What’s Scripture got to do with it?

Mathis_Gothart_Grünewald_019The Resurrection: In Accordance with The Scriptures (part of a sermons series with the Rev. Canon Dane Boston)

This afternoon, in continuing the series begun so brilliantly by my colleague last week as Dane preached on Jesus’ bodily resurrection, I will focus on how Jesus’ resurrection is Scriptural. Continue reading

Second Sunday of Advent – The Gospel in the Wilderness – Church of St. Michael & St. George


(A sermon preached by Jordan Hylden, candidate for ordination in the diocese of North Dakota)

I have my own list, and you almost certainly have yours. It is the list of things without which it cannot really be Christmas. Right at the top for me is Bing Crosby, Nat King Cole and the first Amy Grant Christmas album, not the second derivative one but the first authentic one. Of course there must be a tree, an Advent wreath, and an Advent calendar with little doors you can open every morning. There must be hot apple cider, gingerbread cookies, an enormous tin of three different kinds of popcorn, and for me there must be lefse, which is delicious and Norwegian and reminds me of home and my grandmother. There really ought to be snow, although since moving south I have allowed that Christmas can go on in its absence. There must be a viewing of A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, as well as It’s A Wonderful Life on Christmas Day itself. I do not have to watch all of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, but if I catch a few minutes of the wood-mation Burl Ives snowman and the elf who wants to be a dentist, it’ll do. At some point I must read The Gift of the Magi, by O. Henry. And on Christmas Eve, someone must read the second chapter of Luke in the King James Version, and there must be a candlelight lessons and carols, and one of the carols must always be Silent Night.

You have your own list, I am sure. It is hard to say why each of these things must be there, but I think it has something to do with the old doors they open in the corridors of memory, the way these things have of collapsing time so that it is not simply now or ten, twenty, thirty, forty, or fifty years ago, but all of these times at once. They call up all of these memories, often of dear ones and times now lost to us, and place them alongside one of the church’s oldest and dearest memories, that of the birth of Christ, Immanuel, the God of grace who came to us in the midst of our many remembered loves and hopes, fears and sorrows and regrets: O Come, O Come Immanuel, and ransom captive Israel!

In the middle of all of our memories, Christ comes to us at Christmas. But the church does not allow us to remember the birth of our Lord without also wheeling out another, perhaps less welcome figure: John the Baptist. John the Baptist is probably not on your list of things without which it cannot be Christmas, but he is at the top of the church’s list. It is not hard to imagine why this has not exactly caught on. John the Baptist just does not seem to catch the Christmas spirit like Rudolph and Bing Crosby do. John-the-Baptist-mas would not make for a very popular holiday. But the church insists on him, so here he is all the same, last in the line of the Old Testament prophets, coming in from the wilderness to crash our Christmas parties, wild-eyed and bearded like a deranged Santa Claus, pointing his long and bony finger at us like the Ghost of Christmas Future and telling us to think on our sins, to repent, to prepare the way of the Lord.

Why is he here? Listen to what the Gospel of Luke says: in the reign of the Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. Listen to what Luke is saying: the word of God did not come to anyone in Caesar’s palace or Herod’s court or Caiaphas’s temple, but instead to this strange nobody from nowhere called John, in the last place anyone would think to look. It did not come to the centers of power and success. It did not even come to the temple, to the place of holiness and righteousness. It came instead to the wilderness, to a man who had nothing and depended entirely upon God, and who preached a strange gospel that reminded us of everything we wanted to forget: of our faults, our shortcomings, our regrets and evasions, of the chains of vice we have forged for ourselves throughout life like Jacob Marley from Dickens’ Christmas Carol, of the chains we inherited from those who came before us, more chains than we have strength to carry any longer, dragging us down to the grave. What kind of gospel is this? Why is this man here to spoil our Christmas spirit? Why not just turn up the Bing Crosby to shut him out!? Why not cover up his bony, accusing finger with tinsel and send him away, back out into the wilderness where he came from? That’s what we tend to do with him, isn’t it? Christmas is a flood of memories, some of which we would rather not have, and at no other time of the year does the gap between our hopes and our reality become so stark. And so we throw up the holly, turn up the sappy old songs, tell ourselves sentimental old stories, cover over our losses and fears and regrets with garlands and wrapping paper and tinsel, or bury them under great big tins of sickly sweet popcorn and cookies. There can be bravery in this, like Auntie Mame facing down financial ruin by deciding that we need a little Christmas, right this very minute. But it is finally an attempt to avoid John the Baptist, to escape the wilderness. And none of us can escape the wilderness forever.

The church is wise to insist that it cannot be Christmas without John the Baptist. We need him to show us what we do not want to see, to bring us to where we do not want to go, to remind us of what we try so hard to forget, much like Ebenezer Scrooge needed the ghosts of Christmas past and Christmas future. But here is why Luke tells us that John the Baptist preaches good news. It is here, in the wilderness, that the word of God comes to John. It is right here, in the rooms of our memory we try so hard to keep closed, that we receive the promise of the forgiveness of sins and the gift of new life. We discover here in the wilderness that we do not have to hide these rooms from God, or from ourselves. In Christ, he comes to us here and shows us that we are loved by God and marked as his own forever. He comes to us as Lord of all creation lying in a manger, and tells us that none of our fears and losses are too small for his care. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth, and all flesh shall see the salvation of God. He who began a good work among you will carry it to completion on the day of Christ Jesus. Take off the garment of your sorrow and affliction, and put on forever the beauty of the glory from God. Put on the robe of the righteousness that comes from God, for God will give you evermore the name, ‘Righteous Peace, Godly Glory.’

Before Christmas this year, spend some time first in the wilderness. It is only there that we learn how deep the joy of Christmas really is. Amen.


photo credit: http://orthodoxynwa.blogspot.com/2011/01/synaxis-of-st-john-baptist.html

Seventh Sunday After Pentecost – Beheading of John the Baptist – Church of St. Michael & St. George

In October of my sophomore year at Toledo Christian High School, the class of 2004 experienced a monumental event.  A new member joined our ranks.

For the terribly diverse group of 50 fifteen-year-olds from rural and suburban Ohio that we were, new blood was enough to keep us humming for well into the spring semester.  This particular teen was especially up for the job: from the exotic state of South Carolina, Dan Strickland sported a fittingly attractive Southern drawl, matched by his barely-regulation haircut, what I think would now be considered the Bieber ‘do, and his strange-but-wonderful accessories, including hemp necklaces and bracelets, an illicit earring, and Rainbow-brand sandals.

We approached him as if he was from another world, asking him questions about what South Carolina was like, equally awed and confused by his use of “y’all” and “Ma’am.”  He was so un-like us, though now we shared classrooms and meals and sports practices with him.  We were curious about what life was like in the South, and how it had made him who he was—the way that he responded to our teachers with “Yes Ma’am” and “No Ma’am” instead of our “yeah” or “nah” and how he seemed to be able to work himself out of detentions and discipline with his ferociously persistent but ever-polite way of speech.  Still today, ten years later, his fiancée continues to be frustrated by his uncanny ability to consistently talk himself onto earlier plane flights—a method that never seems to work for her, straight-talking woman that she is.

Dan was someone we Toledoians were enamored of because his way of being, who his environment growing up had formed him to be, was so foreign to us.  We couldn’t quite figure him out, he wasn’t like us—but that was a good thing, we thought.

Of course, you should remember that I myself ran to North Carolina as soon as I graduated high school and was only tempted out of the state by a much sought-after job offer here.  I am not an unbiased source when it comes to a love and awe of Southern living.

My point is that Dan’s difference drew us to him, his was a lifestyle that we did not completely understand, but it seemed somehow more glamorous for its incomprehensibility.  We liked his gracious Southern manners, easy-going drawl, and sometimes-foreign way of reasoning.  We wanted to understand him and learn how to claim those manners, easy-going attitude, and novel perspective for ourselves.

That’s a little like what I imagine Herod felt in the Gospel passage today.  Mark describes it this way, “Herod respected John.  He regarded him as a righteous and holy person, so he protected him.  John’s words greatly confused Herod, yet he enjoyed listening to him.”  John’s ascetic lifestyle was totally foreign to Herod, but this stinky man in camel hair with locust-breath struck Herod as intriguing.  Earlier in the passage, you’ll remember, Mark recounts that John the Baptist had pronounced judgment on Herod on account of his ill-gotten wife.  This woman had been his brother Philip’s wife, but Herod divorced his own spouse in order to take on his brother’s.  Despite John’s damning, Herod had a soft spot for him—these two men from very different socio-economic situations, with very different worldviews, found companionship under an umbrella of truth.  John was in jail because of the truth he had told about Herod and his new wife, Herodias, but Herod’s affection kept him from allowing mortal evil to befall John.  Later in the passage, of course, Herod is caught between his word to his wife’s daughter, and his desire to protect John, but what I want to look at more closely this morning is why he had any desire to protect John in the first place.

This man who had denounced the ruler’s lifestyle choices was being protected in prison because despite the damning, Herod “enjoyed listening” to John.  He was admittedly confused and unsure of whatever it was John was trying to communicate, and what those convictions might mean for Herod’s own lifestyle, but there was a ring of something irresistible in John’s being.  That ring, we know, is truth.  John brought with him the truth of salvation to the world, heralding Jesus’ imminent arrival.  John’s lifestyle was strange, even to the people of that time and place.  He looked and acted in a way so foreign to Herod and his ilk, behavior unfamiliar even to Jews of the era, that everyone could tell, just by John walking down the street, that he was coming from a different place all together.

It’s no accident that in recent years, television reality series showcasing various veins of American life have developed an obsession with those whose lives are defined and formed by their religious convictions.  Shows like “19 Kids and Counting,” “My Big Fat American Gypsy Wedding,” “Sister Wives,” “Amish: Out of Order,” give us normal people a window into the lives of groups who have allowed their religion to change who they are.  It’s hard to imagine an Episcopalian reality show, though some might argue that “Downton Abbey” is pretty close.

But I wonder, it is to be a point of pride that our practice of religion does not change us into people who are considered ab-normal by society?

John the Baptist “lived in such a way that his life would not make sense if God did not exist.”[1]  John had allowed himself to be completely transformed by his interaction and relationship with Jesus, and though his life didn’t make sense to Herod, and he said things that sounded ridiculous, John was beloved of Herod and beloved of God.  Herod saw the Truth in the way John lived his life and how John was empowered to carry out the convictions he developed on account of his transformation—Herod wasn’t turned off by how different John seemed because of his faith, Herod was drawn to him because of John’s confidence in the salvation Jesus offers.  Though the pagan Herod was not well versed in what it meant to be religious and to live a life faithful to God, because he was human, and because humans are wired to seek truth and to desire faith, Herod recognized truth and faith when he saw it.  Mark, as well as Matthew and Luke, tell us that Herod knew John was a righteous and holy man—these attributes were obvious just from seeing or talking with John, and those were the things that drew Herod to him.

Though it was John’s bold words of truth that landed him in jail, it wasn’t the bold words specifically that drew Herod and other unbelievers to himself; it was John’s entire lifestyle—his way of treating people, his manners, his perspective.  John was so completely transformed, his self was so hidden in who Jesus is, that when people looked at John, they thought they were seeing Jesus—the beginning of today’s Gospel passage says exactly that!  People, trying to figure out who Jesus was, thought he was John, and sometimes, when people met John, thought he was the Messiah.  His mother Elizabeth and his father, Zechariah, must have been no small part of his formation in faithfulness.  They helped to create a home and a community in which John’s faith was supported and encouraged to thrive.  John’s complete, single-minded commitment to the God made incarnate in Jesus Christ made him live his life in a way that was easily distinguishable from the culture around him.

John’s life was worthy of a reality tv show on Herod’s network.  Let us pray that our lives, too, may be confounding to those around us because of Christ’s work done for his Church.

[1] Cardinal Suhard, via Stanley Hauerwas