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?
Sermon for Sunday, December 14, 2014 || Advent 3B || John 1:6-8, 19-28
Just before his death in 1543, Nicolaus Copernicus published his theory that corrected a long held belief about our planet’s place in the heavens. Initial curiosity by the establishment, including some power brokers of the Church, unfortunately succumbed to the prevailing wisdom of the day that the sun revolved around the earth and not the other way around. When Galileo picked up Copernicus’s theories a few decades later (and we must mention with less diplomatic tact than Copernicus had shown), Galileo was convicted of heresy, compelled to recant, and lived the rest of his life under house arrest. The heads of the Church could not handle this new information that implied we humans weren’t quite as special as they thought. Despite the definitive nature of Galileo’s proofs and despite further corroboration by other reputable scientists, the establishment for many years shut its collective eyes, covered its collective ears, and said, “We’re not listening!”
Humans have always fallen victim to the particular notion that we each exist at the center of the universe. Just examine some common occurrences if you need evidence. When a young man of a certain disposition goes courting, an observer might say, “What does he think he is, God’s gift?” When doctors are accused of “playing God,” it’s often because their own egos have driven them to risky procedures. When the cult of celebrity that grips this country hails the triumphant return of a professional basketball player as the second coming or heeds the flawed advice of a low-wattage movie star concerning childhood vaccinations, then we’re all left to wonder why we don’t have such personal clout. And to top it off, how many of us have been told, when trying to insert ourselves into a friend’s troubles, “This isn’t about you!”
Thinking we are (or we should be) the center of the universe is just part of the human condition, but it’s a part of the human condition in continual need of rehabilitation. And in today’s Gospel reading, John the Baptist gives us a lesson. Recall that one of my favorite things about the Gospel is the fact that people rarely answer questions the way you expect them to. The priests and Levites come to John when he is baptizing in the Jordan and ask him a simple question: “Who are you?” Note how John could have answered as expected: “I’m John, son of Elizabeth and Zechariah, from down yonder a bit. Favorite pastime: baptizing with water. Likes include locusts and wild honey…”
But that’s not what John says. “Who are you?” they ask. And what does John do? He tells them who he is not. “I’m not the Messiah.” His rejection of messiah-hood throws his questioners for a loop and they start grasping at straws: “Are you Elijah? A prophet? Tell us who you are!” If a cult of celebrity exists today, then a similar one, albeit less fed by the fawning media, existed in John’s day. False messiahs cropped up all the time, attracted followers, and then lost them just as quickly when they couldn’t deliver the goods. That’s why, at the beginning of the Gospel, the establishment doesn’t much worry about Jesus. They assume he’s going to fade into obscurity like everyone else. Indeed, John’s denial of messiah-hood was much more newsworthy than claiming it would have been.
With John refusing the identities that the priests and Levites try to pin on him, they decide to ask him point blank: “What do you say about yourself?” They need an answer to bring to their superiors, but John never gives them satisfaction. Even when asked specifically about himself, John doesn’t take the bait. He deflects the attention from himself and shines it on the one who is to come, saying: “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’ ”
John has no delusions of grandeur. He knows his place in the universe. He knows he is not the Messiah. And he also knows his relationship to the Messiah: “He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.” John embraces an identity based in Jesus’ messiah-hood. John is the herald, the special voice that captures people’s attention and turns their eyes to the coming king. “What do you say about yourself?” they ask. And John responds: “My identity is based on the identity of the true Messiah. I am the voice, the herald, the witness. I am the arrow that always points to the one who is coming after me.”
John continues to display this identity throughout his short time in the Gospel. When his disciples see Jesus the next day, John the Arrow points and says, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” He risks losing his own followers because he knows it is not his place to have followers. Later he repeats that he is not the Messiah, calling himself instead the “friend of the bridegroom.” John has now heard Jesus’ voice, so John proclaims: “My joy has been fulfilled. He must increase, but I must decrease.”
How in touch with his sense of self must John have been fully to embrace his identity as the arrow pointing to Jesus. How many of us would have felt jealous when our turn in the spotlight was over? How many of us would have tried to extend our fifteen minutes of fame? But not John. John knows he has no light of his own. He is the moon reflecting the light of the sun.
And so are we. The lesson we learn from John the Baptist today teaches us to delve within and discover our own true identities, the places in this universe where only you and I were made to fit. None of us was made to be the center of the universe, even if the human condition tries to trick us into believing that to be true. Our true identities are gifts from God; therefore, when you fully embrace your identity, when you try it on and it fits better than your favorite pair of jeans, then you will find yourself spontaneously pointing to the true center of the universe, the true light of the world.
Like John, we are arrows pointing to God. I invite you this week to list out all the different facets of your identity and pray about how each one connects back to the One who makes you who you are. Here’s a snippet of mine to get you started: I am a husband and a father. The love for my family that fuels these pieces of my identity comes directly from the love of God. I am a priest and a pastor. My service to God and others springs from the call Christ places on my heart. I am a singer and writer. My inspiration comes from the Holy Spirit’s creativity living within me.
As I continue to list out facets of my identity, I see this pattern continue: I am who I am because of God’s presence in my life. Claiming and proclaiming that presence makes me an arrow like John the Baptist. And not just me: each of us is an arrow pointing to God. Each of us is the moon reflecting the light of the sun.
Copernicus and Galileo knew the earth wasn’t the center of the universe. But they had no idea how far away from it we actually are in space. Recent modeling shows our own solar system is tucked in a corner of the Milky Way galaxy and the Milky Way galaxy is tucked in a corner of a supercluster of galaxies known as Laniakea, and Laniakea is just one piece of a web of superclusters that make up the known universe. We might not be at the center of this universe, but the Creator of it is at the center of ours.