Sunday, January 23, 2022

Prayer 3272: The Ninth Anniversary of the Prayer Circle and 3rs Sunday after Epiphany C



Eternal One,
God of Abundant Grace,
we gather in attentive gratitude:
Speak, Lord, for your serfants are listening.

You have called us
into the service of your gospel of hope and truth,
and made us citizens in your kingdom of mercy and grace:
may we center our hearts within your law
and pledge ourselves anew to your service:
to proclaim good news to the poor,
liberty to the imprisoned,
illumination to those in darkness,
justice to the oppressed,
and jubilee to the alienated and the lost.

May our hands be set to mending
the broken cords of love and faithfulness,
our shoulders aligned to the wheel of mercy
that it may run straight and true.
May we embrace the work of reconciliation
as a sacred offering to You, O Savior,
our Shepherd and our Light.
May our testimony sing out
the truth of your lovingkindness and redemption.

In humility, we lay our lives before You:
bless and hallow them to your glory, O Merciful One.
Spirit of God, rest upon us,
and extend the shade of your blessing over all for whom we pray.

Amen.

Saturday, January 22, 2022

Prayer 3271: Inspired by Psalm 30 and 32



In peace, we bow before You,
O God, our helper and guide.

You are the Exalted One,
whose thoughts are so high
we cannot attain them;
yet You also extend Your love like a mighty fortress
over all of creation, Your handiwork,
from the honeybee and the humble seeker.
Like a mother
You tenderly soothe our fevered dreams
and remind us of the trust we can place in You.
We wake, and joy returns with dawn's first light
as Your compassion and tenderness illumines our path.

May we exalt You in our times of strength
even as we cry to You in times of trial,
remembeing always that we are Your own
and beloved.
May we confess and own our faults,
seeking not just forgiveness but reformation and restoration,
that our sinful ways may be plucked out cast away,
and our relationships healed and restored
like a well-tended garden.

May we turn away from hubris and pride
and be guided by You into the path of Life and Peace
paved by gentleness, care, and compassion.
May we remember we are embraced by Your mercy,
and acknolwedge your grace with gratitude.

Holy God, our Rock and our redeemer,
extend the shelter of Your tender care
over those whose needs we lift before You,
as we humbly pray

Sunday, January 16, 2022

The Heart of a Home: Sermon for the 2nd Sunday after Epiphany (Observance of MLK Day)



The last few months have seen a variety of challenges in the lives of our family—like everyone, we’ve had illnesses and tension. But one of the blessings we have had has been our son being able to stay with us, perhaps for one of the last times, for a month. He is in his senior year of college; he already has a job lined up after graduation. He’s our youngest, so that empty nest thing is staring us right in the face. We have played numerous games of UNO, he has tried once again to get me to understand how a Playstation controller works so I can play video games with him, and I have introduced him to the joys of 80s video games like Joust and Ms. Pac-Man.

One of the things we have always enjoyed as a family is watching movies together, and one of the ones we got to share was Encanto, the latest Disney movie. It’s even got music by Lin-Manuel Miranda. The basic outline of the story is this: A young family with triplets flees a war in Latin America, Along the way, the father perishes as they are pursued, but the mother, Alma, with only a candle to light her way, manages to save her children when the candle suddenly magically protects them. Not only that, the candle then creates a magical home for the family in a hidden valley and burns continually for the next 50 years. 

The house gives each of the triplets--and their children-- their own special power AND their own special room as a symbol of that power: being able to produce flowers at will, or incredible strength or hearing, or being able to cook dishes that heal others. All of the children and grandchildren of Alma, now known as Abuela, or Grandmother, have powers—except for poor Mirabel. And because she lacks a special power, she is scorned by her grandmother and overlooked, even if unintentionally, by much of the family. She is literally deprived of her own room in the house, as well.

One day the youngest grandchild, Antonio, gets his special power. Abuela takes great pride in these miraculous gifts and in their miraculous house—and there is great rejoicing as Antonio learns he can talk to animals, and his room appears in the house, filled with animals for him to engage with. The family celebrates by taking a picture--- leaving Mirabel out. During the celebration, Mirabel has a vision of the house cracking apart and the candle going out—a vision she alone experiences. Not only is she not believed, her grandmother treats her as a malcontent and a misfit, trying to destroy the celebration because she is jealous at her own lack of miraculous gift..

Yet Mirabel is certain she has seen that the house, and therefore the family, is in grave danger. Mirabel decides to try to prevent this calamity, and sets out on a quest to find out why she is experiencing what she is. In the course of her investigation, she uncovers family secrets and hidden fears. Perhaps these secrets and hidden fears are at the root of the house’s instability.

I don’t want to spoil the movie, so I will leave it at that. But as we prepare tomorrow to celebrate the impact and legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., on what would have been the start of his 93rd year, I can’t help but see this charming little cartoon as also giving some insight into MLK’s own life, and into our readings for today.

Mirabel had a prophetic vision. That was her gift. It didn’t require magic. It required courage—the unbelievable courage to tell the truth to those you love, even if—especially if—they don’t want to hear it, even if they FEAR the truth being told. She foresaw a disaster, and tried her best to get her family to focus on what should have been most important to them: not their individual powers, but each other. Abuela takes great pride in these miraculous gifts and in their miraculous house—more pride in these things than she does in seeing the family itself as a miracle. Frankly, the foundation of the house was shaken by the failure to value each person who lived within it equally.

In our hymns today, and in our readings, we see reminders of prophetic voices also urging us to seeing the blessing of true communion with each other in our lives. We hear the prophet Isaiah renouncing silence when he sees calamity besetting God’s people: “For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest, until her vindication shines out like the dawn and her salvation like a burning torch!”

You can just hear the prophet thundering in his refusal to accede to staying silent for the sake of comfort. And what calamity was it that Isaiah, and all of the prophets of Israel, named and denounced? 

It was one that was ever-present, then and now. A failure of the Great Commandment: to love God with all of our hearts, strength, and minds, and to love our neighbors as ourselves. A refusal to commit to justice and care for all of those within society, attempts to exclude and marginalize others deliberately—or the softer, more insidious danger of being blind to the existence of division and injustice in the community, a preference for the comfort of the illusion of peace bought at the price of respecting the dignity and full equality of all people.

Isaiah also makes it very clear that salvation is not defined by a personal, individualist focus. Salvation, redemption, and release from the peril of death and destruction isn’t just about whether this person or that person individually goes to heaven or goes to hell. Jesus’s miracle of turning the water into wine similarly isn’t about just saving a wedding host from embarrassment. It’s about reminding us of God’s abundant gifts to all of us, and about God’s abiding call for us to share that abundance with each other and to be animated by that abundance in our dealings with each other. Salvation is about the reclamation of the community, about the strength of the entire body of God’s children. All or nothing.

Our reading from Isaiah is thus a perfect reading as we look back on the life and legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin’s Luther King Jr. In the 54 years since Dr. King’s assassination, we have come to take for granted just how radical his message was, and how his vision of the Beloved Community still is yet to be realized.

Through the mists of time, we forget how much hatred and opposition Dr. King received—and not just from acknowledged segregationists and racists. No, as Dr. King noted in his famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” some of the greatest attempts to silence him and the civil rights movement’s prophetic demand for freedom and equality came from within the power structures of faith communities and the Church itself—the very body that as followers of Jesus should be most committed to justice for all. That letter—which every American should re-read at least every year, was written in response to a group of faith leaders, including Episcopal bishops, denouncing what they termed his radicalism, his impatience, his “outside activism” since he was not actually from Birmingham. We have forgotten how much suspicion the civil rights movement received from the federal as well as state governments, even from people of goodwill. 

And it continues. Too many of us have insulated ourselves from the very real injustices that still exist right now. Even from within the Church—the very family which was the source of Dr. King's own hope. A nation, a church, or any institution, is only strong when the people within it are valued more than its edifices. When leaders focus on the institution, rather than the people, injustice flourishes.

Like Mirabel, like Isaiah, like Jesus, like Abraham Lincoln, Dr. King saw the cracks in the house—the house of this nation, in his own particular instance, a house which proclaimed itself dedicated to the notion that all persons were created equal on paper, when its reality was vastly different in practice. This was a truth and unvarnished revelation that those who were powerful, those who were comfortable, refused to acknowledge as an injustice, much less confront. Dr. King not only saw those cracks, and the long-term dangers they posed to African Americans and to all Americans, through his years of activism and his fifty arrests. He sought to have even those whose privilege inured them to the perils of injustice and oppression believe in a possibility and the necessity of a better, stronger, more united house that would include all. The heart of a home-- the heart of a nation-- is the people, not the structures. 


But also, like Mirabel, like Isaiah, like Jesus, like Abraham Lincoln, Dr. King didn’t raise the alarm merely to be a critic and announcer of doom. He raised the alarm because of the great faith he had that we can do better in living into the vision of love and unity to which God calls us as Christians, and to which I believe God calls each and every nation, especially this one. Through the lens of this pandemic, it is patently obvious that this nation is still divided—and that the source of that division is STILL refusing to act out of a desire for the flourishing not only of ourselves and our personal circle, but of everyone.

You cannot repair the cracks in the house until you see them, and then determine to do the work of repair. You can’t repair the cracks in the house until you understand that the value of the house is about the people within it—and making sure all of them are equally protected, equally valued. Dr. King’s vision of a strong, united house, home to a strong, united community, founded on the bedrock of equality and commitment to ever seeking to make ourselves stronger as one people, is a vision we all as people of faith are called to share.

May we continue his prophetic work, rooted in our faithfulness to God, and to God’s desire for all of us to live in a house that is not only undivided but strong and flourishing because the people within it are secure and valued, regardless of their different gifts. Let us be a house united by our dedication to truth, to justice, and to dedication to our God and to each other.

Amen.

Preached at the 10:30 am online Eucharist at St. Martin's Episcopal Church, Ellisville, MO, on January 16, 2022 during time of COVID.

Readings:





Thursday, January 13, 2022

Being Enough: Speaking to the Soul, January 13, 2022



John 2:1-11

The failure of hospitality that Jesus encounters while he and his mother are guests at a wedding jumps out at me every time I read our passage from John for this coming Sunday. I have always found it fascinating that this miracle, which only occurs in John’s gospel, is the first of the seven signs in that gospel. It’s rather a small miracle, after all, performed off the main stage in a tiny backwoods town in a tiny backwoods region that no one gave much thought to.

Hospitality back then was a much bigger deal than it is nowadays. The notions of hospitality in the culture of first century Palestine often required people to take in strangers into their own homes, and to give those same strangers whatever they requested, even if that meant that the host had to do without.

When you read carefully, probably the only people who knew that a miracle had taken place at all were Jesus, his mother Mary, a handful of servants whose arms were probably aching from toting perhaps 180 gallons of water around, and some of his newly-called disciples. The people hosting the wedding apparently had no idea what happened. And yet, if the wine had actually run out, especially in that culture, it would have brought shame down upon the hosts. After all, wine was a symbol of the blessing of God, of the abundance of God’s gifts. It was also a matter of practicality, being safer to drink than water at that time.

And here’s where our gospel speaks to our time today. We live in a time in which cries of “There’s not enough!” pervade nearly every single second of our lives. We live in a consumer society, one that only functions if people are led to believe that the way to happiness is through how much they can accumulate. “He who dies with the most toys, wins” say the bumper stickers. And so people toil away, so that they can spend, so that maybe they cannot feel the emptiness inside that is the foundational cause of our discontent to begin with.

But then it goes deeper. Society tells too many of us that we ourselves are "not enough." Not skinny enough. Not smart enough. Not tech-savvy enough. Not pretty enough. Not young enough. Not old enough. Not talented enough. Not rich enough.

And that extends outward. We are told that there is not enough to go around. We have to ruthlessly, zealously guard what little we have, because the scarcity mindset that runs our culture has convinced us that there is never enough.

But that’s where the miracle is. Jesus comes to us in our common struggles just like he showed up at that small town wedding, and assures us that, no, there IS enough. Every time we gather around God’s table, every time we share what we have with others and don’t worry about running out for ourselves, we participate in the abundant life and love of God, where there is always enough, and more besides. Where the best stuff is just as available at the end as it was in the beginning.

Just as Jesus turns water into wine, Jesus works within ordinary people, like you and me, because he knows we have the potential to be transformed by his gospel into the good stuff- the best- by God’s transforming love and call to each of us. We are enough—and Jesus chooses us to work his miracles in the world today. That’s more than enough.


This essay was first published at Episcopal Cafe's Speaking to the Soul on January 13, 2022.

Thursday, January 6, 2022

The Tenderness of there Creator: Speaking to the Soul, January 6, 2022


Isaiah 43:1-7

It seems like the idea of God as the Creator is too often seen as somehow remote, or bloodless. I don’t know if people have that idea that because God is so powerful that God can just basically snap God’s fingers and – poof!—a new thing is created, but with a certain emotional reserve between Creator and Created. Maybe it’s just hard to imagine, much less accept, the particularity of God’s love for each of us.

The ancient Greeks had a different idea. The offspring of Titans, Prometheus, is often credited, by the poets Sappho, Ovid, the playwright Aeschylus, Aesop, and others, with creating many of the living things on Earth—but especially humans-- as a master craftsman. He is credited with giving humans the fire of creativity as well as literal fire, and being punished by Zeus for it. Singer-songwriter Dar Williams, in her song “This Earth,” describes Prometheus as loving mortals and caring for them protectively—much like we see in this reading from Isaiah 43. She imagines Prometheus musing,

“I love this land of mortal men
They wake to know the fire again
The things we make, the things we feel,
Armored plates and molten steel
All of these inventions of the earth, the earth... this earth.”(1)


Thinking of the relationship between Creator and Created as a sterile transaction, less intimate than calling God “Father,” overlooks passages such as we see here in our reading from what is known to scholars as 2nd Isaiah. The prophet recounts the devotion and tenderness of God most touchingly here at the end of the pericope:
Do not fear, for I am with you;
I will bring your offspring from the east,
and from the west I will gather you;
I will say to the north, "Give them up,"
and to the south, "Do not withhold;
bring my sons from far away
and my daughters from the end of the earth--
everyone who is called by my name,
whom I created for my glory,
whom I formed and made."

In Isaiah 64 as well as Jeremiah 18, the prophets make the solicitousness and loving-kindness of God even more explicit in the metaphor of God as a potter, hands intimately shaping human beings. The touch of a hand is an undeniably personal image, and when that hand moves tenderly, like a caress, we know that we are loved, even without words. I wonder what it would do to us in our relationship with each other, especially in the situation we face right now, if we could take that belovedness for both ourselves and each other seriously.

As we remember the events of the past two years, and of a year ago, when a wave of rage was directed at our institutions and our representatives, the idea of love binding the creation to the creator puts into sharp focus how much our estrangement from God and each other costs us.

We are called by our Creator in love, and we are called by our Creator to love. Having faith in that love is our great challenge—to believe that love is that powerful, that foundational.

The Wise Men stepped out in faith searching for what was already theirs. They, like all of us, were seekers after what was already woven into their bones: the love of God.

Faith is not a box on a checklist. The point of faith is not primarily knowledge or mastery. The point of faith is relationship—to be specific, to accept the unimaginable truth that God loves us fiercely, tenderly, protectively, intimately as our Creator. It’s a relationship that burns with warmth, devotion, a longing for closeness from Creator toward the beloved Creation. This Sunday we will be reminded that we are forgiven, as hard as that is to accept at times; and more, that we are beloved, despite all our wayward tendencies. What an Epiphany that would be!



Attributions:
Dar Williams, "This Earth," from the album In the Time of the Gods, 2012.


This was first published at Episcopal Cafe's Speaking to the Soul on January 6, 2022.


Sunday, January 2, 2022

Signs Along the Road: Sermon for the 2nd Sunday after Christmas C



It’s often good to see familiar places and sights through the eyes of a stranger. It helps you avoid taking things for granted. When I was in college, I had a friend who was an international student. She would be amazed by the strangest things. For instance: convenience stores, like Quik Trip or 7 Eleven. In Tulsa, even more than here, there was literally a convenience store on every corner (here in Missouri, it’s drug stores, if you haven’t noticed). We took convenience stores for granted—they were just so darn… convenient. Stephanie marveled at the fact that when we wanted a study break, we could just walk down the street at midnight and get an ice cream sandwich. At midnight.

I got a taste of what she had experienced the first time I was in France. I got a headache, and suddenly, the lack of drug stores and convenience stores became glaringly obvious. For what seemed like hours, I tried to find some place that sold analgesics—the clerk at the little market around the corner from our hotel had no idea what I wanted. I finally was down to asking strangers in the street—and I really only know menu French and directional French. But I didn’t want escargots at the moment—I wanted Excedrin.

A couple of people would point and tell me that there was a pharmacy just down the street. I stood there, and just couldn’t see it—the shop where he pointed had swanky rows of beauty products. Finally, a sympathetic man pointed up, and I noticed a green neon sign above my head in the shape of a cross. I slunk in, and voila! Yes, they had aspirin (in tubes the diameter of a roll of quarters, but aspirin nonetheless)! Once I realized this, I suddenly saw those green neon signs EVERYWHERE. They had just been part of the landscape and meaningless to me before. I didn’t know what to look for—but once I saw it, I saw it everywhere.

Being able to read the signs was the stock in trade of the visitors in our gospel today known as the Magi. They have seen signs—and those signs set them off on a quest of discovery. They follow a blaze of light—a star that seems to guide them in hopeful expectation.

Matthew’s story suggests that Joseph and Mary are living in Bethlehem, because we don’t see a stable or manger anywhere in this scene. The Magi know nothing of this, of course, and set out from their land not knowing what exactly will be their ultimate destination. They stop off in Jerusalem assuming that of course everyone would both also know about this miracle in their own midst. But only the Magi have seen and recognized the sign dancing above their heads.

These strangers, with their gaudy outfits and strange accents, haul themselves all the way across the burning desert to bring impractical gifts to a baby king. Well, gold was practical—but perfume and an embalming spice? Expensive, but certainly not immediately as useful as say a case of diapers.

The Magi approach Herod, asking for help in pinpointing where they are going. Strangely, Herod provides that help, even though their news makes him uneasy, even afraid that he could be violently deposed and his throne, his only through Roman backing, could be overthrown. He’s afraid of that because that is exactly the way he has operated to become powerful himself.

In our readings today, we specifically celebrate the Epiphany of Jesus. The word “epiphany” can mean appearance, unveiling, disclosure, or manifestation. The story we hear is about the disclosure of Jesus as an sign of hope for not just his own people, but for the entire world. We see that these travelers see the baby in the care of his mother and father—and their response is worship and offering. After we’ve spent weeks wondering what we are going to get, the Magi present us with a challenge—what are we going to offer?

It’s funny—most of us have just spent weeks finding and purchasing and wrapping all kinds of gifts for the people in our lives. Yet what gifts do we have left to offer to Jesus? He asks us for our attention, our trust, our love. And the best way we offer those things to Christ is often to offer them to each other.

The encounter the Magi had with the Holy Family undoubtedly left them changed. It also led them to find their way home by a different path than the one they had taken before. And that’s the way it is with epiphanies, isn’t it? They change you, and they change your understanding of the path that you are on. Epiphanies point us to another way home.

After all that we have endured and experienced in these last many months, who here isn’t longing for that? A whole ‘nother year of pandemic and here comes a wave with a strain so virulent that last Thursday, the US set a record of 580,000 NEW cases of COVID reported in a single day—and the previous day’s record was 488,000 cases in a single day, which in itself is mind-bogglingly tragic. Given the loss of people we loved and admired, not to forget that we lost both the great spiritual leader Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the great American treasure and animal rights champion Betty White in a single week’s time. Given that in a few days it will be a year since the January 6 attack on our capitol and our democracy. In so many of our families, mine included, there has been too much sickness, too much uncertainty, too much stress.

The road we have been on for far too many months and years is one of hatred, division, and self-delusion. It’s not enough to disagree with our political opponents—we are told by too many that we have to hate them, and deny their humanity.

The fact of our lives is this: you really only see what you are looking for. If you are looking for things that make you angry, divided, resentful, bitter, or afraid—things that make you doubt the existence of God, in other words--that is exactly what you will see. 

If you are looking for signs of life, hope, community, exemplars of humanity like Desmond Tutu and Betty White who can inspire you in your daily life—THAT is what you will see. You will see signs of God’s love EVERYWHERE.

I don;’t know about you, but that sounds like a better road to me. And it’s a road that will give you the strength and endurance to confront the forces of injustice, rancor, division, ignorance, malevolence, violence, and hatred that has too much power. It seems ascendant, dominant, in part because people of good heart do not challenge it in the name of love that Jesus embodies and calls us to embody as well.

The road too many of us have been on has not served humanity well. Perhaps it’s time to look for a different road—because we know they exist. People like Desmond Tutu and Betty White show us that. The Magi remind us of that.

But the fact of the matter is, if you want to try a different road, you are the one who needs to put on the blinker, turn the steering wheel, and commit to a change in direction and path. The Magi knew that their original road would lead them back to a tyrant and murderer. They instead chose a road illuminated by the miracle they had just witnessed, with the light of that star now lodged firmly in their hearts.

After finding and worshiping the infant Jesus, the Magi become convinced that they must find another way home. And I am convinced we are like that too. After two years in a pandemic, and with another surge on us, what we have been doing is obviously not working. We long to find another way home. And perhaps we can let that star—the star of hope—guide us.

Jesus calls us to enlarge our own horizons, just as the star caused the Magi to enlarge theirs. Specifically, Jesus calls us to worship, and to offering, absolutely—but more importantly, Jesus calls us to be formed and shaped by that worship and that offering to see the world with new eyes. Jesus calls us to renewal, to reconciliation, to discipleship.

Jesus comes as “God with us” to assure us of how very much God seeks relationship with us, fallible humans that we are. And God doesn’t just pull us close—God shows us another way, a better way, home. A way of hope. A way of love. A way of compassion and justice and mercy. Encounters with God are themselves gifts to us. They help us see with new eyes the signs of God’s enduring love and faithfulness all around us. They are doorways into a new understanding of ourselves, and of those around us.

May we worship and lay our offerings before the newborn Prince of Peace, and look with new eyes for the signs of his love all about us and within us so that we too may travel on the road of love and grace. May we be the sign that the hurting world needs.

Amen.

Preached at the 10:30 am Holy Eucharist, in person and online, at St. Martin's Episcopal Church, Ellisville, MO.

Saturday, December 25, 2021

The Reason for the Season: Sermon for Christmas Day




Welcome to the First Day of Christmas.

Just saying that is in some ways a countercultural declaration. But it’s true—much of the world around us believes that Christmas is over, even before the trashmen have picked up the discarded packaging from all the present from the curb and carried them off to a landfill. Stores are preparing for post-Christmas sales with deep discounts. Already, right now, people who just spent weeks putting up their tree and lighting up their house brighter than the alien spaceship from Close Encounters of the Third Kind will begin tearing everything down and boxing everything up before the Ghost of Thanksgiving turkey has even been made into turkey tetrazzini. The creches will be deconstructed faster than a traveling circus leaving town one step ahead of the law.

That’s why I give thanks that we belong to a tradition that insists that Christmas is a season. That insists that Christmas is just beginning. And even, if you will bear with me, suggests that Christmas lasts year-round.

It’s even right there in between the lines in our gospel – right after Mary was left pondering and the shepherds departed to rejoice and praise God and count how many sheep might have wandered off or gotten their horns stuck in a bramble bush in their absence.

It doesn’t make it into the lectionary, but Mary and Joseph and that little baby were still there. And that baby still needed to be tended, and fed, and burped, and changed, and swaddled, and rocked. Mary and Joseph don’t even know the Magi are on the way. But Jesus still needs tending, still needs to be cared for and adored and kept warm.

And that’s an important reminder for all of us. If we think that Christmas is just one day, we lose sight of the reason for the season.

No, Christmas is more than one day. It’s more than 12 days, despite what the song—and the liturgical calendar says. And Christmas is the celebration of the coming into the world of the One whom we call Wonderful Counselor, Our Savior and Redeemer,-- but, especially, we call him Love Incarnate “Love Came Down at Christmas,” or so claims the classic Christmas carol.

But love is meant to STAY at Christmas—and even beyond Christmas.

Sometimes we can get too busy in the hubbub of the season to remember that. We can get distracted wanting the shiny things, wanting everything to be perfect, putting all this pressure on ONE single day—one and a half days if you include Christmas eve night—that we forget what Christmas is all about.

Christmas is about love. Love not just for family and friends, but love as a companion and as a practice. Love as a way of life. Love, meant to show us the way to truly praise and give thanks to God for all our blessings. Love as worship and as testimony to who God is for all the world.

We often say Christmas lasts 12 days. But what do we do on day 13 to make Christmas a feast EVERY day?

I saw this meme on Facebook as I was posting a prayer the other day that suggests an answer, and it moved me. I added a few tweaks, but I wanted to share it with you. It’s a spin-off on 1stCorinthians 13.

I call it First Christmas-ians 13.

If I decorate my house perfectly with plaid bows, strands of twinkling lights and shiny balls,
but do not show love to my family and my neighbors,
I am just another decorator.

If I slave away in the kitchen, baking dozens of Christmas cookies,
preparing gourmet meals and arranging a beautifully adorned table at meal time,
but do not show love to my family and my neighbors,
I'm just another cook.

If I sit down at a magnificent table without thankfulness and love,
or forget the hungry in our midst,
I have forgotten the reason for the season.

If I have remembered to buy all the batteries of every kind,
including the rechargeable ones plugged in,
but forget to love,
I have no power.

If I work at a soup kitchen,
carol in the nursing home,
and give all that I have to charity,
but do not show love to my family and my neighbors,
it profits me nothing.

If I trim the tree with shimmering angels and crocheted snowflakes,
attend a myriad of holiday parties,
and sing in the choir's cantata,
but do not focus on those I love the most
and those who are or feel unloved in the world,
I have missed the point.


In other words…

Love sets the decorating aside to kiss the spouse or buy the hungry a meal.
Love is kind, though harried and tired.
Love awards points for effort when the heart is in the right place.
Love is thankful rather than grasping for more.
Love is patient when things go wrong, especially at Christmas.
Love recognizes and is present with those for whom Christmas is hard.
Love stops the cooking to hug a child or call an elderly friend.

Love recognizes that for some people,
Christmas is not a day off from work.

Love doesn't envy another’s home
   that has coordinated Christmas china and table linens
   or Christmas lights that can be seen from space.

Love doesn't yell at the kids to get out of the way or be silent,
   or expect them only to attend the children’s service,
   but is thankful that they are there to be in the way,
   for they represent life and hope and joy in their purest forms.
Love sees the face of Baby Jesus in every child,
   no matter how fussy, wet, hungry, hangry, or overtired.

Love admires the dad in flour-smeared jeans
   frantically assembling a present at three in the morning
   as much as if he were Anderson Cooper
   hosting the Christmas parade on TV
   in a Ralph Lauren Purple Label suit.
Love lets the Mom with the wailing toddler 
   trying to grab all the candy
   cut in front in the checkout line at the grocery store
   and tells her she is a rock star.

Love doesn't give only to those who are able to give in return,
   but rejoices in giving to those who can't.
Love doesn’t judge when it could hug.
Love wears a face mask around strangers
  and is willing to sacrifice comfort to prevent others becoming ill.

Love bears all things (except grudges),
believes all things,
hopes all things,
endures all things.
Love never fails.

Tinder-dry trees will fill the landfill,
video games will break,
single earrings will be lost,
big screen TVs will become obsolete,
leftovers will turn to green furry goo in the back of the fridge.

But the gift of love will endure--
and will endure the whole year ‘round.


Welcome Jesus. Welcome Christmas.

Let us live out our love always and every day, and let us share that love with each other, and the world.

Amen.

Preached at the 10:30 am Christmas Day Eucharist at St. Martin's Episcopal Church, Ellisville MO.

Readings:


Friday, December 24, 2021

The Christmas Heart: Sermon for Christmas Eve



People always want to quibble.

They want to point out that so many things the gospel writers, even Luke, who claims in the first 4 verses of his gospel, he is writing “an orderly account” so that his audience “may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.” And see, already, I have said something to quibble over, because the person writing probably was NOT named Luke, and may not have been the “Luke the Physician” who was a sometime companion to Paul, and may not even have been male.

Then there’s the argument over the dates—Jesus’s couldn’t have been born as late as 6 CE, and yet THAT is when Quirinius, the Roman governor of Syria, which included Israel, ordered a census. And the census didn’t require you to travel, because it was for purposes of taxation, and you KNOW the taxman always wants to know where you live to determine the tax you will pay. UNLESS, of course, Joseph owned property in the city of Bethlehem itself. Then he might have travelled to claim the city as his home, because the Romans reduced the taxes of urban dwellers up to 50%. And THAT possibility, my friends, shows just how much like all of us Joseph was—trying to get his tax bill reduced by hook or by crook. And by the way—there’s still five business days to get those last donations in the St. Martin’s so that you can take them off of this year’s taxes—don’t delay!

And then there’s the debate about the virgin birth (the word for virgin actually meant unmarried young woman). There’s even a charge that having shepherds come to the place where Jesus was born is meant to echo the births of great heroes in Roman legend, like Romulus, Oedipus, and Paris—to place Jesus alongside great, legendary leaders, despite the humble circumstances of his family, including his membership in a race of people who had been subjugated by Rome.

This is what happens when you let your head get in the way of hope. It keeps you stumbling in the darkness of hopelessness, as our reading from Isaiah reminded us from its very first words.

And it’s at this point that we have to ask ourselves what happens to people who let their heads throw up roadblocks to truths that they find uncomfortable—either uncomfortable because they are potentially bad, but also uncomfortable because they sound too good to be true. That’s a kind of uncomfortable truth, too. Just that phrase “too good to be true” smacks of past disappointments. No one, after all, wants to appear gullible, or naïve. No one wants to play the fool. So we close our hearts.

In our gospel today, the most amazing good news gets proclaimed in the most amazing ways. I mean, look at this cast of characters: emperors and potentates and angels and heavenly hosts! And look at the scenes: the bright lights of Bethlehem, hillsides shrouded in darkness, the dark skies being rent apart by blazes of iridescent light and the songs of angels more deafening and surreal than anything one would expect-- and I've been to a Journey concert. And look at all the traveling that takes place: from Joseph and Mary shlepping from Galilee to Bethlehem, and let me tell you, heavily pregnant women don’t even want to travel to the bathroom until they have to. Then there’s the angel descending from heaven to drop heavy pronouncements on the heads of stunned and frightened shepherds, shepherds who fight off lions, leopards, and jackals for a living, and so were not exactly prone to terror.

Disbelief, scoffing, delusion-- these are things that come from giving your head a lock over your heart. And if any of the main characters in our gospel today had led with their heads instead of their hearts, we would not be gathered here today. And let’s give our own hearts some credit for the fact that we ARE here, together, today.

What I am talking about goes beyond the calculations that have led some people to declare that they have a relationship with Jesus—those calculations, I mean, that runs along the lines of a wager, that goes something like this: “when I die, I don’t want to go to hell; to escape hell the preacher has said I have to say I believe in Jesus; therefore I will say I believe in Jesus to escape hell.” That’s one sad, fear-filled line of thinking, right there—death is never a good starting point for anything.

Jesus comes to us as an infant to remind us of that. Jesus does not become a vulnerable human baby to scare us about how we are going to die. Jesus becomes a vulnerable human baby to tell us and to SHOW us how to live—how to live a life full of wonder, full of hope, full of generosity, full of joy. Full of heart.

An open heart is a sign of bravery. After all, an open heart is, by definition, a vulnerable heart. It’s not irrational—after all, it ponders and wonders. But it starts from a point of generosity rather than fear or calculations of possible cost.

Maintaining an open heart is also one of the most dangerous and revolutionary stances you can take—and let us never forget that Jesus was a revolutionary, raised by his revolutionary mother Mary (and if you don’t believe me, listen to that Magnificat again carefully). Jesus wasn’t raised by a mother who said “Hm, let me think that over and get back to you” while she set up the mental abacus. Instead, he was raised by a mother who led with her heart, and who had the courage of ten strong men. She had courage, BECAUSE she had heart, and because she led with that heart when told she would do what seemed like impossible things.

There it is: right there after the shepherds have left most of their flock behind with a skeleton crew, after they’ve rushed into town and barged in on an exhausted couple with a fussy baby, barged in even without a casserole, even though they are complete strangers because they just have to see for themselves. And once they see for themselves, and then gotten finished unspooling their tale, what reaction do they get?

The gospel does not record or mention either Mary or Joseph responding verbally in any way to the story these strangers tell them—the same one the angel had told Mary, the same one Joseph had heard in his dream, What we hear as a response is this:

“Mary treasured all these words and stored them in her heart.”

Another translator put it this way: “Mary stored up all these things, trying in her heart to penetrate their significance.” Mary’s reaction does not come from her head but from her heart. Think about that. Then examine the possible truth and relatability of this statement in your own lives.

Where do you store the things most precious to you—the most precious memories of your past—the smells, sounds, taste and feel of a beautiful day, or a loved one’s laughter or caress or hand at the small of your back? Do you store that in your head? Or in your heart?

Close your eyes. Dig down inside yourself and think of something that made you happy, and feel how your heartbeat changes when you pull up that memory. How your heart becomes lighter when that memory rises up. That’s why we continue to tell the story of the birth and life of Jesus, too—to remind us to store up the gospel story in our hearts until they overflow, and in overflowing, break out into the lives of others. That is, after all, how you change the world.

That statement that Mary stored up these precious encounters in her heart is an invitation to all of us. Jesus has come into the world to find a home in our hearts—each and every one of us. To be our light in the darkness. To be our hope, which calls us to have faith in things we have not seen. But then-

Jesus calls us to let our hearts guide us—to live with Christmas hearts each and every day—hearts filled with wonder, hearts that are open to the possible rather than guarded and shut tight.

A Christmas heart is an open heart. Only when our hearts are open can they be filled. And not just filled, but filled to overflowing. So that we too can be the light of Christ for those who go through day by day without hope, without heart. To show us how to live—really live—with courage and dignity and compassion. So that we can be hope for others.

Amen.

Preached at the 7 pm Christmas Eve Choral Eucharist, December 24, 2021, at St. Martin's Episcopal Church.

Readings:

Thursday, December 23, 2021

Sing Out, O Earth!: Speaking to the Soul for December 23, 2021


Psalm 96


Sing out, O Earth,
Bowl thrown on God’s wheel--
turning from your slumber like a drowsy child,
humming with joy as you spin beneath our feet
spinning like a top within a jetty of the Milky Way.

Sing out, O Earth:
Home of the martins swooping in arrow-flight,
perch of the kestrel and owl and waxwing
shelter of the rabbit, shyly scuttling through grasstufts.
You hold the whale within your cupped hands;
gratefully receiving each fallen leaf,
humus alive with industry and rebirth
(if we pondered it, would we ever tread so heedlessly?).

Sing out, O Earth—
Gathering yourself beneath the blanket of snow
with the promise of green ready to spring forth--
like a panther after its prey.
Sending winds to set the dogwood blossoms dancing,
bedecked with gaily waving blanket flowers and lupine
enticing the improbably aloft bumblebee

You carry us like a mother, gravid, arms slung
around the delicate body of her child.
Your shadow waxes full across the face of the Moon,
skimming like a raft through the velvet sea of night.

Sing out, O Earth!
and call us to join the harmony
major third, perfect fourth, minor fifth.
Let the springs murmur,
let the rivers unravel and spool out their tale,
let the oceans scrub your shores
leaving behind their tokens of sea-glass and shell
as they trace a path along your side.

Sing out, O Earth,
and join the chorus of constellations.
The trees of the wood shout “Alleluia” in joy,
while the rest of creation waits
in breathless hope and wonder--

The Star moves restlessly to illumine the scene
and the Magi jerk awake from their dreams
to set out for unknown lands;
the shepherds stir uneasily from their tower,
the young mother gasps as the pains begin.
Sing out with her, and receive the glad news--
The Prince of Peace approaches.

-- Leslie Scoopmire, December 2021.

A version of this poem was first published on Episcopal Cafe's Speaking to the Soul on December 23, 2021.


Tuesday, December 21, 2021

Prayer 3243: On the Winter Solstice



Most Holy Wisdom,
we center our beings within you,
in gratitude,
in praise,
in openness:
teach us your truths
and lead us into your holy road.

Come into our hearts, O Light of Compassion,
as Earth rises from slumber
on this longest night of the year.
Let this be for us a time of dreaming
that we may align our spirits
with your vision of justice, O God of Mercy.

Let us gather our strength in anticipation
of rising from this long night
dedicated anew to your dream
of peace for all,
of a creation unified in praise and community,
of kinship celebrated and treasured.

May we turn our faces to a new dawn
and take up the lamps that You offer us, Lord Christ,
that we may offer light
to those who dwell in despair and darkness.

Spirit of the Living God,
alight on us as gently as a winter's dawn,
and set our hearts ablaze with love and thankfulness
as we lift up our prayers and intercessions before You,
who are beloved in your sight.

With humble hearts and steadfast lovingkindness, we pray.

Amen.





Sunday, December 19, 2021

Two Prophets, Two Songs, One Revolution: Sermon for Advent 4C





The domesticity of this scene is striking. Women are the main characters, the bold actors, the righteous proclaimers of truths their menfolk either greeted with silence or shied away from, or both. As soon as Mary offers her assent to God via God’s heavenly messenger, Gabriel, she sprints to her kinswoman Elizabeth’s house.

Both of these women are bearing children whose very coming into existence could be fuel for gossip and scandal. Elizabeth’s pregnancy stands out because she has been childless so long that she undoubtedly had been written off as forgotten by God and forgotten by a society that prized a woman’s fertility as her main contribution. Mary’s pregnancy, once it becomes obvious, puts her at the risk of losing the only thing she had as a poor peasant girl, and that was her good name—even though that also was more the property of her father than a possession she herself could benefit from.

Elizabeth also has embraced a future that includes raising up a prophetic rebel who will sneer at the powerful and taunt the complacent with the vision of restored divine justice that makes a mockery of preference and privilege for those who deck themselves in finery and claim the best places and the softest garments.

And Mary herself? She is often portrayed in art as a twenty-something, fair-haired, cool and collected like Grace Kelly. Yet the truth is undoubtedly less comfortable. She is probably in her middle teens. She is poor, ragged, uneducated, powerless by society’s standards.

But Mary’s family is left unmentioned probably because they didn’t bear mentioning, day laborers from peasant stock living from hand to hand—the reason why Jesus’s prayer later asks God to provide the daily bread. She was betrothed to a probably much older man. This arrangement was made by her father, probably and decreed by a society that saw this alignment of circumstances as optimal by maximizing a bride’s child-bearing years with a man’s ability to be established and support a family. Her yes to that probably didn’t exist. She was probably told what would happen after her father and Joseph concluded negotiations.

But then along comes the messenger of God before her, which is the first stunning development in her role in this drama.

The next stunning developments come the minute the angel opens its mouth: First, the angel calls her “favored one,” and from everything she has probably experienced until this time in her life, that probably had not been an adjective she would have used to describe her circumstances. However, in the Greek, there is a pun here: the root for the word “greetings” also means “grace” or “favor.” And it states that right then she is perplexed. The angel points out the previously childless Elizabeth’s good fortune—and that her pregnancy is well advanced. The miracle part is made explicit—this has all been God’s doing. That’s good salesmanship, there, for the next step.

Then the angel puts before a proposal, and contrary to what some people still claim today, God never forces us to obedience or belief, not even through fear or threat of smiting or awe or might. There is ALWAYS a choice—that’s what having the free will as part of our inheritance from God is all about. So Mary gets a choice.

That means we can’t take for granted the cost of that choice. Her yes comes with staggering potential for her own destruction. Unmarried, but engaged to another man, her pregnancy will condemn her in the eyes of the world—and if it is known that the child is not Joseph’s, death by stoning. She could be thrown out by her parents, denounced by Joseph, and killed.

But there is one thing she DOES have in abundance—and that is trust. So she assents—and the scene makes her sound meek and mild like the carol says. “Let it be with me according to what you say,” she says, with eyes lowered, we think. Yet what if her reply is also asserting that her only master is God, not any of the other people who might think they control her destiny as a teenaged Jewish peasant girl in occupied Roman territory. Perhaps not so meek, after all.

The angel leaves, and she hotfoots it to her kinswoman Elizabeth’s house. And as Elizabeth sees her approaching, her child leaps inside her so hard it takes her breath away.

Elizabeth at this moment becomes not just the mother of a prophet, but a prophet herself: she knows Mary’s news even before a word is spoken. Elizabeth bursts into a brief song of triumph, speaking with awe about her younger relative that already shows the reversal in their hierarchical status. Elizabeth’s song has traditionally been mixed together with the words of Gabriel to Mary to create the opening to what is known to our Roman Catholic kindred as the “Ave Maria:”

“Hail, Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you,”
the angel intones, and Elizabeth expands and makes specific the observation:
“Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb, Jesus.”

Two things arise here: first, Elizabeth’s husband Zechariah may be a priest, but his silencing has caused a reversal, for this is a priestly blessing if ever there was one. Elizabeth finishes her thought with saying WHY she knows Mary is blessed, even before Mary has had the chance to tell her story. And then she blesses her kinswoman with a blessing that lies underneath the text of the Hail Mary: “Blessed is she who believed there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by God.”

Mary is blessed and favored and filled with grace by her trust in God. Because trust is really what belief as a theological term means. It doesn’t mean simply intellectual assent. It means being able to lean in and upon the promises of God. That promise called grace—the idea, as Nadia Bolz-Weber says, that God has said yes to us first, always.

Elizabeth continues in astonishment and prophecy, for both she and her unborn child know that the Mother of God, and the savior she will bear, have drawn near, bringing also nearer the kingdom of God.

Two women, so different in age and status in life, are nonetheless bound together by their willingness to cling to God’s promises, both astonished and joyful at the changes that will present themselves in their lives. Both are willing to have their lives be completely upended and transfigured by faith that God’s promises will be fulfilled within them. They are transformed by anticipation of a re-ordering of justice based on trust in the tandem qualities of God’s strength and mercy in both their own lives and in the life of their community.

Mary responds to Elizabeth’s song with one of her own, and it is a song of Joy, yes—but more importantly of power and of revolution. And so we are reminded, again, what cannot be repeated enough, and that the Rev. Shug has been exploring with parishioners during our Sunday adult forum on spirituals the last several weeks: Singing is not just an act of joy. Singing itself is often an act of resistance.

The victory songs we hear in our readings today predict a re-ordering of life from human injustice to God’s justice, the approaching triumphant flourishing of shalom foretold in prophets such as Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Deborah. And the important part for us, the challenging and yet also good news for us is this: WE are the agents of that revolution. Wanna change the world? Pray, sing—then ACT.

Through the power of the Holy Spirit, God calls us to serve as slaves to the causes of justice and peace that was woven into the very fabric of creation itself, yet derailed by humanity’s omnipresent arrogance and willfulness. As the outbursts of joy coming from Elizabeth and Mary at their greeting make clear, the approaching Spirit calls us back to the beginning. As God sang creation into being, so too the response elicited by new life and new creation experienced by Elizabeth and Mary is a powerful exclamation of anticipation, hope, and fulfillment. These are hopes that we ourselves cling to in the times in which we struggle against despair and strife in our own lives, and in our own communities.

How often do we grope and grasp for some reassurance of God’s presence in our lives, and struggle to hold on to hope when the anxieties and pressures of life seem to crush in upon us? The life-giving presence of the Spirit as manifested in the visitation between Mary and Elizabeth reminds us that God’s power breaks loose in the most unexpected times and ways. In response to the in-breaking of God’s Spirit into these women’s lives, they are given a vision of a new triumph of peace; structures of injustice and weapons of war have been shattered; the hungry are satisfied and at peace; the oppressed are lifted up and exalted, while the oppressors are humbled and crumbled. In times of struggle, hopefulness itself is an act of rebellion and resistance. Those who have been empty, without hope, have been, and will be, filled.

Mary shows us the pattern for our own journey of faith. Mary responds with trust and power, but never surrender. With a crown of stars swirling around her head, she responds:

Let it be for me as you have said. And let me play my part in turning the world upside down, in resisting the powers of oppression and inhumanity.



Preached at the 505 on December 18 and at the 10:30 Eucharist at St. Martin's Episcopal Church, Ellisville.

Readings:

Sunday, December 5, 2021

Turning in the Wildeness: Sermon for Advent 2C




The gospel reading for this Sunday begins with a list of VIPs—men of power and influence. Movers and shakers. Men whose every word could command fear, subservience, and obedience.

Yet we go astray if we let our attention get drawn to the limelight. We would make a mistake if we allowed our gaze to turn toward the representatives of the Establishment, the powerful. Instead, as we prepare for the Incarnation, we remember that it takes place in obscurity. And, in order to get there, we have to pull our attention from the glittering thrones of power to the wilderness—and tune our ears to a voice coming from that wilderness.

The word for wilderness translated from the Greek here is “Eremos”—eremoß (er’-ay-mos) was used 10 times in Luke’s gospel. It has the connotation of a place of desolation. It has been variously translated into English as “wilds,” “wilderness,” “deserted place,” “desolate place,” and “open pasture.” The broadness of its meaning is indicated by its definition in a Greek-English lexicon as describing places which are solitary, lonely, desolate, uninhabited. It also describes a flock abandoned by a shepherd as in 15:9 when used in the metaphor of the 99 sheep. Interestingly, it is also used when describing a woman neglected by her husband from whom the husband withholds himself.

The very first Christians tended to be urban dwellers—yet for those who came from Judaism, the wilderness bore strong memories from the Torah and the histories of their people. At the surface, the wilderness was a place of chaos, disorder, fear, tempting, deprivation. It’s a place where a person by themselves faces serious danger of starvation, or accident, or exposure to the elements.

The wilderness is not a place we modern folk normally choose for ourselves if we see it as a place of barrenness. As in almost everything in life, it all comes down to perspective. That stripping away of every extra extravagance can also be clarifying. Preparation is key, of course, and respect for the power of the land must be acknowledged. Focus only on yourself, and the wilderness is overwhelming. Focus on how you are interconnected with the unspoiled landscape that stretches before you, and the wilderness can be a place of insight, spiritual renewal, and physical renewal.

Wilderness also has a positive side. It is a place that one enters by cutting off one’s past in an attempt to make a fresh start, and one is utterly vulnerable. But vulnerability, which is the power of hope encouraging us to try, leaves you open for good things—new vocations, new relationships, new perspectives.

The wilderness is a place for solitude, which is usually positive; but it also a place of abandonment and loneliness. It is place that clarifies your thoughts and purifies your soul; but also it is a place that can overwhelm you with its dangers if you treat it callously or with disregard. It is a place where one is immediately and blatantly reminded of the providential care of God—which is necessary because it is a place where resources are slim to nonexistent otherwise. It is therefore a place that encourages trust in God and the deepening of relationship with the holy, the sacred, the sublime.

For those who encountered John and later Jesus, the wilderness also was God’s favored place from which to show God’s care and concern. It’s where God made a covenant with Abraham, where Jacob wrestled with God and became Israel, where manna fell from heaven and humans ate the bread of angels. The wilderness is a place where the people of Israel were formed as a people during their exodus from Egypt. It is a place of crying out—but also, it is a place of hope.

And we need that voice of hope. As we continue in year two of this pandemic, we certainly have been thrust into a wilderness experience of our own—a wilderness where we have been tested and tried, a wilderness where we have been challenged to finds an inner strength and resilience. Where we have been challenged to see through the particularly western sin that the only thing that matters is our own personal freedom. Instead, perhaps the voice of God crying out in this wilderness is a reminder that we are bound up together, and that we cannot spurn concern for those around us.

The events of this week draw our special attention to another way in which we have been thrust into a wilderness. I stand before you today wearing this orange stole created for Bishops United Against Gun Violence because we had been plunged yet again into a continuing national nightmare. 

Yet another school shooting in Michigan took the lives of four young people, wounded many others, either physically or spiritually, and this one seems particularly egregious in the way that, like in the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in December 2012, weapons whose main purpose is for killing human beings were knowingly provided to a young man who should never have been considered safe to have them, whose tendency toward violent thoughts and role-playing was already noted. Yet this young person not only received no intervention by his parents but was possibly enabled in his narcisstic, nihilistic belief that the only authority he answered to, even as a troubled adolescent, was himself.

The tragedy of the modern insistence on individualism is that it is a false idol, an idol of death and meaninglessness. Ultimately, it diminishes us and makes us feel vulnerable. It weakens, threatens, lashes out, and destroys. It makes everyone else around us a competitor for scarce resources, an enemy who is trying to deprive us of something if we don’t get there first. This viral pandemic continues because of the refusal of too many to look beyond the tiny circle of themselves and consider the impact of their actions upon others. The pandemic of gun violence continues for exactly the same reasons.

This wilderness of violence and nihilism is one of our own making. Can we hear the voice of one crying out a word from God from this wilderness? Can we hear it, acknowledge our need for turning around and choosing a different path? That is, after all, the meaning of repentance.

The words of Isaiah remind us that the wilderness, for all its barrenness, for all of its wild beasts, for all of its lack of comforts, is also a place where the horizons stretch on forever, after the mountains are levelled and the valleys are lifted. And once we experience that change of perspective, the view becomes so broad that “all flesh” can see God’s salvation.

God’s declaration comes out of the wilderness via John because that is where Israel was formed as a people and where the covenant with God was made and remade, again and again, through God’s steadfast grace and lovingkindness. Thus John’s proclamation is for repentance—a literal turning around to return to God.

The wilderness is a place for repentance, and we all like to think we have no need of that. But what if the path of repentance is also the path of liberation for all of us—liberation from the dangers that very much threaten each of us right now in our modern wildernesses?

Perhaps this pandemic—both the viral one and the one of gun violence-- is the voice of God crying out in the wilderness that the way of selfishness, the way of clutching our possessions to us rather than embracing those around us, the way of contempt for each other is the crooked path. Perhaps the voice of God crying out in the wilderness right now is a call for us to return to the value of community and compassion, to seek justice for those around us because ultimately that increases the security and contentment of all.

Perhaps the voice of God calling to us out of this continued pandemic of virus and violence is a reminder that we were not meant to be separate and exposed, but we are instead actually a part of something larger than ourselves. A reminder than the Jesus John prepares the way for commands us repeatedly not to grab everything we can for ourselves but to love one another.

Because the good news is that repentance is possible because God is faithful in ways we struggle to be. God’s love is enduring far beyond our own fickle attachments. God calls us to draw our attention from ourselves to each other and all creation as a precious gift to remind us that we are not only never alone but beloved and precious, even as we struggle, stumble and go astray. For it is only when we cast aside our delusions that we don’t depend on each other can we see the image of God in each other.

There is a voice calling to us in this wilderness—and it’s a voice that is calling us back from the brink into being brave enough and strong enough to become a people of faith and hope. To become a people the world desperately needs right now.

Hear the voice crying out in the wilderness, calling US to discipleship and witness against the forces of fear and death; calling US to make straight the Lord’s pathways— straight into our hearts, if we open them in faith. May we hear that voice, and turn to God in trust. And then begin to walk the straight path of liberation. Freedom is waiting to be born.

Amen.

Preached at the 505 and at the 10:30 Eucharist, online and in person, at St. Martin's Episcopal Church, Ellisville.

Readings: