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Monday, December 26, 2016

"God is with us and God’s Kingdom is slowly taking hold on earth, while facing tremendous opposition from those who, for power, greed, fear and hatred, cause them to foster violence, vengeance, and war." The Reverend John Smith

Image result for prince of peace photo

Out of Darkness

          The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined. (Isaiah 9:2ff)

          In the beautiful passage above, read almost every year at Christmas, we hear that a people walking in darkness have seen a great light, and that great light is shining upon their land which is experiencing deep darkness.  This is what Isaiah and the Jews were living through in their day:  political power struggles, violence all around, and complete disregard for the sacredness of life.  The “light” shining on them in their darkness was the hope given the people in the prophetic word inspired by God and transmitted by Isaiah himself.

          For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian.  For all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire.  For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.  His authority shall grow continually and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom.

          Isaiah was inspired by God to give this prophecy in a time when God’s people needed hope.  The Jews of Isaiah’s time needed to hear this message, and as it is read today to us, it is a word that we need to hear as well.

          We have an advantage over the people of Isaiah’s day, however, because Christ has come among us already, his authority has grown and is growing as we speak.  God is with us and God’s Kingdom is slowly taking hold on earth, while facing tremendous opposition from those who, for power, greed, fear and hatred, cause them to foster violence, vengeance, and war.  Isaiah knew, as I hope we do, that death was completely foreign to God and a Son would come to show us the way to life.

          What we celebrate at Christmas is that God is human.  Walter Wink, a New Testament scholar and peace activist, gave a talk and said

          God is human.  The great error of humanity is to believe that it is human.  We are only fragmentally human, brokenly human.  We see glimpses of our humanness, we can only dream of what a more human existence and political order would look like, but we have not yet arrived at true humanness.  Only God is human, and we are made in God’s image and likeness- which is to say, we are capable of becoming human.  We are human “becoming” more than “being.”

          The purpose of the Incarnation, God taking on our human flesh, is to show us how to be, really and truly, human.  What we see in Aleppo, in the Christmas market in Germany, violence done to people in so many places in our world and behind closed doors, is less than human not worthy of our creation in God’s image and likeness.  Trying to keep peace by killing all opposition is less than human.  The Child, whose coming we celebrate today, will show us how to be human.

          “In those days” Rome was the center of the world and the Emperor was called “Son of God.”  The Census wasn’t just to keep good records and statistics, but was a way to exert power and control.  Joseph had to register in Bethlehem, a tiny village, a true no-where land.  This is where the Savior of the World was born: in a stable with animals, because there was no room in the Inn.  The Messiah was the pushed out, excluded, ignored.  No place in the great city of Rome, among his own in Israel, in Nazareth, in Bethelem at the Inn.  Only the stable with the animals received him.

          The only ones that took notice were shepherds.  These guys weren’t like the pretty figures in our crèche scenes.  The shepherds were socially outcast group, like a bunch of bikers rolling into town on their Harley’s.  People barred their doors when the shepherds came near!  But these shepherds were the ones who noticed something great happening in all of creation and paid attention even though they were terrified.  The angel told these tough guys not to be afraid.  These despised shepherds were the first recipients of the Good News!

          The Child was wrapped in swaddling clothes like all the children were in that day.  The swaddling clothes shaped the child physically.  The culture that we are born into shapes us.  It was no different for Jesus.  He would be shaped by the culture of his day.
          Jesus was place in a manger, a feeding trough for animals.  Interestingly, like the two guys in Emmaus, we meet Jesus in a meal too!

          So the Christmas message that’s getting through to me today is this:  Let go of fear. Hold on to Hope. Know God is acting. Look for God especially where people are weak, excluded, ignored.  Stand with them.  Always remember God might be using the ones we are most afraid of to reveal Good News.  God will use our culture to shape us and help us to become human.  God is present where eating takes place.  God is with us.  

Amen! 
John+

  
St. Alban

Saint Alban Episcopal Mission (English, Anglican Communion) meets for mass every Sunday at 10:00 A.M. (see welcome letter at sidebar) at Casa Convento Concepcion, 4a Calle Oriente No. 41, Antigua, Guatemala.

The Reverend John Smith, Vicar

5235-6674 cell telephone (502 country code)

THE EPISCOPAL CHURCH WELCOMES EVERYONE
         

Monday, December 19, 2016

RESPOND TO THE GRACE: "The only way to true and lasting joy is to attune ourselves to God’s deep desires planted deep in the heart by actual grace given to every person who comes into this world." The Reverend John Smith


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The Reverend John Smith, Sermon December 18, 2016:
Peaceful Critical Indifference

I entitled this sermon “Peaceful Critical Indifference,” borrowing a phrase coined by theologian James Allison to describe Isaiah’s prophetic recommendation to the people of his day. Early Isaiah’s time was full of turmoil, with lots of political wrangling between the powers around the royal court, vying for people’s support. Isaiah’s prophetic inspiration was that there was a power coming among them so much more powerful than any earthly power, a new Davidic King, who would restore Israel to prominence. Later Isaiah’s vision became even clearer: Emmanuel, God with us, would come among us and be nothing like any other god that humans ever believed in. Believing in this true and living God, in Person, would enable believers to live in this world with peaceful critical indifference, because they came to know the One ultimately in control of their destiny.

This “head” knowledge of God’s ultimate control over creation and history was not enough, however. The believer had to trust his/her everyday life in all its aspects to this Power, revealed in powerlessness and given flesh by a humble young virgin. The whole story from beginning to end was wrought in weakness and impropriety. 

Let me explain. Today’s Gospel story relates the struggle Joseph had in taking Mary as his wife. Joseph was a righteous man, and righteous men don’t like being caught in questionable moral dilemmas like being engaged to a woman who gets pregnant during the betrothal. It wasn’t me! Joseph is told in a dream to not be afraid of taking Mary to wife. God was in control. The Holy Spirit was acting. Don’t worry about your self-righteousness: cooperate and trust God’s plan. God is doing something very special with this child. God writes straight with crooked lines! (Matthew’s 1:1-17 Geneology links 42 men from Abraham to Jesus and includes the names of 4 mothers in the whole hereditary line: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba “wife of Uriah.” All these women were Gentiles whom men had taken up with and contributed to God’s plan to bring Jesus into the world. In addition to being Gentiles, there was sexual impropriety and questionable morals among these women and the men involved with them. God’s ways in this world are messy, irregular, and often scandalous!) Mary and Joseph’s story was no different. What is the main takeaway from all this? In a word: inclusion. God’s loving actions that culminate in Jesus’ birth are meant for people everywhere, of every nation, religion, or race. The story of Messiah’s coming is extended to all. God loves you even if you don’t believe, care, or a great sinner!
That’s a wonderful message, but it gets even better! What if, like Joseph, we learn to trust the leading of the Spirit, or, in the words of St Paul, let the Spirit bring about in us “the obedience of faith?” Just as Jesus, after his baptism, was led by the Spirit his whole life, what about us? What does this look and feel like? It is bringing our most often conflicting desires in alignment with God’s own loving desire for all of Creation.

The operative word here is “obedience.” This is not a very popular idea in a time when individuality is foremost. We like to follow our own desires. Our desires though, tend to line up with or mimic the desires of others. Following our desires (really other’s desires), never results in lasting happiness. The only way to true and lasting joy is to attune ourselves to God’s deep desires planted deep in the heart by actual grace given to every person who comes into this world. Responding to this actual grace helps a person follow the desire of the Creator whose love contains all peoples desires and can bring them all into harmony.

This is very Good News. This is the world’s destiny. Political powers will come and go, but we can live peacefully, critically caring for real people, especially the suffering and poor (Mt 25!!), indifferent to all the political ups, downs, and turns of life knowing God is in control. Desire God’s desires. They are within us and all people. 

Amen!
John+
 
St. Alban


Saint Alban Episcopal Mission (English) meets for mass every Sunday at 10:00 A.M. (see welcome letter at sidebar) at Casa Convento Concepcion, 4a Calle Oriente No. 41, Antigua, Guatemala.

The Reverend John Smith, Vicar

5235-6674 cell telephone (502 country code)

THE EPISCOPAL CHURCH WELCOMES EVERYONE 
                      

Monday, December 12, 2016

THE REVEREND JOHN SMITH: "I’m hoping this Advent that the world will find a way to peace without violence, or, if not, the Savior will come quickly to save us from destroying ourselves.."

The Third Way
          
From the day of John the Baptist the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence and the violent take it by force. (Mt 11:12)
          
The Gospel and other readings the lectionary gives us each Sunday are determined by committees of scholars and traditional usage.  The Lectionary as we have it is always a work of love on the part of these dedicated people and the help of the Holy Spirit.  But sometimes when a passage begins and ends with certain verses it can be helpful to see what the next verse (not chosen to be included in a particular reading) is.  Such is the case with Mt 11:12 above which follows today’s passage Mt 11:2-11.
          
John the Baptist’s preaching and baptizing was a kind of hinge between the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) and Jesus’ baptism by John and his ministry that followed.  With Jesus’ ministry the kingdom of heaven took hold in this world, through Jesus’ person and his followers, but as the verse above states, from its very beginning this “kingdom has suffered violence and the violent have taken it by force.”
          
This is important for us.  We are asked to believe that the kingdom is (already) here, but (not yet) in fullness.  This is the mystery of Advent:  We long for something that is already here, but hindered by violence perpetrated on the kingdom by the violent.  (So sad that the “violent” may think they are working for peace and serving God with Sacred, therefore acceptable, violence.)  All the violence blinds us from seeing the kingdom come among us- but it is here!
          
Jesus has come among us and we are his followers, joined to him by our baptism and the promises we renew regularly.  When we think of our “spiritual” lives and growth, it is easy to think that much of our faith has to do with how close we feel to God and the forgiveness of our individual sins and failings.  We can be surprised to discover that our faith includes much more than this:  our faith calls forth in us a decision regarding our participation in violence in our human culture.  The violence in the world and our participation in violence has everything to do with our faith in the Savior of the World!  “World” is the key word here, not “me.”
          
We learn how to deal with violence from Jesus.  Jesus never inflicted or condoned violence against anyone while on this earth. Jesus did not run from the suffering before him and he didn’t fight the victimizers.  At the same time he didn’t accept this suffering passively.  Jesus took what was called (by Walter Wink) The Third Way.  The Third Way is a decision between choosing to run away or fight the violent with violence.  The Third Way is an intentional choice to suffer violence done us (like Jesus did) for a higher good (at the very least- less violence because my response doesn’t add to violence).
          
Jesus’ followers help in turning swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks as Isaiah prophesied.  Our weapons (bad term) are mercy and forgiveness.  After 9/11 the kingdom of heaven could have taken deeper root than ever had we responded in mercy and forgiveness.  Instead we responded with vengeance (aided by lies) and thousands upon thousands more died and millions continue to suffer.
          
The protagonist of today’s Gospel, John the Baptist, prepared the way for Jesus’ ministry, but misunderstood what Jesus was about and the fact that Jesus wanted to end victimization by his coming.  That’s why John’s disciples were sent to ask him:  Are you the One to come or are we to wait for another? Jesus was not the One they expected or, to be honest, wanted.  Jesus challenged their understanding of human culture, judgment, and use of violence.  That’s why Jesus says in today’s Gospel:  The least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than John the Baptist.  In other words, the post-Easter followers of Jesus “got it” in a way that John the Baptist never did! 
          
But do we really “get it?”  Are we more like followers of John the Baptist than Jesus, looking for God to come in fiery judgment to destroy all the evildoers of the world? (And when necessary we will help before he gets here!) When Jesus talked of judgment it was always in terms of self-judgment, the fiery judgment our violence brings on ourselves by continuing to follow the world’s ways and not choosing God’s way by living in the world of Grace.
          
I’m hoping this Advent that the world will find a way to peace without violence, or, if not, the Savior will come quickly to save us from destroying ourselves.  I hope we can live The Third Way of Jesus: not suffering violence passively, but choosing to respond to violence with mercy and forgiveness, actively resisting evil, in all its forms, non-violently as Jesus did.  

Amen!   
John+ 
   
St. Alban


Saint Alban Episcopal Mission (English) meets for mass every Sunday at 10:00 A.M. (see welcome letter at sidebar) at Casa Convento Concepcion, 4a Calle Oriente No. 41, Antigua, Guatemala.

The Reverend John Smith, Vicar

5235-6674 cell telephone (502 country code)

THE EPISCOPAL CHURCH WELCOMES EVERYONE 
                      

Monday, December 5, 2016

A MESSAGE OF JESUS: "Any wrath to come, any wrath to flee from, is of completely human origin, flowing out of hate-filled, greedy hearts, and not one bit from God. " John+

As soon as Jesus comes up out of the water the spirit of God descends like a dove on Him. – Slide 19

The Reverend John Smith: Sermon, December 4, 2016 

John and Jesus

We began the season of Advent last week underlining a basic principle: When beginning you must keep your focus on the end. Advent, and the beginning of a new church year, considers the end of all things, expressed in apocalyptic terms and images, very popular and common in Jesus’ day. Apocalypse points to an “unveiling,” usually taking place in some cataclysmic event or war, of who is good, evil, pure, impure, faithful or unfaithful, in the eyes of God. I would say that many of our brother and sister Christians, and most of our fellow human beings, live in the world of apocalyptic today.
This Sunday we hear from John the Baptist, Jesus’ cousin. John was a zealot and lived steeped in this apocalyptic vision: one had to make a decision before the “wrath of God” would come upon the world and destroy the reprobate and unrepentant. Sincere folks would present themselves at the Jordon River to be baptized by John. They would cry out, confessing their sins, as John thrust them under the water. John told everyone about One who was coming after him, much more powerful, who would continue this ministry of calling people to repentance. This One would baptize them with the Holy Spirit and fire (a very apocalyptic image).


When Jesus came and began his own ministry shortly after the highpoint of John’s, it didn’t match John’s expectations. There was no “wrath” of fire unleashed on an unrepentant world. Instead wherever Jesus went he spoke of mercy, love, and forgiveness. He healed those who asked for healing. The way Jesus acted was so different than what John expected or hoped for, that he sent his disciples to ask Jesus: Are you the One who is to come or are we to wait for another? Jesus told John’s disciples of his healings, bringing sight to the blind (physically and spiritually), and bringing good news to the poor. Jesus’ vision was more like the one Isaiah hoped for, than the apocalyptic prophets of the day. In fact, Jesus subverted the apocalyptic vision from the inside out! Jesus didn’t enter into the apocalyptic enterprise of judging of who’s in, who’s out, us, them, good, bad, pure and impure, etc. He didn’t see any need for bloody battles with great loss of life to prove who’s right or wrong. Jesus did sometimes use the apocalyptic language of his contemporaries, but always to communicate a different message: Any wrath to come, any wrath to flee from, is of completely human origin, flowing out of hate-filled, greedy hearts, and not one bit from God.
Jesus rejected all the dualities that human beings live and die by and replaced them with Isaiah’s vision of harmony in Creation and between human beings:
The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole on the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den. The will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.
The Good News is that Jesus offers us a vision to live by. While the world dwells in apocalyptic, determining who is good and who is evil, we can see, as we repent and let our thinking change, all people as God’s children and our brothers and sisters. We can love and forgive our enemies and those who hate us. The world’s protagonists may bring axes and cut down tree after tree, leaving stumps (like Jesse’s) everywhere, but out of each seemingly dead stump a shoot of new growth will come. This is our Advent hope: God will come to save us, not out of this world, but right where we are. 

Amen!