Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Wednesday (St Thomas Becket, transferred)

After another night that might well be described as "bad" (very atypical for me), the highlight of which was the appearance of a strange cat in our family room around 5:30am, I indulged in a bit of a late and lazy getting up process. Met the AT&T repairman (our service has been wonky) just as I was heading out for a 9:30 appointment with my eye doctor (clearing up detritus from last month's exam and new glasses). Stopped back at home to get a report on our technology infrastructure (all well for the moment) before moving on to the office, arriving around 11:00. Prepared and printed the readings for the feast of Thomas Becket, and otherwise got ready for the 12:15 Mass. As part of responsibility as a board member of Forward Movement, I read through the current week's meditations on the ubiquitous Forward Day by Day, just to keep a finger on the quality pulse. Presided and preached at the Mass. More leftovers for lunch at home, after which I devoted some time to getting my devices, plus the AppleTV, configured to the new DSL modem. Developed a message statement for my homily for Epiphany II (Christ the King, Normal on January 17) into a full outline (which will be advanced to the rough draft stage next week). Did some routine "scheduled" (semi-annual) maintenance on my Evernote account, the structure and organization of which needs to be tightened up from time to time. In the evening, I devoted a considerable amount of time to analyzing the proposals of various tour companies, one of which I will work with to coordinate my Camino de Compostela pilgrimage, the capstone of my 2016 sabbatical. Still trying to bead back whatever malady arrived during the night before last. What began as an upper respiratory condition has now migrated lower.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Holy Innocents

As the saying goes, I "came down with something" during the night, mostly resembling an upper respiratory infection trying to get traction. I bombard such things with zinc capsules, which usually seems to have an ameliorating affect. Throat still sore as I write late in the evening, however. Anyway, I took it easy getting going for the date, trying to give my body a break. Morning Prayer at home. Rolled in at the office around 10:30. Since this is the week between Christmas and New Year's, we're short staffed, so it was relatively quiet. I consulted with the Archdeacon on a couple of things. Took a lengthy phone call from the treasurer of one of our Eucharistic Communities about an emerging and developing issue. Got a few ducks in a row regarding next actions as pertain to one of our individuals in the ordination process. Attended a bit to my social media footprint. Attended the 12:15 Mass in the cathedral chapel in celebration of Holy Innocents Day. Lunch at home--leftovers (of which there is an abundance, courtesy of our holiday houseguests). Worked from home during the afternoon: Did major surgery on a homily for the First Sunday after Epiphany, originally given in 1998 and now repurposed for January 10 at Trinity, Lincoln. Drafted a Pastoral Letter to the diocese that I will refine and purvey next week.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

First Sunday after Christmas

Said goodbye to such members of my progeny and their progeny who were awake by 8:15 before pointing the YFNBmobile in a southerly direction. Presided, preached, and confirmed three young people at the regular 10:30 Eucharist at St Thomas', Glen Carbon, under the loving leadership of Fr Tony Clavier. Returned home at 1:30 to a "normal" household--just Brenda and her cat. It was a joy to have a houseful for a few days.

Sermon for Christmas I

Christmas I     (2015)                                                                              John 1:1-18
St Thomas', Glen Carbon

Most of you are at least somewhat familiar with the British scholar and writer of the last century, C.S. Lewis.  If nothing else, you may have read or seen the movie version of his children's series, The Chronicles of Narnia. One of the most popular of Lewis's works is a short and deceptively comical book—I say deceptively because it's really deadly serious—The Screwtape Letters.  It's a collection of correspondence between Screwtape, a senior demon in Satan's army, and his nephew Wormwood, a junior devil, who has been assigned to “win back” to the cause of “Our Father Below” a man who has recently become a believing and practicing Christian. 

Screwtape offers Wormwood the wisdom of his experience in dealing with such difficult situations. In his preface, Lewis declares, “I have no intention of explaining how the correspondence which I now offer to the public fell into my hands. ... The sort of script which is used in this book can be very easily obtained by anyone who has learned the knack; but ill-disposed or excitable people who might make a bad use of it shall not learn it from me.”

Well ... I am pleased to announce today that I, the humble bishop of the humble diocese of Springfield, after years of secret and painstaking research, have “learned the knack” that Lewis talked about!  And even more amazing than that:  This discovery has led me into the possession of a file of top secret security memos from the very highest echelons—or, I guess we should say, the lowest echelons—of Hell, the private files of the one they call “Our Father Below.” The code name for this highly sensitive file is, Operation Christmas

Today, for the first time ever, and only at St Thomas’ (wait till word of this gets out!), I am going to share with you some excerpts from the Operation Christmas file. 

The first is a memo from the director of the S.I.A., the “Sub-Terranean Intelligence Agency”, and the date, as nearly as I can figure, refers to a time roughly two thousand years ago:

M E M O

FROM:      Beelzebub, Director, S.I.A.

TO:            Our Father Below

RE:            Recent Developments


Boss --

         Our intelligence assets behind enemy lines are sending signals that something very serious and potentially alarming is afoot.

         Ever since that incident with the apple in the garden, as you know, we've had the upper hand. The Enemy has had some limited success with a tribe of nomads called "Hebrews" (the more up-to-date name would be "Jews"; those humans are forever changing names), but in the meantime, in most other areas, we have made significant gains for our strategic position.

         However, it appears now that the Enemy is taking action to seize the initiative.  Our best reports from our most reliable sources all indicate that he has sent an extremely high-level emissary—some say that it's actually his own son, although we haven't confirmed that yet—who has actually become a human being! Just what the Enemy has in mind with this move, is not clear, but the possibilities, especially if this "ambassador" turns out to really be his son, are sobering to contemplate.

         Some response on our part is clearly called for. I suggest that you immediately convene an emergency session of the I.S.C. (Infernal Security Council) to discuss the matter.

         I am obsequiously yours, and I await your reply.



M E M O

DATE:       January 1, 304 A.D.

FROM:      Mephistopheles
                  S.I.A. Station Chief, Rome

TO:            Beelzebub, S.I.A. Director


         At long last we appear to have a Roman emperor who is not only thoroughly converted to our side, but is also possessed of the requisite determination and fortitude to do something once and for all about these "Christians" who have been plaguing us. Emperor Diocletian has ordered a coordinated and uncompromising campaign aimed at nothing less than the total elimination of Christianity.  

         At the same time, we can help our own cause by continuing to foster nostalgic affection for the traditional pagan religions of the empire. In particular, the Festival of the Unconquered Sun, which is celebrated on the 25th of December each year, seems especially appropriate to our purposes. Many humans are very attracted to the Enemy by that scandalous turn of events of two and a half centuries ago when Jesus, just when we thought we were rid of him, somehow rose from the dead.  We have, of course, always tried to conceal this fact, but with only limited success: Humans find the idea irresistible. Here's where the Festival of the Unconquered Sun comes in: They want a god who dies and rises? Here's one who does it every year—the Sun! If we can turn December 25th into a holiday that's celebrated fondly throughout the empire, then we can make sure that once Diocletian wipes out Christianity for the present, it will stay wiped out for the future.

         (By the way, it's been a long time since I've had a promotion and a raise.  Maybe this idea will earn me one?)

M E M O

DATE:       December 25, 451

FROM:      Prince Darkness, Infernal Security Advisor

TO:            Beelzebub, S.I.A. Director


         This is to confirm our conversation earlier today in which I directed you to terminate your operative in Rome, Mephistopheles. His idea about promoting the Festival of the Unconquered Sun has backfired on us so completely that the original disaster has been compounded.

         If this agent had done his research properly, he would have learned that it is the custom of the Enemy's followers to adopt and adapt the religious observances of the surrounding culture for their own purposes. Thus, what they have done with December 25 is entirely true to form: They have turned it into the remembrance of that very sneak attack which reversed everything we had accomplished in the Garden of Eden.  Humbug! The gall of it!

         See that Mephistopheles is immediately removed from Our Father's service.



P.S.  I like your idea about trying to capitalize on the popularity of this Bishop Nicholas of Myra.  Gift-giving and generosity are not qualities we normally seek to encourage, but these are not normal times.  Anything that can distract people's attention from remembering the Enemy's visit to earth cannot but work to our advantage.  Besides, once he's dead and gone, we can work on corrupting the memory of this "Saint Nicholas" into that of a harmless mythical hero. Who knows, if people begin to think of Nicholas this way, maybe we can train them to think of Jesus in the same way. Have your people flesh out a plan for me to look at.

M E M O

DATE:       January 20, 1985

FROM:      Prince Darkness, I.S.C. Advisor

TO:            Our Father Below


Your Most Corrupt Excellency:

         This is in response to your request for an updated status report on Operation Christmas

         I am pleased to be able to tell you that, on the whole, the major objective of this operation is being met: i.e. neutralizing wherever possible the effect of the Enemy's Sneak Attack. As a percentage of total population, the number of the Enemy's followers has been steadily decreasing, particularly in the more developed nations. 

         The coming decade seems especially promising for our cause. Our S.I.A. station chief in the United States of America reports that the wholesome values of materialism, conspicuous consumption, envy of neighbor, and greed appear to be flourishing. Status symbols have never been taken more seriously. More to the point: We have been particularly successful in associating these values with the celebration of Christmas. Our operatives, both overt and covert, have arranged for the retailing industry to no longer merely respond to demand, but to create and control the demand for material gifts, and, moreover, to set the terms for the celebration of the season: when it starts, when it ends, what decorations are used, and what music is heard. We have made great strides is obscuring Christmas as a commemoration of the Sneak Attack.

         Still, it is a year-to-year, day-to-day, person-to-person battle.  Remembrance of the Sneak Attack is obscured, but not erased. The enemy's position is compromised, but he is still powerful. We must not let our guard down for a moment.



M E M O

DATE:       December 25, 1995

FROM:      The Father Below

TO:            All staff


         I am taking this opportunity to communicate to each and every one of you my sincere gratitude for your superb and ongoing efforts in the execution of Operation Christmas

         As you are well aware, nearly two thousand years ago, on a day that will live in infamy, the Enemy himself, in the person of his own Son, actually became a human being, one of the pitiful creatures who descend from the ones we successfully recruited to our cause in the Garden of Eden.  The events of the subsequent thirty-odd years are both too familiar and too ugly to bear recounting. Suffice it to say that the resurrection of the one whose name I still cannot bring myself to speak was such a blow that I wondered whether we would ever recover. It even still threatens our very existence. And when one of our own incompetent agents actually helped the Enemy's followers turn the anniversary of his birth into the most beloved and emotionally powerful holiday in human history ... well, what can I say? We got rid of him!

         Yet, we struggle on, thanks to all of you. We successfully corrupted the memory of, and devotion to, Bishop Nicholas of Myra into the cult of a jolly old man who, like a powerful magnet, draws the attention and affection of human beings, especially children, away from the original basis of the festival. We have successfully corrupted the spirit of generosity and the impulse to gift-giving into a materialistic orgy of out-doing and out-spending last year. We have successfully engineered the celebration of the holiday to begin a month before the event, so when Christmas actually comes, people are so tired that they don't have the energy to pay attention to the reason for celebrating. And, thanks to the efforts of a secret task force whom I cannot yet name without jeopardizing their security, we have fostered the rise of what humans call "New Age" religion, which may yet reclaim December 25 as the Festival of the Unconquered Sun!

         My friends, there is yet one more important task that I will call you to.  This, I hope, will be the fatal blow to the remembrance of the Sneak Attack and the termination of this long and drawn-out Operation Christmas. There are those human beings who, for whatever reason, are just not vulnerable to the temptations of wealth or power or prestige.  The are amused by the Santa Claus myth but don't pay much attention to it. They manage to not be consumed by the frantic pace of the season. What can we do to reach these people for our cause? There comes a time when it is necessary to tolerate, even encourage, good on a small scale in order to avoid good on a large and disastrous scale.  I believe we must capitalize on people's innate goodness, to turn their strong points—unselfishness, generosity, loyalty, love—into their weak points, turn their advantage into our advantage. If we can foster the notion that the real meaning of Christmas is about love and patience and kindness and gentleness, about magical moments of generosity and human togetherness, of family and friends and traditions and values and doing a good deed for someone who's poor or lonely or hungry ... if we can spread the idea that these things, distasteful as they may be, are what Christmas is all about, then we can divert attention from the idea that Christmas is about the Enemy becoming a human being in order to win them all back from our side. To the extent that people remember the Sneak Attack at Christmastime, then everything we work for is in danger. We must not allow it!  If we have to accomplish this by encouraging love and generosity, then so be it. In the end, victory will still be ours. 

         Merry Christmas, my demons, merry Christmas.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the word was God ... and the word was made flesh, and moved into the neighborhood.

And the word was made flesh, and moved into the neighborhood.

Amen.

Friday, December 25, 2015

Christmas

Mostly hunkering down at home with extended family--children, spouses, and grandchildren. It's a rare treat. I emerged last night to preach at the early liturgy at St Paul's Cathedral and preach/preside at the later one. Both were well attended, by recent standards, and contained multiple elements of sweetness. I was very grateful. Today has been equally sweet at home. Blessings abound.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Christmas Homily

Christmas--Springfield Cathedral                                                                 Luke 2:7

"And she gave birth to her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn."

We live in an age of incessant surveys and opinion polls. You name the subject, and somebody has the latest polling data on it. I can’t spend a night in a hotel or take a ride on an airplane without being asked to complete an online survey about two days later. Only earlier this week a survey-taker approached me in an airport terminal and wanted to ask me my opinions about … the terminal. An airport terminal, no less! Our theological opinions and religious practices, while perhaps not as interesting to pollsters as our sexual attitudes and habits, are nevertheless frequently surveyed. The data, in recent years, are trending in some rather interesting way. The vast majority of Americans, somewhere over 80%, but gradually declining, tell the opinion surveyors that they believe in a supreme being of the sort that most of us would call God—a god who is responsible for creation and to whom we, as human beings, are in some sense accountable. True atheism, it seems, is still not really a very popular ideology, though it’s been steadily on the rise. At the same time, however, well less than half of us are what could be described as religiously observant—members of and actively participating in the life of a church or some other kind of faith community—and among adults under the age of 30, this percentage is significantly lower.

Now, the 11% or so—higher among young people—of our society who are professed atheists are at least being consistent with their convictions by not being religiously observant. And, the 30 percent who are active in a faith community are also behaving consistently with their professed beliefs. But what of that vast number—the majority of our society, actually—who say they believe there is a God, but who do not do anything in their lives to express that belief, or to show that it makes any difference at all?  Why such a paradox? What is it that keeps these people from reconciling their religious behavior with their professed convictions?  Why is it that so many avowed believers are functional atheists? 

Part of the answer, no doubt, lies in simple dishonesty. There is still some social stigma attached to public atheism, so, even in the anonymity of an opinion survey, some will say they believe in God when in fact they don’t. But I doubt there are really very many in this category. Ironically, though, even though it still may not be socially fashionable to openly profess atheism, neither is it socially fashionable to be religiously devout.  Here’s a test. When was the last time you saw a practicing, praying, every-Sunday-church-going Christian portrayed on TV or in the movies as a psychologically healthy, loving, happy, all-round normal individual? Except for the characters in Call the Midwife, perhaps, I can’t think of any!  So it’s no particular wonder that there are many who, in their heart of hearts, believe not only in a general supreme being, but in the particular God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, but who shy away from implicating themselves with that belief because they fear being socially marginalized, fear being type-cast by friends and family and co-workers as “religious,” or even a fanatic. Peer pressure is powerful no matter what age we are, and there is tremendous peer pressure in our society to nibble around the edges of religious practice, but to not take it too seriously.

Then again, there are those who believe in God, and who have healthy enough egos to resist social pressure, but who are concerned about the practical consequences of opening themselves up to God. They realize, and correctly so, that putting things right with God will probably involve owning up to some mistakes, past and present, and making some changes, present and future.  How am I going to explain some of those stupid things I did when I was young, or not so young? What is God going to want me to give up? What will God ask me to do? I like my life the way it is; I’m not ready to do anything different. Intellectually, of course, we know that God can see all and knows all, but, we nevertheless try to fool ourselves into acting like if we ignore God, he can’t see us. We can’t bear the shame of facing him straight on, or we can’t bear the pain of amending our lives such as we imagine he might require of us, so we don’t answer when he calls and we don’t respond to the messages he leaves.

Fear of our neighbors, fear of God—both can motivate us to keep God at arm’s length. But the biggest reason, I suspect, that so many theoretical believers are functional atheists is not fear, but indifference.  God does not employ an army of angels bearing machine guns to force us to worship and obey him. There are signs of his presence all around us, but we have to want to see them; they’re invisible, as it were, to the naked eye. The reason so many of us act as though God doesn’t exist even when we know he does, is that it’s so easy to do so! We can get away with it. There are no readily-apparent short-term consequences. Our attention is easily diverted by concerns that appear to be more pressing, issues that do have short-term consequences, issues like pursuing career advancement, wealth, influence, sex, amusement, health, family relationships, political action, public service, and the list could go on. Some of these are harmful and dangerous things, some are good and wholesome things, some are both, but all make poor substitutes for God. So whether it’s fear or indifference, there are powerful forces conspiring to prevent us from expressing in our practice what we know to be true in our hearts and minds. Practicing Christian faith does put us at some risk. The question is—is it a risk worth taking?

In any number of books, movies, and TV shows, the climactic scene of the story takes place on a bridge. Two parties who do not trust one another nevertheless want to communicate. They want to exchange money, information, prisoners, hostages, or whatever. But there is risk involved. They try to minimize that risk by creating a safe environment: a definite time, a definite place—one where everyone’s actions can be seen, where there is minimal possibility for treachery and betrayal. So the classic strategy is to spread the risk evenly, to meet the other party at the middle of the bridge, transact the necessary business, and move on. My friends, the good news of Christmas is that God is willing to meet us, not only in the middle of the bridge, but to come all the way over to our side, to allow us to frisk him for weapons and look into the whites of his eyes. God is willing to assume all the risk in his relationship with us, and the token of that willingness is that he meets us as a completely vulnerable infant wrapped in a blanket and resting in a feeding trough. 

He doesn’t have too, you know. After all, God is God. He could have come to us as a mysterious charismatic figure emerging out of the wilderness, from nowhere in particular and everywhere in general, and drawing an immediate and massive following. But he didn’t. He came at a definite time—in the days of Caesar Augustus—and at a particular place—Bethlehem of Judaea—and was born to a real woman with a real name—Mary of Nazareth. We know who he is, we know where he’s from, we know who is people are; it’s all above board, no secrets. God could, we must presume, have taken a position of power and prestige, surrounding himself with armed guards and timing his arrival to coincide with a solar eclipse or the appearance of a comet that all would see. But he didn’t. He was born in a barn, as a regular baby dressed in regular baby clothes—a barn, moreover, located in an obscure little town in an obscure province of the Roman Empire, and with such accompanying astrological signs as only some unknown foreigners from who-knows-where were able to interpret. God took a great risk in consenting to be born this way. He risked being rejected on account of not seeming worthy of respect. Little babies are cute, but we don’t worship them as God, nor, for that matter, do we worship as God anyone who ever was a little baby. That isn’t God-like. In being born in a barn, God also risked being trivialized and sentimentalized. Little babies are cute—like bunny rabbits and puppies and pink ribbon.

Does it jar you to hear me say Jesus was born in a barn rather than in a stable?  Or that he was placed in a feeding trough rather than laid in a manger?  Or that the Wise Men were obscure astrologers from an unknown country? It jars me to hear me say those things!  We have, in our imaginations, from generation to generation, taken what had to have been a traumatic and frightful experience for Mary and Joseph and their young son and turned it into something cute. And in so doing, we trivialize it and tame it and rob it of its power. Look what we’ve done to the supposed “meaning” of Christmas. Instead of the scandal of God taking human flesh, we get sentimental platitudes about love and tolerance and patience and warm family feelings. Now, I’m not knocking any of those things; don’t hear me wrong. They’re good things. But they’re not even remotely what Christmas is about. Yes, God took a risk by being born in a barn. He not only risked rejection and trivialization, he risked indifference and marginalization. His coming was not a public spectacle that impressed itself on the collective human consciousness in such a way that it can be neither avoided nor forgotten. It was accomplished in a way that allows us to ignore it with impunity. God incarnate is not forced on us. God took the risk of not only meeting us halfway across the bridge, but of coming all the way on to our side and revealing himself in complete vulnerability, wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger.

Was God’s great risk worth it? Our response is alone the answer to that question.  This Christmas is an opportunity, an invitation.  It is another chance to respond—to cast off that shackles of social pressure, to to go ahead and meet Jesus on our end of the bridge, realizing that getting right with God is the pearl of great price that is worth sacrificing anything to have, to admit that we cannot hide from God, that he is looking on us in love every minute of every day, in the person of Jesus, one with us in our humanity. O come, let us adore him. Amen.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Wednesday (O Emmanuel)

Yes, I realize I've been AWOL from this venue since the weekend. I've been traveling under circumstances that were simply not conducive to my usual routine of late evening posting. I've been about the business of the Communion Partners group of bishops, about which it would not be prudent for me to say anything substantive at this moment. Anyway, I'm back in harness locally. Today I refined and printed sermons for Christmas Eve and this coming Sunday, and preached/celebrated the cathedral's midday Mass. Now we have a houseful--with all three of our grown children, two spouses, and three grandchildren (one still in utero).

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Sermon for Advent IV

Springfield Cathedral--Hebrews 10:5-10, Luke 1:39-49

So, here we are on the Fourth Sunday of Advent. Christmas is almost here. Three weeks ago, our liturgical attention was consumed by visions of Last Things, the second coming of Christ for the purpose of judging the living and the dead. Over the last couple of weeks, the emphasis has shifted to a rather odd combination of warning and comfort: John the Baptist has crudely and rudely called us—we who are in his estimation a “brood of vipers”—to repent, to turn from our wicked way. But this in-your-face warning has come in a context of promise and hope, a vision of a restored human community, reconciled with God and one another, living in joy and peace.

Now the focus shifts again. We read from Luke’s gospel, but not the familiar story of the Annunciation—that’s reserved to Year B, and this is Year C in our lectionary cycle—but, rather, the visit of pregnant Mary to pregnant Elizabeth, both of them gestating within their own bodies—Elizabeth a little further along—the bodies of Jesus and John the Baptist, respectively.

But you may have noticed that, before we got there, the lectionary threw us, not just a curveball, but something out of left field, an obscure passage from the already obscure Epistle to the Hebrews, something about bodies: “A body you have prepared for me …”, and then, a little later, “… we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.”

A body is very real, very much “there,” inescapable. Ask any women who’s pregnant or has ever been pregnant. She feels changes within her own body, and always feels the presence of something that is part of her body, yet, at the same time, not part of her body, something alive and growing, something that is at the same time her and not her.

As I mentioned, Hebrews is obscure; it’s very complicated material, a rather tight argument almost from beginning to end. It’s difficult to teach from, and even harder to preach from! In today’s reading, the author quotes from Psalm 40, but in the second half of the fifth verse of that Psalm, he uses an alternate reading of the Hebrew text, changing one word. In Hebrews we read, “A body you have prepared for me.” But if you were to open your Prayer Book to Psalm 40, that same line would read, “You have given me ears to hear you.” Quite a big difference in meaning, right?! Like I said, it’s only a one-word difference in Hebrew, a difference that is magnified when translated into English. So the author of Hebrews did this very intentionally, choosing to use a textual variant of Psalm 40 in order to support his argument about the importance of the body of Jesus, the body of the Messiah, in God’s scheme of redemption.

In our society we seem to gravitate toward one of two extremes with regard to our bodies. One is to idolize them. In the 70s, there was a popular women’s book called Our Bodies, Our Selves. I was already troubled by what that title implied. Dan Martins is a lot more complicated than this body you are looking at. Yet, I am more disturbed by the opposite tendency, to downplay the significance of our bodies. There’s a graphic meme going around on Facebook that is falsely attributed to C.S. Lewis. It says something like, “You do not have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body.” While there may be an oblique element of truth in that, it’s mostly theological malarkey. A human being is a dynamic body/soul duality. We need both to be fully human. This is why, despite the overwhelmingly dominant cultural narrative, the Christian hope is not the immortality of the soul. We may affirm the immortality of the soul, but that is not our hope. Do the creeds ever mention the immortality of the soul? No. What do they mention? The resurrection of the body. That is our hope. Personally and pastorally, I am disturbed by the trend to have funerals without the body of the deceased present. The body is not nothing. The body is sacramental. When we lowered the casket containing my father’s body into his grave almost 11 years ago, I was never more aware of this element of our Christian hope. I said to him in that moment, “I will probably join you in a place just like this. But we’re coming out of there.” Death separates us from our bodies, but, in resurrection, we are reunited with them. (Of course, they’ve been overhauled in the meantime to be a lot better!) In any intermediate state there may be between death and resurrection, we are not yet fully ourselves, even if we continue to have some kind of conscious existence. Our salvation is not complete until we are once again in a body.

So bodies matter. The body of Christ matters. It matters that we celebrate the birth of a baby later this week, a baby with a body emerging from a woman with a body. It matters that God shares his life with us by means of that same body in the sacrament of the Eucharist, in Holy Communion—yes, all grown up, crucified, risen, ascended, and glorified—but the same body, nonetheless, the same body that lay in the manger. “A body you have prepared for me … we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.”

The expression “body of Christ” also has another level of significant meaning, as you know. St Paul uses it to refer to the Church, the community of the baptized, which is to say, us. Together, we are the body of Christ, and individually member cells within that body. We can also see ourselves in that textual variant from Psalm 40, “A body you have prepared for me.” As God works through the sacraments, particularly the Eucharist, to feed and sustain us with the Body and Blood of his Son, so we, the Church, are collectively a sacrament—a sign to the world of God’s undying love, always inviting men and women and children into friendship with him in the communion of those who have become cells in his Son’s body.

So, as Advent draws to a close, it is our joyful privilege to worship God in our bodies, from our bodies, through our bodies, with our bodies—not worshiping our bodies, but worshiping their Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier. It is our joyful privilege to welcome God incarnate, the Word made flesh and moved into our neighborhood. 

Come, Lord Jesus. Amen.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Saturday (O Radix Jesse)

Leisurely morning at home ... domestic chores ... exercise. At 2:30 we loaded up and headed west to Trinity, Jacksonville to preside at the Requiem for Fr Bill Malottke, who discovered the Christian faith in that parish during his student days at Illinois College and eventually served as its longtime rector. I believe we gave him a good sendoff, with a homily by the Bishop of West Virginia, who benefited from the rich campus ministry of Fr Bill and Carla Malottke during his own days as an Illinois College student. Following the liturgy, Brenda and I joined a group of family and friends for dinner on the campus of that very college.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Friday (O Adonai)

  • Overslept a bit (something I never do, but apparently turned the alarm off rather than snoozing it) and got tied up a bit while trying to get my day organized. Morning Prayer in the car while driving to the office.
  • Conferred with the Archdeacon over exigent concerns in two of our Eucharistic Communities.
  • Reviewed Christmas homilies from prior years, selected one, then performed major surgery--excising some material and inserting other new material, and moving some parts around--emerging with a rough draft of a sermon that I will refine next week and, God willing, deliver at the cathedral at both Christmas Eve liturgies.
  • Lunch at home. Leftovers.
  • Reviewed my January visitations and made appropriate notes, set up reminders, etc.
  • Reviewed an electronic draft of the service program for Sunday week (the 27th) at St Thomas', Glen Carbon.
  • Drafted, printed, and arranged to send a letter to the vestry of one of our Eucharistic Communities, in response to theirs to me.
  • Processed a short stack of emails.
  • Walked next door to the cathedral to pray the Joyful Mysteries of the rosary. St Paul's has a set of stained glass windows along the south ("liturgical north") side of the nave that depict these five, plus a bonus for the Epiphany. Followed this with Evening Prayer.
  • Spent some quality time back on the office clearing off the physical top of my physical desk. It had been a very long time, and really needed doing.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Thursday

  • Early morning weights and treadmill.
  • Morning Prayer in the cathedral.
  • Dealt via email to two thorny (which is to say, for delicate and difficult) pastoral/administrative matters. This took a while.
  • In preparation to preach on the Sunday after Christmas (St Thomas', Glen Carbon), I identified a homily for that occasion from a prior year, and began the process of doing the sort of plastic surgery that is necessary to ensure that it is fresh and appropriate.
  • Attended to some urgent and important Communion Partners business.
  • Lunch from the prepared foods section at HyVee, eaten at home.
  • Took a careful look at my Discretionary Fund to determine my capacity for generosity in response to a handful of gift requests from various entities that had been piling up. Like the Shunemite widow's containers of oil and flour, there always seems to be enough, for which I am very grateful.
  • Made rail travel reservations for next month' Provincial House of Bishops meeting in Chicago.
  • Responded by email to a reporter who wanted to know how recent events in the country and the world might impact my preaching on Christmas. The gist of my reply was: Not very much. Current events don't long stay "current." The human condition, and the relevance of the gospel to that condition, however, don't change this side of Eternity.
  • Wrote two letters: One to the Presiding Bishop's office on a pastoral/administrative matter, and one to some lay people who were upset with one of my difficult decisions.
  • Processed a handful of relatively minor emails.
  • Attacked the pile of January clergy and spouse birthday and anniversary note cards. Got about half of them done.
  • Evening Prayer in the cathedral.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Wednesday


  • Usual AM routine: task planning at home, MP in the cathedral. 
  • Prepared to preside and preach at the midday Mass. 
  • Attended to a small chore related to the next pre-Lenten clergy retreat. 
  • Began to close in on some concrete sabbatical-planning arrangements. 
  • Took time with Brenda to execute our basic end-of-life documents (will, financial and healthcare POA), while they were witnessed and notarized by the Administrator and the Archdeacon. 
  • Met with a potential candidate for ordained ministry--initial get-acquainted interview. 
  • Presided and preached at the cathedral Mass, observing an Advent feria. 
  • Lunch from Popeye's, eaten at home. 
  • Spent some more time with the sabbatical planning project. 
  • Worked with the Administrator on some ... what else? ... administrative issues. 
  • Spent some quality time with several commentaries on the Cana wedding miracle in John's gospel, preparing to preach on that text on the Second Sunday after the Epiphany (Christ the King, Normal on 17 January). 
  • Evening Prayer in the cathedral.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Tuesday

Weekly task planning and some email processing at home. Morning Prayer in the cathedral. Quickly but assertively attended to a pastoral/administrative matter. Less quickly and assertively took care of another pastoral/administrative matter. Prepared, mentally and otherwise, for an afternoon Nashotah House Board of Director's conference call. Worked toward refining and printing a working script for this Sunday's homily (which, it turns out, will be at St Paul's Cathedral and not Christ Church, due to a communications and scheduling snafu). Lunch at home--leftovers. Finished up work on the aforementioned sermon. Presided over a 90-minute conference call meeting of the Nashotah House Board of Directors. Followed up with an email. Wrote a fairly long Ad Clerum (letter to the clergy), which is ready to be sent out tomorrow. Evening Prayer in the cathedral.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Third Sunday of Advent

Sitting here at O'Hare waiting for a delayed flight to Springfield. My weekend in Providence, Rhode Island (with lunch today in Massachusetts) was just plain fun. I was warmly received by the clergy and faithful of S. Stephen's Church, and am particularly grateful for the sumptuous organ and choral music.

Sermon for Advent III

St Stephen's, Providence (RI)--Luke 3:7-18

Have you ever been, as the song says, "Late for a very important date?" Maybe you forgot to set your alarm and overslept. Maybe the gates went down at the railroad crossing just as you got there. Maybe there was a wreck on the highway that backed up traffic for a mile and a half. Or maybe you were just forgetful, or, worse than that, just inattentive to the passage of time or to how long it would actually take you to get from point A to point B. (More than once have I almost missed a plane for that very reason!) And now you're late to an appointment with an important client, or to a crucial job interview, or to pick up your child who's waiting in the rain outside a deserted school, or to the beginning of a play or a concert or a movie. I know that when I find myself in a situation like this, I can almost physically feel the waves of fear and shame and anger wash over me: fear at the prospect of an opportunity squandered, shame at being so careless as to not notice the time, and anger, really at myself, though often projected onto another person. 

We all have an important date coming up twelve days from today. It's called Christmas. We can't delay its coming—we can't stop the clock or stop the world—but we can, in effect, be “late” for Christmas, by not being prepared for it. This unpreparedness can operate on several levels, from the trivial to the profound. We can put off shopping that needs to be done, Christmas cards that need to be written, houses that need to be decorated. We can evade responsibility for mending relationships with family members or friends that have suffered from neglect or from more serious harm. But the consequences of being unprepared in these ways are, in the larger scheme of things, relatively trivial in comparison with failing to prepare spiritually for Christmas, for failing to prepare to welcome Christ once again, and again and again, into our hearts, into the very core of the reality of who we are as human beings. We can't stop the coming of Christmas, but we can be “late” for it by being unprepared. 

But there's also another important date that we don't want to be late for, a date that we assume, at least, will come some time after this Christmas, although we never know for sure. This date is when the same Jesus Christ whose first coming we celebrate at Christmas returns to this earth for his second coming, when the one who was born to be our Savior returns to be our Judge. Two weeks ago, at the beginning of this Advent season, the scriptures taught us that the work of salvation—the work of rescuing humankind and the whole created order from the tyranny of sin and evil—which God began when he became one of us, taking human flesh, will be brought to completion, as surely as flowers bloom when spring comes. What was begun in Act I will be concluded in Act III. Today, on this Third Sunday of Advent, the focus is on where we are now, in Act II. The Author and Director of the play is trying to remind us of some of our lines and give some very practical stage directions. In summary, his advice is something that any Boy Scout could tell us: Be prepared! Get ready! 

John the Baptist is the one who delivers the message, although he's no Boy Scout, because he ignores the part in the Scout Law that talks about being courteous! Politeness and tact are not among John's virtues. Directness of expression, however, is. “You brood of vipers!”—another translation puts it even more simply: “You snakes!”—“Who told you that you could escape the wrath that is coming? Even now the axe is being laid to the root of the tree!” John is trying to shake us out of our complacency, to say, “Wake up! You're in danger!” You are, as they say nowadays, “at risk.” 

So what puts us at risk, what is the basis of the danger that we're in? Our attitudes, the orientation of our own hearts, is what puts us in danger. If we consider ourselves young, then what threatens us is the attitude that this present age, this time of life, this present moment, will never end. “Act II” is all there is. There will always be another “tomorrow” to make amends, if any amends need to be made. Not only do young people themselves think that they're immortal, but everyone else is tempted to think it about them. That’s why the death of a child or a teenager or a young adult gets our attention more readily than the passing of an octogenarian. The message of Advent to the young is, the number of tomorrows is finite—get ready for it to end. If we think of ourselves as old, the attitude that puts us at risk is to presume that it's really too late, that there's no point in trying to change anything because "Act II" is just about to come to a halt. The stage hands are ready to close the curtain to change the set for the next act. “I’m too old to ...” — you finish the sentence for yourself: Learn to love someone, change houses, change jobs, quit a bad habit or start a good one … it's a refrain familiar to all of us. The message of Advent to the older ones among us is, “Christ is coming, but he hasn't come yet—there's still time to prepare! 

The fact is, both the attitude of the young and the attitude of the old beg the question, they evade the real issue. In one sense, we all know exactly how old we are, the way a football player can look at the scoreboard clock, compare it with the score, and have a pretty good idea of what is and is not possible in the time that is left. But there is some evidence to suggest—and I may be prejudiced here, I realize—there is some evidence to suggest that God keeps time, not in a football way, but in a baseball way. If an experienced baseball player looks at the scoreboard and sees that the game is in the top of the fourth inning, he knows better than to assume that the game is yet young, just approaching the midpoint. Because if those clouds in the sky start to produce rain, whatever the score is now could end up in the wins and losses column after less than another inning. And if that same player sees that the game is in the bottom of the twelfth inning, long past the time when it “should” have been over, he knows that nothing can be taken for granted, no matter how lopsided the score. Yogi Berra's saying, “It ain't over till it's over” applies not only to baseball but to the Advent of God's kingdom in history and in each of our lives. 

So whether we think our game is in the third inning, with a long while left to go, or in the ninth inning, just ready to end, the fact remains, “It ain't over till it's over.” It's not too late yet. There's still time to prepare, to make sure that we're not late for the most important date we'll ever have, the date on which we, quite literally, meet our Maker. 

So what exactly is required of us to prepare for this very important date? John the Baptist, in his usual tactful and diplomatic manner, has a one-word answer for us:  Repent. 

Repent. 

Now, I would say that most of the time we think of repentance as an emotion, something we feel, namely, sorrow, regret, contrition, for something we’ve done wrong, some offense that we've given. But “feeling sorry” is really a rather tame, rather inadequate understanding of what repentance is. The New Testament Greek word which is translated "repent" literally means to change one's mind. 
Even that has a stronger meaning than "feeling sorry,” but the word in question, which is metanoia, by the time the New Testament was written, had taken on the meaning of “turning” or “conversion,” which is to say, the complete re-ordering and re-direction of one's life. Someone has said that repentance is like a ship's captain giving the order, "Full speed astern!" Reverse engines! 

When we see it in this light, then, repentance is obviously not a simple, immediate, one-step process. Repentance is, in fact, a three-stage movement. The first stage is the realization that one is headed in the wrong direction— morally, spiritually, physically, emotionally, in whatever way. This error in direction may be a radical one, requiring that full-speed-astern movement, or it may be very slight, requiring only a minor correction. But even an error of only a degree or two can put a vessel significantly off course, and repentance is necessary. If we want to focus during Advent on our need for repentance, then a serious self-examination is called for. We need to consult the charts and check with an experienced navigator, and if we're off course, to freely admit it. This is why Christ offers us, through the ministry of the church, the sacrament of reconciliation, also known as "confession,” and this is why, without knowing the details, I’m fairly certain that your priests will be available to celebrate that sacrament with you sometime between now and Christmas. The second stage of repentance is turning around, establishing a new heading, locking in a new course, correcting the error that was revealed when the map was consulted. And the third stage is to actually start moving in that new direction, in other words, bearing “fruit worthy of repentance,” as John the Baptist expressed it to the crowds who came to hear him preach and to be baptized by him.

St Luke tells us, as he concludes this narrative about John the Baptist, that John continued preaching “the good news” all around the region of the Jordan. Good news? At first blush, certainly, his message does not sound very much like good news! But it is. The fact that, through John, God warns us of the coming end of history is good news. If your house is on fire, and someone wakes you with the news that there's still time to get out safely if you move now, if you “repent” of lying in your bed, then that person has brought you good news. God's promise is that his plan of salvation will be brought to conclusion, the time will come when peace, justice, love, and fellowship with God will be restored throughout the created order. But when that happens, it will also mean that it's too late to repent, as C.S Lewis so poignantly expresses it in Mere Christianity. It’s too late to declare whose side you’re on when the battle's already over. When the curtain comes down on the play, the time for actors to speak their lines is past.

But, as we live and breathe, that time has not yet come. It is not yet too late.  There is still time for self-examination, confession, and re-direction. There is still time to get ready, not only for the Christmas that is coming in twelve days, but for the only date that we really don't want to be late for. 

Come, Lord Jesus.

Amen.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Saturday (Our Lady of Guadalupe)

Picked up from my hotel in Providence in time to be at St Stephen's for Morning Prayer and Mass beginning at 9am. Then continental breakfast with the group of 25 or so who showed up for the Advent Quiet Day. Between 10:30 and 2:00, I delivered three meditations/addresses on themes inspired by the General Thanksgiving: the Redemption of the World, the Means of Grace, and the Hope of Glory. After being taken back to the hotel around 3:00, I enjoyed a nap, a walk, and a massage--in that order! Dinner was with Fr Alexander, Fr Yost (his assistant), and Phoebe Pettingill, one of their parishioners. A good day.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Friday

An uneventful day of travel. Up and out in time to catch the 10:30 flight from Springfield to Chicago, and the 1:50 flight from Chicago to Providence. Picked up at the airport by Fr John Alexander, rector of St Stephen's. Got settled in at the Providence Biltmore, then a lovely dinner with Fr Alexander and his wife Elizabeth. Looking forward to tomorrow's Quiet Day.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Thursday

  • Early morning weights and treadmill.
  • Task planning and some email over breakfast.
  • Morning Prayer in the cathedral.
  • Spent some time preparing for a scheduled afternoon conference call.
  • Checked in by phone with a cleric of this diocese who was at the very moment receiving a chemotherapy treatment.
  • Fleshed out and refined the third of my three Quiet Day addresses for this weekend at St Stephen's, Providence (RI). Turned all three addresses into hard copy to take with me.
  • Responded to an inquiry from one of our parish clergy on how I would advise explaining the meaning of confirmation as it pertains to baptized adults who come to one of our parishes from another tradition. Here's the nub of what I said: "It's all about 'coming under the hands of a bishop.' Why? Because a bishop is a walking symbol (a 'wormhole' if you want to get all sci-fi) of the entire rest of the Church Catholic beyond the local parish--the nexus between the local and the universal. So, reaffirming baptismal vows is the core, yes, along with doing so in the presence of, and connecting with, the Bishop--saying, in effect, 'This is my wormhole to the rest of the Church. This is how I am called to be "in communion" with the Church scattered throughout the world, because I am hanging my hat spiritually with this community that is ordered by its relationship with this Bishop.' Of course, care must be taken not to personalize 'this Bishop'--a sword that can cut both ways--but keep the emphasis on the Bishop's *position* in a web of relationships that the confirmand is now part, a web that happens to include TEC, but is both smaller and larger than that. FWIW, people 'become Episcopalian' when you enter their name in the Parish Register as Baptized Members, recording when and where they were baptized. Nothing I do can make them any more or less Episcopalian than that."
  • Attended to an annual chore--a sort of master plan for sermon preparation for 2016 (which look rather different than it usually does on account of my sabbatical).
  • Lunch at home--leftovers.
  • Wrote notes to clergy and spouses with mid-to-late December birthdays. I've been falling short on my aspirations in this area lately, but the best I can do is usually the best I can do, right?
  • Took part in a conference call among the Communion Partner bishops.
  • Spoke by phone over a rather intensely sensitive matter with a Nashotah House stakeholder. After those two calls, I must say, my brain was pretty fried. It's what happens to introverts.
  • Made an initial fly-by of the readings for the Second Sunday after the Epiphany, in preparation for preaching on January 17 and Christ the King, Normal.
  • Processed accumulated hard copy in my physical inbox--mostly by scanning, along with some task creation.
  • Evening Prayer in the cathedral.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Wednesday

  • Organized tasks and responded to several emails before leaving the house ... later than usual. (There were some techno-issues as well.)
  • Morning Prayer (short form in the car). Devotions and intercessions in the cathedral.
  • Prepared for the midday Mass.
  • Made some notes--some mental and some electronic--in preparation for two meetings on my calendar.
  • Finished preparing the second of my three addresses this Saturday at the Advent Quiet Day at St Stephen's, Providence, RI.
  • Met with (transitional) Deacon David Wells to discuss plans configured toward his ordination to the priesthood.
  • Presided and preached the the regular 12:15 liturgy, keeping an Advent feria.
  • Lunch at home--leftovers.
  • Participated in a long and occasionally delicate but eventually productive video conference call with some key Nashotah House stakeholders.
  • Caught up with an avalanche of email that had arrived during the video conference. Seriously, an avalanche.
  • For various reasons finding myself a bit behind the preparation curve for preaching on Advent IV (Christ Church, Springfield), I put mental and spiritual pedal to the metal for a concentrated hour and, starting from scratch, produced a rough draft of a homily. It will still require a good bit a work next week.
  • Short-form Evening Prayer in the car en route home (arriving just after 6:00).

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Tuesday (Immaculate Conception)

  • Weekly task organization over breakfast at home.
  • Morning Prayer in the cathedral.
  • Did some rough culling and sorting of the accumulated hard-copy detritus on my desk that reflected my absence from the office all last week.
  • Substantive phone conversation with the Dean of Nashotah House.
  • Finalized the transfer of funds for the purchase of a new automobile by the Diocese of Tabora, for use by their bishop, thanks to the magnificent and exemplary generosity of one of our endowed parishes. This involved several emails and a trip to Illinois National Bank to arrange the wire transfer.
  • Refined and printed the working script of my homily for this Sunday (at St Stephen's in Providence, RI, where I am set to give their Advent Quiet Day on Saturday).
  • Checked in pastorally by phone with Deacon Ann Alley, whose husband Bob died rather unexpectedly on Thanksgiving Day.
  • Attended the midday Mass in the cathedral chapel.
  • Lunch at home--leftovers.
  • Substantive phone conversation with Fr Mruiuki, priest-in-charge at Redeemer, Cairo.
  • Reviewed, and discussed with the Archdeacon, a draft program for the Requiem Mass for Fr Bill Malottke, set for the 19th.
  • Planned all the discrete tasks associated with presented a Lenten teaching series at Trinity, Lincoln.
  • Brief Nashotah-related email.
  • Evening Prayer in the cathedral.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Second Sunday of Advent

Out the door with Brenda bright and early at 7:30, headed for points south. Pulled into the parking lot at Trinity, Mt Vernon right on the usual 30-minutes-before-service-time target (service time in this case being 10:30). It was a good turnout by the standards of that parish and we duly kept the Second Sunday of Advent. The way home included a roughly one-hour stop in Nashville for a confab with a priest of the diocese (no, we don't have a parish in Nashville, so it was a matter of geographic convenience) to discuss of range of issues. Home in the neighborhood of 4:30.

Sermon for Advent II

Trinity, Mt Vernon--Luke 3:1-6, Baruch 5:1-9, Psalm 126, Philippians 1:1-11

Some of you may have heard me tell stories in various contexts about the period in my life—actually, it seems like a different lifetime—when I was a salesman. I was not, by any reckoning, a very good salesman, but whenever I point that out, someone invariably comes back with the quip, “But what do you call what you’re doing now?!”—the implication being that, even though I’m not paid on commission, what my ministry is about is, in effect, selling the gospel, or Christ, or the Church, or my vision for the diocese, or something along those lines. Well…whatever. This much I know: Making a sale involves the buyer coming to the conclusion that there is some advantage to him or her in making the purchase. The first essential question that must be answered in any sales process is “What’s in it for me?”

Now, if I’m going to have to listen to anyone call me a salesman for what I do, I’m just going to hold up a mirror and remind everyone that, if I’m a salesman, then all of you are too. The Church—the whole community of the baptized—is in the business of telling anyone who will listen that God loves them madly, and has gone to great lengths to be friends with them, and invites them to join the community of those who have decided to take him up on his offer of friendship. This activity is called evangelism, and when we do it, we have to answer the “What’s in it for me?” question just as surely as does the purveyor of perfume or mutual funds, hot dogs or real estate.

Different brands of Christians have different responses to the evangelistic “What’s in it for me?” question. Those who might generally be described as fundamentalist Protestants have a rather dramatic way of framing the question. I once saw a tract entitled “The First Five Minutes After Death.” The author clearly set out two scenarios: Those who have at any time intentionally said a prayer by which they confess their sinfulness to God, put their trust in Christ alone to save them from the consequences of that sinfulness, and invited Christ into their lives, will be ushered immediately into the blissful nearer presence of God. Those who have not said such a prayer will be consigned directly to Hell, where they will literally suffer intense physical pain for endless ages. Well, if and when one comes to the point of accepting that these are the only two choices, with no ambiguity or shades of gray, the “What’s in it for me?” question is answered pretty resoundingly.

Christians of a more liberal persuasion, however, have a different answer: the world is full of social problems. There is injustice, oppression, bigotry, poverty, crime, illiteracy—the list could go on and on—these things are all around us. God wants to do something about these problems. But the only arms and legs and hands and feet that God has belong to us. As President Kennedy said almost 55 years ago in his inaugural speech, “God’s work must truly be our own.” By becoming a Christian, one can join God’s army, enlist on God’s team. We can be instruments of God’s peace, and help usher in God’s reign of justice and love. Surely this is itself a significant reward; ample motivation for becoming a Christian.

But there’s another response to the “What’s in it for me?” question. I call it the Advent Response. The Advent Response is, “You want to know what’s in it for you? Well, how would you like a ringside seat for the decisive battle of all time—the victory of Almighty God over the forces of Evil and Death? How would you like a front row seat for a more spine-tingling action drama than any human mind could conceive—the recreation and redemption of the universe?” In today’s liturgy, we are confronted with the primal images and metaphors of Advent. A place is prepared for the arrival of God’s Holy One. A hostile wilderness is tamed. A channel is carved through the mountains that divide human communities from one another. The canyons and ravines that we lose our way in are raised up. Highways are built to connect God’s people with one another. And my favorite metaphor of all: That which is crooked is made straight. With this image, I can’t help but imagine God as Bob Vila, the TV home restoration and repair expert from a couple of decades ago. Maybe you remember him. He could take a derelict old building, and imagine its former glory and its inner beauty. And he had the knowledge and skill and perseverance to restore that glory and reveal that beauty for all to see. The Advent Response is to …
Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be brought low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways shall be made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.
As we make the Advent Response a habit of our own hearts, we begin to experience “what’s in it for us.” At a very personal and individual level, we see small blessings come our way, and we know the One who is behind those blessings, the Great Lover of our soul. We experience healing—maybe from a minor headache, maybe from cancer—and we know who is behind that healing. We come to realize that we are forgiven, the slate wiped clean, the foolish things we have done dispensed with, and we are filled with gratitude toward the One who is the source of that forgiveness. We feel ourselves mysteriously and gracefully drawn—called—to a vocation in life; we experience what it is to be a round peg in a round hole, and songs of praise flow from our hearts in adoration of the One who has issued that call. Over time, we realize that we are growing in holiness, becoming more like Jesus, that we are cultivating the habits in this life that will enable us to be fully alive in the next.

As we make the Advent Response a habit of our own hearts, we begin to experience “what’s in it for us” not only personally and individually, but socially. We come to realize that our connection to the Head also connects us to the Body, that we cannot know Christ without also knowing his Church. We grow in our awareness that the communal life of the Church is not an optional extra, a pleasant frill, but lies at the core of our Christian identity. The bond that God establishes in baptism connects us not only with him, but with one another. We become devoted, in particular, to the Eucharist, which ever reconstitutes the Church, and in which the Church is most clearly and purely herself. This leads us to a more profound discipleship, a deeper giving over of our hearts and minds and wills to Christ, allowing our faith to penetrate every aspect of our lives. Discipleship, in turn, forms us in servanthood—a servanthood that expresses itself in radical devotion to one another, but also acts as a leavening agent in society. We become subversives, God’s secret agents, who transform society not by revolution, or by headline-grabbing action, but by quietly turning it inside out just by being who we are as the Church, by loving one another, and letting the world know we are Christians by our love.

Finally, as we make the Advent Response a habit of our own hearts, we begin to experience “what’s in it for us” at a cosmic level. Everywhere we turn, we see sinners repenting and being forgiven. Everywhere we turn, we see Evil declawed and defanged and the good of which all evil is a corruption displayed in bright array. Everywhere we turn, we see Death being swallowed up in victory, choking on itself and dying.

So, what’s in it for us? In a word, Joy is what’s in it for us. The Old Testament apocryphal book of Baruch is an anthem of joy flowing from the Advent Response. The prophet echoes Isaiah in a startling way:
For God has ordered that every high mountain and the everlasting hills be made low and the valleys filled up, to make level ground, so that Israel may walk safely in the glory of God. … For God will lead Israel with joy, in the light of his glory, with the mercy and righteousness that come from him. 
The Epistle to the Philippians reiterates the same theme, with St Paul in the first of what would be a whole string of references to joy and rejoicing in the course of his letter:
I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy, thankful for your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now.
And the Psalmist is certainly not to be outdone in this department:
Those who sowed with tears * will reap with songs of joy. Those who go out weeping, carrying the seed, * will come again with joy, shouldering their sheaves.
You are no doubt at least passingly familiar with the British author and scholar and theologian of the last century, C.S. Lewis. Professor Lewis has had a tremendous influence in forming several generations of Christian minds and hearts, including my own. One of his most influential books is his spiritual autobiography, entitled Surprised By Joy. He articulates a notion of Joy that far surpasses the shallow emotion of a smiley face or the exhortation to “Have a nice day.” For Lewis, Joy is a profound and abiding conviction that, whatever comes our way, all will be well in the end, and we will be happier than we could ever imagine, because of the deathless love of God made known to us in the birth, life, death, resurrection, and ongoing ministry of Jesus Christ our Lord. Indeed, inasmuch as we allow ourselves to be trained by the Advent response, we will most certainly find ourselves surprised by Joy. 

Come, Lord Jesus. Amen.