Third Sunday of Advent by The Rev. Martin Elfert

December 16, 2018

Lessons:

Zephaniah 3:14-20

Philippians 4:4-7

Luke 3:7-18

Canticle 9

Have you ever had the experience of encountering the same words at two different times in your life and hearing them in a totally different way?

For myself, I think about the statement:

Having kids changes your life.

Before I had children, I heard those words and I nodded in agreement. I said, yes, that’s right, having kids changes your life.

And then I had kids. And I said:

Oh!

Having kids changes your life.

The words were the same, the information was he same. But my understanding of them was radically different.

A lot of theological statements are similar. I remember my wonderful Jesuit teacher, George Greiner, telling our class that there are certain statements about God and about life and about love that are true. But that you are required to do some real searching and some real struggling before you are allowed to say them with authority and with honesty. Dr. Greiner gave the example of the statement:

It is a mystery why there is suffering in the world.

Now, that statement is almost assuredly true. Maybe God understands where there is so much hurt. But as scripture says, our ways are not God’s ways. And so I can’t really disagree with those atheists who demand to know why a good and a loving God permits so much violence and so much injustice. It’s a fair and an important question. And to simply announce that suffering is a mystery is to give a flippant and way too easy response to one of the great questions of being alive.

We are morally and intellectually obligated to be more curious about the world than this, to struggle with this question, to wrestle with it like Jacob wrestles with the stranger in the night. It is after our struggle, during our struggle, that maybe we earn the right to say:

This is a mystery.

I think that the difference – and this is very similar to the example of parenting that I gave a moment ago – is that, in the first scenario, we are talking about the mystery. In the second scenario, we have experienced the mystery.

The words that we encounter in the Epistle to Philippians today are similar.

Don’t worry.

Jesus says something very similar in the Gospel. Are these words facile? Or are they profound?

Yes.

Again, the test is not in the words themselves but, rather, the test is in the one who speaks them and in the one who hears them. Have you done the work, have you lived through the hardship, that allows you to say don’t worry?

Many of you know that I used to work in the performing arts in Vancouver, BC. And I remember being out for a walk with Phoebe. We were taking our dog, then much spryer than he is now, through our neighbourhood, when we ran into a mutual colleague. Our colleague – his name is James – is an inveterate actor in Vancouver. And James was in one of those stretches that comes in the performing arts, a stretch in which he had nothing in his calendar for months to come.

I have held a calendar or day planner in my hands that looked like that. That showed January and then February and then March with not a gig in sight. It was, at least for me, an awful feeling, a sense of dull panic that hung out in my gut.

But James, who was maybe 60 at the time, was reflective about his situation. He said, I’ve been in this business for years. And things have always worked out for me. I’m going to trust that things are going to work out this time as well.

James had, over the years of being an actor, earned the right to say Don’t worry and to say it with authority.

Paul – the writer of the letter to the Philippians – has similarly earned the right to say don’t worry, to speak those words in such a way that they are not Hallmark theology but, rather, are a profound consolation, a profound promise about God. Paul, like his master Jesus, is someone who knows about suffering, who knows about being on the margins, who knows about being knocked off of his horse by God.

The words are the same. But they are not the easy words of someone who knows nothing about loss and yet is telling you that God doesn’t give you more than you can handle, that what doesn’t kill you will make you stronger. They are not the words of someone who is ostensibly reassuring you but is really reassuring themselves. Paul’s Don’t worry comes from one who knows all about worry, all about loss, from one who follows a crucified God, from one who has a pretty good guess that his writing and his teaching will land him in prison and in a coffin.

Paul’s words are the same. But his understanding is different. And therefore, maybe, there is freedom and hope for you and for me in hearing them. For Paul’s words are the assurance of the man who, because he has seen death, knows that there is resurrection.

Third Sunday of Advent with Christmas Pageant by The Rev. Martin Elfert

Dec. 17 2017

Lessons:

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11

1 Thessalonians 5:16-24

John 1:6-8,19-28

Psalm 126

Rejoice always,

Pray without ceasing.

I grew up in Vancouver, British Columbia, in that part of the world that is sometimes called Cascadia and sometimes called the Pacific Northwest. (The latter name is testament to the gravitational pull that the United States exerts on those who live to its north: even the most cursory glance at a map of Canada will tell you that Vancouver is situated in it Pacific Southwest.) And while tourists who visit that coastal city in summer remember it for its mountains and its vast bay and its museum full of totem poles, those of us who remained come the fall know it for its damp and short days.

It is a cliché to call darkness inky. But ink is exactly what Vancouver looks like as fall wears on. The whole city is blurry and black, the victim of some nervous squid or of a Victorian novelist having trouble with her pen. While the broad geographical area in which Vancouver sits is called a rainforest, it rarely rains hard in my hometown; the low-lying, grey clouds prefer to drizzle, to leak like a forgotten faucet. Down below, on the wet tarmac, the taillights of the cars are diffuse and the fallen leaves move beneath their wheels.

Unlike in autumnal oil paintings, Vancouver’s leaves are rarely crisp or red or ready to burn. Rather, they are pulpy and damp and brown, well on their way to being mulch.

I don’t know if it is a coping mechanism in the drizzly, inky darkness, but I have heard more than one Vancouverite announce that they love the fall. Maybe I have uttered similar words myself. My guess is that we are not being disingenuous, that we are not engaging in self-deception when we speak this way of our city.

There is a beauty in Vancouver’s autumn.

These days, I hang out in church on a fulltime basis and, as the late Leonard Cohen put it, “[The] Biblical landscape is very familiar to me.”[1] And so I wonder: do Vancouverites love the dark and the wet because we see in it a glimpse of rejoicing always, of praying without ceasing, of resurrection?

When we encounter instructions such as, “rejoice always, pray without ceasing,” and ideas such as the resurrection, it is easy for us to mistake them for facile optimism, for a happy ending. But that isn’t the story that scripture tells at all. Scripture tells us that death is real and awful, that suffering is real and awful, that grief is real and awful. And then it adds at least three things. Scripture says that:

First, God knows from personal experience what these things are like. This is the promise of the Incarnation. The God shares with us in stubbed toes, in stomach bugs, in loneliness, in unfair and unjust and arbitrary suffering, in grief so great that we do not know if we can keep on saying “yes” to life.

Second, death and suffering and grief are somehow necessary to figuring out what it means to become fully human, to become fully alive. I don’t know how to quantify this, how to make intellectual sense of it. I do know that the Bible gets this one right. I have lost track of how many people have told me that getting seriously ill or being in a car accident or sitting with the one whom they loved in their dying taught them lessons that they could learn nowhere else. While love leads us into loss, the opposite is also true: loss leads us into love.

And that leads us to: Third, death and suffering and grief do not get the last word. They are not the end. Resurrection is coming.

When I was last back in Vancouver, I stood in a cemetery on a fall day as my friend Don’s coffin was lowered into the ground. Don wanted his last action on this earth to be as ecologically responsible as possible. And so he found a cemetery that was content to allow him to skip both embalming and grave liners – those odd rituals through which we announce to the darkness that decay is something that doesn’t apply to us. His body, worn down by his long illness, cold with the absence of his breath, rested in a plain pine box.

As Don’s coffin touched down on the earth, six feet below out shoes, the drizzle stopped for a while and the sun cut through the clouds. We took turns gathering shovelfuls of earth and dropping then down into Don’s grave. The earth hitting the pine lid made a percussive noise, a strange drumbeat. When I got home that day, I very nearly wrote that the drumbeat was the sound of finality. And in a significant sense that is true. But that drumbeat is also the sound of a beginning.

In the famous words of the funeral service:

Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

What I remembered on that fall day with that shovelful of dirt in my hands is that resurrection is written right into what Richard Rohr calls “the first Bible”[2]: the earth itself. Maybe this is what Vancouverites are getting at when we say that we love the fall, that we love the dark, drizzly days. We love these days because we see in them what it might mean to rejoice always, to pray without ceasing. These days tell the truth about life, they name what is real. And as such, we see in them both an ending and a beginning.

Fall says that the leaves will not climb back onto the trees, that Don will not jump laughing out of his coffin, that things will not go back to normal. And fall says as well that the leaves and the pine box that holds the remains of the one whom we love are turning back into dirt and, come the miracle of March and April, this freshly formed soil will invite the flowers of spring to grow. Those flowers will drink the water that now drizzles down upon us.

With the dark ink of fall, the earth is writing something new

 

[1] “Leonard Cohen: You Want it Darker press conference,” YouTube, November 27, 2016, , accessed December 15, 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RciOCn_Nmh0.

[2] “The Primacy of Love.” Center for Action and Contemplation. June 05, 2017. Accessed December 15, 2017. https://cac.org/the-primacy-of-love-2017-06-13/.

Third Sunday of Advent + Advent Lessons & Carols by The Rev. Richard Toll

Lessons:
Isaiah 35:1-10
Canticle 15
James 5:7-10
Matthew 11:2-11

 

 

The things we will never know.

We will never know what Jesus was like as a child.

We will never know what Jesus was like as a teenager.

We will never know about his early adult life.

We will never know who his friends were growing up or who his teachers were.

We will never know how he learned about scripture or his worship patterns, his prayer life.

We can assume he learned a great amount from his mother and from Joseph.

We can assume he learned how to become a carpenter and how to work with his hands from Joseph, and Jesus was probably a skilled stone mason, since carpenters in the 1st century used to know how to build homes made with stone.

We can assume that he knew everyone in the small village of Nazareth where he was raised. A village of about 300 people in the 1st century.

We can assume he worked in a town a few miles from Nazareth. It was a Roman town built for the Romans in the Galilee and was the seat of the Roman government in charge of the Galilee. Sepphoris is the name of the town. It is not listed in the Bible and is an archeological site today. So Jesus would have learned first hand what it meant to live under Roman military occupation and to experience a foreign power ruling over his family, friends and neighbors. He probably observed the cruelty of crucifixion as some of the Zealots rebelled against the Roman presence at a time Jesus was growing up. In order to impress upon the people not to rebel, the Roman authorities crucified dozens of the rebellious Zealots and placed them on crosses along the road until they died and then left them on the crosses until the vultures picked clean their bones.

The cruelty of the Roman occupation would have been a part of the everyday life of a young Jesus and was part of all of his life story.

The hidden years of Jesus have always been a fascination for me and we are only given a snippet of Jesus in his visit to the temple as a young man.

Joseph must had died at some point as he disappears from the biblical record.

But we just do not know so much that we would like to know.

___________________

But today we are allowed to hear from a fully grown Jesus who has matured and has discovered what it is that he is being called to do.

Jesus appears to have been close to John. We know he was baptized by John in the Jordan River. John was like a magnet. People came to him in the desert to see and hear him. John had the kind of personality that drew people to him and his desert spirituality appealed to his followers. He was not soft spoken and if you saw him on the streets in Portland, Oregon you would probably pass by on the other side of the street. He could rant and rave and was the kind of person the established Jewish community in Jerusalem would have ignored. They would not have sent people into the desert to hear him.

John was caught up with the fervor of people who wanted a messiah to come and take charge of what had become a disaster for the Jewish people. The Romans had the Jewish religious leaders in their back pocket and corruption was rampant. The temple authorities had sold their soul to the Roman occupiers. 

So John was in prison. His days were numbered he want to know if Jesus is authentic.

And we hear the response of Jesus.

“Go and tell John what you hear and see, 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.”

The 1st century in Jerusalem was like a powder keg getting ready to explode. The religious Zealots were those who were trying to bring about an armed rebellion to get rid of the Romans. They made no bones about it. Violence was the answer to getting rid of the violence of the Roman occupation.

The Zealots wanted nothing to do with Jesus. They viewed him with suspicion. Why? Because he spoke of a kingdom that for them did not exist and would never exist. A kingdom of God and a kingdom of relationship with one’s neighbor, one’s God, one’s own self.  A kingdom that defined the meaning of love. A nonviolent message. A message that could not connect with the Zealots’ violent approach.

The Zealots admired John. His harshness and language was a symbol to them of a messiah that would ride a horse into Jerusalem at the head of a Jewish army and take back the city from the Romans.

So John’s followers were not convinced that Jesus was authentic in his teaching and ministry. “Convince us,” they said. And Jesus replied.

We know from the biblical record that many followers of John never were convinced that Jesus was authentic. Baptism was an especially difficult issue in the early church. Followers of John baptized people as followers of John.

So by the time the passage in Matthew was written in about the year 85 AD, it is obvious that John’s role has been held up to prepare the way for Jesus.

___________________

Jesus steps into the void that is being left by the beheading of John. The cauldron is beginning to boil over. The Zealots are looking for a military leader. Jesus is not that leader. The people are fed up with the religious leaders. The Romans are fed up with people like Jesus and John who attract people to them and give teachings that are far from the Romans’ point of view.

The person of Jesus became a threat to the Romans.

The person of Jesus became a threat to the religious authorities in Jerusalem.

After John’s beheading many of his followers turned to Jesus.

The people were hungry.

Hungry for relationship.

Hungry for spiritual relationship.

Hungry for what Jesus referred to as the kingdom of God.

The were searching for their humanity.

They were searching for a way that would lead them into a relationship with each other and God.

They found that in Jesus.

As any authoritative regime has done and will do, the answer for the Romans was to join with the religious leaders in Jerusalem and stifle the message of Jesus that could be seen as a threat to those in power.

And we know the rest of the story.

Third Sunday of Advent by The Rev. Richard Toll

Lessons:

Zephaniah 3:14-20

Canticle 9

Philippians 4:4-7

Luke 3:7-18

 

The desert is a very special and unique setting and deserts are found in various places throughout the world.  But the desert I want to speak to today incorporates the area from the Sea of Galilee to the Dead Sea and the surrounding area of the Jordon River on both sides.  On one side is the West Bank of the Palestinian Occupied Territories and on the other is Jordon.  The desert begins outside of Jerusalem and drops 1,400 feet below sea level to Jericho and the Dead Sea, the lowest point in the entire world.  The struggle to survive in this isolated, austere, desert is very real.

It was in this desert that people flocked by the thousands to hear a man by the name of John who was calling people to repentance.  He would gather people on the banks of the Jordan.  He must have been a fireball because apparently people came from all over to hear him and then be baptized by him in the River Jordon.

“What do we do?” they would ask.  John responded with good biblical understanding.  “People in need – share your cloths, share your food, don’t cheat on the job.  Soldiers, do not torture.  Do not abuse”.  John said, “I baptize – but another is coming.  He will baptize with the Holy Spirit.”

There is little doubt in my mind that John was a strong influence on Jesus.  Jesus listened to John.  Jesus was a student of John.  Jesus was baptized by John.  Jesus admired John.

The Judean desert is a place of silence, isolation.  The silence and isolation can be overwhelming.  John was a voice crying in the wilderness.

I had a unique experience a year and a half ago.  I went to a funeral of a priest friend in North Carolina.  He had been my college chaplain at Texas Tech in Lubbock, Texas in the 1950’s.  He had prepared Elaine and I for marriage.

While I was in Durham, North Carolina, another friend of mine invited me to a special event he was presenting at the University of North Carolina.  The special presentation was about I-C-E – Ice.  I went to the presentation at the university and found it to be fascinating and wonderful.  Quite different from anything I had ever experienced.

First of all there was a video presentation portraying the Arctic Region in all of it’s starkness, isolation, cold and ice was everywhere.  Penguins were a part of the video and showed them living in the midst of the cold and isolation.

Then my friend showed how microphones had recorded the sounds of a glacier in its’ movement, its’ cracking and breaking up deep within an ice cave.  The sounds were like music and an eight person orchestra accompanied the video, the sounds of the ice cave.  Then two ballet dancers joined in.  The visual of the ice mountains, the penguins, the dancers, the sounds of the ice cave as the ice  cracked, moved, dripped, the sounds of the orchestra as it played along with the ice sounds, played while the ballet dancers mimicked the penguins.  All of this came together in a powerful way through sight and sound.

And, without words.

It reminded me of the question I heard in my high school days, “If a tree falls in the forest is there any sound?  If no one is there to hear it, is there any sound?”  And I reflected at the time about people who had offered me the gift of music for my own life.  My high school choir director, my college choir director, the time I spent as a radio announcer in college playing music over the air.  The music in the parishes I served.  The story of ice is the story of cold, silence, isolation.  It was out of the cold, silent, isolation, the ice cave, the dancers, the listening to the orchestra, the penguins, that I knew the depths of ice and cold within myself and each of us. And yet somehow there was music being created from the isolation.  How isolated we can be from ourselves and each other.

Back to the desert:

The image of the desert is a story of heat, isolation, silence.  A setting where survival is not easy and at times impossible.  And yet the three great religions of the world came out of the desert.  Out of the wilderness.

The Old Testament – right out of Egypt and the Sinai Desert.

The New Testament – right out of the Judean Desert.

The People of Islam – right out of the desert of the Arabian Peninsula.

Our very roots come out of the isolation, silence and heat of the desert.  John proclaimed the Good News that the One who would follow him was greater and would baptize with the Holy Spirit.  Out of our own isolation, cold, heat, silence comes the relationship with the God of Creation…..comes the relationship in community that helps us to remove our isolation from one another.

And we discover our relationship to the God in Creation…discovered in a birth at a stable in Bethlehem….discovered on a cross at Golgotha…discovered in the Resurrection as we experience the Living Presence of Christ.

Amen.