Sermon for the First Sunday of Advent

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

I’ve never been much of a doomsday “prepper” or a millenerian, but I might have to go onto the streets with a bullhorn and a floppy bible and a sign reading “the end is nigh” after seeing a headline this week. The Church of England suggested parishes consider moving traditional Advent carol services from the evening of the Fourth Sunday of Advent to the night before, so as not to compete with the final game of the World Cup. Lord Jesus, quickly come!

All joking aside, and in light of what I said last week about the Christian’s primary citizenship being in heaven, perhaps the church should be a bit counter-cultural here by keeping services as scheduled and including some prayers about human rights and the Qatari government and our complicity by sending our national teams to such a repressive country instead of boycotting like we did in 1980 when the Olympics were held in Moscow.

Today we enter the season of Advent, in which we are invited to consider Christ’s return and that which precedes and follows it. Several years ago, before I started my current practice of spending a little time on Monday mornings finding some piece of art to put on the front of the bulletin, I discovered that for some years we had been using some images (presumably from some church publishing software) which highlighted what were reckoned by somebody to be the themes of the four Sundays of Advent: hope, peace, love, and joy. Poor Deborah was taken aback when I told her we needed to find something different because these were not the traditional themes of Advent. This schema was popularized by church supply companies who wanted to sell more Advent wreaths and who, probably rightly, figured that focusing on the traditional themes of Advent–death, judgment, heaven, and hell–would not shift as much product.

I’ve wondered what it would be like to go on Shark Tank–the reality television show where people bring their inventions to try to get investors–seeking somebody to underwrite my idea of a theologically correct Advent calendar: open the little door each day to find a miniature calavera (one of those Mexican skulls for the Day of the Dead) or a chunk of brimstone or something like this.

Now, I am not as uptight as I used to be. I confess that I have come to love what we might call “secular Christmas” even when it takes up much of the season when we in church are observing a season of penitential expectation. I kind of love seeing the much too early Christmas lights and displays and finding the radio stations that change format entirely to Christmas music for a full month and digging out my VHS copy of the best Christmas program of all time–which is A Charlie Brown Christmas, there is no debate–and watching it before it’s even December. Don’t take my word for it. I encourage you to find the video released on November 1st by Queen of Christmas and faithful Episcopalian, Mariah Carey, in which she transforms from a witch into Mrs. Santa Claus and sings “it’s here” backed by the jingle bells and synthesizers of her perennial chart-topper “All I Want For Christmas Is You.” I think all that is great.

That said, we are on a different time-frame here in the church, and this morning’s lessons should have made it clear, that while we are called to prepare not only for the coming of Christ in a manger on December 25th, but also his return at the end of time. I won’t belabor this point, since I know I’ve said it before from the pulpit, but the scriptural view of eschatology, of these last things, as it’s been understood and interpreted by the church over the last two thousand years is not what we see in The Late Great Planet Earth or the Left Behind books and films. The idea of a “rapture” followed by a period of “tribulation” from which the faithful will be spared was a nineteenth creation of poor biblical scholarship, and it’s a bit shocking how much currency the view has received.

The lesson today from Matthew is not about Christians getting whisked into heaven to avoid difficulties. It is rather the opposite: the promise of persecution for the faithful in the face of the powers and principalities which wish, vainly, to silence the word of God, to snuff out the light of the Gospel. Indeed, the Christians of the pre-Constantinian Roman Empire would experience this, as have countless in the millennia since. Even today–though the situation is complicated by tribal histories and the natural antipathy between herdsmen and farmers–the participation of Boko Haram suggests that the thousands of Christians killed every year in Nigeria are victims of a fundamentally religiously motivated persecution.

I may get myself in trouble here for perpetrating what might be seen as committing a contemporary heresy, and I say the following not to denigrate the good work of Dr. King or of the 19th Century abolitionist minister, Theodore Parker, from whom he adapted his most famous quote, but here goes. I do believe the arc of the moral universe is long, but I am not convinced that it bends toward justice.

My own philosophy of history is best summarized by a fictional character, written by that eminent and eminently Christian writer and philologist J.R.R. Tolkien, when the Lady Galadriel of Lothlorien told the hobbit Frodo that she and her husband, Celeborn, the wisest of elves, had “dwelt in the West since the days of dawn… years uncounted… and together through ages of the world we have fought the long defeat.”

So, I tend to believe the glorious battle which we are bound to fight against the works of darkness by donning the armor light is one which we will seem to lose as history comes to an end. We mustn’t lose heart, though, we mustn’t cease striving as those without hope, we mustn’t despair, because beyond history is victory. “For in such an hour as ye think not, the Son of Man cometh.” Lord Jesus, quickly come.

This is a teaser for my final church history class during coffee hour today–the great error of nineteenth century theology was to believe that we were all getting progressively better, the moral arc of the universe was reaching its positive conclusion, and that Christ returning to make things right and inaugurate the Kingdom of God on earth was merely a metaphor for how the human race was about to solve all its problems through science and technology and the perfection of human moral reason. Then the twentieth century–the most violent century in human history–happened and reminded us that we were wicked and that in the end only Jesus could fix it all. This is not to say that nobody believes in this myth of human progress anymore. If you do, I bet Elon Musk has a seat on his first colony ship to Mars to sell you.

Even so, we are promised today that at the other side of that long defeat, the victory which Christ has won and will win at the last, is a promise whose glory is hard to imagine now in the time of this mortal life.

And it shall come to pass in the last days, that the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established in the top of the mountains, and shall be exalted above the hills; and all nations shall flow unto it … and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.

And so I say once more, “Lord Jesus, quickly come.”

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

Sermon for Christ the King Sunday

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

Even we Americans, who treasure the ideals of democracy, tend to have a fascination with royalty. WThe recent death of Queen Elizabeth II and the degree to which we Americans tuned in to all of the services and ceremonies surrounding it has ignited once again our apparent respect of, or at least interest in, a form of government which is not our own.

Why do we find royalty so charming—even appealing—in a land founded on the apparent contradiction between modernity and monarchy? Perhaps the perceived ineffectiveness of our democratic system, with its nastiness and gridlock which have been all the more striking in recent years, makes us secretly long for something less subject to the passing though passionate sentiments of voters and politicians. Perhaps the appeal of tradition and an admittedly rose-tinted, romantic misperception of “the good old days”, which in truth weren’t all that good, can make us long for that which connects us to that mythic past. Perhaps it’s the aesthetic appeal of lords and ladies in their finery and sovereigns in their courts and all the rest of it.

Or, perhaps it’s because we know we’re not really selfless enough to govern ourselves. Let’s take the conversation away from the commonwealth for a moment and consider the individual. It takes a saint to govern his own appetites and petty desires, to look to the good of another rather than his own. Now magnify that individual flaw and what one sees is a commonwealth of basically sinful, selfish people paying lip-service to the merits of interdependence and mutual responsibility. Unless you’re Ayn Rand or Gordon Gekko, you can see how this is not tenable.

The problem is, absolutism of a certain kind is no better than a democracy fraught with controversy. You can have a good King Edward the Confessor or a bad King John. You can have a righteous King Josiah or a wicked King Ahab. Human frailty, man’s penchant for greed and the pursuit of power, is a constant whatever form a nation’s constitution takes.

The same can be said for the peculiar practice of some sort of “democracy” in the Church. We can elect good bishops and bad ones. I have every confidence that we elected a good one yesterday, as the Diocese of Ohio met in convention and elected the Rev’d Anne Jolly, Rector of St. Gregory’s, Dearfield, Illinois to be our next bishop. The experience of participating in that process and getting to know a little bit about her and her family fills me with confidence, as does the fact that the process seemed to be one of prayerful discernment rather than power politics.

Sometimes we get it wrong, too. Most of you know that I previously served in the Diocese of Arkansas. The Rt. Rev’d William Montgomery Brown served as bishop of Arkansas from 1899 to 1911, and came to be known as “Bad Bishop Brown” because he was. Arkansas cannot be entirely blamed, though, as he resided in Galion, Ohio when he was elected and returned to the Buckeye State when he left Arkansas in disgrace. During his episcopate he wrote books in favor of both segregation and Marxism (suggesting that one can hold both obnoxious far-right and far-left ideas together if one tries hard enough), and the final straw was his claim that Jesus was a mythical figure and the creeds were merely symbolic. He was the first bishop of the Episcopal Church to face a heresy trial and was, rightly, found guilty and deposed.

The problem is that the authority which rulers wield, whether that ruler’s title is King or President or even bishop, is ultimately human authority. In the end our sinful nature forces us to muddle through, governing ourselves knowing that we’ll never do so perfectly.

And in the midst of this reality we celebrate today the Solemnity of Christ the King. You see, the only authority free from the failings of human rulers, be they kings or presidents or bishops, is the authority of God Himself as we have known Him in Christ Jesus.

But this authority takes a remarkably odd form. You don’t see in this morning’s Gospel the pomp and ceremony of the Coronation of Charles III we’ll see next year or of the Consecration of Bishop Jolly next year (and don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wring with those things). You don’t see lords and ladies in their finery and sovereigns in their courts and all the rest of it. You don’t even see the diocesan clergy and visiting bishops processing to the altar, like you will in Cleveland in April. Rather we see our King reigning from the tree, from the Cross which was the implement of his own execution. You don’t see a glorious bejeweled crown on our sovereign’s head, nor a golden mitre, but a battered wooden sign: “This is the king of the Jews.” You don’t see visiting dignitaries in the court approaching the king’s throne, but a criminal being hanged, pleading for mercy.

In this image of apparent utter despondency is the hope of the nations and the hope of the church. We plead to our earthly rulers to bring us peace, but Paul tells us that the King makes peace “by the blood of his cross.” We look to the leaders of the nations to bring us prosperity, but the Prophet Jeremiah tells us there “will [rise] up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.”

This is not to say that we ought not expect much from our leaders, secular and ecclesiastical, but it is to say that there is room in the Kingdom of God for only one King, and his sovereign right was claimed neither by royal lineage nor by popular election, but by suffering and death. We can wish for sound government, we should pray for it, but our deepest hope for justice and peace cannot be found in the hands of earthly kings and earthly kingdoms, in nation-states or legislatures or even democratic ideals. Peace and justice in their fullest realizations can only be found in the Kingdom which is not yet come, but which is very near.

We are, as Christians, dual citizens, but our first allegiance is to that Kingdom and its sovereign. Let us pray that that Kingdom will come swiftly, that our King will return to save his people, and that his rule might be acknowledged by all people. This is our hope, and it shall not be in vain.

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

Sermon for the Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost

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

I’ve said before from this pulpit that the lectionary serves the important purpose of presenting us with texts which the preacher, given his or her druthers, would avoid, thus withholding important ideas from the congregation out of cowardice. That said, it is a trick which I cannot claim never to have availed myself of, to focus on a less difficult passage when given the option–say, when Jesus gives us a hard saying to choose to preach on the Old Testament or Epistle that day, and hope nobody noticed.

Well, this is one of those instances where I was tempted, but not for the reason you might think. The Old Testament and the Gospel present us with some rather harrowing visions of the apocalypse, which preachers often try to avoid. However, if you’ve been here a while you’ll know that I don’t typically shy away from that stuff. That Epistle, though… Yikes! “If any one will not work, let him not eat.” It seems so uncharitable, particularly when compared to Jesus’ overriding moral teaching, which consistently reminds us to give without precondition or suspicion, to not let the left hand know what the right is doing. This is one of those passages which leads people to set up a conflict between Paul and Jesus–a move which is both inaccurate and intellectually lazy, but taking this at face value one might be tempted to go that route. The truth, I think, is a lot more complicated and requires some “unpacking.”

But first, let me tell a story on myself. I don’t mean this to be one of those self-congratulatory anecdotes that preachers often tell, where they’re the hero of the story. The point is not that I had the right idea (though I do believe that) but rather that I lost my cool, and probably didn’t win anyone over to right-thinking.

A few weeks ago, I attended one of the community conversations hosted by the United Way about priorities for Findlay and Hancock County, meant to give ideas for how to move the community in the right direction on a whole host of issues. One of the wonderful things about our community, and I said this at the meeting, is that we have so many more resources and programs for people in need than communities of similar sizes; there is a lot of help out there. But (isn’t always a “but”) my experience trying to advocate for people and helping them navigate the programs and avail themselves of the resources out there is that some difficulties arise. Namely (and this is my opinion which I hope doesn’t come across as paternalistic)sometimes we expect people accustomed to living precariously–who generally don’t have particularly good upbringing or education or internal resources–to magically start behaving like responsible, upper-middle class professionals with a well-developed ability to plan ahead, navigate complex bureaucracies, and communicate effectively in both speech and writing the moment they walk into an office in need some practical or financial assistance. Don’t get me wrong; this isn’t the case with every charitable organization in town by any means. But I’ve seen it enough to be troubled.

When I shared this concern, somebody sitting right next to me responded “well, Pastor, Jesus said ‘give a man a fish and you’ll feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for life.’” Now, setting aside the fact that navigating complicated bureaucracies may not be the most important thing in life to learn, and setting aside the fact that this bromide doesn’t assume a complex modern economy in which the equivalent of a fishing-pole might be outside one’s wherewithal to procure, I could not contain myself, and irritably blurted out the obvious, “Jesus said no such thing. Jesus might have said, ‘give a man a fish [full-stop], but he certainly never said that!” (In case you were wondering it was Victorian novelist Anna Ritchie, William Makepeace Thackeray’s daughter, who came up with the proverb about teaching a man to fish. While we’re at it, it was Benjamin Franklin, not Jesus, who said “God helps those who help themselves”, and the whole point of the phrase “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” is its irony, because that is a physically impossible maneuver.) Anyway, in response to my correction of her mis-attribution, she said “we’ll just have to agree to disagree.” I don’t know if that means we’ll have disagree on the merits of the point or if she meant that she had discovered an ancient papyrus with lost sayings of Jesus on some archaeological dig with Jordan Peterson and the ghost of Ayn Rand.

Later in this same meeting another participant said something which suggested that the real problem was people who can’t make their rent because of how much they spend on tobacco and alcohol, at which point I muttered an oath under my breath, which I meant not to be heard but probably was. I can only hope that those around me assumed I was calling on the intercession of our Lord and Savior rather than using his name in vain. In any event, I realize I did not cover myself in glory.

I hope I’m not alone in worrying about the sin of despising the poor in their poverty. In truth, it is because I so often catch myself, sinner that I am, getting dangerously close to doing the same thing. I’ve found, particularly with my “frequent fliers”–those who come into my office requesting financial assistance pretty regularly–trying to walk a very narrow line of being nonjudgmental and charitable on the one hand while also trying to set some expectations and encourage some personal responsibility on the other. I know I don’t manage that razor’s edge perfectly. I fall sometimes too far in one direction toward pollyanna-ish credulity and sometimes too far in the other toward punishing perceived irresponsibility. I hope I err more toward the former, because I think that’s better for the health of my soul, but I don’t know.

Anyway, it will surprise none of you, I hope, that I think our neutral position, all things being equal, should be to assume that those in need are not merely lazy, and it’s our Christian obligation to help. But how do we deal with this difficult reading from Second Thessalonians.

First, I think with all scripture, it is generally best to recognize that it is meant to convict us rather than to give us leave to judge others. Deal with the plank in your own eye before you worry about the splinter in your neighbor’s eye. Can one peer into the soul of his brother or sister? No! Perhaps somebody is simply, as Paul puts it, an idle busybody; or maybe that person’s life is far more complex and fraught than we know. We’ve got to put our own houses in order. We’ve got to stick to our own knitting. Jesus didn’t say the thing about teaching a man to fish, but he absolutely said “judge not lest ye be judged, [for] with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.”

Second, I think it bears consideration that the presumably very small percentage of people who are uncomplicatedly lazy, that there is more to this reality than a defective character. That may be part of the story, certainly, but there is also present in these situations, I truly believe, a profound deficiency, a need which is not being met in those lives, perhaps because that need has not been taught for what it is, and perhaps as a result of generations of such deficiency. Namely, it is the lack of the dignity and satisfaction that comes from honest labor. I think it is significant that in the second chapter of Genesis, God places Adam in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. Meaningful work preceded the Fall, sin simply made it more grueling. One way of understanding the fact that we were made in the image of God is that we, like God, are creative. We can work for something and find some satisfaction in a job well-done, just as God, rightly satisfied with himself, looked over his world and said, “it is very good.” Those bereft of that satisfaction in this life we should regard not with scorn, but with pity, not shaming them, but encouraging through word and example the lesson that we can all find some way of contributing to the greater good.

Finally, we need as ever to look at the context in which Paul was writing. He wrote two letters to the Thessalonians, and both present a picture of a community whose chief problem was misunderstanding how to behave in relation to Christ’s second coming. In the first letterto this Church, Paul is concerned with those who were losing patience and despairing because it was taking so long. They had thought Jesus would come back and establish the Kingdom within the first generation of the Church, and the delay had made them lose heart. The second epistle, from which we read today, is addressing a situation in which the pendulum had swung too far the other way. To their credit, they’d stopped doubting that Jesus would come back. However, this led some to believe that they might as well stop striving, stop working for the sake of their daily bread and for the sake of the Kingdom, because “Jesus is coming back tomorrow, probably, so what’s the point!?”

Sadly, I have heard this line of reasoning from people in our own day. I’ve heard folks, for example, say that the new heaven and the new earth are on the way, so it doesn’t matter if we trash the environment. Yes, Jesus will return and establish the Kingdom, but Paul makes it clear that this is not an excuse to stop living responsibly and charitably in the meantime.

The point here is that the larger issue for us is not whether or not our neighbor is being a contributing member of society (as much as we’d like him to be) but whether or not each of us is contributing in one way or another–with our time, talent, and treasure; with our honest labor; with our prayers; with our witness to Christ’s Resurrection and his coming Kingdom–to God’s work both in the church and in the wider world. “Brethren, do not be weary in well-doing.” “Brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right.”

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