The Right Thing To Do

Matthew 3:1-6, 11-17

Large crowds were coming out to hear John preach and to be baptized by him.  His preaching was pretty pointed.  He called the Pharisees and Sadducees a “brood of vipers” and he publicly rebuked Herod Antipas for stealing his brother’s wife.  His fiery preaching was probably one of the things that drew the crowds—that and the fact that he dressed and lived like a wild man of the desert, but the main attraction was clearly the baptisms.  Matthew says “the women and men of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and the whole region of the Jordan, and they were baptized in the river Jordan by him, confessing their sins.”

It never really struck me before, but all these people going down to the river?  It’s  kind of remarkable.  What was it that made them feel a need to go out to the wild man at the river to confess their sins and be baptized?  Something made them all feel that they needed to clean house and have a fresh start.  I think we’ve all known that feeling at one time or another.

Their religious institutions with sin offerings and a Day of Atonement apparently didn’t seem to offer enough relief for the sense of not-rightness were feeling.  Watching a priest slaughter a poor animal on their behalf or send one wandering out into the wilderness didn’t give them the catharsis they were craving.  They wanted an experience that told them body and soul that they were washed clean inside and out—that their sins were forgiven and it was a new day. So they came to the wild man at the river.  It seemed like the right thing to do.

There is something deeply, powerful and symbolic about going into the water, whether it’s a baptistry, a swimming pool, the ocean, a lake, a river or stream—or even just the shower or bathtub.  It speaks to the body, mind, and soul all at once.  That’s what all those people coming to John at the Jordan were looking for—something that spoke to them body and soul.  They wanted that deeply personal, powerful feeling of being washed clean and made new, and at the same time a feeling of being part of a community of others who had the same experience.  

John made it clear that his was a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.  And that raises a question: why did Jesus come to John to be baptized?  He didn’t need to repent of anything.  In Matthew’s telling of the story, John, himself recognized this and said to Jesus, “I can’t baptize you!  You should be baptizing me!”  

Jesus tells John, “Let it go now; for this way is proper for us to fulfill all righteousness.”  Basically, he tells John it’s the right thing to do.  But what does he mean by that?  Why is it the right thing to do?

Could it be that Jesus came to be baptized not because he needed something from the baptism, but because he wanted to give something?  

In his baptism, Jesus gives a gift of affirmation.  When he enters the water of the Jordan, he affirms the ministry of John.  He affirms the power and importance of confession.  He affirms the power of forgiveness, redemption and renewal.

When Jesus goes into the water, he affirms all those others who have come to John for a new start.  He acknowledges that he is one of them—one of us—and that he will do whatever is right and necessary so that they—and we—have no doubts about him being one of us.  He declares his solidarity with them, with us, with all humanity.  He inaugurates a fresh start for all of us.

When Jesus goes into the water, he affirms the goodness of water—the waters of the Jordan and all the waters of the earth.  He affirms creation, itself.  When he immerses himself in the water he is acknowledging the God-made goodness of the created, material world and showing us, if we have eyes to see it, that God is deeply present, immersed in this creation.

When Jesus was baptized by John at the Jordan, he was immersing himself into all the beauty and intricate complexity of the earth and at the same time into both the astonishing meanness and surprising generosity of humanity.  He immersed himself into all the joys and sorrows of daily life with all its battles and triumphs and defeats. He immersed himself in life as we experience it.  And so doing, he blessed it and affirmed it.

At the Jordan, Jesus affirmed the goodness and sacredness of all that God has made.  And that includes you…and me.  When he immersed himself in our world, our lives, Jesus affirmed that those words, “This is my child, my beloved with whom I am well pleased” were spoken for us, too.

When Jesus immersed himself in the Jordan, he affirmed the power of grace and the bravery of new beginnings.  He affirmed our desire to turn things around and make things new when it’s the right thing to do.

We forget sometimes that this is exactly what Jesus has called us to do.  We forget that in our baptism the Holy Spirit has given us the power to  turn things around and make things new.  We forget sometimes that with a word we can bring the light of Christ to the bleakest places and situations.  

Elizabeth Gilbert, the author of Eat, Pray, Love tells a story about someone who did exactly that on a cross-town bus during rush hour.  

“Some years ago,” she writes, “I was stuck on a crosstown bus in New York City during rush hour. Traffic was barely moving. The bus was filled with cold, tired people who were deeply irritated with one another, with the world itself. Two men barked at each other about a shove that might or might not have been intentional. A pregnant woman got on, and nobody offered her a seat. Rage was in the air; no mercy would be found here.

“But as the bus approached Seventh Avenue, the driver got on the intercom. ‘Folks,’ he said, ‘I know you have had a rough day and you are frustrated. I can’t do anything about the weather or traffic, but here is what I can do. As each one of you gets off the bus, I will reach out my hand to you. As you walk by, drop your troubles into the palm of my hand, okay? Don’t take your problems home to your families tonight, just leave them with me. My route goes right by the Hudson River, and when I drive by there later, I will open the window and throw your troubles in the water.’

“It was as if a spell had lifted,” wrote Gilbert. “Everyone burst out laughing. Faces gleamed with surprised delight. People who had been pretending for the past hour not to notice each other’s existence were suddenly grinning at each other like, is this guy serious?

“Oh, he was serious.

“At the next stop, just as promised, the driver reached out his hand, palm up, and waited. One by one, all the exiting commuters placed their hand just above his and mimed the gesture of dropping something into his palm. Some people laughed as they did this, some teared up but everyone did it. The driver repeated the same lovely ritual at the next stop, too. And the next. All the way to the river.”

Gilbert goes on to say this: “We live in a hard world, my friends. Sometimes it is extra difficult to be a human being. Sometimes you have a bad day. Sometimes you have a bad day that lasts for several years. You struggle and fail. You lose jobs, money, friends, faith, and love. You witness horrible events unfolding in the news, and you become fearful and withdrawn. There are times when everything seems cloaked in darkness. You long for the light but don’t know where to find it.

“But what if you are the light? What if you are the very agent of illumination that a dark situation begs for?  That’s what this bus driver taught me, that anyone can be the light, at any moment. This guy wasn’t some big power player. He wasn’t a spiritual leader. He wasn’t some media-savvy influencer. He was a bus driver, one of society’s most invisible workers. But he possessed real power, and he used it beautifully for our benefit.

“When life feels especially grim, or when I feel particularly powerless in the face of the world’s troubles, I think of this man and ask myself, ‘What can I do, right now, to be the light?’ Of course, I can’t personally end all wars, or solve global warming, or transform vexing people into entirely different creatures. I definitely can’t control traffic. But I do have some influence on everyone I brush up against, even if we never speak or learn each other’s name. 

“No matter who you are, or where you are, or how mundane or tough your situation may seem, I believe you can illuminate your world. In fact, I believe this is the only way the world will ever be illuminated, one bright act of grace at a time, all the way to the river.”[1]

When John asked Jesus why he wanted to be baptized, Jesus replied, “Because it’s the right thing to do.”  It was the right thing to do to remind us that by our actions we do have influence on each other. It was the right thing to do to show us that he was calling us to immerse ourselves in each other’s lives and in the life of the world.  It was the right thing to do to show his compassion for us, to show that he understands that sometimes we all need to take our troubles down into the water and let them be swept away.  It was the right thing to do to show us how we are constantly refreshed and renewed so that we can shine as children of the light, created in the image and likeness of God.  It was the right thing to do to show us how we can illuminate the world “one bright act of grace at a time, all the way to the river.”


[1] Elizabet Gilbert, posted by St. Alban’s Episcopal Church

Painting: Baptism of Christ by Vladimir Zagitov

Light a Candle

You find yourself glancing at the calendar and the clock with a slight sense of panic. So much to do and the days are rushing by. Busyness blinds you to the presence and the present of the Present. Decorating. Shopping. Wrapping. Mailing. Visiting. Hosting.

Stop. Light a candle.

You find yourself constantly wondering just how much Christmas you can afford. You feel as if you dare not shut off your mental calculator and the joys of the season are clouded by the Ghost of Bills yet to come. Every gift becomes a bit of addition which, in turn, becomes an anxious subtraction.

Stop. Light a candle.

You find yourself lost in a lonely daydream as the Ghost of Christmas Past fills your thoughts with scenes of happier holidays from days gone by. An old familiar song reminds you of friends and family no longer near at hand and your heart aches more than just a little.

Stop. Light a candle.

You find yourself dizzy from trying to steer your way through the year-end collision of events. Reformation. Halloween. Election. Veterans Day. Christ the King. Advent. Christmas. New Year. Taxes. Fiscal Planning.

Stop. Light a candle.

You find yourself simply feeling as if something is missing, as if you’re forgetting something, as if there must be something more.

Stop. Light a candle.

Five candles. Three blue and one pink for Advent. One white for Christmas.

First, ignite the flame of Hope, the Prophecy Candle. Let this flame remind you that God’s promises not only echo through the past but draw us toward the future. Let the light remind you that just as a feather will rise naturally above the heat of a single flame, so you, too, can be lifted without effort by the Spirit that warms and enlightens us all.

Next, light the flame of Peace, the Bethlehem Candle. Let this flame remind you that the peace of God is found in humble moments and humbler places. Let this light remind you that the real gift we all seek is something no amount of money can buy. Peace.

Then light the flame of Joy, the candle of a different color, the Shepherd’s Candle. Sing the old familiar songs of Joy and surround yourself with light and music. Dance with the Ghosts of your past and know that they are very much alive in your memories and in the presence of God. Watch the old movies, taste the old, familiar flavors. Let this light rekindle your senses and remind you that this song of Joy is eternal.

Now light the flame of Love, the Angels Candle. Let this light bring equilibrium to these days of celebration. Let it guide you through the maze of these impacted days. Let the flame of Love burn a pathway through the adiaphorous clutter. Let its warmth empower you to embrace the days. Swallow its light whole so that it shines through you.

Finally, sit in the presence of the light of Christ. Let the Candle of Christmas remind you that the most humble child born in the most unlikely circumstances bears the image and likeness of the Maker of Us All. Let it remind you that the thing that has been missing in our lives, the object of our unsettled yearning, is not a thing or an object at all, but the very Source of our Hope, Peace, Joy and Love.

O come, O come, Emmanuel.

The Light Over the Barnyard

John 1:6-9; 19-28; 1Thessalonians 5:16-24

If we’re lucky and there is no cloud cover, on December 21, the night of the Winter Solstice, the longest night of the year, we will get to see something like the Star of Bethlehem.  Jupiter and Saturn will appear in a great conjunction, within 0.1 degrees of each other as viewed from earth, so that they will appear to be not two bright planets, but one very bright star.  Close conjunctions of Jupiter and Saturn happen every 20 years, but the last time they were this close was more than 800 years ago, in 1226.

So in these closing days of 2020, a strange year of plague and politics, protests and polemics, could it be that we are being given a sign in the heavens as two great planets combine their radiance into one great light?    

One of the things I loved to do when I was a kid, during the times when we would visit the family farm in Kansas, was to go out at night and stand in the middle of the field and just stare at the brilliance of the night sky.  I loved to see the lights of heaven spread out above me in the Milky Way.  We would get far enough away from the house so that the house lights didn’t interfere with our stargazing, then just let ourselves get lost in those deep fields of space and all those millions of stars.  

On a night with a full moon the stars were fainter, but we could see well enough to nose around a bit in the pasture and to make our way back to the house without our flashlights if we were careful.  But on a night with no moon it was another story altogether.  On a night with no moon it was easy to lose yourself in the sky and get turned around, and if the lights at the house went out, as they did one time, you could lose your bearings in the dark.

On those nights, standing in the dark, marveling at the stars, I would feel such a strange mixture of awe and vulnerability.  I learned fairly early about the distance and strangeness of the stars and planets and it was always a source of wonder to me to think about the great journey through time and space those lights had taken to reach me standing in a field in Kansas.  It made me feel both important and insignificant at the same time—important because God had given me the eyes to see and a mind to comprehend the vastness of creation—insignificant because I realized that I was one kid standing on a small planet orbiting a minor star on an outer spiral arm of one galaxy among billions.

And in the middle of these kinds of thoughts, always, every single time, something would happen to remind us that the night was not our natural habitat.  Some noise or movement would remind us as we stood out there in the field that the night was full of other creatures and that some of them were not our friends.  Fortunately, that also always seemed to be about the time when Mom or Aunt Betty would decide we had been out in the dark long enough and they would turn on the big mercury vapor light that glared over the barnyard.  The message was clear.  Time to come home.  And there was no mistaking which way to go once that light was turned on…provided you were turned in the right direction so you could see it.

Sometimes, if you get turned around in the moonless night and you are facing the wrong direction, you need a nudge from someone to turn you toward the light so you can find your way home.

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.  He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him.  He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.  To give people a nudge in the right direction.

This happened during a time of tension and anxiety, but for many it was also a time of anticipation and expectation, so when John began baptizing and preaching it was understandable that the priests and Levites would want to know who he was and what he had to say for himself.  What was surprising was that John started by telling them who he was not.

“I’m not the Messiah.”  He said that pretty plainly, right off the top.

So they asked him, “Well… what then.  Are you Elijah?”

“Nope.”

“The prophet?”

“No. Not the prophet.”

“Well then who are you?”

“I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’  Just like the prophet Isaiah said.

“Well if you’re not the Messiah and you’re not Elijah and you’re not the prophet, why are you baptizing?”

“I’m baptizing with water.  But if you knew who was already standing here among you… the one who comes after me… I’m not worthy to even untie his sandals.”

For what it’s worth, a little thing should be noted here.  It says in the text at the beginning of this passage that John was sent by God.  But it says that the people giving John the third degree here, the priests and Levites, were sent by the Pharisees.  It’s an interesting contrast.  The one who is sent by God wants to focus the attention, to shine the light if you will, on someone else.  But the interrogation team sent by the Pharisees are laser-focused on John.  John keeps trying to redirect their attention to the one they’ve really been expecting for eons.  He tells them,   “Guys, at best I’m the moon.  You should be looking for the sun.  And if you had eyes to see it, you would realize he’s already here among you.”

John comes to a people who, as Isaiah said, are walking in darkness and points to the light that is dawning among us.  He comes to a people who are disoriented in the night and turns us to face the beacon that can bring us home.  

And here we are in the closing days of the year of Covid and Chaos, craving Christmas, singing Christ be our Light.  And God hears our prayers.  God sends us John the Baptist to turn us in the right direction, to face us toward the light of Christ. 

God sends us a sign in the heavens.  In a year when politics has pulled us ever further apart, two gas giants (make of that what you will) have drawn close to each other, Jupiter and Saturn in a rare conjunction, shining with a single bright light to remind us that we are brighter when we shine together.

In a year when we have not been able to come together as the body of Christ in the familiar surroundings of our sanctuaries, God reminds us that Christ is, as Luther said, in, with, and under the common things of life like bread and wine and water so that life, itself is sacred.  God reminds us that Christ is in all of creation.  God reminds us that Christ is in you and in me.  And, more importantly, that we are in Christ, so that even in our individual homes, gathered together by way of our computers and phones we are still the body of Christ.

At the end of a year when we have had so many reasons to weep, God sends us the words of Saint Paul writing in his first letter to Thessaloniki, the oldest of his letters:  “Rejoice always.  Pray without ceasing.  Give thanks in all circumstances.  Do not quench the Spirit.”  

So if you feel like you’ve been walking through a moonless night and you’re all turned around, stop.  Take a minute.  Take a breath.  Look up.

There is a sign in the heavens to remind you that you are not alone.  Christ is in, with and under all of creation and that includes your own sacred life.  

Rejoice.  Pray.  Give thanks.  Do not quench the Spirit.  Any minute now the light’s going to come on over the barnyard.  And if necessary, someone will nudge you in the right direction so you can see it.

Until then, may the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.  

The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this.

Try Wait

Matthew25:1-13

“Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom.  2 Five of them were foolish, and five were wise.  3 When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them;  4 but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps.  5 As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept.  6 But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’  7 Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps.  8 The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’  9 But the wise replied, ‘No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.’  10 And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut.  11Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’  12 But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’  13 Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.

In the middle of Hanalei town on the island of Kauai is a long grassy common area where people can sit and eat or just chill.  Along its southeast edge is a line of shops and a cafe in what used to be the old school building.  There’s also another little food place that sits apart from the old school building and intrudes into the middle of the common.  It’s Federico’s Fresh Mex Cuisine now, and the food’s pretty good.  But that little place used to be Bubba’s Burgers.  And Bubba’s in Hanalei was legendary.

There was always a line of people out the door waiting to get burgers and fries, Bubba’s t-shirts or hats.  And the people working in that place—well you never saw a crew work so hard and so fast to keep a line moving.  And all without air conditioning.  And even though anybody with eyes could see that these amazing people were working as hard and as fast as humanly possible, there was always some Haole bugging the staff to ask when their order would be ready.  When that happened, the person handling orders at the counter would just point to a sign that was 100% pure Hawaiian philosophy: 

TRY WAIT.

Try wait.  

Don’t you love it?  Try wait.

We’ve had a lot of practice this week with “try wait” as we waited for ballots to be counted and results to be reported so we could find out who is going to be president.   It’s been interesting to see how people handled the suspense as we watched states move from one color to another.  I think we could all sympathize with the little three-year old girl who asked, “Mommy, how much longer are you gonna watch the map show?”

In today’s gospel lesson, Jesus tells a story about waiting.  Ten bridesmaids take their lamps and go to meet the bridegroom.  In a traditional wedding the bridegroom would come with his companions to meet the bride at her parents’ house.  Her bridesmaids would then escort her along with the groom and his companions to the groom’s house for the wedding and celebration.  If the wedding was to take place after sunset, the bridesmaids’ lamps would be essential to help keep people from stumbling in the dark.  

When Jesus tells this story it all sounds perfectly normal to his audience.  The bride is assumed to be in her parents’ house waiting with family.  The bridesmaids are waiting in the courtyard.  Five of them were smart enough to bring extra oil for their lamps.  Well of course they did.  Who would be foolish enough not to bring extra oil?  Everyone knows how these things can go.  What if the groom and his friends have a little pre-party party and lose track of time?  What if the groom’s uncle Mordecai is late in arriving from his village?  These things happen.  Of course they brought extra oil.

Ah, says Jesus, but five were not so smart.  They didn’t bring any extra oil.  And the bridegroom was delayed.  Uncle Mordecai was very late.  And it took a while for the best man to sober up.  And all that time the bridesmaids were sitting in the courtyard of the bride’s parents’ house with their lamps burning because any minute now the bridegroom might come. 

But he didn’t.  And they fell asleep.  All ten of them.

Finally, at midnight—Midnight!—somebody shouts that the bridegroom is coming.  The bridesmaids scramble to trim their wicks and refill and relight their lamps.  The foolish five who didn’t bring any extra oil see their lamps sputtering out and ask their sisters to share some of their extra oil.  “No!” they reply.  “There won’t be enough for you and for us.”  

It sounds harsh and stingy, but they’re right to say that.  It’s going to be bad enough that the whole wedding party has to go in procession to the groom’s house with only the dim light of five lamps instead of ten.  How awful would it be if they had ten lamps but they all burned out half way there and everyone was left to stumble blindly in the dark?  What if the bride stepped in donkey dumplings?  Or broke her ankle in a pothole?

And this, if you’re listening to Jesus tell this story in Jerusalem 2,000 years ago, this next line is where you would chuckle or maybe even laugh out loud.  “You better go to the dealers and buy some more oil for yourselves,” say the wise bridesmaids to the foolish bridesmaids.  Find a dealer and buy some oil at midnight?  That’s funny, that is.  That’s nonsense! And what’s even more ridiculous?  They try to do it!  These five silly women run off into the night to try to find more oil.  Which, of course, they can’t.

While they were gone, the bridegroom came and the whole wedding party, minus the foolish bridesmaids, made their way to the wedding feast and went inside and shut the gates.  Later the other bridesmaids managed to find their way to the wedding but the gate was already shut.  They banged on the gate and cried out “Lord, lord, open up!  It’s us!”  But he replied, “Truly I tell you, I don’t know you.”

And how could he know them?  He couldn’t see their faces standing out there on the other side of the gate in the dark with no lamp to light them.

Hmm.  So aside from a few chuckles at the expense of the foolish bridesmaids, where is the grace in this story?  Where is the good news?

Well let’s try this.  Let’s say that we’re the bridesmaids.

If we’re the bridesmaids, then it’s both grace and good news that we’re invited to the wedding.  We are invited to the eternal celebration of God’s love.

That invitation is a gift of grace.  But that grace, like freedom, brings with it responsibilities.  That’s the oil in the lamp. A bridesmaid gets to go to the celebration.  But a bridesmaid also has responsibilities as part of the wedding party.

When the foolish bridesmaids are standing in the dark asking to be admitted to the wedding and the gatekeeper says, “Truly, I don’t know you,” it’s an echo of Matthew 7:22-23 where Jesus says,  “On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?’  Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.’”

Clearly it’s not enough just to talk the talk.  It’s not enough even to “do many deeds of power” in Jesus’ name.  God isn’t interested in our showmanship or our piety or our religiosity.  You need to be recognized.  

So what does Jesus want?

In Matthew 5:16 in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, “Let your light shine before others so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”  Light does not illuminate itself.  It illuminates everything it shines on.  Our job is to bring light and to be light, to shine the light on others, to help others see.  Our job is also to be the heat, the energy that gets the work done in a world that needs work so that God’s reign may come on earth as it is in heaven.   

When we bear the light of Christ, when it shines through us like living lamps of God’s love, it makes us recognizable as companions of Christ.  When we bear the light of God’s love we are known by Christ.

Another bit of grace I see in this story, and I admit it doesn’t look like grace or good news at first glance, is in the very last line at the close of the parable where Jesus says,  “Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”

The grace here is in the warning.  Jesus tells us flat out that the day will come when the door will close.  It is an article of our faith, our creed, that Christ will return.  We don’t talk about it much.  It’s not the centerpiece of our tradition as it is with some.  But it’s there.  

Jesus gives us a warning.  Someday, in your personal life or in the life of the world, the end will come.  It may catch you by surprise.  Keep awake.  Or it may seem like you’ve been waiting forever.  Try wait some more.  Either way, keep awake.  Stay ready.

The big mistake the foolish bridesmaids make in this parable is not that they didn’t bring extra oil. That’s certainly a mistake, but it’s not the mistake that leaves them standing in the dark.  The really huge mistake they make that ends up excluding them from the party is that they go running off into the night to try to find more oil instead of staying with the wedding party to do their main job which was to escort the bride.

On May 18, 1790 the sky was thick and heavy over New England.  The sun was pale and red in the early morning and at dusk, and when the moon rose it was pink.  The next day, May 19th, starting at about  9 or 10 in the morning, the sky began to darken.  By noon the sun was completely obscured, leaving almost all of New England in darkness.  Roosters began crowing.  Hens returned to roost.  Crickets began chirping.  Cows returned to their barns.   Many people, thinking it was the Day of Judgment, hurried to their churches to make confession and pray.  

The Connecticut Governor’s Council happened to be meeting and it was suggested that they adjourn so that they might prepare to meet their Maker.  Councilman Abraham Davenport, a Connecticut militia colonel, wouldn’t hear of it. “I am against adjournment,” he said. “The day of judgment is either approaching, or it is not. If it is not, there is no cause of an adjournment; if it is, I choose to be found doing my duty. I wish therefore that candles may be brought.”

Some things take a long time coming.  Our election this week has taught us that.  All votes will be counted and challenges met.  Eventually.  The pandemic will end.  Eventually.  In the meantime, let your light shine.  And when the election and the pandemic are behind us and we start to move forward again, let your light shine some more.  That’s how Jesus will recognize you when he returns.

Keep awake, let your light shine, do your duty… and when necessary, try wait.

(Note:  There is still a Bubba’s Burgers in Kapa’a.  Worth the wait.)

A Channel of Peace

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.The Prayer of St. Francis

We are crossing the equinox once again. This is the time of year when we get busy again. The schedule shifts back into high gear. Meetings and classes resume. Choirs starts up again. Certain dates loom large on the calendar. Reformation. Advent. Christmas. Election Day. We begin to cram more things into less time and, while there’s a certain kind of comfort in all the momentum, there’s also the increased anxiety that comes from a fuller calendar. “Anxiety is the garden in which sin grows,” said St. Augustine, and it’s easy to see why. This year, especially, with all the violence that has filled the news and with an acrimonious election cycle building to a climax, anxiety seems to be washing over our world, our nation, and our communities in waves. “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom,” says Jesus (Luke 12:32). I don’t know about you, but I find myself praying more fervently than ever, “Your kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.”

Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy.

 Much as I would like for God to hurry up and simply give us the kingdom, it seems to me as I look at the long sweeps of human history that God has been giving us the kingdom all along, making God’s divine rule a reality on earth as it is in heaven in a very slow but inexorable process. Oh…so…slow, this process—more than two thousand years in the making so far. And it’s been precarious every step of the way. That’s because God, in God’s wisdom, knows that the systems by which we operate—the systems that tend to create winners and losers, insiders and outsiders, the systems that encourage us to see life as competition rather than collaboration—the systems of the world won’t be transformed into something that benefits everyone until the people of the world are transformed. God knows that if the divine values of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control were simply imposed on us they would be brittle and false; they would crumble and leave cynical bitterness behind. But when this fruit of the Spirit grows in each of us organically and naturally, when we cultivate it in our internal life it gives us a resilience and strength that enables us to meet the nastier currents of our time with deep-rooted grace. When antagonism, depression, conflict, impatience, meanness, stinginess, faithlessness, violence, and self-indulgence are abroad in the land we, as followers of Jesus, must stand against them, but we must draw from the deep wells of grace, love and truth in doing so. When the voices of misogyny, bigotry, racism, separatism, and scapegoating are loud and strident in the land, we who are disciples of Jesus must, as gently as possible but as firmly as necessary say No. That is not the way forward. That is not who we are called to be. That way lies dystopia—that road leads to hell, not heaven. “Beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” (Philippians 4:8)

O, Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console, to be understood as to understand, to be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive. It is in pardoning that we are pardoned. It is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

 Christ tells us that we are the light of the world and that idea is affirmed throughout the Scriptures. “For once you were darkness but now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of light.” (Ephesians 5:8) The work we do together, the thinking we do together, the lives we live together are God’s antidote to forces that would divide us and set us at each other’s throats. As we cross this Autumnal Equinox, as the days grow shorter and the nights grow longer, it’s easy to feel sometimes as if the darkness is winning. But we are children of light; we have the light within us and as the nights grow colder the light and love of Christ can keep our hearts warm if we remain conscientious and faithful in gathering together.

“Let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the day approaching.” (Hebrews 10:24-25) We gather together in all kinds of congregations.  We gather together in our places of worship.  We gather together, often spontaneously, in like-minded communities in social media.  We gather together in community events.  The important thing for us to remember as we gather, though, is that “provoking” each other to love and good deeds should be the highest priority.  It’s so easy to simply form echo chambers for our biases and pre-conceived ideas, but if that’s all we’re doing it would probably be better if we didn’t see each other so much, online or elsewhere. There is already more than enough acrimony, bigotry, and mutually reinforced deafness bouncing off the walls of the world without us adding to it.

“Be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness.” (James 1:19-20)  I’m thinking of getting that tattooed on my right forearm where I’ll see it all the time.  My anger does not produce God’s righteousness.  On the contrary, when I release it into the blogosphere or let it bounce down the labyrinths of social media it simply adds to the strident blare that deafens us to each other.  The light of compassion, grace and honesty can illuminate and bring clarity to the dark corners of our collective psyche, but the glare of anger and opposition simply blinds us to each other.

I’m writing all this to myself  more than to anyone else.  I’ve needed to give myself a good talking-to for a while now.  This political season has not always brought out the best in me.  I have a tendency to do some of my most exquisitely pointed and logical writing when I’m good and pissed off.  Anger is my pony and I tend to ride that baby till it drops. I need to remind myself that “if I have prophetic powers and understand all mysteries and have all knowledge, if I have faith to move mountains but have not love, I am nothing.” (1 Cor. 13:2) My anger does not produce God’s righteousness.  There’s a time for anger.  It is sometimes a useful and necessary tool.  Sometimes.  But it’s not a safe place to live, and I, for one, have been spending far too much time in Angryland.  When your eyes adjust to the glare you begin to realize that it’s really a very dark place

“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under a bushel basket, but on the lampstand and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:14-16)

Now is the time. Let your light shine.  Make me a channel of your peace.

(Written 9/16/2016, revised 10/5/16)

When John Came A-Wassailing

So here it came a singing toward us, the third Sunday in Advent. Gaudete Sunday. Rejoice Sunday. The Sunday we light the pink candle in the Advent wreath, the candle of Joy. As I looked at the lectionary texts for the week, it was easy to pick up the theme of joy. Well, it was easy to find joy in the first two readings anyway.

The first reading was from chapter three of Zephaniah. I think we only hear from Zephaniah maybe once every three years in the lectionary, but it’s worth waiting for. Did you hear that marvelous line in verse 17? “He will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love; he will exult over you with loud singing!” What a picture!  Have you ever imagined God singing about you? To you? I sing to my dog sometimes just because he makes me happy. He seems to like it.  It’s kind of fun to think of God singing about us, to us, like that. So there’s some joy. That one was easy.

And then came the second reading from Philippians, that wonderful passage from St. Paul’s love letter to the church at Philippi: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again, I say Rejoice!” Well that’s pretty clear, too. So okay! Right there in those first two texts I’ve got plenty to work with to lay the groundwork for Gaudete –Rejoice- Sunday.

But then comes the Gospel reading from Luke 3, and, frankly, John the Baptist kind of sucks the wind right out of rejoicing. “You brood of vipers.” “Bear fruits worthy of repentance.” “The axe is at the root.” “The chaff will be burned with unquenchable fire.” Yeah. That’ll take you right to your happy place.

So I’m thinking about these texts and about Rejoice Sunday and about trying to tease some joy out of grumpy old John the Baptist, and in the middle of all that I found myself thinking about… wassailing.  What can I say?  It’s that time of year.

When the pagan Anglo-Saxons migrated to Britain in the middle of the 5th century, they brought with them the tradition of wassailing. Wassailing, of course, eventually became Christmas caroling, but it started out as something very different.

The word wassail comes from the Saxon phrase Wæs þu hæl which means, “be thou hale” or “be thou healthy” or “be thou well.” At their celebration of the Winter Solstice, the Anglo-Saxons would go out into their orchards and sing to their cider trees, their apple and pear and cherry trees, to wake them up from their winter sleep and to encourage them to be healthy, to produce good fruit so that they could have a plentiful harvest of good cider. “Wæs þu hæl!” they would sing. “Be thou healthy.” And it occurred to me as I thought of all this, that this is kind of what John the Baptist was doing as he was preaching at the Jordan. He was wassailing. He was singing out that it was time to wake up and be healthy. So maybe there is some joy there somewhere between “You brood of vipers” and “the chaff will be thrown into the fire.” Or at least a calling to joy.

With all that in mind, I began to re-imagine my picture of John preaching by the Jordan. Instead of seeing him as a voice of foreboding, instead of hearing him cranky and impatient, I imagined him singing. I imagined him wassailing to wake the people. So I decided that this was what I would do in my own orchard, my own parish, on this third Sunday of Advent. I wassailed to them.  I sang to them.  And it went like this…

When John Came A-Wassailing

In the fifteenth year of sovereign rule of the Emperor Tiberius,
In a time of ruthless potentates and wrongs both small and serious,
The Song of God fell into John, the son of Zechariah,
And he sang it out so strongly they thought he might be Messiah.

But he said, “No, I am not the one you all have been expecting.
I am just the song that sings out where our paths are intersecting.
I’m not worthy to receive him or to tie his sandal thong!
He is the Maker of all Music and I am just one simple song.”

Like a wassailing in the orchard to wake the cider trees,
The song of John cut through their crust and brought them to their knees
As they heard a new reality and began to realize
That the reign of God might now unfold before their very eyes.

So he sang them to the river, saying time was of the essence,
And immersed them in the cleansing flow of forgiveness and repentance,
And his song filled up the wilderness with a Word to spear the heart
Until the crowd was all convicted as their masks were torn apart.

He sang, “You children of the covenant, you children of the promise,
You children of the circumstance and times that are upon us,
All you questing, anxious seekers, all you folk both awed and flawed,
Are you ready to stand naked in the searching gaze of God?

“All you tax-collecting schemers, all you servants of the sword,
All you noble trees and saplings in the orchard of the Lord,
Yes, your roots go deep as Abraham and you’re clothed in your tradition
But that’s not enough to save you from your pathway to perdition.

“O you brood of sneaky vipers, O you children of the snake,
Who warned you of the wrath to come? Who told you what’s at stake?
Did you think that life was something you could skate through or could fake?
Well, my sleeping trees of Zion, it’s time for you to wake.”

Then in dismay the people cried, “John, tell us what to do!
If our heritage means nothing is our fate left up to you?”
And he said, “No that’s not in my hands, but it is somewhat in yours,
For the Winnower we’ve waited for is at the threshing floor.

“So now’s the time to change the way you think and see each other,
Now’s the time to change the way you treat your sister and your brother,
Now’s the time to change your heart and mind and show it by your fruits
With more honest and more decent and more generous pursuits.

“So give away your extra coat to the person who is shivering,
And give up half your sandwich to that hungry kid who’s quivering,
Don’t take more than what you’re meant to take, don’t lie, extort or cheat,
For the Winnower is coming and he’ll sift us all like wheat.

“Yes, the time has come to bear the fruit of new life and repentance
For you’ll reap the harvest that you’ve sown, you’re writing your own sentence.
Even now the axe is at the root, even now your options dwindling,
So will you produce good cider? Or will you be so much kindling?

“For the One who fashioned every soul finds a use for each and all.
Will you be the cider in the cup or the fire that warms the hall?
Will you be the sweet aroma drawing others to the table
Or dissipate as so much smoke in a cautionary fable?

“And I know this all sounds frightening– to be assessed, appraised and weighed–
Every one of us has cause to fear, but I sing, ‘Be not afraid!’
For the one who does the winnowing, the one who does the sifting,
Is the Soul of grace and love and life, the Giver of all gifting.

“And I’m simply here to tell you in this wild and holy place
You have another chance to be made new, a chance to live in grace,
For one who does the sifting does not come here to condemn
But to find every seed of love and good and make it grow again.

“So this song that sounds so ominous, it really is Good News!
For the God of second chances hopes that you will not refuse
To change your heart and mind and ways and show it by your fruits
With more loving and more honest and more generous pursuits.

“For the one who does the winnowing, the one who does the sifting,
Is the Soul of grace and love and life, the Giver of all gifting.
Yes, the one who does the sifting does not come here to condemn
But to find every seed of love and good and make it grow again.”

—–

So now as the lights of Advent, hope, peace, joy and love light your way to Christmas, Wæs þu hæl!  Be thou hale.

The Light Side of Lent

“Every desirable and beneficial gift comes out of heaven. The gifts are rivers of light cascading down from the Father of Light. There is nothing deceitful in God, nothing two-faced, nothing fickle.” -James 1.17 (The Message)

Lent came early for me this year, its deep, contemplative shadow absorbing some of the shine of Christmas, Epiphany and Transfiguration, not dimming those shining feasts, exactly, but certainly making them stand out in starker contrast so that I could examine more of their details, looking past the sheer brightness of the revealed Christ to see the very human Jesus who is often overshadowed by all that incandescent divinity, obscured under the heaviness of all that light. You have to look through some pretty dark lenses and filters if you’re going to see what’s happening on the surface of the sun.

What happened was this: on the 5th day of Christmas I learned that in a deep and dark precinct of my body, a place where, literally, the sun don’t shine, a gang of cells had become rebellious, mutating and multiplying according to their own whim instead of according to their ordained function. In other words, cancer. If it had its own way, this gang of cells would take over everything, never realizing that in doing so they would destroy themselves by contaminating and collapsing the little universe in which they live and move and have their being, namely me.

Ah, but even in the valley of the shadow there are rivers of light cascading down from the Father of Light; even the cross has to stand in the light to throw a shadow. I am blessed to live in a time when there is a potent tool to suppress the cellular rebellion inside me. And get this… that tool is—are you ready?—light! Light is quite literally saving my life. In the 2nd week of Epiphany I began my own little Lent. Every day for 40 days (really, 40 days!) I go to a clinic and lie down on a table under a linear accelerator which bombards me with a stream of photons. Photons. Particles of light! It works like this: the rebellious cells can’t stand the photons, the light. They wither and die. But the healthy cells adapt. “And this is the judgment,” says John 3:19, “that the light has come into the world but some love darkness because they are up to no good.”

Oh, the metaphors! Oh, the analogies! One could riff on all the cancerous business of contemporary culture or personal failings for all 40 days of Lent and still barely scratch the surface. But let’s not. Yes, there are devils and beasts in the dark hollows of our personal wildernesses, but there are also angels. See Mark 1:13 if you don’t believe me.

So here is Lent–forty days to shine a little light on what ails you. Forty days to shine some light into the darkness of your duffle and see if anything slithers away. Forty days to lay out your laundry in the sunshine and maybe dispose of some of those old attitudes and ideas that never did fit quite right on a child of God. Here is Lent—a good gift of a season full of shadows, but shadows that testify to the presence and power of the Light.

Note:  My 40 sessions of radiation therapy will be complete on Tuesday, March 17, the Feast of St. Patrick.