Monthly Archives: December 2013

Christmas Morning

Preached for the Nativity of Our Lord.

The tableau we’ve just heard from the Gospel is rendered in Western art as an Adoration, an arrangement of adoring figures that gets copied again and again in nativity sets in church and at home. In paintings depicting the adoration of the Christ child, the shepherds peer in awe around the corner of a straw hut, while Mary herself hovers above the infant with her hands clasped in awe or prayer. I find this deeply peculiar. Why doesn’t Mary hold the baby? Anyone who has been near enough a newborn knows that you don’t adore an infant by staring at it, you adore him by holding him close in your arms, by trying to discern her crys, by rocking him gently off to sleep. I want to see a nativity where the baby Jesus is being passed lovingly from one shepherd to the next while the travel-weary mother gets a break.

I, myself, had the privilege of holding the baby Jesus for a while last week. I am speaking, of course, of the baby Jesus from our pageant yesterday who was played by our very own Trajan Kingsley. Josh and I were working on a project together and Josh needed a little break of his own from having Trajan strapped to his chest for the past several hours. I gladly took him, and he was not-as-gladly received. He spit up a bit on the shoulder of my hoodie, refused his bottle, but eventually fell asleep in my arms after a bit of swaying and some songs. Every time I hold and rock and sing to baby Trajan I am reminded of how deeply my own fitful soul needs to be coddled this way. Christmas is a great feast for doing this, all it takes is the bass line to Angels we have heard on High and I can feel the crankiest part of me softening into a supple, relaxed stupor. Another friend of Nathan and I whose daughter, Eliena, is even younger is just beginning to push herself up. If her hands are held in just the right way, her arms quiver with the strength she is gaining in the effort to hold her whole self upright. It becomes this kind of dance, holding her hands while her elbows and knees wobble somewhere beneath her -I ease off on the weight I’m bearing so she can learn to bear more and more of herself as she grows.

The great mystery and wonderful sacrament of the incarnation is that God comes to us as one needing to be held. The Word of God comes unfinished in a mother’s womb, like a thought searching for just the right way to be uttered. The Word of God comes ready to be born and shaped by the people he will meet, the people who will come to help him on his way through this world and keep him company when he is lonely and afraid. Christ trusts himself to us. Christ lets us tell the story he has come to author in our own words, knowing that we’ll never really get it quite right, knowing our penchant for tall tales and hard lines and too much bloody gore. Christ brings the whole Peace of God down to earth and then leaves it there to be used up, worn out, tattered by carelessness and love and eventually renewed entirely, a patchwork quilt of all the souls who have lent their hands to mend it.

In some version of heaven this God of ours may be adored by clasped hands and hymns sung in perfect harmony across an unsearchable multitude of angelic hosts. But here on earth we adore our God by holding him. We adore our God by trying to listen very carefully to his cries for help, and learning to discern what they mean for the needs of his people. We adore our God by helping his ever newborn body of the Church learn to wobble with the strength we are gaining as we learn to stand upright in the ways of God’s justice and God’s truth. For this is the very thing he does for us, in the flesh, as one among us. Christ coddles our cast down, disquieted souls within by the softest, sweetest song of Himself. His Spirit tends to every cry we make, and props us up just enough to learn to use the strength which we ourselves are gaining. His God draws as near to us as a mother’s arms are to her only child, as near as bread upon our lips, and remains there for all time, as close our own two arms are ready to receive him.

knippers shepherds

All that, and Titus, too

For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all.

nativityMost of us who are here tonight love the Christmas story, regardless of what parts of it we believe. It’s in the fabric of our culture. Whether are not nativity scenes are allowed in the town square, we’ve all grown up with them in shopping malls, on Christmas cards, in movies and, if we’re churchgoers, in pageants like the one some of us watched this afternoon. Even if you haven’t been to church in a while, I hope you’ll find that much about this service is comfortingly familiar: the greenery, the hymns, the lovely music, the candles, and, of course, the readings.

The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
Wonderful, Counselor,
Mighty God, Everlasting Father
Prince of Peace

We all know where that’s from, right? Strains of Handel’s Messiah are perhaps singing in the back of our mind as we listen to Isaiah’s version of the Christmas proclamation—the Messiah is coming, hope and light are coming into a dark world. Every year we begin our readings with this passage from Isaiah. It wouldn’t be Christmas without it.

And we know this one by heart, right?

There were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and the angel said to them, “I bring you good news of great joy for all people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior. 

In a bible quiz show, even those of us who are Episcopalians would be able to name that gospel in one note. It’s from Luke.

So here’s your next Christmas reading quiz:

For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all, training us to renounce impiety and worldly passions, and to live lives that are self-controlled, upright, and godly.

You all know where that’s from, right? No? It’s from the letter to Titus. You know, the one we hardly ever read, and when we do, we don’t pay much attention.

Poor Titus! We only get to hear this letter once a year, tonight and again tomorrow morning. More to the point, most people utterly tune Titus out. Titus is kind of the Grinch of the Christmas gospel proclamation. Who wants to hear about morality on a night like this? In fact, the late Krister Stendahl, Bishop of Stockholm and longtime professor at Harvard Divinity School included in his “ten commandments of biblical preaching” the commandment “thou shalt not offer moral lessons on high holy days.”

Having slight Grinch tendencies myself from time to time, I find myself curious about the letter of Titus, sandwiched between these two top-of-the-charts Christmas readings. What does Titus have to say to us on this Holy Night when we celebrate the word made flesh?

titusThe letter to Titus was attributed to Paul but probably written by an unknown follower of Paul to a little-known companion of Paul’s stationed on the island of Crete, perhaps as its bishop. So the letter contains instructions, from one leader to another, on how to pastor a group of early Christians and prospective Christians.

Today’s snippet from Titus begins with the Christmas proclamation: “the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all.” But the letter goes on to be a little more explicit than the Christmas Gospel in spelling out that Jesus’ coming into the world means something to us. The coming of Jesus into the world as the word made flesh invites us, not only to take in the great joy of Christmas, but to change our lives. Grace and salvation for all means that we get to do something with the hopes and fears, the sorrow and envy and joy and grief and generosity that swirl around in most of us this time of year.

No one wants to hear about renouncing worldly passions and living lives that are self-controlled, upright, and godly. Especially not on Christmas Eve! And yet—get out the rotten tomatoes—isn’t that what God asks us to do? Isn’t the birth of Jesus supposed to actually change things? And forgetting for a moment—or longer–about what God may or may not be asking us to do…Don’t we come to church, whether once a year or every Sunday, because we think—maybe, possibly—that we might want to become better people? Or at least, because we want to be happier, or give thanks for the happiness we already have? Maybe some of us even say that we come to church because we hope to be more like Jesus.

And this poor, neglected reading from Titus tells us how to do that, although it’s too bad that it is full of all those terms that give Christianity a bad name: purify, zealous, self-control, upright. But I believe the hope of the author of this letter is not to repress our passions, but to redirect them. As followers of Jesus, self-control in a world gone wild with excess is actually a radical thing, a shift in perspective to the roots of the story that began on this night so long ago. As followers of Jesus, to be “godly” means to turn our attention to God; to include God in our thinking. As followers of Jesus, no one asks us to be zealous for judgment or condemnation, but for good deeds.

If you don’t want to think about being upright, self-controlled, purified, and godly, think about being zealous for good deeds. Good deeds can be big or small. If you’re lucky, you have someone in your family like I do, who is zealous for Christmas shopping, zealous with generosity, with buying and wrapping and delivering gifts, often for people who don’t expect them. Or you know someone who practices hospitality as though it is a sacrament, a holy thing. Or you have an opportunity to reach out to someone who struggles this time of year, and offer him or her some light and some hope. This kind of zeal brings about the transformation of the world that begins with the word becoming flesh.

Through all of this, the angels bring glad tidings of great joy. The grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all. It’s a glorious, beloved story, and tonight is only the beginning. Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and the Kingdom of God are still all to come. Join us on the journey.

Doula for the Holy Spirit

Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means “God is with us.”

The people of Judah need a savior. Today’s reading from Isaiah comes from the period of the divided kingdom: ten of the original twelve tribes of Israel inhabit Israel to the north, and two tribes inhabit Judah—where Jerusalem is—to the south. Israel has teamed up with its northern neighbor, Syria, to gang up on little Judah. Ahaz, King of Judah, is afraid. He wants to protect his people by teaming up with Assyria (not to be confused with Syria). If Judah is here, Israel is here, Syria here, and Assyria over here….

The prophet Isaiah tells the king: ask for a sign from God. But Ahaz says “I will not not put God to the test.” This has a familiar ring to it, right? It comes from the ten commandments and Ahaz is trying to be obedient. At the same time, this is a false piety. He says he doesn’t want to put God to the test, but actually he is denying his need for God. He lacks the willingness to use any means necessary to save the people of Judah.

But Isaiah, God’s spokesperson, says: “Too bad, God is going to give you a sign anyway.” And the sign is this:

A young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel. And within a few years, those two countries whose kings you are afraid of will be deserted.

motherandchildA young woman of marriageable age. Not a virgin, not a woman with anything special about her—she will bear a child and name him Immanuel, God with us.

Well, guess what happens? The kingdoms of Israel and Syria are in fact destroyed in the end of the 8th century, and are no longer a threat. But, ironically, Assyria invades Judah, destroys Jerusalem, and takes its people captive. So much for prophecy, right? Wrong. Because the true part of Isaiah’s prophecy, the part that does not rely upon the proof of human history, is God-with-us. Immanuel. No matter what happens, God-with-us is a sign of hope, encouragement, and steadfast love.

The prophet Isaiah points Ahaz to a sign of God’s presence. God’s presence comes to Joseph in a dream, saying the child Mary carries is conceived by the Holy Spirit.

What does it mean to be with child from the Holy Spirit? In Mary’s case, this has come down to us as the explanation Joseph has been given to help him stick it out during a potentially awkward situation. Don’t worry! Mary has not been unfaithful to you.

Mary’s virginal status, meant to remind us of the young woman who bears Immanuel—God-with-us—began as an error in translation. It has come down to us as doctrine—God’s great miracle of parthenogenesis. (That’s a fun word to say! It means creation from virginity.) The challenge of our doctrine of the virgin birth—and I’m not going to offer heresy a third week in a row by dissing the virgin birth—but the problem with that being doctrine rather than translation is that we focus on that miracle rather than the miracle of God-with-us.

The other day I heard a commentary on the radio about how this time of year can be difficult for people who have never had children and have always wanted children. I still remember when I was trying to get pregnant, and then learned that I never would, hearing a preacher (a man) say: “There’s only one good metaphor for Advent, and it’s pregnancy.” I’m not so sure.

What if we stop—at least until the Christmas Pageant on Tuesday—thinking about a baby, and instead think about the sign Isaiah spoke of, the sign remembered in Joseph’s dream, reminding us that God is with us? What if we ask ourselves: what else might it mean to be with child by the Holy Spirit? What if I, a 54-year-old—were to bear the Holy Spirit? What would it mean for Joshua to be with child by the Holy Spirit? Or Tom? To what would the Holy Spirit give birth, in us? What sign of God-with-us would we show to the world?

immanuelIn the time of King Ahaz, a young woman bore a son and named him Immanuel, God-with-us, and Assyria still invaded Judah. Jesus came with a message of God-with-us, and three years later, he was crucified. God raised Jesus from the dead, another sign of God-with-us.  People took this sign seriously enough to start a church, but the world is still full of suffering and disappointment.

What are the signs today of God-with-us? Where is the Holy Spirit growing inside of us?

A few days ago, I decided to do something kind of hokey. I decided to pay attention just for a few hours to signs of God-with-us, and see what I could see. Here’s what happened:

On Thursday evening, I met a woman who was recruited a few years ago to be part of a reality-TV expose of sweatshop conditions in developing countries. She was chosen, along with several other women in their late teens and early twenties, because they were typical consumers of the clothes created in these sweatshops. However, her life was changed by the experience. Not only did she change her shopping habits, but she became an investigative story-teller and devotes her life to exploring issues related to human exploitation, liberation, and reconciliation around the world. Nowhere did she talk, while telling her story, about God-with-us or bearing the child of the Holy Spirit. And yet that’s what I think happened to her.

Friday morning I heard heartbreaking stories on the radio about suicide among college kids. But the stories included two parents who lost their son to suicide and then started a foundation to provide better support for kids on college campuses. They have turned their grief and misery into a source of strength. They are, in a way, giving birth to hope for others.

After listening to that story I pulled myself together and went into the gym. On the stair master I began my workout by reading Morning Prayer on my iphone. I read from the prophet Zechariah, who wrote to the kingdom of Judah two hundred years after Isaiah. By this time, the Hebrew people have survived several invasions and deportations. Times are grim. Zechariah writes:

Even though it seems impossible to the remnant of this people in these days, should it also seem impossible to me, the Lord of hosts? Thus says the Lord of hosts: I will save my people…. They shall be my people and I will be their God, in faithfulness and righteousness.

These words are no less true today than they were in the 6th Century B.C. What if we always knew that God is with us? What if we went through each day looking for signs of God-with-us, and bringing those signs to birth by talking about them? How does it feel to have the Holy Spirit growing something new inside of you? Who are you going to tell?

Advent III

Preached for the Third Sunday of Advent.

It can be a little difficult to find a respectable picture of John the Baptist, one that might be appropriate for say, the seasonally themed digital newsletter of your favorite episcopal parish. I faced this difficulty earlier in the week when I was looking for a provocative yet family-friendly image of the prophet to headline our weekly enotes. Much of what I sifted through in my google image search was either too racy or too gruesome. Among the most popular images of John are those painted by Caravaggio and his imitators in the early 17th century. The Baroque painter reclined his infamously underaged, underclad models in a wilderness of shadows and light with precocious and suggestive expressions in their eyes. The results were hung behind the velvet curtains of his patrons, who would only pull aside their cover to scandalize special visitors. When John isn’t being overtly sexualized, it’s often because he’s dead. The severed head of John, slack cheeks and jaw adorning the ornate platter of an alternately bemused or disinterested Salome is another favorite of the classical painters. In Byzantine icons, the Baptist has rail-thin arms, frazzled hair and a solemn, glazed look across his face, which could be the result of either having lived in the desert on a diet of honey-dipped insects or engaged too much last-minute Christmas shopping. In all of these and more, the man of the wilderness has captivated imaginations with an extraordinary paradox of character. Sensual ascetic. Exotic preacher. Hopeful prisoner.

By all accounts he captivated the imaginations of his own time as well. “What were you expecting when you went out to see John in the wilderness?” Jesus asks his followers. A babbling mad man? A prophetic freak show? Someone in exotic clothes shouting even more exotic words? We might ask the same question of ourselves when we come to this place. What are we expecting? Someone dressed in fancy robes? We can check that one off the list. Prophetic words? Hopefully. What else are we expecting when we worship here, when we come to a concert, or when we come for a meeting or a meal? Do we expect to find God in those things? How might our experience of them be any different if we did? What do we expect God may be like in this place, with these people? Will it turn our world upside down? Will it be attended by a flash of light and choirs of angels?

The words of John the Baptist this morning suggest that his own expectations have been slightly challenged by the ministry of Jesus. “Are you the one to come, or should we wait upon another?” he has his disciples ask. John had spent his own ministry preaching a Messiah who would come to judge, purge, and purify: “Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees,” he said, and “I baptize you with water, but one who is more powerful than I will baptize you with fire.” Jesus had not come as an axe-wielding fire-breathing messiah, yet his words and works had the people talking, and had John wondering whether his own expectations were now fulfilled or simply one step further on a path to some other end.

The way Jesus replies to John’s question may leave us wondering whether we are still waiting, too. “The blind receive their sight,” he says, “the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” Hearing this description of the kingdom, we might wonder whether or not it has come for us in our time also. As it happens, death still waits for us, our bodies are still shaped by weakness and age and our souls are often far more bent over than physical appearance might reveal. We are blind, some of us in sight and some in spirit to the poor all around us in desperate need of good news. We live in a world where another school shooting on Friday produced muted, unsurprised reactions from students in Colorado. We live in a world where wealth and affluence were successfully used as a defense to excuse a young drunk driver from manslaughter last week in Texas. Are we in the kingdom Christ has come to bring about, or do we wait upon another?

The funny thing about the people Christ mentions as signifiers of his kingdom is that they all look deceptively ordinary. A woman who has regained her sight wouldn’t necessarily stand out if you saw her on the street. A man who can walk after having spent the first half of his life paralyzed is indistinguishable from among a crowd of walking people. Some of us have had crises of health or circumstance we have been miraculously delivered from which seemed like the end of the world at the time, and now remain buried in our memories as something to smile or laugh about. Some of us are in the middle of these crises, at a time when deliverance is unsure, and for all appearances seem like everything is fine. And then there are the even more subtle changes grace affects in us over time. The lifetime of mornings spent in prayer, the pockets of change emptied, hours of conversation shared, a kingdom built by one crumb of bread received from the altar at a time. How plain this must seem to the eye naked of faith, how ordinary, how small. What difference does it make to notice these things? A life’s collection of small miracles, a friend or stranger in need, growth over time that builds to transformation.

What do we expect from God? To be dazzled by a purifying flame? To be brought into a world free from injury or pain? Or do we expect to find ourselves numbered among a company of broken people, fumbling with one another towards a hoped-for wholeness known only in communion with our God? In the kingdom Christ proclaims we might expect to find radical stories of restoration disguised by the faces of ordinary people. We might expect to find ourselves partnered to those more hungry for God’s peace and wholeness than anything else in the world, and more willing to wait upon it than ever release the hope which holds its place.

Ultimately, the painting I chose of St. John in the Desert was one by Georges de la Tour. I chose it primarily because it was the only depiction I could find that seemed to avoid both sentimental devotional schmaltz and gruesome extremes of sex and death. It happens to look incredibly ordinary. The silence of a sky at dusk colors the whole painting, and the prophets eye’s are hidden in a downward gaze towards a lamb signifying the one for whose arrival he so longs. In the painting, he waits. He waits like a passenger who’s train is long in coming. He waits like a worker on his break, perhaps between tiring shifts of prophetic, public engagement. And we who are somewhere in-between being claimed by God for healing wholeness and not yet having received the full measure of its promise wait with him. Not upon another, but upon the fullness of the one whom we have yet to fully know: Christ who died, Christ who is risen, and Christ who comes again.

Latours John

Advent II: A both/and God

Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.

You brood of vipers! Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. The one who is to come has a winnowing fork in his hand and will burn chaff with unquenchable fire.

Whoa. This doesn’t sound like the Jesus we know and love, does it? Sounds a little scary and judgmental, even. Is this the Good News?

John the Baptist is kind of a scary guy with a scary message. Some consider him the last Old Testament Prophet.

jb1John’s got the prophetic chops: he has a special birth story (his parents were sort of like Abraham and Sarah—old and told that they would have a child who would grow up to be someone special). He has a weird lifestyle and appearance that sets him apart. He’s got a clear message, and he’s not afraid to say things we don’t want to hear. He’s not particularly smooth, and he’s not trying to please everyone or impress anyone. Not surprisingly, he ends up losing his head.

John’s message sounds more like Ezekiel or Jeremiah speaking on behalf of the one some call “the God of the Old Testament” than a message from the one we think of as “the God of the New Testament.”

Which is why this John-the-Baptist-Sunday is the perfect time for me to try to put to rest, once and for all, the idea that there are two different Gods: the mean, vengeful God of the Old Testament, and the gentle, loving God of the New Testament.

The mean Old Testament God is typified when God is angry at his beloved Israel. This past week, those of you who pray morning prayer read from Amos about a God who smites with mildew, sends worms to destroy gardens, slays armies of young Israelites, and does all manner of other things to entice his people back to the fold.

There is not time this morning to give examples of all the readings from the Hebrew Bible that make some people say: “I only like the God of the New Testament.” You can find these passages in the Book of Genesis, where God asks Abraham to sacrifice his son for no good reason. Or the psalms, where people cry out to God and get no reply. Or—my personal not-favorite—the Book of Joshua, where God instructs the people of Israel to “utterly destroy” the cities and towns in the region he has given them. Lovely.

And then there’s the nice God of the New Testament:  the God who gives us Jesus with a lost sheep over his shoulder, or sitting with children on his knee. The God who gives us Jesus of the Beatitudes, who says:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you for your coat, give your cloak as well. “  Et cetera.

Like the story of King Solomon and the disputed baby, it seems easier to split God in half than to reconcile all of the ways that God appears to us. Seems.

thewordBut ours is a both/and God. On the Sunday after Christmas, we’ll hear the first verses of the Gospel of John: “in the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God.” If we believe these words—and I do—then we must search for, rather than deny, the absolute continuity between the Old Testament and the New Testament. This continuity expresses itself in the person of John the Baptist and in the person of Jesus.

What can we say about the parts of the Old Testament we don’t like? At the risk of sounding heretical (didn’t I say something heretical last week??) we can say that Holy Scripture is the Word of God written in the words of humans, humans who sometimes use their own words to interpret what has happened to them as a critique that they attribute to God. There are times when we might do well to think of Old Testament stories of destruction and punishment as confessional.

Prophets in our time who speak out against our treatment of the earth God has given into our care, for example, might speak with the same angry and vengeful language that makes us bristle when we read it in scripture. God’s abundant love sometimes gets lost in translation. My favorite illustration of this is that we are used to reading that Jacob hated Leah, but Jacob and Leah had seven children together. If we look hard enough, we can find love and grace just about anywhere.

There is only one God, and the Hebrew Scriptures are our scriptures.

A word of warning, however. As I urge all of you to cozy up with the Old Testament, these are our scriptures BUT they are not exclusively ours. To say that Jesus is the expression of God’s love that was there from the beginning is different from saying that all the parts of the Old Testament we like are the parts that predict the coming of Jesus. We can claim the Old Testament as ours without saying it is only ours.

Ours is a Both/And God. Both a God whose messengers say things we don’t want to hear, and a God who sends us prophets like Isaiah who promise that the wolf shall live with the lamb, and children shall play without fear near the den of snakes. Ours is a both/and Jesus, both a Jesus who judges our priorities, separating wheat from chaff, sheep from goats, and a Jesus who welcomes sinners and teaches love.

The message of Advent, the message from John the Baptist is the ultimate both/and message: “repent, for the kingdom of God has come near.” A little later, Jesus says: “repent and believe the Good News.” Yes, there is work to be done, minds and hearts to be changed. Ours. As Bill Shonley used to say at Blazer games, “No one ever said it was going to be easy.” God’s love and grace is for everyone, and it is hard work following Jesus. We are called to repent, to change our hearts and minds and there is very, very Good News. The Kingdom of God is coming near to us. Within our reach. Sins forgiven, peace promised, healing offered, hope proclaimed.

Repent, for the Kingdom of God has come near.

The reason for the season: prepare

advent1aTherefore you must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.

Welcome to the season of preparation. The countdown is on: Black Friday and Small Business Saturday have come and gone. It’s almost Cyber Monday. Lessons & Carols happen next Sunday! Our St. Nicholas Open House is coming at the same time. Santa is coming, the relatives are coming, Christmas will be here in 23 days. It’s all happening in these weeks, and it’s all about preparing. Each of us prepares differently.

For St. Paul, to prepare is to cast away the works of darkness and put on the armor of light. I love the idea of the armor of light. I did a google search and was temporarily thrilled to see an entry titled “Armor of Light Apparel company.” Imagine my disappointment to discover that they sold not fantastical armor-like clothing but baseball hats and t-shirts saying “Jesus Saves.” What Paul means by the armor of light is to live in the light, visible and transparent. As in: don’t do anything you wouldn’t want posted on the front page of the newspaper or on the Internet.

For most of us, this season of preparation involves a variety of predictable December rituals.  We have our favorite parts and our least favorite parts. We know what to do and we each have our rhythm of when to do it. Cards, gifts, parties, Advent calendars, decorative lights. We are prepared to prepare.

[And now, a brief commercial: if you’re someone for whom these seasonal preparations have little relevance or joy, the Longest Night service on December 20th might be for you. You can read about it here.]

Most of us are prepared to prepare, but how do we prepare for the unexpected? This is the challenge of this morning’s gospel reading from Matthew. How do we prepare for something which might not be completely unexpected, but for which we cannot possibly anticipate the day or the hour?

defensivestanceSome of you know I’m a huge fan of high school basketball. In basketball, as in other sports, there is this important dance that happens, especially for defensive players, between being planted, like a strong tree, to protect the basket, and being nimble, ready to move quickly and easily somewhere else.

I think that changing our entire lives as people in preparation is what the gospel asks us to do.

Forget—for a moment, or an hour, or maybe longer—about the seasonal preparations we make in our homes and our calendars and our wallets, and think about living our whole lives as people in preparation.

For what should we be preparing? At the risk of sounding heretical, I want to say that we need not actually prepare for the birth of Jesus. That happened a long time ago, and most of us know the story by heart. We celebrate the birth of Jesus because in Jesus, God entered the world in a new way. What we should prepare for is for God to enter the world in a new way again and again. We prepare for this by how we live our lives.

Again, basketball. You go to practice six days a week. You’re practicing for the game coming up. During the game you want to score more points than the other team, but you are also practicing—preparing—for the next game, against a harder team. Or you’re preparing for the playoffs, maybe the championship. Whether or not you win the playoff games or the championship, you’re always preparing. Even when the season ends, you anticipate the next season, when you’re going to win more games, get a better playoff position, advance farther. There are sports fans who would disagree with me, but I think the work of it all is not about winning, it’s about continuously preparing.

The season of preparation lasts our whole lives. Being prepared, all the time, is not about being vigilant because someone up there is paying attention to whether we are naughty or nice. Being prepared is about living responsively, ready to respond at a moment’s notice when God enters our lives in a new way.

20-Swords-Into-Plowshares-WindowThis preparation is how we participate in the already/not-yet nature of the Kingdom of God. Prepare, prepare, prepare and yet, as we’ll hear John the Baptist say next week, the Kingdom of God has come near to you. Near. So close.

The Kingdom is God’s dream for Christmas; the kingdom is what we prepare for. If you want to know what the Kingdom of God is like, read the passages from the prophet Isaiah appointed for the Sundays of Advent. This morning we heard of a time when the people of God shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. This is what we are preparing for. This is what we practice until we get it right.

Welcome to the season of preparation. In this season that lasts our whole lives, we practice and prepare by being present, now. In our opening prayer this morning we prayed “give us grace to put on the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life.” Cast away the works of darkness, now. Put on the armor of light, now. Prepare for God to enter our lives in a new way, now.