Saturday, December 31, 2016

Sacred Stories

The last book on my 2016 reading list is one I received at Christmas and just finished last night: J.D.Vance's Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis. For those who haven't seen Vance on cable news (pre- and post-election) or know of his book, there is a fine review of it here from The New York Times. This post is not intended as a book review however, although I encourage you to read the book. Honestly, I can't do any better than the link above. Rather, I offer this post more as a theological reflection/end-of-year rumination, which is what I do in this blog, or at least attempt to do.

As many readers of this blog know, I grew up in Northeast Pennsylvania, the part sometimes called Pennsyltucky. Or as James Carville famously put it in 1986:
...between Paoli and Penn Hills, Pennsylvania is Alabama without the blacks. They didn't film The Deer Hunter there for nothing; the state has the second-highest concentration of NRA members behind Texas.
This isn't the place to debate the quote (which no doubt oversimplifies things) nor to try to claim that my own story parallels Vance's; it does not. Even so, my own Pennsylvania roots and extended family make the story a familiar one to me. Vance grew up in Ohio, in a family of Scots-Irish transplants from Kentucky. The demographics in the towns in and around Scranton are similar. Coal mining has come and gone, but the "new economy" hasn't yet caught up. I left home at 18 and have now spent most of my adult life in New England - nine years in Connecticut and the past eighteen in Massachusetts. My roots and life journey made it pretty easy to relate to the contours of this story even though my own details are different. Reading it felt more like remembering something old than discovering something new.

Here is my prayer for a new year of grace: we need to learn to share our own sacred stories as, together, we shift the narrative we have inherited. We've learned to collect grievances, I think. We worry that we don't have what we want because someone else took it - and didn't even earn it. This didn't happen overnight. But our politics has further polarized us. The media also bears some of the blame. We stick with "thin" story lines that reinforce what we think we already know about ourselves and about our neighbors. But the real story is always far more mysterious and complex.

Twenty-five years ago, Frederick Buechner wrote a memoir he entitled The Sacred Journey. There he claimed that learning to listen closely to our own lives was a kind of spiritual practice, and learning to tell that story of our own truth could be a kind of witness for others. He also wrote:
You can survive on your own; you can grow strong on your own; you can prevail on your own; but you cannot become human on your own.
I am reminded of these words as we turn the calendar to a new year. Love of neighbor, one of the two great commandments in the Old Testament (reiterated by Jesus of Nazareth in the New Testament) begins with listening to our neighbor's story.

I worry that there is danger ahead in 2017 for our nation and for our world. But I believe that there is also opportunity. We will not be "saved" by elected leaders nor by the national media. We need to learn again how to think globally, yet act locally as we get to know our neighbors again (or for the first time)  across all the lines that supposedly divide us. There I truly do believe we will find common ground. This does not make our stories the same. Place matters and gender matters and race matters and sexual orientation matters. We're not the same. But as a contemporary Irish poet/theologian has put it "we're one...we're not the same, but we get to carry each other." Our stories do, in big ways, converge. 

The Genesis story shared by Jews and Christians insists that we are all formed of the same earth, and the same breath of the living God enlivens us all. We are kin. We are one. May we find the courage and grace in the year ahead to share our own stories with courage - even, as Vance does, the more difficult parts we might prefer to cover up. And may this risk bring healing to the neighborhood, and to the nations. 

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Crying Baby Jesus (A Re-Post)

I don't do this very often; in fact I'm not sure I've done it before in the years I've been blogging. But I'm re-posting a post from four years ago - my last Christmas Eve Sermon at St. Francis, Holden, preached on December 24, 2012. Preaching is always contextual. On the one hand there is the Incarnation and the text from Luke's Gospel that we read to remember the story. On the other hand is our context - the world in which we hear this story. And I know that the world in December 2016 is different than December 2012. And yet as I looked back on this sermon, I realized that we are always facing challenges, and perhaps it has always been thus - from the very first Christmas in the context of the Roman Empire. And yet the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. Merry Christmas and wishing all a new year of grace!

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Like most of you, I grew up singing “Away in a Manger.” And I pretty much assumed that the angels must have taught those very words and that very tune to the shepherds that night out in the fields and that Christians around the world have been singing it ever since, for two-thousand years. After all, if you look it up in The Hymnal to see who wrote it, it simply says that this is a “traditional carol.” Well, for reasons I will explain in a moment, this year I got to wondering:  “whose tradition?” So, of course, I Googled it… 

The hymn was actually written in the late nineteenth century—1885 to be precise—in Philadelphia, where it was published by an Evangelical Lutheran Church Sunday School in a collection called Little Children's Book for Schools and Families. While that’s a while ago, it’s still only decades ago; in a tradition that has been around for two millennia. In that collection it was set to a tune called "St. Kilda,” a favorite tune of the Puritans but not the one we all know; in The Hymnal it is set to a tune called Cradle Song. 

Tradition. It’s a funny thing. We think we know the tradition, but the truth is that most of us are not really all that interested in the depth and breadth of the tradition so much as we are in “the way we did things in my family, or my church, when I was a little kid.”  If you don’t believe me then imagine this: what if Charles and I had conspired to sing the song as written tonight, to the tune no one here knew, and my defense was “that’s the tradition?” This nostalgia for our own childhoods, that we mistakenly confuse with the tradition, is a particular challenge at Christmas time. Like Ricky Bobby in Talladega Nights, we are sometimes tempted to just keep loving tiny baby Jesus—and even more our image of tiny baby Jesus—rather than allowing the image of the child in the manger to invite us more deeply into the mystery of God’s love for the world.  

So I have been singing that carol for almost fifty years now: in church, in nursing homes, out in the streets of Hawley, Pennsylvania as a child carolingAnd because of that I knew this: that when the cattle were lowing, the baby awakes, but little Lord Jesus—come on everyone, you all know it—what does little Lord Jesus do, or rather not do? No crying he makes! That must be in the Bible, right? (It is not!)

The assumption, however, that the carol must have it right has caused pageant mothers (and I presume fathers as well) great consternation over many years in this parish. Every year we ask some poor parents if they will have their child play “baby Jesus” in our live nativity pageant. At first they think this is a great honor, but most years “baby Jesus” doesn’t get the memo that says “no crying he makes.”

So last Sunday night, I’m sitting at Memorial Church at Harvard when the choir sings a “traditional” Flemish carol with the words that have been printed on the front of your bulletins tonight. They go like this:

There is a young and gentle maiden,
With a charm so full of grace.
Look! See how she cradles the Christ Child,
As the tears flow down his face
There is Jesus Christ a -weeping,
While his vigil they are keeping.
     Hush, hush, hush, dear child, do not weep,
     Cease your crying, now go to sleep.
     Cease your crying, now go to sleep.
     Cease your crying, now go to sleep.

Wait, what?  Baby Jesus cried?! Says who? (Who are the Flemish anyway?) Surely if you have to pick a “tradition” to believe, of course it should be that of good sturdy Americans (even if they are Lutherans!) rather than somebody off in Flanders fields! Colicky baby Jesus? Really?

Yet this image of crying baby Jesus has haunted me during these last days of Advent. There is Jesus Christ a-weeping…hush, hush, hush dear child, do not weep. Cease your crying, now go to sleep

Well, of course I knew that the Bible doesn’t address this question at all, but I started to re-examine “the tradition”—even to the point of changing tonight’s gradual hymn to “Once in Royal David’s City.” (You’ll just have to trust me that it would not have worked for us to attempt to sing the Flemish carol!) Because in verse four, we just sang these words:  

For he is our life-long pattern; daily when on earth he grewnow listen up! …he was tempted, scorned, rejected, tears and smiles like us he knew. Thus he feels for all our sadness and he shares in all our gladness.

I have been thinking and praying with this image of the “crying baby Jesus” this past week. And it kept bringing me back to a verse of Holy Scripture that I memorized as a young child. My Baptist grandmother was old-school and she believed in teaching her grandchildren to memorize Bible verses, something I was not (and still am not) particularly good at. To my everlasting shame I am much better at memorizing whole paragraphs from the Book of Common Prayer!  But here is one verse I know by heart: John 11:35— “Jesus wept.” The shortest verse in the Bible!

Now I know that verse is set in a different context, when all-grown-up Jesus is standing at the grave of his friend Lazarus.  But here is the thing: Jesus did grow up. And Jesus did weep. And if he was like us in every way, save sin, then he didn’t wait until he was a grown man to shed his first tears. Like every child he surely cried to let Mary know that he was hungry and when he needed Joseph to rock him to sleep and tell him everything was going to be ok. He surely did cry when his swaddling clothes were wet and he needed them changed. Hush, now, don’t cry little one; go to sleep. 

This matters to us, especially after a polarizing election year and Hurricane Sandy and all of that loss in Newtown, Connecticut—and that’s just the past two months! It’s been a hard year and let’s face it, a hard decade or so. And grief is always cumulative. Crying baby Jesus takes us to the heart of the mystery of the Incarnation and to the good news of this holy night: that God really is with us. God who, in Jesus, knew both tears and smiles and who, even now, feels all our sadness and shares in all our gladness. Immanuel. 

I think most of us have felt, at some point or another in our lives, that what we really want is an interventionist God: a God who will intervene in human history and fix things that get broken, or better still prevent bad things from happening in the first place. A superhero-God who can at the very least spin the planet back in time when necessary to stop evil from happening. Such a world would be Eden, of course, and we would have no free will—but still it sounds nice when things are really hard.

In the world we do live in, there are some out there speaking in the name of Jesus Christ who find an interventionist God to be the cause of every bad thing that happens and usually they have a group that they are happy to scapegoat as the source of God’s wrath. Now I’m not really for going back to the days when we had heresy trials but if we did, Huckabee and Dobson and their ilk are the kind of clowns that ought to be the first brought up on charges. What they have to say is mostly about their own bigotry and fear and hatred and has very little to do with the holy catholic and apostolic faith we are here to proclaim tonight.   

The two great moments in the life of Jesus that take us to the heart of what his life was about are celebrated in the two great festivals of the liturgical year: Christmas and Easter. The two great icons of the birth and death are of a baby in a manger and of a man dying on a cross. If these two images reveal anything at all to us about the nature of the incarnate God, the suffering God, it is that God so loved the world. That is how John’s Gospel puts it. Not that God so loved the right-wing Christian zealots. And certainly not that God so hated the Jews, or the Muslims, or the gays, or the atheists, or anybody else. God so loved the world, the whole world. No exceptions.

But God so especially loved the little children of this world, that God gave up power and control to live and die among us to be with us and for us. There is nothing in Bethlehem or on a hill outside of Jerusalem to suggest that God is looking for ways to inflict hurt on people. Jesus comes to bring joy to the world, and peace on earth and good will to all people. That’s what the angels sing about, even if some are deaf to their songs. In his living and in his dying, Jesus shows us how to live more generous and compassionate lives. He shows us how to respond, when we pray for peace on earth: let it begin with me. He feels all our sadness and all of our gladness. Look! See how Mary cradles the Christ Child, as the tears flow down his face. There is Jesus Christ a -weeping, while his vigil they are keeping. 

Jesus most assuredly wept and weeps on this holy night with all who are grieving.  Not just those new losses that are still fresh on all of our minds, but old ones too. When I look back and consider all the funerals I’ve presided at in this parish over fifteen years, I wonder why it is that so many of them come in December: so much loss in our lives and so much sadness. So if you ask the question “where is God?” in relationship to the grief and pain that we feel tonight, then there is only one answer to that question: look to crying baby Jesus. It is the God we see in the face of this child that calls us to live life more abundantly. The God who is revealed to the shepherds and to us on this holy night is not some distant masochist who watches this all happen with glee, but a God who weeps when we weep.

And that is the good news of this night: that we are not left comfortless. We are called as Christians, as Franciscan Christians, to sow joy where there is sadness, to sow love where there is hatred, to sow faith where there is doubt; to sow hope where there is despair. That is what these weeks of Advent have been about: recalling us to the work God has given us to do in Christ’s name. In four words that is about hope and peace and love and joy. 

The late Fred Rogers (who was, if you don’t know, also a Presbyterian minister) once wrote that when he was a boy his mother told him after scary news in the world to “look for the helpers.” To look to those places where, after a disaster or tragedy, people are helping and caring. You see that both globally and locally. It’s as real here in Holden when people show up at their neighbor’s door with a casserole as it is in Newtown or on the Jersey Shore. Look to the helpers. There you see Jesus making all things new. Or as St. Paul reminded the first-century Church in Philippi:

5Let the same ind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, 6who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited,7but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, 8he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross.

We gather here on this holy night and throughout the year to be re-membered and to listen for God’s calling to us to share the work that God has given us each in our own way. Like Zechariah and Elizabeth and John the Baptist and Mary: to say “yes” to God by letting this same mind of God’s self-emptying kenotic love be in us until every tear is wiped away. Even the tears of baby Jesus.

If you want to see the hand of God, then look to those places where there is love, for where there is love, there God is. Ubi caritas et amour, Deus ibi est. There are babies crying, even now—in our world and in our neighborhood. May we see in them the face of Jesus, the newborn king—the crying baby Jesus who yearns for us to double down as instruments of God’s peace, and as willing participants in the work that God has entrusted to us, that God shares with us for the sake of this broken world: to be doers of justice and lovers of mercy and a people who (always with God’s help) continue to walk humbly with God.   

Let there be peace on earth. And let it begin with us.

Friday, December 16, 2016

The Christmas Story, PG-13 Version

As a parish priest, I would be thinking seriously about my Christmas Eve sermon about now. I don't have to do that in diocesan ministry, but old habits die hard, and I find myself thinking about what I would say if I had a pulpit on Christmas Eve to preach from...

Easter offers preachers more variety in terms of the Biblical narrative from year to year. Always we are reflecting on the risen Christ, but Matthew, Mark, Luke and John tell it differently, from their own perspective. And those nuances very often provide a way into re-telling the story from year to year.

But Christmas is different. There are only two birth narratives. Mark doesn't have one; his gospel begins at the Jordan River when Jesus comes to be baptized by John. John's Gospel offers a theological prologue. It's definitely a Christmas theme that "the Word became flesh and dwelt among us" but there are no angels or shepherds, no un-crying baby in the manger.

In fact the story we get year to year is the one Linus quotes to remind Charlie Brown what Christmas is all about. Some may even be able to recite it by heart: "In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered..." (See Luke 2:1ff)

The fact that the Emperor - Caesar - is mentioned is a clue that the birth of this child is not some "spiritual truth." John's prologue gets it right - the Word has become flesh and that means in a particular time and place, among real people. The story resists spiritualizing interpretations; yes it is a holy night, but it's also a mess and the child is born into a world that was a mess.

Even so, Luke's story, while dramatic and easily adapted to pageant-form, is not the only birth narrative in the New Testament. There is also the lesser known story as told in Matthew 2. Whoever may have been Caesar at the time of Jesus' birth, Matthew goes more local: it is the time of King Herod. Most of us know the part about the magi (whom we usually just "tack on" to the end of Luke's narrative at Epiphany)  but this story has a lot more in it, although it's much harder to tell it to younger children. It's the kind of story that can give you nightmares, which is why parents (and preachers) should be cautioned that some of this material is not suitable for children under thirteen.

James Taylor sings that the wise men went "home by another way." But we do well to remember why they did that: Herod was a bad king, the kind of leader who misuses his power. When Herod discovers that he has been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated. (See Matthew 2:16.) So infuriated, in fact, that he slaughters the innocent children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or younger. Then was fulfilled, Matthew tells us, what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:
A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they were no more. (Matthew 2:18)
Merry Christmas! It does not matter whether or not happened; we know it is true, because we live in a world where it happens. We know this because always it is the innocent who suffer when power is corrupted and that's as true today as it's ever been.

Four years ago, in what turned out to be my last Christmas Eve Sermon as the rector of St. Francis Church in Holden, I preached a sermon entitled Crying Baby Jesus. That context was devastating; just ten days after the murder of innocent children in Newtown, Connecticut and a bitter presidential election.This country was reeling and we mourned. And yet today there are some who deny it even happened. Lord, have mercy. 

Who could have imagined it might be even worse four years later? Yet this Christmas, the children of Aleppo are crying out for our help. Yet day after day they continue to be slaughtered before our eyes. A voice is heard even now in Ramah and Newtown and Aleppo - wailing and loud lamentation. And I for one am tired of being "consoled," because they are no more. It's time to act. I am not smart enough to know what those actions should be yet. But our prayers are not enough. We must re-learn what it means to be a Church that is part of the resistance.

The holy family, in Matthew's Gospel, is saved from Herod's rage by becoming refugees in Egypt. Again we cannot say whether or not it happened and it may be a rhetorical device for Matthew to have this new Joseph return to Egypt so that this new Moses-child might leave Egypt for the Promised Land. But the story is true whether or not it happened; Jesus and his family knew what it meant be strangers in a foreign land, to be refugees. As an adult, Jesus will say that "the Son of Man has no place to lay his head" suggesting he knew something of that experience. His followers need to be in tune with the refugees in our own world who are fleeing from violence, regardless of where they are coming from.

There was a meme on Facebook this week that showed a nativity scene "without any Jews, Arabs, Africans or refugees." And so I wonder: what will it take for the Church to reclaim our own story, the whole story, this Christmas? Not the sanitized Christmas Carol version where Jesus never cries, but the real story where this child is born for the sake of a world in turmoil - for the sake of children who are in danger, and as the hope of the nations. We might begin by remembering the story as Matthew tells it, since it seems to be ripped from the headlines of our own day. And even still, to proclaim the good news that God is with us, Immanuel: in all of the sorrow, through all of the tears, in the midst of all of our fears.

The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. 

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Standing With Our Neighbors

Tonight I got to "pinch hit" for my Bishop, Doug Fisher, who was at a gathering with other New England Bishops in New Hampshire, What an amazing experience to be at The Islamic Center of Western Massachusetts among Muslims, Christians, Jews and others - among educators and politicians - all who know that deep down we truly are one. 

I have a deep and abiding respect for the office of  bishop across denominational lines. And as you've realized tonight they are very busy people, as I'm the third pinch-hitter for a bishop tonight! But I have a particular fondness for the one I work for, Doug Fisher, who serves the Episcopal Church in central and western Massachusetts. Doug is a very talented guy who cares a lot for the work you are doing here, and for your imam. But he has not yet figured out how to be in two places at once. So as much as he wanted to be here, he had a prior commitment with the New England bishops in New Hampshire that keeps him from being with us this evening. And so you get me…

The Episcopal Church is deeply committed to respecting the dignity of every human being and to working for justice and peace among all people. In fact, we renew those commitments through our Baptismal Covenant every time we celebrate Holy Baptism and a few times each year beyond those. We know we cannot do that work alone; always it is “with God’s help.” But along with God, we need one another. We need ecumenical and interfaith partners. These promises shape who we are in this time and place as we recommit ourselves to stand together with our neighbors, whom we are called to love. And tonight we stand particularly with our Muslim neighbors, our cousins through Abraham.

There is a little verse buried in the Book of Genesis (the twenty-fifth chapter, the ninth verse) that has come to mean a great deal to me over the years. It says this:

Isaac and Ish′mael his sons buried him in the cave of Mach-pe′lah, in the field of Ephron the son of Zohar the Hittite, east of Mamre...

The “him” here is Abraham, their father. I only have a couple of minutes here and my job is to affirm our commitment to stand with our Muslim neighbors in these dangerous times, not to preach a sermon. But I invite you to linger for a moment on that scene and maybe to continue pondering it when you leave this place.

Isaac and Ishmael were half-brothers with a complicated relationship. Their mothers, Sarah and Hagar, had their own challenges. Many of us know about complicated families and relationships.

But sometimes, at the birth of a child or grandchild, or at a wedding or funeral, we glimpse moments of grace and healing, of people rising above their differences. For me Genesis 25:9 is one such moment. These two blood brothers stand side by side in their grief. I wonder who spoke first, or if words failed them? All I know from the text is that they were both there, grieving the death of their father and commending him back to the living God in whom Abraham put his trust.

Our joy can unite us, to be sure. And often it does. Tonight is such an occasion for me and I trust for all of us. 

But I wonder if, more often, it is our shared pain that has the potential to heal the brokenness we experience in this world, if only we allow ourselves in those moments to be surprised by grace. We don’t need pious platitudes at the grave. We need courage. And we need love. We need to see in the face of the other our brother – our sister – our neighbor. And in such moments we glimpse the living God, the One who formed us all of the earth and breathed the same Spirit into us all.

And so we stand together this evening, lamenting what feels lost to us in these troubling times, but strengthened by the bonds of love we share as children of Abraham. May this gathering remind us that we are never alone. God is with us. 

Sunday, December 11, 2016

A Sermon For The Third Sunday of Advent

This Sunday I am at The Southwick Community Episcopal Church, the newest parish in our diocese. Grateful to be there on the third Sunday of Advent

The connection between these two texts we heard read today, the first from the Old Covenant and the gospel reading from the New Covenant, seems pretty unmistakable. And at first, it seems so nice and tidy. First, we heard from the prophet, Isaiah.

Strengthen the weak hands,
and make firm the feeble (tottering) knees!
Say to those who are of a fearful heart,
"Be strong, do not fear!
Here is your God.
He will come with vengeance,
with terrible recompense.
He will come and save you."
Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then the lame shall leap like a deer,
and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.  (Isaiah 35:3-6)

With these words still ringing in our ears, we next hear it all happening in the ministry of Jesus.

When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, "Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?" Jesus answered them, "Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me."                                                (Matthew 11:2-6)

Anybody who reads the Old Testament knows that when Messiah comes there will be peace on earth and good will to all people. The lion will lie down with the lamb. Swords will be beaten into plowshares and nation shall not lift up sword against nation. We won’t need Secretaries of Defense of Homeland Security; just Agriculture and HUD. The peaceable kingdom we’ve been talking about for three weeks now in this Advent season will be made known when the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them. Alleluia!

But here is the thing: it’s not that simple. Not in the first century and not today. John the baptizer pointed to the one coming after him who would do all these things, the one whose shoes who said he wasn’t fit to tie. But now John has been arrested and he’s sitting in a jail cell. They weren’t yet calling it death row, but you all remember how it ends for John, yes?

So John’s question is not only a legitimate one that lingers but for him it’s pretty existential: are you the one, Jesus or should we wait for another?

If there was peace on earth, we’d know, right? But we not only haven’t gotten to “good will for all,” trust me when I say this- we can’t even get to peace in our congregations. I’m sure the vestry here always holds hands and sings kumbaya but the work of being the Church is hard, and messy – and what’s true in our congregations is even more so in our neighborhoods and our towns and cities and across this Commonwealth and nation and around the world. Lions still eat lambs for lunch and most days it doesn’t feel like the light shines in the darkness. If anything it may feel, as the prophet Bob Dylan once put it, that ”it’s not dark yet, but it’s getting’ there.”

So John asks (and we ask!) what are you up to, Jesus? Are you the one? I think this question takes us to the very heart of Advent: we follow Jesus, and we wait. But we don’t wait passively, we are called to lean in. We wait for the New Jerusalem and the new Washington and the new Boston and the new Springfield and the new Southwick.

The Rev. Taylor Albright, Rector at SCEC
Waiting is hard, and it’s tempting in the meantime to ease our anxiety by spiritualizing the good news of Jesus Christ. This is not some temptation that comes from our so-called secular society. We can’t blame “the culture” on that one; we do it to ourselves. We turn this holiday season into fuzzy sentimentality: the spiritual equivalent of chestnuts roasting on an open fire. But here is the thing: the prophets imagine God’s reign on earth as it is in heaven. And when Jesus sends word to John the baptizer in today’s gospel reading, notice that he isn’t talking in the future tense like Isaiah was. He is now speaking of what is happening: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. Present tense.

Jesus is a great teacher and healer. He’s the kind of guy everybody wants to eat supper with because wherever he is, it’s a party and everyone keeps hoping he’ll do that thing again with the water and the wine. But how do we really know he is the One? That is John’s question today and it lingers in the air. I imagine as he sits in that prison cell that John was as confused as anyone and maybe even a little bit angry because while no one can argue that Jesus is doing good ministry, it’s not clear that it’s making any difference in a macro-cosmic sense. The world looks pretty much the same as it always has and so John is asking: “when are the prisoners really going to go free? Because sitting in this prison cell, I’d propose that now would be a good time!”

Lots of creativity at SCEC...
So how do you know? If you are a good Jew or a good Christian—if you live in the first century or the twenty-first—if you are sitting in a prison cell or sitting in a congregation on the third Sunday of Advent? How do you know when it is God at work in the world and that Messiah is already in our midst?

“Go tell John what you see and what you hear,” Jesus responds. It is such classic, vintage Jesus. Notice that he doesn’t directly answer the question. Jesus almost never does! He just encourages people to use their eyes and ears. But the problem with that is always the same: when you look, what do you see? Is that glass you are looking at half-full or half-empty? When you listen to the evening news: is the world being made new or is it coming unglued? It’s not just about whether we are constitutionally more optimists or pessimists as far as I can tell, although perhaps that’s some part of it.  We can look at the same thing, each of us, from one day to the next and see it differently. Is it an opportunity or is it a crisis? Is it something that will help us to grow or will it be our undoing? Is God in the midst of it all or is God absent? So much has to do with where we are and that can change from day-to-day. If we are overtired or depressed or angry or confused—sometimes we just plain cannot see. I mean that literally, Sometimes we just cannot see what is right before our eyes. The optic nerves are working fine and delivering messages to the brain, but we are blind.

Go tell John what you see and hear.  Sometimes people whose lives seem (at least from where I stand) to be incredibly blessed still struggle with doubt and uncertainty about whether God loves them or even exists. And sometimes people whose lives seem (at least from where I stand) to be so incredibly sad are able to find faith and love and joy and hope in the smallest of life’s gifts. The externals don’t always dictate how we will view even our own lives, let alone the world around us. We can have it all and feel empty and we can have very little and feel like our cup overflows. What you see depends on how you look and where you are looking. What you hear depends a great deal on who you are listening to.

Even so, we who have eyes are called to look and we who have ears are called to hear. So what are you seeing this December? We are coming up on that ancient celebration of the winter solstice, four days before we celebrate the nativity of our Lord. The days are still getting shorter this week; it’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there! But ten days from now we turn a corner and we get through this long New England winter trusting that the days are getting just a little bit lighter each day. And we might begin to pray, “it’s not light yet, but it’s getting there.” And then the big follow up: how do we allow our light to shine toward that end? How do we look and listen to those places where God is already at work, and inviting us in?

What are you seeing this December? Do you see weak hands and tottering knees being strengthened? Because where you see those things happening, there God is at work. There we see signs of Messiah’s presence. Where we see joy and peace and light shining in the darkness we need to be able to name those things as sure signs of God’s presence in our midst. That doesn’t mean there isn’t still pain in the world, Lord knows. Or that we serve the Reign of God by living in denial. But where love and charity are—there God is. Ubi caritas et amour, deus ibi est. That’s at the heart of both the Old and New Covenants. If you see forgiveness where it is not even deserved, there you see God.  If you see hope and healing and new life, there God is. And where we do not yet see these things, do we dare to ask, “Lord, how can I be an instrument of your peace?”

So what do are you seeing this Advent? I believe that the great challenge for most of us in December is that we are sometimes moving at warp speed and at warp speed it is hard to see anything but a blur. It’s harder to notice the little things. And sometimes in our desire to make Christmas perfect, we will miss what is right before our very eyes, imperfect but nevertheless real and beautiful. But often little, like a mustard seed. Or a little baby in a makeshift homeless shelter.

I think we have to be intentional about looking for signs of God’s presence in the world and we have to practice. And I think we come to places of worship like this place so that we can put ourselves in places where we can get glimpses at least of new life and new possibilities that God sets before us. And that becomes food for the journey. It sustains us and trains us to know better where to look with eyes that see, and how to listen with ears that hear. And our faith is strengthened because we see signs of God’s presence where we never before even thought to look.

You all know this of course, but every Advent gives us a chance to remember, and to turn again. It gives us a chance to answer the question of what we do see and hear and to embrace the promise that it’s not light yet, but it’s getting there.

Do not be afraid.