…And the Greatest of These…

  1 Corinthians 13 A Sermon from The Rev. Linda Mackie Griggs

As I was listening to the Epistle passage from Corinthians I half expected to look out at the congregation and see a bride and groom, gathered families and friends, and a phalanx of groomsmen and bridesmaids. I’m taking a poll: How many of you had this passage read at your wedding? How many have heard it at another person’s wedding?

This is The Wedding Passage. Which would have been quite a surprise to Paul—I can imagine him snorting in Pauline derision. He wasn’t writing with the attitude of a kind old guy offering avuncular advice to a happy dewy-eyed young couple. It was more like, “Don’t make me come down there.”

The Paul’s “first” letter to the Corinthians was his lengthy reply to a litany of questions that the Church had sent to him in response to an earlier letter that he’d written, now apparently lost.

According to New Testament scholar Douglas A. Campbell, the Church at Corinth was, to use a technical term, a mess. It was located in a socially, economically and culturally diverse city in south central Greece, and it was that diversity combined with the success of Paul’s mission that was the core of the problem.  The conflicts that the Corinthians presented to Paul were a toxic combination of rivalry and infighting among factions, conflicts between haves and have-nots, backstabbing and gossip; sexual immorality, real and perceived; and of course there was holier-than-thou in spades. A mess, indeed.

If you’ve seen Rembrandt’s painting, Saint Paul, it depicts the Apostle perfectly for this moment: seated at a writing desk with his pen drooping unheeded at his side, and his head cradled rather sadly in his hand. It’s easy to imagine him trying to figure out what to write next; how to untie the knots of discord that threaten to strangle his young church.

His letter, especially chapters 12 and 13, which we’ve been hearing for the past couple of weeks, is a call to his flock to come into right relationship with one another and to focus on God. In chapter 12 he urges them to embrace the diversity of their spiritual gifts and not to prize one gift above another. He offers them the image of the human body, with its many members, all of value to the One Body, as they are each of value to the Body of Christ. And today, in what is arguably the high point of the letter, he describes the foundation of the Christian faith: and that is Love. Not just any love, but THE Love. The kind of love that is vulnerable, humble, sacrificial, and that was completely countercultural to the Corinthian milieu.

I can’t overemphasize how serious Paul was about this. It really is time to rehear this passage without the preconceptions of over-repetition and weddings dulling its original meaning for the community at the time.

Listen: “If I give away all of my possessions…if I hand over my body…but do not have love, I gain nothing.” Without love, nothing matters.  Nothing. Love never ends. Prophecies, tongues, all of knowledge, for heaven’s sake, will end before Love does.

There is only one thing that is eternal beyond everything. God. The Love that is grounded in God is the foundation for all of Creation, because Love is what God is.

This isn’t sentimental; this is powerful. And Paul knew that his flock couldn’t wrap their heads around it—he writes, “we see in a mirror dimly”—think of how a reflection is distorted in polished silver or brass. Paul asks his church to trust that they would ultimately be able to understand—when they knew God face to face—when they knew Love face to face—they would ultimately understand that to truly love is to participate in God’s very Self.

News Flash: The church today isn’t so different from the Corinthians. I know, it’s hard to believe, but we do have some experience with infighting, gossip, sexual immorality (and conflicts over how to define it), factionalism, elitism, and, yes, holier-than-thou-ism. Shocking, I know, but there it is.

Paul’s urgent message to the church then and now is a call to follow the One who showed the Way of compassion, healing and justice; the One who gave himself—handed over his body—out of love for a broken world. That’s a lot of love– the Love that springs forth from the Source of all that is.

It’s not that we are devoid of Love. It’s not that we have never experienced it in our lives or seen it glimmer in the face of another. But as a society and as a church we have yet to fully realize the power and magnetism of what it is to follow Jesus’ Way of Love. If we were to do this we would become a community that others would look to and say, “What is it about them that draws people in?” and “Can I be a part of that too?” And not because it is a fashionable group to join but because it’s a community that is changing the world.

As I meditated on that painting of Paul at his writing desk (you’ll find it on our website), I imagined that his list of qualities of Love was incomplete—that as verbose as Paul could be, even he could have said more. Think about it. Yes, love is patient and kind and humble and faithful. In what other ways might you describe Love for a community changing the world?

Love is courageous. Love is energetic. Love is creative. Love is trusting and trustworthy. Love leads with compassion and wisdom. Love is just. Love goes to the edges, builds bridges, and loves those whom the world finds unlovable.

Love transforms the Lover and the Beloved.

As I wrote in my epistle in the E-News this week, and as you’ll see in today’s bulletin insert, the Presiding Bishop has launched an initiative that seeks to make the Way of Love into a way of living; incorporating a series of seven spiritual disciplines into a rule of life—a spiritual framework that guides and supports us as individuals and in community. I won’t repeat what is already in front of you, and what is very well articulated on the website  (https://www.episcopalchurch.org/way-of-love ), but I do encourage and invite you to participate in the Diocesan-wide kickoff of The Way of Love on February 16 at St. Mary’s Portsmouth. We’ll begin to explore what it means to Turn, Learn, Pray, Worship, Bless, Go, and Rest as part of our lives, and how we can encourage others to join the journey.

If some of these terms seem somewhat nebulous as spiritual practices, (“Go” as a spiritual practice?)that’s okay—it’s meant to pique your curiosity.This session on the 16th is intended as an opportunity for creativity, worship, fellowship, and inspiration to help us begin to build the framework of these practices in community.

This is for everyone—clergy, lay, ministry leaders and so-called church mice who cannot imagine that the Spirit could ever call them to lead or initiate anything. Who knows? Never say never; let the Spirit surprise you.

I hope you’ll join us on the 16th.

“…And now, faith, hope, and love abide, these three… “ God is calling us to abide—in the Way of Love.

The Breath Of The Lord Is Upon Me

And Jesus came to his hometown of Nazareth on the sabbath. But it’s not just any sabbath. As Richard Swanson points out the accurate translation from the Greek is the day of sabbaths, surely a reference to the day Jews refer to as the Sabbath of Sabbaths -Yom Kippur – the Day of Atonement. So, on one of the holiest days of the Jewish calendar, Jesus comes to his home town and standing up in the synagogue he reads from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah proclaiming his understanding of his mission from God.

It’s a stretch for me to suggest that the day of the parish’s annual meeting is in any sense an equivalent to the Day of Atonement. Yet Annual Meeting Sunday is a time for reflection on the year passed, and a time to rededicate ourselves to meet the challenges and embrace the opportunities of the coming year.

For those of us relatively new to the Episcopal Church, the Annual Meeting is the important anchor the holds our Church governance secure from year to year. It is the best expression of how we as a community hold ourselves accountable to one another. For me, transparency and accountability are not always comfortable concepts but are at the end of the day, essential values to cherish and protect.

Have we been a welcoming community in 2018?

The first signal to the wider world that we are a welcoming community is found when strangers visit stmartinsprov.org. It’s here they encounter the tone of our community.

Physically, a visitor’s encounter with us is set within the first seconds by the warmth of our greeters and the supportive efficiency of our ushers. This year 38 families and individuals completed visitors’ cards. Every completed visitor card was followed up by email or letter during the following week.

Because church going patterns are more variable and flexible these days the traditional measurement of the average Sunday attendance (ASA) is no longer an accurate measure of our size and commitment. Yet, overall impressions from 2018 are that the numbers of new faces we are seeing week by week is an indication that we are becoming a more magnetic community. Yet, our magnetism is only as good as the quality of our welcome and outreach. In 2018 we had increased attendance at both Easter and Christmas services; a measure of our increasing impact in the wider community of fringe church attenders.

Our magnetism is only as good as the quality of our welcome and outreach, and we have to work hard to ensure that the caption The Episcopal Church Welcomes You does not remain our best kept secret.

The contribution from some newer members to the planning and implementation of the St Martin’s Feast this year contributed fresh ideas to the enormous success of this celebration.  It was good to welcome Rabbi Howard Voss Altman from Temple Beth-El as our guest preacher at Choral Evensong.

2018 has seen continued growth among families with young children. The Children’s Ministry flourishes thanks to Linda’s+ leadership and the amazingly strong commitment of parent involvement. The Christmas Pageant this year was certainly evidence of the fruit of this pudding, as was also the Children’s involvement in putting together toiletry care packs for distribution at the Epiphany Soup Kitchen – a ministry where serving growing numbers of the working poor has steadily increased over the past 12th months.

2018 saw the launch of a new men’s fellowship ministry, recently renamed Gander. We have all been astonished by the speed and strength of Gander’s development. You can read more about this in my Gander report in the AM pack.

Have we explored new avenues for sustainability in 2018?

In 2018, the Thrifty Goose, our thrift shop in the basement has undergone a complete makeover. The makeover is a reflection of a transformation in ethos from one of the traditional church charity shop to that of a right livelihood enterprise. Right livelihood enterprise is a term I have imported from The London Buddhist Center which over the years has sponsored a host of RLE’s. These are spirituality -values-based initiatives with a commercial priority as a key objective. I appreciate for some of us, and certainly for some who have given long service as volunteers in the Thrifty Goose, making a profit can seem a jarring concept. Therefore, let me make three comments in this regard.

  1. The primary objective of the Thrifty Goose as RLE is the repurposing of high-quality clothing. Where else can you get a Brooks Brothers shirt for $15, or an article of women’s designer wear for a fraction of its original price tag – not to mention the unearthed treasures from 1950’s and 60’s that have languished at the back of many a wardrobe. Repurposing is not only a spiritual value, it’s also great fun!
  2. The Episcopal Church universally, and not just at St Martin’s is facing a painful revolution in its economic model, which has since 1945 been based on the member pledge. In 2018, our pledge income remained strong; slightly increasing – and thank you for that. However, the longer term stats show our numbers of pledging members growing smaller and will continue to do so as the boomer generation passes-on to God’s greater glory. At this point in time, there is no clear picture of whether millennial and post millennial generations will recover the same level of commitment to the church as a vital institution that contributes to the greater good of our society.
  3. The signals are mixed, and so we need to be open to new ways of thinking about our financial sustainability.

How have we benefited in 2018?

  1. In this last year, Thrifty Goose profits together with that of two estate sales enabled us to devote 10% – the Biblical tithe – of above budgeted profits to outreach, increasing the budget for outreach grants to community projects from $5,000 to $7,000.
  2. In 2018, we gave away $129,615. This is a remarkable achievement, thank you!
  3. Goose profits also enabled us to begin the refurbishment of the Great Hall. The Great Hall is another important potential source of additional income. If you want to know the importance of upgrading our rental facilities just take a visit down city to see Grace Church’s, new state-of-the-art Pavilion. Upgrading and making our church plant accessible for wider community use is a right livelihood activity. My thanks to Brigit Timpson and the team of volunteers for transforming the Thrifty Goose into – if you will excuse the pun – a goose that lays the golden egg.

One big change in 2018

I want to draw attention to changes in our music ministry. Music is a vital component of the way St. Martin’s positions itself in the religious marketplace. We revived the Carol Sing just before Christmas, filling the Great Hall with so many new faces as the wider community came to enjoy the experience of community carol singing. In 2019 we will seek more opportunities to make community music and singing, in particular, part of our programed events.

The Episcopal Church maintains its strong commitment to the Anglican musical tradition in which music regulates the steady drumbeat of the liturgy. A series of developments in 2018 led me to make permanent, the interim arrangements separating the roles of choir director and organist. It’s timely that on the Sunday of this Annual Meeting we have the good fortune to commission two highly accomplished church musicians into each of these roles.

I want to make three additional comments about music.

  1. Under Gabe Alfieri the adult choir has regained much of its strength and through making more use of our paid singers we have been able to reintroduce Evensong (sung vespers) as part of our monthly liturgical schedule.
  2. Gabe has also begun to build a growing and enthusiastic children’s music program, which expanded this last fall from three to ten children regularly attending rehearsals at 6:15pm on Thursdays. This remains an exciting area for our commitment to a children’s ministry outreach in the wider community.
  3. With the arrival of Steven Young as our new organists, I look forward to Steve’s and Gabe’s visioning as together we explore the way the Anglican musical tradition can speak appropriately to our distinctive combination of traditional worship and radical theological messaging.

What have been the challenges faced in 2018?

  1. We are blessed with a beautiful stone building, that as one wag remarked was designed to leak. Beautiful though stone churches may be, they are an increasing burden for modern day communities such as ours. In 2018 the Buildings Committee embarked on a systematic survey of the sources of the multiple water leaks we see all over the church. As a result, we have a better idea of a strategy of staged repairs to fix multiple problems. I am grateful to Peter Lofgren for bringing his architect’s professional knowledge, experience, and network of contacts to bear in charting a way forward in this area of daunting challenge, which with Gordon Partington’s retirement is likely to become more so.
  2. As you will all appreciate, the repair and upkeep of a church like ours is a very expensive affair. Fortunately, our forebears have left to us a moderate endowment to help us with major buildings upkeep. Unfortunately, it’s not large enough for us to feel complacent, and Fla Lewis, chair of the Finance Committee continually warns us against eating our seed corn. Therefore, another gratifying development in 2018 has been the implementation of a Planned Giving strategy. Thank you to the team led by Fla that has opened up our understanding of the variety of ways we can all regularly contribute to the strengthening of the Endowment in addition to contributing to routine running expenses.
  3. We cannot function without the generosity of all our volunteers. However, in 2018, despite some of us devoting serious time and talent to supporting our community life, we are experiencing a volunteering crisis, as there seems to be fewer people than needed to do what needs to be done.  The sharp decline in our volunteer culture is complex and multifaceted, a reflection of wider societal shifts, with the church playing a less central role in our social lives. We must guard against an assumption that there is always someone else to do what we choose not to do; someone else who will be prepared to plug the gap left by our lack of engagement. Let me emphasize, there isn’t!

As your rector, I see my role as one of nurturing healthy community through the stimulation and encouragement of lay-led ministry initiatives. As ministerial priests, it is Linda’s+ and my role to call all of you into the fullest possible participation in the New Testament’s vision of the responsibilities of all the baptised as a royal priesthood of all believers.

You have heard me say many times that it’s important to follow your passion in choosing a ministry to participate in. But this statement is also a double edged sword for its corollary is – if you wait to be gripped by passion then you might end up doing nothing at all. We no longer have the luxury of carrying members who do not participate in strengthening this community with their generous giving of time, talent, and treasure. Commitment to action is not an optional choice for Christians.

Jesus accepted God’s mission for him as he read from the words of II Isaiah.

He stood up to read.
       It was given to him: a book of the prophet Isaiah.
            He opened the book; he found the place where it stood written:
                 A breath of haShem (the Lord) upon me
                           because of which he anointed me
                                to bring good news to the poor.
                      He sent me,
                           to proclaim
                                to exiled captives:
                                     release;
                                to blind people:
                                     seeing again;
                           to send those who have been crushed into release,
                     to proclaim a year of haShem acceptable.
        He rolled the book. He gave it back to the attendant.
            He sat. The eyes of all in the synagogue
                      were staring at him.
        He began to say to them:
                  Today it has been fulfilled,
                       this writing, in your ears.

Richard Swanson

As members of Christ’s body in the world we are Jesus’s followers in this time and place and therefore our intentions and actions matter to God!

By any measurement 2018 was a fruitful year for our community. On behalf of all of us let me thank you! I especially want to thank those members of the Vestry who are rotating off from their three year commitment. As we begin 2019, let the year of the Lord’s favor be fulfilled in our lives. God’s love makes claims; claims that render us accountable to God and to one another.

Transformation

2 Epiphany Year C  21 January 2019 . John 2: 1-11

         the Rev. Linda Mackie Griggs

Jesus said to them, “Fill the jars with water.” And they filled them up to the brim. He said to them, “Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward.” So they took it.

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, amen.

The steward’s was one of those jobs where you didn’t want to be noticed. Because if you’ve been noticed, it means you’ve screwed up. His job, and that of the people who worked under him, was to be anonymous. Anonymity meant seamlessness; that all was well, and no one would yell at you, or worse.

Yet in spite of his best efforts, meticulous planning and endless preparation, his anonymity was in serious jeopardy. The weeklong wedding celebration was still a couple of days from ending, and they were out of wine. He had already heard a woman whispering to her son, “They have no wine.” Soon everyone would know. And it was his responsibility.

He didn’t hear the man’s response to his mother; instead the steward had hurried to tell the bridegroom about the brewing disaster. His heart was in his mouth. How could this happen? Everybody was supposed to contribute to this celebration—that’s they way it was supposed to work—but it hadn’t. Where in the world would they get enough wine to serve the rest of this party?

He didn’t notice the servants. They remained unheeded, except for the attention of the woman and her son, who quietly told them to fill the jars. They had no idea how jars of bathing water would solve the problem, but theirs was not to question or raise a fuss. So, as quietly and covertly as possible, they set about following the stranger’s instructions. Six heavy jars filled to the brim. By the time they were finished they were sweating, but they had done the work, while the steward panicked and the guests—at least for the time being—paid them no mind.

The stranger—what did he just do? Did he speak, or touch the water somehow? It happened so fast—then he asked them to ladle out some… no, wait. Abundant, garnet-colored, and fragrant with berries and late summer sun… What had they just witnessed? Who was this man?

The steward, mystified—and incalculably relieved—distributed the wine to the guests, and then returned to his blessed anonymity; yet with the knowledge that he had been part of something extraordinary. But the servants—the carriers of the water, the silent ones on the edge of the party—would they ever be the same? I like to think not. I like to think that this was a life-changing encounter for them. This is a glimpse of the Dream of God.

In this, the first of the miracles or “signs” in John’s Gospel, intended to illuminate his identity as the Son of the Living God, Jesus has wasted no time in upending the customary perception of who are insiders and who are outsiders. This is not a story of the bridegroom and his new bride, nor of the glittering days-long nuptial celebration with its honored guests and healthy dowry. No; the ones privileged to witness the miraculous transformation of the ordinary into the sacred are themselves the ordinary ones; the unnoticed ones who faithfully do their work on the margins. The ones that no one usually notices unless something goes wrong. Jesus privileges the unprivileged, inviting them to join with him in revealing that the Dream of God is at hand.

So we have here an open-and-shut case of Kingdom inversion; a perfect example of how Jesus turns our expectations upside-down and gives everyone a seat at the table at God’s banquet. Right? Not so fast.

Sometimes, when reading Scripture, something bothers you, like a puzzle piece that won’t fit. The easy thing to do is ignore it and move on—address the parts that make sense and that do fall neatly into place. But the problem is, no matter how hard you try to complete the picture—that hole is still there, waiting to be addressed.

If this were an open-and-shut case of Everybody Is Welcome to God’s Party, wouldn’t the servants have gotten to drink the wine? But they didn’t. They passed it to the steward, who passed it to the bridegroom, and the guests went on as if nothing had changed. This is disturbing. And it should be.

Jesus privileges the servants; the unprivileged and the unnoticed. They (and the disciples) witnessed an amazing miracle. But for the hosts and the rest of the guests, that miracle took place without their knowledge. The wine shortage crisis, so quickly and quietly averted, might never have happened. Except that it did. Right under their noses.

Surely there is a parable here; a parable that imagines us as the wedding guests, blissfully unaware of the work of the Kingdom that calls to them from the anonymous margins.

Perhaps this parable is telling us that the transformation of ordinary to sacred—of scarcity to abundance– is incomplete unless and until we participate in it. Perhaps it is calling us to take notice of that which has been unnoticed—until there is a crisis.

As Fr. Mark has noted in his weekly epistle, the partial government shutdown has become a matter of increasing concern, especially to the 800,000 workers and their families who are directly affected. I confess to a degree of complacency in the early days–I hadn’t given much thought to the impact the hitherto unnoticed work of so many people has on the rest of us–people often working quietly on the sidelines— the Coast Guard, the TSA, air traffic controllers, the IRS, the Park Service, the FDA–  for not a whole lot of money. They make so many aspects of our lives run more smoothly and safely and we haven’t paid much attention– until now. And as the shutdown goes on we hear stories of parents skipping meals so their children can go to daycare or the doctor. Frantic negotiations with landlords and utilities to put off bills until the paychecks start flowing again. This isn’t just a story of political conflict—it is a deeply human story that goes to the heart of who we are called to be as Christians—to seek and serve Christ in all persons, and to respect the dignity of every human being.

Dr. King, who we honor this week, had a name for what we are called into. He said,

Our goal is to create a beloved community and this will require a qualitative change in our souls as well as a quantitative change in our lives.

MLK

There are signs that eyes are opening to this crisis. Reports abound of local efforts, like Roger Williams University’s offering of free meals to Coast Guard families, restaurants serving free dinners to furloughed workers, while customers of those same restaurants donate funds to help. Food banks, like the ones at PICA and Camp Street Ministries are opening their doors wider and need our extra support, which is why we’re encouraging everyone to be generous with your donations of non-perishable goods in the baskets at the back of the church. Eyes are opening. The unnoticed is being noticed. It’s what the New York Times calls “a makeshift national safety net, stitched together by private businesses, banks, local governments, organized labor and charitable organizations…spreading slowly and unevenly across the United States…”

Transformation – a qualitative change in our souls – like water into wine, from the ordinary into the extraordinary. From complacency into generosity. Whispers of the Beloved Community.

The story of a single miracle tells us who Jesus is. The rest of the story, being written right now, is what tells us who we are, and who we can be: filling the glass to the brim and offering everyone a drink. Amen.

servant and water jar

Stories of Birth and Adoption

There is more than one way to tell a story.

The New Testament offers us four different accounts of Jesus’ identity as Son of God. They differ so markedly that to the modern ear they can’t all be true. In fact, the modern, factually attuned ear probably will dismiss all of them as fairy stories.

Matthew and Luke both offer birth narrative’s rich in magical realism. These are stories of angels, shepherds, wise men, a genocidal king, and a star. As in our glorious children’s Christmas Pageant, we often combine the cast of characters -angles, shepherds, wise men, and the star appearing in a compilation of Matthew and Luke’s stories -run together as if they are the same story. But there is a different cast of characters in each story.

Matthew highlights the Jewish origin and identity of Jesus as the new Moses. His opening sentence begins –An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham. His story focuses on Joseph, and is populated with angels, wise men, a wicked king and a star and ends with a heart-rending (because of the events on our southern border) detail of flight from persecution – And an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain until I tell you”.  …Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod.

Luke presents Jesus as God’s son who is the universal savior of humanity. The focus of his story is Mary and the birth of Jesus witnessed not by kings but by the to the ordinary people of the land. Luke’s story locates the birth within the wider context of the Roman world- In those days, a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. Luke’s opening sentence addresses one Theophilus – a Greek or Roman patron? We don’t really know. But Theophilus signifies Luke’s sense that through the birth of Jesus God is speaking to the whole world and not only to Israel.

Matthew and Luke, though relating the same event, each lend a different coloring of meaning to the story of Jesus’ birth

In John the language of magical realism is replaced by that of a more science-fiction bent. Instead of an infant birth, John’s Jesus enters into the world through a cosmic creation event that harkens back before the dawn of time – in the beginning, already was the Word (Jesus) and the Word was God.

On Christmas Eve I spoke about the Matthew, Luke, and John stories and as I was greeting worshipers after the service a man came up to me and asked why I had omitted to mention Mark’s account? The reason, I explained, is that Mark offers no account of the birth of Jesus at all. His first mention of Jesus is as a fully-grown man – in those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.

In year three of the Lectionary we read about the baptism of Jesus from Luke’s version of the story which he basically copies from Mark. Challenged on Christmas Eve, I was quick to make justification for omitting Mark. But was I correct in doing so? On deeper examination although neither a birth story nor a cosmic genesis event, the Marcan story of Jesus’ baptism is nevertheless a birth story of sorts; a story of birth through adoption. God’s voice booms from heaven: this is my son in whom I am well pleased.

The Marcan story of Jesus’ baptism is nevertheless a birth story of sorts; a story of birth through adoption. God’s voice booms from heaven: this is my son in whom I am well pleased.

In what sense is Jesus God’s son?  Behind the question of how Jesus becomes God’s son lies the deeper question of identity. What is identity and how does it come about? Is identity – that sense of who we feel ourselves to be and who others recognize us being –the fruit of birth or adoption. Are we born into self-identity or do we become ourselves through adoption -i.e. the choices we make?

On January 4th I went for my U.S. citizenship application interview. I had memorized the answers to all 100 possible questions but only got asked six of the easiest. I’m not complaining mind, but if I am honest, I felt a little short changed by the lack of challenge. Anyway, I am relieved to say my application was approved.

On hearing of the news one Phoenix friend exclaimed: my God, what have you done? I assured him that all I had given up was the right to foreign titles so henceforth he would have to stop addressing me as Viscount.

The point of my relating all this is that when sworn-in, I will hold citizenship of three countries – only one of which is a citizenship conferred by birth. My American citizenship will be by adoption. So, does that make me less of a citizen than any of you who are citizens by birth? In the atmosphere of the current immigration controversy, this is a question that should focus our minds.

For each one of us, the interplay between the significance of being born-into and adoption of identity will vary. I have known a number of persons for whom this interplay is a painful one; resulting from the experience of being adopted by parents other than those who gave birth to them. The experience of infant or child adoption for many raises excruciating questions of identity because for most of us, identity is primarily shaped by factors of birth. For others, and I count myself among this group, the most important aspects of identity flow from processes of adoption.

Within each of us, identity is multifaceted resulting from the interplay between being born into and becoming by adoption. Some aspects of our identity are firmly rooted in birth identity. Yet, many other aspects of identity come through adoption, i.e. the decisions we make.

The story of the baptism of Jesus is a very important one for us. You and I do not aspire to the status of children of God through the accident of our birth. Neither is our claim to be children of God a product of some pre-existent cosmic status. We become the children of God through adoption. Like God’s adoption of Jesus – this is my son on whom my favor rests – it is through baptism that we too become adopted as those in whom God is well pleased.

The writers of the New Testament understood that there is more than one way to tell a story. In fact, they seem to have realized that in order to do justice to the complexity of the confluence of human and divine identities in the human life of Jesus several different, yet overlapping stories were needed. A story of identity through birth alongside a story of identity by adoption remind us that the most significant source of identity is very often not the one we are born into but the one we choose for ourselves, the one we are adopted into.

The late Biblical scholar Marcus Borg once commented that the Bible is true and some of it actually happened.

What he meant was that truth is more than the recording or relating of an event as if it’s only a set of facts awaiting reporting. Truth resides in the enduring quality of a narrative – a story constructed to talk about the meaning of an event. Stories that bear the hallmark of truth are stories that not only align with our experience of the world but encourage in us to be better than the current versions of the people we happen to be.

Adoption takes us to the heart of what it means to have faith. Faith is not an accident of birth but something deliberately chosen.

Birth is an accident from which we can take neither credit nor bear blame. Adoption, now this is another matter! For adoption is always about a conscious choice, a deliberate decision made, a clear direction chosen.

To be fully human is to become most like God. To be baptized is a choice taken to live in the conscious knowledge and self awareness of our adopted status; that to be fully human is to be most like God.

Pilgrimage

Epiphany                  6th January 2019 . Matthew 2: 1-12   

             As sermon from The Rev. Linda Mackie Griggs

“A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.’
And the camels galled, sorefooted, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
and running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.”

T.S. Elliot’s The Journey of the Magi

No satins and silks and elaborately decorated turbans here, kings perched regally on patient camels treading the soft desert dunes, silhouettes against the starlit sky. Eliot draws us instead into the grit, sweat and uncertainty of the Wise Men. They followed the Star obediently, but not always willingly; and tormented by doubt. Was this indeed “all folly”? they know that when they returned they, and their world, would never be the same?

Did they know that they were pilgrims?

They were probably astrologers, though we often refer to them as kings. They were probably from Babylon, because Babylon was a center for astronomical studies and curiosity about portents written in the stars. Matthew’s intent in making this a part of the birth narrative of Jesus was to symbolize the spread of the Gospel beyond the geographical and spiritual boundaries of Judaism; to foreshadow Jesus’ Great Commission at the end of the Gospel, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit…”

But for us this story is more than symbolism and foreshadowing. They have their place, but it’s not literary structure that makes today’s Feast of the Epiphany what it is. Epiphany, or the manifestation of Christ, the Light of the World, to the Gentiles, is significant because it’s what makes Christmas more than an isolated event. Epiphany invites us to ponder, not just what the Magi brought to the Christ Child, but how they were illumined by what they found when they arrived. What gifts did they discover there?  Who were they when they returned home? Because that’s what defines pilgrimage—a journey that transforms the traveler. Epiphany invites us to see the Magi as pilgrims and to see ourselves in their journey.

We have made our way through another year—some more unscathed than others, but all touched by a trek, sometimes a slog, through months of good news and bad, accompanied along the way by friends, colleagues, family and strangers who made their mark on our lives—at times gentle, and at times bruising.  A hard time we have sometimes had of it. There were moments when we wished we could go back to How Things Were Before—whatever that means to each of us.  But Time kept nudging us onward. Wondering, sometimes (go ahead, admit it) Is it all folly?

It’s not. Not if we know that we are pilgrims. That we are not just travelers from birth to death, stopping here and there along the way with no purpose but to say we’ve done it. That’s what tourists do. And Epiphany tells us that we are not tourists.

Why is this distinction important? Because the Christmas encounter with the Christ Child dares us to ignore it. Dares us to go forth from the manger unchanged. Dares us to return to our homes empty-handed, without having discovered the gifts that we have received on this pilgrimage to Bethlehem.

And this is the fundamental point. While gold, frankincense and myrrh were the symbolic gifts of kingship, divinity and death, the gifts that were illumined by the Wise Ones’ meeting of the Christ Child were anything but symbolic. And they are revealed to us, and within us, as surely as they were in those three sweaty and exhausted travelers.

Epiphany is the result of our encounter with Jesus—it is the “aha!” moment of realization, not only of who he is, but of who he calls us to be. Epiphany is the illumination of the gifts that equip us for the journey back into a world that can never be the same if each of us cherishes and shares what we have been given—indeed that has been within us from the very beginning.

What is it that we have been given?

Father Richard Rohr names three things as the soul’s foundation; they are Faith in the fundamental goodness of Creation; Hope for the ultimate reconciliation of humanity with God, each other, and Creation; and Love—a deep knowledge that each of us is beloved of God. Faith, Hope, Love. These are the gifts we are called to carry away from the Manger, and to offer to the world as we return homeward. And if we listen carefully, we may hear an invitation to something new in our lives—a new challenge, transition or vocation. Listen: That’s Epiphany inviting, no, daring us toward transformation—to go home by another way. Do we dare heed its call?

How much more perfect can it get that today we baptize a child whose name, Sofia, means “wise”? Sofia was Baby Jesus in the Christmas Pageant. She was a delight– so alert and interested—she was fascinated with a little battery-powered candle that one of the angels was holding nearby. Sofia was going for that light. She would have that light. And when she got it, she stuck it right in her mouth. (No, children; do not try this at home—just enjoy the metaphor, okay?) As Sofia begins her life’s pilgrimage as a member of the Household of God, may she never stop radiating the light of Christ that shines upon and within her today, and may the gifts of Faith, Hope, and Love sustain and strengthen her for her journey.

Belief: A Matter of Choice

A sermon from the Rev. Mark Sutherland, 9 pm Christmas Eve, 2018

Increasingly, I have come to understand that stories are all we have and that human beings create meaning from the stories they construct. Contrary to popular perception, meaning is not something lying around waiting to be discovered. It’s only through the construction of stories, that we bring meaning and purpose to life.

Each one of us creates or constructs individual stories to explain our experience of the world. Together, as cultures, faith traditions, communities, and nations, we construct our collective stories- stories that tell us about our origins, who we presently are, and why we are here. Both as individuals and as communities our stories mold and shape our perceptions of self and the world. Our stories once brought to life, make claims upon us.

Christmas is a story about how God becomes known not through timeless mystery but within the flow of events that forms our shared human history.

There is always more than one way to tell a story. I can tell my own life story as a story of a glass half full. Or I can reframe this story to take account of my actual experience of abundant grace and generosity – a story of a glass overflowing. This second way of telling makes the quality of my experience ever more fruitful.

As we all have multiple stories from among which to make choices, so we discover that Christmas is not one story, but multiple stories.

Matthew’s birth of Jesus story is really about Jesus and Joseph and the fulfillment of Israel’s long dream of a new Moses. In Matthew it’s the kings of the earth who come to pay homage to Israel’s infant king. Like Moses, Matthew has Jesus taken down into Egypt, but not as prince but infant refugee in the company of his parents, who are in flight to protect the young boy-king’s life. In 2018, we identify with this story of forced migration and flight to safety as the world is rocked by the largest global movement of peoples, now on course to exceed that in the aftermath of the Second World War. Choosing to believe in response to Matthew’s version of the story might help us to clarify what are the priorities for us in the current immigration debate that conflicts us as a society.

Luke’s birth story is about Jesus and Mary. In Mary, an adolescent girl, pregnant out of wedlock and scared out of her wits by the dangerous predicament she finds herself in becomes an image of courage born of vulnerability. On Advent 4, in Truth: Stranger than Fiction, I wrote about how in 2018, Mary’s story evokes powerful resonances to the #me too movement. Luke’s story is about the role we human beings play as the essential agents who collaborate with God’s dream of putting the world to rights. Luke’s Jesus is a universal savior, born in utter obscurity, witnessed not by kings but by illiterate peasant shepherds and field hands. Luke’s Jesus is born among the outcast and excluded, those of us who are of little account in this world.

John’s story offers a further take on the birth of Jesus. There is no Joseph, no Mary, no wise men, and no shepherds or angels. In contrast, John constructs a narrative in which Jesus’ birth is reframed as a new Genesis event  – that harkens back to the very origins of the creation, itself.

John’s opening words are: In the beginning —–. In the beginning, when God created the heaven and earth, the Word already was. Logos, translated in English as Word, points to the action of God in creation. Jesus is the Word -that is, God in action communicating outwards through the energies of light and love. In the birth of Jesus, God the creator of heaven and earth now self-reveals in the contours of a human face and in the unfolding events of a human life.

From his opening words, John quickly sketches out his plot line. God’s self-giving as the Word, has come into the world, but the world is not ready for this and fails to recognize what God is doing. Because the world remains interested in pursuing its status quo, when we make the choice to believe under the influence of John’s story we become the change we long to see.

Each Evangelist constructs a story that makes sense of Jesus birth in the context of their own time and place. Each of these stories poses for us a challenge of particular choices, accepted or refused.

We modern Westerners like to know if something is true or not. We tend to treat the birth narratives in the Gospels as fairy stories, which for many of us places them in the not true category and consequently of no value to us. But the question – is this story true or not true is the wrong question because it doesn’t get us to where we need to be in relation to story. The real question is: what implications flow from believing or not believing in this story? Essentially, these are questions about choice. We choose whether to find value or not in these large faith stories.

The choice of story is always ours. The enchanted magical-realism of the Matthew and Luke stories of Jesus’ birth among angels, shepherds, and wise men may no longer speak to us as it once did in previous generations. Yet, buried in these stories lie a set of tensions: between safety versus risk; between invulnerability and vulnerability; between collaboration and resistance; insiders or outsiders.

In its cosmic expansiveness, John’s narrative might better speak to those of us with science-fiction rich, post-modern imaginations as once Matthew and Luke’s enchanted birth stories functioned for the pre-modern mindset. For me, John’s more cosmic and expansive reframing of the Creator’s entry into the heart of the creation fits better with my sci-fi – Quantum field influenced imagination. Picture

in the beginning, was the Word, the Word was with God  ….. the light shining in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it  ….. and Word became flesh and lived among us  …..and we have seen his glory …..God’s only son full of grace and truth.

John 1

scrolling across the wide screen of a new Star Wars postquel epic.

I believe in the power of these gospel stories to change lives. I believe in these stories, not because I mistake them for literal descriptions of true events, but because to not believe in their message impoverishes and limits my imagination, reframing my own self-limiting life story. I choose these stories to live by because they are large stories that challenge the forces that resist the transformation of our world into a better place from what it currently is.

Good stories break the power of the illusion that we have no choice – as if there are no other stories to draw from – or no other ways to reframe the stories we have. Viewed in this way, the Christmas story might be worthy of our closer consideration?

A Christmas Blessing

May the stories we choose to live by – enliven us to the invisible geography that invites us to new frontiers, breaking the dead shell of yesterdays, risking being disturbed and changed, giving us courage to live the lives we long to love, and to postpone no longer the life we came here to live and waste our hearts on fear no more.

My paraphrasing from John O’donohue A Morning Offering

Yes

Virgin and Child Embracing by Giovanni Batista Salvi 

A sermon from the Rev. Linda Mackie Griggs – Christmas Eve, 4:00 pm,  24 December 2018

And so, all Creation waits for the birth of the Christ Child.

Someone once told me that, for God, Resurrection is easy. It’s Incarnation that’s hard. Imagine being God, and squeezing yourself down into this fleshy unpredictable body, filled with emotions and plans and aspirations, faced with the highs and lows of making it from one day to another, weighed down by the past, uncertain about the future, and unable to rest in the present. Imagine choosing to be this fallible, and vulnerable, and finite.

It does give one pause. Emmanuel. God With Us – God With Us.

Chaotic, mixed-up, not-always-very-loveable Us. Wow!

Which is why we’re here tonight.

A few months ago I read an article called, “Becoming Human.” Only it wasn’t about God becoming human; it was a thought-provoking observation that we are not born human; that actually we become human by a process that involves negation– separating ourselves from different aspects of existence, specifically from God, from Nature, and from Society. The author says that we choose to become human when we establish our distinctness as individual creatures with unique capacities to think and reason within ourselves, without reliance upon an exterior Divine presence, or upon social pressures and demands. He says that when we choose to be part of this process we thus avoid the risk of falling prey to the echo chambers and groupthink that currently threaten to destroy us. And he has a point, especially in the current environment—we do have a responsibility to think independently and creatively as part of our social and civic communities. But here is what saddens me about his argument:

The author writes, “To be human is to preserve, inside oneself, against all forms of social pressure, a place of intimacy and secrecy into which the greater whole cannot set foot.”

Not even God.

How lonely that must be!

The author, Bernard-Henri Levy, is not a theologian. His perspective is more a view of what is, than it is a view of what we are called to be. I think he is looking at our world today and fears for it, and sees a remedy in a form of self-protection; nothing out there will protect us, so we need to protect ourselves. I wonder if he has actually shed light on something crucial; that we have, in fact, preserved those secret places he talks about too well, and as a result we are, as a society, more and more alienated from one another, from creation, and from the call of God to live lives of reconciliation and healing. So the question here is: Is negation and self-protection the ultimate goal of becoming human?

Nope. Negation is not the Good News!

We are here tonight because God says Yes.

Yes to Creation.

Yes to us.

Crazy mixed-up not-always-very-loveable Us.

So what does it mean to be human? It is the opposite of negation and self-protection. It is to seek relationship. We seek to love and to be loved; to return the gaze of love that we first knew as babies, gazing into the eyes of our parents. We seek it because we are made in God’s image, and God’s nature is love. Love is transitive—it needs an object in order to be complete. It needs a Yes—the relationship of one to another, mutually giving and receiving.

So the question tonight is not what is it for us to become human, it’s what does it mean that God became human?

A mother of a five-year-old settled her son into bed—story read, last cup of water, last trip to the bathroom, prayers, night-nights and I-love-yous said, door gently closed:

“Mo—om?” Sigh. “Yes sweetie.” “I’m scared.” “There’s nothing to be scared of—you’re safe in bed and I’m right in the next room.”“But. It’s DARK in here, and I’m all alone!” “You’re not alone, precious; God loves you and is right there with you.” “I know God loves me! But I need somebody with skin on!”

Yes. That’s it. Jesus is God’s yes. With skin on.

God has declared God’s enduring, abundant and undying love for us by entering into history. Entering the darkness that threatens to overwhelm us—that tempts us into giving up on a world wrapped in fear. God counters our no’s of anxiety, self-doubt and negation by calling us to bloom outward from our hearts; to risk embracing Creation and our neighbor—even the ones who drive us nuts.

And how better to do that than to be born among the creatures of God, on a night filled with stars, visited by smelly shepherds and Eastern sages, sung to sleep by the tired loving voices of his parents, as the angels’ music fades gently into memory?

Emmanuel. God, with us. Creation waits, holding her breath. And God whispers, “Yes!”

Truth: Stranger than Fiction

This looks a long recording as the recorder ran over. The actual sermon time is around 14 minutes only

How old is she, I wonder? 12-13-14 years-old? We don’t know. What we do know is that she’s just a girl. Maybe a girl already betrothed, but a girl nevertheless. A girl betrothed as was the custom of her people. But a girl according to the betrothal custom of her people should not have yet come to know the man to whom she is betrothed in the intimacy of sexual intercourse. She hasn’t, – well as far as she knows. Yet, how to explain the strange stirrings in her belly? Whatever – however – these things are happening. Mary is very, very scared.

She’s scared, and yet, somewhere deep inside her she feels something else, a consolation, a rightness that defies all rationality. At night her mind flits to-and-fro, back and forth. One moment calm, she feels the assurance of a consolation. In the next moment – the grip of terror takes hold once again.

Two questions vie within her.  What is happening to me? A question that stirs her curiosity. Only to be followed by another question: what will Papa do to me when he finds out?

St Martin’s, Providence, is one of the finest examples of both English domestic Gothic form and ecclesiastical Arts and Crafts in New England, if not wider afield. It has both nave and clerestory levels of stained-glass windows telling the story of faith and life. Although put in over a 40-50-year period, all the windows stylistically conform to a master schematic – presenting a holistic integrity in style and an orderly progression of themes. Like the Medieval cathedrals and churches, St Martin’s windows are more than decoration, they tell the story of Christian faith and Western culture.

The nave windows form a progression in which the story of Jesus’ life unfolds in sequential chapters. The first window begins with the chapter occurring before the one we hear about in Luke’s Gospel on Advent IV – the announcement from the archangel Gabriel to this 12-13-14?, year-old girl. The next window depicts the events of Luke 1:39-55. In this window we see two adult women, one clearly middle-aged while the other in the full bloom of early womanhood. Both sit appearing to be in conversation; each depicted with a boy toddler – two maybe there year old, sitting in their lap.

St Martin’s Visitation Window

This is the window that depicts the event we call the Visitation, when Mary journeys some distance to visit with her older cousin, Elizabeth. Elizabeth is also pregnant. Again, her pregnancy, like Mary’s is unexpected. But in her case, the surprise is one that defies biological rather than social convention, because Elizabeth is decidedly post-menopausal.

There are deeper strands of significance weaving through this story of Luke’s. Elizabeth and Mary are cousins. Luke tells us that Elizabeth is married to Zechariah, and that Zechariah is of the priestly clan. Luke, here, clearly wants us to know that Mary too is of a priestly family, thus telling us how Jesus is connected into the institutions of his Hebrew people. For his readers, this is a matter of some importance in supporting their claim that Jesus is the one promised to Israel. Elizabeth’s son is John the Baptist, who is not simply the cousin to Jesus, son of Mary, but the prophetic Elijah, who later the wilderness will announce the arrival of the promised one.

One final comment about the Visitation window. This window is clearly a euphemized depiction, a pleasant cover for the unpleasant or embarrassing truth of the actual event.

At the time of their meeting, neither woman has yet given birth. Yet, here they are with two toddlers in their laps. Perhaps the explanation for this lies in the year the window was made – 1924, a period when WASPy social convention was clearly uneasy with the depiction of pregnancy in the sacred precincts of the church. This is how we dress-up, gloss over in order to distance ourselves from the rawness of the biblical story.

Back to Luke’s actual story –  In those days, Mary went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country. Because of the discrepancy in their ages, it seems probable to assume Mary’s and Elizabeth’s relationship is one more typical of niece and aunt. Maybe this is the reason Mary has come to Elizabeth. Uncertain of her own mother’s reception of her news – she comes to the woman who has always looked out for her and whom she knows will protect her. Mary rises early, and with haste, flees to the bosom of her aunt.

Mary leaves in haste, because she is very, very scared. She lives in a society that practiced honor killing for girls made pregnant outside wedlock. Though betrothed to Joseph, Mary is not yet locked into the social convention of weddedness that would explain and approve her pregnancy.

The Law of Moses dictated that a girl in Mary’s predicament was to be stoned to death. But Mary is from a priestly family and a special method of honor killing was prescribed for her. In priestly families, the daughter in Mary’s predicament was to be strangled by her father at the door of their house.

So, Mary sets out with haste – in flight – to the protection of her aunt – in the distant hill country of Judea. It’s speculation, but maybe she continued in the seclusion of Elizabeth and the kindly Zechariah’s protection until the middle-aged Joseph agreed to marry her. But that is part of Matthew’s telling of this story, not Luke’s.

Luke’s story is about two women the elder protecting the younger from the harshness of the patriarchal heart. Between Elizabeth and Mary lies a recognition and a solidarity that is the ancient echo of a very modern #me too moment, because the vulnerability of women to the hardness of the patriarchal heart is a story older than time.

Luke take an earlier song of a woman’s jubilation – Hannah’s song from the second chapter of the first book of Samuel – and transposes it into Mary’s key. Mary sings out in jubilation the story of God’s generosity towards her, and through her, to generations yet to come.

What is the essence of Mary’s jubilation? It is that at a deeply intuitive level she perceives the significance of her acceptance; of the exercise of her individual responsibility to participate in God’s dream for the world. She sings out:

It extols,
  my life does,
   haShem.[1]  
It rejoices,
   my breath does,
   at Elohim[2] my deliverer.
 Because Elohim looked on the humility

   of his female slave.

Mary sings out that this is a dream for justice, of putting to rights those things that are currently so very wrong:

His mercy extends
into birthings and birthings
of those reverencing him.

He made strength with his arm,
 he scattered those visibly superior
  by the intentions of their wills.  
He put down the capable from thrones
    and exalted the humble ones.  
Hungry ones he filled full of worthy things,
     rich ones, out and away he sent them,

         empty. [

Richard Swanson’s evocative translation

How will the Messiah – the promised one – come? He will come in obscurity, through the courageous cooperation of human agents like Mary and Joseph, Elizabeth and Zechariah.

In the womb of an adolescent girl, untimely pregnant, who has had to run for her life, the next chapter in Israel’s long story of God’s dream for the world awaits fulfilment. How many other countless young mothers are running for their lives, shielding their unborn and shepherding their born children from danger in the hope of finding the equivalent of an Elizabeth and Zechariah – that’s code for you and me, for all us together, we who have the power and resources to provide a place of safety?  Let the President and his hawks have ears to hear and eyes to see.

God comes into the world, not as the head of a multinational conglomerate, not as a political figure of power and influence, not as a successful culture icon, but as a babe, protected for a time within the womb of an adolescent girl who finds shelter in a world of patriarchal danger. God comes through the collaboration of a frightened and courageous girl-woman. Pray God that like Mary we may not be found wanting when the time for our decision making comes.


Mary’s story is our story too. The nature of truth is stranger than fiction because you couldn’t make it up even if you tried!

[1] HaShem. noun. Judaism a periphrastic way of referring to God in contexts other than prayer, scriptural reading, etc because the name itself is considered too holy for such use. [2] The true God

Featured Image ‘The Visitation’ by Dr. He Qi, China/USA

The Topography of Hope

The power of that for which we hope is already effective within us

a Paraphrasing of Alice miller

The Prophet Zephaniah is the 9th of the minor prophets, minor referring to the shortness of their writings not to the importance of their message. In 721 B.C. the Northern Kingdom of Israel, comprising 10 of the 12 tribes, is utterly destroyed by the Assyrians. In 586, the remaining Kingdom of Judah will fall to the Babylonians. Zephaniah is writing roughly between 639 and 626 B.C. – a time of great foreboding and danger. The remaining two tribes of Judah and Benjamin stand alone, threatened by bands of Scythian invaders sweeping down from the North. Into this politically and militarily unstable situation in 639 B.C. the 8-year boy, Josiah ascends to the throne. 

Zephaniah’s prophecies are heavy with the expectation of God’s judgment upon Judah. So, it’s somewhat surprising that he ends his writing with the joyful expectations we find in verses 14-20 of his final chapter; the whole book only numbers three chapters. Zephaniah makes no mention of a personal messiah. Nevertheless, he articulates a vision of hope and redemption –

The King of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst, you shall fear disaster no more. … I shall save the lame and gather the outcast, and I will change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth. At that time I will bring you home ….gather you….make you renowned and praised among all the peoples of the earth.

This is the nature of hope, that the power of that for which we hope is already active within us.

Without hope we have no compass to direct our actions

****

Mark, Matthew, and Luke, each paint a portrait of John the Baptist as the last in the line of the great Hebrew prophets whose purpose is to announce the arrival of the messiah. However, it’s Luke, in particular, who gives us the most relatable picture of John. Mark makes no mention of the people who come to hear John, and Matthew, refers to them exclusively as Pharisees and Sadducees – always the Jewish bad guys for Matthew. In Luke those who come to hear John are described as the kind of people one might find at any modern crowdsourced event. Among the general populace of the hungry -some physically hungry, others spiritually ravenous – coming out to the wilderness to hear John, Luke includes some rather dubious groups as well.

Luke’s depiction of John the Baptist in the wilderness emphasizes the inclusivity of his view of Jesus’s message- a message not for the few but for the many, not for the special or religious but for those whose daily lives are hard and often complicated by being forced into or trapped within compromising and dubious choices. In particular, Luke includes tax collectors and soldiers among those who come to hear John.

Our official translations often avoid communicating the wild and fluid nature of the Biblical conversations. ‘Listen’ to how Richard Swanson of the Provoking the gospel project renders the encounter between John and the crowds.

They kept asking him, the crowds did, they said: What should we do? He answered, he kept saying to them: ‘the one having two coats, give one to the one who has none. The one having goods: do likewise’. They came, even tax gatherers, to be purified. They said to him: ‘Teacher what should we do’? He said to them: ‘nothing beyond what is set to you. Beyond that do nothing’. They asked him, soldiers, they said: ‘what should we do, even we’? He said to them: ‘rob no one, neither be an informer, and let your wages be enough’. 

Richard Swanson’s Provoking the gospel: methods to embody Biblical storytelling through drama 

The first thing to notice is that the members of dubious groups like tax collectors and soldiers ask John, not what should we believe, but what should we do? Tax collectors were Jewish traitors because they collaborated with the Roman occupation,not only collecting the Roman taxes but top slicing their profit from what they collected, and so collecting a little more than they needed to. John’s view of them seems to accept that everyone needs to earn a living, even if sometimes by dubious means. Even so, he tells them: collect the tax but oppress your neighbors no more than you need to, to satisfy Roman demands. 

If they don’t tell you to bring the tribute in money boxes or cash bags,” says John, “Don’t.  Turn in heaps of pennies.  If people pay you in chickens or goats, turn in the livestock.  Let the Romans figure out how to feed their tribute.

Swanson

Soldiers were notorious street thugs who like modern day vigilantes terrorized local communities through extortion with menaces and violence – in effect setting up and administering their own protection rackets. John says to them: if you want to do know what you should do to be right with God, don’t be mindless proxies for a violent system of oppression; be satisfied with your wages and stop exploiting your own community.

John seems to recognize that life at times can be a morally ambiguous affair. In other words, you may not be able to control the whole of your situation, but nevertheless quietly resist sacrificing your sense of right and wrong to a cynical transactional approach to living.

And to those of us who live ordinary, noncontroversial lives, those of us who enjoy some abundance but an abundance that is finite and limited; to us John says: it’s fine to have two coats, but if having two coats means that someone else has no coat, then share what is actually your surplus.

****

In what or where lies our hope? An even more fundamental question: Is it even worth it to risk hoping at all? Beneath both questions sounds the solid drumbeat of the crows question to John: Teacher, tell us, what should we do? So think about it this way.  Without the prophetic dream of God’s putting to rights all that currently seems so wrong we have little inspiration to act similarly in the present. Without a strong hopeful vision setting the needle of our moral compass to guide our actions we will fall into the temptation of being guided only by the concept of what we can get away with.

John the Baptist is popularly presented as the most uncompromising of characters, whose very strictness gives us an excuse for backsliding, because how can we ever match up to his moral and spiritual demands? Yet, in Luke’s picture of him he seems to understand that life choices are made in the grey ambiguity of circumstances where mixed motivations vie with each other, self-interest competes with our genuine concern for others.

Prophetic hope, the greater vision of God’s restoration of Israel should not be misunderstood as a reflection of good times following bad times. In fact, the prophetic vision of God’s restoration of Israel occurs often in the darkest of moments,either just before national catastrophe as in the case of the first Isaiah or after such a catastrophe as in the case of both Jeremiah and Ezekiel.

Teacher, tell us, what should we do? The answer is: struggle to keep hope alive. Advent’s hope is simply this:

If we wait in hope and patience, the power of that for which we wait is already effective within us. Those who wait in an ultimate sense are not that far from that for which they wait. 

Paul tillich

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