Archive for the ‘personal’ category

Lent 5: The Covenant in Bloom – a sermon by Mtr. Kathryn Boswell

March 19, 2018

We’ve come to the last of this series of sermons on the covenant, which is how the Bible describes the relationship between God and man. In human terms a covenant is a contract between persons, anything from the mortgage agreement that we made with the bank when we bought our house, to the vows two people make to each other in marriage. In biblical terms, the covenant is way more lop-sided (though not entirely one-sided) founded on and sustained by the commitment of faithful lovingkindness that God made to his creation from the moment he called it into being. And the reason we’ve been spending so much time focusing on this whole covenant thing, is that the whole story of the Bible, from Genesis 1:1 to Revelation 22:21, is the story of the covenant, because it is the story of man’s relationship with God in all its wondeful – and messy – complexity.

But it’s easy to get a little lost following the covenant storyline through the centuries of wars and prophecies and weird visions and laws. So I wanted today to begin with the covenant “greatest hits”, those critical moments in the Bible story when God entered most notably into our human history. And I wanted to picture it sort of organically, so I imagined the covenant like a single plant that grows through many stages.

And it all begins with the seed, which is the Word of God.

In the beginning, there was nothing but God. We tend to think of that pre-Creation time as a time of dark, formless Nothingness, but the truth is that there was always God, and that means there was always love and there was always light and there was always relationship. But out of his perfection, God spoke our world into being, planting the seed of his Word into our creation. “Let’s have some light,” he said. And he spoke the heavenly bodies into being, and he shaped the earth and sky and seas, and he filled it all up with living, breathing creatures. And at the last he formed the man and the woman, and he planted them a garden and he set them in the midst to love and care for it. He took walks in the garden with his creatures. And that was the very beginning of his covenant relationship with us.

We all know what happened next, when the serpent came along and tricked the woman into tasting what God had warned them not to eat. And the man ate his share, too. The goodness of the new creation was spoiled and corrupted. But along with the curses that came with the poisonous fruit, God made his second Covenant promise. From the seed of his creative word grew the taproot of God’s commitment to redeem our creation from its corruption. A taproot is the first, strong root that a seed sends straight down when it germinates. It’s like an anchor that establishes that plant firmly in place, and brings the first nourishment to the living seed. If you’ve ever had to pull up maple saplings, you know how tenacious a taproot can be. So God promised that even though suffering would come because of man’s sin, there would come someone, born of humankind, who would crush the head of that serpent. God committed himself to healing the harm that man’s sin had done to his good creation. And so the Covenant relationship was established.

For our part, that wasn’t the end of sin or corruption, not by a long shot. We read in the first Sunday of Lent how God sent a great flood to wash his creation clean of the filth of man’s violence and injustice. But he preserved a remnant of his creatures, man and animal, and when Noah and company had come through the ordeal of the flood God made another promise. Spreading the roots of his covenant out into the soil of this creation, God committed himself to sustain and uphold his creation, even in its brokenness. Never again would he curse the creation on account of man’s evil. As long as the earth endures, God promised, there will be day and night, and springtime and harvest.

Later, when God called Abraham out of his homeland, to be the father of a new nation, the covenant began to break into the world, like the first green shoot that pushes its way out of the earth into the sunlight. Because Abraham believed the promise that God made to him, that he would have a son – even though it was humanly impossible – God counted Abraham’s faith as righteousness. So we saw that from the very beginning, our side of the covenant didn’t depend on our righteous, good behavior – because what hope would man ever have then? – but only on our faith in God’s righteousness and God’s goodness.

Then up grew the covenant of Moses that was God’s signpost to the rest of the world. God established the nation of Israel as his unique people with a system of laws that set them apart from every other nation, laws that embodied justice, but were tempered with mercy. Israel grew up like a tall tree among the nations, and reached its fullest glory in the time of King David, and then a strange thing happened.

At Israel’s height, God made a promise to David, a man after his own heart, that he would establish the royal house of King David forever. But within two generations the whole thing fell to pieces. David’s descendants turned away from God and the nation of Israel was torn in half. It was almost as if the covenant, having grown up to its greatest height, humanly speaking, suddenly faltered and began to vine outward, pointing away from Israel, away from the law, and towards something new, something better.

And that brings us to the words of Jeremiah we read today, “The days are surely coming,” says the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah” – speaking of the two halves of David’s fractured kingdom. In proclaiming a new covenant, God wasn’t putting an end to his commitment, or withdrawing his promises, or giving up on his word – the new covenant was THE covenant coming into its full glory at long last – God’s Word bursting into full flower at the coming of Jesus. Malachi wrote, “The Sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in his wings.”And that blossoming, that sunrise, that’s what the whole creation had been waiting for, from the planting of the first seed at creation, century after century after weary century, until finally, that moment when the Covenant between God and man was fulfilled in Jesus Christ.

Paul wrote, “In Jesus all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.” And again, “God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our sins, made us alive together with Christ – by grace you have been saved – and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this isn’t your own doing; it is the gift of God.” And best of all, John wrote, “To all who received Jesus and believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.” That is the Covenant in full bloom.

Jeremiah reveals what’s so new about this new covenant. First of all, he tells us, no more stone tablets or long scrolls full of rules and laws, laws that people always ended up breaking, even though God loved them as a husband loves his wife. The law of the new covenant, Jeremiah tells us, is inscribed on our hearts. “A new commandment I give you,” Jesus told us, “that you love one another.” And Paul wrote, “All the commandments are summed up in this one command, Love your neighbor as yourself.” Human beings are very fond of going back to the old slavery of rule and law, but Paul wrote, “It is for freedom Christ has set you free. Stand firm therefore, and don’t submit again to a yoke of slavery.” Don’t let anyone tell you that you are still under the law. Don’t owe anything to anybody, Paul says, except to love. Love fulfills the whole law.

Secondly, the new covenant satisfies our deep need for belonging. There is a part of every person that has been broken, that has been hurt, that remains unsatisfied. The best human relationships that the world has to offer, friendship, family, married love, all promise to give us what we need. But as excellent as they are at their best, it is always true that they fall short of satisfying us fully. In fact, if we demand of any human relationship what we fully need, we only do harm, because we ask what human relationship can’t give. But in Jesus Christ we are reunited with our Father, we are adopted as his beloved children. Jesus also said, “I no longer call you servants, I call you friends.” “I will be their God, and they will be my people,” God promises. And out of that belonging, we are able to offer grace because we have received grace. We can love, because he has first loved us.

Thirdly, in the new covenant, Jeremiah tells us, ‘no longer shall they teach one another saying, “Know the Lord.” Because they will all know me’. What that means, in a sense, is that you don’t need me. To explain myself more clearly: you don’t need a priest to stand between you and God. You don’t need anybody to mediate your relationship with God; because in Christ you are, we all are, a kingdom of priests, ordained to serve our God. I serve you, hopefully well, in my sort-of specialized role as priest (lower-case), as teacher or comforter, as celebrant at communion, as cook or dishwasher or whatever I am called to do in service to you, who are my fellow priests. And we all need the special gifts that God has given each one of you to build up the church as well. But when we offer up the Eucharist, we offer it as a kingdom of priests together. When we pray, we stand at the throne of God together as members of the body of Christ. Peter said it gloriously, “You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.”

And finally, the joy and freedom of the new covenant is that our sins, which are so very many, are forgiven, and not only forgiven, but forgotten. Our God is not like that parent who rebukes his child, saying, “How many times do I have to tell you?” In Jesus, God removes our sins from us “as far as the East is from the West.” Our Lord, in his suffering on the cross, prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Always remember that , because it was your sins and mine, past, present and future, that Jesus bore in his body on the cross. But God keeps no record of our failings.

This is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,” says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.”


When Is a Savior Like a Serpent, Lent 4, a sermon by Mtr. Kathryn Boswell

March 12, 2018

In the Second Book of Kings, chapter 18, there is a story about a young king named Hezekiah. Hezekiah was just 25 years old when he became the king of Judah. Hezekiah was that very rare thing, in the ancient world as well as today, a ruler whose heart and actions were dedicated to the One True God. When he became king, it had been seven or eight hundred years since Moses led God’s people out of slavery in Egypt and into the Promised Land. And since then, the Israelites had come a very long way from following the God who had rescued and led them.

The writer of 2 Kings tells us: they “were stubborn, as their fathers had been, who did not believe in the Lord their God. They despised his statutes and his covenant that he made with their fathers and the warnings that he gave them. They went after false idols and became false, and they followed the nations that were around them, concerning whom the Lord had commanded them that they should not do like them. And they abandoned all the commandments of the Lord their God, and made for themselves metal images of two calves; and they made an Asherah [which was a pole, like a tree, used in the ritual worship of a fertility goddess] and [they] worshiped all the host of heaven and served Baal. And they burned their sons and their daughters as offerings and [they] used divination and omens and sold themselves to do evil in the sight of the Lord.” Things had gotten bad indeed.

When Hezekiah became king, then, he set himself to turn his people away from their idolatry and back to their God, back into that covenant relationship that God had established with their ancestor Abraham, when he called him out to make of him and of his descendants a great nation. And so, Hezekiah went around destroying all the high places that the people had set up as altars on which they made sacrifices to false gods. He cut down the Asherahs. And he took a serpent made out of bronze, a thing that the people called Nehushtan and made offerings to it; he took that serpent and he smashed it to pieces. But that serpent wasn’t some strange idol that the people of Israel had adopted from their pagan neighbors. It was the very same serpent that we read about this morning, the serpent God had commanded Moses to make out of bronze, and to set up on a pole, so that when any of the people of Israel were bitten by the fiery serpents in the desert, if they would only look up at the bronze serpent on its pole, God would heal them, and they would not die from the serpent’s poison, but live.

When that serpent was forged all those hundreds of years earlier, the people of Israel were still exiles from slavery, wandering homeless in the desert. But God had been with them every step of the way. He had given them the Law to set them apart from the godless nations surrounding them, and he had given them detailed instructions for the construction of the Tabernacle, which was a traveling Temple, a glorified and glorious tent, basically, that they carried with them as they wandered, and where they offered their sacrifices and worshiped God. He had established his Presence among them in the heart of the Tabernacle, the most holy place. He protected them from the surrounding nations that threatened this little band of nomads, and he provided for them even when food and water where nowhere to be found. Because the desert is not a very comfortable or hospitable place to visit, let alone to live in for decade after decade.

But when things got hard, the people of Israel acted as people do, grumbling and griping to the Responsible Parties, to Moses, and to God himself. In the hardships of desert life, they forgot the unendurable suffering of their slavery in Egypt, and they forgot God’s faithfulness, and they forgot his miraculous deliverance from Pharoah’s armies. They saw nothing but their own suffering. And they despised God’s kindness. “Why did you bring us out here to die in the wilderness?” they cried. “There is nothing to eat or drink here – and we detest this miserable food.” And by “miserable food” they meant the miraculous bread that God provided every single day of their forty-year sojourn in the desert, the manna that fell like dew every morning, always just exactly enough to feed every man and woman and child, heavenly bread that tasted, Moses tells us, like wafers made with coriander and honey.

It was no wonder, then, that when poisonous snakes came among them, and people began dying from the venomous bites, the people thought at once that God was punishing them. Aware of their guilt, and ashamed of their ingratitude, and terrified of God’s anger, they went to Moses and asked him to intercede for them. “Please,” they begged, “we know we have sinned. But please, ask God to take these serpents away from us.” And God heard the cry of his people and he told Moses to fashion a poisonous serpent from bronze, and to set it up on a pole. “Anyone who is bitten shall look on the serpent,” God told Moses, “and they will live.”

God gave the children of Israel that bronze serpent as a sign, that if only they would look up, away from the serpents that threatened them, away from their guilt and fear, away from their own wounds even, up to the serpent that Moses had set upon the pole, then they would live. Centuries later, when Hezekiah became king of Judah, that very same serpent become an idol and a snare to God’s people. By then, they had forgotten the shame of their ingratitude and they had forgotten their fear of God, and they had forgotten their desperate need. But most importantly, they had forgotten to look up to God.

Martin Luther, the German reformer, wrote this about the bronze serpent, which John tells us was a foreshadowing of Jesus Christ. “Moses commanded the Israelites who were stung by serpents in the desert, to do nothing else but behold it steadfastly, and not to turn away their eyes.” he wrote. “They that did so, were healed by that constant and steadfast gaze. But they which obeyed not Moses’ command to behold the brazen serpent, but looked elsewhere upon their wounds, died.”

The message of the serpent is that we have to take our eyes off of ourselves. “If I keep on looking at myself,” Luther wrote, “I am gone. If we lose sight of Christ and begin to consider our past – our hurts, or our shame, our resentments, or our failures – then we simply go to pieces. We must turn our eyes to the brazen serpent, Christ crucified, and believe with all our heart that He is our righteousness and our life.” We must look up, and then we will live.

But we might wonder why God chose such an unlikely figure as a symbol of his perfect Son. Ever since the Garden of Eden, the serpent represents everything that is evil, everything that is false, everything that is in rebellion against God and his love for his creatures. When Moses hammered out metal in the shape of a serpent and raised it up for everyone to see, that serpent embodied all the fear and all the guilt and all the pain, and even death itself. Every bit of evil and misery that the living fiery serpents had brought into their midst was represented by that twisted piece of bronze. There was no power in the thing itself. It was just a lifeless hunk of metal that the Israelites later foolishly began to worship. The only power belonged to God himself, as he had Moses raise the evil out of their midst, inviting them to look away from themselves, away from their wounds, away from their fear, and to look up, trusting the promise of God that they would live.

And everyone who looked up, lived.

And just so, Jesus – who as a man of flesh and blood suffered in every way as we have, except that he was entirely without sin – he took upon himself every sting of the Serpent, Satan: he took on our fear and our guilt and our pain, and even our death itself. Because the truth is, we all bear the sting of the serpent, we are all dying here. But taking all our sin and frailty upon himself, our Lord chose to be raised up on the Cross, putting death itself to death. Like the serpent of bronze on its pole, Jesus himself was raised up for us, and we, if we look away from ourselves, and up to him – we will live.

So, if I would find comfort and life,” Luther wrote, “when I am at the point of death, I must do nothing else but apprehend Christ, and look at him, and say: I believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who suffered, was crucified, and died for me: in whose wounds, and in whose death I see my sin, and in his resurrection victory over sin, death, and the devil, also righteousness and eternal life. Besides him I see nothing, I hear nothing.”

Let us pray: O God, by the passion of your blessed Son you made an instrument of shameful death to be for us the means of life: Grant us so to glory in the cross of Christ, that we may gladly suffer shame and loss for the sake of your Son our Savior

Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Freed from Our Old Captivity, a sermon on the Ten Commandments, Lent 3, by Carroll Boswell

March 4, 2018

During Lent our sermon theme is the idea of the covenant. It is important because “covenant” is the word the Bible uses whenever it talks about our relationship with God. You hear a lot about a “personal relationship” with God these days, but the Bible never uses that phrase. It is not a fully biblical way of thinking about God. The idea of a covenant is a bit unfamiliar; it’s not a word we commonly use today, but the idea is a familiar one. There are two easy modern examples of covenants. One is marriage. It is a covenant arrangement between two people who are in love, who make public promises and commitments to each other. Marriage is used through the whole Bible to picture God’s relationship to His people. Another kind of covenant we have today is the business contract. It’s not as exciting as the marriage idea, but it is an image used in the Bible to picture God’s relationship with His people. Some couples nowadays have a written contract of their expectations and their commitments in marriage. That seems kind of weird to me, but it would not have been weird in biblical times; the same word was used for both. Today I want to talk about both pictures, the marriage and the contract.

When we first look at the idea of the covenant in the Bible, it seems very confusing. There are a lot of them and of different kinds. Fortunately, we only need to look at three of them now.

First, the covenant God made with Abraham. It that covenant God promised to make Abraham the father of many nations, to make him a blessing to every nation in the world, and to count his faith as righteousness. The second covenant was the one given through Moses when he brought the Ten Commandments down from the mountain. We didn’t read the scary part of that story (see Exodus 19): the dark cloud with lightning and thunder, the trumpet blast that seemed to come from nowhere, and the threat of death even to animals that touched the side of the mountain. There’s quite a between the covenants with Abraham and through Moses. With Abraham God had no problem walking right up to him and talking to him, but with Moses and the Ten Commandments there was suddenly a serious problem. There was real danger God might just destroy them all if He did any walking in their camp. What changed? Is God bipolar or something? Had the people become more disgusting than they had been? It is this whole section of the Bible that begins God’s reputation for being wrathful and severe. The reason for it is the subject of a different sermon.

But the third covenant to look at is the one Jesus introduced when he gave the wine to the disciples and said, “this cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.” Now if a covenant is like a marriage relationship, why are there three of them? How are they connected? Why are some scary and some amazingly sweet? And especially, now we have a covenant with Jesus, what happened to the covenant Moses brought down from the mountain, the Ten Commandments? What about the covenant God made with Abraham?

To spell out the connection between the covenants, Paul used both pictures, the business contract and the marriage. First he used the business contract idea to explain the connection between Abraham and Moses. You all know how contracts work. Most of you have had a mortgage or bought a car. You make a deal with the bank. They let you use their money and you promise to pay it all back with interest. They do not look kindly on you if you don’t make that payment. You signed on the dotted line, and you can’t change the deal if you lose your job. You may lose your house if you don’t keep the deal.

Paul picks up on this same idea. He says that God made a deal with Abraham; then a long time later He made another deal with the whole nation of Israel. In Galatians 3:15, 17 he says, “To give a human example, brothers, even with a man-made covenant, no one annuls it or adds to it once it has been ratified. … This is what I mean: the law, which came 430 years afterward, does not annul a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to make the promise void.” God had counted Abraham’s faith as righteousness, but the Law said nothing counted as righteousness except obedience, that there is no mercy if you break it. In Galatians Paul points out that the Law could not set aside the deal God had already made. No matter what the Ten Commandments said, God had promised to count faith as righteousness and the Law had no power to change it. The whole law was set aside if it disagreed with what God had already promised. God keeps His promises.

Paul then used the picture of marriage to explain how the new covenant with Jesus is related to the covenant of the Ten Commandments. First understand that the Ten Commandments were only given to Israel. They were not given to the Egyptians, or the Canaanites, or any of us Gentiles so it is a moot point to us. Paul said that the Ten Commandments were like a wedding covenant between Israel and the Law, and the new covenant through Jesus is also like a wedding covenant between the Church and God. That’s why the Church is called the bride of Christ. He loves us like a husband loves his wife. But Israel was already married to the Law. How could Israel be married to both the Law and to God? Notice it is the first husband who is the legal one, in this case, the Law.

Paul answers this in Romans 7:1-4: “Do you not know, brothers – for I am speaking to those who know the Law – that the law is binding on a person only as long as he lives? Thus a married woman is bound by law to her husband while he lives, but if her husband dies she is released from the law of marriage. Accordingly she will be called an adulteress if she lives with another man while her husband is alive, but if her husband dies, she is free from that law, and if she marries another man she is not an adulteress. Likewise, my brothers, you also have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to Him who has been raised from the dead.” In other words, Israel was married to her first husband, the Law, but by Christ’s death on the cross the Law died and so Israel became free to marry God.

In both cases the Law, the Ten Commandments, are finished, over, done, abolished. How can this be? Jesus Himself said in Matthew 5:17: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” But then Paul says, in Ephesians 2:14,15 “For He Himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments and ordinances…” Jesus said He didn’t abolish the Law, Paul says He did. What gives? Here is one of those times when knowing Greek really helps. There are two different words for “abolish”. Jesus says He came to complete the Law, not “cancel” it, not “repeal” it. Paul says Jesus “brought it to an end” by completing it. It

is the same as your mortgage. You can’t cancel it, but you can pay it off. You can’t just decide you don’t like your mortgage and quit paying. But you can bring them the rest of the money you owe and then walk away. Jesus didn’t repeal the Law; He paid it off. When He paid it off, the Law could not ask for more. It was over.

Understand we have no obligations under the Law, the Ten Commandments, just like we don’t have to keep paying a loan when it is paid. And no one wishes they had that debt again, they miss it so much. It’s a burden. In Galatians 3:23 Paul says the Law was like a jail-keeper: “Now before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed.” In Galatians 4:1-3 he says the Law was like a guardian: “I mean that the heir, as long as he is a child, is no different from a slave, though he is the owner of everything, but he is under guardians and managers until the date set by his father.” The Law was a guard to our cell, a guardian who ran our lives.

The point is that rules, the Law, was only for criminals, for children, for slaves. But when God counts our faith as righteousness, we are forgiven of our crimes and released from prison. When the date set by the Father comes, we inherit the family business, and the guardian loses his job. When we are adopted as children, we stopped being slaves and we became the master.

The point is that we have been set free from the Ten Commandments. Now wait a minute! We can do anything we want? Well, yes. But before you rush for the door yelling “Let’s party!”, think about it. Stupid is still stupid even without a law. Look at Galatians 5:13: “For you were called to freedom brothers, only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.” The Ten Commandments have all been replaced, not with some new law, but by an ideal, a goal, to aim at rather than to obey. Paul says it several times to be sure we don’t miss it. Galatians 5:14: “For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Romans 13:8-10: “Owe no one anything except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments – You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet, and any other commandment – are summed up in this word :You shall love your neighbor as yourself. Love does no wrong to a neighbor, therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.” I Corinthians 10:23,24 “All things are lawful, but not all things are helpful. All things are lawful but not all things build up. Let no one seek his own good but the good of his neighbor.”

It is critical to understand that the Christian life is not about obeying rules. The Christian life is simple: use the astonishing freedom you are given to love others, encourage them, help them become strong and prosperous. That’s the whole thing. It’s a slippery idea so Paul warns us to hold on to it. Galatians 5:1 “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” Colossians 2:20-23: “If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations – Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch … according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.”

Freedom is scary. We are, by nature, slaves. It is such a deep part of us that we don’t know what to do without some rules to keep us in line. No wonder churches set up systems of rules for themselves. Don’t smoke or drink or dance or swear. Some churches get sophisticated and use Paul’s own words against him so they can set up new “Christian” rules: women, obey your husbands even if they are abusive. Evangelize everyone you meet, and it’s OK to be obnoxious. Be sure you give your tithe to the church and make sure it is on your salary before taxes. And we go on inventing new things in and out of the Bible to lay on people.

It is human nature to make rules, especially for other people, and especially when we realize that Jesus isn’t going to do it. But mainly we do it because we are afraid of what we might do without something to stop us. You do not need the Law to show you how to live a righteous life because God has made you righteous already, and He has sent you the Spirit to show you what to do. This is how it is supposed to work, from Romans 7:6 “but now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve not under the old written code but in the new life of the Spirit.” You don’t need rules to tell you what to do because the Rule Maker lives in you. The Spirit will show you what to do; just ask and listen. Don’t be afraid. Trust God. Don’t let anyone put you back into slavery, and don’t put anyone else into slavery. Love one another.

The Logic of Faith in the Impossible – Lent 2, Mtr. Kathryn Boswell

February 25, 2018

In the first week of Lent, we read the familiar story of Noah and the Ark. And I talked about the maybe not-so-familiar idea of the Covenant that God made with the whole creation when Noah and his family and all the critters came out of the ark after the Great Flood. Like the vows we make in marriage, God promised at that time that he would be faithful to his creatures for better or for worse, providing for them and being merciful and gracious to them, no matter what, for as long as the creation lasted. That promise was part of God’s whole Covenant relationship to the world he made, and to the creatures he loves, a relationship of unconditional faithfulness and love on God’s part.

But clearly, a relationship has two sides, if it is truly a relationship and not just a kind of controlling ownership. If God is like a husband, as he tells us in Scripture, and not like a corporate CEO or an absolute dictator, or a puppet-master, then the question we ought to ask is, what does our side of the relationship look like? If we are really in a Covenant relationship with God, and if he has vowed to love us unconditionally and to sustain his creation, then what is our part of the “marriage vows”?

I think there is no better place to find the answer to that question than the long relationship between God and Abraham, or Abram as he is first known, that we read about in the book of Genesis. Sarah read today from chapter 17, about how God came to Abram when Abram was 99 years old, and how he made a promise that Abram would surely be the ancestor of a great nation. But it’s important to know that this wasn’t the first time that God had appeared to Abram. And it wasn’t the first time he had made this same promise to Abram.

The first time God came to Abram, Abram was living in the land where he had been born. Abram was 75 years old at that time, and God called him to leave everything behind, his homeland and his heritage, and to come out to a land that God would show him, and he promised then that he would make Abram into a great nation.

About ten years after that, God appeared to Abram again, and he renewed his promise to Abram. He told Abram to look up into the night sky – and you can just imagine how many stars he could see, out in the desert land of that ancient world – and again, God promised Abram that he would be the father of a multitude. That time he even gave Abram a powerful vision as a pledge that he would fulfill his promise to Abram.

Fast-forward, then, almost fifteen more years, to the day we read about today, when God came to Abram a third time, and a third time he promised Abram that he was making him into a great nation, and that his offspring would be kings. Three times, over almost a quarter of a century, God had made this promise to Abram.

But there was one huge problem, and that was that Abram and his wife weren’t able to have children. Abram’s wife, Sarai, was barren, and had been barren throughout the long years of their marriage, and now here they were in their old age. The first time God had come to Abram, Abram pointed out that there was no hope for him to be the father of a nation, because the only heir he had was a slave born in his household. And God had assured him that no, he would have a true heir, a biological son.

Abram and Sarai had waited patiently for a long time after the first promise, and just like the rest of us they weren’t growing any younger year by year, until finally, Sarai, like a good wife, decided that maybe God wanted them to show a little initiative. Sarai had a maidservant, Hagar. It was an acceptable thing at that time and in that culture for husbands to bear children by means of their wife’s maidservant. If Abram slept with Hagar, and if Hagar conceived a son, Sarai reasoned, then God’s promise would be accomplished, because the child would indeed be the biological offspring of Abram. It was logical, and Abram had agreed, and Hagar had borne a son to him, named Ishmael. And Abram loved Ishmael as his own son. Problem solved.

But when Abram was 99 years old, God came to him for the third time, and for the third time he made his promise to Abram that he would be the father of a multitude. That’s when he changed Abram’s name to Abraham, which means “father of a multitude.” Abraham pointed out to God that he and Sarai had this descendant thing all worked out. Ishmael was a strong 13-year-old boy by then, and he was certainly Abraham’s flesh and blood. But God had no intention of changing his original plan, which had always been that the heir of Abraham, the child of the Covenant promise he had made to them, was going to be the child born of the line of Abraham and Sarah.

When God first appeared to him on that day Abraham had fallen on his face before God in worship. And when God told him that he and Sarah would be the parents of the child of the promise, he fell on his face a second time. Only the second time, Abraham fell on his face laughing, because clearly the situation was impossible. Paul put it pretty plainly in Romans, when he wrote, “Abraham saw that his own body was as good as dead.” He knew that his wife’s womb was barren, there was no doubt about that. The thing was impossible. It was laughable.

Abraham tried to bargain with God about his son Ishmael. As his own flesh and blood, couldn’t Ishmael be the fulfillment of the promise? But God wouldn’t budge. God had chosen the lineage of his saving work; he had chosen the ancestry of his own birth into the world, and although it was physically impossible – in fact, I think because it was physically impossible, he had chosen Abraham, and Sarah his wife as the progenitors of that lineage. And the reason I say because, is that it was the very impossibility of this offspring that was a sign, to Abraham, and to Sarah, and to all of their descendants after them. It was a sign that the promise was being fulfilled by God himself, not by any human reason or cleverness or strength, but purely by God’s ability to create life out of virtually nothing.

But again, a relationship goes both ways, and in the book of Genesis we find that even though God didn’t change his plan to give Abraham and Sarah a child of their own, still, he truly listened to Abraham’s plea for his son Ishmael. In fact, the name Ishmael means “God hears.” Out of his love for Abraham, God blessed his son Ishmael, promising that Ishmael would be the father of 12 tribes, just as Abraham’s grandson, Jacob, would be the father of the 12 tribes of Israel. It turns out that Ishmael is the great-great-great-many-times-grandfather of the prophet Muhammed, and for that reason Abraham is the patriarch of Islam as well as of Judaism. And that means that even though the Covenant promises did come through Isaac, Sarah’s son, as God had planned, still, as spiritual children of Abraham we Christians share a common spiritual ancestry with Muslims. That’s just a little side note, but I think it’s a good thing for us to remember, and to think about.

Because Abraham did have a crucial responsibility in the Covenant promise, and it was just this – in the face of the utter impossibility of the promise, to believe the one who promised. “Abraham believed God,” we are told, “and that was reckoned to him as righteousness.” The Covenant relationship between man and God was established, first and foremost, on God’s faithfulness. But our part of the relationship, the human side of the equation, as it were, is faith.

And for the Church, that means faith in God as he has revealed himself fully, in the person of Jesus Christ, the one who says to us, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” It’s a very particular way, not just a matter of trying to be good people in a general way, because we are walking in the very particular footsteps of the one who said, “I didn’t come to be served, but to serve, and to give my life as a ransom for many.” and who told his disciples on his last day with them, “I have given you an example. If I, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet.”

On Fridays in Lent we make a practice of imaginatively walking in the footsteps of Jesus as he walked the last steps of his earthly life. We follow the icons around the walls of the sanctuary as we call to mind how he was falsely arrested and condemned to death, how he took up the heavy cross on which die, and how he fell under its weight – not once, but three times. We follow as he humbly accepts the help of Simon of Cyrene, as he offers love to those who wept for him, as he is mocked and abused, as he shows concern for his mother even as he suffers, as he is nailed to the cross and dies at the hands of men, as he is laid in the tomb of a stranger.

Is it any wonder, then, that Peter took Jesus aside and told him that he really needed to come up with a different game plan? People of all religions and no religion find Jesus’ message of peace and love and kindness very appealing, but when it comes to self-denial and service and suffering, those are pretty much non-starters, aren’t they? They just don’t seem to be very effect rallying cries for attracting followers.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote: The cross is laid on every Christian… As we embark upon discipleship we surrender ourselves to Christ in union with his death—we give over our lives to death. Thus it begins; the cross is not the terrible end to an otherwise god-fearing and happy life, but it meets us at the beginning of our communion with Christ. When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”

Jesus is the one in whom the Covenant promise of God has now finally been fully revealed. And just like Abraham in his old age, we seem to be called to step out into the impossible. Jesus makes the impossible claim to us that the only way to life and joy is the way that leads to suffering and death, and then he bids us to follow him. But what we learn from Abraham is that our faith is not in the possibility of the call, but in the absolute trustworthiness of the one who calls us, and who has walked the way of the Cross every step of the way, in his great love for us.

Till Death Do Us Not Part – a sermon for Lent 1 by Kathryn Boswell

February 18, 2018

As a priest, I have officiated at a handful of weddings. Weddings are joyful occasions on the whole, but I can’t help feeling a deep concern every time for these two people standing their in their wedding finery making enormous promises to one another in the presence of absolutely everyone they know. I always feel a bit like a mother hen must feel when she’s watching her fluffy little chicks emerge in all their utter obliviousness from the safe environs of the egg into the big, scary world of cats and foxes and hawks, not to mention deep fryers and KFC. Because this world of ours is not an easy one in which to maintain the faithful purity and enduring strength of a marriage relationship.

The problem begins right on the big day itself, even as these two very in-love people make their promises to one another. They come to the ceremony in the heady passion of what they fondly imagine is true love, but what is more often a confused brew of love and hormones and the intoxication of having another human being profess their love for you. I am often concerned that what many people are actually professing as they stand before me, or whoever the officiant might be – no matter what they are actually saying with their mouths – is the white-hot intensity of their feelings at this particular moment, for this seemingly perfect person standing across from them.

But the crucial truth is that the promises we make at our wedding aren’t about how we feel about each other on this one much-anticipated day. They actually aren’t about feelings at all, and they aren’t about this one day. The promises of the marriage ceremony are for the next day, and the next month, and the next year, and twenty and thirty and forty and fifty years down the road. The wedding vows are two human beings professing, in the sight of God and their future mother-in-law, that they will be there for each other, no matter what happens. And we all know that a whole heck of a lot happens in this life.

There is a beautiful song about marriage by Andrew Peterson, called “Dancing in the Minefields.” The title gives you some hint that the song is about the incredible difficulty of maintaining our promises to another human being in the course of a marriage. “…we’re dancing in the minefields/We’re sailing in the storms/And this is harder than we dreamed,” the song goes. “But that’s what the promise is for.” The purpose of those promises all we married people make to one another, with half our minds on the words and the other half on the reception plans or the wedding night or the way our shoes are pinching – all those promises about richer or poorer, about sickness or health, about till death do us part – well, somewhere down the road those barely-remembered ideas become realities and marriage becomes hard. And scary. And tedious. And messy. And that’s what the promise is for. Because it’s certainly not our feelings that will keep us going when the going gets rough. It’s the marriage covenant, the keeping of those promises we made to one another, if we hold them fast, that is the bond that brings us safely through the minefields.

And it’s that lasting, unconditional commitment of the marriage covenant that is one of the main pictures God uses to describe his love for us. It’s no coincidence that we find God matchmaking right in the garden at the dawn of time. Marriage, and the whole concept of covenantal love and commitment, that’s been God’s modus operandi, God’s way of doing and being, for as long as there have been creatures for him to love and be committed to (and actually, infinitely long before that, within the loving unity of the Trinity). Marriage on a human level is never perfect, and sometimes marriage promises are broken in ways that are irreparable. But the design of the marriage Covenant is perfect, because our God is a God of steadfast love and grace.

Sometimes we like to say that the Bible is God’s love letter to his people, and that is true. But it’s much more than that, just like the promises we make in marriage are so much more than expressions of our feelings for one another on that one day. In reality, the whole story of the Bible is the story of the God who says to us, “I will be your God and you will be my people.” It’s the story of God’s marriage vows to us, the story of his promise to keep faith with us for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health, to the day of our death – and even beyond death, because we’re talking God here, and his promises are bigger than any human can promise.

Today, in the Old Testament passage from the Book of Genesis, we read about one of God’s Covenant promises to his Creation – one the first marriage vows, you might say, that God made to his creatures in the sight of himself and all the hosts of heavenly beings. Theologians call this the “Noahic Covenant” but it’s important to notice that God didn’t just make this vow to Noah. This Covenant promise was given to Noah, and to everyone who would be born to Noah in the generations to come. And the promise was also to the creatures that God had commanded Noah to take into the ark with him – to the elephants and the bunnies and the lions and the grasshoppers. The promise was to “every living creature of all flesh”. And lest we think that God only made his promise to the “good people”, Peter tells us in the New Testament reading today that when Jesus died he brought the promise of salvation even to those lost souls who had been drowned in the waters of the flood. Christians are frequently in danger of thinking of our relationship with God as a kind of exclusive, “us and God” thing – as if salvation is just a sort of limited-edition spiritual transaction between God and the souls of nice, respectable sinners like us. But God’s Covenant promise is much bigger than that, much messier than that, much harder than that – much, much better than that.

In the eighth chapter of Romans, Paul even tells us that God’s Covenant extends to every created thing – not just people and furred and feathered beasts, but trees and rocks and mountains and clouds and tomato plants. “The whole creation,” Paul wrote, “waits with eager longing….to be set free from the bondage of corruption…. to obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.”

When Noah and all the creatures had come out onto solid ground after a whole year in the ark, Noah offered up a burnt offering in thanks to God. And God, smelling the sweet aroma of Noah’s well-meaning offering, made this promise: ““I will never again curse the ground because of man, for the intention of man’s heart is evil from his youth. Neither will I ever again strike down every living creature as I have done.” This vow that God made after the flood was more than just a promise that there wouldn’t be another big flood – as if he were announcing that the next time he had to destroy all living things he’d think up something new and different. God was making a promise to the whole creation that he would never again respond to mankind’s sin with wholesale destruction. And the reason for that was not because Noah had proved his righteousness. Not at all. God makes this promise to mankind, and to the whole creation, first and foremost because left to his own devices, man is a hopeless mess. The message of the Covenant is that our hope, and the hope of the whole creation, lies purely and entirely on the grace and faithfulness of God. Even though the intention of man’s heart is evil from his youth, God promises, I will remain faithful. For better or for worse.

And God went on to pledge his faithfulness to the creation. “While the earth remains,” he promised, “seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease.” Not only was God promising to withhold his well-deserved anger at man’s sinfulness, he was promising to nourish and cherish all of creation, “till death do us part”, so that his creation would continue as he had ordained for all the days and seasons and rhythms of life until the end of time. A lot of times, you hear people claim that the God of the Old Testament is a God of wrath and retribution, but in his Covenant promises we see God’s true nature, which from beginning to end is love – truly he is the God who shows himself to be “gracious and full of mercy, slow to anger and abounding in lovingkindness.”

It is the custom in marriages for us to exchange rings as a tangible symbol of the promises we make to one another on that day, something we can see and touch as a reminder that goes forward with us into the ups and downs of married life. It’s something we need as creatures of flesh and blood, something to remind us when the going gets tough. And so, as we all learned way back in our Sunday School days, God gave us a tangible sign along with his Covenant promise – he set the rainbow in the heavens, that glowing arc of every color, to remind us that he will certainly keep all of his promises to us. Just as the heavens opened up and the glory of God appeared when Jesus was baptized, and the voice was heard saying, “This is my Son, my beloved.” so when we see the arc of the rainbow in the clouds, God is reminding us of his Covenant promise, and renewing his vow to every created thing, “You are my beloved. I will never leave you. I will never forsake you.” Even when it seems like we’re dancing in the minefields, surrounded by dangers on every side; even when it seems like we’re sailing through storms, blown off course, knocked down every time we try to get up; even when life seems harder than we dreamed – that’s what the promise is for. Our God is the God of the Covenant, the God who loves us and who will keep his promises to his whole creation – and even death itself is not able to separate us from his love.

Getting Unlost, a Sermon for Ash Wednesday by Mtr. Kathryn Boswell

February 15, 2018

Ages and ages ago, when I was in my church’s high school youth group back in St. Louis, one of the elders took all of us kids on a hiking and camping trip in the wild and hilly woods of Missouri. It was a two-day, 25-mile hike, with really no modern conveniences. We hiked about 15 miles the first day and then we made a fire in a little cave on a hillside, and we dug sassafras roots to make tea, and found some wild watercress to eat with our dinner, and we all slept as close to the campfire as we could because it was frosty during the night.

But then, on the second day, my friend Becky and I got separated from the rest of the group, and we got hopelessly lost. We were slower than the guys in our group and we had gradually fallen behind the others until suddenly we realized that we couldn’t see or hear anybody anymore. It was late fall, and a grey and chilly day, and the woods around us and the forest floor were all a pretty uniform rusty brown, which made it really hard to distinguish the actual trail we were supposed to be on from the rest of the woods. It was a very scary feeling to have no idea where we were, no idea how to find our friends, and to see nothing but trees stretching on and on, on every side.

By the grace of God, and I think a bit of his sense of humor as well, we weren’t left panicking for too long, because within an hour we heard voices and footsteps and this whole troop of little boy scouts came jogging along. And they were delighted to show us how to get back to our trail, where we found the rest of our youth group. They probably got merit badges for rescuing us. I hope they did. But I will never forget that feeling of utter lostness and helplessness.

Since that day, I haven’t often found myself stranded in the middle of the woods like that. But I have many times found myself hopelessly lost. As human beings, we lose our way all the time, in so many different ways. As the hymn says, “Prone to wander, Lord I feel it, prone to leave the God I love.”

We get lost in our sadness and regret sometimes, when we are unable to let go of the past or unable to forgive ourselves (because we need to forgive ourselves seventy times seven times, too). And lost in our unforgiveness and self-hatred, we lose our way forward.

We get lost in anger, when we reduce one of our fellow human beings to the sum of what they have done to hurt us or offend us or disappoint us, so that we lose the path of love that sees them as our brother or sister.

We get lost in discouragement when we stop seeing ourselves as beloved children of God. We start believing the lies we tell ourselves, that we are useless, that we are too stupid or too old or not talented enough, until we find ourselves bogged down in self-pity and despair.

We get lost in discontent when we envy people who have nicer things or easier lives or more money than we do. We get so lost that we stop seeing the blessings all around us, we stop being able to be thankful for the unique good that God has put into our lives.

We get lost in fear when we lose our grip on our faith, and let our troubles loom larger than our God.

The whole human condition that we call sin is a matter of losing our way, of straying from the path that points us towards God. We all get lost, time and time again, throughout the short span of our human lives, and in the end, sin has its way with all of us as death itself catches up with us. That’s what it means to be mortal. No matter how well we care for ourselves, no matter how good we are about exercise and a good diet and good habits of all kinds, we all stray from the paths of wisdom and kindness and faith, and our bodies all grow feeble and achy and unreliable, and finally, we all give in. And really, the only human alternative to that bleak picture is when it all happens quicker because death strikes us suddenly and our sinful lives are cut short.

On this first day of the Lenten season that we call Ash Wednesday, we mark our foreheads with ash to remind ourselves of our mortality. It’s a healthy dose of reality in a world that would like to fool us into believing we can outwit death and decay with just the right combination of multivitamins and anti-wrinkle cream and positive energy. The smudge on our foreheads testifies to the truth that there is nothing we can do, in and of ourselves, to get the better of sin and death.

BUT – that’s not the whole meaning of the ashes. When I dip my thumb in the ash and mark your forehead this evening, I smear those ashes in the shape of a cross, because the Cross points us to the only answer for our human predicament. It is only the Spirit of Jesus Christ, who took on himself this thing we call mortality and put it to death on Calvary. It is he and only he who is able to find us in our lostness, no matter how far or how hopelessly or how willfully we have strayed, and to lead us gently and surely back on the way of life. And most joyfully and truly, it is at the Cross of Jesus Christ that we find that death no longer has the last word. We who are marked with the sign of death and mortality will get lost many times over, and finally we will die. But just as death lost its power to keep Jesus in the tomb, it has lost its power forever to keep his people in the tomb. The Cross is our sign and pledge that all death will be swallowed up in life, and everyone who is lost will be found.

We know that Lent is a time for repentance, but I think we don’t always know what we mean by repentance. A lot of people seem to think that true repentance means seeing how far we have strayed and making ourselves feel terrible about it – like conjuring up that sense of helpless panic my friend and I felt when we realized we were lost and alone in the woods – and really wallowing in it good. But real repentance is a much more sensible thing than that. First of all, have you ever noticed that whenever we are called to act, it is because God acted first? When we find ourselves lost in the woods of our sin – for the first or the twentieth or the thousandth time – and God shows up (which he always does) – true repentance is what we do – not what we feel, but what we do – in response.

Repentance is turning to the one who always comes to our rescue when we are lost. Repentance, specifically, is changing our direction, and following him back to the right path. Repentance isn’t some kind of guilty feeling we work ourselves up to; it is our happy response to the one who finds us in our desperate need. In our repentance we cry out in joy, “I once was lost, but now am found, was blind, but now I see!” Today, we don’t enter the wilderness of Lent to lose ourselves in self-loathing and shame – we enter the wilderness of Lent because our Lord, the one who loves us, is there to guide us on our way. I pray that we might all find him, and be found by him, this Lenten season.

No Room in the Shell – a sermon for the 3rd Sunday of Advent by Mtr. Kathryn Boswell

December 17, 2017

There is a poem written by a 19th-century poet and theologian, T.E. Brown, called “Indwelling” that goes like this:

If thou could’st empty all thyself of self,
Like to a shell dishabited,
Then might He find thee on the ocean shelf,
And say, “This is not dead,”
And fill thee with Himself instead.

But thou are all replete with very thou
And hast such shrewd activity,
That when He comes He says, “This is enow
Unto itself – ’twere better let it be,
It is so small and full, there is no room for me.”

The poet compares a human being, us, to a little hollow sea shell on the beach. When God comes along and finds the shell, abandoned and empty, he immediately sees an opportunity. There is room for life within. And he makes himself at home, filling the little shell with his own life and self. But there are those, the poet says, who are so self-sufficient, so full of their own plans and ambitions and small successes that God finds no room left for himself. “Twere better let it be,/ It is so small and full, there is no room for me.”

We are brought up to be self-sufficient. It is a mark of our worth as useful, admirable people, and especially useful, admirable Americans, to “do it ourselves” whatever “it” might be. We are often embarrassed to ask for help. And we often look down on those who need help. There are huge stigmas attached to being a welfare family, or to being a “special needs” student. Recently, a family who had lost everything they owned in a tragic accident sent someone to our thrift store to receive the free clothing and goods we had offered them because they were embarrassed to come in themselves. Self-sufficiency is a mark of our real manhood or womanhood. To be needy is a shameful thing.

We are also trained from childhood in self-promotion. In grade school we amass our little awards for spelling and math and good citizenship and speed and strength, so that by the time we get into high school we’re ready to begin putting together a resume of all our achievements and qualifications that makes us look our very best – if possible, even better than our very best. It’s all about packaging ourselves from birth to death: trying to prove ourselves acceptable and worthy, to get the scholarship, to get the grades, to get the degree, to get the job, to get the promotion, to get the retirement plan.

But what is entirely foreign to our way of thinking is that our God does not come to us measuring our achievements and productivity. Remember what John wrote, his best-known verse: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever had an above-average GPA, a spotless reputation, and a really good work ethic should not die, but have everlasting life”? Well, he didn’t put it quite like that.

Because the truth is, God didn’t come to be impressed by us, and he didn’t come to whip us into shape. He came as a servant. He came because he recognized our desperate need, our poverty, our inability to do anything to rescue ourselves from ourselves. He isn’t watching to see if we can pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, because he knows perfectly well we don’t even have any boots.

When Jesus came back to his hometown he opened up the Scriptures to the book of Isaiah and read the words we read this morning: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has chosen me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free the oppressed and announce that the time has come when the Lord will save his people.” He read those words and then he rolled the scroll back up (because the Bible was written on scrolls back then), and he handed it to the acolyte, and he sat down, and he said, “This is it. Today, these very words I read to you have come true.”

And what that means for us, his people, is that he has come to this world he loves in our greatest need – in our hunger, in our poverty, in our emptiness, in our nakedness, in our brokenheartedness, in our blindness. In the collect for today we asked God for help as we are hindered by our sins. And there is no doubt that mankind is sorely hindered by a vast multitude of sins. But sometimes I think that we are equally hindered, or maybe we are even more hindered, by what we consider our successes and strengths. Sometimes we are afraid and ashamed to admit that we are people in desperate need. But like the empty seashell on the beach, it is when God finds us in our need that he is best pleased, because we have left him room to do what he came to do, to fill us with himself.

When you go down the Bible list of men and women that God has chosen as his “heroes of the faith” the main thing you might notice is that he never seems to go for the A-listers. God never picks the biggest and the best, not by our standards. Moses was a middle-aged fugitive from justice with a speech impediment, when God picked him out of the lineup to save his people from the greatest superpower in the ancient world. David was the kid brother whose job it was to bring his soldier-brothers lunch – when he wasn’t minding the sheep – when God chose him to be the king of Israel’s Golden Age. Gideon was a coward, pure and simple, Rahab was a prostitute, and Samson was a womanizing brute – and not the brightest candle in the bracket, if you know what I mean. Moving to the New Testament, Paul was a myopic, overzealous egghead when God knocked him off his high horse, and Peter was a fisherman who never once looked before he leapt. But what God found in these and in all saints is just this – room – for himself.

This was never more true than it was the day the angel Gabriel showed up in Mary’s kitchen right in the middle of her daily chores – and I can say that pretty safely because for a Jewish peasant girl in those days most waking hours would have been chore time. The angel appeared to Mary, and what he said made absolutely no sense to her. “Greetings, highly favored one!” he said. “The Lord is with you!” What was he talking about? Me, highly favored by God? Most people are terrified when the come face to face with an angel, but Mary was so troubled by those words that she even forgot to be afraid.

What could he possibly mean by calling her “highly favored” or by saying that the Lord was with her? Her humility and bewilderment were perfectly and entirely genuine – where holy men or priests or scholars of the law might have hoped or dreamed of attaining God’s special favor, Mary had no expectations for herself at all, except to be a faithful and capable wife and mother as her mother had been, and her mother’s mother, as far back as the generations go. In her humility, Mary was an empty shell, all ready for God to fill her with his very self on that day, in the most literal way possible. In her poverty, she contained the most precious treasure the world has ever known. In the frailty of her human body, she nourished and held the One who created and sustains everything that exists. God’s power was made perfect in her weakness.

But sometimes we are very much less like the humble virgin in her kitchen in Nazareth, and very much more like the bustling inn of Bethlehem, working so hard to carry on with business and keep up our standards and turn a nice profit that we really don’t have any space or time or energy left when the quiet knock comes at the door in search of a room. We are ashamed to admit our poverty. We aren’t willing to confess our blindness. We are afraid to acknowledge our brokenheartedness. We have been held captive by our anxious efforts for so long we hardly notice our chains anymore. And so we are in danger of turning away the One who would fill our emptiness and heal our hurts and turn our darkness into light.

It’s hard enough to remember, in the midst of the demands of the holiday season, that the purpose of Advent is to prepare ourselves, to prepare our hearts and our minds and our lives, for the coming of Jesus. But when we do remember, all too often we feel like God and the world are keeping track on some kind of Naughty and Nice list to see if we are doing it good enough. Are we reading our Advent devotional and lighting our candles? Are we being generous enough with our charitable donations? Have we picked the perfect gifts for all the special people in our lives? Does our house look sufficiently festive, inside and out? And oh my gosh, have we mailed out all the Christmas cards? And if not, is it too late?

But the only gift we need to prepare for the coming of the Christ Child is our need, our brokenheartedness, our blindness, our burdens and chains. It is as if we have been invited to the grandest of birthday parties, and all we have been asked to bring is an empty box. Because it is when we admit our emptiness and unworthiness and helplessness that He finds room to fill us with himself. Then we can sing with Mary: “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,

my spirit rejoices in God my Savior;
for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.

He has lifted up the lowly…and filled the hungry with good things…”