Advent I, Deacon Chris Beukman
Good morning St. John’s!. Happy beginning of Advent, and Happy New Church year!
Please be seated.
The lighting of the first Advent candle today marks the beginning of Advent, the four Sundays of preparation and waiting for the Incarnation, and the beginning of a whole new Church year, Year A , where we will be focusing on the Gospel of Matthew. Advent, as you know, means ‘arrival’ or ‘coming’ – it’s the four Sundays that we use to prepare for the arrival of the Incarnation. So Happy New Year, St. John’s !!
There has been a movement afoot in the Church to celebrate what is called ‘Long Advent’ which would celebrate Advent seven Sundays before Christmas, beginning with Michaelmas on November 11. At our cathedral in Boston for instance, this Long Advent is observed. I am not sure about how I feel about ‘Long Advent’ because this long Thanksgiving weekend always feels like such a special time juncture before we fully swing into the holiday season.
My practice is to observe Advent by listening to the entire Bach Christmas oratorio. I suggest you do the same. It is a time for me to wallow in the immense beauty of Bach’s music. Away from all the business of Black Friday and Cyber Monday or what have you.
Paradoxically, our Lectionary uses the first Sundays of the church year to teach us about the last things, about the end of times, and about the Second Coming of Jesus.
Our Gospel text today talks about the unexpected Second Coming and our preparation for it. Jesus compares this time with the time of the people of Noah, who unsuspectingly were eating and drinking, marrying and given in marriage, unaware of the flood that was to envelop them soon.
The Gospel of Matthew is the most Jewish Gospel. It was written for an audience of folk who were Jewish followers of the newborn Jesus Movement who probably lived close to the Holy Land, perhaps even in Jerusalem. Those who first listened to the Gospel of Matthew lived in immediate expectation of the Parousia, of the Second Coming of Christ. These early receivers of the Gospel of Matthew lived as an oppressed minority in a distant corner of the mighty Roman Empire, and the Romans would do everything to remind their subjects of the supremacy of Roman authority in their land. Thus those who first received the Gospel of Matthew lived in joyful expectation that the time in which Roman authority would be replaced by Christ’s authority was close at hand.
Now I think we have gotten very good at preparation when we know the appointed time.
We have it down to a science, don’t we? Immediately after Halloween the shelves are cleared of ghouls and ghosties and replaced with Christmas tinsel (I can’t stand it)!! You can’t watch television anymore without endless treacly Christmas commercials. Then comes Thanksgiving, which thankfully does not have an emphasis on buying and acquiring, then Black Friday and Cyber Monday !!
After that, the commercials begin to remind us that we have to do our ‘last-minute Christmas shopping’ until all the presents are wrapped on Christmas Eve, put under the tree and we are good to go.
So much for preparing for an appointed hour. We have gotten good at it. But how do you prepare for an event that is unannounced, like the Second Coming?
When I lived in Holland I lived with four friends in a loosely formed Christian commune. We used our fifth bedroom for outreach to homeless youth, often with disastrous results. And as part of the culture in that time, people would drop by unannounced. Not only did they drop by, they dropped by to see any of the four of us, and if they were not home, that meant you had to entertain them.
Coming to America, I had to learn that people do not like unannounced visits. Nobody wants to open their doors with their hair messed up, especially if the visitors turn out to be salespeople or religious peddlers. I usually like to respond to the latter that we already have two faiths living in our household, and there is no room for more.
Christ’s Parousia, which means ‘presence’ in Greek, what we usually call the Second Coming, is as of yet unannounced, and will come unexpectedly. The Rabbis taught that there are three things that come unexpectedly: the discovery of a treasure, a scorpion and the Messiah. What does it mean to prepare for an event that will come unexpectedly?
What this means for me as a Deacon is that the time to do the difficult work of peace and justice, is not tomorrow, or at the time of a future set appointment, but now. The work of repentance and reparation for our past sins of racism and discrimination is now.
The time to reach out to our indigenous brothers and sisters, in our case the wonderful people of the Tribe of the People of First Light, the Wampanoag, to repent for the genocide of indigenous people in the 19th century is now!! Our indigenous friends teach us to make decisions with the seventh generation of children and grandchildren in mind. But the time for those decisions is now!!
The work to do our outreach together with our friends from Holy Spirit is now. The time to deliver turkeys to the Life Center in Mattapan is not at some future day, but now.(well, actually, last Tuesday)
The time as a nation to repent from our addiction to guns and violence, and to once again create safe Walmarts, schools, churches, synagogues and gay bars where people can gather without fear of being gunned down by semiautomatic weapons is now.
The time to create a global community where small nations like Ukraine and Taiwan can cease to live in fear of superpowers is not in some future time, but now.
The time to take care of our beloved planet is not in some future generation when the temperature has risen close to levels where life becomes impossible but it is now!!
Obviously, I don’t know when the Parousia, the Second coming of Christ will take place. But it does not matter. We have to act like the time is now.
Zacchaeus and Ebenezer Scrooge
Deacon Chris Beukman 10/30/22
Good morning St. John’s!
As the holidays are once again approaching, hopefully many people will go back to their bookshelf and take out and re-read that old chestnut ‘A Christmas Carol’ by Charles Dickens. In my Dutch High School English class, it was required reading. ‘Christmas Carol’ is filled with memorable characters like Bob Cratchit, Tiny Tim , Jacob Marley and of course Ebenezer Scrooge.
As you know, Dickens’ short novel is all about Scrooge’s conversion. The name ‘Ebenezer’, meaning ‘the stone of help’, is ironic, because in his pre-conversion state Scrooge is not helpful to anyone. The name Ebenezer is a reminder of the stone that the prophet Samuel erected after a victory over the Philistines in 1 Sam. 7:13-14
Here’s how Dickens describes Scrooge at the opening of the novel with a command of the English language I think only Dickens possessed: Oh! but he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire, secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster.
Scrooge’s conversion comes by means of a long process of three very frightening and traumatizing dreams or hallucinations, encounters with the Ghosts of Christmas past, Christmas present and Christmas yet to come.
Through these visions, Scrooge has an awakening and abandons his tight -fisted ways. He begins to love. Here’s how Dickens describes Scrooge after his conversion :
Scrooge was better than his word. He did it all, and infinitely more; and to Tiny Tim, who did NOT die, he was a second father. He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man as the good old City knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough in the good old world. Some people laughed to see the alteration in him, but he let them laugh, and little heeded them, for he was wise enough to know that nothing ever happened on this globe, for good, at which some people did not have their fill of laughter in the outset; and knowing that such as these would be blind anyway, he thought it quite as well that they should wrinkle up their eyes in grins, as have the malady in less attractive forms. His own heart laughed, and that was quite enough for him.
It seems to me that Zacchaeus, whom we meet in today’s reading from the 19th chapter of the Gospel according to Luke, has everything in common with our friend Ebenezer Scrooge. Zacchaeus’ name which means ‘The Pure One’ or ‘The Righteous One’ in Hebrew is just as ironic a name as Ebenezer Scrooge, because Zacchaeus is anything but pure or righteous .
First of all, Zacchaeus was a tax collector for the powers that be of the Roman Empire. The Romans had this heartless, pitiless method of extracting taxes from the lands and peoples that they had subjugated. They simply set an amount in gold for each province they had conquered, and left it to local tax collectors to collect the tax and turn it over to the Roman Government . Except, very few people knew the exact amount of the tribute. So therefore the tax collectors could freely extort from their own communities however much they wanted, often twice or three times the Roman tribute , and put the rest in their own pockets. Zacchaeus was such a tax collector, and as such he was probably the most well-hated person in the town of Jericho. Probably the Romans had contempt for the way he squeezed his own people, even though they lived by the fruits of this oppression. The Jews of Jericho hated him, probably because most of them owed him money, and those who did not grit their teeth in envy and jealousy of Zacchaeus’ riches.
But being a tax collector was not Zacchaeus’ only problem. He was also, ahem, how do we say this in a politically correct way, vertically challenged? Or we might say he had a slight Napoleon complex? However we say it, he was not a tall person. So when Zacchaeus hears that Jesus is coming to town, despite his own sins and heartlessness he is kind of curious, and to gain a better perspective he climbs in a sycamore tree. By the way, if you want to see fine sycamore trees here in Boston and the funny seeds and pieces of bark that they shed beneath them, some time or other go for a walk along Memorial Drive in Cambridge over where the Monastery is.
The fact that St. Luke mentions that Zacchaeus was ‘short in stature’ also suggests that he had a slightly immature, maybe childlike way about him. His idea of climbing into a tree to better understand who Jesus was suggests this, as well as his practice of taking money from his fellow citizens of Jericho without considering the social consequences of such actions.
I was never a particularly athletic child and found climbing trees difficult, but I loved it because of the way your perspective on the world changes as you climb higher and higher. And even if that branch you just climbed turns out to be rotten and gives way under your feet, it’s not so bad because the branches pass you down one by one until you fall into the soft grass.
Zacchaeus probably thought that climbing this tree would give him a better perspective on Jesus.
I love Jesus’ reaction as soon as He spies Zacchaeus. Jesus does not say ‘I would like to eat dinner at your house today ‘ or even ‘What are your plans for this evening?’ but ‘I must have dinner at your house tonight’
Because you know, Zacchaeus was a seeker, the way many young people who search out our churches today are seekers. But what the seekers don’t realize is that they are also the ones sought after. And so our friend Zacchaeus the seeker himself becomes the sought., and comes to celebrate good times in his house with the Savior of the World.
Compared to Scrooge, Zacchaeus’ conversion is a quick one. St. Augustine writes about Zacchaeus in his 68th sermon ‘Lo ,how quickly Zacchaeus runs!’ Upon being invited , Zacchaeus is quick to renounce his wealth, give half of it away , and make amends to those he has wronged financially or materially.
And then Jesus says a wonderful thing. Jesus restores Zacchaeus’ humanity to him by saying : He too, is a son of Abraham. Despite all this , he too is human.
There is a lovely Christian legend of pious story-telling that is not included in the Gospel of Luke that each day after his memorable evening with Jesus at Zacchaeus’ house, Zacchaeus came to water the sycamore tree with tears of gratitude, grateful for the perspective it had given him on Jesus.
I once had a priest friend who accepted a call from a very small and financially struggling church on the South Shore. Since that time, my friend has written a powerful book on ministry to Alzheimers’ patients and moved away from the Diocese. I remember asking her over the phone : ‘What is your new congregation like ?”And I will always remember her answer ;’It’s an interesting mix of outcasts and misfits.’1
Colette’s answer is about as good a definition of the Church of God as I have ever heard. Indeed, we are as a church an interesting mix of outcasts and misfits. The outcasts and misfits who begin to seek, and are in turn becoming the ones sought after .
I can be satisfied that if Jesus is able to seek out and love someone as broken and perverted as Zacchaeus, he is also able to use us for the work of peace and justice in his Coming Kingdom.
Or, as Tiny Tim, would say : ‘God bless us, Everyone!’
SERMON SUNDAY AUGUST 14, 2022
Rev. Noble Scheepers
DIVISION and FIRE (Luke 12:49-56)
Jesus speaks of father being divided from the son and mother against the daughter. Many of you will hear these words and most likely you related to some rift in your own families of origin. The first image of family that comes to mind is often the nuclear family and I felt that it is helpful as a starting point or elating pastorally to this text. Think of the family who cannot talk about religion at the dinner table or at the family reunion, where conversation about faith sets everyone on edge. Many Christian families have an uncomfortable mix of conservative, liberal, and orthodox views when the extended family gathers. Have you ever found it hard to speak much about matters of faith because there are so many varied versions of Christianity?
Jesus did not come to create the pain that results when parents and siblings and in laws find themselves set against one another. Neither did he come to simply keep families happy as an end in itself. Remember, many families believe that Jesus is the son of God, and many others believe differently. In this way Jesus himself is indeed a cause of division. You knew this because it caused pain in the relationships of many of his disciples with their own families.
Our pastoral opportunity is to explore the church as the family we join through baptism, unlike a biological family into which we are born as members. But sometimes I wonder where being born into a family that goes to church on Sundays is enough. Abigail W. Kocher, religious author, adds that, many congregations have plenty of parishioners who come to church without intact family units, with people such as single parents, widows, and unmarried adults. For me there seems to be a traditional family here at Saint Johns, who have become so thankful to be part of a larger church family. And we know there are many family units who come through the church doors and are dealing with internal strife, even though it is often carefully hidden. This is a difficult topic to talk about because there's no “feeling good” about it. Certainly, if we go to the intention of this pericope in this morning's gospel lesson we see a side of Jesus of one ready to let God’s Spirit have its way on the earth, calling each person to make the costly choice: the way of the world or the way of the Kingdom.
Then he uses fire as the metaphor to be a cleansing agent that burns away humanity’s impurities. Jesus, who only recently was rebuking James and John for wanting to bring down fire on some Samaritans who had not welcomed them, suddenly declares that he cannot wait to bring down fire himself. (Can’t you just hear James and John complaining, “How come you get to when we don’t?)” There is a difference between cleansing fire and fire that consumes. James and John were eager to destroy, but Jesus is talking about cleansing, purifying fire. Janet James, theologian, asserts that Jesus knows what lies ahead for him, and for his disciples, and he wants to be sure they have been refined and tested, so that they can remain strong when the time comes. Could the reference to fire be the ever-expanding Holy Spirit that God sends at Jesus baptism, and that is then released at Pentecost upon those who follow Jesus? In this case I think it is a divisive fire, and Jesus makes it clear that bringing this fire to earth is what he was baptized to do. Remember John the baptizer announced Jesus in just this way when he said, “I baptize you with water, but one who is the more powerful then I is coming. I am not worthy to untie the thong all of his sandals.” He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. (John 3 v 16) Surely it is apparent to the crowds that Jesus has been sent by God to set fire to the wrongful ways all of the religious community. At any rate, Jesus is pushing his listeners to contrast his activity with that of the scribes, Pharisees, and chief priests. Whose inactive religious vision can withstand God’s devouring flames? Is it to be the vision of Jesus or the vision of the religious leaders? The crowd listening to Jesus needs to choose.
How do we read our present time how does the activity of our religious leaders bring glory to God, my friends? This is not a rhetorical question. Why do people see religious leaders saying and doing that is healing, generous, compassionate, just, and righteous? You know what has happened at the last Lambeth conference?..... I think part of our hopes with regard to our worldly church leaders Anglicans and Episcopalians revealed that there is something that needs to be burned away. But I still have to ask what the burning issues are for 21st century. Let's consider the effects of an out-of-control brush fire. Oh, we know about fires and it's devastating effect. I do believe but with the kind of fire Jesus through the Holy Spirit were able to blaze, you know lives among our church leaders, and some of these harmful decisions would be burned away. You all know burning leaves ashes and cinders and impurities, but then impurities are also to be burned away. What would remain that is worthy of God's reputation? So, we have our fire bringing, family dividing Jesus. By opening up a space and a time to engage in dialogue, we can hear each other’s stories. We can discern where God is calling the church. And we may find new ways to minister and bring healing to this broken world.
How do you see divisiveness manifesting in your own community? What is causing these divisions? What is the church’s role in the midst of a divided society? Can we see ourselves as part of the “great cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1) as we engage these conversations with each other and our communities?
Let your light so shine upon all people, that they may honor the Good News, and glorify our God in heaven.