Do you hear what I hear?

For three weeks now, we have been preparing room in our hearts for our Lord’s coming. Are you ready yet? Are you prepared for God to be with you 24/7? Or have your circumstances, such as worries over holiday preparations and family travel, made it hard for you to see or imagine that God is with you?

Our first story today is about one of God’s people who hears God’s words but can’t seem to imagine that God is with him. Ahaz is a descendant of David, and King of Judah; but he is overwhelmed by his worries and can’t seem to see around them. Ahaz is so worried about a military alliance between the Kings of Israel and Aram that he is plundering his own treasury and the Temple to buy an alliance with the King of Assyria – someone he should fear far more than Israel and Aram.

Yet Ahaz is unable to see beyond his own suspicion and worry to hear what God’s prophet Isaiah is telling him. Do not worry about the alliance between Israel and Aram, instead trust the Lord your God. Isaiah tells him, “If you do not stand firm in faith, you shall not stand at all.”[1]

Still Ahaz can’t get beyond his skepticism or mistrust, so God in his grace gives Ahaz a blank check. Ask for any proof you need that I am with you, and I will give it to you. But Ahaz responds as if he thinks it’s a trick. I think he is so engrossed in his worries that he can’t imagine that God is with him; even as God gives him a sign, “Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.”[2]

Almost 700 years before the birth of Christ, God is telling Ahaz that if he will only trust God – that if he is open to God’s presence in his life – in the time it takes for a child to be born and weaned, all of Ahaz’s worries will be resolved.

Yet Ahaz will not accept God’s assurances; he has too much reliance that his own scheme will fix things, and too little trust in God. Ahaz will not open his heart and mind to a different story or outcome; he is open neither to God’s promise nor his presence. Ahaz cannot imagine that God is present even amid his worry.

I suspect many of us can relate to Ahaz’s plight. When things begin to go sideways in our lives, as they do, I think most of us try to fix the problem ourselves, or with the help of others, rather than turning around and returning to God with the simple plea of, help me! Asking God for help may come in the end, but too often it is as an act of desperation when all else has failed.

I imagine this saddens but doesn’t surprise God. Nevertheless, she is right there with her hands and arms extended, saying I am here and waiting for you to return to me. Yet too often amid our worries we ignore or can’t see God.

Our blindness to God’s presence reminds me of the story of Balaam and his donkey. As Balaam rides his donkey on his way to see Balak, he and his donkey encounter an angel of the Lord. But Balaam doesn’t see the angel; he is too busy worrying about what he is going tell Balak that he fails to see what any seer worth their salt would see, the angel of the Lord standing before him with a drawn sword. It takes a donkey to open Balaam’s eyes to what is right before him.

In our second story, we have another angel of the Lord, and another descendant of David, who is busy making his own plans without asking God for help. But in this story there is a difference, this particular man is righteous. Joseph is in the habit of looking to and obeying God’s commands, as result he has a trusting relationship with God. Thus when the angel of the Lord appears to him, Joseph is prepared to hear a version of the story that is different than he has envisioned, and Joseph is able to set aside his worry.

Joseph hears the same words that Ahaz heard, “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel.”[3] Yet Joseph is able hear this story, Joseph is able to accept that God is with him, and he is able to imagine that he has a role to play in this story. Joseph is open and prepared to receive that which is promised to him.

As you and I hear this very same story, are we able to let go of our worries and receive that which is promised to us? Are we able to open our hearts to Emmanuel – to God who is with us? As we prepare for Christ’s coming, let’s acknowledge that which worries us, let’s acknowledge that we don’t fully know what is in store for us. Let’s let go of our worry and simply turn to face God’s presence and faithfulness. Emmanuel – God is with us!

[1] Isaiah 7:9b

[2] Isaiah 7:14b

[3] Matthew 1:23

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Harvest Letter, Winter 2016

My Sisters and Brothers in Christ,

As I write this message, we are still in the midst of Advent – that wonderful and fecund season of anticipation, reflection and preparation for new life. This new life will soon be delivered at Christmas and followed in short order by the revelation of Epiphany.

Reflection on the transition among these holy seasons seems particularly appropriate as we – the Body of Christ in the Episcopal Diocese of Kansas – find ourselves facing a transition in Episcopal leadership.

In many respects, we have been preparing and formed for this transition over the past thirteen years of Bishop Wolfe’s episcopacy. Among the joys of each cycle of the liturgical seasons, we have also faced and overcome challenges that have made us healthier and stronger because of Bishop Wolfe’s leadership. I look forward to celebrating his leadership with you all.

During this anticipatory season of Advent, the Council of Trustees – in its capacity as the Standing Committee of the Diocese – has already immersed itself in reflection and preparation for the transition that lies ahead. Rather than burden this message with details, I invite you to stay tuned to the normal diocesan communications where the Council will be publishing details and updates. In the meanwhile, I am …

Yours in expectancy,

Foster+

The Very Reverend Foster M. Mays

President, Council of Trustees

New Life

On this Third Sunday of Advent, we still find ourselves preparing for the coming of our Savior Jesus Christ. However, this preparation is not something unique to Advent – at least I hope not – because my hope is that we are preparing ourselves for Christ’s coming at all times.

Nevertheless, during Advent there is a particular intentionality to our preparation, because while others may be preoccupied with external fixations and décor, we are called to be preoccupied with interior preparation – the preparation of our hearts and minds to make more room for Christ in our lives.

For reasons only God can explain, during Advent, I find myself drawn to the image of pregnancy and new life as I think about this season. Perhaps it is the image of a very pregnant Mary – just weeks from her delivery that affects me.

Whatever the reason, during this season I am very aware that all of life is perpetually pregnant with the possibility of new life; yet I am also aware that a lot of people struggle with this kind of expectancy.

Throughout the Bible, God uses pregnancy over and over again to demonstrate what is possible among the human race and in God’s created order. Despite our inclination to screw it up with our own expectations, God presents us with new life and opportunities over and over again through procreation, as seen in the stories of Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, Tamar, Ruth, Bathsheba, Elizabeth and Mary, to name just a few.

Yet, despite these and lots of other stories, at some point, we may stop hearing the story – we may stop paying attention to its message of expectancy and new life. The story can become stale and we can stop paying attention. Perhaps we think we that we have seen it all, that there is nothing new to be revealed or learned here. Or perhaps the story is too familiar; perhaps it has simply become a sweet endearing tale that we trot out once a year, like our decorations, to add a little festivity and lightness to an otherwise dark time of year. Perhaps we are made nervous by the thought that there is something new to be learned because it may challenge our settled or familiar circumstances.

There is also the reality that the more often we repeat something – be it prayer, a melody, or a physical act – it becomes so familiar that we can do it by rote – it becomes mechanical. This is true as well for other repetitive patterns such as the seasons of the church year. We hear the same Scripture and see the same rituals over and over; we hear the same themes expounded upon in sermons and homilies over and over; we begin to stop looking or expecting something new; we think we know how it will all go down.

Like Sarah, we may even laugh in God’s presence when it is suggested that something beyond our experience or expectation such as new life is possible amid the familiar and commonplace. We too may deny God’s ability to do the improbable or what we think is impossible because reason and experience tell us another story. We may set limits even as God removes barriers or changes those barriers into open gateways.

Isaiah understands this. For decades the people Judah have endured the hardships of siege, exile, and oppression – the loss of their kingdom as they knew it – they have come to expect deprivation. Yet Isaiah tells them a different story, one that has echoes and images of the Exodus – the people being led to a new life – a story pregnant with possibility. As a result, Isaiah tells us our perceptions will be changed, “…the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped ….”[1]

Like the exiled people of Judah, where have our circumstances created barriers or set limits upon our expectation of new life? Where have we, like some of the matriarchs and patriarchs been content to accept our limitations rather than trusting God’s creative and regenerative power to bring something new from them?

Even God’s prophets can begin to lose sight of what is possible because of too narrow an expectation. Consider John the Baptist in today’s Gospel. Here is the man who baptized Jesus – who heard a voice from heaven say, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”[2] Yet now, even John has questions as he is languishing in prison wondering what has become of the messiah he was expecting. He sends his disciples to Jesus to ask, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”[3] Even the prophet has come to question his own sense of expectancy in Scripture’s promise of new life. Yet John still has the presence of mind to go to the source and ask the question, what am I missing here?

John is not disappointed because Jesus reminds him of Isaiah’s prophecy of new life to be found in the Messiah, “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.”[4]

To his credit, John, while he still has time, is questioning his own expectation; and in response, he receives the good news that the Messiah has come, not on John’s terms, but on God’s terms as described by his prophets. John, because of his questioning is able to hear the story afresh – to have his expectation refreshed and redirected to the story of new life, even in the midst doubt and suffering.

Let us be like John, not just in these last two weeks of Advent, but at all times. Let us be willing to ask the questions that refresh and renew our expectations so that we can hear the story of new life, and marvel with expectancy at the persistent, regenerative power of God as revealed in his son Jesus Christ.

[1] Isaiah 35:5

[2] Matthew 3:17

[3] Ibid., 11:3

[4] Ibid., v.5

… as the waters cover the sea

… for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.[1]

I love the sound, the simile, and the image that this bit of Scripture calls to mind.

This verse follows Isaiah’s description of an idyllic kingdom and as such it attest to what is necessary in this perfect kingdom, “… the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.”

Yet how does the imagery of this heavenly kingdom relate to our reality when it seems that we are desperately far removed from it? Is it just the wild-eyed ranting of a visionary that has no relevance to our circumstance?

At first glance it may seem so, but if we look a little closer we may be surprised to see people like ourselves being offered a vision – a prophecy – to inspire and sustain them. Where we need to look more closely is the context of today’s lesson from Isaiah.

Isaiah’s audience is primarily the people of Judah, who are weary of warfare and economic deprivation following decades of political intrigue and shifting alliances within their own kingdom and those surrounding them. In addition, looming on the horizon is invasion by the Assyrian empire. The people of Judah are at their tether’s end and feeling rather hopeless.

While our circumstance is not so dire, there are still aspects we can relate to, such as political intrigue and economic deprivation. And certainly we can relate to the hope of better times as might be found in a prophecy or vision that suggests a restoration of the glory days

But why do we find our selves presented with this story during this Advent season – a season of anticipation, stillness and preparation? This story’s association with stillness, waiting, and preparation is not obvious, but I think it does relate to the preparation of ourselves for the anticipated idyllic kingdom of Jesus’ second coming. But rather than the vague references to alertness amid uncertainty that we encountered last week, this week we get a bit more focus in this piece of Scripture, “… the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.”

What the earth being full of the knowledge of the Lord will look like is revealed in the simile, “as the waters cover the sea.” This is not the lumpy fullness of a poorly stuffed pillow or cushion. It is not the closet that has been hastily stuffed in an effort to clean the bedroom floor of clothes and debris. Rather, it is a fullness that leaves no corner or crevice empty.

As we know, water will flow to the lowest points and fill them completely before rising to fill the next void or crevice until the hole, the pond, the lake, or the sea is full. When it is full all the voids, holes, or imperfections are completely covered. This brings to my mind the creation narrative in the first chapter of Genesis, as God is about to begin creation, “the earth was formless and void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.”[2] Like Baptism, all there is, is water and spirit covering a multitude of voids.

Similarly, our voids and crevices – our places of spiritual emptiness or poverty are waiting to be filled. We may not even recognize or be aware of these voids because we are spiritually anesthetized by the world’s busyness and noisiness at this time of year. We are so busy doing that we may not slow down enough to question or reflect upon what is happening in our very midst.

This is the point of Advent. Advent is a time of stillness and reflection. Stillness and reflection help us to fill our voids in preparation for Jesus’ coming, but the paradox in this is that to be full – to fill the voids of our spiritual poverty – we have to let go. We have to let go of – or set aside – the distractions that seem like things we “ought” to be doing. Ironically, what helps us to set aside or let go of these distractions is to take up other activities to replace them – activities that will draw us more deeply toward God and her created order; activities such as daily reading of the Bible, daily prayer, and daily expressions of gratitude.

This is easier said than done, particularly when the things we “ought” to be doing seem so appropriate. The “oughts” often seem to be coming from a place of conscientiousness. They seem like good things to be done – things for the public good and order even. Perhaps at some level they are good, but to the extent that they preoccupy us and keep us from periods of stillness or quietness before our Lord, these “oughts” are dangerous things. They deprive us of our Sabbaths, they do spiritual harm by opening or aggravating the voids or crevices we all have in our spiritual lives. Thus we slip further into spiritual poverty and farther from the abundant or full knowledge of the Lord we seek.

The practices of gratitude, prayer, and Scripture are necessary for us to fully encounter the kingdom of God. They are the water that will revive us and begin to fill us. Filling all the spiritual crevices and voids that are created by the “oughts” and our distractedness; filling us until we are as “full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea”.

When we are full, we will recognize that what seems like wild-eyed rantings are in fact inspiration and sustenance; and when we are full we will begin to pour-over into the lives of those about us so they may be full as well.

This is not just about us, it is also about others – it is about bringing others to a fuller knowledge of God through Jesus Christ. Therefore, fill yourself that you may be inspired, sustained and draw others to God through Christ, the source of all fullness.

[1] Isaiah 11:9b

[2] Genesis 1:2