The Fourth Sunday of Advent

December 24, 2017



With the arrival of Mary Sunday we have reached the third trimester of Advent. We began Advent looking to the Second Coming of our Lord.  On the two middle Sundays we heard the words of John the Baptizer proclaiming the coming Messiah.  Last week we heard John say that he must decrease that the Messiah may increase.  Today we hear again the story of the Annunciation.  It is the story that is read on March 25 at the Feast of the Annunciation, which liturgically is set nine months to the day from Christmas.  It happened like this.

In the sixth month of Elisabeth’s pregnancy with John the Baptizer, The archangel Gabriel was sent by God to Galilee to visit Mary, the fiancée of Joseph.  Tradition has it that Mary was at the well drawing water when he (Gabriel) first appeared to her.  She was so disturbed by his appearance that, abandoning her water jar, she went home.   Later he appeared to here again.  Most artists have depicted her in her home reading.

Gabriel appeared to her and said, “Ave, Hail, or as we would say, Hello.” Greetings favored one!  The Lord is with you.”

She is troubled by his words and pondered what this might mean.  Gabriel said, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.  And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus.  He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David.  He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”

Mary said, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren.  For nothing will be impossible with God.” Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.

Let me say a few things about this passage.

  1. Angels are sometimes called God’s thoughts. They are everywhere but easy to overlook.  One must be sensitive to the greetings of angels. Tradition praises Mary as a model for dealing with angels, for her readiness to acknowledge the angel’s greeting, and of course for her willingness to embrace the fate announced by the angel.  Paintings show her in a contemplative mood, in her room, reading.  It would seem to take a degree of expectancy and intellectual preparedness to glimpse the angel when he appears.
  2. Mary is a model for dealing with angels because of her humility. “Humility is an important virtue of psychological life that allows things to happen, allows a world to exist beyond the one we know and understand. It is one of the most important psychological attitudes, required if we are to return to a life graced by angels.”  [Thomas Moore, The Angels]
  3. Word: St Bernard of Clairvaux speaks to the importance of words: “For God, word is the same as deed.  For God alone it is the same thing to do as to say.”  In Annunciation word is efficacious.
  4. “Overshadowed” This is a word full of Old Testament imagery. “The Spirit that comes upon Mary is closer to the Spirit of God that hovered over the waters before creation in Genesis 1:2.  The earth was void and without form when that Spirit appeared; just so Mary’s womb was a void until through the Spirit God filled with it with a child; but since Mary is a virgin who has not yet lived with her husband, there is no yearning for or human expectation of a child — it is the surprise of creation.  No longer are we dealing with human request and God’s generous fulfillment; this is God’s initiative going beyond anything man or woman has dreamed of.”  p. 314 Raymond Brown, The Birth of the Messiah

The angel comes with a new idea.  Someone has said that God’s favorite practical joke in the Old Testament is old women getting pregnant.  Elizabeth, now pregnant with John the Baptizer, is the latest in a long line of Matriarchs, beginning with Sarah, who give birth after such conceiving should be impossible.

In western art we often see Mary wearing a red dress under a blue cloak.  The red symbolizes earth/humanity overshadowed symbolically by the blue of heaven/divinity.  Here God is doing a new thing.

 In Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures Through the Looking Glass, The White Queen advises Alice to practice believing six impossible things every morning before breakfast.

Here God is doing an impossible new thing before breakfast.

What is that to us, we ask?

In his essay in the anthology, The Angels, [edited by Robert Sardello] Thomas Moore writes, “Annunciations happen every day in the plainest circumstances.  Religious festivals like the Annunciation always call to mind eternal happenings, forms and images that give structure and value to every life.  The Angel and the Virgin are always engaging in dialogue: the angel announcing some impossibility, the virgin taken aback, questioning, agreeing.  In this particular event the soul – virginal, patient, expectant, prepared, receptive, modest – begins to carry new life and personality, a child, as the paintings often show, miraculously fully formed from conception.  (Every time we use the word “concept,” an annunciation, probably hidden and forgotten, lies in its history.)

Here in the third trimester of Advent the angel announces the conception — pregnant moment of new life.

  • Catherine de Hueck Doherty, Poustinia “Wherever you go you must be pregnant with Christ. When a woman is with child, people recognize the life that is within her . . .. She is a witness to life.  She carries life around with her.”
  • Advent is about slowing down.
  • Advent is about watching
  • Advent is about waiting
  • Advent is about taking a wheel off
  • Advent is about decreasing, making room
  • Advent is about listening to the hello of the angel.
  • Advent is about accepting the new life announced by the angel
  • Advent is about preparing for new life.

As St. Basil the Great once said, “Annunciations are frequent; incarnations rare.”   Let us with Mary listen to the hellos of angels. For an angelic hello is a sign of grace now and always, that the Word will be born in us as well.



Epiphany VII

 “The mind thinks, the body does and the soul Imagines.”                          — Thomas Moore (Care of the Soul, 1992)

[Hang on to that! I’ll be back to it in a bit.]

Let’s hold hands and jump right into the briar patch!   Just what is it that Jesus is trying to do to us this time?  Let’s do inventory of our common life: Where are the Ancient Practices?

  • Many among us are engaging scripture like never before.
  • Many are meeting in Bible Studies in offices, shops and homes.
  • Many are moving outside the safety of the familiar and meeting, working with and loving children who live within a mile of here.
  • Many are praying, praying expecting something to happen! Some of you attended the public service of healing here last Wednesday night for Debbie Philips as many did a year ago for Patrick Crump.
  • People are aligning their checkbook with the goal of their soul moving toward a tithe as the standard of giving.
  • Soon we will take up the Lenten fast. 

Have you ever considered why we would take up these ancient practices? Or why did ancient people take up these practices?  Let me let you in on one of the obvious secrets – what I am about to tell you is the very seed-bed of the Good News in Christ.


MATTHEW 5:38   You have head it said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth but I say to you…

How many of you have heard of the Hatfield’s and the McCoy’s?  We actually have a descendent of the McCoys of Kentucky in this parish.  Fortunately, we have no Hatfields from West Virginia on the roll so all is well (for now).

Please understand that an eye for an eye was a huge improvement over the practice of killing everybody in the family and having a “blood feud” that kills everyone in the neighborhood. Our justice system is a eye/eye –let the punishment fit the crime. Now Jesus begins where we are and says, You have heard it said… But I say to you!

Turn the Other Cheek - Linda S. Fitz Gibbon

Turn the Other Cheek – Linda S. Fitz Gibbon

If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also;

Why the right cheek?  You can only strike someone’s right cheek with the back of your hand, which to my way of thinking is more demeaning; as in “I will show you the back of my hand.

If anyone wants to sue and take your coat, give your cloak as well.

Here’s what we need to know about this.  Turn in the Bible to Deuteronomy 24:10-13  [page 148 in the pew Bible]

 When you make your neighbor a loan of any kind, you shall not go into the house to take the pledge. 11 You shall wait outside, while the person to whom you are making the loan brings the pledge out to you. 12 If the person is poor, you shall not sleep in the garment given you as the pledge. 13 You shall give the pledge back by sunset, so that your neighbor may sleep in the cloak and bless you; and it will be to your credit before the LORD your God.

 A cloak could not be taken from a poor man. It was like a kilt – long piece of tartan cloth – pleat it on the floor over your belt, lie down on it, belt it around you for the day – it was all they had.  It was called a PLAID = plaid. What Jesus is telling us, “So they take your suit and underwear, but rather than taking comfort that they at least can’t take your cloak — give it also!


  If anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.

If you had the bad luck to be on the road when the Roman Legion was on the march the soldiers were allowed (who was stopping them) to enlist you to carry their pack one mile.  You choose to go on the second mile.

 Give to everyone who begs from you and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you. 

You don’t even run a credit check? You know the commercial that says, “We don’t care about your credit, we care about you!”  Who are they kidding?  This is foolish. This is good business.  As you know when someone says to you, “It’s not about the money…”  It’s always about the money.

Do an experiment.  In front a 18 month old or a 2 year child set a $20.00 bill on fire.  It’s just a piece of paper.  Set the same bill on fire in front of a four year old; there is a look of horror and a scream goes up, “He’s burning money!”

 These four situations are very different; what do they have in common?  What they have in common is that what Jesus tells us to do is UN-NATURAL.  It is not our first unthinking reaction!  Remember what Thomas Moore wrote?

“The mind thinks, the body does and the soul Imagines.”

  •  Our mind thinks – be afraid; protect yourself; get yours before someone else does.  It’s only natural
  • Our body prepares – kick, shove, back-hand right cheeks and even kill… It’s only natural
  • It is only imagination that can see a different way.

“You cannot trust your eyes if your imagination is out of focus.”  – Mark Twain

Our imaginations must be converted!  That is why we are taking up the ancient practices!!!!  Because we must learn to do what does not come naturally and only the Triune God can do that! Love your enemies – Why, because praying for those who harm us – is the only way we have to convince people that the Holy Trinity is at work in the world.

Hernando deSoto Bridge - Memphis, Tennessee

Hernando DeSoto  Bridge – Memphis, Tennessee

That is, therefore, why we are not in the judgment business!  Robert Farrar Capon was right on target when he said that people don’t need to be told how awful it will be when they go to hell.   They know that already; they are already in hell.If a man is standing on the Hernando DeSoto bridge over the Mississippi about to jump, telling him that he will reach the water at 125 miles per hour and the impact is the same as falling on concrete and he will die!  That man already knows that.

What that man needs to know is why he shouldn’t jump!

If we do not have a standard of caring greater than the jerk down the street and our ner-do-well brother-in-law; if our salt is not salty how beloved will anybody know Jesus loves them.  If the Church is persecuted in the United States it will not because we are Christians, NO. it will because we are not Christian ENOUGH!  We have to live our lives in such a way that the only way our community makes sense, is because God is real and transforming the souls  of human beings.

Now for just last bit of business and I’m done.  Verse 48 “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”  That translation has been source of a lot of mischief; people in despair because they know they can’t ever be perfect and the others who, God help us, have convinced themselves that they are perfect.

Give it up.  The better translation is, “Be whole, therefore, as your heavenly Father is whole.” Not, no mistakes or errors but wholeness, compassion, affection, kindness,  generosity, joy, turning the other cheek,  being naked for God’s sake, carrying the burdens of others, willingly, thus fulfilling the law of Christ, generous to those in need; investing in the Kingdom of God, where the economy is based, not on scarcity, but on superabundance.

I’m done.  Amen.






Proper 25A

Today’s Gospel lesson continues the confrontations between various Jewish groups and Jesus.   In last week’s reading, the Pharisees asked Jesus if it were lawful to pay taxes to the Emperor or not?  They hoped his answer would arouse the Roman government who collected the taxes or alienate the people who despised paying the taxes.  He said,  “Give to the emperor what belongs to the emperor and give to God what belongs to God.”

Woe unto you...  James Tissot

Woe unto you Pharisees – James Tissot

In today’s reading they try their luck again, “perhaps he was just lucky last time.”  They send an expert in the law, a lawyer, to ask a simple question, “Teacher, which is the great commandment of the law?”  This was a point much debated by the religious leadership.  You notice that Jesus does not enter the debate but goes right to the point.  He said, “You shall love the lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind.  This is the first and great commandment.  And the second is like unto it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.

There was an old woman that loved to dip snuff.

  • When the preacher preached against adultery,
    • she said, “Amen, preach it.”
  • When he preached against drunkenness,
    • she said, “Amen, preach it.”
  • When he preached against stealing,
    • she said, “Amen preach it.”
  • When he preached against the evils of tobacco,
    • she said, “Huh! he’s quit preaching and done gone to meddling!”

So long as Jesus talks about loving God, that’s preaching.  But when he talks about our relationships with others, he’s meddling.  When Jesus says, “on these two commandments depend or hang all the law and the prophets,” the sense of it is that these two commandments are the two hinges on which the door of faith hang.  With only one hinge the door doesn’t quite work right.  The door never quite operates smoothly.   If one loves God, then one in turn works out that love for God in the marketplace of daily life.

Thomas Moore says that:

  • the mind thinks,
  • the body does
  • and the soul Imagines.

Paul Ricoeur in a sermon preached at the University of Chicago in 1980 speaks to the language of imagination that Jesus uses.  “ … The use by Jesus of an extreme language, such as the extravagance of a parable, or the hyperbole of the proverb: a log in the eye or a camel through the eye of a needle. Parable, paradoxes, hyperbolas, and extreme commandments all disorient only to reorient us.  But what is reoriented in us? – And in what direction? I would say that what is reoriented by these extreme sayings is less our will than our imagination. Our will is our capacity to follow without hesitation the once-chosen way, to obey without resistance the once-known law.  Our imagination opens us to new possibilities, another way of seeing, or acceding to a new rule in receiving the instruction of the exception.

As Ray Hart suggests in Unfinished Man and the Imagination, while the will is the intention to a specific project, the imagination is the intention of dominant direction.  It is at the level of dominant direction that we are overtaken by the disorienting logic of Jesus.”

Jesus answers Pharisees - James Tissot

Jesus answers Pharisees – James Tissot

Then Jesus said to the Pharisees, “Since you are all here, let me ask you a question, “What do you think of the Messiah?  Whose son is he?”  They said, “The son of David.”  He said, “How is it then that David by the Spirit calls him Lord, saying, ‘The Lord said to my Lord, sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet”’?   “If David thus calls him Lord, how can he be his son?”  Jesus seems to be deliberately disorienting us to reorient us.  This work is done not in the will as I have often thought.  If I just tried harder, if I just worked harder.  If I just held my mouth just so and wished real hard.”   But what has to be reoriented first is not our will but our imagination.

What goes on us in this process of reorientation?

Disorientation: We realize that the way we thought things were is not the way they are. There are other possibilities some of, which are scary to us.  We are threatened. We then have a choice to make: will we continue in this new way of imagination or will we decide to turn and willfully go in the other direction?  This is the dilemma facing the Pharisees.   Jesus has just showed them that Messiah is superior to David. But what does that mean?

Reorientation:  We put ourselves in the place of others. We can see the possibilities and visions of God’s call to us. We will to move in the direction that the vision beckons.

·        We put ourselves in the place of others.

Many of the ethical problems that confront us are born from a failure of imagination.

·     We can see the possibilities and visions of God’s call to us.  The Kingdom of God is the chief message that the rule of God is breaking out in the world, one heart at a time.  We are called to live as authentic human beings.  We are free to choose.  And we can choose to turn to God and be energized by the Holy Spirit into a new creation.

·        We begin to make choices and will that we move in the direction that the vision beckons. This is not easy or convenient

At  10:39 we baptize the Higley twins  into the Body of Christ – the Church in this place.  These brothers are born with imagination.  Children often see  clearly the foolishness of adult systems and say so.  Our culture will work that out of these boys, as they grow older.  We make some promises to God on their  behalf.  We promise to bring them  up in the Christian faith and life.   We promise to immerse or marinate these brothers in the Christian faith and life. To do this we must re-orient our imagination – and allow the Spirit to guide us that we continue in the way that leads to our and their loving God with all our heart, soul and mind and our neighbors as ourselves.