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the sermon for

the Third Sunday of Advent

17 December 2017

Isaiah 61:1-4 , Isaiah 61:8-11
Faith begins not in broad daylight, but in the night!

12172017There's fifty-two weeks in every year. Take away from that four weeks' vacation time. That leaves forty-eight sermons. Add to that Christmas Eve, Ash Wednesday, Maundy Thursday, and Good Friday. An occasional wedding or two. A funeral. And an extra service or two, to be on the safe side. That means, ballpark figure, each year contains around sixty sermons! Sixty sermons preached! And more importantly, sixty sermons written! Not to mention, Advent and Lenten midweeks, newsletter reflections, Wednesday devotions online, and all the rest! That means, for the most part, there's always a part of my mind trying to figure out what I'm going to say next. Always mulling something over. Always musing on something. Thinking something through. What to say. How to say it.

Of course, there's the big thoughts. The big ideas. But there's, also, the inklings and the hints and the notions. The little things that collect in the corners of my mind. That get caught up in the dust bunnies under the bed. Very little of which I ever, actually, say out loud! Maybe, now and again, something may slip out in conversation, during a class. But never in a sermon! Or I guess I should say, hardly ever! Because there was that one time, two or three congregations back...

When the church was just starting to notice that the church was changing. Back when we first realized that we were shrinking. Getting smaller. Older. Back before we had started to panic. Well, I said something I knew, right away, that I shouldn't have. I said we were in trouble because we were inviting the wrong people to church. We were inviting the wrong people. Instead of looking for people who needed god, who needed the church, we wanted the ones who didn't! Didn't really need us or what we had to offer! We were always after the ones Ben Franklin would have called the healthy, wealthy, and wise! The ones who had enough. The ones who had more than enough. The ones who had everything they needed. The ones who had everything they wanted. Who, still, had enough left over! Independent! Proud! Self-sufficient! Self-reliant! Self-confident! Self-assured! These are the people who stand on their own two feet! Who, probably, wouldn't have to ask us for anything!

You get the idea. In contrast, I'd been thinking that we were here for the people who were more... well, who were more like Eeyore! Pooh's dark and dismal friend. Eeyore the gloomy, depressed, joyless, old gray donkey! Chin high to Pooh. Hip high to Christopher. That was th kind of person Christ came to save! The kind of person the church is here to deliver. The kind of person who needs more than entertaining. Who's looking for something other than a distraction. The kind of person who has nothing, who has no one else.

Well, after the sermon, the consensus was, of course, that I was wrong. EVERYBODY needs Jesus! Rich people! Poor people! Everyone in between! And so, we kept on looking for the same people... and getting smaller... and grayer... But that little piece of grist stayed with me. Tucked away in the back of my thoughts. Meditating. Contemplating. Ruminating. And waiting for a passage just like this...

The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me,

because the LORD has anointed me;

he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,

to bind up the brokenhearted,

to proclaim liberty to the captives,

and release to the prisoners;

to comfort all who mourn;

Et cetera! Et cetera! Et cetera!

The prophet is sent NOT to those who have it all together, but to those who are broken and unraveled! The prophet is sent not to the high and mighty, but to the lowest and least! To the oppressed! To the brokenhearted! To the captive! To the imprisoned! To the grief-stricken! Those are the ones who are the objects of god's compassion! You've got to have pain before anyone can feel it! For Matthew, if you remember, it was the hungry and the thirsty, the naked and the alien, the sick and the bound who Jesus calls, "Sister! Brother!" Love is like water. It flows downhill! Gravity always pulls it toward the ground!

In the past, the Third Sunday of Advent has always focused on Mary, the Mother of Our Lord. That's why in some churches – Catholic, Episcopal, Lutheran – the candle on the Advent Wreath is pink. That's why the alternative to Psalm 126 is the Magnificat, Mary's song from Luke's gospel. In fact, we'll be singing that song ourselves, in a few minutes, at Communion. "My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for you, Lord, have looked with favor on the lowliness – not the holiness, not the haughtiness, but the lowliness - of your servant." A few lines later, she sings, "You have cast down the mighty from their thrones and lifted up the lowly! Filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty!"

Faith is conceived not – NOT – in what we have, but in what we don't have! And believing is born not in what we're able to accomplish, but in what we can't do! It's like trying to buy that special gift for the one person who has everything and needs nothing. Our problem is that we look for and invite and welcome the wrong people! The people who don't really need us! Who don't really need what we have to offer! And even worse, we come to believe that we ourselves are those people! Independent! Proud! Self-sufficient! Self-reliant! Self-confident! Self-assured! Thinking we have it all! Blind to what god has given. Deaf to what god has done.

"The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me;"

That 'me' is the prophet! That 'me' is Jesus! That 'me' is the church. And the job for each of us – the job for all of us – is the same. To bring good news! To bind up! To proclaim liberty, liberty and release! To comfort! Not to the untroubled! Not the overjoyed! The free! The rejoicing! But to the Eeyores of this world! To be saved, you must, first, be drowning. To be delivered, you must, first, be broken! To be redeemed, you must, first, be bound!

The light shines in both the day and the night. But when light shines in the light, no one notices! When it shines in the darkness, when it shines among the shadows, it's needed! Light shining in the light is overcome. It's taken for granted. But when it shines in the night, that's when the light is noticed! We aren't called to bring the gospel to the untroubled. We haven't been chosen to bind up the overjoyed. We haven't been sent to proclaim liberty to the footloose and fancy-free. We aren't here to comfort those who have the world at their feet. It just doesn't work that way.

The world is changed only by being there with and for those who have no one else, who have nothing else. To us, god has sent Jesus. To them... To them, my friends, god sends us!

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the sermon for

the Second Sunday of Advent

10 December 2017

Isaiah 40:1-11
We don't go to god; god comes to us!

12102017The film was first released on the twenty-fifth of August, 1939 and was nominated, that year, for six Oscars, including one for best picture. Unfortunately, another film won that category. Gone with the Wind! Released in 1939, it was rereleased nationally ten years later and released, again, six years after that. Then on Saturday, November 3rd, 1956, it was shown on television. The first, ever, Hollywood film to be shown uncut and in prime time! And it's, pretty much, become an annual television classic! Of course, I'm talking about The Wizard of Oz! And we've come to know it all by heart! Dorothy and Toto! The Scarecrow! The Tin Man! The Lion! Even the Wicked Witch of the West and all those monkeys! All those eerie, creepy, flying monkeys!

But even more than family entertainment, The Wizard of Oz has been a way of teaching us about God! Or at the very least, a way of reïnforcing what we, already, know! The great and powerful, at the end of the road, waiting to answer our prayers, to grant our requests, to make our every wish come true! A heart for the unfeeling! A brain for the thoughtless! Courage for the faith-of-heart! A way home for the lost and alone! But first... first... we have to get there! And that's the whole point of the story! The journey to the Emerald City!

The Wizard of Oz sounds a whole lot like The Pilgrim's Progress! The believer facing, enduring, trials and tribulations on his way to heaven! Trials and tribulations just like the Poppy Field and the Haunted Forest and the Witch's Castle and all those flying monkeys! And not once, not one time, in either does the great and powerful ever set foot on the pilgrim's path. Only Dorothy and Toto and the Scarecrow and the Tin Man and the Lion! Only to the Emerald City, never from it! Take those two stories, change a few things, and, pretty much, you have the story of faith that most of us have grown up with. The ladder. The staircase. Pearly gates. Streets of gold. And always one way! One way and only one way! From us to god! From earth to heaven! Just like the spiritual! "We are climbing Jacob's ladder!" and "Ev'ry round goes higher, higher!" So I guess it's kind of natural for us to read the words of the prophet and imagine he's talking about the same thing!

A voice cries out:
'In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.

We want, so much, to follow that yellow-brick road! To climb Jacob's ladder! To get through those pearly gates! We want, with all our being, to be with the great and powerful! But there's only one problem. That highway, that ladder, that road, wasn't made for us to use. It's meant only for god! We don't go to the king. The king comes to us! That's why it's called the King's Highway! The great and the powerful sets aside the special effects, leaves behind the Emerald City, and journeys to be with us here in our Munchkinville! It's all Oz! It's all god! From start to finish! From beginning to end! God overcomes the witch! God claims the broomstick! God journeys through the Poppy Field, through the Haunted Forest! God is the one – the only one – who follows the yellow-brick road! Not to, but from Oz! And when god gets her, god gives us a new heart and a new mind! God gives us confidence and courage! God, even, brings us home!

That's where Luke gets is wrong! It's not the prodigal who must find his way back to the father. It's the father, it's the mother, who makes his way, who makes her way, from the home to the pig sty! There's only one direction! Father to Son! Heaven to earth! Every valley lifted up! Every mountain, hill, made low! Uneven becoming level. Rough smooth! And it's all done not to make our journey easier! It's done to make god's journey, god's travel simple and straightforward! God comes to us! We don't go to god! Always, forever, god is the one in motion!

But, then, no matter how often we're told that – here, in this place – we still think it's us. It seems that The Wizard of Oz has a greater hold on our imagination than the gospel ever did. In the past, when I've said 2/3 to 3/4 of us disagree with or don't understand the most basic teachings, this... this is what I meant! It's that downward-pointing arrow! God coming to earth! God becoming flesh-and-blood! Christmas isn't the shepherds going to Bethlehem! Christmas isn't the magi, the wise men, following a star. That's all part of the Oz-like faith! Following the yellow-brick road! Off to see the wizard! But we have it all wrong! All inside-out! All upside-down! All backwards!

Christmas is Jesus coming to us! It's gravity pulling god out of heaven into creation itself! At Christmas, we don't go to god, but god comes to us! And during Advent... During Advent, we simply sit... and wait... and watch... for that moment when god appears! Appears in the story and in the songs! Appears in the water and in the bread and in the wine! Appears, even, in the faces of the people all around us! Strangers! Friends! We don't go to god. God comes to us! And all the preparations? The lists we make? The lists we check twice? Well, the preparations – like the journey – belong to god, as well!

The king's highway doesn't begin here and end there. It begins there! Up high! Far away! And it makes its way to us! Just like that burlap arrow that hangs on the wall behind me! You see, that way of the Lord, that highway for our god, is nothing less than love! Nothing less than charity! Than grace! That highway, that road, is god's grace, god's charity, god's love! For each and for every! For one and for all! It's not a yellow-brick road that leads us somewhere over the rainbow, but a path that journeys from a stable to a cross, from a cross to a grave, and from a grave not to the sky, but back to life! Right here! Right now!

So, we've seen the movie so many times, before! As a family! Sitting together on a couch! Lying on the living room floor! Over the decades, across the generations, it's become a big part of our life. We've been entertained! Amused! But we've, also, been distracted and confused. By the special effects. By the music. By the story itself. It's all what we expect. All what we already believe. "Follow the yellow-brick road," we're told! "Follow the rainbow over the stream! Follow the fellow who follows a dream!" But here, this morning, the prophet says, "Sit! Sit and wait!" "Your god is coming!" "Your god is near!" My friends, it isn't for you – for us – to go to god! But it's god's job to come to us! After all, why else is god god!

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