Sunday, January 15, 2017

Dream Bigger [Epiphany 2A]

The Rev. Jeremiah Williamson
Isaiah 49:1-7

Dream Bigger

Nothing seems to be working. “I have labored in vain,” says the prophet Isaiah. “I have spent my strength for nothing.” That is a terrible feeling. Investment with no return. Effort without progress. I have labored in vain.

The prophet has a word from God, but no one is listening. The prophet is called to bring the people hope, but they are hopeless. The prophet is a dreamer in the land where dreams go to die. It is a frustrating place to be. And so he cries out to God in holy protest: “I have labored in vain. I have spent my strength for nothing.”

The prophet's task was an unenviable task. The line between platitudes and a word of hope is often uncomfortably thin – made even more uncomfortable because the wrong words in this situation would sting, would add insult to injury. Let's be clear, the prophet was not sent to turn some frowns upside down. Deep gloom enshrouds this people, this nation. This was not a case of the Mondays; they weren't just kinda bummed. The people of Israel were devastated, broken-hearted; they were living a nightmare. Their holy city was destroyed before their very eyes. The temple: still in ruins. The people were strangers in a strange land, exiles, defeated, despairing. They were wounded.

Now exiles do not have many options, but they have do have one choice: they can dream dreams; they can hold on to hope. Or they can downsize their expectations to minimize their disappointment. Accept the defeat, give in to the nightmare, and just survive.

And that is what they chose. But God wanted more; God wanted more for them. And so God sent the prophet with a word – a word of hope. The promise of a future, that same impossible dream that sustained the ancestors in the Ark and in Egypt and in the wilderness, the promise of a God who heard their cries, who would never leave them, who walked them through the Red Sea. That same God suffered with them in exile. That same God would carry them home. That was the message from God's mouth to the prophet's ear; from the prophet's mouth to the people. And it sounded good, no doubt, it sounded good. But good news is hard to hear over the wailing. Hope is hard to see through the tears. It is hard to dream dreams in a land of nightmares.

And so here we are: the messenger of hope is losing hope. The voice of the one who is supposed to bring good news is raising his voice instead in lamentation: “I have labored in vain. I have spent my strength for nothing.”

The prophet found what I think we all know deep down, it is hard to be the last dreamer. Isaiah was so sure this was it. He was so sure he was called to bring his people hope, to raise up the tribes, to restore the survivors, to pave the way home with words of edification. And he tried, but he failed. I have labored in vain.

Let's be clear about what this is: this is the resignation speech, this the “you've got the wrong guy” speech, this is Moses at the burning bush looking for an out. And it makes sense. If God called the prophet to this mission, if he was the right choice for the job, it should work, right? The labor should not be in vain. The prophet should not feel like a failure. And the people, his people, should not be exiled without hope.

But it was and he does and they were. And God responds. Now not in a way that makes sense, but God does respond. God says to this dejected prophet, this prophet who has failed, who has labored in vain, who is giving up: you are dreaming too small; dream bigger.

The prophet is speaking hope to his nation; God wants that message to find a larger audience. The prophet has packaged the salvation story for folks who look, act, believe like him; God's salvation overflows the banks, violates the boundaries. God is not content until the good news reaches every ear, every heart, every soul. Isaiah was struggling to reach the local market. God wants him to find a bigger platform. God's message is universal. God's dream is bigger.

He was dreaming too small. And of course he was. The small dreams were too big to come true. God says to the prophet, “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel.” But it didn't feel light. Actually it felt like he was being crushed under the weight.

When I look around – especially on social media – I see a world weighed down by despair. I see hopelessness. I see a people who are pessimistic about the future. I see a nation broken by violence and poverty, by racism and division, by anger and disappointment. And when folks are weighed down by despair, they forget to dream dreams. Because dreams seems foolish when all of the headlines are nightmares.

But I will remind you, that when things seemed hopeless, God told the prophet to dream bigger. Walter Brueggemann says that God's people are called “to dream the impossible dream; to speak the impossible word; to act the impossible act.”1 It is too light a thing to just be optimistic; you are called to dream impossible dreams. It is too light a thing to offer this world some empty platitudes; you are called to speak the impossible word. It is too light a thing to smiply act politely; you are called to act the impossible act. Dream, speak, act the Kingdom of God into this world. Do not let the nightmare have the last word.

This weekend we remember a man who dreamed impossible dreams. A prophet who dared to speak those impossible dreams into a situation that felt hopeless, to a nation held captive by the nightmares of racism and hatred. Martin Luther King, Jr. dreamed big; he dreamed impossible dreams. And he kept dreaming even when it seemed his labor was in vain, even when the valleys seemed too deep and the odds too long.

Because he knew that impossible dreams don't come easily. And that why he said, “Let us not wallow in the valley of despair, I say to you today, my friends. [E]ven though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream.” He knew that impossible dreams don't come easily. And that why he said, “We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.”

Impossible dreams don't come easily. But you, you are called to dream impossible dreams, to speak impossible words, to act impossible acts. To live this world into the Kingdom of God, to bring hope to the hopeless, to be light in the darkness, to drive out hate with love.

And when it feels as if your labor has been in vain, and it will, sometimes it will: Don't stop dreaming. Dream bigger.

1 Disruptive Grace: Reflections on God, Scripture, and the Church, 287.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

One Tiny Flame [Christmas Eve 2016]

The Rev. Jeremiah Williamson
Christmas Eve 2016
Luke 2:1-20

One Tiny Flame

I can't explain this. I hope you understand. It all came out of God like poetry instead of prose – beautiful but hard to make sense of. How did the one who spoke creation into being get caught up in the small town drama of a pregnant teen who see angels? How did the God who spilled the stars across the universe like marbles become enclosed in the cramped, black space of a virgin womb? See I can't explain this. I hope you understand.

Christmas presents us with more questions than answers. Christmas, I think, means to leave us tongue-tied, at a loss, in awe and wonder, clinging desperately to whatever faith gives us the eyes to see God in that manger. Christmas means to leave us breathlessly pondering all these things in our hearts.

So Christmas is, of course, mysterious; it is, after all, God wrapped in packaging much, much too small. But also Christmas is teaching me to believe, teaching me to believe in the power of small lights.

Which I understand doesn't make a lot of sense. The vastness of the backdrop deserved a big bang. But Christmas in the vast and powerful Roman Empire, the empire of Augustus, the empire that shook the earth and caused the peoples to tremble, was announced to only a few lowly shepherds. The angelic lights that filled the Bethlehem skies did not alert the press, did not reach the royal palaces. To call it a blip on the world's radar screen is probably a stretch.

The baby dropped not only into a huge empire, but also into God's salvation story. The crushing weight of centuries of messianic expectation demanded a divine spectacle. While the rulers of the Empire neither expected nor desired a new Messiah, others did. The people who walked in darkness, they had been promised a great light. They knew the ancient stories; they told them to their children and their children's children. Those stories reminded them that their big God did big things. Their God divided the day from the night; their God split the Red Sea so that their ancestors could walk through on dry land; their God closed lions mouths and carried away prophets in chariots of fire and caused the sun to stand still in the sky. Their God did big things. They expected a great light. They were waiting for something big.

And into an immense world, against a sea of darkness, onto the grand cosmic stage came one tiny flame – a burning bush in a young girl's belly. God's big move was a baby. And even big babies aren't big.

Every year, in the build up to Christmas, I wait for something big but every year it's just a baby. Surrounded by the same peasant family. Adored by the same meager audience.

It as if this God who spoke light into being, who breathed the fire of a thousand suns suddenly realized there was only one way to dispel the darkness: start with one tiny flame. One tiny flame: ignited in the mysterious darkness of God's imagination. One tiny flame: ignited in the darkness of Mary's womb. One tiny flame: ignited in the darkness of the little town of Bethlehem – a speck of a village in a great big world. One tiny flame that might ignite in the darkness of our hearts. One tiny flame. You see, Christmas is teaching me to believe in the power of small lights.

It was a humble beginning. But I suppose, perhaps, the Messiah was not born in a palace because there is no kindling in a palace. The tiny flame needed a manger; the fire was set in straw.

It is said that the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. And that is because Christmas did not stay in Bethlehem. That tiny flame: no king could put it out, no army could snuff it out, no darkness was dark enough to hide it. And so it spread.

That tiny flame, that little Jesus, was set by God to blaze. Why else would he be wrapped in bands of cloth and laid in a bed of straw? That tiny flame was meant to set this world on fire. To burn in our hearts.

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light because the fire spread, because the light of Christ still burns; it burns in you and it burns in me.

You see, Christmas is teaching me to believe in the power of small lights. I look around this room and I see tiny flames – each heart ablaze with the light of Jesus. I see tiny flames that have the power to light up the dark corners of this world. I see tiny flames in a world of kindling.

But also, when I look around this room I see a great light because if I squint, just a little bit, all of those tiny flames become a blazing fire.

Christmas was just the beginning of something big. It started small – as small as a spark in the darkness of a virgin womb, as small as a peasant baby in a vast empire, as small as a flame in a bed of straw. But here we are, two-thousand years beyond the manger scene, and we're still burning – call us the Light of the World. Jesus did.

Every Christmas I gaze into the little manger waiting for something big. But it's always that tiny baby. Only, if I look closely, if I really look, I see the spark in his eyes, the fire he set reflecting in his heavenly face. I can't explain this: why Christmas was so small. I just know that Christmas is teaching me to believe in the power of small lights. And in a God who started a blazing fire with one tiny flame.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Hope in the Desert [Advent 3A]

The Rev. Jeremiah Williamson
Isaiah 35:1-10

Hope in the Desert

Hope needs a desert in which to bloom. This is what Advent tells us. Elizabeth and Mary, John the Baptist and Jesus: new life born in impossible places; hope blooming in the desert.

This also reminds us, this season of Advent, that we don't come by hope easily. It is not mere optimism, born of some dishonest naivety, like a cheap salve more likely to bring infection than healing. Hope digs in deep; it has to. Henri Nouwen makes the distinction saying, “While optimism makes us live as if someday soon things will go better for us, hope frees us from the need to predict the future and allows us to live in the present, with the deep trust that God will never leave us alone.”1 And so, in that sense, maybe the chasm separating the two is filled with trust. Optimism justifies our lack of trust. Hope needs trust to survive.

But like most things in the desert, hope is also dangerous. So while it is far preferable to mere optimism, one can still understand why optimism always wins the popular vote. Optimism is a blueprint for a house that will never be built: ultimately worthless but it helps us sleep at night. Hope is believing, trusting with all your heart that God is paving a path beneath your worn out soles.

I like hope. I like that our Christian hope compels us to defiantly shout Alleluias at the grave, through our tears, when it would be so much easier to fall back on trite sentiments. I like that our Christian hope takes the instrument of our Savior's death and rather than shy away from it calls it victory. I like that our Christian hope can see the Spring through the Winter. I like that our Christian hope is placed in a weak peasant baby instead of in the more logical choice, the powerful Emperor who ruled that world.

I like hope. But I recognize that hope is dangerous. Because hope dreams impossible dreams.

The prophet Isaiah, in our reading today, is peddling those impossible dreams. And his audience is a barren land. His audience is weak hands and feeble knees. His audience is fearful hearts. His audience is the aftermath, the devastation that remains in the wake of war, the broken souls left wandering in the desert, far away from home.

Isaiah is peddling these impossible dreams to exiles – exiled not only from their land, but also from their hope. And I'm not sure that is fair. I'm not sure it is fair to plant in their barren souls the hope that one day their torched earth will bloom, or that their broken bodies will one day leap for joy, or that their despairing hearts will grow strong again. Because isn't surrendered acceptance better than hope unfulfilled and isn't hope just belief in search of a guarantee that will never come? The problem with hope is that it believes in big, big things when low expectations are so much easier to meet.

That is one of the reasons hope is so dangerous: it never knows when to stop. It doesn't believe in low expectations – I guess because it so stubbornly believes in God. Isaiah begins with out-sized expectations. He begins with impossible dreams: the deserts shall blossom. That might sound like a golf course in Arizona, but it's not that. It's healing. It is the dream of new green life after the enemy sets the fields ablaze. It is strip mine scars returning to beauty. It is Eden before the curse. And it was far away, forever away.

But Isaiah dreams bigger. He dreams impossible dreams of war-ravaged bodies restored. The ecological scars, the devastation of the land, that was one thing, but these scars, they are personal. This hope is the kind of hope that touches open wounds, that threatens brokenness, that alters identity. This hope is the kind of hope that feels embarrassing to admit – embarrassing like admitting every week that we believe in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting, embarrassing like saying your impossible dreams out loud.

But Isaiah dreams bigger. He dreams impossible dreams of a way back home. And he shouts these dreams over the prison walls. This is what is hope looks like in a concentration camp. Hope is always dangerous where it is an endangered species. Isaiah dreams dreams of a future; he dreams of a future in a place where survival is as good as it gets. In a place where hopelessness is a defense mechanism, the prophet lowers his defenses – and dares to ask his people to do the same.

There was no reason for optimism. No more reason than there was when they were slaves in Egypt. Optimism cannot live behind bars. But hope, hope sings behind bars. Hope is Paul and Silas praising the Lord until the earthquake comes. Hope is remembering that the Exodus happened, that the Incarnation happened, that the Resurrection happened, so the impossible becomes a dangerous precedent.

Advent is a dangerous season because it makes us dream dreams; it inspires hope; it rouses us from sleep; it shakes us free from the complacency upon which the powers of this world rely. We are not required to simply accept the brokenness and pain in this world. We do not have to passively stomach the aggressive march of our oppressors, of violence and racism and hatred. We were not created to surrender to the forces of addiction and despair. Our healing is not found in the acquisition of goods. Our salvation is not hidden in our lowered expectations. We are people of hope.

It is easy to look at our world, to watch the news, to read the blogs, and lose hope. The pain and division in our world, and in our nation, seem insurmountable. Tensions simmer, hate crimes escalate, oceans rise. Suicide rates continue to climb; heroine related deaths continue to mount.2 We proclaim our hope to world of exiles hopelessly wandering in the desert.

We proclaim our because we know how this story goes. We know that hope needs a desert in which to bloom. We know that God births new life in impossible places. We know that God peddles impossible dreams. This is what Advent tells us: God gives us hope. And “Hope frees us from the need to predict the future and allows us to live in the present, with the deep trust that God will never leave us alone.” Not in Egypt's slavery, not in the pain of exile, not even in the grave. God will never leave us alone. And that is why we dare to hope, that is why we dream impossible dreams, that is why even at the grave we shout our Alleluias. This is the story Advent tells. It is a story of a God who will never leave us alone – who wrapped an impossible dream in baby soft skin to give the world hope.

1 Here and Now, 41.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Visions of the Messiah [Advent 2A]

The Rev. Jeremiah Williamson
Isaiah 11:1-10

Visions of the Messiah

Today is the second Sunday of the Advent season. And we have yet to catch a glimpse of the pregnant Virgin Mother or of the dazed and confused Joseph. We have yet to see angels. It seems, surely by now,, we should have arrived at the gates of Bethlehem. And yet, our readings have yet to speak of any of those most familiar Advent nouns.

Instead we get guesses, the predictions of prophets and poets – prophets and poets peering into a hazy future their eyes would never see. The visions of Isaiah and the Psalmist – visions as ominous as they are thrilling as they are hopeful – speak of the world as it might be. But not only that, they speak also of the Messiah – long promised, long expected – who will finally make the dream the reality.

The prophet Isaiah dreams of the peaceable kingdom. A world in which the wolf snuggles the lamb and leopards nap with baby goats. He dreams of a world in which children no longer need to fear the serpent's bite. He dreams of the world as Eden, a return to Creation before things started to crumble – when the creatures lived in harmony, when peace reigned, before the forbidden fruit, before Cain killed Abel, before violence was born and blood soaked the ground. That is the dream – the world as it might be, as it might be again.

But that world, in Isaiah's prophetic vision, can only come with a Messiah. And so he dreams of a Messiah. The visionary image of the Messiah starts beautifully strong. He will decide with equity for the meek of the earth; he will love and support the poor. That sounds good. But then, things get confusing because that same Messiah starts breathing fire and that beautiful, peaceful vision goes up in smoke: with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked. Mostly hopeful. Thrilling. Maybe not exactly peaceful. And ominous.

The Psalmist takes the same path. The Messiah shall usher in a time of abundant peace – that sounds good – but also shall be the crusher of oppressors. Probably all of that crushing will disturb the peace.

And then we come to John the Baptist. He doesn't say much about peace. Never accused of being subtle, not know for his sunny disposition, John lays out his own vision of the future – and it is chock full of wrath. He also describes his vision for the coming Messiah. The Messiah will baptize folks with the Holy Spirit – that sounds good. And also that Messiah is carrying a winnowing fork in his hand, which if you are curious, looks like a giant Freddy Krueger hand, and with those devastating blades he will clear the threshing floor before he sets it ablaze with the unquenchable fire. So again: something of a mixed bag.

We have yet to see the Virgin Mary; we have yet to see gentle Joseph; the angels have not yet made an appearance. But what we do see is an unsettling vision of the coming Messiah. Are we expected to be excited or afraid?

For centuries the prophets of old waited for the Messiah to come. They waited and the expectations grew. They waited for a King. They waited for a warrior. They waited for a Messiah who breathed fire, who crushed oppressors, who carried the winnowing fork. And then he came, the Messiah. But he did not meet the expectations.

The prophet Isaiah imagines that when the Messiah arrives the people will no longer hurt or destroy; he imagines peace on the hills of Jerusalem. But the Messiah came and the people hurt him. The people destroyed him. And instead of peace on the hills, there stood, on the hill, an old, rugged cross – a cross that held the long-awaited Messiah.

The psalmist imagines that when the Messiah arrives he will rule the people and crush the oppressors. But the people were not interested in his rule. Once upon a time, they thought he might make a suitable king. He was good at bread production; they saw some potential. But then the bread dried and he offered them his body instead. And they realized he was not at all what they were looking for, not at all what they wanted. They wanted someone who would either make them rich or make them safe. He would do neither. The people walked away and the oppressors crushed him.

John the Baptist imagines that when the Messiah arrives he will finally usher in the coming judgment. He will separate the good from the bad and punish those in the bad pile. But Jesus did not make separate piles; instead he prayed that they might all be one. And the only fire that came was the fire of Pentecost. It was unquenchable, but no one was burnt. And instead of punishing the bad folks, Jesus ate with them, invited some of them to be his disciples, forgave them from the cross. John was so confused that he sent his followers to ask Jesus: “Are you the Messiah or should we be waiting for someone else?”

For centuries faithful people have been waiting for the Messiah to come as a conqueror. The first time he came though he did not meet the expectations; and so, perhaps the second time, maybe the second time he comes he will meet our expectations and be the powerful Ruler we need, or at least want. Faithful people are still searching the skies for this divine conqueror; we are still waiting for the Messiah with blade in hand, fire in mouth, smoke in nostrils, and violence in his eyes. We are waiting for the Messiah who will destroy our enemies. Jesus said, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”

The first time the Messiah came, he came wrapped in baby soft skin. No sword. No fire. No violence. Not what we expected. And now we await his second coming. God willing, he'll fail to meet our expectations once again.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Expecting [Advent 1A]

The Rev. Jeremiah Williamson
Isaiah 2:1-5


Folks do tend to confuse the seasons of Advent and Lent. It's understandable; it is not hard to do. There are some clear similarities: they both end in the same sound: -ent; some churches use the same liturgical color for both seasons; at this parish we worship in old-style language only during the two seasons of Advent and Lent; and both are often, unfortunately, greatly overshadowed by the feasts they precede: Christmas and Easter. And so when people ask me to explain the difference between these two seasons, and that has happened many times in my decade of ordained ministry, I always say the same thing: “It is the difference between preparing for a death and preparing for a birth.”

I have prepared for a birth – a couple of times actually. I know that time. That pregnant time is unlike any other time. The days, so filled with expectation, seem at once to move too slowly and too quickly. You wait for the dream to finally become the reality and yet, all the while, know that once that dream comes true things will change, all of the routines and rhythms upon which you have come to rely and in which you take comfort, will quite suddenly be stripped away. And while those thoughts fill your mind, they are yet unable to push away that persistent, nagging thought that everything is so fragile – as if all the hopes and dreams might just suddenly dissipate and never come true.

And in that time, that heavy time, you wait. You wait because you have no other choice. You wait in a tension of hope and fear, of joy and heartache, of loss and gain. And while you wait, because waiting is an unavoidable requirement, even for those who lack patience, you get ready.

You get ready because the birth is coming, and it is coming at an unexpected hour. I know this too. Both of our boys came earlier than expected – three and three and half weeks before their due dates.

But we were ready. Well, at least our house was ready. We had prepared a place. We cleared away from the nursery those things that formerly filled the space. We hung up tiny clothes; we organized diapers; we installed tamper-proof electrical outlets; we put together a crib – a crib that would one day cradle the dream that grew in my wife's belly.

And make no mistake, that dream, that tiny baby we would name Oscar David, was the only thing in the universe that would fit in that nursery; he was the only thing that could be cradled in that newly assembled crib. There was only one thing that would make our dreams come true. Nothing else would do.

The word “advent” means “to come.” And as we gaze upon images of the Blessed Virgin Mary, with her protruding midsection, we are reminded that what is coming is Christmas – the Nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ is how we say that in really church-y language. The Advent wreath, our calendar, tells us that our commemoration of the Incarnation draws near. 4, 3, 2, 1.

But today's Scripture readings, the readings that mark the beginning of this new Church year, of this new Church season, remind us that Advent is not only focused on a coming that has come. The pregnancy is not over; this time, the time in which we live, is still pregnant with hope and longing. We are still waiting.

Advent is not only Christmas' preseason. During the days of Advent we are reminded that we are still waiting. The birth of Jesus was the prophetic dream come true. In that little child, hope was fulfilled. And yet, if we are honest, in our hearts we still dream of what is yet to come. We still long for a better world, a world that more closely resembles heaven. We still hope with the prophet Isaiah for the day when “they shall beat their swords into ploughshares; and their spears into pruning-hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” We are still waiting for that dream to come true.

We are still waiting in Advent. We're still waiting for thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in Heaven. We are still waiting for Jesus' prayer to come true.

In this season of Advent, we wait. We wait because we have no other choice. We wait not just for the wreath to run out of wicks, not just for the presents to appear under the tree, we wait for Jesus. We wait for Jesus to come and finally turn the nightmares of this world into God's best dream. And we realize that though this season is only four weeks long, our lives are lived in Advent – a season of longing. We wait in a tension of hope and fear, of joy and heartache, of loss and gain. We stubbornly hold onto the hope that peace and love, goodness and mercy, will one day finally overcome the brutality, hatred, and violence that dominate our news feeds. We wait for Jesus' prayer to be answered: on earth as it is in Heaven. And while we wait, because waiting is an unavoidable requirement, even for those who lack patience, we are called to get ready.

We are Noah. We are building an ark for a flood that looks unlikely. God is calling on us, calling us to get ready, to prepare a place, to make room in this world for the Kingdom of God, to get this world ready to accept the coming of Christ – the Christ who was killed by this world the last time he came.

And so there is work to do. And the work is not easy. Neither will it be met with universal approval. There is a reason we are not there yet; there is a reason we are still in the preparation process. There are people who recoil at Isaiah's dream for the world; there are people who prefer swords and spears to peace; there are those who get rich on the spoils of war. There are people and institutions who thrive on hatred, cling to prejudice, live for conflict, revel in violence. Grinding the poor and the addicted into the ground, is a very viable business plan. For those who rely on this world's many and varied vices the return of Christ is a huge inconvenience. The coming of the Kingdom of God is bad for business.

And if we are honest, even those of us who desperately long for the return of Christ and the coming of his Kingdom do so with trepidation. Birth is never painless – even when it is greeted with abundant joy. We at once long for the dream to finally become the reality and yet, all the while, know that once that dream comes true things will change, all of the routines and rhythms, vices and quirks upon which we have come to rely and in which we take our comfort, will quite suddenly be stripped away. And even those most anxious thoughts cannot drown out the nagging doubt that lingers in back of the mind: this longing feels as fragile as does its realization seem unlikely – as if all the hopes and dreams of our Advent lives might just suddenly dissipate and never come true.

And yet, in our heart of hearts, we believe that into our fragile, desperate longing, despite our anxiety, despite our secret doubts, Jesus comes. That's just how it is with pregnancy: the dream for which you wait feels obscure and tenuous until it comes. You live and prepare always with the stubborn faith that hope will come true.

And we prepare, not just because something is coming, as if any old thing will do; we are sent out into this world not to simply keep us busy or distracted. The dream that we dream is not of slight tangible improvements in our society. We dream bigger. Our hope is not in elected officials or well-crafted legislation. Our hope is in Christ. Our dream is of a world in which there are no more nightmares: a world in which war and violence are no more, in which division and hatred have no place. Our dream is for no more tears, no more pain, no more death. Our prayer is that this impossible dream will be this world's reality. We are Advent people. This is for what we are called to prepare. This is the kingdom come for which we are bold enough, crazy enough to pray.

During the pregnancy, those days of waiting and working expectantly, there is only one thing in the universe that will fit in that nursery; there is only one thing that could be cradled in that newly assembled crib. There is only one thing that will make our dreams come true. And so it is with Advent. And so it is with us Advent people. We are expecting God's dream to come true. And nothing, nothing, nothing else will do.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

The King Who Lost the Vote [Christ the King C]

The Rev. Jeremiah Williamson
Luke 23:33-43

The King Who Lost the Vote

Jesus stood before the voting public one time . Just once. Like a King awaiting his royal throne, he stood before them, wearing an elegant robe and a custom-made crown. The winner would win freedom. But the crowd chose someone else; they voted for the other guy – and it wasn't close. But then, they also cast their vote for him. In one united voice the rallying masses chanted, “Crucify! Crucify him!”

Jesus had healed their sick; he had fed their hungry; he had raised their dead. But standing before them now, he did not look like a king. His robe mocked him; his crown drained him. It was obvious to them. They needed a strong king; someone who would fight. And he was weak. He gave nice speeches. And he dreamed of impossible kingdoms. But they needed someone who would take real action; not someone who snuck away to quiet prayer gardens.

And so they voted Barabbas. He would actually fight for them. He had a proven track record. He was charged with insurrection. He fought for freedom with a sword. While Jesus was praying, Barabbas was killing their Roman oppressors. Like a king. Like a real king.

The people made their choice. They made their voice heard. They could only choose one. And so they chose the one who better represented their values. And they threw the other guy away. Their guy Barabbas was a killer; and now so were they.

This is the one democratic moment in the Gospels. And the people chose Barabbas.1 This was their moment to play judge and they chose to be judge, jury, and executioner. And then because that wasn't enough, the people trolled Jesus as he died on the cross. And they mocked him in tandem with the cruel graffiti painted on the hard wood above his bleeding head.

And then they moved on. Because that is what we do. The losers are yesterday's news. And when the votes were tallied, the results were quite clear. Jesus was the loser.

Or was he the King? Because today we celebrate the Feast of the Christ the King. And it's a little confusing because we read about a man who was mocked and beaten, a man who lost his only election, a man who was executed by authorities, a man whose throne more closely resembles an electric chair than a seat of power.

And if we just called Christ our King, in light of this story, we too could fairly be mocked. Our Gospel on the Feast of Christ the King, is the crucifixion, an execution of a feeble peasant. It is absurd. There is nothing about this story that should make us proud. This is what happens what weakness steps to power. Maybe we are dim, unable to comprehend that those calling Jesus King in the Gospel are actually making fun of him; they are mocking him as he dies a shameful death. But not content to stop there, we claim to see God on that cross, hanging beneath that cruelly ironic sign that reads “The King of the Jews.”

In the novel Life of Pi, the book we are reading in our Fall Book Group, an Indian boy named Pi first encounters this foreign religion called Christianity. In his initial conversations with a Roman priest, Father Martin, Pi struggles to get past the absurdity of the Christian story, of our story. He ponders, “That a god should put up with adversity, I could understand.... But humiliation? Death? I couldn’t imagine Lord Krishna consenting to be stripped naked, whipped, mocked, dragged though the streets and, to top it off, crucified – and at the hands of mere humans.... [D]ivinity should not be blighted by death. It’s wrong.... [O]nce a dead God, always a dead God, even resurrected. The Son [of God] must have the taste of death forever in his mouth. The Trinity must be tainted by it; there must be a certain stench at the right hand of God the Father. The horror must be real. Why would God wish that upon Himself? Why not leave death to mortals? Why make dirty what is beautiful, spoil what is perfect?” “Love. That was Father Martin’s answer.”2

Christ the King is who we see: mocked, berated, belittled and dying. We see him, willed to death by mere humans, sentenced by the authorities, mocked by nameless soldiers, and we call him a king. We watch him die between two criminals and we dare call him God. What does this say about us? Do we find ourselves at the height of absurdity or in the depths of blasphemy?

Of course the crowds chose Barabbas. People are attracted to power. We choose saviors who grab the world by the throat, who destroy all challengers. We want a God who is not afraid to condemn most of the world to Hell, who punishes those who step out of line.

We know what power is. And power is not mocked; it is not laughed at; it does not wear a crown of thorns. Power does not meekly and quietly accept the verdict. Power does not die on the cross. What kind of savior is this? Jesus didn't even save himself.

Jesus, immediately after their last supper together, just before his crucifixion, said to his disciples, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.”3 This is Christ our King.

In a world that sees power as dominance, subjugation, and humiliation, God makes power a wooden cross, a broken body, and a declaration of forgiveness. It's not what we would choose; it's not what we expected. See, we've come to believe that the destructive expressions of power of some distant, apathetic deity are “acts of God”. But that's not it; it's not even close. If you want to see an act of God, look into the eyes of your Crucified King.

It really did look like a failure. The people mocked him – screamed at him to save himself, delighted in his weakness. Divine plan as absolute mess. The King died on a brutal Roman cross – like a common criminal. But in the mess humanity created we, his Church, see our victorious king – not the king we would elect, but the King who chooses us; we see victory. To many it looks like just another victim of an empire of dominance and humiliation, it looks like what happens when power and weakness collide, but on that cross we see God; it really is absurd. And, it makes no sense, but on that cross we also see divine power – the power to forgive, the power of serve, the power of love: what power looks like in Christ's Kingdom.

On a cross, between two criminals, the true nature of our God is revealed. God: willing to give up the dignity, give up the paradise, give up the power, to do whatever it takes to love, to love the ones who fashioned the thorny crown, to love the ones who cried “Crucify”, to love the ones who drove the nails, to love the ones who laughed in the face of mercy. God endured the jeers, God lost the vote, God suffered the cross. Why would God wish that upon God's self? Why make dirt what is beautiful? Why soil what is perfect? Love. That is the answer. To love us, to love the fickle insurrectionists in the court of Christ the King.

1 Stanley Hauerwas says, “We will be told this is the day the people rule. That sounds like a good idea, but you need to remember that there was a democratic moment in the Gospels, and the people asked for Barabbas.” You can find his sermon here:
2 Martel, Yann. Life of Pi, 54.
3 Luke 22:25-27

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Baptismal Poverty [All Saints' Sunday]

The Rev. Jeremiah Williamson
Luke 6:20-31

Baptismal Poverty

He speaks of poverty as if it were a key, a key to a door, a door to a room, a room in a house, a house in a kingdom. But what kind of kingdom would be possessed by the poor? And what kind of King would give the kingdom over to poverty?

He speaks of poverty as one who has known her intimately, who understands the kind of vulnerability that breeds perfect trust in God. True poverty is never cheap. It does not come and go with the Dow or the balance of a savings account. Poverty is a brand, a mark – something that never goes away. Like an accent. Like a scar. Poverty finds a way into the soul. Poverty finds a way to break your heart.

Sometimes poverty is a choice. Sometimes poverty is an inheritance. But also poverty is always a destiny, a destination – both internal and external. And in that sense I suppose Jesus on the plain speaks a universal language, speaks to a universal human experience. If you are not poor now, you will be one day. Poverty as gift or sentence. And it is maybe in this sense that death, long defeated but still active, serves the purposes of its Easter morning Conqueror: it finally strips us of the riches to which we cling so selfishly and stubbornly – as if the eye of needle is wide enough only for the impoverished, naked human form.

And for this we have been trained. Poverty, you see, is a necessary condition of the Christian life. The path to sainthood is lined with broken hearts; poverty is our companion on the path of holiness. Poverty is a naked vulnerability; it exposes us to the elements but it also opens us to place our trust in a hidden God.

We used to know this. We used to practice this, in a way that was as literal as it was symbolic. In the ancient days, in the days of the catacombs, those who approached the waters of baptism came naked, stripped of all possessions, of all clothing. Impoverished, vulnerable, and free - of the old life with its old masters and old distractions. “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” Naked in the darkness, those desiring Christ would step down into the water, immersed, buried, without breath or sight, and would rise to a new name, a new family, a new kingdom, and a new life. But as if to keep the excitement in check, they would then be marked with a cross, marked with a symbol that reminded them that new life only comes after death.

And though we no longer strip naked for the baptismal waters (I think I just heard a huge sigh of relief), those ancient, mystical waters still strip us naked. Just as they are teeming with life, so are they full of death. And these waters hold a terrible promise: they will leave you bare and exposed. The waters of baptism will break you open, will leave you impoverished, will make you vulnerable in a devastating world.

Just as they did to our forebears, the saints whom we remember today. The journey to sainthood, the road to heaven, is nothing less than the way of the Cross; the way to heaven is paved with drops of blood – the lasting evidence of the vulnerable heart of our God. The love Jesus requires, the love he demands – love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you – that love will cost you everything. And after you have lost everything, Jesus will respond: blessed are you who are poor.

Poverty is a brand. It is a mark. Maybe it is a target. It means living with an open heart in a violent world. It will leave you vulnerable. Jesus' love healed the sick; it freed the oppressed; it fed the hungry; it dried the tears; it is beautiful; and it is in you, coursing through your veins; it is the divine power of the universe that is making all things new. But it also felt the hard nails of the cross because this world fears vulnerability and it destroys beautiful things.

The Feast of All Saints', the feast we celebrate today, does not come easy; it does not come cheap. The saints are those who lives are nurtured by the waters of death. The saints are those who bleed from hearts opened too wide. The saints are those who wear poverty like a scar. The saints look into the mirrored surface of the baptismal waters and see the face of the Crucified One staring back at them.

Jesus speaks of poverty as one who knows her intimately because he does. He left paradise to wear our skin, to bear our poverty, to be exposed to our death. And he did so for us and for our salvation. And so He holds us through the pain and joy of life. He holds us through the dark mystery of death. He carries into the hope of eternity. One of our brothers who lived long ago, one of the saints, wrote, “This is why God became human and became poor for our sake: it was to raise up our flesh, to recover the divine image in us, to re-create humankind, so that all of us might become one in Christ....”1

And it is through baptism, by our participation in, not just the death, but also the resurrection of Jesus, that we become one: one family, one body, one communion of saints – citizens in the kingdom of God.

We admire our saints. We hold them up as persons worthy of emulation. We consider them our sisters and our brothers, members of a sacred family into which we have been adopted through the sacrament of new birth. But we should never forget, especially if we are to follow in their footsteps, that the saints were foolish enough to believe in impossible things, things that they could not see or prove, touch or feel, fools who place their hope in a Crucified God, fools who believe that love wins in a world of hatred and prejudice, fools who believe that life will conquer even death. The saints are fools who pledge their allegiance to the King of Fools – the one who left the comforts of paradise for the pain of the cross.

Sam Portaro writes, “It is an embarrassment, to be sure; we have no evidence to produce beyond our stories. It seem frivolous, even dangerous, and marks us as suspect. In a realm that bows to tangible security..., we are the gamblers who stake all that we have on unproven supposition. In a culture that seeks its own gratification at any cost, that spends its produce and its people as though there were no tomorrow, we alone dare to live as though there is a tomorrow and more – a place within which and a people with whom to share that tomorrow.

That is why we need [this] precious day of...All Saints.... For we know how hard it is. It is hard to look death in the face and say to death, 'I know I shall see you again.' But is harder still to scan the flickering light of life's vitality in the face of a dying friend and say, 'I know I shall see you again.'”2

The waters of baptism hold a terrible promise: they will leave you bare and exposed. The waters of baptism will break you open, will leave you impoverished, will make you vulnerable in a devastating world - just as they did to your forebears, the saints whom we remember today.

See, these waters, they are making you like Jesus.

1Gregory of Nazianzus, Celebrating the Saints, 385.
2Brightest and Best, 200-1