Sunday, December 14, 2014

The Stirring of God's Power


 
Advent III+B          14, December, 2014     Fr. Robert R.M. Bagwell+
(Gaudete)
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11     Canticle 15    I Thessalonians 5:16-24   John  1:6-8, 19-28
 
We are at the mid-time of Advent and we  are told that even in the darkness and barrenness of winter that there is light ahead.  We have the wonderful admonition to "rejoice"! And this rejoicing is more than that little song from a few years ago: "Don't Worry, Be Happy."  Rather this is something much more profound.  Life is difficult,, that is a given.  The denial of that reality has driven many of our fellow human beings into all kinds of neurotic behavior, often getting us in trouble with the law, the bank, the credit card companies and the like.  In this pre-Christmas season, the stores are filled with shoppers. ,many who will give little thought to "Jesus", being "the Reason for the Season". With all of the turmoil caused by human sin, things we often do to ourselves and God allows the natural outcomes of those wrong choices, Isaiah brings the word of comfort. Episcopal preacher Barbara Brown Taylor wrote: It is easy enough to see why some people think history is drawing to a close.  All you have to do is hold a newspaper in one hand and Lukes gospel in the other. Nation will rise against nation and kingdom against kingdom." Check.   There will be great earthquakes. Check. In various places famines and plagues. Check , check.  Dreadful portents and great signs from heaven  Check. 
 This Sunday in the church year has been known by various names, Stir up Sunday where the cry of God=s people (and our cry this morning presumably) is that the Holy Spirit will come among us and stir us up with His power and break down the sins, the character flaws, the addictions, and patterns of living that hinder us from pleasing Him and living out His plan for our lives through us.  
 I sometimes think this collect almost humorous when used in our venerable Episcopal Church, a church whose theme song was verbalized by one priest commenting on his own parish.  He said Amy people=s theme song is >we shall not be moved=.@  Face it: most of the time, we don=t like to be moved, stirred, pushed or prodded. Rather than fall voluntarily to our knees, human beings, even Christians all too often need a crisis to bring us to the great Problem-Solver in the sky we call Our Father.
Advent Is about a Call on our lives such as the Calls of John the Baptizer, the Virgin Mary, and of Jesus.  In the first of what are known in some theological circles as the four great spiritual laws the first is that God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life@.
No one has ever existed for whom God does not have a purpose but Not everyone will experience God=s will for them because every human being is born a sinner and separated from God   God calls but we do not always listen. 
The  fact is we cannot listen until we have opened our lives personally to Jesus. The one who said I AM  the Way, the Door. There are too many voices that seek to drown out Gods. Not the least of which is each of our own. We pray, AThy will be done on earth as it is in heaven....week after week, but do we really mean it? I mean be honest! ore often its Thy will be done if it agrees with my will..
How often we pray these powerful words like robots at the service of the Prayerbook rather than letting them be the cries of our hearts to the Service of the love of God. Part of the problem of Advent is this is like the great hush before the play begins before the curtain rises. We think we are ready for what will follow (God literally with us)
But there is a bitter sweet  edge to that joy God is about to invade us! His invasion is needed but Awe are sorely hindered by our sins., It might mean the end of our comfortable, complacent, controlled, things as we like them, universe. 
It is like the times we hear preaching and say I hope so and so was listening to that instead of saying: Maybe I am  so and so! Indeed when X comes today in our lives, whenever He comes to judge us the question is not Is my neighbor ready?But Am I ready?
I mean we really are much more comfortable with God helping others with the sins that hinder them! Than those that we have actually gotten used to and we don=t think hinder us at all!
How much we need Him to stir up His power and come mightily among us  To call us to Mission and Purpose to call us to Himself! The Holy Spirit has called us together both as congregation and denomination and the Holy Spirit has a purpose calling for us .He seeks to energize us and empower us but will we listen?
There is a way to keep the doors open and to succeed rejoicing. The name we associate with this Sunday is  Gaudete, the Latin word for rejoice It is known as Arose@ Sunday.  We wear rose vestments and we light a rose  candle. 
It is like a rest in the midst of the preaching of judgment and the end of the world that we have been hearing.  This theme of rejoicing is placed in the context of Awaiting@ that we experience in Advent, an anticipation and our need for God to stir us up and rescue us from ourselves! 
The word is sprinkled throughout today's readings: in the first reading from Isaiah, the prophet proclaims that God will rejoice in Jerusalem and be glad in my people. The psalm of the day is taken from Mary's Magnificat, in which she exclaims "My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my Savior". The second reading from Paul's letter to the Thessalonians contains  the words "Rejoice always".
Rejoicing! Rejoicing!  What do We Mean? What is joy anyway? Is it the same as pleasure?  Or satisfaction? Is it the emotional high that we call happiness@? Biblically the answer is unequivocally NO! 
Joy is a steady assurance of the resolution of all that is not understood, seems fair, or what we think should happen. It is faith.  It is trust. It is the peace of God that passes all human understanding! 
It involves waiting that Advent theme we ignore most of the time all the while the Church is trying to bring it to our attention. As one writer notes: it is...a very big something because people tend to be shaped by whatever they wait for. Whatever it is that we wait for , a call from the doctor=s office with test results, or a check in the mail, or a special touch or word from a friend or loved one or even a Cab to stop for us.
We are molded and changed by whatever it is we anticipate.@ But have you noticed?  Joy is very counter cultural.  Our culture says: get it now and you will have happiness and especially during this season of buying, we actually buy that line!  Are we nuts?
Our culture is permeated with those who are bored, distracted and just look tired!  Americans are frenzied and depressed.  Our lifestyles are not conducive to joy.   If we found joy, sales might go down! If things would buy happiness,  we should all be hysterically happy, but this is not true  Some seem to be addicted to and  controlled by negativity, having very critical spirits and seem to enjoy being unhappy. The model of the world has invaded the Church. 
But Jesus offers another model. The people of God are invited to the scandalous activity of joy!  What makes the Christian community work?  What opens the door to the Holy Spirit stirring us up and freeing us from our sins? There are many components. Paul says do not quench the Spirit that is because we can!  What destroys the atmosphere for joy like a negative, critical comment? Yet they always seem to be more in our thoughts than positive ones.  If God is stirring us the result can be freedom from those sins the ones that destroy the unity of the Body of X and its joy and it is the joy of the Lord that is our strength!   Give thanks in all circumstances.  What?  You heard me this is the tough pill but it will produce the joy.  It acknowledges that God is in control It is God=s work we are about.
 We must respond as IHS teaches us.  Paul says that God who calls us is to be depended on and He, not me, not the vestry, God will accomplish His purposes through us if we are willing.  His power is stirring, so let us rejoice!  We cannot expect the Bible, the Church or God to work for us if we are refusing to obey.  The Lord said through Isaiah today: Behold I create a new heavens and a new earth; God is doing part of that creating through us, the Church, the God family.  Will we respond in prayer, repentance, self-giving and self-examination?  Only then will we find the riches that both the Church and our salvation have to offer us in Christ Jesus.
 
 Stir up thy power O Lord and with great might come among us, ..
 
 
 

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Waiting in God while Changing Our Minds



Advent II+B     7 December, 2014    The Rev Robert R.M. Bagwell+

The Episcopal Church in Okatie, SC
Isaiah 40:1-11                                                                                                  Psalm 5:1-2,
Peter3:8-13a                                                                                                      Mark 1:1-6
                                                                                                    

"There was an 80 year-old woman was recently married to her 4th husband. A reporter questioned the occupation of her newly acquired husband. She replied that he owned a funeral home. Curious about the other husbands, the reporter also asked about their occupations. The woman paused for a while and stated that her first husband was a banker. The second one she was madly in love with and he was a circus master. The third one was a minister. Puzzled by her answers, he replied, “None of these people have anything in common! Why did you marry these?” She stated that she married number one for the money, two for the show, three to get ready, and four to go."  I guess, she was waiting to go…..
There’s waiting…and then there’s waiting. Do you know what I mean? Some waiting is, well, just waiting, the pointless exercise we all have to endure from time to time. Like sitting in the doctor’s office, just waiting for your name to be called so you can get your flu shot. But other waiting seems to matter. Like waiting in the doctor’s office for the results of the biopsy to come back or waiting to see the ultrasound of a coming baby.
I suspect you know what I mean. Some waiting feels empty and pointless, while other waiting is weighty, significant, and really matters. Unlike the shopping mall, we are not waiting for Christmass to hurry and get here., we are joining ourselves to the ancients, the people of the Older Testament. We are finding meaning in our waiting for God.
Historically, the church saw Advent as a "little lent" a time for reflection and self examination, repentance and amendment of life, hence the themes, grandly termed "the four last things.": Death, Judgment, Heaven and Hell.
This is even reflected in our collect: " God, who sent your messengers the prophets to preach repentance and prepare the way for our salvation: Give us grace to heed their warnings and forsake our sins, that we may greet with joy the coming of Jesus our Redeemer."  
The challenge is the reality that these things are really" the four great beginnings!"  We know this somewhat.  This is the beginning of the Christian or Church Year.
It is based on the life of God as it is lived out in this sphere of existence, but we are in the Kairos time of God, not in the Chronological time of earth measured by clocks and calendars, bells and whistles.
Without those things to drive and control their day to day life, the ancients were governed by evening and morning, spring and fall, winter and summer. They had time to reflect each day because being somewhere "on time" was an unknown concept.  They also did a lot of what we are taught culturally not to do:  wait in the wilderness.
The wilderness…what an image.  Especially at this time of year with the leaves falling, the more fragile plants dying, the cold of winter attacking our senses. 
We live in an age when some among us, think that the grand designs of the human race, are in no need of such concepts as God, or at the very least of a God who has any impact on our daily lives or futures.
Given that the human life is full of uncertainties, toil of labor, risk of illness, accidents, insurance, bills: uncertainty in a world that seems so very shakable. Yet in the midst of these types of concerns, appropriate to their day Isaiah receives this message from God:    "Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.."   How long they had waited for those words…waiting for God. 
After 39 chapters of Isaiah reproaching the people for any number of shocking sins, centered mainly around their refusal to care for the poor, the widow, the stranger, the foreigner, and the orphan. These were common in Israelite life. This was mirrored by inequality and oppression.. Isaiah proclaimed religious condemnation for a people who knew that the Lord was furious with them for their failure to follow God's will, then judgment came 
I heard a discussion of God's discipline last week and the discussion suggested that God does not actively discipline us, rather he steps back and lets us reap the rewards of our actions. This is how we learn: the difficult times, not the good ones.  But don't be discouraged. 
Each of us must make choices every day.  The easy ones: "another  cup of coffee?  Another donut? This activity or that activity?"  But these are not usually life challenges unless done in excess.
Then there are difficult ones: "do I give up when I've lost, quit drinking, continue to put money on this credit card,  seek counseling for my difficulties coping with my circumstances?"  To quit or to overcome. This church has a unique window into this, and the testimony to this is this new community in the Body of Christ.  We all had a choice to come to church this morning.
Our second text reminds us of another kind of waiting. That God is timeless, patient, waiting for more and more of the people for whom Jesus died to turn to him in the experience of new and everlasting life. 
It reminds us that we are a part of that work and that our lives may be the only Jesus many will ever see.  It also says we should ourselves live in readiness for that cosmic event when Jesus comes again. God loves us. He is in unconventional God who loves sinners!  Is he nuts? 
Most of us struggle to love some kinds of sinners, we take our pick but John tells us that "God so loved the world" as it was and is and we who know and love him are experiencing part of that eternity even now by the Holy Spirit!   
In the midst of all of these words of encouragement, this man in camel's hair, with a leather belt, eating locusts and wild honey interrupts our beautiful Sunday morning service! 
Even more so, he not only is inappropriately attired, he says Episcopalians "repent"!  Yes, repent!    Don=t you hate to repent?  The word fairly drips with negativism.  REPENT! And it=s not just the Arepentance@ part that is a pain.  It=s getting there to that point. 
I mean, repentance implies that I may have done something wrong!  That doesn't=t do anything to bolster my self-esteem!  I don=t know, it sounds a little bit like groveling.  I HATE to grovel.  Don=t you?
Surely some of such thoughts must have filled the minds of some listeners to John the Baptist 2000 years ago.  I would be willing to bet money that it is at least some of what we may experience listening to his message today, because repentance is a struggle. 
We must struggle to repent.  So today, I invite you to take repentance by the horns and engage it by unpacking it and finding out it is really the way to get to the comfort, comfort my people of Isaiah. But let=s cast this in a different light. 
Suppose you had been wandering around in the wilderness.  In the wilderness that John the Baptist lived in it would be easy to get lost.  Over every hill in that limestone desert between the dead sea and Jerusalem, it looked the same.  It was déjà vu!
Repentance is suddenly finding a road. But John came to do more than that, John came to prepare a road, to build a Highway for our God (as the book of Isaiah said today in the first reading).  To make a straight path, instead of wandering around in the wilderness.
It means we are going in the wrong direction Repentance is being found when you have been lost.  It isn't=t to make us feel bad, but to make us feel good. 
It is a remedy.  It brings joyBhealingBrestoration.  It is the only way we can receive forgiveness, from God or from another human being. Repentance is the required condition for salvation from sin.  It is the required preparation for experiencing the joy and freedom of the Christian walk. 
This may cause you to ask the question, Aif repentance is so terrific why aren't=t people lined up for confession every week?  Why don=t we practice repentance?@
Perhaps because, repentance is to change.  Change is hard, habits are hard to break. We want to remain as we are, comfortable.  AWe don=t want to turn around and begin in a new direction. 
We want to be faithful and walk with the Lord, but only if that means continuing as we are.  We often want to follow Jesus, so long as Jesus goes where we want to go.  John is a most uncomfortable figure for us.  Indeed, away with this John the Baptist. Bring out jolly old St. Nicholas!  
And yet we do want to repent.  The appointments with counselors, psychologists and psychiatrists tell us that we are not at peace, yet what keeps us from finding peace is being willing to deal with the problem, us. 
Why do we cling to our bondage to hurt feelings, self-justification and emptiness?  And yet we need the prophets, to afflict us in our comfort.
Who are the prophets today ? Probably these who make us uncomfortable, provoke us and anger us, challenge what we think and say.  They may be conservative or liberal, polished or rough, sacred or secular, but their message is always the same.­ Repent, change, become a new person. 
I am challenged this Advent with repentance.  I am challenged that I have not loved enough, that I am too easily offended and therefore have not received the fullness of God forgiveness in my soul, because scripture says that it is the kindness of God that leads us to repentance. 
I am challenged that I have left undone those things which I ought to have done and have done those things which I ought not to have done. But the waiting God is waiting, and in our heart of hearts, as we draw closer to Jesus, we crave change and loving acceptance as we live in the struggle that is following Jesus Christ.
There is a secret to comfort, the word means "to be strong with" another.  That is what the Holy Spirit does and the Body of Christ is challenged every day to be a Comforter.
This Advent, will you join me in seeking repentance, in seeking to love, love, loveCto face ourselves as we really are and to ask forgiveness not only of God, but of those we have wronged, spoken unkindly to or about, those we have judged or offended, that broken-ness may be healed.  That the Holy Spirit may grant us true repentance and a new life within.  That the burdens that we carry may be by the hands of God.  Let the water of your baptism and mine not simply speak of repentance but become an effective symbol of repentance. 
The Rev. G. Campbell Morgan once said: "Waiting for God is not laziness. Waiting for God is not going to sleep. Waiting for God is not the abandonment of effort.  Waiting for God means, first, activity under command; second, readiness for any new command that may come; third, the ability to do nothing until the command is given."

Beginning at the End


Advent  1 +B + 2014              30, November                 Fr  Robert R.M. Bagwell+

Isaiah 64:1-9                                                                                                        Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18 

1 Corinthians 1:3-9                                                                                                      Mark 13:24-37

 There was an 85 year old man who was out fishing one day when he heard a voice: "pick me up".  He looked around and didn't see anyone but then he heard the voice again: "pick me up".  He looked down at his feet and there sat a frog.  The frog said: "pick me up and kiss me and I'll become a beautiful bride."  He picked the frog up and put it I his pocket.  "Hey said the frog, I told you to pick me up and kiss me and I'll become a beautiful bride."  The man said "no thanks, at my age, I think I'd rather have a talkin' frog."

 The unexpected:  this life we live is full of unexpected things.  Some we expect but fail to materialize, others we do not expect and they come upon us "un-expectedly." We enter sacred time this morning into an expected yet still unexpected season of God's prophetic Kalendar we call "advent" a word that means "coming."  When one of our friends is about to arrive for dinner, we don't say "Julie's advent will be in about an hour." "The kids will 'adventing' home from school soon." No, Advent is a momentous coming, one with great pomp and significance. Advent is about coming, it is not about leaving.  It is about deliverance, it is not about fleeing away in fear. It is more like 'the doctor is coming" when a woman is unexpectedly giving birth.  This pregnancy we remember is the new birth of the human soul; the one we anticipate is looking for the renewal of Creation. God comes in the dark places.  Darkness is passive.  Light is active.  Advent is in many ways a dark place.  The days are shorter.  The temperature is colder.  it is in the dark places that we really grow.  We are blessed and grow in the dark and difficult places. A seed cannot germinate in the light but in the dark place, the soil.  The seed is not buried, it's planted.  It is the cultivated plant we admire, not the seed.  We are no different.  We live in the darkness of what the "hail Mary" calls 'this valley of tears.'  So it has been with the people of God from the beginning to this very moment.  The Hebrews lived through the dark places that God might bring them into the light. It is the difficult times that we grow.  The dark places will make you or break you.  But Paul wrote: "For God, who said, “'Let light shine out of darkness' made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ."  (I Cor 4:6)  Advent looks toward glory!  The glory that we experience now in Jesus and the glory to come in Second Coming the redemption of the world.


Advent is an odd season as the world and secular culture around us counts it.. It isn’t culturally accessible. It  doesn’t lend itself to retail. There are no made-for-TV movies telling heartwarming stories about the great and terrible day of the Lord. The secular world ignores it in favor of an "already Christmas." It is an unsettled season that holds in tension the now and the not yet, longing and hope, judgment and redemption. This is clear in the readings for the First Sunday in Advent.


Advent is about waiting.   I always like to emphasize our Jewish forbearers in the faith during Advent.  They were a people who kept the  hope for a Messiah alive for centuries, thousands of years always waiting with anticipation for the day.   They lived in a time where reality could be harsh.  Food and drink depended on the weather.  The attacks of nearby hostile nations a measured possibility.  They longed for a day of peace and security when God's Messiah would judge the nations and preside over a government of which there would be no end.   Advent is replete with symbolism.  Symbolism in our Tradition draws everything together: meaning and corporal witness to something greater than itself.  A reminder. For Anglicans, especially Anglo-Catholics, this is obvious.  For this prelude to the commemoration of the One who came as Emmanuel, God with us, it is a giant One Way sign to glory.   Our own culture is full of signs that attempt to draw us to something greater than ourselves, but most of these are shallow substitutes.  "You deserve a break today", "The world’s networking company," "The ultimate driving machine," "The quicker picker-upper," The king of beers", "The antidote for civilization"," Hertz puts you in the driver’s seat" and " The few, the proud, the Marines."  Great promises, but like politicians, the hype often exceeds the outcome.  Advent is more honest.  It says: "you'll get out of it what you put into it."  it is a mini-version of the everyday walk of the committed follower of Jesus Christ.


The Advent themes symbolized by the wreath are ones that the Lord gives to those who trust in him: Each candle represents 1,000 years.  Added together, the four candles symbolize the 4,000 years that humanity waited for the world’s Savior—from Adam and Eve to Jesus, whose birth was foretold in the Old Testament  Hope with the “Prophet’s Candle” reminding us that Jesus is coming.; Faith with the “Bethlehem Candle” reminding us of Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem;  Joy with the “Shepherd’s Candle” reminding us of the Joy the world experienced at the coming birth of Jesus; and Peace with the “Angel’s Candle” reminding us of the message of the angels: “Peace on Earth, Good Will Toward Men".


We serve a God who prepares.  Paul wrote to the Corinthian Church : " …it is written: "What no eye has seen, what no ear has heard, and what no human mind has conceived" -- the things God has prepared for those who love him." (I Cor. 2:9)  God cannot be "surprised".  He has prepared for this exact purpose since "before the foundation of the world."  (Ephesians 1:4)  Yes Advent calls us to prepare our hearts for the celebration, the commemoration and a renewal of the promise and hope we have in Christ.  But it is also a time to remember that God  has it all under control and he has prepared from the beginning for what is becoming now and what is yet to come. Advent teaches us to live in readiness and anticipation. Paul said in our reading for today:  "You know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near."  Not in fear but in eager expectation.


Each year Advent reminds us to look for that day when all will be well, as Julian of Norwich said.  When all wars shall cease, all poverty and starvation be eradicated, all injustice brought to justice and God reigns in a new heaven and new earth.   We call it the Parousia or Second Coming of Christ. We speak of it in the Creed every week: "He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end". In the Lord's Prayer: "  Thy kingdom come". Even in the Christmass collect we pray: "grant that we who joyfully receive him as our Redeemer may with sure confidence behold him when he comes to be our Judge." But Advent is cosmic and timeless.  It is in God's time, in Greek: Kairos. Time outside of time. It points us to restoration, reclamation, wholeness and healing. But like exercise and learning it doesn't come without pain.  We all know thanks to the athletes among us: no ;pain, no gain.

  

Wouldn't it be great if we could just avoid all of the bad stuff at the end? C.S. Lewis said, "the  Christian faith is a thing of unspeakable joy but it does not begin with joy but rather despair.  And it is no good trying to reach the joy without first going through the despair." ..thanks, C.S."

In considering how we will keep in mind that as the scripture says: "the time is short" let me relate an apocryphal story.  It is about three devils who to finish their apprenticeship were to be sent to earth.  Meeting with Satan: he queried them about strategies to thwart the work of God. The first devil said: "I will say there is no God" Satan replied: "only the most foolish would believe that." The second said: " I will say there is no Hell." Satan replied: most of humanity believe there is hell for some."  The Third said:"I will say: 'there is no hurry'." "Do that" Satan said, "and you will ruin humanity by the thousands."


The statements we call: "the mystery of faith" recall this each Eucharist: "Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again." and "we remember his death, We proclaim his resurrection, We await his coming in glory."  Each time we say one of the creeds we affirm the same thing.    This does not discount the fearful side of the second coming of Jesus Christ, which is why we are still about the work of the Light.  And for those who Love his Appearing, it is great anticipation and joy and the dawn of a reign of goodness and glory to the human race.  Although we still see much good in this world we also see evil gaining an incredible foothold.  Scripture entreats us "O pray for the peace of Jerusalem, may they prosper who love you."   Beginning this morn, we look forward to that time to which this weary world looks of which blessed St Julian of Norwich wrote: "all shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well…"  God has a prepared blessing for each one of us.  Let us begin again this morn to look for the Hope, Faith, Joy and Peace the Lord Jesus came to bring and that he has put into our hearts by the Holy Spirit. A blessed and holy Advent to you all.