Sermons & Public Writings of Our Minister
The weekly sermon at First Baptist is posted here as soon as possible. Also, as the minister writes for print media from time to time, "public writings" are posted as well. The sermons are in reverse chronological order and stretch back to June 2006, generally adhering to the Revised Common Lectionary readings.
If you would like to utilize something from one of my sermons, please remember good clergy ethics and ask! Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
At yesterday’s service, in the midst of the third Sunday of Advent, traditionally given to “joy”, we prayed with hearts burdened by the tragedy of the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT. I share with you these words from yesterday’s worship service:
O God, we pray with those who grieve the terrible loss and tragedy of the Sandy Hook Elementary School, and for the parents and grandparents, colleagues and friends and the whole community of Newtown, CT. We pray for gentle words and acts of compassion to surround each person as they mourn.
We pray for the community and our nation unsettled by this news, sadly one of many other tragedies caused by persons who turn to violence out of compulsions we can barely fathom. We pray for the faculty and staff of the school, for the first responders and local and state officials involved, for the therapists, medical workers and clergy providing care and support, safe space to talk and the beginnings of healing and hope. In the peaceable name of Christ, AMEN.
December 16, 2012 Luke 3:7-18
We learned last week that John the Baptist has fire in the belly, fire in his gaze and no end of fire in his preaching. He is a contrary figure in every sense of the word: bad hair, bad fashion sense, and a message that’s bad for those who prefer to live life without much sense of consequence. John the Baptist is the “Mr. T” of the New Testament, at the ready to “pity no fool”.
His prophetic edge is in service to his belief in God’s call upon humanity to straighten up and walk the better path. John the Baptist joins the generations of prophets before him in proclaiming the word folks spend more time trying to avoid than take to heart. He appears at the margins, the wilderness where few go, yet out there among the dry sands and the muddy River Jordan, his message is heard by those who know that they must take leave of life as they know it, even if they still struggle with how to turn away and find they have been yearning for all the wrong things.
Back in college, I wrote my undergraduate thesis on the monk Thomas Merton, considered one of the great Catholic writers of the 20th-century. The era I wrote about was his “pre-monastery” days, looking at what would bring Merton, who had a promising literary career, to leave his life in New York City for the cloisters of a monastery in rural Kentucky. It was not an easy path. Merton had difficulties in his early years, orphaned before he reached adulthood. He spent time being sent around various relatives in England to foster him, separated from his younger brother for much of the time.
By the time Merton went to college at Cambridge, he took a rather reckless path. He soon wound upon a ship heading for the United States after some youthful indiscretions, which are rather tame by today’s standards yet considered scandalous back in the 1940s when Merton wrote his autobiography and his religious order declined to allow him to go into detail.
Writing years later after discovering the balance of monastic life, Merton wrote
I imagined that I was free. And it would take me five or six years to discover what a frightful captivity I had got myself into….There was no room for God in that empty temple full of dust and rubbish which I was now so jealously to guard against all intruders, in order to devote it to the worship of my own stupid will. (Seven Storey Mountain)
Merton’s language is heavy, yet it is good confessional language, remembering himself truthfully before God, taking leave of the ways that led only to his detriment. The Advent season, and indeed the whole Christian journey, invites us to be this truth telling, not because we are meant to feel lowly in the telling but instead to be liberated from those things that drive us in the wrong direction or compel us to be something that we are not.
In Merton’s later vocation as a monk and spiritual writer, he taught many, and indeed, his writings continue to teach Christians and others the way of living fully in the truth and love of the better path. Nonetheless, this awareness and ability to speak to it so well came only by way of assenting to become something he was not initially ready to embrace. Is it any wonder that years later that a writer looked back at the life of Thomas Merton and included him in a book entitled “The life you save may be your own”?
John the Baptist brings that word of repentance a bit more brashly. His message aims to sear the consciences of those gathered to hear and be baptized. He offers baptism as sign and symbol of repentance, but in the meantime, he’s asking them to be scrubbed clean of more than moral blemishes. He turns the mirror upon us, demanding us to look carefully. His preaching involves the heat of a fire that shall leave only the good, the chaff burned away.
I find John’s message as a good word that we benefit from hearing and taking to heart. John demands that we cast aside our bad and take up a different way. For John, the proof of our repentance (turning away from the worse and turning toward the better path) will be in our relationships with others, particularly to take care of those in need and not exploit or dominate. In other words, we take leave of the bad part of being human when we willfully turn toward the world’s deep needs, particularly of those right in front of us.
The gospel of Luke and its sequel the Book of Acts presses home this ethic of becoming a disciple of Jesus, a rather holistic approach blending the piety (in the good sense of the word) with the practice of living the way of Jesus. Luke and Acts do not shortchange the connection of the coming Reign of God with the here and now. The disciples and the emerging early churches found faith connected to the world’s deep needs, bringing together an inclusive community and living against the grain of Temple and Empire. It makes for a more difficult type of faith, yet one cannot be a Christian without having the love of God and neighbor foremost.
In other words, repenting is a matter of life and death or better said death and new life. Christians are called to die to self and find the life that matters to God and not necessarily those of society, economics and the last word offered by supposedly reigning ideologies of the day. In taking leave of such powerful influences over us and our communities, indeed the nations of the world, we turn away from and turn toward the way of Jesus Christ.
Back in 2005, the author Thomas Wolfe published a novel “I am Charlotte Simmons”, a novel exploring undergrads at a fictional and rather hedonistic college campus. The then Dean of Chapel at Duke University William Willimon reviewed the novel for The Christian Century news journal, taking Wolfe’s depiction of collegiate life as a bit much, though certainly not too distant from certain aspects of Duke and other institutions of higher learning.
Toward the end of his book review, Willimon recalls the time he met Thomas Wolfe, whose daughter was attending Duke. Willimon recalls greeting congregants as they left worship at the Duke Chapel, including Wolfe:
Walking out of Duke Chapel one day, Wolfe said to me, "You have a lovely chapel here. Who are the statues at the front door?"
I informed him that they portray Duke’s "saints" -- On the one side are great southerners…; on the other side, great preachers of the past.
"That explains St. Francis," said Wolfe.
"No, that’s not St. Francis," I explained. "That’s Savonarola."
"What?" asked Wolfe in astonishment.
"You know, Savonarola, the friar of Florence, the fire-filled preacher who was burned at the stake," I said.
"Only the church would pull a stunt like that," muttered Wolfe as he walked away.
I thought it a strange reaction. Only the church would pull a stunt like that? What did he mean?
That evening, I sat straight up in bed and exclaimed, "I get it!" Wolfe got the title for his book The Bonfire of the Vanities from Savonarola, the 15th-century preacher who called on the citizens of Florence to cast their books and artworks into a "bonfire of the vanities."
[By vanity, we’re not talking about furniture. We are talking of those things that distract us or make us vain. Savonarola and others in this time period would encourage the citizens and villagers to bring those things that promoted their own vanity and burn them in bonfires. Willimon observes:]
Only the church would greet these upwardly mobile young adults with a reminder of Savonarola. This crazy monk is the first one to welcome them to Duke Chapel. [Wilimon goes on to names some modern examples of vanities that draw us away, and he imagines the statue of Savonarola declaring to the students:] “We’re going to have a bonfire of the vanities after service today. Throw all that trash on the fire!"’
Willimon concludes, “The university, according to this novel [I add in, about campus life gone indulgent], badly needs a church with enough guts to pull a stunt like that.”
Standing far away from the vast "cathedral" of Duke or even the venerable edifice we gather in weekly, we find old John the Baptist standing waist deep in the river, looking at his own little congregation with that gaze that unsettles and a message even more unsettling. He is ready to stir up some repentance as he awaits the One even greater than himself, for surely the Messiah will need such folks to bring about what is yet to come.
John never lit a bonfire for the vanities or tried his hand at preaching a less likely theme of the Advent season. One might say it’s a bit much for the time of year or not something we really want to hear.
Yet if we did not have such a word, even at times when we are settled in for the holidays or unsettled by the way life is playing out for us, when shall we ever hear of the word of the Lord breaking through, just as surely as God does in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ?
Back in seminary, I served as a seminary intern at a congregation with many people involved in the arts. A group of congregants enjoyed incorporating dance into worship. I was asked to give the dancers an assignment for the Sunday I was scheduled to preach. I gave them my chosen scripture for the morning message and asked them to retell it through dance.
The lectionary was for the first Sunday of Lent, and it was Mark’s story of John the Baptist and the baptism of Jesus. Mark tells a different version of what Luke tells. Mark’s story is much briefer, sparsely told just like everything else in Mark’s gospel. The dancers showed me what they had in mind, and I thought it was quite wonderful, a bringing to life of the text through their dance.
After this, one dancer approached me with a question. A big burly fellow with a bear tattoo on his bicep, he was an imposing figure, yet he danced like Fred Astaire. He said, “I’m John the Baptist in this dance. What’s my motivation? I’m the cousin of Jesus, right?"
I said, “Actually, John’s not mentioned as such in Mark’s gospel. John’s a minor character, barely on the stage before he’s off. Luke’s telling a different story in mind.”
The dancer was confused, “So, who is John the Baptist? Jesus’ cousin or what?” the dancer said.
“For Luke’s gospel, he is the cousin of Jesus and a prophet. But for Matthew, Mark and John, this doesn’t factor into their stories,” I said. “Though in each of the four gospels, John is depicted much the same: a wild-eyed man with unkempt hair and a fashion sense that was never in style. He’s the original fire and brimstone preacher mixed with the message right up there like the greatest of the Hebrew prophets. He also has atrocious breath.”
“The man ate mostly locusts with a dollop of honey,” I said. “Do the math.”
In Luke’s nativity stories, we find in the first two chapters of Luke a great drama with a bigger cast than we usually depict in our Christmas programs with shepherds in bathrobes. Luke tells an expanded story, centered first on Elizabeth, the older cousin of Mary. Elizabeth and her husband Zechariah are of advanced years, and just like Sarah and Abraham, they are gifted with a child. Zechariah struggles mightily with this promise, an irony for a long-time priest of God. Elizabeth embraces the news faithfully.
The two stories of John the Baptist and Jesus in Luke’s gospel intersect through the ties of family as well as mutual belief. The second cousin to Jesus, John the Baptist preaches a call to repentance and offers baptism. Jesus will build upon John’s teachings, bringing forth a vision of salvation and the wonderfully contrary world of the Kingdom/Reign of God.
Though, if you asked John the Baptist what his motivation was, he’d look at you and roar, “Repent!”
Repentance is not necessarily a word we go looking for this time of year. With Christmas now a week closer, we are focused on the holidays and for many, looking for good signs of merriment during difficult times. To be called to repent, well can we just wait? Lent will be here soon enough. Leave the hard edge, preacher. It’s nearly Christmas!
I admit I have wondered how John the Baptist pushed past the shepherds and wise men to get into the Advent readings. He seems an inappropriate figure speaking an inopportune word, clearly against the grain of the season at hand. Should we just quietly ignore what he’s saying and hope he’ll move on? “Repent!” is not a word for right now surely?
Then I got thinking about John the Baptist’s role in the gospels. He sets the stage for Jesus’ ministry and message, surely something John has in common with the season of Advent. We are lighting candles and waiting for Christmas, watching and praying faithfully. Part of being faithful to God is clearing up the distance we often place between ourselves and God by way of our sins and our shortcomings.
Most of us hear “Repent” and squirm a bit, wondering why a word so overused by the fundamentalist types on TV is showing up at our worship services, where we try our best to be graceful and open. Nonetheless, just like John the Baptist appearing inconveniently in the gospel readings during Advent, so his word about repentance is just as needed as we near Christmas.
Indeed, many of us are more like John the Baptist’s daddy, the man who seeks the sacred path and serves even as a priest in the Temple, yet for all his faith, old Zechariah reserves his belief in what God can do. It’s a form of sin, if you go back to the New Testament, where the Greek work hamartia speaks of sin more as “missing the mark”.
John’s message of “repent” is a good word to hear at this time of year, for we live in a world that is in sore need of it, and if we are honest, ourselves as well. In the New Testament Greek, the word “repent” is metanoia, which has all to do with transformation or turning away from one way and turning toward another and better way. Paul’s writings to the church at Rome have the best known use of that Greek term when he proclaims: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2). Such a change is about your transformation, where repentance leads to a new way, a new life-giving way, or indeed a new life.
What greater gift could one find in this life we have with its all too frequent lapses into bad habits and ways of thinking and acting than the promise that we can turn things around, and by doing so, find the better path? To repent is not to be brow-beat by the heavy hand of God or at least those who claim to speak for God. To repent is to understand your life is with its omissions and limits, willful choices that are not in line with living responsibly or in community with others.
By avoiding or denying our need to repent, we continue ways leading to sadness and despair, no matter how we might tell ourselves otherwise. To repent is to turn things around, to let your life find balance, to welcome grace into your life. You realize there is a wonderful fullness to life that is not like the illusions we chase after. As the Baptist ethicist Glen Stassen recently observed, “The Christian life is continuously repenting, continuously learning” (A Thicker Jesus: Incarnational Discipleship in a Secular Age, W/JKP, 2012, p. 7).
Such calls to repent, though, take often the prophetic edge to get past our sometimes dull response. John the Baptist has an edge to him you find sometimes unsettling, as he bellows on the street corner a message that some avoid, content to passing by and tune him out.
John the Baptist is sometimes hard to handle. After all, he smells of locusts and defies anybody’s offer of a makeover. For Luke, he is a cousin of Jesus, and therefore kin in relationship as well as belief, a way of being faithful known for taking matters of God more seriously than placating the powers that be. Remember that these cousins John and Jesus are not popular, and they also find that the authorities, religious and secular alike, do not take well to their call to repent or the teachings of another Kingdom far above any empire. To follow this message of transformation and working for the Reign of God is not for those who wish to keep on walking by the faithful yet edgy preaching of the gospel.
I wonder if we might consider adding some extra figures to the manger scene on the front lawn or mantle. I would love to add the family of John the Baptist, for surely they fit into the story. Let’s imagine adding a beautiful elder woman, a hand gently on the swell of her stomach and a pleased smile upon her face. Then add the old priest Zechariah, standing in his Temple robes yet sort of shocked and puzzled, literally speechless at the thought of Elizabeth’s advanced years yet bearing new life.
And then I imagine John the Baptist, not content to be “tamed” by being depicted as a young child just a few months older than Jesus. Instead, he insists that his figurine be that of his adult years, wearing old rugged clothing, hair that defies a brush, a small dish of mashed locusts and honey close at hand. John is not content to be kneeling near the crèche. Instead, he is peeking around the corner of the stable, not wanting to distract from the true focal point of this scene: the baby Jesus at the center of this great reverence.
John the Baptist looks back at us. “Have you repented?” he says with that glint in his eye and the long, bony finger pointing to the manger with Christ awaits those who would transform themselves for his sake. Amen.
December 2, 2012
We Christians are a people of holy days, now entering into the season of Advent when we light candles, sing Advent hymns and quite simply wait.
The Christ is coming. Are we ready to greet him?
It was the day after Halloween. I was at my doctor’s office, waiting for my name to be called. You know how it goes. The nurse comes into the waiting room, and you find yourself leaning forward, certain that you’re next. As it tends to work out, it’s not your name that’s called, so you settle back and look at that issue of National Geographic sitting around the waiting room since 1984.
I found the experience particularly challenging, and not so much by the wait. It was the music playing in the background that made me a bit stir crazy. The day after Halloween costumes and buckets of candy, the radio stations kicked into holiday music overdrive. Somehow the music just seemed just wrong so early, though I know it’s deemed “bad for business” when trying to get folks in the Christmas mood, though for retail rather than religious purposes.
If I ever found my way into the lower rings of Hades, I can imagine that it involves a doctor’s office waiting room, and Christmas music playing way too early. And just my luck, it would be the music I heard that morning after Halloween while waiting at the doctor’s office: “Santa baby…”
The Church is an oddity this time of year. We insist that Christmas is something to wait for. The cultural and commercial aspects of Christmas are just that: traditions and sales plans aiming to stretch the happy visions of winter wonderlands and little elves working overtime. And the Church says resolutely instead: “Wait.”
Tonight, the children will offer a Christmas program where we talk about waiting for things in life, getting impatient, and how hard it is to wait for things like warmer weather during the winter when you are cold or when the wi-fi is too slow to play a game online. It’s whimsical, yet the little scenes teach a lesson about waiting, and how waiting is something Christians do when it’s “the holidays”. We are a people of holy days, now entering into the season of Advent where we light candles, sing Advent hymns and quite simply wait.
The Christ is coming. Are we ready to greet him?
I know there are many times for gathering together with family and friends in the days ahead, office Christmas parties, times to get to the mall or a downtown business for gift purchases. It is time for the annual battle to get the Christmas tree lights untangled and keep the cats from tangling up in them.
There’s also the flip side of the holidays, when funds are tight or your work place seems not to relent enough for a little downtime to enjoy this time of year, or when it’s time to gather around the table and you have to deal with the ache of absence as it’s the first holiday since a loved one died.
I wonder if you’d try Advent with me this season, just slow down and let Christmas come in due time. I think what you will find is a needed balm for the hustle and bustle, the stress and the weariness inevitable this time of year with all the hype. For centuries, Christians have used the time leading up to Christmas to focus on what our faith in Christ is about. On the four Sundays before Christmas, we hear readings from the gospels and the prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures, hearing the call to wait upon God alone and consider our lives in light of the teachings of Jesus. Advent encourages us to be very, and really that’s the point!
The first Sunday of Advent is particularly jarring, if not peculiar for the merriment usually associated with the time of year. We may have come this morning ready to sing Silent Night and hear the story of the census calling expectant Mary and faithful Joseph to head for Bethlehem. Instead, the adult Jesus greets us with apocalyptic predictions. Why do we get these words of gloom and doom instead of the happier tones of shepherds watching their flocks by night?
Such a teaching of Jesus helps us make sense of why we celebrate Christmas. We have no reason to celebrate the birth of Jesus if we do not see Christmas through the eyes of a faith that proclaims Easter’s great promise. Advent helps us prepare to celebrate Nativity while reminding us that we believe in a greater story of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. After all, it is only because of the events of Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Resurrection Morn that we celebrate the Holy Family, shepherds and angels and the wise men following the star.
As I said before: we are a people of holy days, now entering into the season of Advent when we light candles, sing Advent hymns and quite simply wait.
The Christ is coming. Are we ready to greet him?
Advent is taken from the Latin word “adventus”, which means “coming”. Among some of the earliest confessional statements made in Christianity were about Jesus returning after He ascended to heaven in his resurrection glory. “Come, Lord Jesus” was on the hearts and minds of these first generations of believers, looking for the return of Jesus perhaps sooner than later. They knew that waiting was part of keeping the faith.
Such patience, such hope, such trust is all the more remarkable when you consider the difficulty of being a Christian in that same time period. With persecution, marginalization and hostility to their belief, the early Christians could have taken the easier path by recanting or denouncing their faith and just slipping away, hopefully not to be recognized and live out much quieter lives. Instead, they kept to the faith and kept that belief of waiting faithfully for Jesus to return and bring about the End.
The bleaker word we hear today is less about the tumult and more about the call to persevere and wait in the midst of the world’s chaos for God’s order being brought to bear upon it. Christians are to take these teachings as the way through the times of hardship and uncertainty as a good word for the long haul. No matter how overcast the future may appear, Christians hold up their heads with confidence, knowing the promises of Christ and looking toward the future with hope.
Back in the 1980s, a writer experienced the winter in Norway, living in a community 215 miles north of the Artic circle. The writer notes from November to early January, “the people of the far north live in darkness, relieved by only two to three hours of indirect or half-light midday”. She noted the difficulties persons have with the lack of light, with sleep disorders, physical ailments and depression being among the issues common to the time.
To her surprise, she discovered that Advent became of special significance, a sign of hope and encouragement for those who observed it while journeying through the dark season. Around these months of little or no sunlight, the people found the light of Advent candles to be especially meaningful. The Advent candles adorn many places around the town, providing a warm and welcoming sight in the midst of the otherwise draining overreaching, persistent gloom.
The writer noted that the sermons among the town’s pastors drew upon the gospel’s talk of Jesus being the Light coming into the world. She notes one pastor
noted the setting for Advent—"a dark time without sun"—and the people, those who could and those who could not see the season as a "sweet time of expectation." And he foretold the outcome, survival by cod liver oil [surely, I add, the sign Norwegians are made of sterner stuff], vitamins, and the Scriptures. Connection was drawn between the candles, the sun, and the Son. The Advent lights, he explained, mark the way to Christmas when "the Sun is on the upswing again and that points towards lighter times.... For that something we await so is the light in a twofold sense”. [Abby Arthur Johnson, "Keep your lamps burning: Advent in the Arctic", Theology Today, 1985]
Advent might just be the best thing the Church has to offer our friends and family, our neighbors and colleagues. Learn to live the Advent way, the measured pace as we wait faithfully for Christ’s light to enter the world. In the face of the retail secular version Christmas, the Church says, “Not quite yet. We have this practice of waiting and moving slower.”
After all, we are a people of holy days, now entering into the season of Advent when we light candles, sing Advent hymns and quite simply wait.
The Christ is coming. Are we ready to greet him?