An Improbable Story

Welcome to this awesome and joyous Christmas feast! It’s always exciting to have a few more faces with us on Christmas, particularly those we don’t see often because school or jobs keep you from us.

One of the wonderful things about this service is it allows us to briefly suspend the busyness and distractedness of preparation, and to turn our attention to other aspects of our life such as family, traditions, stories, and – hopefully – faith.

Speaking of family, traditions, stories, and faith; those of us with a few Christmases under our belts have certain expectations about how this evening should go. It may include a drop-in for some Christmas cheer followed by this festal Eucharist with its carols and candles, and a late night of hanging stockings. But these things are more like window dressing rather than things that move us or change our lives.

If you’re one of those who has certain expectations about how this evening should go, hang onto your seat because this sermon may get a little bumpy; it may rattle some of your settled expectations, and call you think about how unsettling these stories can be.

For the next few minutes, I am asking each of us to suspend our expectations and to think about how we view Christmas: the day, the stories, the traditions, and its relevance to our lives.

Has Christmas become a fairy-tale for you – a tradition observed? Is it more akin to a sentimental magic kingdom production intended mainly for children? Has it lost its relevance to the reality of our day-to-day lives? Perhaps we have catalogued it with the likes of It’s a Wonderful Life; Miracle on 34th Street; or Christmas Story? In other words, has it become near and dear to us as a sentiment but failed to affect our thinking?

As you ponder these questions about relevance and sentimentality, take a moment to consider how improbable this Christmas tale is. As a story that is very familiar to us, we may have never considered how improbable it is. So consider the setting and humble origins of the primary actors. This story doesn’t take place in Jerusalem or some grand city. No, it’s set in a small town in a remote crossroad of the Roman empire. Bethlehem is the ancestral home of Joseph; a skilled carpenter and a stand-up guy, but a poor relation of the clan of David, who himself was deemed to be an unlikely king of Israel. The youngest bother and the runt, David was not deemed by anyone but God to be worthy of anointing as king. Yet God continues to confound our expectations.

And then there is Joseph’s betrothed – Mary. Mary is very young – engaged but not yet married, and mysteriously pregnant. This holy and humble family would have invited all sorts of gossip and speculation had people known their circumstance. Yet God chooses these and other seemingly unlikely people to populate this story of salvation.

While Emperor Augustus has the power to summon people from all stations of life and from across the empire to their ancestral homes; God’s angelic herald goes only to shepherds – hard-working field hands – to proclaim the good news of a savior – the Messiah. God is not impressed by our station in life; rather, God is concerned with the humble – those hungry to hear this peculiar good news.

So why this emphasis on the improbable? Because the improbable invites a kind of creative imagination and questioning that engages our minds as well as our hearts. Tonight there is room for both in this stable in Bethlehem. Consider that nine months earlier Mary had accepted the perplexing news of the Annunciation from the angel Gabriel without questioning, and went for months without confirmation except from her cousin Elizabeth. Now, after all this time, Mary’s choice to submit to God’s purpose is confirmed by an unlikely and ragtag band of shepherds. I think it’s fair to ask, would you and I ponder the words of these shepherds? Yet Mary ponders all that she sees, hears, and experiences. Mary is learning that God works in unorthodox and improbable ways, she is open to understanding what it all means, and she is trying to connect all the dots.

At every turn of this story there are improbable revelations and acceptance of these revelations. And the improbability of it all may be the part that is most challenging for us as modern listeners. While those, like Mary, who can accept the improbability of these revelations without question are blessed; I say, blessed are those who question, who ponder, who wonder because in trying to connect the dots we will make it our own revelation, with time. Our pondering of the improbable publicly and in the company of others will deepen all our understanding.

So now that the harried preparations for Christmas are behind us, as we stand among the shepherds and livestock before the holy family in this modest stable, I invite each of us to choose one crazy improbable part of this story and ponder how it speaks to you in this season of celebration and wonder. And now, I wish you a very happy and improbable Christmas!

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Harvest Letter, Winter 2017

My Sisters and Brothers in Christ,

How are you doing as we wait and wonder our way through this seemingly ambiguous nomination process?

Here we find ourselves, still immersed in a period of waiting, reflection, and discernment. Of these three, waiting seems to me to be the most challenging to give expression to. Yet, where my imagination fails, scripture never fails to fill the void.

As we were nearing the end of Advent, I had the joy of reading again the lessons appointed for St. Thomas the Apostle. I am a big fan of Thomas for two reasons. First, he was honest about the ambiguity that many of us live with – the tension between questioning and faith, especially in the face of impatience among some of his colleagues. Second, I was ordained to the diaconate on Thomas’ feast day in 2012, and the world did not end on that day as some had predicted.

But it is the lessons appointed for Thomas’ feast, Habakkuk and Hebrews in particular, that speak most clearly to this doubtful period of waiting. The Letter to the Hebrews exhorts the early followers of Christ to patience and persistence amid their struggles with the ambiguity between their questioning of when and faith. In this, Hebrews cites the following verse, in which God speaks to Habakkuk and says,

For there is still a vision for the appointed time;
it speaks of the end, and does not lie.
If it seems to tarry, wait for it;
it will surely come, it will not delay.” [Habakkuk 2:2-3]

These words still resonate for the current generation of the followers of Christ, especially us in the Episcopal Diocese of Kansas. We have the Spirit-led vision of the Council of Trustees, as spelled out in its theological statement below. We know the appointed time – the consecration date of March 2, 2019. Both of these speak of the end of the process and do not lie – they are trustworthy.

Still, God acknowledges our impatience, God knows we view future events as too slow in coming – as tarrying; and yet God reminds us to “wait for it, it will surely come, it will not delay.” As with most things temporal, when we look to the future in anticipation and waiting it seems to tarry. Yet when we look in the rearview mirror the time is fleeting and passes too soon. So join the Council in relishing the ambiguous time before us as we prepare to meet those who are seeking to discern God’s call as the 10th Bishop, “it will surely come.”

Yours in vision, confidence, and waiting,

Foster+

We, the Council of Trustees, believe in and trust the God-given gifts that abide in the people of the Episcopal Diocese of Kansas. During this season of transition, we will not be fearful. Directed by the Spirit, together we joyfully walk with Jesus the road ahead. [Council of Trustees, February 1, 2017]

What shall we cry?

A voice says, “Cry out!” And I said, “What shall I cry?”[1]

What shall we cry in this season of Advent? Advent is a season that makes us so aware of the peculiar place we followers of Christ occupy. The peculiar place we occupy is in this created world and in the kingdom to come. It is a peculiar place because it presents us with the challenge of balancing the sometimes-contradictory values of two different places. What shall we cry in this season of Advent? How do we give voice to this peculiar place?

I think this is just how Isaiah must be feeling this morning as the voice “cries out: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.’”[2]

This voice is not is not Isaiah’s voice but that of one of the heavenly attendants. Isaiah knows full well what follows is good news for a desperate people, but he is at a loss about how to relate it to a people who are oppressed by their anxiety and sense of insufficiency. It seems that the good news of comfort, justice, and eternal rest are just beyond the reach of their present comprehension – their ability to see them. If only they can get up higher or improve their view.

I think we too are, in many ways, afflicted with a similar shortsightedness. We are besieged, as were Isaiah’s people, before their exile. However, our adversary is a different kind of Babylon. Our Babylon includes the great marketing and social media empires of consumerism and self-infatuation that generate scads of anxiety about having it just right – the right gift, the right decorations, the right food, and the right opinion so that we fit in.

This subtle form of oppression causes us to begin to lose our authentic sense of identity in the face of its onslaught of anxiety and insecurity as we are assimilated by these empires.

Like our spiritual ancestors of Isaiah’s time, we struggle to see beyond our present circumstance in order to glimpse the future and eternal reality. Amid the noise and distraction it is difficult to glimpse the kingdom to come, especially when it is not clear when the kingdom will come. Sometimes it feels like we are left with a contradiction – the time is at hand. Oh, but not yet!

Followers of Christ have struggled with this contradiction for over two thousand years, and this struggle finds voice in Peter’s second letter as the author tries to calm the anxiety of his readers over the issue that the kingdom has not yet come. In this letter we are reminded of what sort of people we are to be – people of holiness – especially as we wait.

The adjective “holy” describes this state of holiness and devotion to God; however, we may give it too little thought and struggle to give expression to holy. So try these on for size:

  • When something is holy, it belongs to God – as we do as a part of creation.
  • When something is holy, it is complete – it has integrity, it is authentic, it is whole.
  • When something is holy, it is beautiful – as we each are in God’s eyes.
  • When something is holy, it is pure – as we become through baptism and the forgiveness of our sins.
  • When something is holy, it is set apart and devoted to that which it seeks and desires – as we are through our baptism.

Simply stated, that which is holy is that which seeks and is beheld by God.

Still, there is no denying that the empires of marketing and social media are highly effective – they have honed their techniques to a science – playing upon our insecurities and diluting that which is our best and holiest – they make us feel less than whole.

So we followers of Christ are called to a different empire this Advent. Not to deny all that is going on about us, but simply to acknowledge the onslaught, and to seek a word or reflection that reminds us that Advent is a season for renewal and wholeness for our selves and our best efforts so that our joyous and eager expectations are for the gift of eternal life, rather than the gift of the year, which has a limited warranty.

What better way to break the spell of the marketing and social media empires than to immerse our selves in wonderful and outrageous stories that proclaim things that are hard to imagine. What better place to begin than “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God”[3]?

Notice, this story doesn’t begin in the marketplaces of Jerusalem or some other great city. It doesn’t even originate in the holiest inner sanctuary of the temple. No, this story of stories, with its excitement and anticipation comes out of the wilderness.

The wilderness as the place of origin for this message may sound peculiar to our ears, but as those who have spent time with the Old Testament may recognize, the wilderness is symbolic as a place of testing and the formation of God’s people. A place where we learn holiness, and a place of God’s saving acts.

Advent too is just such a place. It is a brief period that invites us to remember our holiness through reflection and preparation so that we can hear the voice that says, “Cry out!”

The central character in the beginning of this wonderful and outrageous story of Jesus Christ is a peculiar wild man named John; a man who doesn’t conform to social expectations, still he draws crowds because he appeals to their craving for spiritual authenticity.

In John, the evangelists find the personification of the faithful steward, one who is charged with preparing the way of the Lord. But this preparation does not end with Christ’s first coming. No, in fact the reason we hear such end-of-time readings each Advent is to remind us of Christ’s second coming and our baptismal charge to prepare the way for the Lord’s second coming. You and I are called to be the peculiar wild people of our generation – the holy people in the wilderness of the marketing and social media empires – preparing the way of the Lord so that “the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together.”[4]

So, what shall we cry? We shall cry, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.”[5]

[1] Isaiah 40:6a

[2] Ibid v. 3

[3] Mark 1:1

[4] Isaiah 40:5

[5] Mark 1:3b