Jesus is always with us, but sometimes it’s nice to have a reminder. Tina and Father Tim want to invite you to join in an Advent project to help us remember the presence of Jesus in our lives. The project is called “Flat Jesus.”
It’s easy. First, just print out the picture above. Second, color Jesus in, put stickers on the page, or whatever you like. You could even just leave him black-and-white! Then, bring Flat Jesus with you wherever you go, then snap a picture. Heading to the super market? Take a picture of Flat Jesus in your car. Cooking some yummy holiday food? Take a picture of Flat Jesus helping to roll out the cookie dough. Take Flat Jesus with you to the food bank, to church, or just out on your daily walk. Finally, send the picture to Father Tim at firstname.lastname@example.org. He’ll then post it up on Facebook!
If you need help with any of this, from printing Flat Jesus out to sending the picture, just ask Father Tim. We hope to have pictures from everyone in the parish!
One of the ways to think about the Bible is that it’s a series of questions with – not answers – but stories. This is how Jesus talks, right? People come up to Jesus and they’re all like, “My neighbor is being a jerk, what do I do?” or “How do I make good with God?” or “What’s the Kingdom of Heaven like?” and Jesus’ response is often, “Well, let me tell you a story about that.”
And we might say, “Yes, Jesus, stories are very nice, but I’ve got a really pressing issue right now and I need a clear answer.” And Jesus says, “Let me tell you a story about needing clear answers.”
But it’s not just Jesus who talks like this; it’s the whole Bible. Pretty early on, we get a very harrowing question: “What is a brother?” We can broaden this to “What is a sister or a sibling”, but whatever the case, we hear this question in the story of Cain and Abel. “Am I my brother’s keeper?” And we don’t get an answer to this question; instead, we get stories about siblings, of Joseph and his brothers, both when they’re young and when they’re old; we hear about David’s children; and we hear about this strange, fascinating, new relationship that we can have with God through our siblinghood with Jesus Christ, who is also God. What is a brother? Well, read the Bible, then let’s discuss it.
We get a bunch of other questions, too. What is land? Or, more broadly, what is Creation and what is our relationship with Creation? Then we get stories about the Promised Land, a bunch of the Psalms, and the New Creation we hear Isaiah talking about and Jesus leading us into. These aren’t answers. They’re stories, they’re discussions, their on-ramps to the great highway of Christian thought and discipleship.
And here’s another one: what is a king? And if we look to the Bible, we find a lot of stories. We hear about when the leaders of Israel ask for a king in 1 Samuel, and Samuel who tells them that this really isn’t a good idea, just so you know (but they want one anyway). Then there’s David, who is a great, awesome king until he gets Uriah killed so her can marry Bathsheba; then everything goes down really quickly. We hear about good kings and awful kings, kings who could have been good but, well, sin you know, and bad kings who are given so many chances to make things better but who don’t, and well, look at what happens.
And this question – what is a king – is the question of the day. This Sunday is the last day in Ordinary time, that huge, long season of green that began way, way back in May on the day of Pentecost. This is the end of our church year: next week it’ll be Advent. We’ll start wearing purple or blue and we’ll move from reading St. Matthew’s gospel and pick up St. Mark’s again. And it is on this day that the Church asks the question, “What does it mean to talk about Jesus as a king?” and the subsequent question, “Why do we talk about a KINGdom at all?”
And we might rightly ask this question. Samuel certainly asked this question. I wonder if Uriah and Bathsheba asked it as well. Folks in the thirteen colonies asked it of their own king. And looking at Jesus, who was given a purple mantle and a crown of thorns after being beaten, Jesus, who hung out with prostitutes and tax-collectors, who dared to touch lepers, and washed people’s stinky feet – we might rightly ask, “What does Jesus have to do with kings?”
And the Bible asks us, “What is a king?” But the Bible doesn’t answer the question; instead it gives us a conversation – stories! – about what a king should be. What a leader of a people should be.
Our readings this morning give us two parts of that conversation that don’t just describe what kings do but point to how they should be. The first is from Ezekiel and describes that Great Should: how God acts towards us. Ezekiel writes: Thus says the Lord God: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. I will bring them out, I will feed them. I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep.
That’s how Ezekiel talks about God, anyway. Here’s leadership: I will come and search for you, rescue you, lead you, feed you. I will give and give and give.
Okay, that’s great for Ezekiel, but what does Jesus say? Jesus, our redeemer and our salvation? “Come and inherit the kingdom prepared for you. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” And, the clincher, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”
Jesus’ kingship is about rescue, because the Kingdom of God is about rescue. It’s about searching out for the lost sheep, for going to those who are sick and hungry and in need and tending to those needs. And, after, to nurturing those souls to God, so that not just stomachs but hearts and minds and spirits are filled as well.
And one of the reasons we talk about Jesus as a king is because this isn’t just some suggestion that we’re being given. God didn’t come to us as Jesus Christ to say, hey, if you feel like being a good person, you know, feeding the hungry and all, cool, but if not, that’s fine. And that whole inner transformation of the self thing? I mean, you can if it you want to, it’s really up to you. As Christians, we are called upon to follow Jesus in his ministries of healing and reconciliation, and we are called on to transform and to be transformed in God’s Holy Spirit. This isn’t just a suggestion; it’s the very Breath of Life, the Hope and the Life that undergirds all of Creation. This is the call from your very soul that, whether you answer it or not, challenges all that you are, all that you have been, and all that you ever will be.
And when we look to how to answer that call, we have only to look to our king. For the model of leadership is Jesus on the cross. It is the image of a man who was God nailed upon a tree, and whose love was enough to save everything. And that model – that life – is what we go to in our prayers. It’s what we find in confession and absolution. It’s what we experience in the most Blessed Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist. It’s that living presence that is with us in our mission and our doubt, in our love and what calls us away from our hate. When we want to know how to act, live, pray, be, we’ve got one place to look: Jesus Christ.
So let us follow where he leads. Wherever it is he’s leading us, let us go; for we know that to follow Jesus is to not just know the meaning of love but to be love.
It’s my birthday next week, so in our house we’re talking a lot about what birthdays are and what they mean. Gwendolyn remembers her birthdays, but Fiona doesn’t, so we get to tell her all about presents and cake and decorations and all the fun things that you get to do on your birthday. And Fiona gets this wide-eyed, amazed look in her face, and she says, “Fiona’s birthday next.” Her birthday is in April, and we say, no, next is Pops’ birthday, my own father’s birthday. No, not after that; next is Thanksgiving. Then Advent, then Christmas, and New Years, and Epiphany; then it’s your grandmother’s birthday, and Mommy’s birthday, and I haven’t checked when Easter is but it may even be after that. And the poor girl must feel like, goodness gracious will my birthday ever come?
We do a lot of waiting in life. We wait in line at the grocery store and we wait for the repair-man to come by. We wait for test results and worry if they’ll be good or bad. We wait for our loved ones to call to say that they got home safe and sound, and a lot of us are waiting for 2020 to be over, ‘cause this year has been tough. And we Christians, we’re waiting for Jesus.
Now, in a sense, we’re not waiting for Jesus at all. Jesus is already here. Jesus’ presence is already among us. We don’t have to wait for anything. I mean, we’re the Body of Christ here on earth. We are the hands and feet of the Good Lord, working salvation out in a hurting and battered world.
And Jesus is present in all the little deaths we go through, from learning to live with a new ailment to going to bed in the evening. One of the goals of Christian discipleship is to see the presence of Jesus Christ more often and more powerfully in the world around us. I saw Jesus up at the hospital the other day. He was standing next to the bedside of a woman in her last moments of life. He was working tirelessly with the nurses who were tending her. And he was with the woman’s husband, who opened his heart up to pray with me over his dying wife.
But we don’t have to go to the bedside of the dying to see Jesus. We see Jesus here in our liturgy, even in Morning Prayer. We see Jesus’ presence in the confession and absolution, in the Scripture that we read together, and the prayers we pray. We see Jesus’ presence – that kind, neighborliness we so often find in our small town, but that I’ve seen in Portland and New York City, too. And we hear Jesus’ voice when we see those locked in depression, hunger, sorrow, and grief. We hear Jesus’s call to go and serve those in need – whatever kind of need – and we find him there, already working away, burning the midnight oil. And it’s to this work we go when we accept that call.
But for us Christians, there’s another sort of ‘waiting for Jesus’ that we do. And in this season at the tail end of Ordinary time, and at the beginning of Advent, we read about when Jesus will come back in the fullness of glory. The End Time, the end of the world, and all this. This was something that the disciples and the people of Jesus’ time were talking about: when are you going to come down here, God, and clean up this mess? When are you going to set things right? When are you going to establish the Kingdom of Heaven? People around Jesus talked about this, and people in our own day talk about it. Folks dive into the Book of Revelation, looking for hints of when Jesus is coming back, and there are fictional books written about it, imagining what it might be like.
But time and time again, when people asked Jesus, “Hey, when are you coming back?”, Jesus’ answer was pretty much always, “I’m not telling you.” Or, rather, “You will know neither the day, nor the hour.” Be patient. Hold tight. Keep the faith. Love your neighbor as yourself. Be love, as I am love.
And we might look around, like some of our fellow Christians, and wonder, “Gee, God, if you’re planning on coming back and cleaning things up, now’s a good time to do it.” 2020 is a rough year, and I’ve heard a number of Christians say, well, this is it. This is what Revelation is talking about. God must be coming back.
This is something Christians say, though, during any crisis. Christians wondered about it during WWI and WWII. They worried about it during the bubonic plague in the middle ages, and they wondered about it during the Crusades and the Viking attacks. And they wondered about it at the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem way back in the 1st century, a scant few years after Jesus’ Resurrection and Ascension.
We Christians too often get wrapped up in waiting. We wait for the end times, and we wait to feel the presence of God to say that God’s really there. We wait for people to come to church and wonder why they aren’t. And in this time of COVID, we are waiting for things to get back to normal before they can really start up again.
But the thing about our religion is that it’s not so much about waiting as it is about the loving presence of God. The Christian life isn’t waiting at the window for Jesus to come home, but about meeting Jesus in God’s good work in the world. Christian prayer isn’t about feeling good or uplifted – not all the time, anyway – but about listening more fully to God’s Word around us. The Christian life isn’t waiting around until the spring to start your garden but saying, hey, how about I plant some carrots, or kale, or spinach now in the fall. Our call as Christians is about living a life in God’s Holy Spirit now, not waiting until things are just right to get started.
So encourage one another, as St. Paul writes. Build each other up. Keep awake, as Jesus says. Pray, love, have hope. And if Jesus comes back tomorrow, great, he’ll find more hope and love if he does. But Jesus is already here, really. So go find him. Look for Jesus in your prayers, whether they’re dry or full of warmth and light, whether you’re sitting at home or out for a walk to get some fresh air. Look for Jesus in the rains and the wind, in the ocean and the mountains, but also in the community that we now have online, stretched across town and the continent. Don’t wait for Sunday morning to look like it did in 2019 – look for Jesus right now, right here, where you’re sitting or standing or waiting about.
Because Jesus isn’t just waiting around himself: he’s looking for us. He’s searching about for us lost sheep, hoping to find us and bring us home. And he’s calling for us to join in that search, to find those who are lost, even now when we can’t do much and have to stay home. There are people in need, and it’s our call to go to their aid in whatever way we can.
So no more waiting. Yeah, we’ve gotta stay home a bit more, yeah we’re stepping a bit more towards closing down, but the point of the Christian life, again, isn’t to wait for things to get back to normal but to love. And that – that we can do anywhere. Jesus loved us into salvation on the hard wood of the cross; let us love like him. Let us love like God. Let us love and live love and be love.
The other day I opened the fridge for a snack and saw a nice, big candy bar sitting next to a bag of baby carrots. Which should I eat? Later that day, there was a cry from the other room. I went in, and both kids were in tears. Gwen blamed Fiona, and Fiona blamed Gwen. Who pushed who? Two weeks ago I sat down at the kitchen table with my ballot and that nice, hefty voting pamphlet that Oregon gives out. I took up my pen, looked down at those bubbles and thought, “Who am I going to vote for?” How do I choose? And this whole week, we’ve been in the midst of indecision, legal battles, threats, and protests. Our heart goes out to some folks, but it kinda goes out to others as well. What do we do? Who do we support? And, perhaps most importantly, how do we live as Christian disciples in all this mess?
And then we turn to the book of Wisdom, and we might understandably retort, “Wisdom is NOT easily discerned.” What is this about having no difficulty in seeing wisdom? How is any of this easy? I don’t know about you, but from candy bars to the tumult of the national stage, wisdom doesn’t seem all that easy at all.
Now, discernment is an important part of the Christian tradition. Saints from Augustine to John of the Cross wrote about the discernment of spirits – and the discernment of THE Spirit, which is the Spirit of God. We discern with God and we discern in community. When I was choosing a seminary, I called up Bishop Michael to help me discern. He said, “Well, let’s talk about how God is talking to you.”.When we read the Bible together Wednesday morning at Prayer Breakfast, we discern how the Spirit is guiding us in what we’ve read. “We do it together, with God. And, really, most sermons aim to help Christians discern God’s will and hope in their lives.
And this discernment can be tough. Discerning a call to the priesthood took me almost two years before the diocese would support me to go to seminary, and one of my friend’s discernment took literally seventeen years. And all of that time was spent talking with people locally and at the diocesan level, praying and reading Scripture, doing the hard work of going inside our hearts and straining our ears for God’s voice.
And I hope you all brought that same level of discernment to voting – that you looked at the candidates, all of them, from city council to presidential. I hope you sat there wondering and praying, “Who do I choose?”, weighing the good with the not so good. And I hope this week you felt compunction, that the turmoil went to your heart.
And I wish these things upon you not because I want hard times for you, but because these times call for honest, deep, soulful discernment. This isn’t easy stuff, and we shouldn’t come at it with ease and a kind of lackadaisical la di da. These days call for some honest reflection and prayer with God, and some honest dialogue in our communities.
And yet, even still, the book of Wisdom says that wisdom is easy to discern. But I’ve not finished the quote. Here it is: Wisdom is radiant and unfading, the author writes, she is easily discerned by those who love her.
Now, first of all, as an aside, I think it’s pretty cool that wisdom is described as a “she” here. The author sees one of the attributes of God as feminine, which is a good reminder that Heaven isn’t just full of men and masculinity.
But all throughout our little passage here, and also in other parts of the book of Wisdom, the figure of wisdom is seen easily for those who seek her, for those who love her. For the one who rises early to seek her, there’s no difficulty in finding her. And this isn’t about getting up at the crack of dawn, but being ready and willing to seek after wisdom in love at every moment, at each new challenge.
So what does it mean to seek after wisdom in love? This sounds very poetic, and it is; so what does it mean? Well, let me tell you about a friend of mine.
While I was a student at the U of O, I had a friend. She had it rough. She was a single-mom and pretty far from her family. She was trying to do graduate school on her own, which is like a full time job, but also teach (which she was new at and still learning the ropes), AND, at the same time, raise her daughter alone. She was also a member of Resurrection, my sending parish, and she joined us each Saturday evening for our high Mass. And she had this beautiful, golden voice, highly trained, and stood opposite another friend, Kevin Gore (who some of you know) to sing the prayers of the people. It baffles me that the poor woman had any time in her day. I was only doing half of what she was, and I was exhausted.
And she was. My friend was exhausted. She was tired and overburdened, but she also loved wisdom. And it showed. I have rarely met a person so kind, so loving, so open-hearted to those in need, and so devoted to her studies, her family and friends, and her little daughter.
Have you ever met someone like this? Someone who simply radiates goodness? Someone who, when you’re in their presence, you just feel good, as if their goodness rubs off on you? Actually, I felt that way when I met and spoke our bishop-elect Diana, and I hope you will, too. But these people, no matter the struggle, no matter the heart-ache, they just radiate this goodness, because they have given themselves over, completely, to Love.
I learned from my friend something of what it means to be Love. I learned that life is not easy, but Love is freedom. It’s not a freedom from burdens, and God knows that my poor friend struggled mightily. But she was close to God, and in that freedom, nothing can touch us. It is the freedom of the saints of our tradition, like St. Francis, who needed nothing, not even the clothes on his back, to glorify God. It is the freedom of the martyrs, who gave their lives because the Love they saw radiated too brilliantly to live in any other way but to give their lives for others and for the faith. And it is the freedom of Jesus Christ, who was nailed to a cross and died, but was raised again into the fullness of that freedom. It is the freedom of Love, which, if you’ve ever loved another person, truly, you know in your heart of hearts.
It is this freedom we are called to as disciples of Christ. It is here that we are called to discern, to learn, to see, and to live as followers of God Almighty. It is not a call away from the hardships of life, but to a deeper sense of Life and Hope than we could ever build for ourselves. And because of that, it is a freedom that can find a way through any depression, through any hurt, through any oppression. It is a freedom that is also a path, a path towards healing, reconciliation, and community, even when, or especially when, things look their worst. That path, that freedom, is open to you, it is always open to you.
Jesus knocks and offers us that Life. Let us take his hand and turn, once again, away from despair and walk into God’s hope.
On this day, four years ago, my daughter Gwendolyn was baptized into the Church of God. It was on All Saints’ Day, 2016, at All Saints’ Chapel in Sewanee, Tennessee. My parents were there, Helene’s parents were there, Gwendolyn’s godparents, my good friends Joseph and Isabella, were there as well. And All Saints’ Chapel, I mean, yeah it’s called a chapel, but this is the chapel of the University of the South – the building is huge. You’d think it was a cathedral. The ceiling is thirty feet tall or more, and all the walls are covered in stained glass. Most of the people there we didn’t know, though we knew some. Later that month, when we brought in Gwendolyn for her monthly check up, her doctor happily told us that she was there at the baptism, too.
“I heard Gwendolyn’s name announced and I though, ‘Oh, I know her!’” She was so happy. She was so happy to know this little girl who was being baptized, that she had tended to and would tend to her little life as she grew older. She told us about her being there as if she, the doctor herself, had touched grace, had touched God, had been taken into that baptism along with Gwendolyn in that huge chapel that was really like a cathedral. That she was part of it all.
And the thing is, she was – and she is. When there’s a baptism, we’re all involved. We’re all part of that sacrament. We all touch that grace. This past summer, at little Theodore Brown’s baptism, I mentioned that those people who were there present at Gwendolyn’s baptism, those people who were here at Fiona’s and Cooper’s in this very building, and those who were present at Theodore’s out there on the little lawn in front of the church office – all of those people, bound together and individually, too, are still part of each of those children’s lives.
In one way, sure, Dr. Heath in Sewanee, Tennessee is not in Gwendolyn’s life anymore. She’s still practicing medicine down in Sewanee, seeing other children and maybe even seeing a few of her patients be baptized. If I wrote to her and told her that I was preaching about her, she’d probably be surprised, though I think a bit touched, knowing her (she was and is an incredibly kind woman). The same could be said about many of you with Theodore. You may not have seen him since that day when he was baptized, and you might never see him again. But you are still part of his life, because you are both part of the Church, of the Body of Christ, and for that, there is no end.
And all this is kinda what Jesus is getting at in our gospel reading today. Here are the Beatitudes, one of the foundations of our lives as Christians, one of the bedrocks of the Church, one of the guides that Jesus has given us to live into the fullness of his being. This is it. This is what he’s acting out in his healing ministries. This is what Jesus is doing when he goes to lepers, the dying, and the dead and heals them. These are the words to describe what Jesus did on the Cross, and what happened in the Resurrection. The Beatitudes are an image of the Christian life, and they are a most precious teaching. They are, as we say in our liturgy, the Word of the Lord.
And each and every one of them is about hope. Now, there are two pats of hope. First of all, there’s the expectation part of hope. So, for instance, I really hope that, when I get home this afternoon, Helene will say to me, “Tim, we’re having pizza tonight for dinner.” I hope this will happen. I hope that this future, this pizza future, you might say, I hope that this pizza future will become my present. I hope that eight hours from now I will be sitting down at the dinner table, sliding another slice of gooey, cheesy pizza onto my plate. And then I will eat it. And it will be good.
This is a hope, right? It might come true, it might not, but I hope it will. I hope that future will soon be present, like I hope to have a good Thanksgiving, or a good Christmas, or I hope one day to travel to Japan again. My hope is in the future, for now – and hopefully just for now. That’s the first part of hope, that something in the future will be realized.
But there’s another part of hope, and that’s reality. Now, you’d all call me a fool, or a bit silly, if I said that I hoped to exchange my car for a dinosaur. No more driving to work in a little black car: I want to ride down the streets of Coquille in style – on the back of a dinosaur. And to this, maybe you’d say, “Yes, Father Tim, but you know that there aren’t any dinosaurs anymore, right? They’re all gone.” And I’d say, “Yes, but I hope for it anyway.” This isn’t hope; it’s delusion. And while I might hope really really really hard to have a dinosaur to ride to work instead of a car, because man wouldn’t that be cool, believing that this hope would come true is just silly. Again, it isn’t hope, it’s not faith; it’s delusion.
This bit about the dinosaur is, hopefully, a funny example, but think of it this way: if you’ve ever spoken with someone who is depressed – like, really depressed, not just a little down, but really and truly depressed – there is a sense in that person that things will never change. God forbid, but perhaps you’ve felt that feeling, too. That this sorrow, this grief, this oppression, or whatever it is, that this will just keep on going, forever. There will be no end. You can hope, but it’s like hoping for a dinosaur to ride to work. No, this is reality. This darkness, this depression, this nothingness – this is reality. That’s what depression can feel like.
And one of the things Jesus is saying in the Beatitudes is that help isn’t just coming some time in the future, help isn’t just like wanting a dinosaur to ride to work – but that help exists. That freedom, or peace, or safety – that help itself isn’t just some bugbear to taunt us when we really know, deep down, that we are alone. Help is real, healing is real, freedom and peace and love are real things that are not just there someplace in the world out there if we can find ‘em, but that are persons, that is God the Trinity, a presence and a personality fighting for you, fighting to ease your burden, to lift you up from your sorrow and depression, to burst those chains of hatred and evil that bind you. It is okay to hope in that, because it’s real, and it loves you, and it would – and did – give it’s life to save you.
Those are powerful words. That’s a powerful message. And we need them now more than ever. This could be a tough week ahead of us, but it doesn’t have to be. Whatever happens with this election, there could be anger, confusion, and division. But there doesn’t have to be. We could get through this election closer as a country than we were before. Further division, further hatred, doesn’t have to be the answer to whatever happens on Tuesday. There is another choice, and it is, in fact, what God called us to, and what God is calling us to, even now.
So have hope. Love can change all things, for Love has changed all things. Love was born into this world, Love was hung on a cross, and Love was raised again to everlasting life. We were baptized into that Love, and in that Love we live, and move, and have our being. That Love connects us to our family, no matter how far they’re apart, no matter how long ago they died. That Love is Lord of all. And that Love is calling us to a way of life. Live that Love. Have hope. See the reality that is Love and say to it, “Yes, yes, and a thousand times: yes!”