Sermon for Advent 2 2017

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

It is probably not a surprise to those of you who know me, but it bears clarification in light of this morning’s Gospel. There is not a counter-cultural bone in my body. I love structure and a clear delineation of authority and all the rules of society which my parents’ generation scorned. I’m not saying my disposition is better, just that it is what it is.

That said, John the Baptist is a rather uncomfortable character for me. John’s message and the very fact that it was him preaching it would have been incredibly subversive. God’s message was not coming through the expected channels, through the institutions set up to be the agents of God (in the case of the high priests) or through those in positions of temporal power, such as the Emperor or the Governor. Rather, the message of God, the call to repentance, was coming from this strange figure, this apparent madman, John, to whom few of us, if we were honest with ourselves, would have probably listened. I know (to my own discredit) I probably wouldn’t have.

Now, John the Baptist was subversive in a manner wholly different from the culturally appropriate subversion which we’ve come to appreciate after the twentieth century, and which we’ve come to label “counterculture”. With apologies to those of you who grew up in the sixties, John the Baptist was not the personification of some Ancient Judean zeitgeist. He was not countercultural in the same way a hippy or beatnik might have been or even a contemporary protestor might be. He was not even anti-establishment in the same way that the anti-Roman zealots of his own day were. He was much weirder even than that.

In this morning’s Gospel we read “Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, and had a leather girdle around his waist, and ate locusts and wild honey.” This was almost as strange a way to dress and eat in those days as it would be now. What’s more, John didn’t go to the temple or to one of the gates of Jerusalem to preach his message where it might be heard by those with some political or economic power. He remained in the desert.

This would have been reckoned very strange by the people of the first century, even the counter-cultural people of the time, who would have been used to self-proclaimed prophets, but of a more socially acceptable variety. This John character was not like them, but those with any sense of history would have recognized that he fit the bill, as it were, a great deal more closely than these other so-called prophets.

It had been more than four-hundred years since a legitimate, canonical prophet had preached in Israel, but if one were to look back at those Old Testament prophets, one would notice the similarities between them and John. John’s message was not self-promoting, as were the sermons of first-century pseudo-prophets, who claimed a messianic identity for themselves. Rather, John, like the legitimate prophets of the Old Testament, pointed away from himself and always to another, namely Jesus, as the longed-for Messiah. Like so many of the Old Testament prophets, chiefly Amos (whom we’ve been reading in Morning prayer this week), John arose from obscurity to take on the prophetic vocation. And his message, the message of repentance and of preparation for the day of the Lord, mirrored that of the legitimate prophets, particularly Elijah, the prophet with whom John was most readily identified.

We don’t get the full John the Baptist story this morning, but what can we learn from the little introduction to John which is this week’s Gospel? It seems to me that the most important lesson we get is that the Word of God comes to us from sources we might least expect. Certainly, we should be attentive to the normal modes in which we’ve come to experience that Word. We should be attentive to the Scriptures and to the teachings of Church Fathers and Councils and even to the minor insights I struggle to provide every week. But sometimes the grace and love of God is made even more apparent, presents itself even more tangibly, in unexpected ways from the people we least expect.

I’ve had the Word of God preached to me more compellingly by people who come in and out of my office looking for help than I do from slick preachers. I’ve seen more trust in the power of God in the hearts of uneducated peasants in Christian slums in South Asia than I have in my own heart. I’ve seen more love and hope in the lives of apparently unlovely people in apparently hopeless situations than I have from those who, like me, are in the business of loving people and instilling hope. I’ve even heard more fulsome expositions of Christian truth from the mouths of children than from many academic theologians.

And these are all prophets of a sort, modern John the Baptists who have surprised me with their insights and have given me a new perspective on that old, old story. I suspect that many of you have had similar experiences, the Word of God being made real in ways and from people you least expected.

So, keep watch. Open your eyes. Look for these modern prophets. We hear over and over again, and especially in Advent, to be watchful. Last week’s sermon was all about watching and waiting for the Kingdom of God. Let us be watchful, though, not only for Christ at his return, but for the risen Christ in our midst, right now, being made present in ways and through people we do not expect. Pray that God may give you the eyes to see his messengers for what they are, and ask Him to give you faith in the message they preach, and that John the Baptist preached, and that each of us should be preaching: namely that great message of hope in our Lord’s return.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Sermon for Advent 1 2017

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that we mainline Christians have ceded too much of what is essentially Christian belief and action for fear of being identified with fundamentalist Christians, and that in particular we tend to shy away from talking about Jesus’ second coming and the advent of the Kingdom of God. This is precisely what Advent is about (it’s not just about waiting to put the bambino into the crèche), but, due to mainline discomfort with the idea, we’ve been putting conditions on the meaning of the doctrine ever since the nineteenth century. Back then, liberal protestants started speaking in terms of gradually building the Kingdom of God themselves rather than expecting Jesus to actually, literally come back and establish it himself. The view has even gained some traction in American Catholicism with a very popular, but theologically unfortunate hymn whose refrain proclaims “Let us build the city of God.” Little is said in the hymn about Jesus’ role in the matter. Such an approach is full of hubris. It suggests that we’re more powerful than God, or at least that God chooses not to act in history. Smart people like Karl Barth, have pointed out the error, but still many hold the view.

Conversely, we find people who espouse the view that we’ve really no part in God’s work. The claim is that being responsible stewards of creation, that working to bring about a better state of affairs for the poor and the oppressed is really to no avail, because Jesus is going to come back and fix everything anyway. The only thing we should be concerned with, the argument goes, is saving souls, so that our fellows can enjoy the Kingdom when it does come.

Like so many other theological issues, the truth here may be found in the middle way, the via media that our own Anglican tradition talks about so much but seems to overlook so often. The historical Christian view, which we hear in the Gospel appointed for this week, is that Jesus really will come again, there really will be a second advent, more grand and glorious even than Christ’s first Advent on the first Christmas, and, what’s more, we’ve got got something to do about it.

For one, we watch and wait. “Watch therefore — for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or in the morning — lest he come suddenly and find you asleep. And what I say to you I say to all: Watch.” This is rare for me, but I actually prefer the newer translation of this passage, which is less accurate, but somehow more resonant. Instead of “watch,” Jesus says “Keep awake”.

We not only watch, but we pray. We pray ceaselessly for the establishment of God’s reign. “Thy Kingdom come,” we say every week in church, and many of us every day, but we probably don’t fathom the full extent of the words when we utter them. They’ve become rote. If we did indeed pay attention, we’d recognize how potentially frightening those three words are. Jesus said in today’s Gospel:

But in those days, after that tribulation, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. And then they will see the Son of man coming in clouds with great power and glory.

Scary stuff, huh? Actually, our Gospel reading this morning picked up right after the really nasty bits; I love nasty bits, so here they are:

But when you see the desolating sacrilege set up where it ought not to be (let the reader understand), then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains; let him who is on the housetop not go down, nor enter his house, to take anything away; and let him who is in the field not turn back to take his mantle. And alas for those who are with child and for those who give suck in those days! Pray that it may not happen in winter. For in those days there will be such tribulation as has not been from the beginning of the creation which God created until now, and never will be.

It’s no wonder we tend to shy away from this theme in Scripture, why we replace the old themes of Advent—death and judgment and heaven and hell—with sentimentality. I think we’ve made a big mistake in that regard.
The response that the kingdom of God will elicit when it does ultimately come, doesn’t sound too comforting; but two-thousand years have passed since Jesus said these words, which has tended to take away the sense of urgency. But, guess what, we don’t need to be frightened or, worse, to cling to strange theories and time-tables regarding Christ’s return, but we should, nonetheless, urgently pray that God’s will might be done, that his Kingdom might come and his reign might begin on earth as it is already in heaven.

And prayer is not the only duty to which we are bound in light of our expectation of Christ’s return. Paul wrote to the Christians in Corinth with the following words of encouragement:

I give thanks to God always for you because of the grace of God which was given you in Christ Jesus, that in every way you were enriched in him with all speech and all knowledge — even as the testimony to Christ was confirmed among you — so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift, as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ; who will sustain you to the end, guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Paul doesn’t say, go out while you’ve still got time and rack up souls for Christ, like notches on a belt. God saves souls, we can only share our experience of his love for us with others. What Paul does say is “[be] not lacking in any spiritual gift” and “[with God’s sustenance be] guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.” God is the agent, of course, the one giving the gifts and sustaining us in holiness, but it is ours to open ourselves up to that. It is up to us to permit God in to make us love our neighbors and to make us more holy, more saintly, in preparation for eternity.

You’ve all seen the bumper sticker: “Jesus is coming, look busy”. In fact, what it should say is “Jesus is coming, let God get busy.” Let God get busy making each of us a temple of his presence, a mansion made ready for Christ when he shall come again. Let God get busy, his power working in us infinitely more than we can ask or imagine. Let God get busy, restoring whatever is lacking in our faith. This is what Advent is about. Jesus is coming again; let God get busy, making us ready to receive him when he does.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Sermon for Pentecost 23 2017

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

I was on a hospital visit once, taking the elevator back down to the lobby, when a man with whom I was sharing the ride asked me “going up?” I thought it a strange thing to ask since he knew as well as I which direction the elevator was headed. I said “no, I’m going down to the lobby, too” and he replied “I mean are you going up in the rapture when Jesus comes back?” I chuckled uncomfortably and said “well, that’s a different question,” and then, thank God, the elevator door opened and I escaped. As I was walking away I heard a woman who was also in the elevator, and whom I assumed was my inquisitor’s wife, say in one of those whispers you can hear across a room “I think that means ‘no.’”

I imagine I’m not the first person of whom this man had asked this particular question on a descending elevator. I imagine he thought himself rather clever. I wonder if I was the first person in a clerical collar he had asked and how he would recount that story later to his co-religionists. Would he say that he had run into a preacher that didn’t believe the Word of God? Would it be further evidence of some prejudice he or his friends held about churches that weren’t really Christian? I’ve debated with myself whether I should have engaged the man and his wife in a theological conversation, whether such a conversation would have done any good for any of us or if we would have all left such a conversation feeling more smug and superior than he, she, and I already probably felt.

In his First Epistle to the Thessalonians, from which we just heard, Paul writes:

For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first; then we who are alive, who are left, shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air.

This has become a key text in the ideology of modern Christian fundamentalism, a key text in the ideology of my elevator inquisitor. You may know that already, but what you may not be aware of is how this came to be the case.

In the year 1827 an American preacher named John Nelson Darby popularized a theory called premillenial dispensationalism. He was building on some of the hypotheses of the seventeenth century puritan preachers Increase and Cotton Mather and the eighteenth century Welsh historian and Baptist preacher Morgan Edwards. While the Mathers and Edwards were somewhat oblique in their description of the eschaton, or end-times, Darby developed a remarkably specific vision of the future. Taking the passage from First Thessalonians as a centerpoint and placing it in the context of apocalyptic events described in the books of Daniel and Revelation, Darby presented what he believed to be a timeline for the end of the world.

While the theory is complicated the short version is as follows: Jesus will return and believers will be raised bodily into heaven and disappear, the unfaithful will be subjected to seven years of tribulation, Jesus and the Church will return to reign on earth for a thousand years, there will be a final battle between good and evil, and then the final judgment will take place and everyone will go to either heaven or hell.

This remained a somewhat marginal view until the 1909 publication of the Scofield Reference Bible. The first bible since the 1560 Geneva Bible to include commentary right alongside the Scriptures themselves, it encouraged one to read the bible in such a way as to accept Darby’s theory. Incidentally, it was also the bible which introduced the modern strain of “Young Earth Creationism”- the idea that God created the world sometime in the last ten thousand years. It is Scofield whom we can thank for Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth, the popular Left Behind series of books (as well as the feature film starring everyone’s favorite crazy man, Nicholas Cage), the virulent antiscientism of tens of millions of US Americans, Christian Zionism, the claim that Barak Obama was either a Muslim or the Antichrist or both, and the most terrifying website I’ve ever seen- raptureready.com.

The most remarkable part of this story is that a guy in the nineteenth century basically made it all up. Virtually nobody believed any of this stuff two hundred years ago. This is not to say that every Christian in the world believed exactly the same thing about the eschaton prior to Darby. There have been good and healthy debates between people who believed different things about the second coming, particularly whether things were going to get better and better or worse and worse leading up to Christ’s return and the General Resurrection. Each of these schools of thought can be argued on the basis of Scripture and traditional Church teaching. But each of these schools of thought reads the fourth chapter of First Thessalonians as referring to the General Ressurection on the Last Day which immediately precedes Christ’s judgment and his gracious act of establishing a new heaven and a new earth, not some early boarding pass for the heavenly banquet while the unbelievers are left in some kind of perdition.
This is neither a conservative nor a liberal point of view. Anglicanism/Episcopalianism teaches it. Lutherans and Prebyterians and Methodists believe it. Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Christians believe it. Moderate and Progressive Baptists believe it. The Amish and the Mennonites believe it.

But a heck-of-a-lot of Christians in this country have been taught premillenial dispensationalism. Seven of the Left Behind books have reached “number one” on the New York Times Best Sellers list, which gives you a good idea of how popular the theory is. I’d be willing to bet that the vast majority of television and radio preachers teach the theory- a theory (and I don’t normally make such a bold claim, but in this case I believe it to be justified) which simply doesn’t hold up under any serious program of reading and interpreting the bible. But why, you might ask, does it matter?

Is this not an issue on which we should just agree to disagree? I don’t agree, for example, with the Presbyterians on how many sacraments there are or with the Roman Catholics on papal infallibility. These issues seem more important or at least more relevant, yet I don’t get really exercised about their points of view, at least in my preaching.

First, I think theological positions like that have a basis in at least some ways of faithfully interpreting Scripture and Church Tradition. One can have civil, theologically informed debates over those issues. Maybe it’s some unexamined prejudice on my part, but I just don’t see the same conversation being possible with the issue in question. It’s almost like fundamentalist eschatology uses a language which isn’t intelligible to me, like I’m speaking in English and they’re speaking Mandarin, and neither of us even has a phrase book.

The other reason is that I honestly believe that premillenial dispensationalism produces a dangerous worldview. This is not a polite or absolutely inclusive thing to say, and I beg your pardon for that, but I believe this to be both true and deadly serious. The idea that one smart or lucky enough to be a believer should be spared difficulty while the nonbelievers deserve tribulation leads one to one of two equally dangerous conclusions- either we should stop caring about the plight of those whose creed is different from our own because God ordained them to suffer or else our only responsibility in this world is to rack up converts, put notches in our belts for the souls we (not God) have saved. I’ve not read the Left Behind books, but I have read exerpts of some of the nasty bits as well as interviews with the authors, and the tortures they describe being inflicted on nonbelievers(by Jesus himself, no less) is nothing short of despicable. It reminds one of the genre of film that has come to be called “torture porn” in which one is meant to get a kick out of horrible violence being inflicted on people. It dehumanizes “the other”, making the most depraved, wicked sort of hatred not only palatable but fun. It is not hyperbole to say that this sort of “entertainment” harms ones soul, and when one doesn’t believe it’s entirely fictitious it can eventually make one vicious.

The most terrifying thing to me is that there are people who completely buy in to this theory in positions of power in business and government making decisions based on it. I imagine there are people here now who agree with me on certain matters of our country’s foreign policy and those who don’t. That’s perfectly fine. Reasonable people can disagree. It scares me witless, though, to think that there are some people with a lot of pull with regard to our policy in the Middle East who honest-to-God believe that the modern state of Israel has something to do with Jesus’ second-coming.

I’m sure there are some here who disagree with me with regard to education and energy and environmental policy. That’s fine, too. Reasonable people can disagree. It horrifies me, though, that there are people deciding what textbooks our children read who don’t believe in science and that there are lawmakers and bureaucrats who believe that the world is going to end anyway, Jesus is going to give us a thousand-year-long do-over, so our planet is more-or-less expendable.

So, what do we do? I believe it is time for reasonable Christians to start talking about eschatology again, both in private conversations and public forums. We’ve been reticent to do so and have ceded that topic to a very vocal minority. It’s time for us to say that Jesus is coming again, but not to torture heathens. He’s coming to breathe new life where death reigns. It’s time to admit that we’ve made a hash of things, but we don’t get a millenial do-over so we’d better start being more virtuous and responsible and loving here and now. It’s time to start preaching the Resurrection again, because that message is a whole lot more compelling than anything a fundamentalist post-apocalyptic horror story can come up with.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.