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Advent 3A December 15, 2019

Isaiah 35:1-10
Canticle 3, p. 50 BCP
James 5:7-10
Matthew 11:2-11

Our opening reading from the great prophet Isaiah describes a profound transformation of people, animals, and the whole creation. The disabled are healed. Those who are afraid receive strength. Waters break forth in the wilderness and deserts bloom. All the people and the animals form a joyful procession to Jerusalem.  

Walter Brueggemann writes, “The Bible is relentless in its conviction that nothing that is skewed and distorted and deathly need remain as it is. God’s power and God’s passion converge to make total newness possible….Jesus is remembered and celebrated as the one who permits human life to begin again….The Church in Advent remembers this newness happening in Jesus and prepares itself for the affirmation that God is at work even now to bring the world to God’s powerful well-being.”  (Brueggemann, Texts for Preaching, p. 19.)

Our reading from the Letter of James begins with a loving word of advice, “Be patient, beloved, until the coming of the Lord.” We are called to “strengthen [our] hearts.” We are called not to grumble against each other. We are being asked to calm ourselves, put our roots down deep into the grace and love of God, and wait expectantly for the coming of our Lord.

Last week, we met John the Baptist out in the wilderness preaching repentance. Now he is in jail. John the Baptist has been put in prison by King Herod because he confronted Herod with his immoral behavior. Even though he is locked away, John is hearing news about what the Messiah is doing.

Although John is in prison, his supporters are able to visit and talk with him, and he is able to send some of them to Jesus to ask a very pressing question, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we wait for another?”

Of course, we remember that John confidently proclaimed Jesus as the Savior and asked our Lord to baptize him. Why is he now wondering whether Jesus is the Messiah?

Biblical scholar Beverly Gaventa writes,” One reason for his uncertainty could be his situation in prison. This is the explanation often picked up in sermons on the passage and developed psychologically, that is to say, John is depressed and forgotten in his jail cell, and as his incarceration continues he becomes haunted with doubts. Out of his dejection and discouragement, he sends to question Jesus.”

Gaventa continues, “The text, however, offers a more likely, explanation. In prison John hears about ‘what the Messiah was doing.’ presumably those acts of healing and mercy depicted [in our passage.] To a fierce denouncer of the sins of the people, the Messiah’s primary task must be to carry out the final judgment, to see that the ax is laid to the root of the trees and to burn every tree that does not bear fruit. What sort of Messiah could Jesus be who teaches in the synagogue, preaches the gospel of the kingdom, and heals every disease and infirmity? John seems uncertain, not because of his own plight but because of what Jesus is reputed to be doing. He is not turning out to be the kind of Messiah John expected.

Here is is important to remember that, in the history and writings of the people of God, there were two strands of thought about the Messiah. One was that the Messiah would be a military hero, coming in with great force and conquering the Roman Empire and freeing the people. The other strand was the thinking of prophets such as Isaiah. 

Gaventa continues, “What John needs is a new understanding of who the Messiah in reality is, what sort of work the Messiah does,  and with what sort of people he does it….Seeing and hearing that Jesus is preoccupied with people who have been marginalized by their situations, who can do little or nothing for themselves may represent a threat to some and prevent their accepting Jesus as Messiah. Like John, they expect that the Messiah should be doing more about stopping crime and punishing criminals. They would prefer to wait for another in hopes of finding a leader more to their liking. Jesus alone, however, defined his messiahship.” Gaventa, Texts for Preaching, pp. 26-27.

The scriptures do not tell us how John worked though this issue, but Gaventa’s comments remind us that it is very difficult for some of us to accept the messiah who is so clearly described in Isaiah’s prophecy, a loving savior who brings all of humanity and all of the creation to wholeness, health, and joy.

The text does give us Jesus’ comments on John. Our Lord says that there is no human being who is greater than John. And then our Lord gives us one of his paradoxes. “The least in the kingdom is greater than he.” John is a great man. He is a prophet and he prepares the way of the Savior. Yet, as Gaventa writes, “…the one who is least in the kingdom is greater than John. The age of fulfillment toward which John points is so decisive that even Jesus’ disciples…who understand and share his fulfilling activity, are greater than John. The comment is not made as a rebuke of John, but as an acknowledgment of the surpassing character of the new age dawning in the person of Jesus. It is an age in which disciples are still vulnerable to arrest and imprisonment, but are also changed and empowered to participate in the messianic activity of Jesus.” (Gaventa, Texts for Preaching, p. 27.

We are already following our Lord. We are already disciples. Yes, we are flawed and fallible humans, yet we are already in our process of transformation, and we are working to help our Lord build his Kingdom. Once again, I share an ancient prayer by an anonymous mystic who lived in the fifteenth century.

“Thou shalt know Him when He comes
Not by any din of drums—
Nor the vantage of His airs—
Nor by anything He wears—
Neither by His crown—
Nor His gown—
For His presence known shall be
By the Holy Harmony
That His coming makes in thee. Amen.”

Pentecost 19 Proper 21B RCL   September 30, 2018

Esther 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22
Psalm 124
James 5:13-20
Mark 9:38-50

Our first reading is from the Book of Esther. It is set during the reign of King Ahasuerus, better known to us as Xerxes I (485-404 B.C.) It was actually written around 150 B.C.

The story is in our Revised Common Lectionary because the RSV was created to let us read and learn about stories of women and other marginalized people in the Bible, texts which had not appeared in our earlier lectionaries.

All of our readings today give us good food for meditation, but I want to focus on the entire story of Esther, a courageous woman who saved her people from genocide.

Esther is a Jew. Several generations earlier, her ancestors had been taken from Jerusalem to Babylon during the Babylonian Captivity. Esther had been adopted by her cousin, Mordecai, when her parents died. They are now living in Susa, a city two hundred miles northeast of Babylon.

Mordecai is a minor official in the king’s court. He tells Esther never to tell anyone that she is Jewish. Esther is also part of the king’s court. She lives in the castle as a member of the king’s harem.

The story begins with the king throwing a party for all the leaders of the kingdom from India to Ethiopia. The party lasts for a week, and on the last day the king, who has had more than enough to drink, wants his wife, Vashti, to come in and dazzle the guests with her beauty. Vashti refuses. The king’s sages tell him that he has to take decisive action to discipline her, or all the women will stop obeying their husbands. King Xerxes dismisses her from her job as queen and holds what is essentially a beauty contest to choose a new wife.  Esther becomes the new queen.

Soon after, Mordecai uncovers a plot to assassinate the king. Mordecai tells Esther. Esther tells the king and saves the king’s life. The plotters are hanged on the gallows.

Then Haman, another of the king’s minor officials who is extremely anti-semitic,  and also has a huge ego and a very thin skin, receives a promotion. He becomes the king’s right hand man. The king orders all the other officials to prostrate themselves on the ground whenever Haman approaches. Mordecai refuses to do this. Some of the other officials ask why, and he tells them he is Jewish. The news reaches Haman. In revenge, Haman plans to have all the Jews in the kingdom killed. He convinces the king to issue a proclamation for this genocide, sealing the deal with a huge bribe of ten thousand silver talents.

Mordecai finds out about the decree, puts on sackcloth and ashes, and goes about the streets wailing. Soon all the Jews are in mourning. Esther’s maids and eunuchs hear about this and tell Esther, who sends a trusted servant to ask Mordecai what is going on.

Mordecai gives the servant a copy of the proclamation and tells him about Haman’s bribe. He asks the servant to convince Esther to appeal to the king and save her people.

Esther is terrified. She knows that the king has a law that you do not go to see him unless you are called. If you approach the king without permission, you can be killed. She asks Mordecai to tell all the Jewish people to fast for three days and pray for her.

With this prayer support, Esther does the unthinkable. She goes to the inner court opposite the king’s hall. She could lose her life for this. The king sees her, calls her into the hall, and asks what she wants. She says she wants to invite the king and Haman to a feast the next day, and at the feast she will have a special request of the king. Shortly thereafter, Haman sees Mordecai at the king’s gate, and Mordecai fails to honor  Haman. By the end of the evening, Haman has decided to build a gallows to hang Mordecai for his insolence.

That night, the king has trouble sleeping, so he asks for the book of records. He reads about how Mordecai warned him about the assassination plot. The king is reminded that Mordecai has saved his life. He asks what has been done to honor Mordecai and finds out that nothing has been done.

The next morning, the king asks Haman, “What should be done for the man the king wishes to honor?” Haman of course thinks the king wants to honor him, so he tells the king that the man should be given royal robes that the king has worn and a horse that the king has ridden, and a crown should be placed on the horse’s head, and an official should lead the horse carrying the honoree through the square of the city proclaiming that this is the man the king wishes to honor. The king tells Haman to go and do all of this for Mordecai.

Then comes our reading. We are at the feast Esther has arranged for Haman and the king. Esther bravely tells the king about the planned genocide. The tables are turned. Haman is hanged on the gallows he had built for Mordecai and the king gives Mordecai Haman’s job as his right hand man.

Mordecai sends out a decree that the feast of Purim should be celebrated to honor the Jews’ escape from death.

Esther shows great courage in carrying out her plan. She risks her life and saves her people. She also shows deep faith. What a wise thing—to ask all of her people to fast and pray for her. Those prayers gave her the faith to approach the king.

Haman has great power, and he uses it to promote his anti-Semitic agenda. King Ahasuerus has even greater power, and this time he uses it to promote justice. This little story, only ten chapters in the Hebrew Scriptures, gives us a wonderful example of a courageous woman speaking truth to power and saving many lives. Thanks be to God for people of courage.  Amen.

Advent 3A RCL December 11, 2016

Isaiah 35:1-10
Canticle 15
James 5:7-10
Matthew 11:2-11

Our opening reading from the prophet Isaiah is God’s word of hope to the people who have been in exile in Babylon. They are going to come home. The desert will bloom. “Waters shall break forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert.” There will be springs of water everywhere.

It is a joyful thing to return home, but it is also a fearful thing. God will strengthen the weak hands and the feeble knees, and, perhaps more importantly, God will help us in our fears. Our God tells us to be strong.

And what does God do? God heals the people. The blind see; the deaf hear; the lame person leaps like a deer; those who have not been able to speak sing with joy.

There is going to be a highway in the desert. No one is going to get lost on the way home. No lions or other animals will be there to eat people. The people of God will be able to walk home singing for joy.

The coming of God means a restoration of the earth, healing of the people, peace, and safety.

In our canticle for today, the Magnificat, Mary sings of our God who lifts up the humble and lowly, casts down the mighty from their thrones, feeds the hungry and tells the rich they already have enough.

In our reading from the Letter of James, we are given more guidance as we prepare for the coming of our Savior. We are called to be patient. But this is not a passive waiting. We have the example of the farmer, an example we know very well. The farmer plants the seed, but he or she does not simply sit around and wait. The farmer works hard to do everything possible to help that seed grow. We are called to be patient, but this is an active, aware kind of patience. We are called to be awake and ready for our Lord to come to us, We are called to do everything we can to help his kingdom to grow just as the farmer helps the crops to grow.

In our gospel, we meet John the Baptist once again. This time, the situation is very different. John is no longer on the banks of the River Jordan baptizing people. He is in prison because he confronted King Herod, who had an affair with his brother’s wife. King Herod used his power to put John in prison.

John is wondering about this. If Jesus is the Savior, why am I in prison? I thought the Savior was going to separate the wheat from the chaff and burn the chaff with unquenchable fire. I thought the Savior was going to get rid of the bad guys.

Let us remember, there are two strains in the Hebrew scriptures when it comes to describing who the Savior is. One strain says that he is a mighty military hero who comes in and throws the Romans out and  kills all of his enemies. The other one says that his is a kingdom, not of might and power but of healing and compassion.

John sends some of his disciples to ask Jesus if he really is the Savior or if someone else is going to come along. And Jesus tells them to go back to John and tell him what Jesus is doing—healing people, giving them hope and new life. What Jesus is doing coincides with Isaiah’s description in our first lesson.

And then Jesus tells us that John the Baptist is a great prophet. John is the one sent to prepare the way of the Lord. Yet the least person in the kingdom of Jesus is greater than John. This comment by Jesus reminds me of that wonderful line from the prophet Zechariah, “Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit, says the Lord of hosts. (Zech. 4:6.) It also takes us back to the Magnificat. God exalts the humble and meek.

Mary Hinkle Shore, Assistant Professor of New Testament at Luther Theological Seminary in St. Paul Minnesota, writes,  “The kingdom of heaven is the message and ministry of one who enacts God’s will, not by laying waste to his enemies, but by ‘giving his life a ransom for many.’ “

She says, “When being arrested in Gethsemane, Jesus does not appeal to his Father for ‘more than twelve leagues of angels’ (Matt. 26:53), but goes quietly with his accusers. …To our friends who want to know why things are not better if God’s Messiah has already come, we can say that God’s Messiah chose to combat evil with his innocent suffering and death. This does not answer every question about persistent injustice, nor does it absolve Christians and others from working for the good of all their neighbors. Yet the choice Jesus made for the cross over those legions of angels is testimony that God’s justice, mercy, and peace are probably not as likely to come by means of unquenchable fire as they are by means of suffering love.” (Shore, New Proclamation Year A 2007-8, p. 24.)

As we have noted before, Christ’s kingdom has begun but it is not yet complete. We are living in that in-between time. Part of our work in Advent is looking for signs of God’s justice, mercy, and peace and helping individuals and groups who are working to build God’s kingdom right now. We are blessed to be able to give to the United thank Offering and to Episcopal Relief and Development, and I know that all of you are sharing God’s love in many ways each day.

Years ago a dear friend and colleague gave me this prayer by an anonymous mystic writing in the fifteenth century:

Thou shalt know him when he comes
Not by any din of drums—
Nor the vantage of His airs—
Nor by anything he wears—
Neither by His crown—
Nor His gown—
For His presence known shall be
By the Holy Harmony
That His coming makes in thee.     Amen.

Pentecost 18 Proper 21B RCL September 27, 2015

Esther 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:9:20-22
Psalm 124
James 5:13-20
Mark 9:38-50

Our opening reading, from the Book of Esther, is filled with drama. It tells us about the origins of the feast of Purim, which commemorates the saving of the Jews from Haman’s plot to kill them all. Here is some historical background to the story.

Along with many others,  Mordecai, a Jew, is taken captive when king Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon conquers Jerusalem. Mordecai is taken to the city of Susa, where he becomes a respected member of the king’s court and a trusted advisor to the king. His cousin, Esther, becomes an orphan, and Mordecai takes her into his own home.

Through a series of events, Esther becomes the Queen of Persia. We are now in the reign of King Ahasuerus, which is his name in Hebrew. He is perhaps better known as King Xerxes I, who reigned from  486-465 B. C. Haman, a ruthless, arrogant, and anti-semitic member of the court, is plotting to kill Mordecai and all the Jews in the kingdom. With great courage, Esther appeals to the king to stop this genocide. Because of the antisemitism in the kingdom, she has hidden her Jewish identity, but now she ricks everything to save her people.

Her wish is granted, and Haman is hanged on the gallows he had built for Mordecai. The point of the story is that Esther is a heroine. Like Moses, she has freed her people.

This reading can lead us to all kinds of themes to think about. Our Jewish brothers and sisters suffered the holocaust, one of the greatest horrors in history. Anti-Semitism has no place in the Christian faith. Even today, Jews, Muslims and others are being persecuted in many places. God is a God of love.

The Letter of James is so down to earth, so practical. Are we suffering? What should we do? We should pray. Are we cheerful? We should sing songs of praise. In every circumstance, we should pray.

When we pray, we are asking God to come into the midst of our lives with love and grace.

James says that when we are sick, we should call for the elders of the church to come and anoint us with oil and lay hands on us. Many churches have the laying on of hands and anointing with oil at or after the Eucharist on Sundays. When we are sick or suffering, it is a wonderful thing to share that and ask others to pray for us. James goes on to say that we should confess our sins to one another. In the early Church, this actually happened. People confessed ad received absolution in front of the congregation.

Nowadays, we tend to be more private, but it certainly helps to share our burdens with each other and ask for prayer. We can also confess to each other or we can confess individually to a priest. All of these things lead to spiritual health.

This is one of the wonderful gifts of Grace Church. We do share our burdens with each other. We don’t try to carry them alone. We ask each other to pray for us and for our families. With genuine gratitude to God and the community of faith, we ask for help. We don’t pretend to be perfect. We don’t pretend to be self-sufficient. We ask for help and prayers. And the power of those prayers helps each of us to be more healthy spiritually, emotionally, and physically. And that means that our community of faith is also more healthy, because we are all sharing our burdens and counting on each other and God for help. This is one reason why we do not have strife and division the way James’ community did. Because we know each other as frail and fallible human beings who are trying, with God’s grace, to be faithful followers of Christ, and we are all working together.

Our gospel builds on these themes of God’s love, mercy. and healing. The disciples see someone healing people in Jesus’ name. They ask Jesus whether they should stop the person. Jesus says, absolutely not. If people are doing good things, give them encouragement. Don’t stop them.

He tells them and us not to put barriers in people’s way. If some of these little people are trying to believe in hm, we should help them. We should explain our faith and live our faith in a way that encourages them to believe in Jesus.

And then our Lord tells us that if anything is getting in the way of our following him, we need to get rid of it. Maybe we have an addiction to something. We need to get into recovery. Maybe, like some of his disciples  last Sunday, we are consumed with ambition and we want to be the greatest in his kingdom. We need to revise our thinking. If anything is getting between us and Jesus, we need to ask his help to remove it. Because we want to follow him with our whole heart and soul and mind and strength.

This week is an extraordinary week. Pope Francis has come among us. He is such an extraordinary person, such a holy example, an embodiment of God’s love, mercy, and healing. He has identified himself as someone from an immigrant family and has called us to work together to create an inclusive society in which all persons are treated with respect. He has called us to take climate change seriously and work to protect and preserve our beautiful planet. He has called us to protect the vulnerable people of our world and to work for “reconciliation, peace, and freedom.”

Our beloved bother, Pope Frances lives what he preaches. He causes untold worries for those who are trying to protect him by leaving his Pope Mobile to go out into the crowd and touch people and pray for people who need God’s love and healing. This brings hope and new meaning to people’s lives. To all of our lives. Pope Francis is a living and inspiring example of the points of all our readings today.

May we follow his example.