Trust and Act — A Sermon for St Peter’s, Key West

19 12 2010

Text: Matthew 1: 18-25

Advent is drawing to a close. For four weeks we are invited to enter into a season where we slow down, pause and reflect in preparation for the coming of Christmas. I don’t know about you, but I can hardly believe Christmas Eve is this coming Friday. The world has already been in full holiday mode for some time now, with our guest houses having their dazzling displays, the shops advertising sales for gift-giving, and parties are happening all over the place it seems.

There is a lot of pressure put on us to have the perfect Christmas. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard someone ask the question “are you ready for Christmas?” and it is met with a half-hearted yes or an icy stare. The holiday season can actually be rather tough for some. I have heard that many pastors and priests set aside extra time during Advent for pastoral counseling. We invest quite a deal of time and emotions this time of year with those decorations, gifts and parties. The pressure to have a perfect holiday season fit enough for a Norman Rockwell painting can lead to some fighting off loneliness, depression, anxiety. Perhaps you are one of the many who has lost a job or their unemployment has run out. Perhaps life circumstances have left you estranged, separated from your family and friends. We may lie awake at 3 in the morning ridden with fear and anxiety while it seems everyone else you know is off having a blast while you’re just trying to get through another day. In the pressure cooker of emotions that is the attempt to have a proper holiday season, it is easy to forget the first Christmas really wasn’t proper at all. In fact, it was born in a scandal.

The fourth Sunday of Advent is the when we speak of the Annunciation. God sends a messenger to announce, “Stand back! Don’t be afraid! God is going to do something here!” Last year in Luke we read of how an angel appeared to Mary and told her all these strange and wonderful things about a child she was about to conceive. She says, “how can this be?” and after more words from the angel, Mary says, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord. Let it be with me according to your word.” Because of Mary’s “yes” to God, that act of faith and trust in response to God’s movement towards her, she gave birth to Jesus and we remember her as the Theotokos, the God-bearer.

The focus on our Gospel reading this year is on Joseph. He finds out that his young bride is pregnant and since they didn’t consummate the marriage it was clear that he wasn’t the father. We know from Scripture and from tradition that Joseph was not only a man of upstanding morals, but a man of integrity, so he had a choice to make. He could lie and say that yes he was the father, but he would have to live with himself for the rest of his life, and deal with the rumours that would come with it. He could also expose Mary and protect his own reputation but Mary would be disgraced and outcast from society. Because of the attitude towards women in those days, even if they were to say she were assaulted by a Roman soldier, the fact that she actually had the nerve to get pregnant would have her own fault. Joseph was not only righteous and full of integrity, but he was also kind, so he chose to divorce her, send her away quietly, perhaps to another town to have the child, so they could live out the remainder of their days with a minimal impact on their lives.

Now shortly after Joseph makes up his mind as to what to do about this very difficult situation, one night while he is sleeping he has a dream in which an angel appears and says, “Don’t be afraid, Joseph! This child that Mary is going to have will be like no one that has ever been born. His name will be Jesus, and will save people from their sins.” Through the angel, God is telling Joseph, “Trust me. I know you have a lot of questions, and I’m not giving you much to go on right now, but I assure you, everything is going to turn out just fine.” Naturally, Joseph is caught off guard. Not only was he to raise the child Mary was to have as his own, but that the child is actually not illegitimate at all, but the greatest gift the world has ever or will ever know, and not a source of humiliation or disgrace. The Gospel tells us that Joseph was called to trust God, and he did.

In this story, we learn that the faithful thing to do might be very much at odds with what we might think the right and proper thing to do would be. Mary said “yes” to God and gave birth to the Saviour of the world. Joseph said yes, took Mary as his wife, raised Jesus and cared for him and his mother until his death. Just like Mary and Joseph, we are called by today’s Gospel to trust even when we don’t get all the answers or reasons why.

It all seems pretty simple doesn’t it? God speaks, people respond. But really, it’s not simple at all, is it? The situations here and in our other readings today point to complicated dilemmas and pitfalls for which there are no quick fixes that are provided by Sunday School theology or self-help televangelists. The lives of the characters in the stories of the Bible are messy and difficult just like our own. Our readings today talk about a faith relying on a God who extends salvation when and where it is least expected. It is a salvation that does not come in arrogance, of acting like you have all the answers. It doesn’t come as a conqueror on a great white horse to rescue us from our troubles. It doesn’t come in a speech or a sermon filled with fire and brimstone telling you that you’ve got to get it right. Salvation comes in the form of a scandal and a response of humble trust, a trust that moves us to pull ourselves up and act even when we want to give up.

These stories may seem fanciful, but they are the farthest thing from a fairy tale. They are messages about God’s ability to act, to inspire, to encourage folks to risk everything they think might be right and proper for something bigger than themselves. This is the message of the Annunciation. This is the message of the Virgin Birth – God has moved and continues to move. God is entering into human history in a way that only God can do. The story of our faith has always been not about a human race that goes off looking for God, but a God that comes to us, finds us and calls us his children. He moves towards us, and our own movement, our own “yes,” is a response to that. And it is in our actions that Jesus begins to pull us along.

So when you are lying awake at 3 in the morning wondering why your life or your holiday season isn’t turning out the way you had planned, when you are wondering how on earth you are going to figure out how to simply make it through another day, remember the stories of Isaiah, Paul, and of Mary and Joseph. Their stories all end differently, but in each of them, God moved towards them and asked them to trust. We are not alone in the dead of night in the winter. The one who is with us is none other than Jesus, the Son of God, who calls to us and asks us to trust him, for even though we don’t know the answers or the reasons why, in our “yes” to God’s movement towards us, in our trust in God’s faithfulness, everything really will turn out all right after all.

Let these stories inspire you to action, and who knows? That job you’ve been looking for might come along as you diligently search. That friend or family member might return your phone call. And a random act of kindness on your part also may lead to a friendship or something more. Life is long road, and times it is a hard road, and there will be times we want to give up. But if we trust God, and live and act like we trust God, we will absolutely get to where God is calling us to be.

“And the angel of the Lord appeared in a dream and said, ‘Do not be afraid!”

“Behold the virgin shall conceive and bear a son. And they shall call his name ‘Immanuel,’ God with us.”

I try not to wade into Secular Politics here, but…

17 12 2010

It really is a shame when the whole United States government is held up by a bunch of bullies.

Bullies at their heart tend to be cowards. Stand up to them and they run away.

Preaching at St Peters, Key West

16 12 2010

I will be preaching this Sunday at St Peter’s, Key West, if anyone is interested.

800 Center Street, 10am. If you don’t know where Center Street is, use Googlemaps or something similar.

May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in God’s sight. May the words inspire the congregation to live out the Kingdom of God.

RIP Ambassador Richard Holbrooke

14 12 2010

No, I didn’t know him or never met him. But I worked for quite a few people who knew him and his wife, Kati Marton, personally and professionally. On occasion, I did speak with those who worked in his office.

This was a guy who commanded respect of everyone who knew him. He was on the standing list of folks to interrupt my boss’ meetings in case he called.

in some way, I feel as if I did get to know him a little bit, even vicariously through my contacts in his office and my bosses contacts with him and Kati, so the news of his passing touched me somewhat.

Ambassador, may you rest in peace and rise in glory. I look forward to finally meeting you in person in the Resurrection.

I have to admit …

14 12 2010

It is easy to get depressed with all the bad stuff coming out of the news cycle over the past few weeks, but our readings for Advent (and preparing a sermon to preach for this coming Sunday at St Peters) really does the soul good for keeping one’s eye on the long view of that arc of history.

Separately, it is a far, far different thing to prepare a sermon as a guest preacher vs preparing a sermon for the congregation sponsoring you for ordination!

What is this Repentance Business Anyway?

10 12 2010

Text:  Matthew 3:1-12


So, our holiday cheer and our hopes of the Reign of God have been interrupted by what looks like a wild man calling us out of our comfort zones and day dreams onto a journey into the wilderness.  It is John the Baptist, wearing camel’s hair, eating locusts and honey.  The season of Advent does something similar.  It calls us away from all of the holiday festivities to the wilderness in order for something new to be born.  And you know what?  People did come from far and wide to hear what John the Baptist had to say, his message of getting ready for God is about to do something new!  Even the religious leaders of the day came to hear what this guy was talking about, but they didn’t quite get the reception they were hoping for.

John preached about the dangers of unbridled power and wealth as well as religious hypocrisy.  Why, when the Pharisees and Sadduccees came to hear him, he went absolutely ballistic.  They wanted to make a public display of their righteousness and John wasn’t going to have any of it.  “Now, hold on a minute,” they tell him.  “Don’t you know who we are?  We’re the big shots here, and we also got an ‘in’ to the Almighty for WE are Abraham’s descendants.   So don’t start with all your repentance business with us.”  What John realized when he saw them coming was their claim of being sons of Abraham led them to an arrogance that they were God’s best friends and favoured servants.  John tells them in not so many words that their lineage is unimportant, but rather how they live their lives.  Ethics matters!  How you treat others and how you conduct yourself is far more important than where you came from, your means or even your vocation.

The first two Sundays of Advent have a way of unsettling us and are out of place in a world that is in full party mode.  Last week, we talked about judgment and today we hear a message of repentance.  Repentance is one of those concepts that are easy to oversimplify if we’re not careful.  Is it just feeling sorry for our mistakes?  Is it striving to learn from those mistakes and therefore trying harder to be a good person?  But then again, if Christ has conquered sin and death, and we’re looking forward to the Reign of God, why do we even have to bother with it anyway?

This is where we miss the point.  Is it easy to forget that repentance is a one way street, where the onus is completely on us. God has a part in repentance too.  Repentance is not so much about our own standards of worthiness or what we perceive to be God’s standards, but it is more about God’s desire to transform us to be more like Christ.  It is, in part, a confession, a realization that we were doing things we ought not to have done or not doing things we ought to have done.  But it is also part of God working through Jesus to purify us and bring us closer to the person God created us to be.

A symbol of this purification is baptism, which was a central part of John’s ministry.  He baptizes people as they confess their sins as a sign of their repentance, but it also points forward to Jesus, who he says will baptize us not with water, but with the Spirit of God.  The baptism by water is but a foreshadowing of God acting to clean us up and dust us off for a new life in Christ.

Often time we beat ourselves up for failing to live up to our standards and trying to ‘get right with God.’  Often times our attempts at repentance are full of remorse, so full in fact that we forget that repentance is not just done by us.  Human efforts are usually always marred by our own self-interests, and this type of repentance is no different.  It is easy to forget that repentance, the turning away from the old to the new life in Christ, is only completed by the power and love of God which brings us closer and teaches us to trust.

In the wilderness on the way to promised land, Israel sinned and rebelled many times over, but they still followed God even though at times they feared God was going to let them die.  But God’s faithfulness taught them that they even though THEY weren’t faithful, God’s love was something they could count on, so when they eventually did reach the promised land, they were ready.

So repentance, then, is part of the way God continues to work in us to bring about that Reign of God we talked about.  It is Jesus through the Holy Spirit that is purifying us, teaching us to trust and giving us hope for the coming of God’s justice and mercy upon the entire world and the whole human race.

The Biggest Surpise of Them All

10 12 2010

Text:  Matthew 24:36-44; Isaiah 2:1-5

The holiday season stirs up quite a bit of emotions, not all of them pleasant. Even though the television, the radio, the streets are full of lights and enticements to buy gifts for others (or in this day, gifts for yourself!). Our inboxes and mailboxes are flooded with invitations to go to parties at the office or with friends, we flood our friends inboxes and mailboxes with an invitation to a party we’re going to throw, and in between it all we just try and go about the business of living. This season also summons up a great deal of anxiety, grief or even depression. We may be estranged from our loved ones due to long-standing arguments and disagreements. We may be remembering that some who were with us last year will not be around. If we pay attention to our national discourse, we see that the top priorities of our leaders seem to be what can we do to preserve the financial well-being of the top income-earning tier of our society while many of us may wonder about the state of our mortgages, can we make ends meet, or even where our next meal might be coming from. There is increasing talk that we are a nation in decline, even though it is still bubbling beneath the surface. There is a lot to be anxious and fearful about this time of year, but the season of Advent calls us to slow down and look beyond the worries and troubles of the present to the hopes of the future.

During the first Sunday of Advent, our reading seem out of place. When this is read, we have usually just finished celebrating Thanksgiving, and our thoughts turn to getting ready for Christmas with all the festivities it involves and here we are talking about the end of the age. Now much ink has been spilt about all the details about how the end of days will pan out. Some take it literally, others take it completely on a metaphorical level. It makes for interesting conversation if nothing else, but getting bogged down in all the details will cause us to miss the grandeur of the landscape of the forest for all the individual trees we’re trying to study. One thing is for certain however. Jesus says, “no one know the day nor the hour .. only the Father.” In the meantime, we are to be ready and watchful because God’s judgment will eventually come and that day will take everyone about surprise. Just like in the days of Noah, everyone will be going about their business and then suddenly the heavens will open.

Talking about the Judgment makes a lot of us uncomfortable. It is associated with dividing humanity into the sheep and the goats, those who made the cut and those who didn’t, those who might enter into God’s embrace and those who might be cast into the outer darkness. But if we look at the big picture, the forest that is God’s judgment, we will notice that it is the inauguration of the Reign of God, a time when “swords will be beaten into ploughshares … spears into pruning hooks … nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they study war no more.” In a time of anxiety and despair, it is a reminder not to give up hope, for God is sovereign over all of human history, and through God’s judgment and grace we are inexorably moving towards a time when all things will be made new.

Our readings for today and for all of Advent are to tell us to be ready, to be watchful, to prepare for the coming of the Lord. We are called away from anxiety and to be about the business of living how Jesus taught us to live. Jesus himself said he didn’t totally understand it all or even when all this was going to happen, but he is hopeful. He continues to trust God even when things look their worst. This trust, this faith, anticipates a future before it happens.

Even though we are called to be ready and watchful, it doesn’t mean we are to sit on our haunches and wait for God to come and do it all himself. In fact, the message is clear. We are to be about the work of the Kingdom of God in the here and now, and that work is simply to love each other as Jesus loves us. We are to live our lives as if we actually trust that God is in control of the big picture, and as if the day of the Reign of God is already here. This idea is illustrated in the parable which tells of how if the person in charge of taking care of the house had the Master present, he would not have been caught goofing off. In other words, we are to live as if God is at work in the here and now.

To get a clearer picture of what it is we are exactly waiting and watching and hoping for, we can turn from Matthew to Isaiah, where we get a better understanding of what the Reign of God is like. He tells us how God envisions our future. The nations of this world will have peace, and God’s gift will be judgment and mercy. There is no envy, greed or fear, no need for weapons, so our resources in the new heavens and new earth will be geared towards other things, towards each other’s well-being.

As much as we long for this day, it can be hard to believe this day will come. Perhaps our obsession with the holiday season is not just when our houses and tables and even our churches are overflowing are symptoms of our deeper longings for the harmony that will only come with the Reign of God. We have been disappointed and disillusioned by many things that are happening around us, but we are to live and work in the hope and belief that the Reign of God will come. Are we willing to trust that the light of the world that he has given us is enough to light our way through the darkness?