Today I’m going to talk about the concept of repentance. But to get there, I need to talk about my experience of the fire here in Mystic that destroyed Seaport Marine last Sunday night. On Sunday evenings, Leah and I play Dungeons and Dragons with some friends in our basement. We were wrapping up our game when we heard a thunk coming from upstairs. Leah went to investigate and found a book had fallen off of one of the kids’ beds. No big deal. But right when she got back downstairs, we heard another thunk, and then another. But they weren’t thunks. They were explosions.
We went outside into the parking lot and that’s when we saw the intense orange glow filling the sky over the buildings in downtown Mystic. Orange smoke poured northward, deepening to gray then black as it billowed forth. We could see flames above the buildings. Sirens rent the air, a near constant wail of fire trucks from all over the region screaming towards the blaze. The trouble for the six of us, however, was that, from our position, we couldn’t tell where the fire was. We couldn’t tell where the fire trucks were headed. I climbed out onto the roof of the education wing to try to get a better look, but I still couldn’t tell what was on fire.
Today’s lesson from Philippians begins with one of the most beloved verses of scripture: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.” There’s a good chance your grandma had this embroidered on a throw pillow. Or, maybe you are a grandmother, and you do have this verse embroidered on a throw pillow. I am definitely going to mention this beloved verse during this sermon, but mostly we need to tackle a few words that come up a verse later. How we encounter these few words can completely change the way we read this passage and, indeed, our walks with God.
Those few words are these: “The Lord is near.” Now, I’m going to say them again in just a moment, but first I want you to settle yourself. Take a deep breath. Get ready to listen to your body. Here we go:
Sermon for Sunday, December 5, 2021 || Advent 2C || Luke 3:1-6
When I was in high school, I was a huge geography nerd. Geography was one of my specialties on my high school’s quiz bowl team. I knew every capital of every country in the world, all the major rivers and seas and mountains – you name it. One time in a competition, I had to fill out a map of the countries and capitals of Central and South America in less than two minutes. Let me stress…I cannot do that anymore. But I still find geography fascinating, and today’s Gospel lesson has a geographical bend to it. John the Baptist quotes the Prophet Isaiah, who proclaims that God will raise up valleys and lower mountains and make roads straight and even.
In today’s Gospel reading, and, indeed, in the whole season that spans Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany, geography takes on a very theological dimension. That’s what we’re going to talk about this morning: theological geography. I hope you’re as excited as I am.
Did you know that you have been sent by God? It’s true. We don’t often think about this reality because our lives stumble down winding roads on their way to various intermediate destinations that we might not even be aware of when we arrive at them. That last sentence was itself a circuitous adventure. But I really mean this. Each one of us, God has sent. Here. Now. This is not an ego thing. This is not someone claiming to be “God’s Gift” because he thinks he is “all that and a bag of chips,” as we used to say. No. This is the Gospel truth. God has sent each of us for a purpose that is written on our hearts, just waiting for our passion to speak it to the world.
Today, I’m going to talk about the concept of righteousness. The word “righteousness” is tricky because we almost never hear it decoupled from the word “self.” We all know it’s not a good thing to be self-righteous. It is, however, good to be righteous. But self-righteousness has such a monopoly on the concept of righteousness that we never take the time to understand what righteousness really is. So that’s what we’re going to do this morning. And we’re going there because of an odd exchange between Jesus and John the Baptist in today’s Gospel reading.
You’re going to get sick of me saying this, but it has fascinated me for years, so I will say it again. Jesus almost never answers the questions people ask him. I know I started my sermon a few weeks ago with this same thought, but it’s so important for understanding how Jesus related to people in the Gospel. Jesus responds to questions, but he rarely answers them. When we take the time to compare his response to the thing the questioner was looking for, we see more clearly the path Jesus invites us to walk.
About ten minutes into The Princess Bride, we meet Vizzini, Fezzek, and Inigo. The three brigands kidnap Princess Buttercup and set sail across the sea to another country, where the giant Fezzek scales the imposing Cliffs of Insanity with the other three strapped to him. All the while, the Man in Black has been chasing them, but Vizzini dismisses their pursuer, saying it would be “inconceivable” that anyone would have known they kidnapped the princess in the first place. And yet the Man in Black starts climbing the cliffs after them. “Inconceivable” says Vizzini again. Vizzini cuts the rope, and the Man in Black hangs onto the rocks: “He didn’t fall? Inconceivable!” The Spanish blademaster Inigo Montoya looks at Vizzini and says one of the more quotable lines in a film full of quotable lines: “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
That line from one of my all-time favorite movies always comes to mind when I read today’s Gospel lesson because John the Baptist uses a word, a very special word, and I do not think it means what our society thinks it means.
Sermon for Sunday, December 9, 2018 || Advent 2C || Luke 3:1-6
God calls each one of us into relationship. God calls us because God love us. And God calls us to love. In love God calls us to take part in God’s mission of healing and reconciliation in this world. In love God calls us to serve others, to stand in solidarity with the oppressed, and to speak the good news of Jesus Christ. God calls us. God calls you and me.
In today’s Gospel lesson, God calls John, a person who lives out in the wilderness, a person whose birth bewildered many, a person who willed others to remember the words of the prophet Isaiah: “Prepare the way of the Lord.” We call him John the Baptist because he prepared the way of the Lord by ritually washing people in the River Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.Continue reading “Here and Now”→
Announcing “Advent with the Beginning of Luke,” a new daily devotional book for your Advent observance. Entries from December 1st through Christmas follow the first two chapters of the Gospel according to Luke – from the birth announcements of John and Jesus to the songs of Mary and Zechariah to the birth of Jesus, and culminating with the presentation in the temple. This Advent study will make a meaningful addition to your personal or group preparation for the feast of the Incarnation.Continue reading “Advent with the Beginning of Luke”→
Sermon for Sunday, July 12, 2015 || Proper 10B || Mark 6:14-29
I’ve never liked horror movies. I don’t understand the appeal of being scared out of my wits by things that go bump in the night or by gory chainsaw-driven bloodbaths. I don’t want to be afraid or disgusted, so why would I ever pay eleven dollars to subject myself to those emotions at the movie theater? I know that a lot of people out there enjoy horror movies, but if you’re anything like me in this regard, then the story I just finished reading possibly stirred in you the same feelings of fear and disgust that A Nightmare on Elm Street or Friday the Thirteenth might. The plot is truly dreadful: Herod throws a party to celebrate his birthday, but in the end, it is John the Baptizer’s death that is mourned. But even in the midst of these discomfiting emotions, I think we can still find something of value in this story.
To start, we must remember that Herod is a bad guy in the Gospel, so we shouldn’t be surprised that this flashback doesn’t end well. But we might be surprised that the story begins at least in shouting distance of the realm of good. Herod arrests John, it seems, for John’s own safety. We might call it “protective custody.” After all, Herod’s wife, Herodias, has a grudge against John and wants him dead. But Herod is intrigued by John. He thinks John has guts, and while what John says often bewilders Herod, the petty king likes having the prophet around.
Such is the status quo until Herod makes an ill-advised promise to his daughter (whose name is also Herodias, to make matters more confusing). “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half my kingdom,” Herod proclaims. The girl conspires with her mother and then asks for something really grisly: the head of John the Baptizer on a platter. What happens next is what I find especially interesting.
“The king was deeply grieved,” Mark narrates, “yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests he did not want to refuse her.”
This is the moment of decision for Herod. I can hear in Herod’s mind, the petty king telling himself: “I have no choice. I don’t want John to die, but I gave my word!” However, Herod does have a choice. He can keep his promise or break it. Breaking a promise seems to me like a small price to pay to save a life, but Herod disagrees. He chooses to keep his word, despite the fact it means John will die. (Just so you know, for the sake of argument, I’m ignoring right now the fact that the promise Herod made was stupid and uninformed.)
Let’s dwell here for a few minutes and put ourselves in Herod’s shoes. Herod has a choice to make, and both options uphold a “good” of one type or another. Both can be defended as “right.” On the one hand, there is the good of keeping a promise. On the other, there is the good of saving someone’s life.
Now choosing between right and wrong is fairly easy in most cases. If you throw your baseball through the living room window just to see what breaking glass sounds like and then lie about it to your father, you’ve made two wrong choices. In general, if you have to keep your actions secret, you’ve done the wrong thing. So choosing between right and wrong is fairly easy. But choosing between right and right is much harder.
Here’s an example I used at a forum on this topic earlier this year. It’s 3 a.m. You’re on your way home from the airport, bone tired from a day of travel. You pull to a stop at a red light. No one’s coming. Do you run the light? Convenience may tell you to put the car in gear and keep on going. But, respect for the law keeps you waiting for the light to change. Here we have two goods in conflict, and I hope you’ll agree the good of respecting the law overrides the good of expediency.
Let’s add a wrinkle. It’s 3 a.m. Your wife’s contractions are only a few minutes apart. You hear her groaning and panting in the back seat. The baby is coming any minute now! You pull to a stop at a red light. No one’s coming. Now do you run the light? The good of respecting the law is in conflict with the good of protecting the safety of your family.
Choosing between right and right has a way of helping us clarify our values. Our values define us and guide us on the path of our moral lives. Each of us has a particular hierarchy of values instilled in us by our families and society at large, and our own life experience molds those values into certain shapes. Being followers of Jesus adds another dimension, as we seek to conform our values to the ones he displays in the Gospel. We’ll get to some of those in a minute, but first, we need to get back to Herod.
Herod has two goods in conflict: keeping a promise and saving a life. The narrator clues us in on Herod’s hierarchy of values: “Out of regard for his oaths and for the guests” he acquiesces to his daughter’s grisly appeal. For Herod, protecting John’s life ranks lower in his list of values than both upholding a promise and saving face. In the end, Herod cares much more about his own image than whether John lives or dies.
But remember, Herod is the bad guy. Let’s substitute Jesus in for Herod and see what happens to our hierarchy of values. While Herod was supremely concerned with his own image and standing, Jesus routinely ignored his image because rubbing shoulders with the least and the lost was more important to him. While Herod made outrageous oaths, Jesus said simply, “Let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes’ and your ‘No’ be ‘No.’ ” And while Herod was willing to let John die to save face, Jesus himself was willing to die to save us.
We can start to see Jesus’ hierarchy of values unfold here: Humble service over popular image. Simple honesty over dramatic protestations. Self-sacrifice over self-aggrandizement.
If we are paying attention, even just a little bit, during our day to day lives, we’ll start to notice how often we make choices between right and right. Do you read the whole book for class or do you take a break to keep from burning out? Do you work longer hours to put more money away for your kid’s college or do you make sure to see all your daughter’s dance recitals? Do you keep a friendship intact by not speaking up or do you risk the friendship by letting your friend know you’re concerned about his alcohol consumption?
If all our decisions were between what’s right and wrong, life would be so much easier. But that’s not the way it works. The path of our moral lives stretches before us. Our values are guideposts along the path. And Jesus is walking that path with us, pointing out which values he believes are most important. This sermon’s almost over, so I’m not going to tell you which values those are. Instead, I invite you to spend some time this summer reading the Gospel. Pick Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John – or read all four. They won’t take you too long. As you read the stories about Jesus, write down what he values. And ask yourself how his values fit into your hierarchy. What is his highest good? What is Jesus prompting you to shift around?