Sunday, January 6, 2019

Manifestation Even Today

PROPERS:         THE EPIPHANY
TEXT:                 EPHESIANS 3:1-12; MATTHEW 2:1-12
PREACHED AT HOLY TRINITY, PENSACOLA, ON SUNDAY, JANUARY 6, 2019.

ONE SENTENCE:        The Manifestation of Jesus continues to this day.    
                                    

            Louis Zamperini’s life has been well-chronicled.  He died in 2014 at a ripe old age of 97.  His story had been told in three movies and multiple books.

            He had lived a full life.  The child of immigrants, he at first spoke no English in his adopted home state of California.  He got in trouble with the law.  He became a track star, running in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, setting a record for the last lap of the 5,000 meter race. He was introduced to the new German Fuhrer, who asked: “Ah, so you are the fast one?”

            Zamperini went on to join the Army Air Corps and served as a bombardier on a B-24 in the Pacific Theater.  While on a search-and-rescue mission over the vast emptiness of the Pacific Ocean, his plane developed mechanical problems, causing it to ditch in the open waters. Eight of the 11 crewmen perished.

            That is the part of the story where Zamperini’s story becomes well-known.  He and one other crewman spent 47 days at sea, in a tiny life raft, before beaching on one of the Marshall Islands. He was immediately taken prisoner by the Japanese navy.

            The ensuing story of his captivity is one of valor, bravery, torture, isolation, hard labor, and privation.  Laura Hildebrand’s best-selling book about the first 30 years of his life is appropriately named:  Unbroken.

            Despite the brutal treatment he received at the hands of his enemy captors, he endured.  He survived. And he returned home from captivity to marry his pre-war girlfriend.

            It is what happened next that makes Louis Zamperini’s story even more remarkable.

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            For years following the war he was further-tortured by his memories.  He would have recurring vivid dreams of strangling his captors.  He sank deeper and deeper into the bottle.

            Today, we would likely say he had some sort of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

            His life was unraveling… untethered.  His marriage was falling apart.  He was not sleeping.  The year was 1949, and the city was Los Angeles.

            It was in that same city and year that a 31-year-old North Carolina preacher was having his first crusade.  It was originally scheduled to run for three-weeks, but because of an overwhelming response, it had been extended to eight weeks.

            The crusade was in a massive tent, set-up on a parking lot, built to hold 9,000 people. A young Billy Graham preached night-in and night-out.

            And it was in that tent that the struggling former prisoner-of-war encountered the Risen Christ.  Louis Zamperini learned the meaning and power of the word forgiveness.  His life was never the same.

            Jesus Christ had manifest himself to Zamperini.

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            Today – January 6, the Epiphany – is one of the great feast days of the Church year, right up there with Easter, Christmas, All Saints, and the Ascension.

            Another name for it is the Manifestation of Our Lord Jesus Christ to the Gentiles.

            In the second lesson – from Ephesians– and the gospel lesson – fromMatthew– we have two examples of dramatic manifestations that molded the church’s understanding of this day.

            First, we have Paul.  Over his years as the most remarkable Christian evangelist and theologian, Paul wrote many letters.  His voice and teaching endure to this day.  He has molded the church’s doctrines for two millennia. His understanding of Jesus’ ministry is why we read his letters even now.

            But, as we all know, he did not come there easily.  His story is one of the great examples of manifestationwe have.

            The story is told several times in the Book of Acts.  First, it is told as it happens, then Paul recounts the manifestationmultiple times in his own words.  We know it well:  Paul, a zealous Pharisee, was on horseback, riding toward Damascus, to persecute the young church there.

            He was struck by a blinding light – knocking him from his horse.  Blinded, he heard a voice from the light, “Saul, Saul.  Why do you persecute me?”

            Saul was his Jewish name, and the voice which spoke to him out of the light was the ascended Jesus – some years after his crucifixion.

            Jesus instructed Saul to travel on to Damascus, and there to lodge in the home of a noted Christian.  It was there, on a street called Straight, that Saul became Paul, and he was formed into a potent Christian missionary.

            Jesus had, indeed, manifestedhimself to Saul.  That encounter is memorialized in countless classic paintings.

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            The story of the Magi – the Three Kings – is another, and earlier, example of a manifestation.

            The Magi were from the East – it is believed to be Persia, modern-day Iran. The story is confused with Christmas, but it was actually a later event.

            After following a heavenly light, they came to Bethlehem and found the infant Jesus and his mother, Mary.  They paid homage to him, these three Gentiles, and gave him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

            Even in the stable, and as an infant, Jesus’ manifested himself to the three Magi.  It is a event we remember thousands of years later.  It is a remarkable story.

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            The manifestationof Jesus is not limited to Saul crossing the barren land to Damascus.  Neither is it limited to the three Magi approaching the stable stall, to see the infant king.  Nor is it restricted to such dramatic turnabouts as the life of Louis Zamperini.

            Manifestations of Jesus happen to ordinary people – like you and me.  They happen even today – in normal lives, in routine circumstances.  

            It is not necessary for us to be in biblical times… to be crossing a desolate landscape on horseback… to be recovering from the devastating impacts of being a prisoner of war… or to approach Bethlehem’s manger.

            A genuine manifestationtakes place in mundane circumstances.  It may come in the midst of a significant personal failure – one in which your life is turned upside-down.  It may come in a moment of celebration, when you realize in some transcendent way how blessed you are.  Or maybe it comes when you hit bottom due to some addiction or brokenness in your life, and you realize, surprisingly, that you are not alone.

            Paul Tillich called this the experience of being grasped by the ultimate concern.  Slowly but surely… or maybe even quickly and unambiguously… you realize that you are cradled in the hand of something that is well beyond your understanding.

            In such moments – as you are overwhelmed by the power of the experience – you are like the apostle Thomas: “Lord, I believe.  Help thou my unbelief.”

            My core message is this:  Sacred manifestations of Jesus continue today. Do not be surprised.  Be open. Be patient. Be thankful when he crosses your path.

Sunday, December 30, 2018

Meaning in the Story

PROPERS:         CHRISTMAS 1, YEAR C      
TEXT:                 JOHN 1:1-18
PREACHED AT HOLY TRINITY, PENSACOLA, ON SUNDAY, DECEMBER 30, 2018.

ONE SENTENCE:        The Gospel of John more fully provides the “why” of                                           Jesus, as opposed to the “what” of other gospels.       
                                    

            What is your story?

            That may seem like a simple question, but it really isn’t.

            As I was moving through the ordination process – including a theological reflection practicum group at seminary – there was a recurring need to “tell my story.”  You have experienced that exercise, too, if you have ever participated in EFM, Education for Ministry.

            Some elements of my story never changed.  I was born in Columbia, Mississippi, on January 23, 1952.  I have an older brother and a younger sister. We moved to Greenwood, Mississippi when I was seven.

            I began the first grade in Columbia and continued it when we got to Greenwood, attending the famous Little Red Schoolhouse.  I loved the Mississippi Delta and exploring the banks of the Yazoo River.

            When I was nine, we moved to Meridian, Mississippi.  I began the fourth grade there.  I loved wandering through the dense woods around our house. I graduated from Meridian High School in 1970.

            I had grown up in the Methodist Church but was confirmed into the Episcopal Church after I turned 18.  The liturgy attracted me.

            As I described it, I served a one-year sentence at Meridian Junior College, and then transferred to the school of my dreams and family loyalty, Ole Miss.

            I was a mediocre student until I met a certain strawberry blonde on July 28, 1972. After Nora and I married two-years later, my grade point went through the ceiling – from a 2.3 to a 4.0.

            We moved to Jackson after my graduation from Ole Miss.  We became the parents of a daughter in 1980 and a son in 1981.  In 1984, I left my position with the American Petroleum Institute and we left Jackson to enter Episcopal seminary at Sewanee.

            I was ordained in 1987 and served congregations on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, Nashville, Tennessee, and Starkville, Mississippi. In 2001, the Bishop of Mississippi called me as his Canon to the Ordinary.  I retired from that position in 2017.

            We now live in Fairhope, Alabama – just across Mobile Bay from our daughter and two grandsons.

            As Sgt. Joe Friday said on Dragnet, “Just the facts, Ma’am.”That is the skeletal framework of my story. 

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            Your story is probably similar – though the facts will vary.  The outline would likely be the same: Birth, growing up, education, vocation, and family.

            But we all know the devil is in the details. Maybe we could say God is in the details.

            We can look back at our lives.  We see rises and falls. Undulations.  High and lows.  The periodic movement of pure chance and mystical forces.

            How do you interpret your story?  What is the texture to your life?  What is the meaning?

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            Over the past year, we have mostly heard gospel passages from Mark – the most bare-boned of all the accounts of Jesus’ life.  In the coming year, we will hear mostly from Luke, the companion to the Book of Acts.

            Each of the so-called synoptic gospels – Matthew, Mark and Luke – provide the basics of Jesus’ life and ministry.  They provide the facts, the stories, that tell the essentials of savior’s worldly life.

            But, today we have the opening 18 verses of John’s gospel.  It is remarkably different from the other three gospels.  John fills-in-the-blanks and provides the whyto Jesus’ life and not just the what.

            In John’s gospel, we have lengthy statements from Jesus providing the meaning of his words and deeds.  Indeed, the meaning.

            This is what as known as the prologueto John.  Hear it again:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.
He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.
And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father's only son, full of grace and truth. (John testified to him and cried out, "This was he of whom I said, 'He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.'") From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father's heart, who has made him known.

            It is clear to the reader – whether it was 100 years after Jesus or today – that the author of John’s gospel viewed Jesus as not just another man or a special man on a special mission.  The author believed that Jesus was, and is, the source of all things, the creative force in the universe, and the ultimate revelation of God’s being – the giver of life; the bestower of grace.

            In other words, in encountering Jesus we are encountering God.  In seeing Jesus, we are seeing God.  In knowing Jesus, we are knowing God.  According to John’s telling of the story, they are one and the same.

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            As I contemplated all this, something occurred to me:  If the author of the gospel, in reflecting on Jesus’ life, was able to see the presence of God in Jesus’ life, what is the message for us?

            I thought of the many times I had told my story, and how I was able to progressively more clearly see God’s movement in my life.  The facts of my journey took on depth, height, and meaning.  The holiness of simple moments became apparent.  The blessings of the journey arose.  The molding through fiery trials was seen. The hand of the almighty was revealed.  No moment in my life have I been alone or without purpose.

            What about you?  Are you able to look back on your life’s minor details and see them anew?  Do you see the hand of God in those deep, dark valleys, on those spectacular mountain peaks, and on all the terrain in between?

            Our lives are sacred stories.  In seeing our past, and in the telling of our stories, we find meaning to our journeys – and the presence of God.

Sunday, December 23, 2018

Continuing the Sacred Story

PROPERS:         4 ADVENT, YEAR C    
TEXT:                 LUKE 1:39-55
PREACHED AT HOLY TRINITY, PENSACOLA, ON SUNDAY, DECEMBER 23, 2018.

ONE SENTENCE:        The coming of Jesus is a dramatic highpoint in the                                              salvation story that is sacred scripture – and continues                                            today, an unfinished story.        
                                    

            In my years before retirement, I was a member of a group called the Board of Examining Chaplains.

            Our task, when needed, was to question graduating seminarians on academic areas in which they had been found lacking on the General Ordination Examinations.

            There are seven academic areas in which a postulant must exhibit competency before ordination to the priesthood.  Appropriately, Scripture is one of those areas.

            Few seminarians came up short in that field – central as it is.  But on those occasions, I was ready with a simple question for the seminarian:  Tell me the story of scripture.

            It is quite simple, really. Spanning the 66 books of scripture – most independent of one another – is a very succinct meta-narrative.

            My question was similar to the question posed to the ancient sage, Rabbi Hillel, in the first century:  Can you summarize the Law while standing on one foot?

            Scripture is made very complex – and, as the old saying, the emPHAsis is on the wrong sylLAble.

            That great collection of books – history, prophecy, wisdom, myth, poetry, letters, and apocalyptic literature – combines to tell us something known as salvation history.  It is the arc of God’s movement through time – from the dawn of time, and if you are receptive, to this very moment… and into the infinite future.

            Each Sunday we read passages from that salvation history– generally from the Hebrew Scriptures, the Psalms, one of the Christian letters, and a portion of one of the four Gospels. Week-by-week, we hear the sacred story of God’s movement through the chosen people.

            Today… this week… we recount a high point in that sacred story.

            God’s intervention in history has reached a personal level.

            Hear the gospel lesson again, I hope with renewed ears:

In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth.
When Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord."
            On Monday night and Tuesday, we will commemorate that holy anticipation reaching its climax – in a stable in Bethlehem, with farm animals looking-on as the savior of all humanity comes into the world… as an infant.        
            We seldom place this momentous event in its proper perspective.  We tend to see the birth of the Messiah as a stand-alone event.  And it is so much more than that.  It is so much more powerful than that.
            The trajectory of God’s movement in the world is summarized so well in Eucharistic Prayer C of Rite 2:

From the primal elements you brought forth the human race, and blessed us with memory, reason and skill. You made usthe rulers of creation. But we turned against you, and betrayedyour trust; and we turned against one another.

Again and again you called us to return to you.  Through prophets and sages you revealed your righteous law.  And in the fullness of time, you sent your only son, born of a woman, to fulfill your Law, to open for us the way of freedom and peace.

            The blessed event which we recall on Monday night is the climax in the drama between God and his people. It is expansion of his covenant to all people.

            Think back.  We are told that God originally made a covenant with a solitary person – Abram, a man living among his people in the Euphrates Valley, modern-day Iraq.  Abram became the patriarch of a Semitic people, known as the Hebrews.

            That covenant was later expanded to embrace the descendants of Abram – now known as Abraham. That expanded covenant included the tribes of Benjamin, Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, Asher, Issachar, Zebulun and Joseph.

            When the chosen people were enslaved in Egypt – because a Pharaoh had arisen who knew not Joseph – there was the original Passover, the Exodus out of Egypt, and dramatic act deliverance at the Red Sea.  It was the seminal event of delivery in Old Testament days.

            Salvation historycontinued.  The people were given the Law – God’s gift for structuring their lives and culture.  But history tells us the people turned away from that gift and chose to live life on their own terms.  They neglected the poor.  They trusted in their alliances with other countries.  They lived in an unjust society.

            So, the prophets spoke – bellowed their messages, really.  They called the chosen people to account – calling them to return to the covenant relationship with the One who had called them into being.

            War, destruction, and dispersion of the people took place.  The God-chosen land and his chosen people had been torn asunder. Babylonian, Persian, Greek, and Roman dynasties ruled the land and people.

            But it was not, as Paul Harvey said, the rest of the story.

            There may have been 300 years of seeming-abandonment, but God was not finished.  Time would be fulfilled.

            So, it was to be that an angel appeared to Mary in the tiny village of Nazareth in the Galilean hill country.  And the greatest chapter of story began to be written.

            It was, as we believe, on a midnight clearthat the God became human and dwelt in the form of a vulnerable infant. 

            The dramatic expansion of the covenant – to folks like you and me – had begun.  God had made landfall.  Over the next thirty years, that expansion would be made clearer and clearer.

            And more:  Over the next 20 centuries, the heirs of that blessed incarnation, the church, have debated just how far that expanded covenant reached.  But it has expanded.

            As the marriage rite says, “What God has joined together, let no one put asunder.”

            God continues to call to us.  His work is not done.  Nor is ours. The covenant – so dramatically incarnated on that cold, middle-eastern night – is ours to share.

            The upshot to the Examining Chaplains’ question: God continues to call to us.  Again and again, we rebel.  But God does not give up.  He continues to pursue us. Even to the point that he becomes one of us.

Sunday, December 16, 2018

Into the Randomness of Life

PROPERS:         ADVENT 3, YEAR C    
TEXT:                 LUKE 3:7-18
PREACHED AT HOLY TRINITY, PENSACOLA, ON SUNDAY, DECEMBER 16, 2018.

ONE SENTENCE:        The air of expectancy of 2,000 years ago is hard to                                              replicate in our culture, but the content of the hope is the                                          same, though perhaps misunderstood.
                                    

            It is hard to replicate the conditions into which John the Baptist came 2,000 years ago.  Likewise, it is hard to replicate the need for the hope which burned in some people’s hearts.

            But I will try.

            We must leave behind our relative comfort and security.  We must say good-bye to our creature comforts, our homes, our jobs, our paychecks, our pensions, our ready access to meals.

            We must bid adieu to the Bill of Rights, the laws which structure our society, and the freedom to worship as we wish.

            Our ability to travel, to enjoy leisure, and to be protected from unjust persecution by authorities must go.

            Imagine yourself separated from all that brings you comfort and security now. Picture yourself in a different part of the world.  Still today – but in another, alien culture.

            See yourself as a struggling common person in a nation such as Saudi Arabia. You are not part of the upper or middle class.  You are certainly not a member of the aristocracy – the Royal Family. You are ruled by a modern-day Herod, and the modern-day analogues to Sadducees and Pharisees live in wealth and splendor.

            You live by the sweat of your brow.  Your very existence is on-the-edge.  You are a tiny cog in a massive machine – and one that is easily disposable.  No one, save your immediate family, is concerned about you or your life. And they are concerned about their own existence.

            You may live in a tiny, cramped, hovel-like apartment in Riyadh – a city teeming with millions of faceless people, who exist at the pleasure of the wealthy, powerful royalty.  Or you may find your home in a tiny desert village in the south, across the border from Jordan, in the remotest portion of the kingdom.

            You are a member of the horde. You don’t matter.  Your life doesn’t matter.  The world will not miss you when you are gone.  Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

            You wonder why it is all so pointless.  Life should have meaning, you say to yourself. How does the law – which is so punitive – make any difference? So, what if a starving child steals a loaf of bread – is that grounds for cutting his hands off?

            I hear about God, you think. I hope someone cares for me.  I pray there is hope for this world.  But I sure don’t see any changes.

            Pretty close to despair.  A sense of a meaningless life.  Living a life of desperation. The bootheel of rigid civil and religious law is bearing down on you.

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            Into that world – originally little-known – comes a wild, sketchy, hairy, dirty man living in an isolated wadi(or creek bed) many miles from the nearest city.

            He’s not the kind of man you would want to know.  He would not even be welcomed in the small family gatherings around your table.  People would avoid him on the street. They would avoid looking him in the eye.

            But that did not matter, because he never came near.  He lived among the rock badgers, the hawks, and the scorpions of the desert.  People avoided him.

            When, on occasion, people would go to see this man – mostly out of curiosity – he would be dressed in an unorthodox manner – a leather girdle, and a shirt made of scratchy camel’s hair.  And he would shout his messages randomly – seeming to make no sense: "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” The desert sun had driven him mad.

            Still, there was an attraction to this man – a certain curiosity.  He spoke in a way that confronted the randomness, the meaninglessnessof life. There was hope in his message – albeit a perverse, sideways hope: “Do not begin to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our ancestor'; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire."

            What this strange man was saying was revolutionary – but not a manner that bespoke insurrection, but in a way that brought a transformed heart.

            A new way of seeing our fellow human beings; the other cogs in the machinery of this world: "Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise." 

            To the civil tax collectors: "Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you."

            To law enforcement: "Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages."

+ + + 

            Word spread.  He gained notoriety.  People began to come from surrounding villages and the cities.  The people of the land.Not part of the power structure. The great unwashed.

            They wondered if he was the one who was going to change everything– bring in a more just world; relieve their suffering; give them hope; let them know that there is a Great One who cares.

            But the man in the wilderness – the one of harsh words and hope – demurred: "I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire."

            In that barren and desperate world – in which meaning was lacking and life was pointless – he was a herald of hope.

            It may seem like long, long ago, in a galaxy far, far away. But the next act is yet to fully come. Wait. Be patient.  The Holy One is coming.

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Reflections on a Question

            I am working – twice a week – with a personal trainer at the local YMCA.  It is a fringe benefit of being a geezerand being on a Church Pension health insurance plan – it’s called Silver Sneakers.

            But this post has nothing to do with either being retired or working out.  It has to do with a theological/scriptural question which my trainer posed to me.  He knows that I am a retired priest, so he took the time to ask me a question. It had arisen in the local Session of Elders of his Presbyterian congregation.

            He asked me what I thought about 1 Timothy, Chapter 3, and its prohibition on women teaching in church (It is actually 1 Timothy, Chapter 2 that deals with that messy issue; I did not quibble).  It seems that his pastor had professed support for the ordination of women when the congregation was interviewing him, but since he arrived, he is showing other inclinations.  My trainer supports the ordination of women (his wife is a Presbyterian elder) and he was truly vexed by his pastor’s change-of-heart.

            It’s not often that I am posed such questions.  Outside of Sundays, I keep a low profile.  But I was happy to address this issue, especially in light of a recent personal ahamoment.

            I told him that much of the instructions written in the epistles was contextual in nature, and that the society of that era was radically different from our culture.  I also voiced the perspective Rachel Held Evans articulated in her excellent book Inspired:Paul’s primary concern was the message of salvation and new life he had found in Jesus Christ.  Every other cultural stricture was secondary.

            But I went beyond that argument, to a much more practical, existential point. This was my personal aha moment that had cemented my previous commitment. I told him that I had recently worked with a fellow priest – a woman – in conducting a funeral for a very good friend.  That experience, I said, had been a moment of renewed awareness of how many women are remarkably gifted for the ordained ministry.

            I have since written a note to that priest, telling her how deeply moved I was by how she conducted very difficult and sensitive conversations with the grieving family.  I had stood and watched as she did that, and asked myself, “How would you have done in such a situation?”  The answer in my heart was “Not nearly as well.”

            I am grateful that the ordination of women in the Episcopal Church came even before my own ordination.  In fact, the very first ordination service I ever attended was for two women in 1984. But, my thoughts go well beyond that gratitude.

            I told my trainer that women are more-than-qualified for the ordained ministry – they actually bring gifts that frequently are woefully absent in men who serve in the same roles.  Women, in many cases, bring perspectives, relational skills, and sensitivities that are much-needed in the ministry.

            As I assisted in the funeral with a female colleague, I was struck:  Perhaps many of the men have not been good stewards of the gifts of ordination.  Look at the trajectory of the church.  It has shown a deficit of some sort – and leadership, in many nuanced forms, may have been what was lacking.  Not allmen, but many – maybe myself included.

            I review my own history in the ordained ministry.  I know there are many times when I failed to provide the creative, finely-tuned leadership that was needed. I wonder if I was the right person (or right gender) for those situations. Perhaps a woman possessing different perspectives and gifts would have been much more suitable in those circumstances.

            I look back and see other facets of the situation. On many occasions, I was required (because of my roles) to intervene in cases of clergy misconduct. In all but a few cases, those clergy who had acted outside of appropriate boundaries were male. The damage by the clergy misconduct was frequently significant. Those experiences left gaping wounds in people’s souls.

            I also reflect on deployment, and the difficulties I faced in helping women receive calls.  There is one situation which stands out in my memory: A congregation chose to call a much-less-qualified male when they also had a very gifted woman as a candidate. The chosen relationship did not work out well, and the congregation suffered from their ill-informed choice. An opportunity was lost.

            As Martin Luther King said, “The arc of moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”  My viewpoint is somewhat analogous.  I think we might be seeing a divine correctionin the arc of the church.  God, in seeing the ruins that have been left by centuries of male-dominated leadership, is giving the ministry over to those who are able to speak the Good News with fresh perspectives and new voices.

            The fact of my trainer asking me the prompting question is a quaint artifact of a settled question in the Episcopal Church.  But his question brought to the surface renewed realizations.

            It is my hope that the centuries ahead will reflect the best, most-authentic, gifted people serving in important ordained roles.  I hope that it will result in the gospel being proclaimed with balanced perspectives, informed by the richness of gifts of both genders.

Mixed Signals of Advent

PROPERS:         ADVENT 1, YEAR C    
TEXT:                 LUKE 21:25-36            
PREACHED AT HOLY TRINITY, PENSACOLA, ON SUNDAY, DECEMBER 2, 2018.

ONE SENTENCE:        The seemingly-contradictory images of the season                                               remind us of God’s movement through the midst of all things.         
                                    

            I was amused this week when an item appeared on my Facebook feed.  It was a posting from a website named, “Unvirtuous Abbey” and it said: “Instead of saying Merry Christmas during this season, why don’t we shout, ‘Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”

            That was the kinder and gentler version of that passage.  The words are John the Baptist’s, and he precedes them with a pastoral salutation: “You brood of vipers!”

            That passage, from Luke, Chapter 3, will come in a few weeks.  But, today, it emphasizes something quite relevant:  The paradox of Advent.

            Just listen to the words we have already prayed or proclaimed today.

            From the collect for the First Sunday of Advent:

Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which your Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

            Now, listen to the words from the Gospel according to Luke:

Jesus said, "There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see 'the Son of Man coming in a cloud' with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near."

            From the promise of a savior coming in great humility (even as an infant) to the roaring of the seas and waves, and people fainting from fear.

            What is the true essence of the season?  How do we reconcile the paradoxical images?

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            Perhaps we don’t.

            It has been observed that true spiritual health is found in being able to accept paradox.  That means being able to acceptboth/andinstead of only either/or.

            Harry Truman is reputed to have said, “What I need is a one-armed economist who doesn’t say, ‘On the other hand.’”Sadly, theologically speaking, that is seldom possible.

            We live in a binary culture, in which something is either true or not true.  We have lost the appreciation for the complexities of creation and God’s movement through it.  Things must be either this wayor that way.

            We have lost the appreciation for the nuances and conflicts which were so much a part of the ancient Jewish faith – and the world in which Jesus lived.  How many times have you heard him say, “You have heard it said, but I tell you…?”  He is saying that boththings are true.

            We cannot go into depth of complex thought and the contradictions in scripture in these few moments, but let’s remind ourselves of the practical, human reality of faith history:

·     Noah was a drunk.

·     Jacob was a liar and manipulator.

·     David was an adulterer.

·     Elijah ran from God.

·     Peter denied his best friend.

·     Paul persecuted the church.

            But all of these people served God’s purposes in the arc of faith history. Their lives are described as both/andand not either/or.  Each lived a life that are recalled for both their rebelliousness and not just faithfulness. Yet each one’s life is cited by sacred scripture as a model of responding to God’s call.

            We can say the same about ourselves:imperfect but beloved; reluctant but called.

            F. Scott Fitzgerald, the great American writer, once said, The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”

            So, in the midst of mixed messages we receive in this season – apocalypse versus salvation; vulnerable infant versus Mighty God of the Cosmos – we are to remain calm and embracethe ambiguity.  That would be an indication of spiritual maturity on our part. To trust in the many, sometimes conflicting aspects of this season.

            Despite the seemingly contradictory messages, the truth rings through the season.  Just as it has through the last two millennia. 

            But there is anotheraspect to these conflicting images which should comfort us.

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            Jesus’ words today are apocalypticin nature.  Apocalypticvisions have to do with hidden things being revealedand are associated with images of the end times.  Scriptural descriptions of the apocalypse unveil God’s hand in the world.

            In the Old Testament and the New Testament, the primary apocalyptic books are The Book of Danieland the last book of the Bible, The Revelation to John.  Each book – one for the Hebrew Scriptures and one from the Christian Scriptures – has bizarre stories and vivid images.  They unveil the coming of God.

            Jesus’ words today are in keeping with that apocalyptic tradition.

            The Apocalypseis a central image in Advent – along with the expectations of God coming as a gentle, tender infant, in a manger, in a stable.

            These are not contradictory images.  They are complementary.  One reinforces the other.  It is a case of both/andand not either/or.

            Apocalyptic tradition tells us that God is working through all things.  In the roaring of the seas and the waves… in the powers of nations being shaken… in people fainting from fear… in nation rising against nation… in wars and rumors of wars… God is moving through history.

            And we know also that God is moving through a lowly stable… through a mother lovingly nursing her newborn infant… through a family’s home and a carpenter’s shop in Nazareth… through a young itinerant preacher wandering through Galilee… through a cross standing on a hillside outside of Jerusalem… and through an empty tomb in that same city.

            We do not understand the progression of God’s movement through time. In this life, we do not have the perspective which allows us to see the flow of history.  But, we may be certain – and filled with faith and hope – that God moves through all thingsand all moments.


            Whether we say, “Merry Christmas” or we shout, “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”