Sunday, December 23, 2007

New world coming ...

Advent 4-A Dec. 23, 2007 St. Paul’s Isaiah 7:1-10
Psalm 80 Romans 1:1-7 Matthew 1:18-25

It’s not so easy playing second fiddle to a miracle. The English poet W.H. Auden put these words in Joseph’s mouth:

All I ask is one
Important and elegant proof
That what my Love had done
Was really at your will
And that your will is Love.

It’s not too much to ask, is it? It’s only reasonable. Joseph was a reasonable man – he would not have let Mary be disgraced or stoned, the punishment for adultery, even though that was obviously her sin. But in Auden’s poem, as in the gospel – and as in so many aspects of all of our lives, when we are thrown into something beyond our control or understanding, all the angel says is,

No, you must believe;
Be silent, and sit still.

Surely that’s the hardest thing of all, having to sit still and wonder, really wonder, if all this is God’s will, and that God’s will is really something so good after all. How do we know that when we are caught off guard, all shook up, knocked for a loop, stunned – into silence.

This angel must have been persuasive, because Joseph is … obedient. The angel gives him two commands: Do not be afraid. (Easier said than done.) Name him Jesus. And then the angel defines the name: Jesus means, “He will save his people from their sin.”

People who know Hebrew tell us that the name “Save” is not uncommon in the Bible. Joshua means “save;” so does Isaiah and Hosea. Joshua brought the Hebrew people into the promised land; after Moses died Joshua saved the people. Isaiah and Hosea are prophets, mouthpieces of God, as the angels are messengers of God. The prophets saved the people by reminding them to turn away from their sins and toward God. And then the gospel handily reminds Joseph – and us – just what Isaiah said about the One God would send: name him Emmanuel, God with us.

Jesus, the one who saves. Jesus, God who is with us.

If this dream isn’t enough to scare the pants of anybody, I don’t know what is.

This salvation from God is coming in a pretty odd and counter-cultural way. But isn’t this “one who saves” being born into a world that is in pretty bad shape? After all, who gets saved in this movie, in this Gospel, this Good News that is unlike all other so-so news. Who gets saved? Everyone who feels unsaveable: sinners, yes, but sinners in whose eyes? The poor, the sick, the lonely, the unloved, the abandoned, the ordinary, the weak, the small, the hungry, the blind, the lame, the deaf. This kind of salvation is new news, and Good News indeed, for all those folks who have never been paid attention to, much less saved, by anyone else.

Who else is saved? Everyone else on the other side of that line as well. The rich, the healthy, the loved, the friend-beset, the strong, the large, the fat, the ones who see well, walk well, hear well. Salvation means that we are all saved, that there is no line anymore. Those of us on one side blend with those of us on the other side, and lo and behold, we see ourselves. We are saved from ourselves, from being stuck in a world where we don’t think we can help and being stuck in a place where we think no one will ever help us. Name him Jesus, which means “he will save his people from their sins.” Name him Emmanuel, which means “God is with us.”

God is indeed with us, now, born in the dark of night, born in the dark of the year, born to save us from ourselves, born to bring us a new day, a new life, a new world. We are no longer alone, fighting these battles, wandering, lonely. God is with us. Now.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

O pray for us, the bourgeosie ...

Now is the time to read "For the Time Being," W. H. Auden's "Christmas Oratorio."
I quote it in my sermon for Advent 4, since this year we read the account in Matthew of the angel coming to Joseph in a dream, announcing that his wife is bearing a child by none other than the Holy Spirit, and that, "... masculinity is, to nature, a non-essential luxury."
Read it all. Now. Find a copy in the library, or come to me. We have a few!
Here is an introductory article.
more later ...

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Snow Day!

OK! There were 11 people in church this morning -- and three drove in from Duxbury to serve lunch at St. Paul's Table. I am glad people did not feel compelled to drive on risky streets. Ten inches of snow, and now sleet and rain. The few of us who walked to church this morning remembered you in prayer, and gave thanks that you were safe and warm. Here's the sermon -- which I did not preach -- we did an African-method Bible study on the Gospel text, on the story of John the Baptist in prison, asking if Jesus was "the one." I based the sermon on the exegesis I did for the Advent 3 Reflections for the Feminist Theology blog.

Advent 3-A Dec. 16, 2007 St. Paul’s Isaiah 35:1-10

Canticle 15 James 5:7-10 Matthew 11:2-11

I’m thinking differently about John the Baptist this week than I did last week. What happened in the middle was thinking about those young men who took up rifles in righteousness and despair and killed people in Nebraska and Colorado.

Seeing the faces, and reading the stories, of those young men, along with reading this passage from the gospel about John the Baptist, gave me a sympathy for them. No, of course, they are not John the Baptist, heralds of the coming of the Messiah, but like them John the Baptist was harsh, severe, confrontative. He was thrown in jail -- by Herod, widely considered an unjust king, yes, but thrown in jail nonetheless. He was thrown in jail for causing trouble, for raising a ruckus, and being thrown in jail must have been as shocking and shameful then as it is now.

What strikes me most about this passage today is the compassion Jesus shows for John. John’s disciples, who have heard of Jesus; activity, inquire about him. It is clear that Jesus is NOT John. Jesus at this point in his ministry is not about confrontation, but about healing, wholeness, inclusion, grace. He even says it: “Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” What a contrast with John, thrown in prison for offending. Both Jesus and John are pointing to the coming of this same kingdom of justice and righteousness, but doesn’t it seem in this passage that they are going about it in starkly different ways.

But then look at what Jesus says about John. He seems to be defending John’s wild manners and confrontative tactics. What else did you expect, Jesus says, from a prophet who announces the world turned upside down? Did you expect someone nice, well-dressed, quiet, who speaks words that makes kings shudder. I am struck by two things in this short passage: just how different Jesus is from John the Baptist, and how much compassion Jesus has for John, with all of his ferocity and strangeness.

It’s refreshment Sunday, today, Rose Sunday, when the church directs our attention to the comforts of the Advent prophecies. We read it in Jesus words: “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” We read it in the words of Mary his mother, who sings this song as she begins to understand just what this child she is carrying will promise: mercy for the fearful, food for the hungry, protection for the lowly. We read it in the words of the prophet Isaiah, the promise that the exiles will come home, that sadness shall be turned to joy, that the desert will turn to a place of fertility and abundance, that no one, not even fools, will go astray. There is something to behold: not even fools shall go astray.

With such words of promise and hope, do not our hearts ache for those murderous young men, for the lives they took so senselessly and quickly? It is one more reminder, as if we needed it, that the world is a broken, fractured place, too often full of darkness and despair. We do not have to go to such extremes to feel some of those feelings, some discouragement, some dullness, some suspicion, some impatience. Maybe our lives are not what we think they should be, or what they used to be, or what we hoped they would be by now. Maybe we don’t like our neighbors, or think there is anything worth getting up for in the morning. Surely John the Baptist was an impatient soul; you can hear it in his question of Jesus: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

This little passage from the Epistle of James is for those of us for whom the kingdom is coming just too slowly. “Be patient, beloved, until the coming of the Lord.”

How can we be patient, with young men shooting innocent people, with poverty, famine, war, disaster, with loneliness and ill health and even the price of heating oil? James explains it this way:

The farmer waits for the precious crop from the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains. You also must be patient. Strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near.

He hits the nail on the head of community life: “Do not grumble against one another.” Be patient, he says, like the prophets were patient.

This third Sunday of Advent is the most hopeful Sunday in this season of hope. It tells us what we have to look forward to: to health and wholeness, healing and inclusion, we will really be able to see, we will really be able to hear, we will really be able to understand. The people who will first hear this good news are the very least of the lot: the blind, the lame, the lepers, the dead, the poor. And it is these – not the powerful prophets, the gaudy kings, the righteous disciples – who will be first in the kingdom of heaven.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Neo and John the Baptist: The Matrix as an Advent story

See my post on the Episcopal feminist blog ...
John the Baptist, Neo, and violent young American gunmen ...
thoughts on the Third Week of Advent

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Bearing good fruit

Our little congregation IS a sign of the kingdom. Read on ...

Advent 2 A Dec. 9, 2007 St. Paul’s
Isaiah 11:1-10 Romans 15:4-13 Matthew 3:1-12 Psalm 72

The shoot growing out of the stock of Jesse is not just some ordinary sapling. It is a tree growing right out of ruin and destruction. The vision of Isaiah which we read in each of today’s lessons is not just a story of regeneration, the return of spring growth or something that happens with the dose of a good fertilizer. This vision is nothing short of a signal to people the world over that God acts. God is in charge.

These Advent prophecies speak of a world of abundance and beauty – so much so that it is tempting to think that they are about a return to an idyllic past, to the Garden of Eden even, before the perfect world God created got all messed up. Wolves lying down with lambs, cows and bears, young and old, children playing with snakes – none of that is natural.

Go back to the original creation story. What did God do? What was there before God created anything? It was chaos, a void, nothingness. And what did God begin to do? To give this formlessness some form, to order the chaos, to bring sense out of the senselessness of nature.

This Isaiah passage comes from a time of destruction in Israel. Nothing is left of the glories of their kingdom but some burned out, torn up stumps. What Isaiah is saying is that despite all this destruction, God is still creating, God is still acting, God is still bringing order out of chaos, meaning out of senselessness. In the natural order – in Eden, even – the predators are surely after their prey: wolves, leopards, lions and bears have to eat, after all, and they eat by killing. But when this new shoot arises from the destruction of the old, a new order will be established, a holy order, marked by justice and mercy. What this prophecy is saying is that God continues to order the world. If new and marvelous trees grow from dead stumps, and if ferocious predators lie down in peace with their prey, then imagine what glorious things will happen to us. How will God order our lives – with wisdom and understanding, with counsel and might, with knowledge and delight in God.

Paul, in this piece of his letter to the church in Rome, quotes Isaiah – this same passage of the shoot arising from the stump of Jesse. Out of the past order comes a vision for the new order. “May the God of steadfastness and encouragement, the God of patience and consolation,” Paul writes, “grant you to live in harmony with one another.” Paul is then very specific about who is not in harmony with each other: people like him, faithful Jews, on the one hand; and people not Jews, Gentiles, who have nonetheless heard about Jesus and think this Good News about this new way of life is a pretty good thing. How can people who for generations were at enmity now live together? How do these cows and bears graze together, these wolves and lambs not continue their deadly dance? Out of even this disorder, these old enemies, Paul says, God in his mercy is pulling you together. And as you live together, this is a sign of the coming reign of God, a sign of God at working still, bringing order – divine order – out of the chaos of broken relationships.

It’s great to be in this chapel during Advent, right here with the main man, John the Baptist – who also quotes the prophet Isaiah, who mentions the root of Jesse, but in a harsh and frightening way. For John the Baptist, this past is worthless without repentance. For John the Baptist, those who rest on the laurels of the past will reap the wrath of God. For John the Baptist, this is the deciding moment. For all those who for generations heard the prophets, heard their story of God acting and continually ordering the chaos of the world, now is the time. Choose. Choose this adventure God has in store for all of us, this adventure of justice and mercy and peace – this order which tames the chaos – or fall before the ax. Bear good fruit, or be cut down and thrown into the fire.

John the Baptist came from a tiny group of faithful Jews waiting for many years for the establishment of a just society. You can hear his pent-up fury, his righteous anger, his confidence in the promises of God. His prophecy is that the religious establishment of his day has moved so far from God’s expectations of justice and mercy that they will be mown down when that one more powerful than him comes. Like us, also a tiny group, that tiny group held out great hope for the future, because they – like us – live out God’s promises in the present. We are a motley crew, a diverse crew; in this tiny group we represent many cultures, many backgrounds, many walks of life. In this tiny group, with all our problems and differences, we live out the vision God has for the world. We are an Advent people, year round: listening for the prophets to give us a word of hope, watching for signs of the kingdom, and practicing, in our community life, for what it will be like when the whole world thrives under the reign of God.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Give us grace to awake us ...

... to see the branch that begins to bloom;
in great humility is hid
all heaven in a little room.
(Carol Christopher Drake, 1971)

Well, OK, I did NOT intend this to be a monthly blog but a weekly one! Yet in the past month I’ve been on the road:
  • A November retreat at the Benedictine Sisters of Erie – a large, active, welcoming, inspiring community, home to Joan Chittister. They ran a high school for many years, but now have a variety of inner city projects in Erie, including a quite spectacular art school for children. It inspired me for our plans for the day hospitality center here in Brockton.
  • Thanksgiving in Indian Lake: a lovely time, with Simon, Seth, Laura, Stewart, plus a friend of Seth and Laura’s (and Bill the cat and Tim and me, of course). A lot of cooking in a small space, though. But cozy, fun, nice to be in our own little home.

Big news back in Brockton. The short version: one of the steam pipes in the basement sprang a leak, forcing us out of the church and into the chapel for Sunday morning worship. But hey, it worked well! Today I rearranged the chairs in choir formation, and with a forest of tiny evergreens, the waiting crèche and a free-standing altar, we did a very nice job welcoming in the new Christian year. The music, with some rather second-string electric organs, can use some work, but it will come! With the price of oil at over $3.00 a gallon, well, I think it is pretty easy to get used to this lovely chapel for the dark and cold of winter.

Finally, a prayer for Advent, which was read tonight at the sublime Service of Advent Lessons and Carols at St. Margaret’s Convent:

Keep us, O Lord, while we tarry on this earth, in a daily serious seeking after thee, and in a believing affectionate walking with thee; that, when thou comest, we may be found not hiding our talent, nor serving our flesh, nor yet asleep with our lamp unfurnished, but longing and waiting for our glorious God for ever and ever. Amen. (Richard Baxter, 1691)

Advent 1 A 12/2/2007 St. Paul’s
Isaiah 2:1-5 Psalm 122 Romans 13:8-14 Matthew 24:37-44

Watch out!

It’s “watch out!” Sunday – the shout of rampart guards surround us – harps and cymbals swell the sound – the thrilling voice – the solemn warning: Watch out! Two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. Keep awake!

You might think this Sunday is about the future, about what will happen to us if we don’t watch out. The collect does tell us to look forward to "... the last day, when [Jesus Christ] shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead, [when] we may rise to the life immortal..."

Terrible things can happen to us in the future, but I think Advent is about today, the present, the church of what’s happening now: "Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light..." What we are asking God to give us is the grace to live in the present aware of the reality of Jesus Christ in our lives. On Advent Sunday we pray to God to be re-committed to the great adventure of being “On the Way.” It’s a dark world out there, and Advent is the time we get suited up, in the armor of light, for the journey of being a Christian. In Advent, we prepare to greet our God, “the One who Comes,” the God who is with us, when we remember that to be a Christian means to live in this world on God’s terms, not ours.

The medieval mystic Bernard of Clairvaux talked about the Three Comings of the Lord. Today’s readings are about the Second Coming, the terrible and fearful day of the Lord. It’s Christ as the great tsunami, with no early warning system. We’re living on the beach, with no Weather Channel and the mother of all storms brewing out at sea. In the words of one of my favorite Advent hymns, the world IS wrapped in fear. These days, reading a psalm about going up to Jerusalem can be the opposite of inspiring. It is a fearful place, an armed camp, divided, broken.

But as Bernard put it in his Advent sermon hundreds of years ago, we are living in the time of the Middle Coming. In the First Coming, Bernard said, God came “in our flesh and in our weakness.” In the Second, God “will be seen in glory and majesty.” In this Middle Coming, Bernard says, God “comes in spirit and in power.” This intermediate coming may be a hidden one, Bernard says, but “in case someone should think that what we say about this middle coming is sheer invention, listen to what our Lord himself says: If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him.” And what do we do when we keep God’s Word? We feed God’s sheep, care for the poor and forgotten, feed the hungry, open the doors of our hearts so that they, and God, can come in. There is much to do between the day when we could hold Jesus in our arms and when the Son of Man knocks us off our feet. In this Middle Coming, we know God is here, because he is right by our side when we are doing all those things.

Celebrating Advent reminds us that we do not have to remain stuck in this dark and fearful place; we are the people who already have one foot in the new way of being, in that new kingdom that will come with God’s reign. I know that can sound kind of airy-fairy, but listen to this from Peter Maurin, who along with Dorothy Day started the Catholic Worker movement: “The future will be different if we make the present different.” That’s what Advent people believe, that’s what this season – this Middle Coming of Christ -- reminds us, that we cast away those works of darkness – of fear, anger, greed, of negativity and militancy and neglect – for we are Children of the Day.

Proper 29 C Nov. 25, 2007 St. Paul’s Jeremiah 23:1-6 For the Psalm: Luke 1:68-79 Colossians 1:11-20 Luke 23:33-43

For some Christian congregations it is always Easter. Or always Pentecost. Some Christian congregations stay right here in this lesson, this story of the crucifixion, and of Christ’s triumphant reign as King of Kings and Lord of Lords. In the Gospel of Luke, especially, Jesus’ confidence reigns supreme: this event, gruesome as it is, apparent failure that it is, is one more sign of God’s peaceful reign of mercy and forgiveness. Even in death, the human leader of this movement says, “Father, forgive them; they do not know what they are doing,” and “Truly I tell you, today, you will be with me in Paradise.” He does not respond to those who taunt and mock him, for even the impartial witnesses of the other criminals know the truth: “This man has done nothing wrong.”

Some Christian congregations have no liturgical year, no beginnings or endings, no ups or downs. Everything in their services points to this event, this Christian high, and here they stay. There is something to be said about this approach: after all, the lives we lead are full enough of ups and downs, failures and setbacks, slings and arrows – too much drama and we do not yet know the ending. The Christian story, on the other hand, encapsulated like this one of Jesus’ death and triumph, always has a happy ending. We can leave our trials and troubles at the door, for here Christ reigns supreme. It’s Easter, and only Easter, every Sunday.

We Episcopalians, however, are members of a liturgical church. We follow a calendar of the church year developed long after the Bible was written, traditions influenced by the cold, dark winters of northern Europe, by missionaries eager to win converts and so adapted the customs of the people around them. They gave Christian interpretations to the change of seasons, to the cycle of planting and harvest. They put the date of the birth of Jesus in the deepest, darkest part of winter, and said here is the birth of the true sun, the Son of God.

One way to think of this liturgical calendar of the year is that we work out the dramas of our lives in church. At this time of year, especially, we are reminded that being a Christian is not just one smooth high. This Sunday’s gospel pulls us back to the triumph of Jesus’ passion, death and resurrection, and then next Sunday we are yanked into the preparation for his birth. This is just not a Jesus in the present tense, a God who relates to us only in the light of triumph and perfection, but a Jesus with a past and a future. Jesus is rooted in God’s prophecies from long ago, prophecies which acknowledge what is wrong with the world, and which draw us into the future when those wrongs will be righted and God’s justice and mercy will reign.

For the church to read this passage from the ancient prophet Jeremiah side by side with the story of Jesus’ crucifixion shows us how the early Christians began to make sense of Jesus. To speak of shepherds was one way people in ancient Israel talked about kings, about their political leaders who were supposed to rule their kingdoms by God’s standards. But just as today our political leaders fall far short of our standards, so too did the shepherds Jeremiah denounces. Rather than protect the sheep, they scatter them, and so, Jeremiah says, God will replace those shepherds with a righteous king, a king who will bring everyone together, a king who will be wise and just, who will bring safety and abundance.

This is the picture Luke gives us of Jesus on the cross: Jesus faces his trials calmly and with confidence. The God of peace would not lash out even in the face of violent persecution. As he goes to his death, he brings all of us with him. In the end, the triumph of God is not like some great army, not like a righteous version of the hated Roman Empire. The triumph of God is not some smooth and predictable outcome, coming in on a white horse at the head of the cavalry charge. In the end, the triumph of God is forgiveness and mercy. In the end, we are standing there at the foot of the cross, with all our mixed motives and confusions, our hopes and dreams, our violence, anger, disappointments and betrayals. “Are you not the Messiah,” we shout. “Save yourself and us.” Is this how the world will end, we wonder, echoing the poet, not with a triumphant bang, not even with resistance, but with a whimper? “Today,” Jesus says, “you will be with me in Paradise.” The story ends neither with a bang nor a whimper, but with an embrace.

Next week the church has us start this whole cycle over again. The one in whom “all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell” will be born of a poor mother in a stable. The righteous branch raised up from David will be raised in obscurity in a back-water town on the edge of an empire run by an occupying army. The one through whom all things were created, and all things hold together, will be celebrated as one small enough for us to hold in our arms. King of kings, Lord of lords: not with a bang, nor with a whimper, but with an embrace.

Proper 28 C Nov. 18, 2007 St. Paul’s
Isaiah 65:17-25 Psalm: Isaiah 12:2-6 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13 Luke 21:5-19

For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

When I was on retreat last week, I was praying in front of a tabernacle containing the Blessed Sacrament – the bread and wine which had been consecrated as the body and blood of Jesus. It’s the place we sit in prayerful vigil, from the end of the Maundy Thursday service, through the long darkness of Good Friday, in hopeful anticipation of the resurrection of Easter. Such a vigil, it struck me last week, is like pregnancy. Thinking of Jesus lying in the tomb, silent and dark, and thinking of a child, curled up, not yet born. The child is not waiting to be born, but we, the father or mother, wait, for the pregnancy to end, for the child to appear. It cannot be hurried. It cannot be slowed.

These weeks before Christmas, like those days before Easter, are like that image of pregnancy, that tomb that holds the still, dark body of Jesus. In two weeks we will enter the season of Advent, when we officially “wait” for the birth of Jesus. But today’s Old Testament and Gospel lessons are full of prophesies of what will come when Jesus comes among us again, when the reign of God is fully here, when the new heavens is over our heads and the new earth is under our feet.

I bet this chapel is not where most of you want to be this morning. I bet most of you want to be in the church. You might even feel that today’s apocalyptic gospel, about the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem – the very temple the Jews returning from exile had just rebuilt when prophets like Isaiah, from today’s reading, or Haggai, from last week’s reading, were writing. But for the time being, this chapel is where we are going to be. This is where we will wait. The texts about the Jews going into and coming back from Jerusalem should resonate strongly with us right now.

Like last week’s reading from Haggai, Isaiah is trying to encourage the flagging energy of the people trying to rebuild Jerusalem, a city which no longer resembles its former glory. Speaking for God, Isaiah says,

For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind.

The Hebrew word for “create” is barah, a word that applies only to God. Only God can create, and what God is about to create here will have no resemblance to what came before. Isaiah goes on to describe this new creation of God – a creation built right in existing history – there is no apocalyptic destruction of the world about to happen for this new world to appear. What God will create is the peaceable kingdom. The holy mountain. The place of homesteads and victory gardens, of justice and mercy, and most of all, of joy and delight.

So often in history the people of God have been in this position of waiting – of hearing the words of the prophets and waiting, in faith and hope. We are in a very biblical place here, in this little chapel, this little place where we will wait for what God will create here.

The task before us is not mine. The task of rebuilding is a communal one, done by the people of God. The very temple it took the people of Israel so long to rebuild was the very one Jesus proclaimed he would tear down -- Jesus speaking with the power of the very same God who spoke those words of such hope and comfort through Isaiah.

“Now hope that is seen is not hope,” St. Paul wrote to the Christians in Rome, Christians eagerly awaiting the end of their own exile, their life of oppression under the Empire, the day of the Lord’s coming. As Christians we hope, but we cannot specifically describe what we hope will arrive. I don’t know what will happen here. It will not be like it used to be. But as Christians, we believe – we know – that God, our God, is a God of new things, of a new heavens and a new earth. This was the God who promised Abraham and Sarah more descendants than there were stars in the sky. This was the God who led the children of Israel out of bondage in Egypt to a new life in the promised land. This was the same God who threw those same people, become lazy about their faithfulness to God, into exile in Babylon, and who delivered them back home again. All with the vision, that what it meant to be faithful to God was to live as God intended us to live, wolves and lambs, lions and oxen, together in peace and compassion.

Our God is a God of new things: a new heaven and a new earth; a new church and a new Pleasant Street. What we are doing is God’s work, and we’ve not seen anything yet.

Proper 27C Nov. 11, 2007 St. Paul’s
Haggai 1:15b-2:9
Psalm 145 2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17 Luke 20:27-38

When the Jews were able to return from their exile in Babylon, Jerusalem was a mess. Israel was a ravaged land, and Jerusalem was a destroyed city. But there they were, back home, and nothing to do but to rebuild. Everything had to be rebuilt, and at one point, according to the prophet Haggai, the people were slacking off. They had worked on their houses, but when it came to rebuilding the temple, they got depressed and stopped. This was Solomon’s Temple, which the older people remembered in all its splendor. They remembered the glittering gold and fine fabrics, the throngs of people who once filled the courts with praise. They remembered what once was, and they could not go on. They were exhausted at the thought of not being able to rebuild it the way it used to be; they hated the idea of a less-than-glorious temple. It was at this point that God sent the prophet Haggai to them to say, Buck up! Take courage! Do not fear! The splendor that will come to this house is my splendor, God said. The silver is mine, and the gold is mine. The house you will build will be greater than what was once here. In THIS place, I will give prosperity.

What good words for Veterans Day. You know this day was originally called Armistice Day, to commemorate the armistice, the end of war. It was declared by President Woodrow Wilson in 1919, who had declared the war that just ended “the war to end all wars.” On this 11th day of the 11th month, Wilson said, remember those who died in that war to end all wars, and remember that we stand for peace and justice. On Veterans Day, then, we stand with one foot in the past – in mourning and remembrance – and one foot in the future – the future for which we not only hope but work – the future of peace and justice – a future in which the destroyed cities, like Jerusalem, will be rebuilt, and where all the exiles, and refugees, and displaced persons, and war victims will live, where all soldiers will be former soldiers, swords turned into plowshares, spears into pruning hooks.

It is very hard to imagine that future, given the world we live in. In the Gospel lesson, the Sadducees, who were kind of like Biblical fundamentalists, thought they could trick Jesus with their superior knowledge of the details of Biblical law. They thought they could expose Jesus and the Pharisees, who they also disliked, believing in the fallacy – in their eyes – of the resurrection of the dead. They trotted out a long what-if, which they believed would end in their victorious, AHA! We caught you, Jesus, in a heresy, an untruth.

But at the end of their long, drawn-out tale of multiple husbands and who gets who in the resurrected life, it is Jesus who turns the table on them. What they cannot imagine is that the reign of God will not be a mere continuation of the here and now, with its rules about marriage and hierarchy, and women as property and children as chattel, where all that matters is who carries on the man’s name. No, Jesus says, the reign of God is not that at all. In the reign of God, the beloved of God are equal to angels – they are the very children of God, and of this new way of being. The rules of the old age are coming to an end. In this new age, God rules, and death and death-dealing are over-ruled. Jesus trumps them with a proof-text about Moses and the burning bush, when God proclaims himself to be the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob – God not of the dead but of the living, for to God all of those who were considered dead are alive.

Today, November 11, is also the feast day of St. Martin of Tours. Martin lived in the 4th century, and was a soldier in the Roman legions. He was from the edges of the empire, from what is now Hungary. He became an officer, and served in the occupying army in France. One day, a beggar came to him, asking for help in the name of Christ. Moved with compassion, Martin used his sword to cut his own cloak and to give half to the beggar. The next night, Martin had a vision of Jesus, dressed in a torn cloak. “Martin the Catechumen covered me with this clothing.” Martin saw that the poor man with whom he had shared his very own cloak was none other than Jesus himself. Martin went then to be baptized, although he continued to serve in the military.

The time came, though, when he realized that being a follower of Jesus meant he could no longer follow Caesar. “I am Christ’s soldier,” he declared, “and I am not allowed to fight.” His superiors charged him with cowardice, and to prove them wrong he stood with his comrades on the line of battle, but with no armaments. It was his own, personal armistice. His courage demonstrated, he was discharged and went to live a peaceful life, in service to the poor, to people on the margins of Roman society, and as the bishop of Tours.

In the world we live in, where now nearly 100 years after the war to end all wars we seem to live in endless war, it is tempting to see holidays like Veterans Day or Memorial Day or even the 4th of July as holidays which give us our marching orders for more wars. We rightly remember those who served, and especially those who died in that service. Like the Sadducees taunting Jesus, like the people too discouraged to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem, we cannot imagine a world without wars.

In the reign of God, Jesus tells us, that kind of a world is over. God is not God of the dead, not God of the battlefield, whether the cause of whatever war it commemorates was honorable or stupid. In the reign of God, all those who died are brought alive, and even we are like angels. Even we will live like the children of God we truly are.

All Saints 11/4/2007 St. Paul’s Daniel 7:1-3, 15-18 Psalm 149 Ephesians 1:11-12 Luke 6:20-31

Our history is a mixture of the orthodox and the pagan. All Saints' Day, for example, falls on November 1 because the ancient Celtic feast of Samhain (what we now call Hallowe'en) happened at this time in the autumn. Samhain was the time when this world and the supernatural intersected – the boundaries between this world and the next were thin, permeable. Trick-or- treaters are remnants of the goblins people truly feared would snatch them or their children on that night: give them a treat or they would take you with them to the other world. The Church, hoping to win more converts by joining the crowd, "Christianized" the festivities by moving the commemoration of All Saints' from its 4th century observance during the spring feast of Pentecost to this magical time in late autumn. If you're going to get involved in the "other world," the church seemed to say, make it the Christian "other world": the communion of saints.

This world and the other world – when God becoming human is the quintessential example of how this world and the other world meet and mingle. We speak of the Body of Christ, and mean us, our flesh and blood bodies, in the here and now. The Body of Christ also includes all those Christians who have gone before – the Communion of Saints, which we remember vividly today of all days, this day when we acknowledge just how close we are to the “other world” and to those who have gone before. Michael Ramsey, the late archbishop of Canterbury, put it this way:

"One consequence of the mystery of Christ is that Christian people don't stand -- so to say-- on the ground of the present moment, and view past generations, or their comrades in paradise, as people some distance away from them. No, we see the present moment more clearly and bravely because our stance is within the Communion of Saints. How closely, how lovingly, they are praying with us today."

That curious place of standing in the present and the future – at one and the same time – is the place the Gospel of Luke takes us in these beatitudes. The Good News is a great reversal: those who are poor now, those who live on the margins of the rich and comfortable, those who are smug and happy, those who are powerful and mighty, those who mourn and are persecuted: all those conditions will be reversed. This is the upside-down Gospel which describes what the kingdom of God is like, what creation under the reign of God is like. In the here and now, with all our troubles, we see the Communion of Saints as God sees it, right here, full of hope for the world as it should be. A few weeks ago we read the story of Lazarus and the rich man, and the message of that story is the same one Jesus tells today. Jesus has Abraham say to the rich man, who wants poor Lazarus to take care of him, once again, “Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things; and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony.” No doubt about it: in the Gospel the blessed are the poor, the economically poor, people without much money. In this Gospel of economic reality, God loves the poor, and says to the rich, you’ve already gotten yours.

If the beatitudes then describe who the people of God are, the verses just after that tell these people how God expects them to behave. Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse, pray for those who abuse. Jesus sets very high standards of morality for us – go beyond reciprocity, beyond “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” The people of God – and especially those of us who are hated, scorned, set aside, reviled and cursed -- are to do unto others as God would do. The way God acts toward us – that is how we are to act toward others. This is love not just as an emotion, but as an action, an attitude, in which we will good things even for those who have been mean to us.[i]

It seems very nearly impossible, but remember who is here with us on this All Saints Day: all those who have gone before. They are standing around us, cheering us on, praying for us, showing us the way. In Central America, during the terrible civil wars of the 1980s, when government thugs were slaughtering villagers, assassinating priests and nuns and kidnapping the witnesses, every day was All Saints Day. The brave people of God would gather in church and call each martyr, each missing person, each saint among them by name. Presente! They would cry out as each name was called. Presente!

On this All Saints Day, at this thin time between the world as it is and the world as God would have it to be, those comrades in paradise are here to assure us how close it is, how close we are to the kingdom of God.

[i] Exegesis from Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1991) pp. 105-112