“Making New Paths” – Sermon for 4 December 2011

Most of us have seen a fender bender take place in front of us before. We may have even been asked to be a witness to the accident. A police officer has asked us to remember everything that we saw, leaving nothing out, even if it seemed insignificant. And then he or she has gone and asked everyone else what they saw.
What’s interesting is that if you and I and a few other people were to see a fender bender, get separated, and then get asked what we saw, our stories wouldn’t be the same. I might remember that one driver ran a stop light. You might have seen the other driver texting. Someone might say the car was red. Another might remember where the license plates were from. And some of our stories might even conflict a little, not because any of us are lying, but because we were standing on different sides of the street or because one thing in particular caught our eye and felt so important that we remembered it.
It’s been said that the Gospels aren’t that different. There are four Gospels that we consider canonical, or a part of Holy Scripture. And each serves as a witness to the life of Christ. Each tells the story of what they saw. And they are all different. Some overlap and tell some of the same stories, but often you’ll find that a story one or two Gospels contains isn’t in the others. It’s like the witnesses to a fender bender. The parts of the story I think are most important might not even make it into yours.
Which is why John the Baptist is so interesting. Because he is there in all four Gospels. He is a part of everyone’s story. While some of the Gospel writers leave out this miracle or that parable, no one forgets John. He’s like the car that everyone saw run the red light. You can’t leave him out.
Every Advent we read about John. We read that he was the one who came first to try to tell everyone who was coming after him. He told those Gospel writers who was coming, and they couldn’t forget it.
The writer of Mark in particular didn’t forget. In fact they start the Gospel this way: “the beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ.” And the beginning of that good news is that God sent this messenger. This messenger who lived out in the wilderness and wore camel’s hair and ate honey and locusts. He’s the first thing that Mark talks about. Not Mary or Joseph or the manger, but this strange guy who shouts out “prepare the way of the Lord. Make God’s paths straight.
You might think that Jesus could have gotten a better PR guy. Locusts and honey and camel’s hair don’t seem like what you want people to remember about your spokesperson. You want someone polished and dynamic and exciting. Someone with powerpoint and music and a big budget. Someone who Oprah will invite on the show and say that you changed her life. Someone who will write the feel-good best sellers that fly off the shelves. Not someone who tells everyone to “repent” and to get ready for something that is about to change their life.
But God sent John. And every year about this time we remember him in Advent. We remember him as the first person to know who Jesus was and to tell people to get ready.
As a child I thought “John the Baptist” must actually be a Baptist. I figured that there was John the Baptist, Steve the Methodist, Joe the Presbyterian, etc., etc. I didn’t understand why he was called that. A more accurate name for John would be “John the Baptizer”. Because that’s what he did. He called people out to the wilderness, away from the comfort of what they knew, and to a river. And they confessed their sins, all the things that caused them pain and grief and kept them tied to the past, and he baptized them. He helped them to put all of that behind them, and to start over fresh, because someone was coming that was going to need them.
John the Baptist was the original Advent guy. He was, as Mark says, “the beginning of the Good News”. He was the one who told you that Jesus was coming, and everything was about to change. And so, you’d better get ready.
Advent is about waiting. It’s about expecting that something incredible is about to happen, and watching for the signs that are all around you.
And we hear “wait” and we probably think about being patient and passive. You might think about the Advents we knew as children where the most we could really do was shake the presents and count down the days as you opened the doors on the Advent calendar. Advent was something to be endured.
But Advent is more than a kind of calendar. It’s a time of preparation. It’s “the beginning of the good news”. It’s the time where we are called to not just passively wait, but to get ready. John tells us to prepare a path for God. And Advent is the season to do it.
But how do you prepare that path? How do you get ready for what God is about to do next? How do you say, “Come, God. Come”?
To me, Advent is more than just four weeks a year. Advent is a lot like life. If we have faith, on our best days we believe that God is going to do something incredible with God’s people, both in this world and the next. We believe that Christmas, the coming of Christ, was not a one time only event. We affirm that Christ is coming again. And we are waiting.
But God wants us to do more than just sit around and wait. We don’t live our lives just crossing days off calendars the way we might open the doors of an Advent calendar just wanting to get to December 25th. God wants us to get ready. To prepare the way of the Lord, not just during Advent, but every day of our lives.
And so we get ready. Just like we get ready for Christmas by putting up the lights, and cutting down the tree, and buying the presents, we get ready for Christ every day of our lives. Because what is coming is more incredible than anything we have ever hoped for on Christmas morning.
But how do we get ready? We get ready by making this Advent world look like we want it to look like when Christ comes again. We don’t throw up our hands and say, “Let’s wait until God changes everything.” We look around, and we see what we can do to make this world ready for Christ. And then we work together to do it.
It’s not always convenient. It’s not always comfortable. It’s not always what we want to do. Usually it takes us on a path that is nothing we would ever expect. But in the end, if we are preparing the path that we think Christ will need in this world, we will find ourselves more fulfilled than we ever will leading a passive life of faith. That’s not what Advent is all about. That’s not what the life of faith is all about.
The church I attended in college and seminary was not a place of passive people. It was a place where people looked around, saw what they thought Jesus would be doing if he came back today, and did it. They looked around their neighborhood, saw homeless folks all around, and they invited them in and fed them and gave them somewhere to sleep. They were waiting for Christ to come again, but they weren’t content to sit by and cross days off the calendar. They listened to John. They were preparing the way of the Lord right then and there.
I was thinking of them this week, as Wilmington prepares to decide what path to take and how they will prepare the way of the Lord. My little church had slowly lost members until less than fifteen folks came on Sunday. And it became clear to all of us that God was ready to do something new. God was calling us to create a new path.
That church is gone today. At least in any official sense. There are no Sunday services, the members have all gone elsewhere, and the sign out front is gone. But its legacy lives on in the form of a building that has been transformed into a residential center for those who need a hand up. Hundreds of folks in Atlanta have had their lives changed because the people of that church decided that God was calling them to take what they had and create a new path. It wasn’t the end of a church. It was, as Mark says, the beginning of the good news.
Our job in all of our life, is to be a little like John the Baptist. Without the locusts. Prepare the way of the Lord. Make a path for God. In all we do, point not to ourselves, but to the one who is to come. And be the beginning of the Good News. Because if we can be that, God will make sure that there is more Good News to come, and that the Advent, the beginning, we create will give way to the one who is yet to come. Prepare the way of the Lord. This is only the beginning…Amen.

“Jesus Doesn’t Reject People” – Sermon for September 25, 2011

Matthew 21:23-32
21:23 When he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?”

21:24 Jesus said to them, “I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things.

21:25 Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” And they argued with one another, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’

21:26 But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.”

21:27 So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And he said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.

21:28 “What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’

21:29 He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went.

21:30 The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go.

21:31 Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you.

21:32 For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.

My grandmother grew up in Portland, Maine in the Little Italy. Her parents were immigrants who had left their homeland to come here carrying little else other than their Catholic faith. Like everyone else in her neighborhood, she was raised in the church and taught that it was the one true faith.

And then, as a young woman in the 1930’s, she met my grandfather. A soldier whose family had lived here for generations, and who was very Protestant. As best as I can figure it, they eloped. And sometime after she went to her priest and told him. He condemned the marriage and told her she would go to hell. The only way she could avoid hell, he told her, was to raise her children as Catholics. Then, maybe, she wouldn’t be damned.

When I heard this story for the first time I realized immediately that my grandmother must have been a pretty courageous woman. My mother and her siblings did not grow up Catholic. The priest did not scare her into compliance. And when you think about the insular, tight-knit community where she grew up, it’s pretty remarkable that a young, religious woman valued her love for her husband over the scare tactics of a clergyman. In the end she trusted her relationship with God over fear.

That’s the story I remembered when I read today’s Gospel. Jesus is entering the Temple, the most holy place in Israel, and he is stopped by the chief priests who want to know why he thinks he should be there. “By what authority are you doing these things,” they ask. And Jesus tells them a parable about two sons. Both are asked to work in their father’s vineyard. And one says immediately that he’ll go, but he never actually does. The other complains and says he won’t go, but then finally does. Jesus asks which one, the one who said he would do the right thing but didn’t or the one who didn’t want to do the right thing but did it anyway, did his father’s will. The priests agree it’s the one who went.

Jesus uses that story to show them how much they are like the son who says he will follow his father’s will but never does. And he tells them that the tax collector and prostitutes, the most looked down upon of society, will enter the kingdom of God before them. He tells them that these least of society, they truly believe.

I want to have the faith of the tax collectors and prostitutes. I want to have the faith of my grandmother. I want to have so much faith that I trust my relationship with God over the clamor of those who want to tell me God does not love me as much as them. I want to trust it over the voices of those who say others are going to hell.

My freshman year of college I had a friend who also later went on to be a pastor. One night after our campus Christian fellowship had worship, we were walking back to the dorms and chatting. As we came close to my dorm he stopped and looked at me and said, “Emily, I love you, but you’re going to hell.”

I’d heard that before. I didn’t really believe it. Not in most parts of my soul, anyway. But it still stung. Now, years later that classmate is now pastoring a church in the town where I grew up. A church where some of my friends who he would have also thought were going to hell attended. And I worry sometimes that some 14 or 15 year old kid will come into his office, and hear the same thing. And one of two things may happen. They’ll either believe it, and believe that God hates them. Or they won’t, and they won’t believe in the church anymore.

I hope neither happens, but I know that more often than not, one or the other does. When my grandmother left the priest’s office that day, she made a decision not to raise her kids in the Catholic Church. But, beyond that, she made a decision not to raise her kids in any church. And so my mother and her siblings didn’t grow up in the faith. In fact, most of her grandchildren and now her great-grandchildren didn’t grow up in the faith. And that’s all for two reasons. First, someone tried to convince her that she had done something so awful that God didn’t love her anymore. And, second, no other church came along and told her that wasn’t true.

Those of us who represent the church, and you are among them, have an incredible influence. And it can be used to inspire incredible things. And it can also be used to hurt someone so deeply that they think we are doing it in Christ’s name, and that they believe they have no place here.

When I was a chaplain I was often called to talk to someone who was dealing with some kind of addiction issue. They were often brought into the hospital because they finally had decided to go to rehab, or they ended up needing treatment for some illness the addiction was only making worse. And they would ask for a chaplain to be called.

We would talk and, since they called me, I would ask about whether or not they were involved in any religious community. And more often than not I’d get a response like, “No, they don’t like folks like me,” or “I live in a small town and everyone knows about my problem,” or “I’ve never been a saint. I won’t be welcome.”

I always wanted to say, “that isn’t true, you’d be more than welcome” when I heard something like that. I wanted to tell them that there would be no judgement because there were plenty of people in the pews, and, yes, even behind the pulpit, who had been through the same. But I sometimes found it hard to say that in good conscience because I know that welcome is not always universal. I know that I’ve even heard other clergy, not here in Vermont but in other places, complain about the AA groups that use their churches. It’s hard to have to give someone a cautious recommendation about going to church.

But the sad truth about churches, is that when many people think about us, they don’t think about people who will love them. They think about people who will judge them. And most people in this world get enough of that elsewhere.

Martin Luther rejected the view that we were all either saints or sinners. Instead, he said, we are all simultaneously saints AND sinners. Five hundred years later most churches still haven’t caught on to that. That those of us who come to church on Sunday morning are here both because we need God’s grace AND because God loves us beyond our deepest understanding. And what’s true of us is true of every one of God’s children. And it’s not our place to withhold the church, Christ’s body here on earth, from any of them.

There is a story by an author named Flannery O’Connor. She was a writer from Georgia, and a devout Roman Catholic. She wrote a short story called “Revelation” about a good Christian woman who was very assured about her place in heaven. The story follows her throughout her day as she judges the people she encounters. She enters a doctor’s waiting room and looks around and makes a judgment about everyone there, in her head making racist comments, judging the poor, belittling the appearance of others. And all the while assuring herself that she is “grateful” and a “good Christian”.

At the end of the story she is struck by a religious vision. She sees a line of people ascending to heaven. All the people she had seen that day are in it, and they are following one another up into the clouds. And she is not leading the line into the kingdom of God. She is at the very end of it. And she is shocked.

I see myself in the people she judged. But more importantly, I see myself in her too. Like Luther said, we are all simultaneously saint and sinner. All simultaneously the one who closes the door of welcome, and the one who opens it.

This summer, when I went to the United Church of Christ’s General Synod down in Tampa, we were greeted by a huge banner as we walked in. It read “Jesus didn’t reject people. Neither do we.” The UCC put a number of those banners up all over Tampa that said that. And I remember thinking what it was like, to grow up not even two hours from there, and to sometimes believe that the church was full of people who could never welcome someone who was in any way not like them. And I thought about what it would be like for a kid growing up there now to see those signs, and know that there were people who loved Jesus so much that they loved him beyond what he thought possible.

When I first realized what those signs might mean to the people who saw them, I cried. I’m not a big crier, and it shocked me to cry over a church sign, but I did. And when I realized that the simple act of a church making clear that they welcomed everyone no matter who they were or what they had seen moved me so much, I cried even harder. Because an act of hospitality, an act of welcome on behalf of a church, shouldn’t be so rare that it’s existence shocks us. I cried out of joy for the one who would find Christ’s welcome. And I cried out of pain for a church that has often withheld it.

It doesn’t have to be like that. We are welcoming churches, I believe that. I believe anyone who comes through those doors will be welcome. But I also believe that there are some outside those doors who have been so hurt that they will never dare to come in on their own. And so maybe, the welcome needs to go outside. I’m not saying a big sign on the lawn, though I wouldn’t object. But a big sign in our hearts, a big sign on our faces, a big sign unfurled by the work of our hands: you are welcome here. Jesus would never have rejected you. Neither will we. Amen.