Happy New Year!
Today is the first day of Advent, the beginning of the Church’s calendar year. The lectionary gives us a great gift when it begins the year with this short passage from the book of Isaiah: Isaiah 2:1-5. Here we read the account of a vision given to Israel’s greatest prophet. Isaiah sees a mountain – “the mountain of the Lord’s house” – raised high above all other mountains. And to this place, he tells us, “all the nations” shall stream. They will say to one another, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob, that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.”
The mountain Isaiah refers to is, of course, Mount Zion, on which stood the Temple, the dwelling place of God on earth. The revelation given to Isaiah in this vision is that this mountain – “the mountain of the Lord’s house” – will be a source of wisdom and right judgment for all people. The Law of Moses, given initially to the people of Israel, will instruct all the nations in the ways of God and teach them to walk in God’s paths. The result of this will be universal peace, the promise of peace with justice, which will allow humankind to “beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks,” so that “nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.”
There’s an old story told from when God was creating the world. God assigned the angel Gabriel to distribute stones and rock. Gabriel did this faithfully, flying here and there with a very large sack of stones on his back. But when Gabriel was flying over the mountains around Jerusalem, the sack broke and the entire load fell.[i] It’s a charming story. What’s for sure true is that the Holy Land is a very rocky place.
It is no surprise that rocks figure into Jesus’ teaching. In his parable of the sower, Jesus speaks about a farmer “sowing seed, some of which falls among the rocks,” because farm fields would need to be endlessly cleared of rocks. Jesus speaks metaphorically of those who walk in the daytime “will not stumble,” won’t stumble over rocks. Tombs and burial boxes – “ossuaries” – were carved out of stone, and to this day; water cisterns were chiseled into rock, and to this day. Jesus would give a new name to Simon, the designated leader among his disciples. What’s the most powerful name Jesus could bestow on Simon? Peter, which means “rock,” the rock on whom Jesus would build his church.
I recently returned from spending a few weeks in Colombia. I was invited by the bishop, and worked in three Episcopal parishes in Bogota and Medellin. It was an extraordinary experience and I am still thinking and praying about everything I was privileged to see and do, and remembering especially some of the wonderful, generous people I met. The people of Colombia have lived through decades of violence. Terrorized by guerilla groups like the FARC, and suffering through the murderous days of Pablo Escobar and narco-terrorism. What is less well known is that Colombia has the world’s highest number of internally displaced people – more even than Syria. These are Colombian men, women and children who over the past 30 years have been forcibly driven from their homes by armed groups, and who have become refugees in their own land. Eight million of them – many now living in poverty in the outlying barrios, which cling to the mountainsides of the great cities.
I spent much of my time living in one such barrio in Bogota. It was a tough place to be, but the great blessing I received was to meet and talk with men and women, who in the midst of great suffering and hardship, radiated a profound faith and trust in God.
In the scriptures, illustrations that come from the land – metaphors about farm and field, about gardens and vineyards, trees and orchards, flowers and fruit – recur repeatedly. People who live close to the land will immediately understand the analogies about how things grow: about seeds, and soil, and sowing; about cultivating, watering, weeding, pruning, and harvesting. Jesus was well versed in these things, clearly, and he has a lot to say. In this gospel lesson, we hear Jesus asking rhetorical questions: “Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles?” No. Clearly not. Grapes are not gathered from thorns, nor figs from thistles. What’s the point?
Jesus’ point is about outcomes. If your end goal, your heart’s desire, is to harvest succulent grapes and figs, how will this happen? Only with intention.
Parting from someone we love is never easy. The lump in our throat, the tears welling up in our eyes, bear witness to the pain of separation. Even when there is good cause for the separation, when our friend or family member is going off to do something very worthwhile, something we agree is right for them, we still find it hard to say good-bye. We know that there will be an empty space in our hearts and in our lives that will not be easy to fill.
Imagine the emotion with which the words of our gospel lesson were spoken. Jesus, gathered with his closest friends, tells them that he will soon be separated from them. “I am going away,” he says, “I am going to the Father…” He has loved each one of them; they have left all to follow him. And now they face together the end towards which this path is leading them. As he has said to them, he is about to be betrayed and handed over to his enemies, and put to death. Imagine their anguish! How will they carry on without him? What has this time with him meant if it is to end this way? How will they fill the terrible void that his leaving will cause? They are filled with anxiety and fear– for him, for themselves, for all who have believed in him.
Jesus sees the fear in their eyes. “Do not let your hearts be troubled,” he tells them, “and do not let them be afraid.” “The Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.” Do not be afraid. I am leaving you to return to the Father, but you will not be abandoned, you will not be left alone. One who is called “the Advocate” is coming, the “Comforter,” the Holy Spirit – the One who will teach you everything you need to know, the One who will remind you of all that I have said to you and who will guide you into all truth.
Fifth Sunday of Easter
Acts 11: 1 – 18
Revelation 21: 1 – 6
John 13: 31 – 35
There’s that word. I wonder if you noticed it this time. It’s not a very big word. In fact, it’s just three letters long. It’s a pretty common word. We use it a lot. But, John doesn’t. At least not in this context. And when he does, it’s huge! Cosmic events are unleashed when Jesus utters one, tiny, common word. Now. Now. Now.
When [Judas] had gone out, Jesus said, ‘Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once.
Jesus has used this word in John’s gospel once before. He used it in the previous chapter, just after his encounter with the Greeks.
Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, ‘Sir, we wish to see Jesus.’ 
In response to their request we wish to see Jesus, he says much the same as he does in today’s gospel.
‘Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—“Father, save me from this hour”? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.’ Then a voice came from heaven, ‘I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.’
Easter II :: 4.28.2019 | John 20:19-31
Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.
Today is perhaps my favorite Sunday of the year. It is known by a variety of names, depending on one’s tradition: Divine Mercy Sunday, Low Sunday, Pascha Clausum, The Octave of Easter, Empty Pew Sunday or, as it is still known among my more incarnational friends from theological school, Side-Wound Sunday. Our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters have frequently called this day Quasi modo Sunday, after the first line of the Introit traditionally sung at the beginning of Mass on the Second Sunday of Easter: Quasi modo geniti infantes, alleluia. “As newborn babes, alleluia, desire the rational milk without guile, alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.”
Today the divine gift of mind mixes and comingles with the gifts of flesh and blood; and an encounter with the Risen Lord offers us the new milk of a renewed, guileless knowing. As the risen and glorified body of Jesus meets His broken and weary disciples, so too our weary rationality meets and is gathered up into the reality of the Paschal Mystery. Today we remember that when the faithful doubt in love, God prepares a spring of faith, “gushing up to eternal life.”
When the disciples report to Thomas that they had seen the Lord, he baulks. Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.A twin,Thomas is likely well acquainted with the liabilities of mistaken identity, and John begs us not to hear this as a faithless objection. Chapter twenty of John’s gospel contains three encounters with the Risen Lord, and in each of these encounters, the characters perform poorly. Mary only recognizes Jesus after He speaks her name; gripped by fear, the disciples lock themselves away; and Thomas—who was willing to go to his death with Jesus in chapter eleven—simply asks for something as tangible as the rest of them have received. John is not attempting to paint for us a picture of an inadequate faith. He is attempting something much deeper: a portrait of the complex, enigmatic realities of the paschal encounter, realities where doubt and unknowing become preludes to God’s creative word of truth.
Going to camp often means away up a mountain, or in my experience, out to a desert island. One gift of camp is the night, though it may be scary. With no neighbors and limited electricity, new guests, especially youth, swing flashlights the first nights, anxious at seeing much less. They point to the path and all around trying, it seems, to poke, prod, and push back the dark.
We are similarly afraid these days in the deepening darkness of our world. With questions increasing, anxiety swirling, violence striking, fear infecting, prejudice multiplying, and sadness swelling, we want to poke, prod, and push back the dark.
We just sang: “Restore us, O God of hosts; show the light of your countenance and we shall be saved.” We ask for the light of God’s face turning toward us. Small yet significant. When another’s face lights up at seeing ours, we are loved.
In the days of our Gospel story, Mary set out and went quickly to visit Elizabeth. A normal visit turned extraordinary. By divine power and blessing, now both Mary, a young virgin, and Elizabeth, a barren elder, are pregnant. Dark days since they also bear the burden of public shame. The scandal since Mary claims pregnancy through the dream of an angel. Who did she think she was? The long years of ridicule for Elizabeth who had never born a child. Rumors swirled about why she was now.
Advent Preaching Series: “O Radiant Light: Come and Enlighten Us.”
This evening is the second in a three-part Advent sermon series on the “O Antiphons,” which have been prayed in Christian monasteries since about the 6thcentury. An antiphon is a short focusing sentence that precedes and follows the singing of a psalm or canticle. The seven “O Antiphons” are sung at Evensong before and after the Song of Mary, the Magnificat, between December 17th and December 23rd, in anticipation of Christmas. Each of the “O Antiphons” uses a title for the Messiah found in the prophecy of Isaiah.[i] These antiphons begin with “O,” in the sense of when something dawns on you, and you say with exclamation, “Oh!” This evening our theme is “O Radiant Light: Come and enlighten us.”
Light figures very importantly in this season. Look around. Candlelights appear here on the Advent wreath. Outside we find strings of light thread across streets, in shop windows, on housetop gables, on fireplace mantles, and on Christmas trees. These festive lights this season of the year actually have a Christian history, but not a Christian origin. Let’s take a step backward in history before we move forward.
Out of their gloom and darkness, the eyes of the blind shall see.
When I was about twenty-four year old, I encountered the film adaptation José Saramago’s novel, Blindness, and Advent returns my mind to Saramago’s gripping allegory. Blindness chronicles the harrowing story of a handful of characters who, along with citizens of their unidentified city, become stricken with an inexplicable, contagious blindness. As the condition spreads, an epidemic is declared and those afflicted by “the white sickness” are quarantined in a filthy, overcrowded asylum. When the protagonist’s husband, an ophthalmologist, contracts the condition, she joins him in captivity by lying to the authorities about her health: she can still see. Within the asylum, conditions deteriorate quickly. When food becomes scarce, an armed ward of the asylum seizes what rations remain and terrorizes the other wards with unspeakable cruelty. “The doctor’s wife” eventually frees the small band, only to discover the whole world stricken.