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A Righteous Advent

November 29, 2015 Leave a comment

 

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Last week I was scheduled to give you a brief talk about stewardship, particularly stewardship of creation. Now for me there is not that much of a stretch between these two themes – creation and advent – so I was thinking just maybe we could merge them into one message. It will either come together brilliantly or fail pathetically, but you are owed at least an attempt at what you missed from me last week. We shall hope for brilliance. And if it never gets there, there’s always coffee to discuss it over after the service.

So let’s begin this adventure with our first reading today from Jeremiah. Notice how the readings are prophetic and apocalyptic. The one thing we draw towards in this season, the one focus as the natural daylight fades and the amount of darkness increases IS the new Light – with a capital L. Or maybe more appropriate might be RE-newed Light. Christmas is the celebration of the birth of Jesus, what we do in Advent is recollect ourselves and prepare for the second coming of Christ. The prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah tell us of the first coming. That prophecy was fulfilled just over 2000 years ago. That is why today we focus on the renewed Light, represented by the candles in the beautiful wreath. We are to bring ourselves back into a state of going about our business in a right and proper manner. And we’re told of that second coming in the writings of the Gospels and Epistles; here today we’re reading Luke’s version and the self-prophecy of Jesus describing the future. So we wait in hope with our candles lit to drive away the darkness that tries to consume us.

And do it how? In righteousness. Now this word has an effect where when we are confronted with it can often confuse as well as annoys us. Righteousness. It’s a word that you seldom hear outside of religious circles. Someone makes a comment about how someone is a sinner for doing something that the good book says they will be condemned for. Another hears this not-so-nice comment and responds with “you aren’t supposed to judge others!” That response is immediately met with the first person saying “I use righteous judgement like the bible says to do! So don’t judge me!” And another opportunity to learn from and educate each other is wiped out because now both parties are in defense mode and there is nothing that can be said that will change their minds.

How did this situation get so convoluted to start with? Again, I think it comes down to how we view that word “righteousness”. It sounds so authoritative. Yet Jeremiah convincingly and lovingly cries out with hope that the Lord will cause a righteous branch to spring up, and there will be justice and righteousness, and everything will be so wonderful and fulfilling that the day shall be called “The Lord is our righteousness.”  …   Let’s ask ourselves how that compares with the form of being righteous I just mentioned.

There is a difference. True righteousness is not an attitude or an absolute standard. It refers to how we conduct ourselves in staying in line with God’s purpose – God’s ‘will’ – if you wish. In the Feasting on the Word Commentary, Gary Charles says that “It is doing the good thing and the God thing: right doing as opposed to wrongdoing, and doing as opposed to being.” What we see and hear of all too often is Self-righteousness which is nothing more than the inflated ego of self-approval; He says further “righteousness is the humble ethic of living toward others in just and loving relationships.” We as a congregation will be comforted and motivated by preaching and teaching that brings this kind of Jeremiah righteousness into its language and life. It will be a challenge that causes us to reflect on our integrity in the world. So is the Lord our righteousness? Are we willing to welcome the day when God’s justice and righteousness will be fulfilled? Can we read Jesus’s words in Luke and accept that what he describes will come true?

I don’t know how you understand it all but for me, this acceptance of Advent just doesn’t fit into the secular world this time of year. How soon after the pumpkins were carved did we see tinsel and trees and inflatable snowmen, santas, and yes – even inflatable baby Jesus’s placed on the shelves where just a day or two prior sat bags of black and orange wrapped candy. Advent doesn’t fit into the secular world these days because it’s antithetical to capitalism. We mustn’t be contemplating our inner lives and making space in our hearts for more peace and hope and love and joy when Christmas gets here. We’re supposed to have already opened two new lines of credit, preordered all the latest tech gadgets, and stocked up on every bottle of cheer and box of candy we can find. That’s what will make us happy! And it will make us happy now! Because if we’re happy now, we are sure to be elated on Christmas morning. Or Christmas Eve more than likely, the way we are forced to keep moving everything further ahead these days. So Advent just doesn’t fit into the ways of a kind of world that wants us to be in and OF it.

There has to be a balance where we can nurture the space not of this world. A space where candles are filling in the shadows with their light, while we do what is needed to be done in the world with the challenge not to become a part of it. This is where stewardship enters the picture. We must make the best use of and be able to balance our time, our energy, our work load, (our check books), and our prayer time; so that we don’t forget what is most important to us. Also, what is important to God and God’s purposes – God’s will – that way of righteousness that is humble, just, and loving to every creature on this earth.

I use the word “creature” here to mean everything that was created. When we use creation language we are more apt to view everything around us as something sacred and holy whose substance exists from the beginning of time, back when – as Paul says in other parts of his letter to the Thessalonians – Christ was before all things came into being and nothing came into being without Christ. In all things. Created all things. Yes. Christ was, is, and is to be. Everything that God made – and God continues to make – was and is declared by Him to be good. It is because of this I’m inclined to believe that any destruction of the creaturely nature of earth, our island home, is not a very righteous thing to do. Which is why I’ll always try to be a prophetic voice for those creatures who cannot speak for themselves.

Advent takes work, commitment, and an open mind that is willing to break loose from the material objects that we are told will comfort us and bring us joy. Advent makes us wait in candle lit silence in preparation for the second coming. Advent takes a righteous kind of thinking that will seek out God’s purpose and will. We are in a time that is constantly trying to drag us away from what we are supposed to be doing and apart from the people we need to do it with. May we as a congregation join together this Advent and become the light of a candle for our community that allows them to see the light of Christ whose return we wait for in this world. Amen.

Deacon Pete

Ref:  RCL Year C, First Advent.

Old Thanksgiving, New Era Advent

November 28, 2013 Leave a comment

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As a young child, Thanksgiving meant one of several things to me.  First and foremost it meant gathering around the television to watch the parade and wait anxiously to see Santa riding in the final float with his reindeer, and later we feasted on a huge turkey dinner with pumpkin pie.  My plate was usually full of turkey and just enough of the other things to ensure I’d be getting that pumpkin pie with whipped cream for dessert.  It also meant my Dad and my uncles would be gathering to plan out the strategy for their hunting trips on Monday.  And of course it meant we would soon be taking a ride into the city to see the Christmas lights strung across the roads from street lamp to street lamp, and strolling down the sidewalks to see the magic of mechanical displays in the windows of stores such as Glosser Brothers and Penn Traffic.  Some of the toy elves would hammer and saw while others tied bows on boxes and of course Santa would be patting Rudolph on the head or wave to us as we stretched our little legs as high and tall as we could get without being picked up by Mom or Dad.

Those family gatherings, the preparations and trips were all part of a time and season where hope was attached to each snow flake that fell on the lawn wishing for a white Christmas.  The stillness of the cold nights held a certain peace that kept us youngsters from getting too rambunctious from having to play inside so much.  The TV programs of Frosty, Rudolph, and the short animations of Suzie Snowflake and Hardrock, Coco, and Joe brought joy to our little hearts as they signaled the coming of Santa – and yes, Jesus, too.  But the thing that held us together most through whatever else came along was the love of a family knit closely together by their faith in the Holy child, Jesus.  Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love; the four themes we celebrate in the coming season of Advent may have been impressed upon a child through the events of the season in his or her surroundings, but these words are made manifest in that final celebration of the birth of Christ, the first and final Word: The Word found in today’s scripture readings that hold even more reasons to be thankful.

Scripture says “let’s not stop at the reasons to be thankful.”  The stories show us how to celebrate and in each reading we find a different aspect of what Thanksgiving can mean to us.  On the surface Deuteronomy may seem like it’s giving us another law but what it’s really doing is helping us prioritize our actions.  Many people in this situation – getting a new job or new income – would take what they have made or what they have been paid and make an offering after what is left from all of their needs, wants, and desires.  What we’re told is the opposite; that a true and mature faith requires us to make our gifts to God and God’s people first and what is left is for us to live on.  The wise souls know that putting God first in all of their actions is an act of thanksgiving done not with expectations of getting something in return, but actions done with love.  In the psalm we rejoice – for God’s mercy is endless.  When we walk with God or meet with Him, wherever that may be, we need to be constantly aware that we are on Holy ground and the only action required is to openly show our gratitude.  So we come before his presence with a song.

The epistle for Thanksgiving Day almost shouts aloud by itself!  Rejoice!  Again I say, Rejoice!  There is no coincidence that the exultet which is sung at the beginning of the Easter Vigil, the chant that echoes the phrase “rejoice now all you saints and choirs of angels, and let your trumpets sound salvation” that it is the same joyful noise we make today.  We rejoice in the resurrection that leads us into Easter and Pentecost and now as we close the calendar of the church year we once again repeat the sounding joy with thanksgiving.  Surely there were times that were troubled and times where our thoughts veered off course, but they were for their own time; at this moment in time the focus of our prayers are to be filled with thanksgiving.  Whatever is placed in front of us right now should be held in the light of goodness, purity, and worthy of honorable praise.  We should be thankful for everything and rejoice for all that is good.

And finally our Gospel puts the exclamation point on Happy Thanksgiving, with the knowledge through the Word that we are always fed with bread from heaven.  Why it’s even written into the Great Thanksgiving at the Offertory:  “Praise God, from whom all blessings flow.”  We truly have been blessed this past year.  We’ve found strength in ourselves and support for each other.  We’ve made some errors along the way but nothing has damaged us.  For me to say that I’m grateful for all of you would be an understatement.  We’ve helped each other grow and with the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Love of God and the kinship of the Holy Spirit we’ll continue to move forward.  A new era awaits us.  It could not be more fitting for it to greet us as we give thanks and celebrate the things we have, and also as we head into the Advent season of waiting and preparing for the good things to come.  So as we give thanks for the past and present, let us also rejoice with Hope in our future, Peace in our community, Joy in our souls, and Love in our hearts.  Amen.

Deacon Pete

Citations:  RCL Thanksgiving Day, Year C

99 Sheep and a Wedding Headband

September 15, 2013 Leave a comment

The Gospel in today’s lectionary tells the tale of Jesus once again being scorned for eating with sinners.  It’s here we find Jesus doing what Jesus does; he’s making his way through the towns, sitting down with the common people, talking about his Father.  Luke calls these common people “sinners” here, and customarily includes “tax collectors” among the group.  It’s been said these sinners were pretty much anyone who was uneducated.  They didn’t follow all of the rules because they didn’t know about them.  They were cast in positions below the priests and business people of the towns. The tax collectors are included with the sinners because they made their living off of other people’s income, often being accused of taking more than the going tax rate dictated.  So here we have Jesus, who has been teaching in the synagogue, healing the sick, and gathering quite a following, sitting around with people who, in other people’s eyes, don’t coincide with his standing in the community.  I’ve often thought it possible that the Pharisees and scribes were becoming jealous of his notoriety.  Whatever the case, someone who taught on the Sabbath would surely not lower themselves to hang out and eat with the likes of street people.   As the one who is always completely aware of his surroundings, Jesus hears the grumbling.  And as is his style, he gives them a parable; this one with two parts.

If ever there was an example of the perfect leader, the epitome of excellence in the field of being in charge, this parable has it covered.  Every time I hear about the person who loses one of his one hundred sheep and goes off looking for it, leaving the other 99 in the wilderness, I’m more drawn to what might happen to the 99 left behind than whether or not the one that is lost is found.  Look at it from this perspective.  How many of you have ever felt the uneasiness of leaving a large number of youth unsupervised while you attend to something else?  I’ve encountered that in both coaching and scouting.  I know there are teachers and scout leaders in here who can confirm what that feels like.  Perhaps that is why my mind goes there.  It takes a great deal of trust – and a bit more than a large amount of prayer – to have enough faith to make a decision that involves leaving large groups on their own.  That’s what draws me to this parable.  Not the action of the leader, but the reaction of the group.   The story not only says a lot about the group, it speaks volumes about the leadership.   Not only are they left alone without supervision, they are left alone in the wilderness.  Yet not one runs off.  If there are any class clowns in the bunch, they’ll be showing off for the others.  Some of the loners might stick to the edge of the crowd.  A bully might even try pushing some of the smaller members to the brink.  But they all stick together.  Maybe it’s something about the feeling of family.  Whatever it is, there is cohesiveness within the group and a united front that keeps them together.  Let’s hold on to that thought for a minute as we look at the second part of the parable.

We know that times can be hard and every dime counts.  And a silver coin, no matter what day or age, is something to be concerned about.  But when you start calling in the neighbors, turn on all the lights and move the furniture around to sweep the floor, it says this is not just about hard times.  Something is a bit more valuable than we think.  Scripture doesn’t always explain every detail, just what is necessary for the reader of the times to understand.  If we lived in that age, or had a Jewish heritage, we’d know that a bride’s dowry includes a headband made of ten pieces of silver.  It’s the equivalent of today’s wedding ring.  So yes, it would be a big deal if a piece of the wedding band was missing.  Who wouldn’t want to tear the house apart searching for it?

So after these two pieces of the parable are told, we now have a lost sheep with 99 others left in the wilderness – and a lost coin from a wedding headband that in its own right makes the rest of the coins worthless.  How can we weigh in our situation with either part of this parable?  Well, we can talk about how we are working together for a common goal; our experience and lessons learned from the past, combined with some very good teachers, is being placed in the limelight as we go through the process of searching for our next rector.  We can talk about doing what is necessary to save someone that is lost or has gone astray.  We do this every time we help someone through one of our outreach programs – the results might not be evident to us now but the effects of helping those in need can be deep and long lasting.  And we can talk about how barriers we create such as working classes and education levels don’t matter and we need to eliminate these barriers from our lives.  We do this every time we greet a newcomer that walks through the doors of this church and welcome them back with a personal note and thank you card.

But doing these things doesn’t mean we stop once we’ve achieved a portion of them.  The biggest and best is yet to come.  Will we ever be finished with the process?  Probably not.  There will always be some portion of something that is missing from our lives.  There will always be a need to work together to make something complete.  What we can’t forget is what we are instructed to do each time we succeed in this process.  After the lost sheep was found, the neighbors were called to celebrate the joy!  And when the bride had finally found the lost coin from her headband, everyone rejoiced!  They celebrated and gathered the community together.  So often we miss this.  So often we keep right on going with life and not stop to acknowledge the advances we’ve made when it comes to our spiritual achievements.  We throw parties for children graduating from kindergarten but barely make enough time for coffee and cake after a baptism.  We don’t think twice about what we’ll spend on a sweatshirt or hat when our favorite sports team wins a championship, yet balk at the cost of necklace or ring when we are confirmed or received into the church.  According to St. Luke, nothing is worth celebrating more than one person’s return to the church.  We need to stop, give thanks, and rejoice in these moments.  A few weeks ago I mentioned that we need to start the healing process and come together in community.  I mentioned how we need to reach out to each other in good times and bad.  We have begun our journey forward and we are making strides.  Yesterday we had five of our parishioners attend the required training for Visiting Eucharistic Ministers and when we receive their licenses we’re going to celebrate, give thanks, and rejoice.  Rejoice that these people have heard the call to tend to the ill and homebound of our parish.   And as we continue to grow in other areas that have vacancies such as Sunday School Teachers, we’ll continue to reach out to more, and we will continue to give thanks and rejoice.  Rejoice!

Deacon Pete Gdula

Scripture ref:  RCL Year C, Proper 19

New Wine, New Joy

January 20, 2013 Leave a comment

Each of us probably has the memory of a wedding – outside of our own – that was an example of a true and honest celebration of the union of love. Not an orchestrated show of “Bride’s Wars”, where parents attempt to out-do the neighbor’s or cousin’s last production; but a coming together of family and community in a spirit of support and love that honors the commitment two people are making to each other. Even in ancient history like we hear in Isaiah this morning, where such celebrations were much more about commitments between families and social orders than they were about two people finding love between each other, the celebration was all about binding the two into one. It was tradition. Now, “Tradition” was much more than a song from “Fiddler on the Roof” and I’m hoping you get the idea of it before I break into singing “Matchmaker, matchmaker, make me a match…” So while the prophet speaks of the promise God makes to Israel in the same manner as a bridegroom does to his bride, the people experience it in the context of a tradition that is to be celebrated and honored. This image of a wedding has been used for thousands of years to portray God uniting with the soul.

Now it’s important to note that these proclamations in our first lesson are from the latter years of Isaiah – where most biblical scholars have determined the theme of a savior is projected into the future. Here is where the prophets begin looking ahead for hope and not in the immediate group of heirs to the throne. It’s important because John’s Gospel ties in this theme of a marriage promise with the beginning of Jesus’s public ministry and his first miracle directly influences the success of a wedding celebration. John picks up where this prophecy of Isaiah leaves off. By providing a miracle, Jesus announces his arrival with a display of what God has in store for us.

The lead-in to this story can appear to be a bit disrespectful from a son or daughter’s point of view. When Mom brings something to our attention, most of us would not dare react with an attitude which can seem to be portrayed as “Woman!!” What we have to keep in mind here is that the word used in scripture at the time was a very endearing term. “Woman” was a word filled with respect, admiration, and love. And the response of Jesus that “my hour has not yet come” must be imagined as a more caring attitude of “Okay, Mom, thanks for the heads-up, but I’ll handle this my own way.” Looking at the situation in this context we can see several things. First off, Mary probably had a relationship to the bride and groom beyond being a guest. She knew what the situation was and bore some sort of authority that allowed her to be aware of the situations behind the bar and in the kitchen. The last thing she would want to do in this situation – is leave the newly-wed couple and their families embarrassed and disgraced – by not having enough supplies to satisfy the guests while they were still around. Her comment gives a hint of what God can do. In our present day where we place limits on everything, there would have been a set hour at which time people were expected to leave. If the stock behind the bar runs out, guests would be expected to accept what was left or be understanding and make their way home. In this story’s place and time as long as the guests were around it was understood that they would be provided for. The rabbis had a saying “Where there is no wine, there is no joy!” The joy would indeed be ended for this couple if there were no more wine.

Secondly, Mary was also acutely aware of her son’s nature and his relationship with God. He was thirty-something at this point. Clearly, she had intimately shared his faith and witnessed his actions that spread God’s abundance in every aspect of their lives. Mary’s faith in him is strong enough to know he will do the right thing – and so instructs the waiters to “do what he tells you.” Jesus’s response was more of an acknowledgement that help is needed than a refusal of wanting to help. I can almost hear him giving a big sigh and thinking “Okay, Mom’s right. Now is the time.” He then points to the stone jars, and directs the staff to “fill them.” Maybe it was that nudge from Mom, maybe not, but he uses the situation to take charge and begin the ministry that will change the world.

Finally, we, too find out just what was planned for the world; something which at the time only Jesus and perhaps his mother knew. John tells this story in part to show how God’s plan is to make remarkable things out of ordinary objects. What started with empty vessels results in something better than anyone could have expected; things so great that even experts like the chief steward had never experienced them before. John also points to God’s overflowing abundance and grace in places we may never bother to look. Around us there may appear to be nothing. Emptiness, scarcity, nothing left on the table or in the kitchen. Then somehow we get a hint, a nudge, a familiar touch that says “do what I tell you”. We look around and suddenly things that were ordinary are producing extraordinary things. We can look upon the faith Mary had in Jesus – and know that the possibilities are endless. What was once empty is now not only full, but spilling over in ways we’ve never quite experienced. Through our encounter with Jesus, we’re learning what God has in store for us. It may not always be what we expect or what we’ve had previously, but if God’s idea of providing for us is shown by the progress from empty – to water – to wine, then indeed the rabbis will be full of joy; and so will we! Amen.
re: RCL 2 Epiphany, Year C