Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Advent 6, Year B, 11 December 2011,

Isaiah 61:1-4,8-11; Psalm 126; 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24; John 1:6-,19-28
Preached by Rev. Lou Scales

When Linda and I first came to the Augusta area about 11 ½ years ago, we had the delightful experience of meeting new people, learning new places and settling in to the community. It was, and, to this day, continues to be, fun. One of the things that has been the most fun is seeing how people who have lived in one location for some time greet those who are new, to the community and to the area. After experiencing this phenomenon first hand for several weeks, we learned to our delight, that there was even a formula for determining some things about the people who greet you and try to make you feel at home. As you know, according to the telling, and, quite honestly, according to our experience, the formula, first annunciated by Chablis in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, goes something like this:

If they ask you what your profession is, they’re from Atlanta.
If they ask you where you go to church, they’re from Macon.
If they ask you who your great-great grandfather and great-great grandmother were, they’re from Augusta.
If they ask you what you want to drink, they’re from Savannah.
When you’re new in the area, or doing something new in the area, people want to know something about you. Now, in most cases, there is any number of good-natured ways people use to get acquainted, to get to know you.
Now the contrast to this is probably best described using the lyrics of an old black gospel song from this part of the country, most often sung to the driving beat of a blues guitar:
There's a man going around taking names.
There's a man going around taking names.
He took my father's name, And he left my heart in pain.
There's a man going around taking names.
There's a man going around taking names.
He took my mother's name, And he left my heart in pain.
There's a man going around taking names.
There's a man going around taking names.
He took my sister's name, And he left my heart in pain.
There's a man going around taking names.
In the song, the "man going around taking names" is a metaphor, of course, for everything that menaces human relationships and life -- most prominently, the slave trader and, finally, death itself. It is a fascinating image for potential evil, this idea of "taking names." Even school children can identify with it. "Now, children," warns the teacher. "I'm going to the office for a few minutes, and I'm appointing Frances to be the monitor. Don't misbehave or she will write down your name, and you'll have to deal with me when I get back." ... There's somebody around here taking names.
When John the Baptist was at work in Bethany, beyond the Jordan River, a delegation of priests and Levites, religious officials of the highest order, sent by their ecclesiastical superiors, showed up from Jerusalem. They were not there on a package tour of the Holy Land, and this was anything but a pastoral visit; they were there taking names. You could tell that from the very first words to come from their mouths. "Who are you?" they said. No small talk. No exchange of quaint pleasantries. No pictures of the grandchildren passed around. Just, "Who are you?" ... There are some people going around taking names.
John’s answers obviously did not please them, primarily because John told the priests and Levites who he wasn’t. He wasn’t the Messiah, he wasn’t Elijah, and he wasn’t the prophet. And his only job was to point to the one who would come after him. John was a witness. His own description was a quote from the prophet Isaiah, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’”
Has it occurred to you that John’s description of himself and his mission is a description that could well fit for you and me? Our Baptismal covenant asks if we will proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ. We are Christ’s heralds, Christ’s witnesses, by baptism, nourished in that task by the body and blood of our Lord. We are called daily to declare his coming, to declare his love and mercy extended to all. John’s mission has become our mission – to declare the coming of the Lord, to declare the love of Christ in all we do, in all we become.
Andrew Greeley tells this story:
Once upon a time there was a politician who was running in a very close election against a very clever campaigner. He had a good message and an exciting platform, but he was not well known. Thus he had to make a lot of speeches around the district, go to many meetings, attend tea parties, and receptions, and cocktail parties, and church gatherings, and touch every possible base in the district. It was still an uphill battle. A good friend of his was his advance man, the fellow who made the arrangements for all the events and speeches and logistics for the campaign. He was not a very good advance man; rather he was unreliable and pompous and, worst of all, disorganized. The other people in the campaign hated him, but the candidate stuck with his friend. As the election drew near the polls showed the candidate losing ground. The advance man knew they were going to lose, so he gave up altogether. The campaign self-destructed in the last week. Yet the candidate lost by only one half of one percent of the votes. All the media people said that if the campaign had been better organized, the voters would have got to know the candidate better and he would have won in a walk. We’re supposed to be advance persons for Jesus. Sometimes you wonder why he doesn’t fire us.
In this special season for the preparation we make to welcome our Lord, in the flesh, to dwell with us, it’s important to reflect on how it is we make our faith and our joy known about the One who comes. And when someone comes around taking names, I hope you will give your name loud and clear, telling the world, not only who you are, but WHOSE you are…

1. "There's a Man Going Around Taking Names," from Religious Music: Solo and Performance (Album number in The Library of Congress "Folk Music in America" series, 1978). Words in the public domain.

2. Andrew Greeley, Andrew Greeley.com, 1996.

5 Advent, Year B, 4 December 2011

Isaiah 40:1-11; Psalm 85: 1-2, 8-13; I Peter 3:8-15a; Mark 1:1-8
Preached by Rev. Jason Haddox

Focus Statement: God is coming: Get ready!

When I was in college, I caught a robber breaking into my car.

I was in Houston, at a store downtown, and had parked in the small parking lot behind the building. As I walked out with my purchases and rounded the corner, I saw someone sitting in the driver’s seat of my car messing with the steering column. Rather than stepping back and calling for help, I hollered at the guy and he started running. I ran after him, but he got away. I came back and called the police, who came and looked at the car. It was not very damaged, and nothing was taken. But I still felt violated and angry. Maybe you have been burgled, and know that feeling too—it’s not really about the stuff being taken, it’s about the sudden insecurity and anxiety that’s left over afterward.

I get anxious and fearful about the passages in scripture talking about Jesus coming “like a thief in the night.” To my ears it sounds like the same thing. Look again at our reading from the 2nd letter of Peter this morning.

“With the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day. The Lord is not slow about his promise…but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance. (Metanoia) But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and everything that is done on it will be disclosed.”

“A thousand ages in thy sight/are like an evening gone/short as the watch that ends the night/before the rising sun.” We sing those words, we acknowledge that TIME, as we perceive it, is not an issue for God. For us, definitely. We are born, we grow up, we grow old, we die. This is certain, for each and for all.

This language of “the heavens will pass away with a great noise/the elements will be dissolved (or “absorbed”) by fire” expressed for the letter’s first audience a then-current understanding of how the world would end, when time and the creation should come to a conclusion and return to the fiery energy and light from which they were made. It’s not so much “Big Bang Backwards” as a return to the source and origin of all things.

The author understands this not as a threat but as an urgent invitation: “Since you (all) already know this, and that God is patient, seeking the repentance (metanoia) of all, then you also know the solution to the problem.

You all remember Metanoia? Turn around, you missed your exit, you’re going to Columbia when you wanted to go to Atlanta. Change direction; change your way of thinking; change your minds. The surprise, the shock of the coming of the Day of God is no surprise at all. Be ready always, in lives of holiness and godliness. You are not waiting for disaster and destruction, but for all things to be made new. Be ready; Get ready!

When I was newly ordained, I served as the assistant at St. Paul’s Church in Waco, Texas. Waco, Texas is an interesting place. We were twenty miles from the infamous compound of the Branch Davidians and David Koresh in one direction, and we were twenty miles from then President George W. Bush’s presidential ranch in the other direction. We were surrounded by crazy people.

Waco, Texas is a city in a wide-open country. There’s lots of uninhabited space surrounding the town and suburbs. Not a lot of trees out there. Lots of room to wander, and wonder, and ponder. And that openness, that wilderness, draws people (some sane, some less so) who are asking the big questions.

“John the Baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” Mark’s gospel begins by plunging us into the midst of the story. No set-up at all, save a single verse quoting the book of the prophet Malachai (Not Isaiah, in fact) which is the last book in the Hebrew scriptures. By choosing this quotation, and by describing John the Baptist as he does (Wild man, wild clothing, lives in the desert, eats bugs), the author of the Gospel of Mark is telling us to remember Elijah. Elijah, the most important prophet Israel had ever known, whose return was to signal to the people “Get Ready—the Day of God is about to arrive.”

John comes, like Elijah, to speak not of himself but of someone else. He points to what he is doing—baptizing with water, as a ritual of cleansing and preparation. It’s a ritualized bath, to signify the desire for inner and outer cleansing, in anticipation of what is to come. BUT, says John, “You haven’t seen anything yet. You think this is something important—just wait!”

“I baptize with water; he will baptize with the Holy Spirit.” Matthew and Luke have the words as “with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” Fire, again…not for destruction, but for cleansing and purifying, for the restoring and return to the origin and source of all things, our own creation included. The fire of the Holy Spirit, poured out upon God’s people to restore and re-member them—to put them back together, to draw them back into God’s own self.

Over and over John the Baptist says “I’m not the one you’re looking for.” He points beyond himself, to One who is just offstage, just out of sight, around the corner, waiting in the wings.

Monday afternoon I was waiting in the wings. The monthly vestry meeting was scheduled for that night, and I was beset with the worst case of stage fright I’ve ever experienced. (To put this in context, I’ve been performing in front of people since I was able to wear a tiny white choir robe and stand on the chancel steps of First Methodist Church, Liberty Texas, with the Cherub Choir to sing “Jesus loves me.”) So I’m used to being in front of crowds. But this was something else altogether. The vestry was going to take a vote, and although I had every confidence in the outcome, I was still more nervous than I’ve ever been in my time here at St. Augustine’s. I called a friend in Texas, one of my wisdom people, who talked me down out of the tree into which I had climbed, and reminded me that, even in this, it wasn’t all about me anyway. As much as I love this parish, and as much as you all love me, we aren’t really the point. We exist, priest and parish, to point beyond ourselves. We are here, like John the Baptist this morning, to declare the coming—the arrival, the advent—of The One whose shoelaces we are not worthy to untie, but who has made us worthy, by creating us and loving us, to stand upright and welcome Him, as both the baby in the manger, and as the creator of the sun, and the moon, and the stars of night.

May it be so for us; may it be so among us.

3 Advent, Year B, 20 November 2011

Ephesians 1:15-23, Matthew 25: 31-46
Preached by Rev. Jason Haddox

Our Gospel this morning invites us to see beyond appearances. And the imagery of the sheep and the goats, which is what often gets most of the attention in this passage, really isn’t the point at all.

The Son of Man (as Jesus calls himself repeatedly in Matthew’s gospel) is a mysterious figure. He is a human being, like any other, who eats and drinks and gets hungry and thirsty, who has to sleep and burp and sneeze and all those things that we all do.

And yet, The Son of Man is not like anyone else at all.

The Son of Man is a title, mentioned first in the Book of Daniel, one of the strangest, most dream-sequence-filled books of the Bible. In that story, the prophet Daniel sleeps, and dreams of unearthly creatures gathered in the heavenly presence of God. God is seated on the high throne, in majesty and awe. Into this scene comes one “like a Son of Man” to be greeted and welcomed and placed in a position of highest honor and dignity. The Son of Man is at once recognizably human, and at the same time unmistakably much more than that.

All our gospel readings for the last several weeks have been leading to this climactic episode. And many of them have shared the theme of waiting and watching without being exactly clear when, or how, the waiting will conclude.

The sleepy bridesmaids are waiting for the bride and groom to arrive so that the celebration may begin. Some of them run low on oil for their lanterns, and the others send them on a fools’ errand at midnight. And in their running around in darkness, they miss the party altogether.

The slaves are waiting for the master who went on a long journey, and left them with untold riches to tend and use. For the one who decided ahead of time that he was himself incapable of doing anything satisfactory, that decision became a self-fulfilling prophecy.

And this morning, we read this grand and overwhelming (and rather weird) passage about the sheep and the goats being separated, to the left and to the right of “the king.”

Notice what happens with the titles. “The Son of Man” of whom we’ve heard much in Matthew’s gospel already, disappears. “The King” seated on the throne, is revealed for the first time.

In the classic stories of childhood, there’s always that moment of revelation. The clock strikes midnight and the golden carriage turns back into a pumpkin. Beauty kisses the Beast, and the enchantment is broken, the prince and kingdom are released from bondage, and all is seen as it really truly is.

This passage of Matthew’s gospel is that moment. Everything has been leading to this point, and now all is revealed, just in time.

For if we were to keep reading, in the very next sentence we would hear Jesus reminding his hearers that it is now two days before the feast of the Passover. The cross is looming large in the background, the central drama of the Gospel—Jesus’ arrest, trial, death and resurrection—is about to begin.

Matthew presents Jesus as the good, the perfect, the most excellent teacher. He is Moses all over again, but more even than Moses, giver of the Torah, the teaching of God. Jesus is, in himself, the embodiment and completion of that teaching, as well as the one who brings it to the rest of us. And these last few gospel passages we’ve heard, from chapters 24 and 25, are the final Cliff Notes version of the teaching, given in the last minutes before the final exam begins.

For they will all—Jesus and his followers, way back then, and even now—undergo a trial of knowledge, endurance, skill and identity. EVERYTHING is up for grabs. And he wants them to understand, as clearly as possible, what they are to do.

I used to think of this story of the separating of the sheep and the goats as a clobber passage. Meaning “if you don’t get it right, God’s gonna clobber you and send you off to hell.” I grew up thinking that about a lot of the Bible, and it’s certainly possible to read large portions of the Bible that way if you want to.

But that sort of reading has two unfortunate effects: One, it puts God in the position of an omniscient bookkeeper in the sky, watching and waiting for any and every time I screw up, to catch me in sins of omission and commission. And two, it puts me in the position of somehow potentially being ABLE to work my way into God’s favor and approval by doing everything right and avoiding everything wrong, by my own will or determination. In neither of those effects is there any place for forgiveness, or mercy, or grace. To read this or any other passage of Scripture in such a way misses the point by making human beings more Godlike than God’s own self.

To read this passage literally would suggest that, if I went down to Broad Street one day, and declined to give money to a panhandler on the sidewalk, then immediately thereafter got hit by a bus, that I would therefore immediately be counted among “the goats.” We can’t read the passage in that manner, and do it any kind of justice.

But neither can we ignore it, or say it doesn’t mean anything much at all. The expectation is clear: Feed the hungry. Give drink to the thirsty. Clothe the naked. Visit those in prison, and who are sick. We see the images of those expectations every Sunday morning, in our stained glass windows in the vestibule, when we go in and out of church.

But notice something else in the gospel reading: Both the “sheep” and the “goats” ask exactly the same question. “When did we see you hungry and thirsty and naked and…and…and…?” They didn’t see the king. They didn’t see anything other than a Son of Man, or a Daughter of Woman. Another human being, just like themselves. This is the place of revelation. This is the moment when the enchantment is broken, the light dawns, and all things are seen for what they truly are.

They did not see with their eyes in any case. If they saw at all, if they perceived even in the slightest, then it was with the eyes of their hearts—discovering the hidden King, dressed in rags, masquerading as one of “them people.”

An old Scottish prayer tells us that
“Often, often, often, Christ goes in the stranger’s guise;
Often, often, often, Christ goes in the stranger’s guise.”

Christ is on his way to the cross, the place of ultimate humiliation and degradation. And yet that humiliation becomes the place where the enchantments of the world are broken, and the power and light of God are released to bring about grace, and mercy, and forgiveness. This is the power of which the writer of Ephesians speaks, “far above all rule and authority and power and dominion…not only in this age but also in the age to come.”

It does not look like any kingdom we have ever seen.
He does not look like any king we have ever known.

Let us pray.
Open the eyes of our hearts, O God, that we may see Christ, however he may come. Open our ears, and quiet our busy chattering minds, that we may hear his voice. Raise us up to follow and serve him, wherever he may lead. Amen.