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Showing posts from December, 2019

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12-11-19 - Greatest and Least

(You can listen to this reflection here. Sunday's gospel reading is here.)
We have spent quite a few days in this space thinking about John the Baptist – who he was, why he was the way he was, what impact he had. Many people thought he was the Messiah, or an incarnation of the prophet Elijah – until Herod imprisoned and later had him executed at the whim of his step-daughter. John truly was a holy man, and Jesus speaks of him as such:  “Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist.”

And then he says something even more extraordinary:  “…yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”

What was that about valleys being lifted up and mountains brought low, the lowly being exalted and the “mighty cast down from their thrones?” Here is Jesus, articulating again that equalizing quality of the realm of God – that equalizing which was so challenging to people in his own day, and has remained so in the thousands of years since.

To say …

12-10-19 - Spiritual Leaders

(You can listen to this reflection here. Sunday's gospel reading is here.)
What do you think a holy man or woman should look like? What should be the markers of "success" for spiritual leaders? This is what Jesus asks the crowds about how they viewed John the Baptist. "What did you go out there to the desert to look at? Were you just spiritual tourists gawking at the latest guru? Did you think you were going to see a smooth-talking, well-dressed leader, get a little charge, and leave your life unchanged?"

Advent is a good time to examine our spiritual motivations, what is it we are truly yearn for, why we engage or disengage from spiritual community. It is easy to become disenchanted with church and clergy - or to expect too much. Today, let's do a little inventory. When we can name our expectations, we can better manage them.

What are your expectations of your spiritual community? When you are disappointed or disaffected, what is the cause? Do you communicate…

12-9-19 - Are You the One?

(You can listen to this reflection here. Sunday's gospel reading is here.)

Fast forward several months or years from the scene we reflected on last week. John, the vital, vivid, vigorous prophet of the wilderness, calling people to repentance at the Jordan, is now languishing in Herod’s dungeon for the crime of having called out the king for marrying his sister-in-law. Speaking truth to power can get you burned. Herod kind of likes having him there – we are told he enjoyed theological conversations with John – but the prophet is not free. Captivity can do things to even the strongest of people.

Here we get a glimpse of John in despair, perhaps wondering if he was wrong after all. Among the most poignant words in the Bible are these:
“When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’

This is the man who pointed to Jesus and said, “Look! ‘Here is the Lamb of God who takes…

12-6-19 - Water and Fire

(You can listen to this reflection here. Sunday's gospel reading is here.)

John the Baptizer was absolutely clear about his mission: he was not the main attraction, but an advance man for a much bigger show. He attracted a lot of attention – ordinary people who wanted the spiritual experience he was offering, and authorities investigating whether or not he should concern them. But he stayed very focused on his mission:
"I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”

Water and fire – two elements that cannot dwell together, except in a Christian. John’s baptism was a way for people to enact repentance, to experience the water of cleansing. But the fire that Jesus brings, John said, is another force altogether, one that will do more than warm us:
“His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his whe…

12-5-19 - Good Tree/Good Fruit

(You can listen to this reflection here. Sunday's gospel reading is here.)

John the Baptizer lays into those who wear their religion on their sleeves, but do not allow their hearts and behaviors to change. And his invitation to true repentance comes with a bite: “Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
Later, Jesus uses the same metaphor, saying that a good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor a bad tree good fruit. It seems that judgment awaits us, and we will be judged by the fruit our lives bear.

Tomorrow is the Feast Day of St. Nicholas, the fourth century Bishop of Myra in modern-day Turkey. Legends about the goodness and generosity of St. Nicholas abound, and over time became conflated with the legend of the "Bishop of the North Pole," Santa Claus. Santa is also known for gift-giving – with conditions: "He’s making a list, he’s checking it twice / gonna find out who’s …

12-4-19 - Fruit of Repentance

(You can listen to this reflection here. Sunday's gospel reading is here.)

I can almost see the sneer on John’s face as he sees the professional religious folks coming to be baptized by him: “But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance.”

Translation: "Who warned you to get your act together? Stop resting on your laurels as 'keepers of the law,' as inheritors of the promises given to your ancestors. What fruit are we going to see in your lives?"

What does, “Bear fruit worthy of repentance” mean? In part, that it’s really easy to say “I’m sorry,” and a lot harder to make the kinds of changes that render our “I’m sorry’s” unnecessary. John didn’t want people undergoing his baptism for show – he wanted them to take a serious look at themselves and recognize the ways in which their behavior or attitudes damaged other people.

Few o…

12-3-19 - The Level Road

(You can listen to this reflection here. Sunday's gospel reading is here.)

John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near." This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,"The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: `Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.'"

John had a message: repent and prepare. He was a profoundly counter-cultural figure out there in the desert, but people paid attention. Matthew tells us, “Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan...”
Even in his day he was linked with the prophet Isaiah’s prediction that a prophet would arise out in the wilderness crying, “Prepare the way of the Lord.”

That prophecy in Isaiah says, “Make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged p…

12-2-19 - John the Baptizer

(You can listen to this reflection here. Sunday's gospel reading is here.)
In our first full week of Advent, we invite a strange figure into our lives and imaginations – John the Baptizer. Every December, as twinkly lights appear in our neighborhoods and tinkly music fills our stores, we church folk are confronted by this stark, uncompromising messenger from God calling us to repent and renew our commitment to God:

In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near…" Now John wore clothing of camel's hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey.

John was a man completely committed to his mission, to “make ready a people prepared for the Lord,” the purpose an angel predicted to his bewildered father Zechariah (Luke 1:5-25) He stayed in desert places, eschewing all but the most rudimentary clothing, chewing on locusts and wild honey – a diet high in protei…