Tag Archives: good news

That they might lovely be | Sermon for Advent 3

My song is love unknown,
my Savior’s love to me,
love to the loveless shown
that they might lovely be.

“Love to the loveless shown that they might lovely be” – I think that verse from the hymn “My Song is Love Unknown” is the single best description of the Incarnation that I have ever heard.

In Advent, the Church prepares to celebrate that great mystery of Incarnation: God becoming a human child out of love for us, living among us in order to make us children of God.

Mary’s rejoicing on this Gaudete Sunday (“gaudete” means rejoice) comes from her knowledge of the God of her ancestors.

In the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55), she sings of the God who:

has cast down the mighty from their thrones
and has lifted up the lowly

 [who] has filled the hungry with good things
and sent the rich away empty

Mary knows that God shows love to the loveless, and she willingly participates in that work by saying “yes” to God and by bearing Jesus, the Son of God, in her womb.

Love to the loveless shown

In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus’ cousin John the Baptist, born at nearly the same time to Mary’s kinswoman Elizabeth, is in prison.

This is the same John who last week berated the Pharisees and Sadducees who came to the Jordan to receive his baptism of repentance: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance!”

John is a wild-haired but clear-eyed prophet and he is all too aware of how unlovely people are. The loveless act badly, and he calls them to do better. “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand!”

But he’s been waiting his whole life to see the kingdom, and now he’s in jail and in peril of his life, so he sends word to Jesus by his disciples.

“Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

Jesus’ answer to his cousin is cryptic, but it points to God’s purposes:

Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me. (Matt. 11:4-6)

The blind, the lame, the lepers, the deaf, the dead, and the poor – notice that being poor is even worse in this catalog than being dead! – all of these have good news brought to them.

Love to the loveless shown. That’s how you’ll know the kingdom has come near, says Jesus.

That they might lovely be

Can you hear that good news for yourself?

What would it take to break through your blindness, your stumbling, your illness, your selective hearing, your deadened heart, and your feelings of scarcity and need?

What would help you hear good news?

For me, it was hearing a version of Mary’s song, the Magnificat, two summers ago.

A group called Theodicy Jazz Collective played for one of the Eucharists at the General Convention in Salt Lake City back in 2015. I followed a link to check them out, and I was moved to download more of their extraordinarily lovely music.

As I listened to their album Vespers, I was inspired to start sketching liturgical notes and outlines for “A Jazz Vespers for Recovery.” I’d love to help create and bring a service like that to the Fox Cities, and my head began swirling with the possibilities.

But their song “The Magnificat” checked my stride (and my pride) and brought tears to my eyes. The soprano began simply:

My soul magnifies the Lord
my Spirit rejoices in God my Savior
my soul magnifies the Lord,
for God looks on my loveliness with favor.

Can it be true? God looks on my loveliness with favor?

Even though part of me knew that I had simply misheard the lyric, the rest of me sat stunned and grateful.

My experience of recovery has been an experience of grace and repentance, of admitting my own powerlessness and discovering that God continually pours out blessings on me. All I have to do in response is follow “certain steps … which are suggested as a program of recovery” (Big Book 58-9).

My more recent experience accepting the bishop’s call to serve as a priest (after nearly 21 years as a deacon) has also been an experience of grace. I’ve spent most of this year working with other people to discern the strengths that will serve me and the church well and to look clearly at the weaknesses that still require my attention. God pours out blessings on me, and I must continue to turn toward him as I follow his unfolding invitation.

Like John the Baptist, I know only too well how unlovely I can be.

Like John, I usually know that I should point beyond myself and my own efforts to Jesus, the Son of God, who brings the good news of the kingdom.

Like John’s mother Elizabeth and Jesus’ mother Mary, I usually know to “proclaim the greatness of the Lord.”

But can it really be true that God looks on our loveliness with favor? Or, to sing Mary’s song correctly, that God looks on our lowliness with favor?

How can that be? Like Mary, I ponder that question in my heart.

Oh who am I?

The complete first verse of the hymn we started with goes like this:

My song is love unknown,
my Savior’s love to me,
love to the loveless shown
that they might lovely be.
O who am I
that for my sake
my Lord should take
frail flesh and die?

Who am I indeed?

In Advent, we pray at the beginning of the Eucharistic Prayer that “when [the beloved Son] shall come again in power and great triumph to judge the world, we may without shame or fear rejoice to behold his appearing” (BCP 378).

As we look forward to the Second Coming, we have a sense for what to expect based on Jesus’ first coming.

John’s question this morning comes fairly early in Jesus’ ministry. The good news is fulfilled, paradoxically, in Jesus’ death on the cross.

We heard that story on Christ the King Sunday just before Advent began.

One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” (Luke 23:39-41)

Who am I, that for my sake, my Lord should take frail flesh and die?

Too often, I am the mean thief deriding Jesus from the cross while also pleading, “Save me!” Too often, I am in trouble or filled with shame and fear.

But the good news is that I am not who say I am. The good news is that I am who I am who I am says I am.

Let me repeat that: I am who I am who I am says I am.

And what I am who I am says – what God says – what Jesus, the Son of God says – is that I am so lovely that he will go to any lengths to save me.

You are so lovely that God will go to any lengths to save you.

You are not what you say about yourself. You are not what others say about you. You are beloved, that you may be lovely.

This is the message of the Incarnation, which we prepare during Advent to celebrate at Christmas. This is the good news, to which we point with John the Baptist and for which we rejoice with Elizabeth and Mary.

The child born to Mary, Jesus – the Son of God, who died for us and rose again – looks on your lowliness with favor. You may without shame or fear rejoice to behold him at his appearing.

You are who God says you are, and you are lovely. Amen.

 

Image: Magnificat © Jan Richardson from The Advent Door.

Feet don’t fail me now | St. Matthew, Apostle and Evangelist

The scripture says, “No one who believes in him will be put to shame.” For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. For, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!” (Romans 10:11-15)

Gospel means good news

How often do you hear from Christians about God’s generosity?

How often do you hear from Christians that no one will be put to shame?

How often do you hear from Christians that there is no distinction between people of different cultures and races?

Within the church, I hear about these things a lot. I am fortunate to serve with many generous, empathetic, and open-minded people.

But outside, especially in the world of social media and TV news, not so much. In the popular culture especially, the Christian message too often sounds exclusive, judgmental, and fearful.

Who are you afraid of?

For the LORD spoke thus to me while his hand was strong upon me, and warned me not to walk in the way of this people, saying: Do not call conspiracy all that this people calls conspiracy, and do not fear what it fears, or be in dread. But the LORD of hosts, him you shall regard as holy; let him be your fear, and let him be your dread. (Isaiah 8:11-13)

Who do we fear?

Refugees … prisoners … all who are in danger …

The poor and the oppressed, the unemployed and the destitute, prisoners and captives …

Those who suffer in body, mind, or spirit …

Those who do not yet believe, and those who have lost their faith …

Our enemies and those who wish us harm … all whom we have injured or offended …

Who are you afraid of? Why are you afraid of them?

Perhaps more importantly, who tells you to fear them, and why do they do that? Who paints a picture of the world that causes you dread instead of joy?

How beautiful the feet!

Teresa of Ávila said,

Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world. Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body. Christ has no body now on earth but yours.

We are surrounded by stories and images designed to cause us to fear the stranger, the poor, the unbeliever, the other.

But hear the word of God that came to Isaiah: “Do not call conspiracy what this people calls conspiracy, and do not fear what it fears.”

And hear the word that Paul preached: “The same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call upon him.”

And hear the collect that we pray every Monday, even on Mondays like today when we remember one like Matthew who preached the good news — the gospel — about Jesus.

Let these words remind you of the good news of God’s generosity and let them guide your feet into the way of peace.

Let them make you a beautiful messenger of the gospel like Matthew.

A Collect for the Renewal of Life

O God, the King eternal, whose light divides the day from the night and turns the shadow of death into the morning: Drive far from us all wrong desires, incline our hearts to keep your law, and guide our feet into the way of peace; that, having done your will with cheerfulness while it was day, we may, when night comes, rejoice to give you thanks; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Those who bring good news

There is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. For, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!” (Romans 10:12-15)

Beautiful Feet

We Christians know that our feet were made beautiful by Jesus himself, who on the
night before he died …

“took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the
towel that was tied around him …. After he had washed their feet, had put on
his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, ‘Do you know what I
have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is
what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also
ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also
should do as I have done to you. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater
than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them”
(John 13).

Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord

Peter certainly isn’t “greater than the one who sends him”; in fact, Peter is the
patron saint of leaping before you look.

Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the
water.” He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the
water, and came toward Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became
frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” Jesus
immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little
faith, why did you doubt?” (Matthew 14:28-31).

Joseph, on the other hand, doesn’t doubt. He has always known he was his father
Israel’s favorite – he has the “coat with long sleeves,” the coat of many colors to
remind him. It’s left out of our reading this morning, but Joseph wasn’t the easiest to get along with – he kept dreaming that his brothers, and even his father and mother, were bowing down to him. Even so, when his jealous older brothers saw their chance and sold him into slavery, his faith in God remained strong.

Joseph’s faith is remembered and his story retold in this morning’s psalm:

He sent a man before them, *
Joseph, who was sold as a slave.
They bruised his feet in fetters; *
his neck they put in an iron collar.
Until his prediction came to pass, *
the word of the LORD tested him.
The king sent and released him; *
the ruler of the peoples set him free.
He set him as a master over his household,*
as a ruler over all his possessions,
To instruct his princes according to his will*
and to teach his elders wisdom. (Psalm 105:17-22)

Joseph is an example of endurance, of embracing his new role as servant to Potiphar,
of integrity when falsely accused and sent to prison, and of reliance on God to
interpret Pharaoh’s dreams. Pharaoh recognizes Joseph’s exemplary character and
puts him in charge of his house and the whole land of Egypt.

Much later, when Joseph is about 45 years old, when the famine he predicted has
struck the land and his older brothers come to Egypt in search of food, Joseph’s faith leads him to bless them instead of cursing them – to be a messenger of good news.

Messengers of good news

“Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”

There’s a wonderful backwards series of sentences in Paul’s letter this morning:
“How are they to call on – to believe in – to hear – to proclaim – unless they are
sent?”

We have been sent – by our baptism into Christ’s body, by the washing of our feet
that Thursday night on Jerusalem, by our participation in his death and resurrection,
by the empowering of his Holy Spirit – we have been sent to proclaim good news.

We proclaim the simple message of the Gospel: that Jesus is Lord, and that
“everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.”

There’s nothing more to it than that. The good news is simple.

And we are simple, like Peter, mindful of our own doubt and sin, but grateful for
God’s power to save us and for the gift of a new spirit.

Like Peter said “not my feet only, but wash my hands and my head,” we proclaim the
good news “not only with our lips, but in our lives, by giving up ourselves to [God’s] service” (BCP 101).

The good news is not just what we say, but how we live.

We are like Joseph, mindful that we are beloved, but resolved to live with integrity.
When others are in trouble, even if what they do hurts us, we have it in our power to
bless and not curse. When others are hurting, most of us have plenty to spare, and
our generosity speaks volumes about God’s grace.

The good news is simple: Jesus is Lord, and “everyone who calls upon the name of
the Lord shall be saved.”

We are sent to proclaim the good news by word and deed.

The rest is not up to us

We cannot control what other people hear.

I’ve just spent weeks learning how to teach a course for physicians, nurses, and hospital administrators on “Leading Change” – a course that underscores that very point. People receive what we say to them filtered through many layers of perception. We can tailor our message to reach people better, but we cannot control what they hear.

We cannot convince people to believe.

Any of you who have tried to have a political “discussion” on Facebook know how well that works. We’re called to witness to new life and transformation, more than we are called to deploy proofs of logic. We cannot reason people into risking the leap of faith.

And, we cannot make people call upon the name of the Lord.

The ISIS fighters in Iraq are trying to do that at gunpoint and at the tip of the sword. They are preaching hate, not love. Our own Christian history is also full of too many examples of forced conversions and coercive use of power. We cannot make people into Christians; we
must invite them to join us.

Beloved, we are sent to proclaim a much simpler good news, free from force or
distinction or coercion – “the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call upon him” – and to proclaim it by word and deed.

So, this week …

Like Peter, let Jesus draw you outside of your comfort zone into something that feels
a little risky.

Like Joseph, proclaim good news in a way that goes beyond righteousness and into
material help.

I am taking my own advice here – like Peter, I feel that I need to step “outside the
boat” in my prayer life, to risk leaving some of the familiarity and comfort of the
Daily Office and to spend more time silently resting in Jesus’ presence. I have to trust that his hand will be there to catch me, and I do trust him.

Like Joseph, I am also feeling that I need to go beyond praying for Christians who are being persecuted in Iraq and do something more direct to help them. So I have given a donation to Canon Andrew White, the “Vicar of Baghdad,” and his work at St. George’s Anglican Church in Baghdad through his Foundation for Relief and Reconciliation in the Middle East.

How is God sending you this week? How will you risk stepping outside the boat?
How will you go beyond prayer and into action to help those who suffer?

Trust that Jesus’ strong hand will catch you if you falter, trust that you have enough to share with others in need, trust that your feet, your hands and your head have been washed by our humble Lord. Trust that the rest is in his hands.

“How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”

Amen.