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

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Seeing Miracles [Proper 26C]

The Rev. Jeremiah Williamson
Luke 19:1-10

Seeing Miracles

Where's the miracle? Before Jesus entered Jericho he had done some pretty spectacular works – showstopping stuff. He healed lepers. He restored the crippled. His touch made the sick well. He cast out demons and renewed tortured minds. He even raised the dead, brought dearly departed people back to life. And just before today's story, in the previous tale found in Luke's Gospel, Jesus made a blind man see.

And when he wasn't performing some miraculous healing, Jesus was blowing minds with his profound teachings. He told brilliant parables. He bestowed timeless wisdom. He challenged the entrenched religious and political systems in clever and often devastating ways.

But now he walks into Jericho and he sees Zacchaeus. And no one is miraculously healed. And there is no amazing sermon.

But there is some controversy – which is, I guess, the other thing Jesus does well in the Gospels. The crowd is grumble-y. It sounds like it was a pretty big crowd and in that crowd there must have been good people, righteous people, people with the best beliefs and the sound thoughts. So many from which to choose, good choices, and Jesus chooses Zacchaeus – picks him right out of the tree like a bad apple.

And that, that is when the grumbling begins. They do not like Zacchaeus. And they do not like that Jesus has entered willingly into Zacchaeus' den of iniquity. Once again Jesus is a victim of the company he keeps – not that he seems to mind.

Probably most of us only know this story from the popular Sunday School song. In the song Zacchaeus sounds adorable; he's wee little, after all. We might be tempted to then pity Zacchaeus, as if he was a victim of short shaming, as if the crowd's problem with Zacchaeus was one of stature. But no one was grumbling about his height; it is only mentioned because Luke needs to explain why exactly a wealthy, adult business man was up in a tree. Now, the crowd did have a problem with Zacchaeus; theirs was a character concern. What defined Zacchaeus in the eyes of the crowd was not his size, but his ethics – or his apparent lack there of.

Luke actually tells us very little about Zacchaeus. We do not know if he was married. We are unaware of any hobbies. We have no idea if he attended synagogue or said his prayers. In fact, outside of his short stature, we only know his occupation and financial status: chief tax collector and rich.

And so while we know little, the little does tell us quite a bit – especially why this crowd is so upset with Zacchaeus and his special guest. Zacchaeus was a tax collector – actually his business card read chief tax collector, a chief among tax collectors, which sounds better but to the gathered masses was actually way worse. Tax collector was hardly a respected job in this Jewish community; Jewish mothers were not pushing their baby boys into tax collector school in first century Palestine. And this has nothing to do with a distaste for money or math. And I want to make that clear because we're still taking an offering today and I don't want the ushers to feel weird about that. Basically, Zacchaeus was contracted to collect taxes from his own people to support the Roman occupation – like an oppression tax – the people paid good money to not have freedom. So if you think you don't like taxes today, imagine how these Jews felt. And then imagine how they felt about the people who made that system possible.

It was a rare person who was willing to go door to door extracting these taxes. There were no good work days, no pleasant interactions. A tax collector was a traitor who peddled treachery like a kid on Halloween who only does trick and never treat. Like many scoundrels over the centuries, Zacchaeus built his fortune on a foundation of questionable ethics, oppressive politics, and a willingness to be hated. And so while he was rich, he was, at least in the eyes of the crowds, less human than terrible, despicable caricature.

And Jesus was going to his house - willingly. We might say: guilty by association. It was as if kindness was an endorsement, as if compassion was some dirty deed.

And because the crowd refers to Zacchaeus only as sinner, that is the label that sticks. Zacchaeus has been stuck with that for centuries. But it is, interestingly, a label that Jesus never applies. In fact, there is no confession or absolution in this Gospel text. And while it is understandable that the crowd dislikes Zacchaeus and his chosen profession, Jesus never addresses that either.

If we look only at the text, without the songs, without the history of interpretation, what we find is a man, a desperate and flawed human being, who longs for Jesus. I mean, he climbs a tree, a grown man in front of a crowd, to see Jesus. He happily welcomes Jesus into his home. And before Jesus says a word, he pledges half of his possessions to the poor and promises that if, that if he defrauded anyone, and we have no idea if he did or did not, that he would make it right – four times over.

This is not a healing story. This is not another great parable. No one is raised from the dead.

But also all of those things happen when Jesus sees Zaccheaus. And it is so simple that they all happen in plain sight – and no one notices; in fact, they only grumble. They miss the miracle.

It is amazing what can happen when someone is seen – as a person. Zacchaeus had been noticed in the past. Folks recognized him; they knew enough about him to be angry that Jesus was visiting his home. They saw him as a sinner, as a terrible, despicable caricature, as an enemy. But they forgot something very important: Zacchaeus was also created in the image of God, he too was marked by divine fingerprints. He was one of them. He was their brother. He was a person.

I was once visiting an organization that worked with the homeless and while I was there touring the facilities, a woman, herself homeless, took some time to talk with us, to share her story. What I best remember from that day was something she said. She confessed to us that the hardest part of homelessness for her was not sleeping on a park bench, was not finding food or clothing, the hardest part was that no one ever looked at her, passersby would always look the other way, avoid eye contact.

This woman was poor; Zacchaeus was rich. Both longed for the same thing: to be seen. It sounds so simple, so unremarkable. But not every miracle is spectacular. Some are just little. Sometimes people are brought back to life with a word or a hug or even with a smile. It can sound trite, I know; but for a person forgotten or despised, ignored or alone, it is anything but. In fact, it feels like salvation, like resurrection.

Zacchaeus was brought back to life with a glance. He was saved when his eyes met Jesus' eyes. He was seen. And he was treated with dignity. And his basic humanity was acknowledged. That simple miracle changed his life.

Christians have been long so focused on saving lost souls that we forgot that there are lost people, people who simply need to seen. You see, not everyone remembers they were created in the image of God. Not everyone remembers they are wearing divine fingerprints. Not everyone is treated with human dignity. Sometimes miracles are so simple. Sometimes salvation comes through seeing.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

God in the Dark [Proper 24C]

The Rev. Jeremiah Williamson
Genesis 32:22-31

God in the Dark

Some people find God in the Light. Some people see God's face in a beautiful sunrise. Some watch the Spirit dance on the golden horizon, all tingly warm embrace, all peace and comfort. But some only seem to encounter God in the dark. Jacob was one of those men.

And in a way, I guess it is fitting. He was the kind of guy who was always on the run, staying in the shadows, like a fox who can't help but feel the warm breath of the hounds. He always heard footsteps. I mean, to be fair, he chose this life. That day he strapped goat skin to his arm – his first great scheme, snatching the blessing from his older brother – there was no going back; he set this course. And in some ways, the treachery and scheming made for him a good life. He did arrive at the Jabbok with his two wives, his two, well, the text says maids, but those maids were more than just maids, they were two of the four mothers of his children, his eleven children, and all of his Father-in-Law's finest sheep – the bounty of yet another devious scheme, once again perpetrated against members of his own family.

But a life of running takes its toll. And so he also arrives at the Jabbok fully aware that the next day could very well be the day of reckoning. For fourteen years, he had lived in this self-imposed exile. But after this night, he would once again see his brother Esau, the brother whose life he had taken, the brother who long ago promised to take Jacob's life in return. Jacob was turning himself in. His life of running was over, that was clear. What was unclear was: would his life be over?

Jacob planned to spend that night alone. He sent his wives, his maids, his children, his possessions, everyone and everything, across the stream. But he stayed, not quite ready to take the next step. I suspect he had a lot on his mind; perhaps he considered running away again – one more time, into the cover of the night. He was alone; everyone else was on the other side; no one would even know until the morning; that's a pretty good head start. There he was: alone in the darkness. Alone, with his past transgressions. Alone, with the uncertainty of his future. Alone, or so he thought.

That night was like back in the beginning – when God was creating and separated the light from the dark. It was that kind of dark. It was the kind of darkness that feels impossibly heavy – like it was pushing down on his chest, fighting against his lungs. It was the kind of darkness that always seems to grow from the seeds of anxiety. The kind that occurs before a dreaded day, before an uncertain future.

His long journey away from and now back to his brother, the years of running that would end with the daybreak, had started in the darkness as well. God met him, back then, in the darkness when he first started running. But that first darkness was different from this, at least it felt different. That was beautiful angels and a ladder to the heavens and the promise of a future; it was God giving him a reason to run into the new light of the morning.

He knew this darkness was different because instead of a head full of lovely dreams, this night offered a headlock. All night long Jacob wrestled and struggled with a mystery. Even the text is confused. The author says “man”; Jacob says “God”. And I suspect no argument could convince him otherwise.

Because that night changed him: body and soul, name and future. His first encounter with God in the dark gave Jacob the strength to run. This encounter with God in the dark ensured he would never run again.

He limped out of that night a new person, reborn in the womb of that dark night. He limped out of that night with this strange blessing. Not all blessings are created equal. Not every blessing is easily recognizable. A displaced hip is not the most obvious blessing, clearly. But his body was broken so that his heart and soul could be healed. Jacob needed that scar to live into the future God wanted for him. He earned that limp. In a previous life he stole a blessing that he did not deserve. But on this night he fought and struggled until he earned that blessing. The first one was cheap; this one, it cost him.

He could have run away from the struggle. God knows that was his history. He could have hid himself in the darkness. He could have slipped the hold and given up. He could let go long before the blessing. But Jacob, all busted hip and desperation, needed something that night; he would not let go without a fight; he would not let go without that blessing.

Jacob limped out of the darkness with a new name. But of course, the name was more than just a name; it was a new identity; it was a God-given future, a destiny. Somehow Jacob was changed in that dark, mysterious encounter. God grabbed a hold of him and he was never the same – and the change was much more than hip-deep.

Jacob is remembered now as one of the great patriarchs; the name bestowed by God in that dark night, Israel, became the name, not only of one man, but of an entire people. He is a legend – but Jacob was no saint. He left in his wake a lifetime of shattered relationships, the product of his dishonesty and trickery and cowardice. Had he walked out of the darkness into his brother's gleaming blade, no one would have been surprised; some would have considered it a form of poetic justice – the inevitable harvest of a life spent sowing seeds of deception.

But for all of his running, Jacob could not out run God. And that is really what this story is about. In their first dark encounter, God had a dream for Jacob. But he was not living the dream. In this deep darkness, God once again shows up with a dream for Jacob – a dream for a future that was better than his past. And even though no one would have blamed God for walking away from this shady guy and his checkered past, God doubles down, stakes a new claim with a new name, God stays with him through the entire anxious, restless night. When Jacob thought he was all alone, it was God who was there with him in the darkness.

Some people find God in the Light. Some people see God's face in a beauty sunrise. Some watch the Spirit dance on the golden horizon, all warm embrace, all peace and comfort.

But some of us encounter God in the darkness. And sometimes it feels like a struggle. And sometimes the struggle leaves scars.

But sometimes only a limp will keep us from running away. Sometimes we need the scars to remind us that in the deepest darkness, we are never alone.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

How Long? [Proper 22C]

The Rev. Jeremiah Williamson
Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4

How Long?

I still remember the day so vividly. Friday, December 14, 2012. It was my day off and so I was home with my family – now three since Oscar was born the previous September. We sat in the family room, a bright, cool winter sun flooding into our space, and we turned on the TV. On the screen was a terrible nightmare that had escaped into the real world. Even now, almost four years later, it's still too horrible to think about. And yet parents lived it. Their little children frozen in time by a mad man with guns.

I remember staring at the television screen, sick to my stomach, sick to the soul, the death toll growing: tiny lives that never fully blossomed, hopes and dreams never fully realized. Denial is the first stage of grief, but it wasn't that, it just seemed unreal, too terrible to be real. Never before, nor since, have I cried so much for people I did not know. I remember those tears, there were so many tears, but also not enough, never enough to cover all of those tiny lives. After the chaos cleared, the final death count came in: Twenty little children killed in a flurry of terrible bullets. Parents' hearts ripped out. Lives shattered. Scars that will never, ever heal.

That tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut was so horrendous, I thought, “Something will have to change. We can't go on like this.” But then this week, another school shooting, children made targets in South Carolina. And I am Habakkuk weeping over the devastation of Judah, lamenting as the Creator's creation unravels. Then and now I pray to God, “How Long?” And still our story is written in blood. The prophet's words are the news crawl of our age: “Destruction and violence are before us; strife and contention arise.”

Newtown. Charleston. Orlando. 9/11. Our story written in blood. You never forget where you were the moment you heard; you never forget the violent images, burned into you brain, into your soul, into your heart; you never forget the stories of the aftermath: pain and tragedy, of families torn apart and lives cut short. And the prayer, a haunted question: “How long, O Lord?”

Iraq. Afghanistan. ISIS. Our story written in blood. You never forget the first strike, flashes of light and clouds of dust; you never forget the images of bombs and torture, of rubble and human lives as collateral damage; you never forget the stories of the men and women who never came home, and innocent children caught up in a grown-up war. And the prayer, the same prayer, “How long, O Lord?”

In our city streets. In our facebook feeds. Creeping ever closer to our front doors. Lives ended with a pop, in an instant. Our story written in blood. Every lifeless body, every survivor left behind, every lethal injection (death piled on death), every violent viral video in the cycle leaves a scar. Violent images have become the icons of our age, reminders of our human depravity. We measure our days in terrorist attacks and bloody wars and mass shootings. We are all victims of the violence; it chips away at our humanity, at our ability to love, at our willingness to live out the Gospel in this world. We are Cain, destroying the Image of God. We are Cain, breaking the heart of God.

And then weeping into the silent night sky, fists clenched, eyes burning: “How long, O Lord?”

And it is from the Cross that our Crucified God hears the question. Humanity sentences God to the death penalty, and yet, God does not walk away, does not leave us. Despite the violence, despite the threat, God did not keep a distance. God was broken by the same violence that continues to break communities and families. God was scarred by the same violence that still leaves marks on our hearts and souls. Our God, a victim of our violence, hears our frustrated prayer: How Long, O Lord?

And replies: “How long, O children of the earth, how long?” Our prayer in the mouth of our Saving Victim. Our prayer returned to sender. Our prayer, God's question, all along. We are Human, looking for someone to blame.

But on our best days, we pull ourselves away from the steady stream of bad news and we dare to dream of something better. We dream of the wolf lying down with the lamb. We dream of swords beaten into plowshares. We dream of a world in which nations will practice war no more. We dream of a heaven absent of pain and sorrow. We dream of a heaven in which God wipes the tears from every eye. On our best days, we might even dare to rage against the dying, to start making those dreams come true – in this world, sowing seeds of love and hope in these killing fields.

This is my dream for the world in which my boys are growing up. And just because it is a dream does not mean it is unrealistic – just that is hasn't happened yet. Just because our history is written in blood does not mean our future will be defined by violence. Past results do not guarantee future performance.

God bore the unbearable weight of our human violence on the cross. God became every victim. God lived every life that ended too soon. Our bloodthirsty ground drank the blood of God. We destroyed God just like we destroy the Image of God over and over again. We wrote God into our history of violence.

But God re-wrote the ending. Our God exposed our guilt, confronted our violence, to show us that there is more to the story, more to the story than violence and death. Into our utter hopelessness God planted a seed of hope, a promise of life. Violence and death will not have the last word. Love is stronger.

When it seemed there was no hope, no answer, no escape, God laid everything on the line, a perfect sacrifice for the whole world, to show us a better way, to give us a future – through death and into life, from the violence of our Good Friday world to the hope of Easter morning. And in this Easter world, the Easter world in which we live, death is not the only answer; in fact, death is not the answer at all. In God's Easter world, death is overcome by life, the grave is where we shout our Alleluias, and the weeping of the dark night, the despair, the hopelessness that weighs us down, gives way to the joy of the morning. This Easter miracle is God's answer to our haunted question; It's God's answer to our fatal disease; It's God's answer to our most desperate prayers. We wrote a heartbreaking history of violence with a Good Friday ending – and no one, not even God, was spared. But that is not the end of our story. Because God wrote a better ending.