Saturday, December 15, 2018

At the Ordination of Ann Scannell

I am honored to be asked to preach today at the ordination of Ann Scannell to the transitional diaconate, at All Saints Church in Worcester. My sermon text is Jeremiah 4:1-10

Ann: you have publicly declared before God, your bishop, and this assembly that “you believe the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the Word of God and that they do contain all things necessary to salvation.”

Bold move! In a few minutes there will be more questions and answers and you will be given a Bible “as a sign of your authority to proclaim God’s Word.”

Please don’t forget this pledge and this sign, and use that Bible! It is so easy to become complacent about this. Yet it is foundational for all the rest of ministry. There will be enormous pressures on your time as a pastor which will make it tempting to convince yourself (or to be convinced by others) that you don’t have time for prayer and study. When that happens, preaching gets very thin very quickly. So make the time to keep reading, marking, learning and inwardly digesting Holy Scripture. Keep first things first.

Here is why: if you don’t do that, it will quickly become way too easy to substitute your own opinions and cute stories and personal faith journey for God’s Word. (Or even worse, to steal somebody else’s opinions, cute stories, or faith journey off the internet!) As you read that Bible, don’t forget what you learned about it at Yale-Berkeley. But keep pushing beyond that, because as great as that institution is, seminaries (all of them, I think) tend to prepare us for the Church that was, not the one is that is always emerging as the new thing that God is doing in the world.

As you enter into the various worlds of the Bible, be willing to be changed as your own ideologies are framed and re-framed in that encounter with the living Word of God. Pray the Daily Office or use the Bible challenge. Become part of a lectionary group with people who will hold you accountable and who have the ability to persuade you when you are wrong. Because, to be clear, when the bishop lays his hands on you today, it will not make you infallible. Offer Bible studies for your parishioners because the best way to be a life-long learner is to teach. The Bible means to gather around it communities that are willing to be transformed as we hear a Word of the Lord addressed to us.

There are no doubt other ways to define “success” in ministry and to make sure your HAC goes up. But I know of no way to be faithful to the risen Christ as an ordained person if you are not continuing to wrestle with Holy Scripture and finding there a word that points you and your community to the Word-made-flesh: Jesus of Nazareth, Jesus the Christ, alpha and omega. God with us. In the end, even in a sacramental denomination such as ours, we are people of the Book. I know that, God willing and the people consenting, you will be ordained to the priesthood soon enough. But the preacher at your priestly ordination can focus on Baptism and Eucharist! For today, I want to stick with this aspect of this call to preach.

As preachers – lay preachers, deacons, priests and bishops—we have these ancient scrolls entrusted to us and we are given authority to stand with God’s people and to share the good news that comes from the whole canon. You did not pledge a moment ago to be a Marcionite who believes that Luke’s Gospel and Paul’s epistles contain all things necessary to salvation! (And to those without an MDiv from Yale, you can Google Marcion after this sermon!)  Pray the Psalms, including the ones we never pray in worship. Read Lamentations. Read Job and Ecclesiastes. Read Esther and Daniel and Amos and Micah. If they were good enough for Jesus, they will be good enough for the people you are called to serve. Our great privilege and responsibility is to allow these texts to come to life in a time and place that is woefully ignorant of the richness of the canon of Scripture.

So let me try to practice what I preach, which I’ve often found is the hardest part of ministry. I want to spend my remaining time on this call narrative from the scroll of the prophet Jeremiah. It is very clear in the first three verses that God is addressing a particular person in a particular time and in a particular place.

…and so the Word of Yahweh comes to Jeremiah, the son of Hilkiah. Jeremiah is a “PK” (a priest’s kid) in Anathoth, in the days of King Josiah, son of Amon of Judah. In the thirteenth year of his reign.

This is a standard Biblical call narrative. The pattern is the same one as for Moses and Isaiah, for Hannah and Mary. Perhaps you recognize something of your own call in this pattern as well. It begins with divine initiative, which is met with human resistance. So God says to Jeremiah: “before you were even born I knew you, and I appointed you to be a prophet to the nations.” To which Jeremiah replies: “But I’m only a boy and I’m afraid of public speaking and surely there must be someone else...” Anybody else? Buehler? Beuhler?

That’s the pattern. God calls and God’s people almost always say, “no thank you. Surely there must be someone more qualified.” But God is persistent. You may recognize that pattern in your own life as well. God responds with rebuke and reassurance: rebuke (“don’t say you’re just a boy!”) and reassurance (“don’t be afraid, I’ll be with you!) And then God puts out his hand and touches Jeremiah’s mouth and commissions him as a transitional deacon in the Episcopal Church. (Just trying to make sure you are all still with me here!)

The lectionary committee, in their infinite wisdom, chose to stop there in the suggested reading for the day, at verse nine. We get Jeremiah commissioned and that is apparently the end of the story and enough to ordain a deacon: the Word of the Lord, thanks be to God. Good luck out there! But this is exactly why we need to read the Bible or at the very least, the verses on either side of the texts the lectionary committee gives us for days like this. The lectionary committee very often cut out the best and most interesting parts. I think that this is one of those occasions when they just plain get it wrong and that can lead us to bad theology of what our several callings are about. Because they leave us hanging in mid-air.  

Here’s the thing: Jeremiah is commissioned to do something. He isn’t ordained just so he can wear the funny clothes. He is ordained to share with God in God’s work in the world, in his world six centuries before Messiah is born, among real people with real questions and real hurts and real dreams. Vocation is about a call to do something in a particular place at a particular time. That is why I asked that we extend today’s reading just one more verse, to include verse ten. It really didn’t add that much time to this liturgy. What is that work to which Jeremiah is called? Walter Brueggemann says that Jeremiah is “reflective of and responsive to the historical crisis of the last days of Judah, culminating in the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in 587 BCE.” That’s quite specific. (And harder to Google.)

Jeremiah is commissioned to help God’s people deal with tremendous loss and then enter into the Babylonian exile. The old order will be dismantled and a crisis of faith will follow.  It isn’t pretty. It is not the last word, either. The thing is, it will take decades before another prophet (Second Isaiah) comes along to speak a word of comfort, a word about new possibilities and a highway through the desert and homecoming. The words that Jeremiah must speak are far less comfortable words. His mission statement is found in that tenth verse of the first chapter and it’s just six verbs that come up again and again and again in the rest of the scroll, 51 more chapters. Jeremiah is commissioned “to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.” It’s the best kind of mission statement because it is short and to the point and oriented toward action. 67% of Jeremiah’s time will be spent on deconstructing the old order. It seems that has to happen before anything new can happen. And even then, maybe the best Jeremiah will be able to do is to plant some seeds and build a little on the foundation. Like us, he’s going to have to take the long view. He won’t get to see homecoming – in a way similar to Moses who doesn’t get to enter the Promised Land.

Jeremiah is given the hard task of helping people deal with loss and grief as the Babylonian army comes marching into Jerusalem and the temple comes crashing down. They will be distraught. And they will be angry at God and at those who claim to work for God. They will feel betrayed. They will be bitterly divided. And they will feel like they have no future. Is this sounding like some vestry meetings? Are you all in?

Maybe this is why the lectionary committee left off that last verse. Because if they told us what we were in for, we might run away faster than Jonah. With all endings come new beginnings, however. But it takes time and focus and patience and grit. Barbara Brown Taylor put it this way in “Leaving Church.”

The way many of us are doing church is broken and we know it, even if we do not know what to do about it. We proclaim the priesthood of all believers while we continue living with hierarchical clergy, liturgy, and architecture. We follow a Lord who challenged the religious and political institutions of his time while we fund and defend our own. We speak and sing of divine transformation while we do everything in our power to maintain our equilibrium. If redeeming things continue to happen to us in spite of these deep contradictions in our life together, then I think that is because God is faithful even when we are not.

My sister: God is faithful, even when we are not. Hold onto that and let it be your guiding star in the journey that wise women and wise men are called to in this time and place. The work that you are called to is not in the thirteenth year of the reign of King Josiah but in the third year of the reign of President Donald. The Episcopal Church in 2013 is not exactly the same as the Jewish people in Babylonian captivity. Most of our “temples” are still intact. Unfortunately we have lots of buildings that worked for our mission in the nineteenth century that are less helpful in the twenty-first. We need some imagination to make the connections from then to now. But it doesn’t take much to say this much: after the party today, the work will be hard. And it ain’t all planting and building.

What would Church look like if we lived as if we were truly prepared to lose our lives in order to find them?  Even to lose the Church in order to find it again? We are tempted to think that our job as Christian leaders is to somehow keep on trying to put Humpty Dumpty back together again. I know I sometimes spend a lot of time in my job trying to do just that. Trust me, that temptation only becomes greater as you become more invested in the structures that we have in place for your livelihood. On the whole, bishops and priests and deacons and laity spend enormous energy trying to hold it all together. But what if you are being ordained today, here and now, to help God’s people to grieve loss when things change and be open to the new thing that God is doing? What if 2/3 of your job will be about deconstructing, in order to then do some planting and building? Think of all those times Jesus talks about pruning in the New Testament. Or about new wine and old wineskins. Because those old ways, those old patterns, those old structures can keep us from seeing and hearing the new thing God is doing.

Very few people will applaud that work when you do it because it is hard work and these are difficult times and nostalgia makes us want to look backwards rather than forward. And to be clear, I am not suggesting that the first week you arrive at the Church of the Good Shepherd in Clinton that you tell them you are there to pluck up and pull down and destroy and overthrow all of the sacred cows in that parish that are not in line with God’s purposes. God help you. And God help them!

But maybe our work is a little bit easier than that. Maybe we don’t have to be Jeremiah. Maybe we just have to remind people about who Jeremiah was and that there is a Word of the Lord for us, waiting to be discovered in new ways by God’s people.

Together. Find allies, ordained and lay, inside and outside of your congregation. Stand with God’s people and make room in your congregation for the prophets like Jeremiah to be heard. You can do that, Ann. We need for you to do that and I know you are up to the task that lies before us. I have known it for as long as I’ve known you. You are a humble, faithful, compassionate, honest, hard-working follower of Jesus. I know that the divine initiative has been at work in your life from the time when you were in your mother’s womb. And that this call is “of God” and that it has been tested along the way by the Church and by life experience. So don’t settle for less than faithfulness, even if faithfulness doesn’t always bring success. I know that along the way, like Jeremiah, you have at times found yourself resisting that call. Maybe somewhere along the line as God called, you even said, “But I’m only a girl.” More likely, somebody else told you that. But we have all heard God’s clear response and encouragement.

Call, resistance, rebuke and reassurance. That is the pattern that brings us to this day. Keep responding to that call, and living into these vows you take today. Remember that God is faithful, even when we are not. Keep putting your trust there, and show the people whom you are called to serve alongside of the same. And let them show you, too. And then - together - do the work God has given you and given us to do in this time and place. 

Sunday, December 9, 2018

Zechariah's Song

I am not preaching anywhere today. This is an edited version of a sermon I preached nine years ago, however, on the Second Sunday in Advent at St. Francis Church in Holden. The canticle for today is the Song of Zechariah, from the first chapter of Luke's Gospel. (It can be found here.)
In the time I spend with couples who are preparing for marriage, we usually try to look beyond their wedding and to the joys and challenges not only of married life but the joys and challenges, when it is God’s will, of becoming parents. I sometimes share with the couple my own experience that parenthood brings about an even bigger change in one’s life and self-perception than marriage does. For those of us called to the vocation of parenthood, the birth of a child forever changes our lives.

That is even more profoundly true about the birth of the child whose coming we await and prepare for during the Season of Advent, a season which encapsulates all of the emotions of moving through nine months of pregnancy: expectancy, waiting, hope, wonder, joy and a healthy dose of fear as well. All rolled into four short weeks.  

Before we get to Bethlehem, however, there is another birth narrative that Luke wants to share with us. In the days of King Herod, he writes, there was this priest named Zechariah who was married to the daughter of a priest, Elizabeth. They were both righteous people, both faithful people, both decent and well-loved. But…

Why does there always have to be a “but?” Life isn’t easy. It comes with plenty of bumps in the road—layoffs and deaths, illness, divorce, struggles at school or at work. And here is the thing: the Bible is about life. Sometimes we are prone to think that because the people we encounter in the Bible lived a long time ago, they must be very different from us. But take away our cell phones and text messages and you tend to discover that reading the Bible can be like looking in a mirror. People are people, and across generations and cultures, the core challenges of being human—love and loss, fear and hope, doubt and the capacity to dream—remain basically the same from generation to generation.   
So perhaps you have known a couple like Elizabeth and Zechariah or maybe even faced the same challenge they did: good people committed to God who would make excellent parents. But they are getting “advanced in years.” That is the Bible’s politically correct way of saying they are getting old! And they have no children. Because, as Luke puts it, Elizabeth was barren.

Those words are like fingernails scraping on a chalkboard even two thousand years after they were first written. Tradition sometimes claims Luke was a physician, which is far from certain. But even if he was, he was a first-century physician who knew nothing about infertility. Like all of us, he was a product of his time. In a world before fertility clinics, he believed what everyone in his day believed, including Elizabeth and Zechariah: if a couple couldn’t get pregnant then it must be the woman’s “fault.” The theology that goes along with that is even more embarrassing from where we stand in the early part of the twenty-first century: if the woman was “barren”, then somehow this reflected God’s displeasure. So on top of the sadness and loss a couple might feel if they weren’t able to have a child was also added no small measure of guilt and blame and shame as well. The way Elizabeth poignantly describes it in retrospect, once she learns that she is in fact pregnant, is to say that she has endured disgrace among her people. (Lk. 1:25)

What is interesting, however, and not unlike our own context is that there is sometimes a chasm between what conventional piety says and what Biblical faith actually claims. People attribute all kinds of horrible things to God, then and now: infertility, earthquakes, disease, acts of terrorism. But the God of the Bible is constantly challenging conventional piety by favoring the despised and rejected, not by punishing them. God notices women and men who can’t seem to get pregnant and acts on their behalf: God is the one who makes all things possible.

The God we encounter in the first chapter of Luke’s Gospel is the same God who made poor old Sarah laugh when she got pregnant in her old age, the same one who blessed Rebekah and Rachel and Hannah with children when they thought they were past all of that. All of them had no doubt endured no small amount of disgrace from their families and neighbors. Like Sarah and Rebekah and Rachel and Hannah before her, just thirteen verses into the first chapter of Luke’s Gospel, Elizabeth learns that she is pregnant. And then the angel, Gabriel, comes to deliver the good news to Zechariah while he is at work. Even though he is a priest and a righteous man and even though he has been praying for this, he is absolutely dumbfounded. I suspect he thought that these things only happened in the Bible, back in the Old Testament, a long, long time ago; and no one has told either Zechariah or Elizabeth that their story is about to become part of some new testament.

Old Zechariah is so freaked out by this news that he becomes speechless. Literally. For nine months this priest doesn’t speak a word. Now this isn’t in the Bible, but I have sometimes wondered if this wasn’t an answered prayer of Elizabeth’s: because what pregnant woman hasn’t prayed that her husband would just shut up for nine months until the child is born, especially if he keeps saying "we" are pregnant? Or perhaps it’s an answer to the prayers of Zechariah’s congregation. Either way, the man is speechless for nine months!

Six months into Elizabeth’s pregnancy, as she is just about to transition into her third trimester, her cousin, Mary, comes to call on her and to share the extraordinary news that she, too, is pregnant and she, too, has received a message from Gabriel. And the child in Elizabeth’s tummy kicks her with joy. The lives of these two women and their two sons will be inextricably linked as the story of God’s work in the world continues to unfold.

So the child is born—the child of Elizabeth and Zechariah, I mean. We have to wait a couple more weeks to celebrate the birth of that other child!  Zechariah’s son is born, and still Zechariah hasn’t spoken a word. The eighth day comes, the day when little Jewish boys are circumcised and given a name and everybody knows that there is only one name to give such a long-awaited child, and that is to call him Zechariah Jr. His aunts and uncles can call him Zecky. But Elizabeth says, “no, he is to be called John.” Now everyone goes speechless. It’s like one of those old E.F. Hutton commercials. Such things are not done and it seems an insult to the father. But of course it is the name that was given to them by the angel and they know that this child is, like every child, a gift from God. So the neighbors turn to the man of the house to set his wife straight. Only he still can’t speak. So he writes it down: “His name is John.” 

And immediately, Luke tells us (channeling his inner Mark who loves that word) his tongue was loosed. He could speak again after nine months of silence. And what do you think he says? Well we heard it already because we sang it along with him—this father’s song—praise to God and in thanksgiving for this child.
Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them. He has raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of his servant David, as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old, that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us. Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors, and has remembered his holy covenant, the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham, to grant us that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies, might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all our days. And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the   forgiveness of their sins. By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.
Notice, with me, that this song has a past, present, and future tense to it. Zechariah blesses the God who has looked favorably on him and his wife and beyond them to this redeemed people to whom God has been faithful from generation to generation. Zechariah is filled with doxology and grateful for all God has done, for the ways that God has spoken through the prophets and shown mercy and remembered the covenant and rescued his people in days gone by. But all that good stuff is not confined to some distant past. That is the great insight of Zechariah and of people of faith in every age who encounter the living God, who refuses to become a mere memory on the pages of the Bible. God’s best days are not in the past and this old priest has remembered that as he gazes at his beautiful baby boy. It evokes a sense of awe and wonder in Zechariah, who prays that he might respond to God by serving God on this day in holiness and righteousness. The gift of his son rekindles in him an experience of the holy God. (Babies have a tendency to do that to us!)

And then as old Zechariah stands there looking at the face of his little boy, John, he not only feels joy in the present but he also glimpses a future that gives him hope. That hope surely must be for him and his wife who must feel young again, but it extends beyond them. This child of theirs (who will be called “the Baptist”) gives them hope for the world: you will be called a prophet, you will prepare the way, and the dawn from on high will break upon us.

On this second Sunday of Advent we are so used to seeing little Johnny all grown up and preparing the way for his cousin at the Jordan River. He is a central figure in the Advent season. But he’ll be back again next week, still at the Jordan River, so we’ll reflect then on the man that he grew up to be. For today, I wonder if it isn’t enough to linger a bit as we look at these baby pictures and see his father singing over his cradle, decades before he would grow up to become that wild-haired man eating locusts and dressed in funny clothes.

It seems to me that it would completely and utterly miss the point if we heard this story today and sang this song only in the past tense—as if God did this amazing thing through the birth of John the Baptist and then the birth of Jesus, but then that was it: God retired soon afterwards to some nice condo in Florida. If we truly dare to make Zechariah’s Song our own, then it is incumbent upon us to discover that our faith, too, has a past, present, and future tense.  Whether or not we are members of the music ministry here, we have a song to sing to the children of this parish, whether they are biologically ours or not. We are called to pass these old stories and songs along to our children and grandchildren by singing the paschal mystery: Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. For our faith, too, has a past, present, and future tense.  May that song inspire all of us to sing at the top of our lungs and to share the work that John the Baptist did by preparing the way, and making paths straight, and by allowing our lives to point beyond ourselves to the One who has come, who is here, and who is still to come.

Saturday, December 1, 2018

The Advent-ure of Faith

As the liturgical year begins again, on this First Sunday of Advent, I am at St. Matthew's, Worcester. Today's Gospel Reading is from Luke 21:25-36.
In the twenty-first chapter of Luke’s Gospel we enter into a world of confusion and distress and fear and foreboding. Sadly, it is a world we know all too well. Some of this may even feel as if it’s ripped from the headlines when we consider out-of-control fires in California and earthquakes in Alaska and tear gas on our southern border.

Like many of you, I live in the city of Worcester. As a member of Bishop Fisher’s staff, however, some Sundays my travels across this diocese may take me as far as the Berkshires, to Pittsfield or Sheffield or Williamstown on a Sunday morning. Other days I’m headed north to Fitchburg or south to Milford. In my encounters there, as well as my experience as the former rector at St. Francis in Holden, I sometimes hear people saying, “I don’t come to church for politics.”

And I get that. But I think what folks usually mean, upon reflection, is that they don’t want the preacher to be as partisan as the politicians. They don’t want the preacher to tell them how to vote. And I promise you that I am not going to do that. But we cannot escape the polis – literally the city. Politics is about our common life and our faith is meant to help us to navigate that together. Jesus may not have been a Democrat or a Republican but he wasn’t apolitical either.

Sometimes it feels as if the polis, and our world, are coming apart at the seams. In the Bible, this kind of literature that we heard from the 21st chapter of Luke is called “apocalyptic.” It’s about endings, to be sure. But it’s also about how we act in such times and also about our hope in new beginnings.

As I said, the 21st chapter of Luke is a world of confusion and distress and fear and foreboding and sometimes we can get sucked into all of that fear. It can dominate our days and more significantly our nights, and our nightmares. We may worry about the planet and climate change or wars, or rumors of wars. Closer to home, gun violence in our streets and even in our schools tears us apart and we may pray with Isaiah for swords to be beaten into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks. We may worry on a smaller scale about transitions in our own lives: taking the bus to school for the first time or heading off to college, or walking down the aisle, or selling the family home to move into assisted living. Or saying goodbye to a beloved pastor. Confusion and distress and foreboding can eat away at us from the inside out. There is a part of us all that just feels like just closing our eyes to all of that, especially in December. It’s just too much to deal with on top of everything else.

In Luke’s story, we are in the city of Jerusalem, only a few verses away from the Last Supper and the final night of his earthly life. Jesus is continuing to prepare his disciples for the days when he will not be with them in the flesh, not just the immediate future but ultimately for the end of days. Along the way, there will be much struggle and days when being his disciple will be hard, Jesus says. Because life is hard. And some days you’ll feel like giving up or giving in. But in those moments, he says, be strong; take courage; be on guard and alert and stand up and raise your heads. And pray

That’s what I want to say to you today, St. Matthew’s. I’ll say it a couple of more times in the hope that it will sink in and a couple of different ways. But this is the good news I want to share today: in the midst of fear and of endings: Be strong. Take courage. Be on guard. Keep alert. Stand up and raise your heads. And pray.

Today marks the first Sunday of a new liturgical year, a new beginning as we gather here to begin our preparations for the birth of Christ: one wreath, four candles. Today’s gospel reading may feel out of place. It may seem as if Luke didn’t get the memo that we are here to get ready for a birth!

But here is the thing: this holy season of Advent invites us to live our lives between the first advent of Christ—when Jesus was born in Bethlehem and laid in a manger because there was no room for him and his family in the inn—and the second advent of the risen Christ who is “king of kings” and “lord of lords, the One who shall reign forever and ever.” This season means to convey this double-meaning so that it’s not primarily about looking back to first-century Palestine. Nor is it our job to try to figure out a future that belongs to God, a future that even Jesus says is known “only by the Father.” It’s about living with faith, in fearful times by knowing that Jesus is Lord. That, my friends, is a political statement.

Since we cannot change what happened yesterday and since we cannot control what will happen tomorrow, Advent calls upon us to live and to fully participate in what Paul Tillich once called “the Eternal Now.” We are called to live today in the midst of a world that sometimes feels like it coming unglued as faithful people who put their whole trust in God. Advent hope is characterized by alert and awake living that calls on us to do the work we have been given to do: in our homes and in our church and in the wider world we share with people from every tribe and language and nation.

Reinhold Niebuhr (whom some of you may know by way of the Serenity Prayer) also wrote these words:

The experience of Jesus upon the cross is not one of a dreamy pantheist who imagines God in easy and magical control of every process in the universe. It was the experience of a spiritual adventurer who saw life as a struggle between love and chaos, but who also discovered the love at the center of things which guarantees the victory in every apparent defeat.

You and I are called to share an adventure. (Notice that word begins with advent: advent-ure.) We are invited to discover the love that is at the center of all things, even in the midst of life’s struggles. Niebuhr calls our attention to the cross. That may seem odd in this season of preparing for Jesus birth. But in fact it’s not odd at all, because what we are in fact preparing for is a singular life of the One around whom you and I have been called to re-orient our whole lives. We are called to be Jesus’ disciples by bearing witness not only to his birth, but to his life and death and to his resurrection, even as we await his second advent. You cannot look back upon his birth (or his public ministry) without looking through the lens of what happened on a cross outside of Jerusalem and then three days later at the empty tomb.

Niebuhr claims Jesus of Nazareth as “spiritual adventurer.” What would it would be like for us, as his followers, to take that on more in our own lives? Not to be conformed into some mold of what we think a good follower of Jesus is supposed to look like. Not to be fixated on right belief. But rather, to allow our beliefs and our practices to unleash the Holy Spirit within us, so that passion and energy form us as “spiritual adventurers.” What would it look like for this parish to become more and more a community of spiritual adventurers who see life as a struggle between love and chaos, and yet are, together, discovering and rediscovering the love that is at the center of all things?

Advent is a wake-up call. It’s about opening our eyes even wider to all of it the world’s pain and keeping alert to struggle and injustice. It invites us to be spiritual adventurers who really do know (not just because some preacher said it, but because we have discovered for ourselves) that love is stronger than fear. Advent hope is about living more faithfully into this vocation we have been given in Holy Baptism by letting the world see and know that we are Christians by our love.

Consider the fig tree, says Jesus. Now it’s November in New England and not springtime in Israel so we may need a second to get our bearings here. We now find ourselves once again getting ready for winter and if we consider the maple trees and the oaks and apple trees that are all around us we see them going to sleep and getting ready for the chill winds that are already upon us. Sometimes we think that the end of the world is like that, or the end of our own lives. Or the end of a ministry: that spring gives way to summer and summer turns to autumn and then finally comes the cold of winter.

But that is not what Jesus is saying in today’s gospel reading. He turns the whole thing inside out and upside down. As he speaks of endings he invites us to go even deeper into the meaning of life and consider the fig tree as it is in springtime. He invites us to go deeper into the heart of all things that is love and new beginnings and Easter morning. So yes, there are signs of endings all around us to be sure. But can it be that from these endings God is making all things new?

The faith of the Church is a resounding “yes” to that question. By asking us to consider the fig tree in springtime even as we consider the end of the world in December, Jesus invites us even as we read the daily news in our own day to see cherry blossoms and apple blossoms and fig blossoms. Not as an act of denial, but as a leap of faith in becoming spiritual adventurers.

Jesus insists that even when the world feels like it is falling into chaos there is, deeper still, at the center of all things, love and life and hope and joy. That is not an act of denial: it is a deep truth that has learned that only when things die and come to an end can new life emerge. We know this, of course. It is what the journey from Good Friday to Easter morning is all about. It is what the mystery of faith is all about: Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.

So, St. Matthews: be strong; take courage; be on guard and alert and stand up and raise your heads. And pray. Come, O come, Emmanuel.