On a January morning 18 years ago this very weekend, I preached my first sermon in an Episcopal Church. It was at St. Francis in Holden, and Melissa and I had been working as the youth leaders there for a few years. If you know a thing or two about the lectionary, you’ll be able to figure out that the readings we heard this morning had also been read on that day. And on that morning I was telling the congregation for the first time that I had entered into the discernment process to see whether or not I was called to become a priest.
The choir did a delightful little anthem on that day about the call of Samuel which included the rector’s son who was about 9 at the time. Graham lay on the ground pretending to be asleep as the choir told the story in song. At the point when the choir sang “Samuel, Samuel,” he dutifully got up acting rather groggy and ran over to the person playing the role of Eli. The song ended with Graham wonderfully singing in a boy’s soprano voice, “Speak Lord for your servant is listening.”
There are two accounts of the creation in the Bible. Anyone reading the Bible closely would see this, of course, but we tend to conflate them into one larger narrative just like we do with the birth narratives for Jesus. For those stories, we have the wise men showing up with the shepherds and the singing angels with the newborn baby Jesus all bundled up in that manger. However, Matthew’s account of the coming of the Magi—celebrated yesterday with the Epiphany—clearly says that the star led them to the house Jesus and his parents lived in, and that Jesus was about two years old. While it’s easier for our children’s pageant to have the wise men showing up on that silent night, it isn’t biblically accurate.
In the creation accounts the things we mash together are the 7 days of creation and the story of Adam and Eve. In the first account—the one we began hearing today from Genesis 1—we learn that God creates over the course of six days with animals coming on Days 5 and 6, culminating with the creation of humankind, both male and female as the crowning achievement before God took a day off and rested. In the other narrative from Genesis 2, we learn that God first forms Adam out of the dust and then, once God realizes Adam is lonely, begins creating all of the animals in order to find a suitable helpmate. After Adam names all the wild beasts God dreams up and is still forlorn, God has Adam fall into a deep sleep, takes on of his rib bones, and fashions Eve.
Word made flesh, life of the world, in your incarnation you embraced our poverty: by your Spirit may we share in your riches. Amen.
I have a beat up copy of Plato’s The Phaedrus that I studied in an Advanced Composition and Rhetoric class in college. It’s on my shelf with a few other books from my undergrad days. I remember my professor teaching us that for Plato the purpose of good writing was to set the soul free, to let it soar upwards toward the heavens and put off the weight of this earthly body. The body, says Plato, is like a prison for the soul, like an oyster stuck in a clunky shell. The shell of ours needs to be cast aside so we can truly become who we were meant to be.
What Plato really brings to the front is the dualistic nature of our bodies and souls, informing us that our bodies are bad and our souls are good. The great theologian Augustine buys in to this dualism quite readily with his concept of original sin that has dominated Western theology ever since. The body with its limitations is no good.
Five and a half years ago we divided up the remnants of my parents’ belongings. My Dad had died on Easter Day that year and then, after his funeral and getting things initially settled, we gathered one last time in late May to sort out a life’s collection of things. We chose things by birth order, selecting among the sentimental or practical items that remained, and I was number six. I had my mind’s eye on an item in a Rubermaid container buried deep in the basement that I hoped would be forgotten or overlooked by my older siblings. I have no idea what they chose, frankly, I think someone grabbed a Bose system, and another the dinnerware. I just know that the first five picked and my item remained. When all eyes fell to me, I quickly said, “Mom and Dad’s creche.”
Phil LaBelle, 2017.
I loved that nativity scene. The stable was hewn out of rough wood; remnants of lumber that had been around an old barn at my godparent’s home. The figurines were painted by hand too, Mary and Joseph, Jesus in the manger, camels and magi and shepherds and an angel. My mom and dad received it from my godparents—my mom’s brother and sister-in-law—the year they moved with their three kids out to the country. The house they moved to was next to a dairy farm, and that had to be 40 years ago now. My family spent nearly every weekend at my Uncle Jim and Aunt Linda’s old farmhouse that summer, my dad helping with the electrical and other odd jobs, and my mom helping to clean and get them settled in, as that dusty old house became a home. We kids would play in the barn—jumping in to piles of hay—or running threw the cornfields that grew on both sides of their yard.
“When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, then were we like those who dream,” writes the Psalmist. What do you dream about? What carries your mind when you imagine better days? What is it that you begin to hope for when you turn your attention to a possible future joy?
On this Third Sunday of Advent, that is where we turn: to joy. We can feel it in the air around us, of course. Children anxiously waiting for Christmas. Carols playing round the clock on the radio. Homes filled with the scents of pine and baking. We drive around after dark—that is after 4:30pm—we see lights on trees and candles in windows. We receive cards with updates and pictures of family and friends, and we mark the days to Christmas as we the anticipation of joy builds.
Our patron—the saint who gives our community its name— St. Mark the Evangelist, plunges us directly into the wilderness. He doesn’t spill ink on genealogies to trace Jesus’ lineage in more detail than Ancestry.com, nor does he tell the narrative account of Jesus’ humble beginnings. He simply writes, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, ‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,”’ John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” We don’t even have time to catch our breaths before we fall headlong into the blazing light and intense heat of the desert and of The Baptizer’s clarion call to repentance.
What is it about the wilderness? Why is it the place that God often chooses to meet us? What is found in the desert, the mountains, the rough places that cause them to become “thin,” the very settings where we palpably encounter the Divine?
Nine hours, four minutes and thirty-seven seconds. That’s the amount of daylight we get today, often given the misnomer of the “Shortest Day of the Year” when it should be “The Day with the Least Amount of Daylight,” but who am I to quibble. Nine hours, four minutes and thirty-seven seconds is not much sunlight no matter how you parse it out.
Phil LaBelle (c) 2017.
It’s the time when we sit in a great darkness. And even though it’s supposed to be the most wonderful time of the year, sometimes it just isn’t. Sometimes circumstances rock our boats as if a storm has kicked up, and the waves are beginning to crash over the hull of the boat, and fear sets in. The loss of a job, hardship in a relationship, a painful diagnosis, the death of someone you love, addiction, trouble with a family member, a huge misunderstanding, infidelity. Oh that list can go on and on, and I’ve known many a Christmas seasons of my own that fit those bleak descriptions. Like the one Christmas when doctors found multiple spots on my Dad’s lungs. Or the year we moved and nothing felt right. That Christmastide when the company I worked for shuttered its doors the very week Melissa and I got married. The years my mom’s depression overshadowed Christmas during my childhood.
So which are you? A sheep? Or a goat?
I didn’t notice many of you carefully choosing up sides this morning when you came in. And if you did, I suspect you had to go over in your head a few times as to which side of the church was the one you really wanted to be on. It’s the Son of Man’s left and right, but if he’s standing in front looking at us, then it’s reversed for the crowd. You have to go left if you want to be on his right.
Sometimes we’ve heard Scriptures so often that we don’t really hear them. We tune out. We think we know it, so we just keep right on going, and the power of the words to transform us gets left in the dust. The Beatitudes are that entirely. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for theirs is the kingdom of God,” we hear but it could just as well have been “Blessed are the cheesemakers,” stealing a line from Monty Python. Some more recent versions of Scripture change it up by using the word “Happy,” for “Blessed,” but that falls completely flat when you read, “Happy are you when you mourn.”
Biblical scholar Earl F. Palmer suggests using Psalm 1 for a lens since it begins with the Hebrew equivalent of being “blessed” when you do not walk in the way of the wicked but center your life on God’s law. Palmer tells us that the Hebrew word for “blessing” ’ashar “means in the literal sense ‘to find the right road’.” To be on the right path. “You’re on the right road when you are poor in spirit, for yours is the kingdom of God.”
Matthew begins our lesson by spilling the beans of the plot all at once. Thanks to the internet meme—and those famous words uttered in Star Wars: The Return of the Jedi—I hear it in Admiral Ackbar’s voice. (He’s that amphibious salmon-colored character with a head that’s a cross between a squid and a catfish.) “It’s a trap!” he proclaims as the Rebellion fleet cruises in to take down the Empire’s second Death Star. And so it is with Jesus today. “The Pharisees plotted to entrap Jesus in what he said,” Matthew writes before laying out the story, inviting us to watch over Jesus’ shoulder to see if the trap springs back on his questioners.
They begin by buttering him up. “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality.” You can almost hear them licking their chops as they circle tighter and tighter. “So tell us what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not?”
It’s a trap!