Changing our minds

2 Advent: Baruch 5:1-9; Canticle 16 (Luke 1:68-79); Philippians 1:3-11; Luke 3:1-6

Advent is a time of waiting, and waiting for change. But the readings today focus more on the change. In Baruch, we are called to “Take off the garment of your sorrow and affliction, O Jerusalem, and put on forever the beauty of the glory from God.” The image is concrete: we need to be dressed to celebrate. Baruch tells Jerusalem to rejoice that God has remembered them. “For God has ordered that every high mountain and the everlasting hills be made low and the valleys filled up, to make level ground, so that Israel may walk safely in the glory of God.” What a promise: that God will smooth the ground to make your way safe! Luke refers back to that promise at the end of today’s gospel, seeking to create continuity between Jesus and the salvation history of Israel.

In the gospel, we also hear about John, preaching “a baptism of repentance”. Yesterday I read an essay by Professor Brittney Cooper, a Black feminist scholar, on repentance. It was part of a series in The Christian Century on “how I changed my mind”, and the title was “Why I came back around to repentance“. Cooper suggests that we should think of repentance not as cataloguing and confessing sins big and small, but changing our minds, as we get rid of ideas that separate us from God. “What if”, she asks, “at base, our faith practices were about a willingness to change our minds in ways that allowed us to bend more easily toward love, justice, mercy, and grace?”

The season of Advent is a season of waiting for change. We think of the change as the birth of Jesus. John preached a baptism of repentance. I have always understood sin as that which separates us from God, and repentance as bringing us back to God. If we understand this as a season of changing our minds, it moves our focus to how we, as a community of Christians, can collectively let go of ideas and actions that harm us and others, and follow God in trying to make “the crooked straight, and the rough ways smooth”. When we do that, we will be on the road to justice and love. And we will be ready to welcome Jesus into our lives.

Waiting

Today’s readings: Jeremiah 33:14-16; Psalm 25:1-9; 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13; Luke 21:25-36

It’s the first Sunday of Advent, the start of the liturgical year. But instead of parties and shouts of “Happy New Year,” the church starts the year with anxious waiting. Advent is not quite penitential, but it is filled with a combination of hope and fear. In the Gospel, Jesus talks about “the signs in the sun, the moon and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves.” He goes on to look forward to the time when Heaven and Earth will pass away, and warns us to be ready for that day. Not a very happy message, but one that resonates with many of us, facing climate change and its impact on the world we live in, never mind a pandemic that has been going on for almost two years now. The earth is sending us messages. But between wars, famines, droughts, and earthquakes, such messages have been heard at many times and in many places. Not surprisingly, the apocalyptic writings of scripture have been among preachers’ greatest hits fairly regularly over the last 2000 years! We live in a world where things go wrong, and people suffer. The end of that might not be a bad thing.

If Luke warns us to be ready for all the terrible things that will happen before Jesus comes again, I found myself drawn more to the words of Jeremiah, where he describes the world that God will bring, when God “will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel”. Jeremiah reminds us why we might look forward to that. When the “righteous Branch” of David comes, “he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety.” This is the world we want to live in. As the US continues its long racial reckoning, and the Sunday after the murderers of Ahmaud Arbery were found guilty, it is good to remember that justice brings safety.

The psalmist is not concerned with the coming of a new world, but offers us a path. He asks to be taught — “Lead me in your truth and teach me”. We’re told that the Lod’s “compassion and love . . . are from everlasting”. And he asks the Lord, as we all must, to “Remember not the sins of my youth and my transgressions; remember me according to your love.” The psalm offers reassurance that “All the paths of the Lord are love and faithfulness to those who keep his covenant and his testimonies.”

I am glad that we get to Luke’s warnings after we have heard from Jeremiah and the Psalmist. They put justice and love at the center. Building a world of justice and righteousness, we have learned over thousands of years, is not easy. But movements toward justice have often come from what felt like end times. The warnings that Luke offers and the promise that Jeremiah gives us are necessarily intertwined. I don’t know what it means to be ready for the “Son of Man coming in a cloud”, but if that is what it takes to get to the world of justice, righteousness and safety, I will do my best, like the psalmist, to follow the Lord’s paths.

Christ the King

“My kingdom is not from this world”, Jesus tells Pilate in today’s gospel (John 18:36). This Sunday, the last in the church year, is commonly known as “Christ the King Sunday”, or “The Reign of Christ”. If Jesus’ kingdom is not from this world, what does it mean in this world? In the epistle, taken from Revelation, we’re told that Jesus is “ruler of the kings of the earth” (Revelation 1:5). In our first reading, the last words of David, we are told that “One who rules over people justly, ruling in the fear of God, is like the light of morning, like the sun rising on a cloudless morning, gleaming from the rain on the grassy land” (2 Samuel 23:3-4). All this talking about kings and kingship is a bit strange for those of us living in a republic founded on the rejection of kings!

I’m not sure I know what to think about Christ’s kingdom: it’s not from this world, but this world is the only one I know. The multiple metaphors around the idea of Christ’s kingship suggest it’s one that many have struggled over. When I read about the light of the morning, I know it is a kingdom I wish for. It is simultaneously not from this world, but one we seek to build in this world. So today I have no bright ideas, just a question to ponder. What does it mean for you that Christ is King, that we are living in the reign of Christ? What do you differently because of that? How can we feel the light of morning? What are we doing to build the kingdom?

Making a spectacle

In today’s Hebrew scripture, we hear the story of Hannah (1 Samuel 1:4-20). Hannah is much loved by her husband Elkanah, but she has no children: “the Lord had closed her womb”. Her husband’s other wife, Peninnah, had “sons and daughters”, and taunts Hannah with her childlessness. Hannah, we’re told, grieves her childlessness. The account in scripture suggests very messy family dynamics, as Hannah is apparently the favorite wife, even though she was childless.

Hannah goes to the temple to pray, “deeply distressed”. She is watched by the priest Eli as she prays silently and weeps, and he asks her “How long will you make a drunken spectacle of yourself?” When she tells him she is not drunk, but praying from “anxiety and vexation”, he asks the God of Israel to grant her petition. And so it is: the story tells us that she and Elkanah worshiped before the Lord, went back to their house, and that Elkanah “knew his wife Hannah”. She conceived and bore a son, Samuel.

I am intrigued by Eli’s initial reaction, his concern that Hannah is making a spectacle of herself. She’s altogether too emotional in her prayer. Is Eli a closet Episcopalian? I’m uncomfortable with people who make a big deal about their faith. Like many Episcopalians, I’m not big on extemporaneous emotional prayer! Yet when we pray from our hearts, sometimes it is emotional. If we’re sharing with God our deepest joys, longings, fears, and griefs, there should be emotion. Maybe it’s time for me, like Eli, to better value the prayer that comes from the heart. And even make a spectacle of myself!

When I read the scriptures for today, I was struck that we have spent the last few weeks with women who need or want to bear a child. Ruth and Naomi are widowed; without a husband and a child, their place is uncertain. When Ruth bears a child to Boaz, Naomi helps raise him; they are safe. Ruth’s son is the father of Jesse, who is the father of David. Hannah’s position is more secure, loved as she is by her husband, but she longs for a child, and may feel that her long term security depends on bearing one. Again and again, we are reminded that God’s purposes are effected through the birth of children. As we hear Jesus, at the end of today’s Gospel, talking about the “birthpangs” of the new creation, his metaphor reflected the very real importance of bearing children in his society.

Am I one of the scribes?

Today’s gospel (Mark 12:38-44) tells the story of Jesus watching people coming to the temple and making gifts to the treasury. The reading starts with Jesus’ warning, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces . . . they devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”

My first reaction when I read this was to smugly assure myself that I’m not one of them: it is other people who pretend to piety but rip people off. I’m certainly not one for long prayers! And I don’t think I devour widows’ houses. But the second part of the reading brought me up short. Here Jesus observes rich people putting in “large sums” to the treasury at the temple, and then a poor widow put in two coins, worth a penny. She had given more, Jesus tells us, because she gave not out of abundance, but out of scarcity. She gave “everything she had”.

Maybe, then I am like the scribes: I haven’t given everything I have, either financially or otherwise. I own a house, travel for pleasure (at times), and give time and attention to things other than God. My job certainly takes up more of my time and attention than God or Church. Church is one of my things, but by no means the only one.

Our congregation has been asked to be more intentional about stewardship. My old church talked about stewardship of “time, talent, and treasure”. What would it mean for me to give, if not everything I have, more of what I have? What can I do that’s sacrificial? Like so many of us, there are many demands on my time. If I am, like the widow, to give “all that I have”, maybe that’s where I need to focus. How can I make more time for God? If I don’t want to be a scribe, I need to think about this.

Love

We think we know what love is, but today’s readings remind us of its many dimensions.

Today in the Gospel of Mark, we read the familiar great commandment, as Jesus answers what is clearly asked as a test: “‘The Lord our God , the Lord is one: you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.'” (Mark 12:29-31) This passage was memory work in my Sunday School in 3rd grade. I’m always intrigued about what I hear when we read such familiar words. Today, it was the way loving God was a full body experience: heart, soul, mind and strength.

We also see love that involves heart and mind and strength in the reading from Ruth. The custom of the Hebrews was what is called levirate marriage: a childless widow is expected to marry the next brother, and her first child with him will be considered that of her first husband. If that’s not possible, a woman should return to her birth family and be married again. Naomi has no more sons, and is to old to bear another. As a foreigner in Moab, Naomi is planning to return home: there she will not be a stranger but a neighbor. Ruth resists the rules of patriarchal society, refusing to return to her mother. Somewhere in the years of her marriage, Naomi had become important to her. “Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God, my God.” (Ruth 1:16)

We often hear this passage read at weddings, where the love and loyalty that creates unity is focused on husband and wife. But the love that frames the story of Ruth was not the conventional love of husband and wife, but the close ties between women across generations. That love was strong enough for Ruth to break the rules. She went with Naomi back to Judah, where she was a stranger and a foreigner. The familiarity of the passage obscures the risk that Ruth took.

Love, scripture repeatedly reminds us, is not easy, and it’s certainly not soft. The great commandment tells us that loving God takes everything we have; loving another human being, as Ruth does Naomi, is how we learn to take the risks, and maybe even breaking the rules, that loving God demands of us.

Restored

Job 42: 1-6, 10-17. Today we reach the end of the book of Job. Job, having listened to God’s assertion of their primacy, acknowledges his ignorance. “I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.” (42:3) The lectionary moves on, skipping verses 7-9, and recounts how Job’s fortunes were restored, to “twice as much” as Job had had before. Job now has 14,000 shee, 6000 camels, a thousand yoke of oxen, and another 1000 donkeys. He has more children, and “in all the land there were no women so beautiful as Job’s daughters”. (42:15)

But I’m interested in the bit that is barely visible in the lectionary reading: what happens between Job’s acknowledgment of God’s sovereignty and the restoration of his wealth and position. Here God gets angry at Job’s friends: the ones who had tried to protect themselves by telling Job he must have done something wrong. They are required to make a sacrifice and bring it to Job. Then Job prayed for them. It’s only after Job prays for his “friends” that his fortunes are restored.

From time to time on social media someone will quote Maya Angelou, “When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.” Job would have been more than justified in ignoring his (former?) friends: they had showed him that they would not stand with him. I find it hard to think that they are still his friends. Instead, Job prays for them. That prayer opens the door for Job’s restoration. It’s something to think about: maybe we need to believe people are who they show themselves to be, and also pray for them. Praying for those who have hurt me is hard, but it’s also a comfort, because I can imagine that someone who I’ve hurt is praying for me.

Where were you?

Job thinks he’s been hard done by. After all, he was a righteous man, who did good, and followed God’s commandments. But since God’s deal with Satan, misfortune has overtaken him, and he doesn’t understand why. His friends are no help, suggesting maybe he really deserved it, if he’d done this or that differently he’d be fine. Now, in today’s reading, we hear the beginning of God’s response: “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?” (Job 38:4) The following verses proclaim God’s work in creating the world and watching over it. God reminds Job that Job’s not in control, God is. These words are echoed in Psalm 104, where the psalmist asserts, “You have set the earth on its foundations . . . O Lord, how manifold are your works! In wisdom you have made them all. (Psalm 104:5, 25)

We would mostly, like Job, want there to be a reason for suffering. “Why me?” is our frequent response to problems. Few of us want illness, suffering and pain, and if we can do something to prevent them, we will. People want to think that by virtuous living (whether it’s diet and exercise, or ethical decisions, or going to church every Sunday) they can escape illness, disaster, and loss. But it doesn’t work that way. Our response to such events is like Job’s: to lament, to cry out in grief and rage and ask why.

God’s response to Job is a reminder that we can’t control the outcome, which takes some responsibility off us. At the end, Job, who has now heard God’s voice again, proclaims not his virtue but his ignorance: “I have uttered what I did not understand, thing too wonderful for me, which I did not know.” (Job 42:3) I’m not happy with ignorance, and our own stories don’t always wrap up as neatly. Few of us have the reward of Job, who received “twice as much as he had before” (Job 42:10)! As we confront the losses we inevitably face, Job reminds us that this is not a new story; if we’re lucky, somewhere in the midst we will hear God’s voice.

My God, My God, why have you forsaken me

The psalm for today is Psalm 22, whose first verse Jesus cries out from the cross. The despair mirrors the despair of Job, who in todays reading (Job 23:1-9, 16-17) laments that he cannot find God. In spite of his prayer, God’s hand is “heavy”. Prayer is not a magic spell, and the prayer of lament is a frequent form. Job and the psalmist have been abandoned, they think, by God. While Job is absorbed in God’s absence, the psalmist complains loudly, and notes that his enemies “laugh me to scorn”, because he trusted in God and God has abandoned him. His fate, he suggests, makes God look bad. This is not quite the feeling of “Why me?” that all of us have felt at one time or another when something terrible happens: these writers don’t understand why God isn’t there for them.

The dark night of the soul is a common experience in the lives of mystics, saints, and many people of faith: a feeling of being alone, being abandoned by God. It leads to doubt and fear. God isn’t there. Here’s the thing: they don’t stop talking to God. Job doesn’t stop, the psalmist didn’t stop. Mother Teresa spent 50 years worrying that God had rejected her, but she continued her ministry. Somehow they (and many others through the centuries) kept going because that seemed right. This is truly faith. Because of this, it’s too bad that the lectionary doesn’t include the last two verses of Psalm 22:

21  I will declare your Name to my brethren;

         In the midst of the congregation I will praise you

22  Praise the LORD, you that fear him;

        Stand in awe of him, O offspring of Israel

        All you of Jacob’s line, give glory.

The exact imprint of God

According to Hebrews 1:3, Christ is “the exact imprint of God’s very being”. In our Baptismal covenant, we are asked if we promise to “seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself”. Since we recently celebrated a baptism, I made connections between these readings. If Christ is the exact imprint of God, and we seek Christ in all persons, who or what are we looking for? What is the “imprint of God’s very being” that we can see not just in Jesus, but implicitly, in everyone we meet? This exact imprint obviously isn’t the old man with a beard from Michelangelo’s ceiling in the Sistine chapel: we meet plenty of people who don’t look like that! So the “exact imprint” is not physical; it’s about how we are in the world. And the Hebrew scriptures together give us an astonishing range of images of God: creative, disappointed, angry, judgmental, generous, kind, and merciful (to name a few). God looks very much like us. So maybe we don’t have to do anything special to be in the image of God. But there’s more: after God is angry (say, the flood), he is merciful. The world continues. This doesn’t help with our image of God if we want a physical image, but it does help us build an image of the living God.

Michelangelo, Detail of Sistine Chapel ceiling, God dividing the land from the waters