourselves as he sees us, and we will drop our idols of guilt and the images of what we wish we were, and slip out of the noose. We will fall to our knees and raise our hands in gratitude.

Because we will understand. We will finally understand that his faithfulness and compassion more than compensate for all of our inadequacies, real or imagined. This will happen. And it could happen at any moment between now and the next breath.

This is the Advent Hope.

Christ have mercy.

Saturday, December 13, 2003

Advent: Welcoming the Inbreaking of the Kingdom

I think I did a fair enough job delivering Wednesday's homily. This whole sermon thing is a little daunting, and I've been thinking about a point Dr. Power made the other day about how priests are given the gift and responsibility of speaking God's hope and promise into the lives of people who, like me and everybody else in the world, face the challenges of stress, overwork, individualism, materialism, depression, addiction, all kinds of life dominating brokenness, on and on into the night.

It is by no means useful for me to try to think up pretty and academically impressive things to say. But that's what I like best! Rats.

This weekend will be the second young adult bible "exploration" or whatever. We need a decent name for this: I don't want to be trendy, but as one of our kind parishioners pointed out the other day, "Bible Study" carries connotations of lectures and bottled answers. He's right, especially in the Bible Belt culture. "Bible Exploration." Does anybody have an opinion on that? Soon I'll be putting together content for a young adult ministry webpage on the church's site. This will be a challenge; I know what I want to convey, but I'm not sure of the best way to do so.
The Good News of Jesus Christ is not that we can be "saved" from hell or to heaven by giving intellectual assent to a set of doctrinal propositions. That's what is usually meant by the idea of "accepting Jesus" as one's Lord and Savior. Believing in Jesus is not the same as believing something about Jesus, which is what lots of folks consider conversion to be. Well, they're just plain wrong.

Essentially, the Gospel calls us to an alternative lifestyle of repentance: continual turning from materialism to generosity, from individualism to community, and from cynicism to gratitude and hope. We turn from ourselves and our own way of doing things (what Paul calls "the flesh" or "sinful nature") and turn to God and a new way of life (what he calls the life of the Spirit). When men and women take seriously the proclamation that God is drawing all the outsiders near and that the reign of God is breaking into the world through the changing lives of Jesus' disciples, that news will radically alter their attitudes and ways of living and relating to others. People who respond to that news will form missional communities and through their lives in the world translate into different cultures God's message of repentance and hope. Those communities will take shape in different ways appropriate to their own times and places, and consist of a group of people who are serious about changing their attitudes and way of living to bring it in line with the inbreaking Kingdom of God.

It is Advent, after all.

Saturday, December 06, 2003

Who's Dirty?

The Wednesday of the Second Week in Advent. Matthew 15:1-20

This conflict is not only about ceremonial cleanliness, but about two visions of being Israel: that of Jesus, and that of the Pharisees. The question of clean and unclean was one of who was fit to stand in the presence of God with God’s people. There are insiders and there are outsiders; us and them. This was particularly important since these Jewish folk lived in a Palestine absolutely infested with Gentiles. Walking down the street could make an otherwise perfectly religious, Godly Jew unclean without even realizing it. This is why elaborate hand-washing exercises developed, not for hygienic, but religious reasons. In skipping over them, Jesus and His disciples once again disregarded the painful lesson Israel learned through the Exile: the Jews could only be God’s people and carry his favor insofar as they maintained separation from the other people on the earth.

Jesus insisted on a very different understanding. Israel would not be different from the other nations because of ceremony and what they would or wouldn’t eat or touch, but by the way they responded to God. They would live pure, holy, loving lives, and take care of the people around them. They would in this way live under the reign of God, even though God’s presence seemed distant.

The rules were meant to protect and empower the peoples’ relationship with God, but instead they kept them from it. The temple system in Jesus’ day was burdensome to the poor, and those who wanted to turn to God were hindered by the sacrificial requirements. This is why John the Baptizer and his baptism of repentance was so popular, and why Jesus smashed the tables of the sellers in the temple—they were an equivalent of our loan sharks. Jesus uses an odd custom as an example of this: some people use those rules to weasel out of what God considers their clear responsibility to love.

For the Pharisees, being faithful to God had everything to do with how things looked: that one did all the right things and appeared religious and pure. This is why they so often criticized Jesus as a "drunk": he spent time with drunks, prostitutes and tax collectors. What does this mean to us? It means that we cannot use rules about what’s religious or irreligious to weasel out of our clear responsibility to love.

Whenever we choose to step away from someone because we don’t understand them, or their lifestyles are extravagantly sinful, or we’re concerned that others will think we’re like them or approve of their behavior and worldviews, we let our hearts wander from God. We can only speak the prophetic word if first we choose to love. Creative love is in itself a prophetic act.

Who are the people in our lives we avoid? Who irritates us? Those are the folks for whom we must ask God to give us a vision. Understanding the inconsistencies and weakness of our own love, we ask for a glimpse of His deep tenderness toward our enemies. Armed with this, we are called to speak good things, to voice God’s blessing into their lives. Through such an empowerment of the Holy Spirit, those good things will come to pass. We needn’t worry, then, about who is clean or not, because we will ourselves will be agents of God’s cleansing.