Sunday, December 22, 2019

Fourth Sunday of Advent (O Rex Gentium)

It was a humanely-paced morning, as Brenda and I had driven as far as Effingham last night, only an hour away from our Centralia destination, and the regular Sunday liturgy at St John's doesn't begin until 1130. So we enjoyed breakfast a Cracker Barrel before heading south. I presided and preached for a lively congregation, with good attendance. St John's worships with the congregation of Redeemer Lutheran (ELCA), and Fr David Baumann is their common pastor. They either use the BCP rite with Lutheran hymns, or the Lutheran liturgy with Episcopal hymns. Today it was the former. Visited with folks over a potluck lunch, and met for a bit with Fr Baumann and his wife. We were on the road right at 2:00, and arrived home at 6:30. 

With Christmas coming up, things everywhere kind of go into low gear. I'm going to take a blogging break for a few days. I'll continue to work on stuff, but will be spending a lot of time with family, as I hope you will be as well. Catch you in the new year, if not a little sooner.

Sermon for IV Advent

St John’s, Centralia--Matthew 1:18-25, Isaiah 7:10-17, Romans 1:1-7

This is the fourth and final Sunday of the Advent season. Christmas is three days away. For 22 days, now, we’ve been keeping a lid on our own exuberance—but, as always, we’ve been doing a lousy job of it. Advent just doesn’t “work” very well, I’m beginning to think. It leaks. Christmas keeps banging on the door, saying, “Hey, let me in!” Advent bars the door, saying, “No, you’re early!” But Christmas is relentless, and Advent grows weaker and weaker with every extra candle we light on the wreath. This doesn’t mean Advent is a failure, or that we who try to keep it are failures. Letting Christmas leak in—even while protesting loudly—is part of Advent’s vocation. It’s like John the Baptist giving way to Jesus. Advent must decrease, and Christmas must increase.

So now we’re on the verge of lifting the lid, of removing the bar from the door. We are about to joyfully welcome of the birth of our Savior and Lord. All during Advent, the theme of the liturgy has been one of hope. We have been invited to ponder the hope that is ours because of what God is doing. God is active. God is on the move. God is redeeming and restoring and reconciling. God is getting ready to put everything back the way it should be, to prepare a great feast on his holy mountain, to banish suffering and injustice and violence, and to wipe away every tear from every eye. And the linchpin in this whole scheme is that God should take for himself a human mother and a human body and a human life, that the Word should become flesh and live among us, as Jesus, our Emmanuel, God with us.

So we have hope, but it’s sometimes an anxious hope. It’s often a hope tinged with fear. What’s our part in all of this? Is there anything a human being might do, or not do, that would gum up the works? We don’t trust ourselves. If something can be screwed up, some human being, somewhere, is willing, able, and ready to do the job. Our inner pessimist comes out, and we see the glass as definitely half-empty, not half-full. We remember well-intentioned platitudes like “God has no hands but ours.” We remember—some of us quite literally—President Kennedy’s inaugural speech, nearly 59 ago, wherein he admonished the American people that “God’s work must truly be our own.” We are conditioned by these sayings, and they lead us to assume that God somehow “depends” on human activity for the accomplishment of his redemptive purpose, as if we all could, if we wanted to, throw a monkey wrench into the plan of salvation and hold the redemption of the world hostage to our petty whims. We remember another saying, “A chain is only as strong as its weakest link.” We look around us—we look in a mirror!—and we see an awful lot of weak links.

This is enough to bring a lot of people down. It’s tempting to turn inward, to hunker down and just try to take care of ourselves and those we love and let all those weak links fend for themselves. Maybe God will see my attempts at faithfulness and righteousness, and at least save me, if not very many others. Maybe I, at least, and a few lucky others, will get to experience some of that redemption and reconciliation and sit down at that heavenly banquet table. Maybe my tears, at least, will get wiped away. We can probably all name people who have adopted this attitude. But it’s not a very appealing place to be, and it’s certainly not the received faith of the Church.

Others look at all the weak links, and say to themselves, “Well, if he’s not going to pull his weight, then I’ll have to carry my load plus his.” Rather than being motivated to withdraw from the world, people with this point of view immerse themselves in the world. They get involved with the world up to their eyeballs. This leads to an attitude known as the Social Gospel, which became very popular about 150 years ago. The Social Gospel takes very literally the idea that “God has no hands but ours” and “God’s work must truly be our own.” If there’s any injustice or wickedness in society, Christians are supposed to be in the forefront of trying to change things, including using the processes of secular politics. To the extent that the Church is successful in bringing about social change—lower rates of poverty or racial discrimination or street crime or teenage pregnancy or abortion or whatever one’s pet cause might be—to the extent that the Church is successful in bringing about social change, then she is faithful to her mission. God’s work must truly be our own.

That main problem with the Social Gospel is that it doesn’t work. Things aren’t just getting better and better all the time. We are not building heaven on earth. We are not ushering in the Kingdom of God. If anything, the conditions the Social Gospel seeks to address are getting worse, not better. The twentieth century was the most violent on record. It produced Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin and Idi Amin and Pol Pot and Osama bin Laden. If God has no hands but ours, then we’re in a world of hurt, because we’re really messing it up. At this rate, God’s big plans for redemption and reconciliation have no future at all. They are dead before they’re born. We are effectively preventing the salvation of the world.

Today’s liturgy, however—the liturgy of the Fourth Sunday of Advent, Advent on the verge of completely collapsing and letting Christmas come rushing in—today’s liturgy reminds us that the power of God to save—the validity and effectiveness of God’s plan for the redemption of the world—God’s power completely transcends any human response. God’s power is completely independent of any human knowledge, any human appreciation, any human worthiness. God wants our cooperation, but He doesn’t need our help. God’s purposes will be accomplished, no matter what we do.

In the seventh chapter of Isaiah, the Lord carries on a curious dialogue with a king of Judah called Ahaz. Ahaz is consumed with anxiety over a couple of neighboring kings who are threatening his national security. The Lord is trying to reassure Ahaz that everything’s going to be OK. He says, “Ahaz, what will it take to convince you? Ask me for any kind of sign you want. What will it take?”  Ahaz decides to be coy—“Oh, no, no, no. No sign will be necessary. I wouldn’t dream of putting the Lord to the test.” So the Lord says, “It’s really no big deal. But if you won’t ask me for a sign, I’ll give you one anyway.” And the sign he gives is one that must have seemed quite unremarkable and ordinary at the time—a woman’s going to have a baby, and in less time than it takes that baby to figure out the difference between right and wrong, God will have accomplished his purpose of delivering Ahaz from his enemies. God’s purposes will be accomplished, no matter what we do.

But from the time of the New Testament onward, Christians have read much more into this brief prophecy: “Behold, a young woman shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Emmanuel.” From the eyes of Christian faith, this prophecy is about much more than an obscure king of Judah in the seventh century B.C. being rescued from two of his petty enemies. It’s about God accomplishing His purpose of saving, not just the kingdom of Judah, but the entire created order. It’s about Emmanuel—God with us.

For Ahaz, the birth of Emmanuel was about God doing what God’s going to do with or without Ahaz’s cooperation. For us, the birth of Jesus—whom we know to be Emmanuel in a deeply concrete, not merely figurative, sense—the birth of Jesus is about God effecting His rescue operation of humankind, with or without our help. And what more appropriate sign of this profound truth could there be than the conception of Jesus in the womb of his mother without the agency of a human father? Yes, it strains our credulity, and we have no explanation for it that satisfies the demands of modern science. (And if we think it’s hard for us to swallow, try putting yourself in Joseph’s position!) Yet, if we can manage to take off our skeptic’s hat, and put on the hat of a poet—or the heart of a child, for that matter—it makes perfect sense. There could be no more potent sign that God is going to do what God is going to do. Our cooperation is nice—the fact that Joseph and Mary cooperated with the strange demands that were placed on them made everything go much more smoothly—but our help is not necessary. God has hands other than ours. And if we don’t manage to make His work truly our own, the work will still get done.

This is wonderfully liberating news—is it not?—especially in this time of year when we feel such a weight of responsibility—responsibility to do things right: buy the right gifts, prepare the right food, attend the right parties, create the right experience for our children or grandchildren. It’s so easy to let ourselves get sucked into patterns of behaving and thinking that reinforce the notion that human will, or mere human negligence, can thwart God—that the whole plan of salvation depends on all of us banding together to “help” God accomplish His work. It doesn’t. What a relief! Now we can enjoy Christmas! Amen.

Saturday, December 21, 2019

Saturday (O Oriens)

Read and responded to a sheaf of Ember Day letters from our postulants and candidates, as well as a couple of other ministry-related odds and ends. Took a nice long walk with Brenda on an unseasonably mild afternoon. Did some work on the ongoing basement project. Packed for an overnight and headed south with Brenda at 4:45, arriving in Effingham at 9:00 (with a stop for dinner in Gilman). St John's, Centralia in the morning.

Friday, December 20, 2019

Friday (O Clavis David)

Worked on various administrative and pastoral chores, mostly generated by emails, did some routine personal organization maintenance, got a haircut, enjoyed a rich time of personal devotion via a compilation of Advent hymns I found on YouTube. Carry-in Chinese for dinner with our daughter and our son and his family. Watched The Two Popes on Netflix. I recommend it.

Thursday, December 19, 2019

Thursday (O Radix Jesse)

After starting the daily with an early visit to my chiropractor, and keeping current with some emails, devoted the rest of the morning to the finish work (refine, edit, print (dealing with some technological issues) on my homily for this Sunday (St John's, Centralia). The afternoon got taken up by domestic concerns, as my "Work" to-do list is running temporarily light.

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Wednesday (O Adonai)

I spent yesterday morning clearing a stack of items off my radar that involve anyone waiting for a response from me. Then, focused on domestic concerns in the afternoon, all the while dealing with the reality that whatever bug is floating around at the moment has laid me pretty low, so, whatever I'm doing, I'm doing slowly. Today, I devoted the entire morning, after the usual opening routine, to walking through commentaries on John's gospel in preparation for preaching at Christ Church, Springfield on January 19. It felt like a luxury, but I'm, for the time being, relatively "caught up" in my ministry-related work. Once again, worked around the apartment in the afternoon. Evening Prayer with Brenda.

Sunday, December 15, 2019

Third Sunday of Advent

The morning unfolded at a humane tempo, as I didn't need to be anywhere until 10am, thirty minutes ahead of the principal liturgy at St Luke's, Springfield. For the first time in a string of years, it didn't snow on the day of my visitation to St Luke's, which was noteworthy. We duly kept the feast in word and sacrament, enjoyed some conviviality, then I was on my way northward, hoping to beat the predicted snow, which I was able to do. 

As the present load of "work"-related tasks on my radar is at the ebb point of its cycle (something that tends to happen in December, it seems), and the list of domestic chores looms large, I'm going to take an extra personal day or two this week. So you can check in again at this location in cyberspace on Wednesday.

Sermon for III Advent

St Luke’s, Springfield--Matthew 11:2–11

Last week, John the Baptist was on center stage in our readings, and was in the “prime” of his ministry. He was like a good barbecue sauce—bold and sassy. This week, we once again hear about John. Today, however, he’s in jail, a political prisoner of King Herod. But his incarceration is not the main reason John is glum. He’s glum because of an existential crisis, a moment of questioning the entire trajectory of his life. John the Baptist had paved the way, he thought, for a Messiah who would “kick behinds and take names,” and he thought Jesus was going to be that Messiah. But what is Jesus doing? Talking kindly to people, teaching them, and healing those who are sick. Not much laying the axe to the roots of trees there, not much separating grain from chaff, not much burning the chaff in the fire. Did he get it all wrong? Did he miss some key information? So, John sends a couple of his own disciples to go and find Jesus and get right to the point: “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” Are you the one our master John has been paving the way for, or is that actually somebody else? Because you don’t act much like the Messiah we’ve been expecting.

John had certain expectations about Jesus, certain expectations about how God would act in Jesus, and those expectations were not being met. So he became disappointed and doubtful. And how like John you and I and those around us so often are. We all impose a set of expectations on Jesus, and measure our experience of him against those expectations. Some of us expect Jesus to be a sort of concierge, a fixer of personal problems, someone who will turn the traffic signals in our favor if we’re late for an appointment. And, it turns out, he’s not that. Others might expect Jesus to be a righter of social wrongs, someone who wages war against oppression, and beats down injustice under his feet. But when we look at the gospels, we don’t see a social justice activist or a community organizer. Some might expect Jesus to be a sort of Super Judge who destroys evil and punishes wickedness and vice. We want him to be either a Cosmic Grandfather or a Cosmic Avenger, depending on what kind of mood we’re in. But that’s not the Jesus we actually find in the pages of scripture.

And when Jesus fails to meet our expectations, we get upset. We are disappointed. Very often, this may lead to a crisis of faith, a spiritual rough patch that persists, sometimes for decades. We may not even be conscious of it, but our faith development is stunted, like it hit a brick wall. We seem to never be able to go very deep, and just continue to spin our wheels spiritually. And sometimes, tragically, some people abandon their faith altogether, and quietly drift away from the life-giving community of the church.

When John’s disciples pose his question to Jesus, Jesus doesn’t immediately give the sort of direct, crystal-clear, slam-dunk response that John is looking for—or, truth to tell, the sort of direct answer that you and I would like to hear. In his usual style, Jesus answers indirectly, obliquely. He tells John’s disciples, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them.” Blind people are seeing, crippled people are walking, sick people are well, deaf people are hearing, dead people are alive, and, saving the best for last, perhaps, poor people have hope; they have received good news from the preaching of Jesus and his followers.

Now, compare that to just being an angry prophet announcing God’s judgment and burning chaff in fire. Isn’t what is happening as a result of Jesus’ ministry way better than what John was looking for the Messiah to be and do? This is the message that Jesus wants John’s disciples to take back to him.

And after the messengers are gone, Jesus exploits the opportunity to drive the same point home with those who are around him. I’m going to paraphrase a bit here: “What did you go out to the wilderness to see when John was baptizing? Somebody who lives a comfortable and prosperous lifestyle? No, you went out to see a prophet, right? Because prophets are always interesting, right? Well, he didn’t disappoint, did he, with his camel hair clothing and his crazy diet? But I’m here to tell you, John was even more than you expected, more than you even saw and heard. John was a super-prophet, a hyper-prophet, more of a prophet than you could ever imagine, a prophet who not only meets your expectations, but far exceeds your expectations. And whom was he prophesying about? That’s right—me. So what does that say about your expectations of me?”

Jesus transformed John’s expectations of him in the very act of fulfilling them, in the act of exceeding them. And Jesus transforms our expectations of him in the act of fulfilling them, indeed, in the act of exceeding them. No, Jesus is not your personal concierge, who manages the traffic signals. He’s way more than that. He makes your life mean something. He gives you something to live for, and, if need be, to die for. No, Jesus is not a social justice warrior, because we can look around and still see a lot of injustice. But we know that he is coming again to judge the world in righteousness, and calls us to tirelessly announce the coming of his kingdom of justice, peace, and love. The more we put our trust in Jesus, the more he raises our expectations.

This is a constant process. We can never exhaust our knowledge of God in Christ. It’s a mystery for which there is no “solution;” we peel back one layer, and there’s another layer right there to draw us in deeper. The more we are able to surrender our set expectations of who Jesus is, what Jesus is about, how Jesus is supposed to act, the deeper we are able to go in our spiritual development. The more we are able to let go of our expectations, the more God is able to transform our expectations by exceeding our expectations.  There is always a new level of expectation for God to exceed and transform.

Come, Lord Jesus. Amen.

Saturday, December 14, 2019

Saturday (St John of the Cross)

  • Morning Prayer in my hotel room. Made do with the breakfast offerings downstairs. 
  • Drove to the starting point of one of my old Springfield walking routes, one that exploits parts of abandoned interurban rail beds. It's a long-ish route, so I got my full 10K steps in, and then some. 
  • Back to the room to clean up and change.
  • Picked up and early lunch from the drive-thru at Taco Gringo, and brought it up to the office to eat in front of an episode of the TV show Britannia, which is about the Roman invasion of Britain in the first century.
  • Tackled a substantial list of action items--from Mission Strategy Reports to Ember Day letters to anxious emails from wardens of parishes in transition to restoring a decorative fountain in my office to working order. That last item should give a clue that I got down to the dregs of my task list--things I've been putting off for months because there was always something more important. I actually finished everything on my list, not just for the day, but for the week, which almost never happens. There will be a bunch of new items that pop up in the system next week, but, for now, I'm enjoying "task list zero."
  • Evening Prayer in the cathedral. Fajitas in the bar at Chili's for dinner.

Friday, December 13, 2019

St Lucy

  • Out of my garage right at 0530. At the office by 0845. An audio book certainly eats of the miles.
  • Organized tasks. Conferred a bit with the Archdeacon.
  • On behalf of one of our Eucharistic Communities that is concerned about the issue, did some research (including conversations with the Archdeacon and the Dean, in addition to the interwebs) on security protocols for churches. Sad to have to even expend any energy on something like this.
  • Got to work refining and editing my homily for this Sunday (St Luke's, Springfield).
  • Broke off from this at 10:40 to meet with my 11:00 appointment, who arrived early. It was with a deacon who is ordained and canonically resident in another diocese who has relocated in retirement to the Champaign-Urbana area. It was a get-to-know-you meeting prior to licensing and possible eventual transfer of canonical residence.
  • Back to the sermon work. Finished it up.
  • Out to Chick-Fil-A for lunch. Then downtown for a quick errand.
  • Began to scan, categorize, and tag the accumulated hard copy in my physical inbox.
  • Broke of from this to meet by 2:00 appointment--a two-hour continuing tutorial in liturgy (we have about eight hours in now) with an ordinand in the area of liturgy.
  • Caught up on incoming texts and emails.
  • Prayed the Joyful Mysteries of the Rosary in the cathedral, followed by Evening Prayer.
  • While I am truly comfortable with my usual office encampment while in town, I gratefully accepted an offer from St Luke's to get me a hotel room for a couple of nights, so I journeyed down to La Quinta on South Sixth and got settled in. Out to dinner at a Chinese-Cajun (yes, you read that right) place on Wabash.

Thursday, December 12, 2019

Thursday (Our Lady of Guadalupe)

The morning was effectively consumed by producing my regular "column" for the next issue of the Springfield Current, which will appear shortly after Epiphany. The early afternoon was devoted to a healthcare errand, after which I focused on an Ad Clerum--a letter to the clergy, mostly on matters liturgical. Managed to turn a chuck roast into a bunch of beef barbacoa, thanks, once again, to the Instant Pot (cooked to perfection in one hour under pressure). Then it was time to pack for my weekend in the diocese.

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Wednesday

  • Regular weekday AM routine.
  • Substantive email exchange regarding an ongoing administrative concern.
  • Took a call from a "head hunter" retained by a large parish in another diocese that is searching for a rector. (He wasn't head-hunting me, but looking for suggestions. Being the bishop of a backwater diocese with no large congregations, and not having any clergy at the moment who I'm eager to get rid of, I wasn't of much help.)
  • Said my prayers and took an initial pass at the readings for II Epiphany (January 19 at Christ Church, Springfield).
  • Lunched (on the late side) on leftovers.
  • More emails regarding another administrative issue.
  • Spent a chunk of time on the Lambeth Conference web portal going through "Stage Two" of the registration process. This is a complex and finely-oiled machine.
  • Plowed through about a half a dozen tasks that involve responding to an email, none of which were particularly urgent, and most of which have been sitting in my list for a while and never quite rising to the top. Some of them required some careful thought. So now I can cross them off.
  • 45-minute treadmill workout.
  • Evening Prayer with Brenda.

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Tuesday

  • Regular weekday AM routine, supplemented by the need to welcome a mold remediation team to our apartment for the day, and they'll be back tomorrow. I'll spare you the details. Suffice it to say that the main bathroom ceiling is rather thoroughly deconstructed at this point.
  • Answered a brief query from the Communicator.
  • Provided a letter attesting to the "in good standing" status of a priest who has retired and moved to another diocese.
  • Corresponded with a deacon who has moved to the diocese in retirement and wishes to pursue being licensed.
  • Continued correspondence with a priest (Anglican-ish? I'm not sure) for whom I can do nothing formal, but who wishes to stay in contact informally.
  • Wrote a substantive email to a lay communicant of the diocese who has kindly taken me to task for a position I have enunciated.
  • Did some surgery on a "vintage" sermon text for Advent IV in anticipation of reshaping it for use this year at St John's, Centralia.
  • Lunched on leftovers.
  • Got my granddaughter a Nintendo gift card for her birthday and emailed it to her. Sometimes I do love contemporary technology.
  • Spend about 45 minutes with my ongoing basement organizing project.
  • Attended to a routine personal organization chore (making sure clergy in charge of congregations I'm visiting in the next month have expressed an awareness that I'm coming).
  • Paid attention to an ongoing administrative project.
  • Revisited, via notes, and email, the subject of how to form diaconal ordinands.
  • Caught up on some Covenant blog reading.
  • Evening Prayer with Brenda.

Sunday, December 8, 2019

Second Sunday of Advent

Away from the office around 0830 en route to Havana, with a drive-through stop at McD's for some breakfast. Arrived at St Barnabas' the targeted 30 minutes prior to their regular 10am liturgy. There were 51 in attendance, which, in light of the recent history of that community, was remarkable. Fr Mike Newago has been an inspiring and effective pastor and leader. We baptized two teens, confirmed two adults and received one, all in the context of duly celebrating the Second Sunday of Advent. After some good visiting time over lunch, I was on the road at 12:15 and home at 3:45.

Sermon for II Advent

St Barnabas’, Havana--Matthew 3:1–12

We’re into the mid-section of Advent now, where John the Baptist is the lead actor, and the prophet Isaiah is the principal supporting actor. The gospel writers give us only a handful of details about John, but there are enough of them to paint a rather compelling picture. I mean … what a sight! He’s dressed in camel hide, lives in the desert, eats insects, and is on a constant rant about sin and the need for people to repent. And, still, he was wildly popular, mostly, I would guess, because he was so weird, and such a spectacle. But it’s not like people were ignoring the nugget of his message, which was, in a word, Repent! People were making a rather demanding journey down to where the Jordan River runs through the Judean desert—it wasn’t a casual stroll from where people lived—they were making their way to John, and listening to his message of repentance, and confessing their sins, and getting baptized. It was a really big deal, and we shouldn’t allow ourselves to downplay it in our imaginations.

Now … you would think that, given what people had to go through to get to him, and given the … ahem, unappealing character of his message, John would at least cut them some slack and not ask too many questions—you know, give them some points for making the effort. If someone manages to make it down to the river, and wants to confess their sins and get baptized, we would expect John to just say, “Bless you, friend. Step right up.” But no!  When he sees members of two partisan groups within Judaism approach him for baptism, he goes ballistic. His head explodes. “You bunch of snakes! Who warned you to run away from what’s in store for you?!”

That’s certainly not a warm pastoral embrace of a humble penitent sinner, is it?! Why? What motivated John to be so unhospitable toward the Pharisees and Sadducees? Well, to understand John’s attitude, we need to look under the hood of the other element, the other basic theme, of John’s preaching, which is: “The kingdom of heaven is at hand.”

The kingdom of heaven is at hand. It’s very easy to hear this expression and understand it in very straightforward, static terms, like we would understand somebody saying, “Christmas is just around the corner” or, toward the end of a long road trip, and your impatient child asks, “Are we there yet?” and you’re able to truthfully answer, “Just about. We’re almost there. Look, we can see where we’re going from here.” 

But God’s kingdom, the kingdom of heaven, isn’t like that. On December 25, Christmas will have arrived, and on January 7, it will have departed. It’s simple and predictable. When I arrive home tonight and park my car in the garage, my journey will be over. My navigation app will say, “You have arrived at your destination.” God’s kingdom, by contrast, is always happening rather than simply existing. It’s not a territory or a sphere or a realm. It’s an ever-ongoing event. Any consideration of the kingdom of heaven always ends in -i-n-g. It’s always happening, always continuing. The kingdom of heaven is “near,” not spatially, the way we usually thing of nearness, not “near in time,” but “near in place,” sort of in the way that the Illinois River is “near” Havana. And when the river is at flood stage, it gets even nearer still. I can imagine that there have been times when the residents of this town have feared that the Illinois River will just “invade” Havana. This is more or less what John the Baptist is saying about the kingdom of heaven: It’s constantly “inbreaking,” forever “on the verge” of invading our time and place. God’s kingdom isn’t a place or an event, but an ongoing moment of “happening.”

So, John’s criticism of the Pharisees and Sadducees is that their repentance is cheap and cynical, not genuine, not authentic. It doesn’t spring naturally and spontaneously from their hearts. Rather, it’s fabricated, contrived, motivated only by a desire to escape the just and proper consequences of their self-serving behavior.

But the kind of repentance that God’s always inbreaking, always on-the-verge-of-invading kingdom summons us to is joyful repentance. I mean … God’s kingdom is near, and that’s pretty awesome, so that’s more than enough reason to be joyful, right? But, joyful repentance? That just sounds weird, doesn’t it? Yeah, that may strike us a contradiction, because repentance is serious business, and is often appropriately accompanied by tears of regret and sorrow. But joyful repentance is actually the heart of this season of Advent.

We are always, of course, aware of our need for repentance. Along with the Psalmist, we can truthfully say, “My sin is ever before me,” and even, on occasion, “My wounds stink and fester by reason of my foolishness.” In my more than three decades of ordained ministry in the Episcopal Church, I have found that Ash Wednesday is one of the most well-attended of the liturgical occasions that never fall on a Sunday. We are aware of our sinfulness, and we understand that confession of sin is an essential movement in the process of repentance. But, unlike the Pharisees and Sadducees, hopefully, we don’t repent out of fear, we don’t repent simply to avoid the consequences of our behavior. We repent as an irrepressible response to our anticipation of the full arrival of the kingdom of heaven, when all wrongs will be put right, and every tear be wiped away. Think of repentance, if you will, as you might when you are expecting some very special company in your home. The work may be challenging and difficult, and not at all fun. But you don’t go about it with fear or off-the-charts anxiety. Rather, you clean your house with joyful anticipation, because somebody who is important to you, somebody whom you care about a great deal, is going to show up, and the prospect of that makes you want to sing with joy. Housecleaning under those circumstances is much like the repentance that John the Baptist calls us to, that the season of Advent calls us to. It’s serious business, but it springs from the heart, authentically and organically.

Our King and Savior now draws near: Come, let us adore him. Amen.

Saturday, December 7, 2019

Saturday (St Ambrose)

  • Morning Prayer in my office, then off on foot to Charlie Parker's for breakfast, and back. Between the walking about 45 minutes each way and the eating, it was a little past eleven by the time I was cleaned up and ready take on the work day.
  • Responded by email, as gently and pastorally as I could, to a lay communicant of the diocese who is upset with me for a stand I have taken.
  • Responded to a request for a donation from my Discretionary Fund for a contribution to the project of establishing an Anglican center in Santiago de Compostela, Spain. It would greet pilgrims as they complete the Camino and be able to offer the sort of Eucharistic hospitality that the Roman Catholic church is presently unable to extend to those who are not of their own fold.
  • Caught up on a bit of Covenant blog reading.
  • Out to Chick-Fil-A for some lunch, then a bit of shopping at Macy's, Scheel's, and HyVee.
  • Plotted the plotting (yes, that sounds weird) of sermon preparation tasks for the next 12 months.
  • Brainstormed and committed to pixels a rough plan for the theological and spiritual formation of diaconal ordinands. There is no institutional option at the moment that seems entirely satisfactory. So we are going to be creative and improvise.
  • Either by hand-written note or scheduled email, extended greetings to clergy and spouses with nodal events in December (having already missed some by this date).
  • Evening Prayer in the cathedral, then dinner at what has become one my local haunts: Bernie & Betty's (it's a pizza place, but I always have their fine beef ravioli with meat sauce).

Friday, December 6, 2019

Friday (St Nicholas)

  • On the road southbound at 0527. A John Grisham audio book made the time slide right by. Arrived at Green Mazda in Springfield around 0835. Left the YFNBmobile there for a service appointment and called an Uber to take me to the office.
  • Processed emails that arrived overnight. Organized tasks. Began doing finish work on this Sunday's homily.
  • Kept at 10am appointment with the wardens of one of our Eucharistic Communities, along with the Archdeacon, to discuss some financial concerns.
  • Returned to, and completed, the sermon work I had begun.
  • Since I was carless, I walked into downtown and had pizza for lunch.
  • Began processing accumulated hard-copy items on my desk.
  • Took care of a small administrative chore.
  • Met was three members of the Standing Committee, at their request, to discuss a pastoral issue.
  • Called another Uber to take me back to the Mazda dealer and retrieve my vehicle.
  • Dealt with a couple of emails that have taken longer that I would have liked to rise to the top of the pile.
  • Friday devotion: Ignatian meditation on the daily office gospel reading for the day.
  • Evening Prayer in the cathedral.

Thursday, December 5, 2019

Thursday (St Clement of Alexandria)

The day mostly got consumed by domestic concerns as I prepare to be in the diocese for the next three days--mostly making sure Brenda has enough to eat while I'm gone, which, today, meant embracing the learning curve of a new Instant Pot, and then cooking a pork shoulder that turned out splendidly. Apart from that, I exchanged emails with staff members over various concerns, had a substantive pastoral conversation with a lay communicant of the diocese, and corresponded in Spanish with a priest from Argentina who approached me with a request I cannot fulfill. Prepping now to be on the road at 0-dark-thirty.

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Wednesday (St John of Damascus)

Again, the morning was devoted to various administrative and pastoral chores, both by email and telephone. A chunk of the afternoon involved taking Brenda to the doctor to follow up on her most recent low-sodium episode, each of which has affected her quite seriously. Upon returning, I drafted a homily text for Advent III (St Luke's, Springfield), and read a couple of late-arriving Mission Strategy Reports, then making some notes on each and sharing them with the members of the Department of Mission.

Tuesday, December 3, 2019

Tuesday

Spent most of the day clearing a very thick stack of administrative and pastoral items--mostly by email, a couple by phone. Most were matters of some substance; a few were relatively minor. One, at least, took the better part of an hour. A couple were dispatched in two minutes. It's gratifying to see fifteen items no longer in my pile.

Sunday, December 1, 2019

Advent Sunday

Presided and preached--this time in the capacity of "supply"--at the regular 0930 celebration at St Michael's, O'Fallon. (This is a Eucharistic Community in pastoral transition.) Met briefly with the Mission Leadership Team. After some potluck nutritional fortification, there was an open congregational meeting, at which I presided, fielding questions from parishioners. Most of the anxiety in the room had to do with finances, and with the process for finding them a new vicar. (The two issues are connected.) I then met with a small group of parishioners about a specific pastoral situation. After couple of more informal confabs on my way out, I was back in my car at 1pm, and home a bit past 7:00 (there was an inexplicable delay of about an hour around Pontiac).

Sermon for Advent Sunday

St Michael’s, O’Fallon--Matthew 24:37-44, Romans 13:8-14

Can you imagine what it must have been like for the lucky passengers who were able to book space on the Titanic for her maiden voyage from Southampton, England to New York City in April of 1912? It was a virtual floating city. Even Babe Ruth wouldn’t have been able to hit a batting practice pitch from one end of the boat to the other. It was huge and it was beautiful and it provided a feeling of stability and security to the officers, the crew, and all the passengers—whether they were in a luxury stateroom or third-class steerage.
So, on that fateful night four days later when the Titanic struck an iceberg in the North Atlantic, the passengers and the junior crew members who were not in the immediate area of impact may not even have felt anything, and if they did notice that the ship’s engine had stopped running, they probably assumed it was just a matter of “technical difficulties” that would be overcome quickly and they would soon be on their way again. They kept on playing cards or dancing or sleeping or whatever it was they were doing at that moment—that moment which would forever alter their lives, if not bring them to a rather abrupt and premature conclusion.

You and I may never have thought of it this way, but we have a lot in common with those voyagers on the Titanic. We don’t know the details—we don’t know when and we don’t know how—but we do know—at least, we profess our belief every time we recite the creeds—we know that Christ is coming again. Christ is coming again, not in weakness and vulnerability to be a savior, but in power and great glory to be a judge and king. And when he does, it will forever alter our lives, and, for some unwary souls on that day, bring them to an abrupt and premature conclusion.

As we know, however, the captain of the Titanic, and the senior members of the crew, soon realized that the most magnificent ocean-going vessel ever constructed in the history of the human race would soon be resting at the bottom of the deep blue sea. Sinking was only a matter of time. For everyone else, though, everything appeared to be quite normal, and people were on that ship in the first place mostly for normal reasons: Some were on vacation, some were emigrating, some had left family members behind and some were looking forward to rejoining family members already in America. Some were rich and some were poor, some were naughty and some were nice, some were educated and some were ignorant. They were in all respects a normal collection of normal human beings doing normal things. When some of them felt a slight bump and noticed that the propellers had gone silent, they may have been tempted to order another drink or ask their partner for another dance. 

In a similar way, it is easy for us to be seduced by the routines of normal life. When Jesus talks to his disciples about the last days, the days prior to his return to this world to judge the living and the dead, he compares the situation in those days to “the days of Noah.” Now, when we read the book of Genesis, we find that the reason the Lord was peeved with the human race in the days of Noah was on account of their general wickedness and excessive violence. Curiously, though, Jesus doesn’t mention any of that. Instead, he talks about pretty normal things—“eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage.”  Not much here that’s inherently wicked, is there? It is, rather, as they say, “the stuff of life.” Eating and drinking and marrying and giving in marriage. Doing housework, paying bills, shopping, going to the doctor, surfing the internet, taking a vacation, and, of course, just doing our jobs—all pretty normal stuff. It is incredibly easy for us to be seduced by all these normal things, and so not allow Christ’s return—his return to judge the living and the dead, to be a factor at all in the way we live our lives.

The First Sunday of Advent arrives each year as a much-needed slap in the face to waken us out of our complacency, to keep us from giving in to the attempts of “normalcy” to seduce us. Jesus calls us to be alert and vigilant:
…know this, that if the householder had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have watched and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready; for the Son of man is coming at an hour you do not expect.
Hear also the words of St Paul in his letter to the Christian community in the city of Rome:
…it is full time now for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed; the night is far gone, the day is at hand. Let us then cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us conduct ourselves becomingly as in the day…
Indeed, the central imagery of the Prayer Book collect for this Sunday—casting off works of darkness and putting on the armor of light—these images are drawn directly from this epistle reading. It is our task as Christian believers to stay awake, to maintain our vigil, to never lose sight of the fact that, until Christ does come again, we live under wartime conditions and need to be ready to assume our battle stations at a moment’s notice. Our lives are not normal, and we should never pretend that they are. 

The good news is, we already know all we need to know in order to follow these commands. In other words, we know what vigilance—vigilance of the sort that Jesus calls us to—we know what this looks like. For starters, we have the Ten Commandments. Using them as a benchmark by which to evaluate our behavior helps keep us from being seduced by the normal world. We have the Beatitudes—Jesus’ promise of blessing on those who are poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, and those who make peace. We also have the example of Jesus’ life of compassion, service, and sacrifice. We have all these things that can help make us ready for the coming of Christ. We have these tools to help us avoid the nasty consequences of the Day of Judgment, and put ourselves in the position of being able to enjoy the good consequences of the coming of Christ.

Most of the passengers and crew on the Titanic were consigned to a cold and watery grave, partly because they too long went on living as if everything were just normal, but mostly because there weren’t enough lifeboats for everybody on board. We, however, have a better deal than those on the Titanic. We have a lifeboat with plenty of capacity for all who wish to be saved—all who wish to be able to stand up straight in God’s presence on the Day of Judgment, to be able to look God in the eye and not be pulverized. Actually, we have the same deal as people had “in the days of Noah.” We have an ark. Unfortunately, most of the people “in the days of Noah” weren’t smart enough to get on the ark that Noah built.

But we don’t have to follow their foolish example. We have an ark—a lifeboat—called the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church. Have you ever wondered why the main part of a traditional church building resembles an upside-down ship—and is, in fact, called the “nave.” There’s a reason for that. In the Christian vocabulary, the Church is known as, among other things, “the ark of salvation.” The Church is the community that God saves. God saves “us.” God saves “me” because I am part of “us,” just as God saved the ark when the flood waters rose, and thereby the people on it. Advent Sunday is like the alarm that eventually sounded on the Titanic saying, “Put on your life vest and get on a lifeboat. This ship is sinking.” Advent Sunday tells us, “The ship you’re on—this world—this ship is sinking. Put on the life vest of faith and get on the ark—get on the lifeboat called the Church of Jesus Christ. There’s plenty of room for everyone.” Come, Lord Jesus. Amen.