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Second Sunday after Epiphany Year A 2020

Second Sunday after Epiphany Year A 2020
Kevin Gore, St. Andrew’s Mountain Home

The Second Sunday after the Feast of the Epiphany is always graced by a reading from the Gospel of John.  Instead of continuing the narrative from Matthew, Mark, or Luke, depending on which year of the lectionary we are in, we instead hear from John, which has a fairly unique approach to writing about Jesus.  We know that John is different when we look at the Gospels and see that instead of talking about a birth narrative, we start with this grand cosmic concept…”In the beginning was the Word.”  An acknowledgment of the Christological nature of Jesus to start us off. 

The fourth Gospel then drops us right into the ministry of John the Baptist, preparing the way for Christ, and then on this Second Sunday after Epiphany, we have the first appearance of Jesus.  If the Gospel of John were a movie, I imagine the Gospel of John starts out the way most Star Wars movies do.  We begin with a narrative that sets the scene, explains to us where we are about to drop into the story, then we hit the ground running with Jesus’ adult ministry.

You might ask why the Gospel of John is given this particular place.  Why do we always get to hear from the Gospel of John on this Sunday?  I think it is a question worth exploring; and while you would really need to ask the authors of the Revised Common Lectionary for a direct answer, there are at least a few things we can be fairly safe to assume about the use of John.  Chief among these reasons I believe is that the Gospel of John focuses far more on the mystical nature of Christ, and spends a lot of energy on this idea of Epiphany, of the appearing or manifestation of the Second Person of the Trinity.

John also leans far more on the cosmic reason for God becoming human.  From the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry, we have John the Baptist calling out, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”  I guarantee that this title being used here means huge things to the people that are hearing it from John the Baptist’s mouth. Recall that the Hebrew people expected their messiah to save them in a worldly sense.  They expected someone to come and lead armies against whichever occupying force was ruling them at any particular time in history.  They expected a strong warlord. 

But John the Baptist says, “Here is the Lamb of God.”  He doesn’t say, “Here is the Lion of the Tribe of Judah!”  He doesn’t say, “Behold the general to slaughter our enemies.”  Think about what lambs were used for at the time of Jesus.  What would the, “Lamb of God” evoke for these people but an understanding of sacrifice?  There is little doubt that the author of the Gospel of John focuses on this in a few places, that the author wants to convey that God has taken on flesh in part to be, and I use this term knowing how complicated it is, a ‘sacrificial lamb’ for the sins of the world.

Understanding Jesus as the Lamb of God ties directly to the understanding of Passover in the Hebrew mindset.  The Passover Lamb was slaughtered, and its blood sprinkled on the lintels of doors during the escape of the Hebrew people from Pharaoh.  This was done so that the Angel of Death would pass over their houses and only visit the houses of Egyptians during the tenth and final plague.  Just as the Passover lamb’s life is given to save the Israelites, so then is the sacrifice of the Lamb of God to save all of humanity from ultimate death. 

Later, in the Passion narrative in the Gospel of John, Jesus dies, “about noon” on the day of preparation for the Passover.  This is the author of the Gospel assigning this time and day to coincide with the slaughter of the lambs being prepared for the Passover meals.  The use of the image of the Lamb of God is strong and from the beginning of Jesus’ ministry to its end in the Gospel of John it is found throughout to emphasize the salvific nature of Christ manifest.

I know that you might say, “Wait a second!  We aren’t even at Lent yet, and you’re moving us along to the crucifixion of Jesus!”  Ultimately, even as we are in the midst of a celebration of Christmas, we must remember the cross.  Without the cross, the manger, the wise men, the whole thing means very little.  The whole incarnational narrative is important and every piece of it touches on the other.  Even as we talk about Jesus’ baptism, the very nature of Christ must be discussed.

Mother Julia Gatta writes, “It is remarkable that Jesus begins his public ministry by submitting to John’s baptism of repentance since the New Testament and subsequent tradition never attribute personal sin to Jesus.  What is Jesus doing in such a compromising situation?  He is emphatically taking his stand with human beings in their sinfulness.  He is defining the radical scope of his ministry from the outset.  It is a position that will elicit criticism throughout his life as Jesus dines with public sinners and, finally, suffers a shameful (sic) death, crucified between two criminals.  His life and ministry and, at the last, his death address our desperate plight: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.”

In John’s naming of Jesus as the, “Lamb of God” he is calling to the fundamental nature of Christ’s incarnation as one meant to bring eternal life to humanity.  This is God’s plan from the beginning, to bring about the Kingdom of God, to bring eternal life to humanity.  I do not believe there is anything in Christ’s death and resurrection meant to point to God being wrathful and bloodthirsty.  God is the one who pays this ultimate price, who takes on flesh and submits to humiliation, pain, and death to tear the gates of Hell off their hinges and offer life once and for all.

I realize that when we dive into the Gospel of John, there is a chance we can get lost very quickly in the weeds.  It is heady stuff, and calls on us to challenge and think about our faith and our theology.  That is an important part of our growth as followers of Christ.  It is easy to be lulled into the niceties of swaddled babies in mangers, or the general socialized cheap grace that is so often pedaled as Christian faith.  This is our faith, this is why we gather, otherwise, why bother getting up on a Sunday morning?  “When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, ‘What are you looking for?’”  Keep that question with you this week and be ready, because at any time, Jesus could be asking you the same.

First Sunday after the Epiphany, Year A, 2020 Baptism of Our Lord

First Sunday after the Epiphany, Year A, 2020
Baptism of Our Lord
Kevin Gore, St. Andrew’s Mountain Home

A drunk man stumbles across a baptism service on Sunday afternoon down by the river. He proceeds to walk down into the water and stand next to the preacher. The minister asks the drunk, “Mister, are you ready to find Jesus?” The drunk man says, “Yes, I am.” The minister then immerses the man under the water and pulls him right back up. The preacher asked, “Have you found Jesus?” The drunk says, “No, I didn’t!” The preacher then dunks him under for quite a bit longer, brings him up and says, “Now, brother, have you found Jesus?” The man replied, “No, I did not.” The preacher in disgust holds the man under for at least 30 seconds this time then brings him out of the water and says in a harsh tone, “My God, have you found Jesus yet?” The drunk wipes his eyes and says to the preacher… “Are you sure this is where he fell in?”

Today we celebrate and recall the Baptism of Our Lord Jesus Christ.  It comes always on the first Sunday after the Epiphany, and moves us from our celebrations and observance of Jesus’ birth into his ministry.  On this day every year we hear an account of Christ’s baptism.  This part of Jesus’ life and ministry is so important that you find it in all four of the Gospels, along with his death and resurrection.  Not even the Christmas narrative is part of all four Gospels.  But Jesus’ baptism holds such a significance that it shows up all four times.

Yet, this story contains what I think is a possibly confusing event.  Have you ever stopped to ask yourself, after hearing any of the accounts of Jesus baptism why exactly Jesus gets baptized by John?  Sometimes we get into a mode of listening and just accept what we hear.  But this is one of those times that you might say, “wait a minute, why is Jesus being baptized if he’s already sinless and God incarnate?” 

People have been coming to John the Baptist, repenting of their sins, and enter the Jordan River to be symbolically washed clean.  This action is one they would already be accustomed to, there are all sorts of ritual washings and purification rites.  It is important to remember that this is also not what we think of as Christian baptism.  It’s not meant as initiation into the body of Christ, it is not tied to the salvific acts of Christ.  It is a preparation, as John says, for the one to come.

But when that one shows up, Jesus, and wants John to baptize him in this act of cleansing, John tries very strongly to refuse.  He knows who Jesus is, and does not feel he is worthy to take this action.  John, as we know, relents and baptizes Jesus.  And again, I ask you why?  Why does Jesus seek out this moment?  We must always be working on our faith, asking questions about our scripture, digging deeper into the understanding of what we are told is important or meaningful to our faith.

Though I suppose if I were to ask you to imagine an opposite scenario, you begin to see why Jesus went through this baptism.  Imagine instead, Jesus walking up on the crowd gathered, people wading into the dark muddy waters of the river, and Jesus looks around in disgust and says, “I’m not getting my lovely white robes dirty in that muck! It’s fine for you all, but I’m the messiah!” 

Of course that is incredibly facetious, and we would never see Jesus doing something like that.  Which is precisely the point.  Jesus goes into those less than clear waters, he joins the people in the mud and the muck and gets dirty.  He is participating in the experience with all the sinners, but it’s more than just that.  This is a physical, tangible action.  God has become flesh, and is partaking of the human experience here to identify with us and to experience the fullness of a life that includes seeking forgiveness for one’s sin, but not because he is a sinner, but because he is taking on our burden.

Steven Driver writes, “Pondering the reasons for Jesus’ own baptism requires pondering what it means for the Son of God to have become a human.  In short, to understand baptism, we must understand the reality, the physicality, of being human, and what it means to say that God saved us by becoming just like us.”

The incarnation of God comes into the world to fulfill the promise that our salvation will be assured, and this moment in the Jordan River is Christ’s action of taking our place.  He stands in those waters and takes on the baptism of repentance so that we don’t have to.  That’s not what our baptism is about.  Our baptism is a reminder of our salvation, adoption into the body of Christ.  Our being washed in the waters of salvation and being sealed by the Holy Spirit is our moment for God to look upon us and say, “this is my child, my beloved in whom I am well pleased.”

In a few moments we will take the opportunity of it being the Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord to renew our own baptismal vows.  It is our opportunity to be reminded of the promises we have made in taking on this adoption as part of Christ’s body and to strengthen our commitment to following in the footsteps of the one who took on our nature and came into the world to save us.  Today as we celebrate the baptism of our Lord consider this action Jesus has taken, to be fully human, wading into the murky waters with the rest of us.  May you be renewed and refreshed knowing that the Incarnation has set us free from all sin and rejoice in the salvation that God has brought us.

Christmas Day, 2019 Sermon

Christmas Day Year A 2019
Kevin Gore, St. Andrew’s Mountain Home

In seminary, when you take your required core class on ‘The Gospels’, it’s generally titled, “The Synoptic Gospels” because they only cover Matthew, Mark, and Luke.  John is conspicuously absent, and quite frankly if you compare the prologues of those Gospels you can see why.  Last night we listened to Luke’s nativity, the one we I’m sure we can all practically recite by heart, “And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed.”  Now equally I would say that the prologue of John, traditionally recited at the end of every mass, is also quite memorable and easy to recite.  But what it doesn’t do is evoke for us the images of a cooing baby in a manger, of the shepherds and the angels and the little drummer boy.  Instead the author of the Gospel of John sets out to explain to us the cosmos, created and uncreated, the mystical origin of Christ as one of the three persons of the Trinity, the infinitude of Christ as the Word, the Logos, which has always been.  It’s really hard to make that the picture on the front of a Hallmark Christmas Card.

But John’s prologue is no less important than the other stories that begin the telling of the Good News of Jesus Christ.  In this Christmas season, when we are faced with the images of the baby Jesus, an important reminder of God as child, as baby, we must also remember that contained in that baby is the Christ, the Logos, the Word made flesh.  Though this is a child born of Judean parents, drawing it’s first breath surrounded by hay and animals and blood and sweat and tears, this is also the eternal Word, the bringer of order to chaos.  Aaron Klink writes, “The most central claim of the Christian faith, one that should scandalize us from time to time, is that God became incarnate, one of us, that we might know God’s nature and God’s love for us.”

This reading reminds us that Christ has always been; from the beginning this was the plan.  It reminds us that God always had this path set out.  God’s love and intention for humanity and for creation was always set this direction, not simply because of sin making its way into human nature.  So for us in this Christmas time, in awe of the wonder and majesty of the Word made Flesh…the Triune creator of the universe contained in this little baby, perhaps we ought to take a lesson from John the Baptist’s playbook.

The voice crying out in the wilderness is said to have come, “as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him.”  What is our job as followers of Jesus, if not to testify to the light, to the word, to Christ, so that all might believe?  That is what we do in proclaiming the Gospel, the good news.  In this time of Christmas, it seems to me there are so many ways we can point people back to that manger, to that light, to the Logos, through our words, and our actions, and even our attitudes.

One of my favorite Christmas traditions is watching at least one version of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.  Amongst my top picks I would say are the 1988 film ‘Scrooged’ as a modern retelling for its brilliance and humor, and for accuracy to Dickens’ original text I actually always hail the 1992 release of ‘The Muppet Christmas Carol’ which includes a lot of lines from the book that you don’t always hear in many of the movies.

While I was watching that particular one just the other night, the speech that Scrooges’ nephew gives him in the office about Christmas really hit me.  In response to Scrooge telling his poor nephew Fred how terrible and ridiculous and scandalous Christmas is, Fred says, “I am sure I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round—apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that—as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys. And therefore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, God bless it!”

That is exactly the sort of Christmas spirit that makes all the crazy running around, consumer culture, family stress, and general chaos pause for a minute.  It pushes it all aside and, like John the Baptist points back to the true Light of God’s love made manifest in the world.  Christmas is most certainly a time for celebration, for feasting, for spreading joy.  But it is all those things precisely because of what happened in that manger so long ago.  That God was born into this world in flesh and blood just like we are. 

So then, how do we find ways to tell people about this joy, to be like John the Baptist and point towards this source of truth and light?  Howard Thurman, a prolific theologian, author, and civil-rights leader wrote,”   

“When the song of the angels is stilled,
when the star in the sky is gone,
when the kings and princes are home,
when the shepherds are back with their flocks,
the work of Christmas begins:

to find the lost,
to heal the broken,
to feed the hungry,
to release the prisoner,
to rebuild the nations,
to bring peace among the people,
to make music in the heart.”

So as you leave this place today, with the proclamation of Christ’s birth on your lips, remember that this time especially is a time where we can point back to the Light of God’s Love made flesh in the world, and to begin the real work of Christmas.

Christmas Eve, 2019 Sermon

Christmas Eve Year A 2019
Kevin Gore, St. Andrew’s Mountain Home

Christmas has got to be my favorite time of year.  Sure, as a church nerd I’m theologically and liturgically partial to the Great Vigil of Easter, but Christmas just has such a deep resonant connection to my very core.  I think for all of us, there is something deep and meaningful about Christmas, each with our own memories and traditions. There are so many memories of family gatherings, of traditions about what shows we watched, when we decorated, and so on.  Our Gospel reading tonight immediately takes me back to being a child watching the Charlie Brown Christmas special and listening to Linus recite portions of Luke’s nativity from the King James translation. 

As you may remember, the show centers around Charlie Brown’s depression and his pursuit of curing it by putting on a nativity play.  Of course there is the usual chaos, the poor sad tree, even if it is the only real tree among the fakes, and generally Charlie’s vision is overrun with a very shiny commercialized Christmas view.  In great frustration he cries out, “Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?” and Linus steps in, “Sure Charlie Brown, I can tell you what Christmas is all about” and begins to recite from Luke the second half of our Gospel reading tonight.  When he finishes, he quietly says to Charlie Brown, “that’s what Christmas is all about.”

Just like that, through a calm, quiet, child’s voice come the lines that draw us in to that moment, not unlike God’s moment of drawing people’s attention in to that manger.  There is such wonder and surprise to be had at God’s very nature, revealed through this act of incarnation.  The unknowable creator of the universe, the God of Abraham and Moses, the God who flooded the Earth.  The God who could no doubt make known the presence and power of His Kingdom, begins his earthly journey as a baby.  A helpless baby, born out of somewhat difficult circumstances socially, in a place surrounded by animals and their feed.  The author of Luke takes great pain to articulate to us that God’s coming into this world takes place amid the normal day to day routines of work and rest, amidst the comings and goings of imperial politics, economics, and conquest.

In all of that a baby is born.  If you compare that to what happens with the shepherds, you really can see how absurdly different these two events are and how it absolutely must show God’s nature.  On one hand the shepherds are surrounded by a, “multitude of the heavenly host praising God.”  I imagine this scene, the shepherds are hanging out by a campfire, relaxing, doing whatever it is shepherds do, and first one angel shows up, probably already surrounded by a brighter light than the shepherds have ever seen.  Then, they are blinded by this bright, radiant host of heaven.  It must have been glorious and terrifying.

So then we think of the other side of that, the manger, the hay, the young woman and her husband, a baby, born into this world without any particular pomp or circumstance, born just like all of us are born.  That is how God chooses to be incarnate.  God does not appear to kings and emperors, God does not descend with deafening trumpets and blinding lights, God does not shake the earth and herald the incarnation with the glory of the Kingdom.  God is born, as a baby, in a little out of the way town and the shepherds, stinky, marginal, hard working people, are the ones that are called on by the angels to bear witness to this moment.

Former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, in his 2004 Christmas sermon begins by discussing how we tend to avoid places like engine rooms, or generally are discouraged from knowing how things are made, lest it upset us or disturb us from the shiny results we see at the end.  Sort of like when someone assures you that you don’t actually want to know how the sausage is being made.  He goes on to say that is what is most troubling about Christmas.  He writes, “And that’s where Christmas is actually a bit strange and potentially worrying. When we’re invited into the stable to see the child, it’s really being invited into the engine room. This is how God works; this is how God is. The entire system of the universe, ‘the fire in the equations’ as someone wonderfully described it, is contained in this small bundle of shivering flesh. God has given himself away so completely that we meet him here in poverty and weakness, with no trumpeting splendour, no clouds of glory. This is how he is: he acts by giving away all we might expect to find in him of strength and success as we understand them. The universe lives by a love that refuses to bully us or force us, the love of the cradle and the cross.”

So tonight, in the darkness, we kindle light, we celebrate this miracle of God among us.  We must sit with wonder at the way God chooses to reveal the nature of the Kingdom through this act of incarnation.  This baby will grow, will suffer, will offer an ultimate sacrifice of love; that is what starts tonight.  God’s promise to the world fulfilled.  God’s love made known, right there in the flesh.  Let us rejoice.  Let us ring bells, let us shout from the roof tops that Jesus Christ is Born.  “That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.”

December 22, 2019

Advent 4 Year A 2019
Kevin Gore, St. Andrew’s Mountain Home
We have arrived at the fourth and last Sunday in Advent. The schools have let out for Winter break, kids are home, families are traveling, presents are wrapped or if not being stressed about, frenzied shopping continues, all in pursuit of that perfect Christmas. We are just days away, but we are not there yet. All too often at this point in the year we have pushed our budgets too far, our stress levels too far, and as you can hear in my voice today, our immune systems too far. We are sold an image of a perfect holiday, a hallmark Christmas in all the fun and wonderful movies we watch this time of year, and we come to expect a certain level of output from others in pursuit of this ideal experience. But our Gospel reading today offers us yet another perspective to consider in all of this. All too often one operates under the assumption that there is one correct way to do Christmas, and any deviation from that will ruin the whole experience. When we think about that first Christmas, when we think of all the joy of Mary and Elizabeth, of the glory of God in this miracle of incarnation, it is also important to remember someone else who’s experience was less than glorious, but who responded with peace all the same.
There was nothing perfect or conventional for what we are told is Joseph’s experience leading up to Jesus’ birth. In fact, here we have a man who has found out that his bride-to-be, with whom he has not yet been intimate, is pregnant. Imagine first, just how devastating that would have been to him. And then realize, that of all the options offered to him, of all the ways in which he could seek justice, he decides on the most quiet, kindest approach he can. In the twenty-second chapter of the book of Deuteronomy, one of the many places where the traditions and laws of the Hebrew people are laid out, it says quite clearly that if a man marries a woman who claims to be a virgin, and then finds she is not, he can have her brought to the entrance of her father’s house and the men of the village stone her to death. So when you hear of Joseph, as Matthew puts it, “being a righteous man and unwilling to expose Mary to public disgrace”, understand that he is choosing not to invoke drastic measures or seek the sort of public vengeance that will keep his own dignity intact. And that’s before God even steps in.
I think it’s fair to say that the faithful thing to do, the faithful way to be in some circumstances is neither the way that social convention tells us it should be or usually the way that feels best in the moment when we feel we are the injured party. The whole situation surrounding Jesus’ birth defies social convention, and yet God has chosen this moment, this place, and these people to bear witness to the long awaited messiah. Before Joseph knows anything other than Mary is pregnant, he has already decides that he will be gentle and caring in this moment of hurt and disappointment, but then God’s intervention takes him even further down a road that defies societal expectation of the time.
An angel appears to Joseph in a dream. Now I think that already we need to give Joseph extra points for the fact that this all happens in a dream. Joseph doesn’t get the benefit of a conscious experience, with a burning bush or parting clouds or booming voices from mountain tops. It’s all communicated in a dream. Joseph could have woken up and thought, gosh, that fish I had for dinner must have been off. But he didn’t. Joseph took what was told to him in that dream by the Angel of the Lord and faithfully set to what God was telling him to do.
The promise that is given to God’s people throughout the ages from the prophets, the promise even given to Joseph in this dream is so incredibly huge. This little baby that will be born will shoulder the salvation of all humanity. That is why, through those promises we find in the readings we come to the word Peace for this final Sunday of Advent. It is the Peace of God’s salvation, the peace of God’s incarnation in the world that we look towards in this time of waiting for the messiah to be born, and the perfect peace of God’s kingdom to come in our second Advent as we await Christ’s return.
Peace is, of course, as I alluded to before, something I think we all have in short supply this time of year. I also suspect that if I was foolhardy enough to stand up here and tell you just to go and find more, the most charitable thing you could do is politely roll your eyes. But instead where we find ourselves most of the time during the holidays is trying to meet those expectations I mentioned, trying to create a perfect peace that we hold in our minds and we can sometimes catch glimpses of. Amidst all of the stress and extra work, if we don’t find peace, or love, or joy, or hope, then it makes Christmas a little harder.
As followers of Christ, our hope is in that baby, about to be born to a world that is aching for peace. We are just a few short days away from the day we celebrate Christ’s birth in the midst of waiting for his return. So as we brace ourselves for what comes next, whether it is overwhelming amounts of activities, or perhaps frustrating lack thereof, take the peace that God is offering us as a light of hope to your weariness. Take the peace that Joseph had, to step into a hard situation and be willing to love even though it completely went against what society was telling him to do. Remember that our expectations of perfect holidays are often not where we are going to find our greatest joy. Coming into our Christmas season, take with you the four words that accompany the four weeks of Advent: Hope, Love, Joy, and Peace. In that you will find everything you need to know to prepare yourself of Christ’s return

Sunday, December 8, 2019

Advent 2 Year A 2019
Kevin Gore, St. Andrew’s Mountain Home

Since my arrival here at St. Andrew’s I have sought ways for the church to be more involved in the community, more visible, more connected to the life of this area.  One of the ways to do that which has been in the back of my mind is being more involved with celebrations.  For example, having a table at the county fair like the other churches do, and having a presence in the parades, such as the Red, White, & Blue festival, the fair parade, and of course the Christmas parade.  I will admit though that I’ve always been upfront that I’m not going to be the creative genius behind designing any floats.  That isn’t something they covered in seminary, nor is it my forte.  But with that in mind, on Friday evening I attended the Christmas Parade, to see what sort of ideas people had come up with and to see how the community experiences that.

Perhaps it’s because all week I have been thinking about our readings for today, perhaps because most of the Episcopal community across Facebook is posting about Advent, perhaps it’s because keeping Advent amidst the cultural consumption of Christmas already but not yet feels more difficult every year; but as I watched the parade full of nativity sets and Santa’s workshops, and the exhausting imagined need for “Keep Christ in Christmas” slogans the only thing I could think that would fit best in that parade would be a banner stating:  “Happy Advent, you brood of vipers.”  I suspect however, that would go over about as well as any of the messages from God’s prophets ever did, including of course John the Baptist.

We are, I think, conditioned to miss the outrage and scandal of so many of our biblical readings.  Even growing up in an Evangelical Tradition didn’t seem to offer me a perspective on how radical and downright offensive many of the words we hear in today’s readings would have been to the people that were the first to hear them.  Isaiah speaks about the, ‘stump of Jesse’.  Jesse was the father of King David, who in turn was the father of King Solomon.  The tree of Jesse is the Davidic line of Kings, some of the most glorious in the history of Israel and Judah.  So when Isaiah talks about a, ‘stump of Jesse’, he is calling out the fact that the line of kings is no longer proud, or glorious, or even worthy.  It would of course be a huge insult to anyone who kept the history of that monarchy dear to their hearts.

But those words from God’s prophet rang true at the time.  The two kingdoms united as one was no more, the line fractured and the people scattered.  So Isaiah is given these words to speak about the messiah to come, a little shoot springing out of the stump.  Something small, fragile, something you might miss if you weren’t paying attention.  From the ruins of a once great line, a dynasty that is now nothing more than a shadow, a baby will be born.

Prophets are pretty much always met with disdain.  Isaiah was, and finally God’s last prophet before the incarnation, John the Baptist was too.  John doesn’t care what Herod or his wife thinks of him personally, or what anyone thinks of the message that God has given him to cry out.  I’m going to go out on a limb and say he doesn’t seem to care what people think about how he dresses, about his (even for that time) rather eccentric lifestyle.  And even though those in positions of power are constantly trying to silence him, clearly something about this man draws people in.  People are going out into the wilds, not necessarily on safe journeys, just to find this prophet, to hear what he has to say, to be baptized for repentance.  John is heralding the approach of the Messiah, helping people prepare and come to grips with the sin in their lives, to understand that the Messiah was coming, and that there is a judgment by God for their actions.

Which brings me back again to where we find ourselves right now.  Every direction we turn we see Christmas.  Rose-y cheeked elves, candy canes, and nativity scenes, everything that makes us feel warm and happy about the upcoming holidays.  Except then you go to church and hear about John the Baptist.  If there is one thing we aren’t interested in right now, in our Advent-esque Christmas jubilations, it’s a reminder and call to us about the judgment of God that comes down through the ages.  When we hear John the Baptist call out, “You brood of vipers” I think it is our best effort that goes into hearing that admonition only for the Pharisees and Sadducees, and to try and let it slide right off our own hearts.  We just aren’t interested in applying that judgment to ourselves.  The world brings enough of that to bear on us every day as it is.

But even when John cries out to the Pharisees and Sadducees, even as he calls them a brood of vipers and admonishes them for resting on their laurels as the elite of the Temple, there is still a flicker of hope in those words.  It isn’t that God doesn’t bring judgment; I think our scripture makes that fairly clear.  It’s that God cares about us enough to walk among us, to be with us in flesh, and ultimately to take on that judgment alone so that we have no need to bear it. That is the hope that the prophets are always trying to bring to the people, to tell them that God’s love is limitless and if they trust and obey all will be well.  That’s why every second Sunday of Advent our theme and our readings are focused on what the prophets have told us.  We kindle a second light in the gloom and darkness, a light that brings us ever closer to Christ’s return.

Advent is a time of repentance.  That’s not such a bad thing.  Yes it can seem a harsh juxtaposition to the twinkling lights of the Christmas tree and the little dancing Santa Claus whose batteries keep mysteriously disappearing.  But in reality it is a call from God who loves us so much that the most important thing is to reconcile our lives again and again to the ways in which Christ shows us to live.  Just as John didn’t exactly know when the Messiah was going to show up, it is the same today that we cannot know when Christ will come again.  Our work in the mean time is to repent, which does not mean that we lead joyless lives full of guilt and pain, but rather means to continually seek a restoration of relationship with God. 

So yes, Advent is a time that calls the Church to prepare.  A time for us, all of us who at times certainly do live into that eloquent title, “brood of vipers” to reflect on the time we have to prepare for Christ’s imminent return to fulfill God’s promises to us.  John the Baptist doesn’t just stop at shouting the word, “Repent!” but follows with, “for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”  Every second of our lives draws us closer to God’s kingdom.  It is our task to make those seconds count, to live faithfully, and to continually turn again to God’s love and promise as we ourselves proclaim, perhaps even as disdained prophets, to a world that needs reminding again and again that there is hope of Christ’s second Advent.

Sunday, December 01, 2019

Advent 1 Year A 2019
Kevin Gore, St. Andrew’s Mountain Home

We are now passed Thanksgiving, which means in the eyes of modern American culture, it is now socially acceptable to begin the deluge of Christmas decorating, 24 hour holiday music radio, novelty sweaters, lights, and even inflatable lawn decorations.  I’m not disparaging any of that, though I personally like to keep Advent a little more separate from Christmas.  I also think it’s important to recognize that while we are rushing into the holiday season, as we gather here this morning, our readings might be a little jarring, especially for folks who are coming back to church as we near the holidays.  One could be expecting baby Jesus in a manager and here we are talking about the end of the world.

But there is a reason we begin Advent with readings that echo those we heard just two weeks ago from the Gospel of Luke that have such apocalyptic imagery.  And no, it’s not because of Black Friday’s annual sale fights.  We start Advent at the darkest but most hopeful point in the narrative of God’s people.  It reflects to us both a time before Christ’s birth, when the world was praying for the messiah to come, and now, after Christ’s ascension when the world is watching and waiting for his return. 

In Advent tradition each of the four Sundays are ascribed a word that sums up the theme of the readings.  This first week is ‘Hope’.  Hope is part of the Christian narrative and underpins our living in this in-between time waiting the return of our King of Kings.  The Gospel reading today talks about living in a time where we do not and cannot know when that return is.  It could be today, tomorrow, or another two thousand years from now.  No matter how many people write books about their own secret formulas for calculating the end of the world, Jesus makes it very clear that we don’t get to be privy to that information.

So how then are we supposed to exist in this middle space?  Jesus says, ‘keep awake’ and be ready for that unexpected hour.  We are given this world, and told that just like in the time of Noah we could be swept away at any time.  But St. Paul also reminds us that this doesn’t mean we spend it all sitting on our hands and waiting for the end.  Being reminded of Noah is to tell the listener that people got on with their business, even though God’s judgment was out there, on the cusp of overflowing onto their reality.  It’s about getting on with life and living out the commands of Christ while awaiting his return.

That’s the point of hope.  Advent is for expectant waiting, hopeful anticipation and we use the nativity of Christ as a backdrop to teach and understand how that feels as we apply it to the Kingdom to come.  We are reminded that either ignoring the end to come or constantly worrying about it will lead us astray from Christ’s path.  David Bartlett writes, “Those Christians who are agnostic about the last things are tempted to fall into a state of perpetual apathy.  Those Christians who are focused on last things are tempted to fall into a state of perpetual anxiety.  Our passage encourages faith rather than apathy and hope rather than anxiety.”

I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t like being caught off guard, but I also know that it is an important part of life.  We don’t get to plan out every moment, and frankly if we did I’m pretty sure we’d mess it up over and over again.  Often the best moments, connections, joys come out of the places we are least expecting or not watching.  What if, instead of worrying about being caught off guard, or worse, simply not caring anymore that Christ’s return is imminent, we look at our lives and take stock of ourselves.  What is it that we fear most about an uncertain future?  What drives us to apathy instead?  Are we living out the life that our Saviour, the one who’s name we call ourselves by, commanded us to live? 

That isn’t just an Advent admonition either.  This is a part of living out our discipleship all year round.  We follow the path of the messiah who preached of forgiveness, of love, of reconciliation, and all of that takes a whole lot of heart.  We cannot be dulled to the compassion and love that are required of us because we spend all our time overwhelmed with the stresses of life.  On the other side of the coin, we also cannot spend all our time immersed in pleasure and escape.  Neither of these routes offers us a way that makes room for the heart to be present, aware, and ready to behold a vision of the Kingdom of God. 

The season of Advent is one of preparing for the arrival of Christ again.  It’s a time to take stock, to make ready our souls for God’s final judgment to arrive, and to keep the flame of hope kindled in our hearts.  We stand in the midst of the final stretch of God’s narrative.  A time between Christ’s incarnation and his return.  Author John Burgess says, “To live between the times is, above all, to trust and hope that God has begun, and will continue, to transform us more and more into the stature of Christ, in whom all of God’s mercy and loving-kindness becomes manifest.  Advent calls us into a continuing history of relationship with Christ who meets us whichever way we turn, whether toward the past, present, or the future.”

So, among all the hustle and bustle that will accompany the next 24 days, through the din of constant repeats of Christmas music, watching and rewatching all your favorite Christmas movies like It’s a Wonderful Life and Die Hard, the shopping and wrapping and decorating and baking, remember also that this is supposed to be a time of waiting.  Advent is a time for us to build up the anticipation of Christ’s incarnation, to spend time in prayer, to seek patience with everyone who gets so wound up about the holidays.  We’ll have time to celebrate Christmas when it comes, I promise.  For now, let’s begin our journey to the manger with the word for the first Sunday of Advent: Hope.

Sunday, November 24, 2019

Proper 29 Year C 2019 – Reign of Christ the King
Kevin Gore, St. Andrew’s Mountain Home

Today marks the last Sunday of the Church Year.  We observe our annual calendar through the narrative of Christ’s birth, death, and resurrection, and we hear today from the Gospel of Luke the end of Jesus’ earthly life, the violent and brutal end that he endures.  There are perhaps more triumphal passages from the Gospel that we might wish we were hearing, more powerful moments from Jesus’ narrative that make us feel like the king we follow is more like what the people of Israel also expected out of a messiah.  But today’s reading shows us quite purposefully the nature of Christ and the Kingdom to which we belong and owe sole allegiance.

As far as regular feasts of the worldwide Christian church go, this observance is the most recent addition.  It was originally added to the calendar in 1925 by Pope Pius XI.  He did so to respond to a troubling increase of both secularism and nationalism in the world following the First World War.  It was meant to be a reminder to Christians that Jesus Christ is the King of all.  Pope Pius XI wrote to his bishops, “If to Christ our Lord is given all power in heaven and on earth; if all men, purchased by his precious blood, are by a new right subjected to his dominion; if this power embraces all men, it must be clear that not one of our faculties is exempt from his empire. He must reign in our minds, which should assent with perfect submission and firm belief to revealed truths and to the doctrines of Christ. He must reign in our wills, which should obey the laws and precepts of God. He must reign in our hearts, which should spurn natural desires and love God above all things, and cleave to him alone. He must reign in our bodies and in our (limbs), which should serve as instruments for the interior sanctification of our souls, or to use the words of the Apostle Paul, as instruments of justice unto God.”

As we listen to the Gospel reading, we hear a story of a man arrested by the government, beaten, tortured, and ultimately put to death.  It is part of the story of a teacher who spoke of a Kingdom of God greater than any earthly kingdom.  A teacher who refused to acknowledge the powers and principalities of the Earth, and ultimately who took the sword from Peter’s hand when they came to arrest him in the garden.  This King of ours, this God made human, is mocked by those suffering a similar fate, “Are you not the Messiah?  Safe yourself and us”.  Previously in Luke’s Gospel even Satan offers Jesus all the Kingdoms of the world, if Jesus worships him in return.  But Christ refuses.  He stands by his teaching and the salvation narrative he knows must play out.  For us we are left to reconcile a world that tells us ‘might makes right’ and a God who says nothing is greater than the command to love.  We must wade through nearly two thousand years of the Church finding and losing its ways over and over again in our world.

In Dostoevsky’s final novel, The Brothers Karamazov, a poem is recited by one of the characters, Ivan, to his brother Alexei, a novice monk.  The poem is entitled, “The Grand Inquisitor”.  It details the return of Christ, who returns to Earth in Seville, Spain during the Inquisition.  Jesus begins to perform miracles, and people recognize him and begin adoring him at the Cathedral in Seville.  He is quickly arrested by the Church inquisitors and scheduled to be burned at the stake the next day.  The Grand Inquisitor visits Jesus in his cell and tells him that the Church no longer needs Christ.  He argues that Christ was wrong to turn down the three temptations in the desert in exchange for freedom. 

The Grand Inquisitor explains that Jesus has misjudged humanity; that they do not want and cannot handle the freedom which God’s kingdom brings them.  Instead, the inquisitor says that the church has the wise and dread spirit of death and destruction to direct the people, and they are happier for it.  Finally the inquisitor tells Jesus that he should have turned stones into bread, as humanity will always follow those who will feed them. Casting himself down from the temple to be caught by angels would assure his godhood in the minds of people, who would follow him forever, and that ruling over all the kingdoms of the Earth at the cost of worshiping Satan would ensure their salvation.  Throughout all of this, Jesus has been silent.  Instead of answering the inquisitor, he kisses him.  With that the inquisitor releases Jesus and tells him to never return.

While this story was written more than one hundred thirty years ago, it rings no less true for us today.  Would we actually be able to welcome Christ back into this world and let go of all the things that are not of God’s Kingdom?  Thankfully I don’t believe our salvation hinges on that, nor do I believe that when Christ returns we will have much choice.  At the end of all things, we will be caught up into the Kingdom of God and the full glory and understanding of Christ’s message will be emblazoned on our hearts for eternity.

But we are clearly not there yet.  We have work to do in the mean time.  The faith that we proclaim, the title we use as Christians, the lives we live should reflect the Gospel of Christ and his example to the world.  Of course we are not greater today than back in 1925 or the 1880s, during the age of Christian Imperialism or the Crusades.  We certainly are not greater than the apostles themselves.  Those people learned at the feet of Christ.  They watched him live out his teaching of God’s love and forgiveness.  They watched their messiah die and resurrect.  And they also faced a lot of complicated and confusing times in the early Church after Jesus ascended.  Even they found it hard to hold to Christ’s commands.  While it’s true that humanity has struggled and continues to struggle to live up to the teachings that God brought to us through the incarnation, we must always continue to improve ourselves as much as we can in the pursuit of God’s kingdom alone.

Today we celebrate the Reign of Christ the King.  This king to whom we offer every bit of our devotion did not rule over the land in the way we think of kings.  Our king did not command armies to destroy his enemies.  Our king taught love, taught God’s grace, sought to show us what the only kingdom we belong to actually looks like through humility and service.  Next Sunday will herald the beginning of Advent, a time where we begin examining our hearts to prepare for that king to come again.  But just for now, I invite you to reflect on how your life shows forth your citizenship in God’s kingdom.  Southern Baptist Pastor Steve Bezner writes, “Sometimes I joke about what I’d do if I had one day left to live.  Eat junk, go crazy.  Today it hit me:  Jesus knew.  And he washed feet.”  Would we, if faced with Jesus among us today welcome the return of our king, or like the inquisitor, tell him there is no place for his foolishness in this earthly realm of ours.

Sunday, November 17, 2019

Proper 28 Year C 2019

Kevin Gore, St. Andrew’s Mountain Home

All of the readings this week center around one big theme.  In Theological terms, we would call it eschatology.  As I have mentioned before, eschatology is the study of the end times, or the eschaton.  This is a place we both currently exist in and have not yet fully arrived at.  Before we look at our scripture for this morning, I want to say something that might make you think you’re sitting in a freewill baptist church.  We are experiencing the end times.  


Now, lest you think that I am referring to the heretical nonsense that is the Left Behind series, or to the blasphemy of a charlatan like Jim Bakker selling food supplies for the end times, let me assure you all of that is ridiculous and incorrect.  Unfortunately, the Christian faith has been so hijacked and diluted by common society, and used for gain by those that would worship themselves over God, that so many have lost sight of God’s true message.  The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ was the start of the end.  It was the opening number of the final act, but the frustrating thing for us is we don’t get to know how long that act is.

As we turn to Luke’s Gospel, we can see the themes that have come up the past couple of weeks continue to get more focused on the eschaton, the end.  Jesus talks even more about the Kingdom of God and about God’s vision for our lives.  We are now, in chapter twenty-one, at the very last moments before Luke takes us into Jesus’ last hours.  So of course this last discourse is Jesus preparing his disciples for what comes next.

Here is where the study of scripture becomes complicated.  This Gospel was written quite some time after Jesus’ ascension, and after the real destruction of Herod’s magnificent temple.  The Book of Acts picks up from the end of Luke and is meant as a continuation of the story following the events after Jesus’ departure and the disciples work in his absence.  When we look at the things Jesus tells the disciples about what comes next, it’s important for us to remember the words of that popular Carly Simon song from the 1970s, “You’re so vain, you probably think this song is about you.”

Far too often people take what Jesus says and apply his words in anachronistic ways to the world around us.  It’s sort of like finding a face in the patterns of a textured ceiling.  If you stare hard enough, you’ll find something.  

Jesus sees how adoring the disciples are of Herod’s temple.  It’s not unreasonable.  The place was, by every historical account, the shining jewel of Herod’s work.  He had rebuilt the temple and done so with more opulence, more grandeur than anything previous.  He spared no expense.  You can still touch parts of one of the outer walls of the temple complex in Jerusalem today, proving how long lasting and grand the work was.  Jesus sees how idolized the temple can be.  It is not unlike the golden calf that Moses finds the Hebrew people worshipping over God when he comes down the mountain.  

Everything Jesus has been teaching the disciples points to the fact that these golden calves are of no consequence, and everything God has in store for humanity is far greater.  That is why Jesus tells them that the temple will be destroyed: so they understand that even the most beautiful things the people want to idolize over God will not survive the passage of time, or the evil and hunger for power that always lurks in the hearts of people.  To the earliest readers of this Gospel it would also be a sign of Jesus’ authority.  He said it would happen and it did!

Jesus tells the disciples that many will come after him, claiming to be Jesus come again.  Jesus is not necessarily talking about the Jim Bakker’s and Pat Robertson’s who twist and defile God’s message.  The focus is more for the disciples right then and there that as soon as Jesus leaves there are going to be people trying to lead them astray.  This is far more for the disciples, as you can see in the Book of Acts, than it is directly to us.  That’s not to say there aren’t plenty of people trying to corrupt God’s message, but this is a far more important teaching to the disciples.  

The same is said for the last part of the Gospel today, where Jesus talks about persecution, arrest, and death.  I assure you he is not talking about false, ludicrous narratives like the modern and popular ‘war on Christmas’ or comical indignation about what color the Starbucks cups are.  Jesus is talking to the disciples about their arrest, their real persecution by the Roman government, and their ultimate deaths, some of which are incredibly painful and gruesome.  Jesus is not talking to us now, unless you consider the mass secularization of Christianity, the monumental denial of Christ’s message that one sees played out in the theater of modern American so called ‘Christianity’, or perhaps the justification of violence and oppression by Christians to others that has existed since Constantine co-opted the Christian faith for the Roman Empire.  The persecution Jesus speaks of can be read about in the Book of Acts, and is a call to the disciples to prepare themselves for the cost of proclaiming the Good News of God’s Messiah.

Jesus also tells them not to worry, not to be afraid when they hear of the wars that will inevitably come.  The nations killing each other, warring over and over again.  The violent acts of nature that will destroy villages, ruin crops, the things that happened then and happen now.  We know that earthquakes happen, they have happened, they will happen.  The biggest ones could hit again any day.  And much like Paul has to remind the Church in Thessalonica as we see in the Epistle reading, just because the end can come at any moment does not mean we get to sit on our hands and wait.  We don’t get to use up the world’s resources, pollute and destroy the planet, and not worry because Jesus might be back any day.  We don’t get to sit idly by and watch our Christian faith become a club that has less to do with the deep mysteries of God and more to do with the in crowd and the out crowd.  There is always work to be done, and as Jesus tells the disciples, you keep stepping up to the plate to do it even in the face of the darkest of days.

German Theologian and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “Christianity preaches the infinite worth of that which is seemingly worthless and the infinite worthlessness of that which is seemingly so valued.”  This was true in Christ’s time with things like Herod’s temple, and it is still true today as we continue to fail at living out the kind of life of love that Christ’s teaching turns us toward.  It is a reminder that those seemingly valued things that we cling to have to be let go of if they no longer reflect the glory of God and the Good News of the Kingdom at hand.  If our faith is to mean anything to us, to hold any value for the world, then how can we honestly as Christians worship at the feet of false idols pretending it doesn’t cheapen our faith. 

Living in the end times is hard.  God’s incarnation no longer physically walks among us.  We have to rely on scripture and the Holy Spirit to guide us.  We often feel like there is no solid ground beneath us if we cling solely to how our faith actually tells us to live.  Sometimes it isn’t easy.  Sometimes holding to Christ’s Gospel with integrity may not feel very fun.  But clearly Jesus knows that what he is asking of the disciples will carry a weighty price.  How less complicated it is for us, having nearly two thousand years of foundation to our faith, having comfortable lives where the greatest threat to our faith is our own apathy, to step out and follow in the way Christ commands.