Archive for December, 2021

“When Joy comes before hardship,” (Sermon, Advent 3 2021)

John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 9Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
10 And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” 11In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” 12Even tax-collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” 13He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” 14Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”
15 As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, 16John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17His winnowing-fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing-floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
18 So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.

Luke 3:7-18

Oh Gaudete Sunday, that Sunday of the pink candle and stirring reading from Zephaniah, “Sing aloud, O daughter Zion!” Joy is the word of the day, joy and sweetness and delight in the midst of pre-Christmas chaos.

And then we get to that Gospel.

“You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”

John the Baptizer? More like John the buzzkill!

We spent some time with John last week, when we talked about how he calls us to seek balance. Surely this week’s passage is just underlining that lesson. The instructions he gives here are not radical acts. Share, and if you have privilege, make use of it for the benefit of others. The end. Phew!

Hey let’s spend some time with Zephaniah, who often goes unheard except during this one week of Advent, maybe the Easter Vigil. He seems to be having a good time!

The Jewish Study Bible I consulted contained an outline of the structure of the book. Let’s take a look at it.

  1. Announcement of doom


  1. Description of doom


  1. The last chance to repent


  1. Against the nations and their gods


  1. Against the overbearing city


  1. Joy to Jerusalem


The lectionary, which gives us the schedule of readings, often slices out a huge chunk of a passage in the middle, or leaves out a piece that totally changes the message of the portion that does get read.

I guess in this case I don’t really blame them. We’re supposed to be talking about joy. And at least Zephaniah gets all the bad news out of the way first, unlike John! John is baptizing everyone who comes to him, but then calls them all vipers and says that the one who comes after him will baptize them with fire! Is this good news or not?

Is joy really good news if it only comes before tribulation? It’s like sitting through one of those evangelical sales pitches. The only reward for listening to that hard sell is, “Hey, you might go to heaven!”

“If a remnant of Israel remains after the wrath to come, they’ll be doing real great!”

What kind of good news is that? 

When someone says, “I got good news and bad news,” you want the bad news first, right? Why would we want joy first and then warnings of the wrath and fire to come? How is the arrival of that Messiah good news?

Where else does joy come first and then hardship? Well, it happens a lot in life, I’m sure you know that. But why would we welcome it? When is that a good experience?

Birth comes to mind.

Advent 3 is often a day where we celebrate Mary, the Mother of our Lord, rather than giving two whole Sundays to John. We recite her Magnificat, the song she sings to her cousin Elizabeth, John’s mother, who gave birth to him well past the age of bearing children…in some ways almost a greater miracle than Mary’s mystical dance with the Holy Spirit.

As I think about the uneasy dance between joy and hardship, I’m also reminded of Seemi Ghazi, one of my dosts, which is sort of like the Sufi word for soul-friend. Seemi is an interfaith scholar, professor of classical Arabic, and an incredible poet. I first got to know that when she presented a gorgeous reflection on the birth of her daughter Aliya to a group of us clergy several years ago, a reflection plump and juicy with Islamic mysticism and theology, which is shared in full on the Contemplative Society website.

Seemi, who had already suffered two pregnancy losses by the time she became pregnant with Aliya, detailed the trials of her pregnancy, including a weeks-long bout of insomnia. She writes,

In the midst of this condition, I attended a celebration of the birth of the thirteenth-century poet and mystic Mawlana Jalaluddin Rumi. There I asked Sherif Baba (a Turkish Rifa’i teacher whom we both follow) whether he could suggest a prayer or divine name to alleviate my condition. He laughed, “Don’t ask for sleep! The holy ones love the night. Perhaps the one within you is awakened. Bear with her. No frustration. Lie in bed peacefully and reflect upon whichever divine names and verses come into your heart.

This is standard Sufi wisdom. Rumi himself adjures, “If you want everlasting glory, don’t go back to sleep!” As painful and horrendous and unjust as hardship is, it is a side effect of being incarnate, being in the world, being present to love as well as pain. You can’t have one without the other! Don’t go back to sleep!

Seemi goes on to say that during one particularly mystical experience at a prayer service held by night before a beach bonfire, Mother Mary came to her side. In the Qur’an, Mary is mentored spiritually by Zechariah, John’s father, before John is born. Seemi writes,

Zakariyya offered Maryam a sanctuary and trusted her cultivation of her inner world. The physical sanctuary was Maryam’s prayer-niche (mihrab in Arabic) located within the Jerusalem Temple, but the literal signification of the Arabic term mihrab is “a place of struggle or battle.” Though we revere Maryam for her serenity, she engaged in a profound inward struggle without which her mihrab, as a site of inward battle, could not have become her mihrab as a site of sanctity and retreat. Through struggle Maryam became her own mihrab, “Maryam Full of Grace.”

Indeed, Muslims also believe that Maryam’s beautiful presence of prayer is what inspires Zechariah to return to the Temple to pray for a child.

Seemi continues,

Lying awake in my bedroom sanctuary, I began to meditate on silence and night. I knew that when Zakariyya had received word of the birth of Yahya (John) the angel Gabriel granted him a sign: that he should not speak to any human being for three layali, three nights, except in signs[.] In quiet solitude, I began to imagine nights that I called Layali Maryam, nights that Maryam had devoted to prayer, meditation, and fasting. I entered each Layla, each single Night: Layla of Mystery, Layla of Union, Moon Layla, Layla of Seventy Unveilings, Layla of Shining Constellations, and strangest of all, the Layla/Night when the Ruh, the Divine spirit, breathed into Maryam the baby Isa (Jesus), a child conceived like the first human being, Adam, of sheer Divine desire.

Here, on a day of joy flanked by hardship, all of us are being called to our own mihrab, our own sanctuary, both to give thanks and to ask for help in the birthing of something within. It doesn’t matter who you are or how your body has handled birthing; all of us are capable of bringing something amazing to birth. If not a child, then something else just as beautiful.

Compassion. Kindness. Hope. Vulnerability. A new way of looking at the world.

All of these things are needed to bring what Luke called the Kingdom of God to fruition on earth.

Perhaps, then, Zephaniah and John, in their complicated dancing between joy and hardship, are teaching us pre-natal care. Those who birth multiple children often know that the first one sends the new parents on a roller-coaster of anxiety, while those that follow tend not to be as frightening. It’s not just that a person gets used to it; it’s that we realize that even the smallest humans are more resilient than we think.

And so are you.

As we come ever closer to the solstice and the mystery of Christmas; truly the greatest night of joy and struggle until Holy Saturday, let’s lean into all of the feelings that rise up in us: anticipation, anxiety, annoyance, awe. They are gifts and messages and teachers.

This season is chaotic and full of worry, but your heart knows what to do, no matter who you are or what you have borne or failed to bear in the past.

May these very long winter nights, these Layali Maryam, provide additional succor in their length. We have time, beloved; time to pray, time to get to know whatever beautiful being has been breathed into you and is yearning to be born.

“Balance promotes peace,” (Sermon, Advent 2 2021)

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, 2during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. 3He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, 4as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah,
‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
“Prepare the way of the Lord,
   make his paths straight.
5 Every valley shall be filled,
   and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
   and the rough ways made smooth;
6 and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” ’

Luke 3:1-6

In January of 2017 I was privileged to travel to the Holy Land to take a course at St. George’s College in Jerusalem. We traveled to many places, including several that most tourists would not be allowed to go, like Nablus and Hebron.

One morning, we piled into our tour bus, ostensibly to visit the Jordan river to renew our baptismal vows, but first we were going to a place called the Wadi Qelt, a valley in the West Bank containing a long stream that flows all the way from Jerusalem to the Dead Sea. It plays host to a variety of rare birds as well as home to several monasteries nestled into the limestone rock of the Judean mountains surrounding it.

We got off the bus and were greeted by Bedouin boys selling Chinese-made keffiyeh and jewelry. Our guide ushered us up to the top of a hill, where a tall wooden cross greeted us.

Staring out at the valley, this child of the wet coast would never have imagined that such an area could contain so much life. It was brown, barren, and deathly still, a significant departure from the crowded and sumptuous grandeur of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre or the intricate and colourful mosaics and stained glass of Al-Aqsa mosque. We spent some time in silence, pondering the beauty of the landscape, understanding completely why Jesus would have come here for his 40-day period of solitude and reflection. There was nothing to distract. Only the wind, caressing your face and picking up your hair. Only the mountains, holding you like cupped hands raised into the sky.

Image description: An overcast, grey sky overlooks several brown and rocky hills in the Wadi Qelt, West Bank

It is to places like this, says the writer of Luke, that the word of God comes. Not to the bustling streets of the Old City. Not to the glamorous seaside resort town of Caesarea Maritima, where the governors had their estates. Not even to the pillars and palaces of Rome. And certainly not to emperors, governors, or politicians with silver tongues and shining swords.

No, to the wilderness, and one wild-eyed lover with a couple of locust legs caught in his beard.

To a quiet place where life happens with few witnesses, and where the impatient and unskilled see no life at all.

The Rev. Debie Thomas, minister at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Palo Alto, California writes,

“In Luke’s account, emperors, governors, rulers — the folks who wield power â€” don’t hear God, but the outsider from the wilderness does.  What is it about power that deafens us to the Word? Maybe Tiberius, Pilate, and Herod can’t receive a fresh revelation from God because they presume to hear and speak for God already. After all, they’re in power. Doesn’t that mean that they embody God’s will automatically? If not, well, who cares? They already have pomp, money, military might, and the weight of religious tradition at their disposal. They don’t need God.

But in the wilderness? In the wilderness, there’s no safety net. No Plan B. No savings account or National Guard. In the wilderness, life is raw and risky, and our illusions of self-sufficiency fall apart fast. To locate ourselves at the outskirts of power is to confess our vulnerability in the starkest terms. In the wilderness, we have no choice but to wait and watch as if our lives depend on God showing up. Because they do. And it’s into such an environment â€” an environment so far removed from power as to make power laughable â€” that the word of God comes.”

Standing on the hills overlooking the valleys and gorges, I was struck by how vulnerable I would have been if I was alone – if the friends I’d made who stood next to me wandered off into the distance, our bus drove away, and the Bedouin boys packed up their wares and trundled back to their camps, squalid places they were forced to inhabit by the state – sound familiar? Where I stood, there was no visible water source, just a few scraggly scraps of prickly vegetation. There were a few habitations visible from the top of the hill, but it would have taken a long time to get there. My phone had no signal. I don’t think I even had a bottle of water on me.

I’m not by any means an outdoorsy person, but if I were stuck in a Pacific Northwest forest I could at least make a lean-to, gathering cedar branches and old leaves to line the walls and stuff the cracks to keep me warm. I know a few local plants that are edible. I know how to orient myself – mountains north, ocean west.

Here? No trees. No branches. No water. The sun was hidden behind thick cloud cover that day so I couldn’t even orient myself that way. If it had been a clear day, I suppose I could have figured out which way was west…but what would that matter as it would surely only be an hour or two before I was lying on the ground in a dead faint from thirst?

Here, the land enforces humility. And indeed, the earth is beginning to enforce humility, as we are battered by winds and rain and fire. We are being called, prophetically, to learn our place in the order of things. Some knew it already, and will find vindication even as the powerful seek to silence and crush them, just as it attempted to silence John through beheading.

But God’s desire for us all, rich and poor, cruel and kind, powerful and forgotten, is balance.

The writer of Luke grounds John firmly within a long tradition of prophets, some of whom preached within the esteemed halls of power like Jeremiah and Isaiah, but many of whom preached, like John, from the margins, like Amos and Micah. Luke’s Gospel is often concerned with things being in balance; about God turning things upside-down in order to reveal something new. Nothing is ever as it seems in Luke. Not only does God come to and empower the most unlikely of places and people, but God enlists the help of all creation in the work of prophecy.

Like last week, we hear that the land itself, in its preparation for the coming of the Lord, will shift and change. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill made low, the crooked shall be made straight, the rough ways made smooth, and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.

In an era of climate disasters this might sound a little frightening, but this is about balance being restored, and all flesh, not just the chosen people of the covenant, seeing the salvation of God.

Again, from Debie Thomas,

“No one standing on a mountaintop wants the mountain to be flattened.  But when we’re wandering in the wilderness, and immense, barren landscapes stretch out before us in every direction, we’re able to see what privileged locations obscure.  Suddenly, we feel the rough places beneath our feet.  We experience what it’s like to struggle down twisty, crooked paths.  We glimpse arrogance in the mountains and desolation in the valleys, and we begin to dream God’s dream of a wholly reimagined landscape.  A landscape so smooth and straight, it enables “all flesh” to see the salvation of God.”

In the reading from Baruch the writer encourages Jerusalem to take off her garment of sorrow and affliction and put on forever the beauty of the glory from God; to put on her head the diadem of the glory of the Everlasting. She can put on this beauty forever because she was once clothed with sorrow.

Only those who pass through the Red Sea reach the Promised Land.

God turns slaves into living sacred signs and scorned criminals into kings. God lifts up what is low and brings down what is high. God, beautiful and majestic beyond comprehension, seeks wildness and wilderness.

God seeks balance, because balance promotes peace.

In this second week of Advent, let our questions also be Debie Thomas’s:

“Where are we located during this Advent season?  How close are we to power, and how open are we to risking the wilderness to hear a word from God?”