Sermon Transcript Advent 2: Gates
The Second Sunday of Advent the Sunday of Peace. We Gather in a world that does not know peace… and yet we experience glimpses of it, particularly if we are intentional about seeking out the holy, the sacred, allowing Christ to be born a new within us so that we bring hope and peace and joy and love and light to the world. We are called to be Christlike, not merely to observe something God did 2,000 years ago but to actively be a part of what God is doing. These times are not so different from the times in which Christ was born of Mary, if we have eyes to see and ears to hear; if we engage in Advent; in intentional preparation to fling open the portals of our heart and our mind, to love God with all our might and strength; to enter into his courtyards with joy. To recognize that we live and move and have our being within God, that God is never absent. What is sometimes absent is our awareness.
I mentioned that the section of Deuteronomy I read is known as the Shema to our Jewish brothers and sisters. It is the center of morning and evening prayer and one of their Traditions that I quite like comes from a reading of the Shema. When I had the privilege in 2016 of visiting Israel, for the first time in my life I encountered people who read that text quite literally and at least at certain High Holy days and certain times of day, they would literally bind these words of loving God with all our heart and might and strength; of passing it on to our children; of posting it on our foreheads and on our arms and hands and in the doorways. Now personally I think it's a bit much and yet I respect the dedication and the focus of those who bind themselves in this way. Some a bit more rigid or extreme about it than others, but there is something beautiful in putting this prayer, putting these words of God visibly and physically at the center of our worship and in all that we do. Far more common among less strict Jewish understandings is the practice of the Mezuzah, which is a small container - not completely sealed because there is a ritual of inspection. At least twice within every seven years you have to inspect the scroll to make sure that it has not faded or become damaged, but you post in the doorway and some put it on the entryway to their home, some a little stricter put it at every doorway, and you post in the gates. A tiny handwritten scroll containing the words of Deuteronomy 6:4 There's a great ritual around who is allowed to write the scroll and the preparations for it, again a rigidness that I'm not sure is necessary, but that I do have some admiration for. A preparation of intentionality the Shema is written, rolled up and placed with great ceremony, so that one might be mindful of God's presence and are called to response at every threshold.
If we take such practice seriously, there is no ordinary space, there is no routine. We are reminded that we are in the presence of God and yes even within the more permissive Jewish understandings there is great debate over exactly how it should be hung. Some insist it must be at an angle, some insist it must be straight up and down. Literal battles have been fought over this… and yet there is beauty in the practice.
What if we had that kind of mindfulness every time we cross a threshold. I invite you this Advent to consider just such mindfulness. Maybe it's as simple as taking a single deep breath or three at major doorways or transitions in your day to remind us of God: Father, Son, Holy Spirit - with us in these things. As we think about that, I want to invite you to hear another threshold scripture this comes from the 10th chapter of the Gospel of John. Very truly I tell, you anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate, but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. The one who enters by the gate is the Shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of the strangers. Jesus used this figure of speech with them but they did not understand what he was saying to them.” So he goes on, “so again Jesus said to them, very truly I tell you I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and bandits but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved and will come in and go out and find pastures. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I come that they may have life and have it abundantly. I am the Good Shepherd. The Good Shepherd lays down his life for the Sheep…” and we probably know that passage more deeply. We hear it preached more often. It is beautiful, but what does it mean that Jesus is the gate? That Jesus IS the threshold, the boundary marker. That Jesus is in charge of who comes in and who goes out. Not me. Not you. The Good Shepherd, the one whose voice we know is…IS also the gate! These metaphors invite us to go deeper. To hold our beliefs and our practices loosely and yet … religiously. To do what we say we believe. To create space for others to do so as well. To trust that the Lord our God is One.
The city of Bethlehem is again divided. Surrounded by violence and yet we proclaim a message of hope. A message of peace. Signs… wherewith for sacred sign, we ask in our song. The signs are all around us! Indeed we are called to be the signs into the world of Christ's presence!
Bethlehem is a key symbol and place in scripture. If you know the Book of Ruth, you know that is where Ruth and Naomi return after things have gone so desperately wrong in Moab and Ruth a hated Moabite. There are at least a dozen scriptures that say no one from Moab is welcome that Moabites are purely evil and must be avoided or even killed… and yet one of Christ's great grandmothers turns out to be a Moabite who exemplifies what it is to be loyal, to be faithful. Ruth refuses to let Naomi wander the wilderness alone. “Where you go I will go, where you die I will be buried. Your God will be my God!” They go and they find shelter and through some scheming and some good fortune, Ruth catches the eye of a man named Boaz - a relative of Naomi and when Boaz decides that he will take Ruth in, that he will become responsible for Naomi's well-being and the extended family and the lands of her inheritance, he recognizes he is not the first person with a right to do that and so he calls a meeting. Where? At the gates of Bethlehem… the place of business the coming in and the going out of the community and he makes right with the relative. He takes on the burden of caring for Naomi and Ruth. He takes their lands as his lands. He takes Ruth as his wife, there at the gate the world changes.
Outside the city of Bethlehem, we know well the Shepherds watching their flocks by night. In a few short weeks we will celebrate with glorious song, the angels singing peace on Earth Good Will to those whom God favors!” David had been one of such shepherds. Outcast… when the prophet came to find the new king at God's behest, Jesse's sons are arrayed before him and despite their strength and their good looks, their kingly demeanor, they are not the ones chosen. “Do you have another son?” “Well, yes, David… but he's a lowly shepherd. He's out in the field. He's not much to look at.” “Call him in.” The shepherd, the outcast becomes the one anointed; becomes the one to lead the land and the people to their greatest heights.
Then in Christ time, the Shepherds bear the good news. I had the privilege of going to the shepherds fields outside of Bethlehem in 2016 and one of the things that struck me - as it's true in a number of places around the world but particularly in the Holy Land - different Traditions have different places that they have decided this is where this thing or that thing happened. In the Holy Land, there's almost always a Greek Orthodox place, a Roman Catholic place – sometimes right beside each other or separate entrances to a single spot, and sometimes spread fairly far apart. Very often a Lutheran one… very often an Episcopalian one and as one who was baptized Lutheran and raised as Episcopalian and realizes they didn't exist until about the 16th century how… did they have any claim of knowing…. but they have them all over the Holy Land. There these various denominations run that they claim to be the one true spot that this thing or that thing happened. (previous section edited for clarity) and in some cases they’ve been fighting over the spots since the 3rd century…
But it also makes some sense. These oral cultures, storytelling about places beyond living memory. I had the privilege of visiting some caves near these Shepherd's fields that different traditions hold is the place of Christ's birth. In each case, the cave would have been the lower level… the barn so to speak… of a very simple household. To this day that's where Shepherds will often rest at night or gather their flocks in. I was on a tour group with about 40 people and most of these caves we could get 8, 10 maybe 12, of us into before it was way too claustrophobic. I stopped even going into them. it was just too much and really one cave looked a lot like another… who could tell… and then our tour guide pointed out, you know in the early days of Christianity the faith was illegal. It was literally hidden underground. You might have a piece of one true relic but when your group got to about 10 or 12 there was no more room so you'd have to split up and you'd go to the next cave down the road. Maybe you were on good terms you might split your relic and you have one piece each place…. So, 10, 12, 14 Generations later… who's to say which was the first one? Does it matter whether it was this cave or that cave? Well, we Christians tend to fight over it quite a bit. Just near the city border of Bethlehem is a massive cathedral and Basilica known as the Church of the Nativity. It covers a section of about four or five caves that are probably where these events really happened. There are three Christian denominations that control part of these buildings. The Palestinian Authority police are called on an almost weekly basis to break up fights between their monks over things as simple as whose turn it is to clean a certain altar…. maybe if they put the Mezuzah sideways instead of straight up and down they wouldn't fight over things as much… or do I have that backwards…. (shrug). Even here at the place where we celebrate Christ's birth we get caught up in our sectarian differences. We resort to violence.
When I was there the roof was being repaired and so I didn't have clear pictures of the interior but the pillars here date to the 3rd century. They were erected by Constantine's mother in the first Chapel that was built on this sacred site. The tradition of these caves under this building being the site dating back that far and presumably farther. One part of it a Roman “pagan” chapel that had been built on the site - possibly to try and help stamp out christian worship in the place by dedicating the space to one of their Pantheon… and yet the practices persisted the buildings were Incorporated in the great cathedral built layer upon layer.
Maybe it's not so important where it happened but… what happened. Does the story we tell help to us in how we live. This is The grotto of the annunciation. it's not the place of the annunciation, that’s elsewhere, but it is a place that reminds us of Mary's vulnerability and willingness to say yes to God. Nearby is the grotto known as the Milk Grotto… this is a place of memory. It is supposedly the place that Joseph and Mary and Jesus hid from Herod’s soldiers before they made their escape to Egypt.
As I stood in this place and remembered that story of flight to Egypt and of the Slaughter of Innocents in Matthew’s Gospel, the part of the Christmas story we don’t like to read… we recognize that today there are at least five gated barriers between this place and Egypt.
The Holy Family couldn't possibly make it today. (pause)
And the slaughter of the Innocent goes on today.
Jews and Palestinians… tribal differences in Sudan… invasion in Ukraine…. the innocent are still mowed down and we cry out why doesn't God stop this. Why didn't God stop that story in the second chapter of Matthew. I'll be honest. It always hits me just a little bit wrong that Joseph is warned in a dream that Jesus and Joseph and Mary might escape while the other children of Bethlehem are slaughtered. Does it mean Joseph was just paying better attention? That the others somehow deserved their fate? They weren't paying attention? I don't think so.
I think it's designed to wake us up. I think the story is supposed to tell us about who our true gods are… do we worship God with all our might and mind and strength and heart or do we worship power and violence and control. Even to this day.
A Lutheran Church in Bethlehem has made some news. (photo) This is their nativity scene this year. Rubble and destruction. It strikes me as interesting that they have a fig tree behind it. A sign that Jesus uses for the second coming. “When you see these signs” in chapter 24 of Matthew. I read from of the beginning and near the end of that chapter. It's disturbing. “wars and rumors of wars” “when you see these signs you will know he is at he is near at the very gate” and yet we worship God who is unchanging…
I believe we are presented with a choice. Is God angry and vengeful and violent… like we are… or are those angry violent passages of scripture not a reflection of God but a reflection of ourselves. Is God not willing the horrors of Revelation and parts of Ezekiel and Daniel, Jeremiah or those reflecting what we will on each other. The pastor of the Lutheran Church in Bethlehem known as Christ at the Checkpoint, put out a statement about their nativity set and part of that statement says “the irony for us Palestinian Christians is that evangelicals with their overemphasis on prophecy have lost the capacity of being prophetic. You want to prove that the Bible is right. You don't do this by pointing to self-fulfilling prophecy or pointing to world events as prophecy fulfillment. This is not how you prove that the Bible is right. We prove that the Bible is right by radical obedience to the teachings of Jesus; by proving that Jesus teachings actually work and they can make the world a better place. Let us love our enemies. Let us forgive who sin against us. Let us feed the poor, care for the oppressed, walk the extra mile, be inclusive not exclusive, turn the other cheek and maybe, only maybe, then the world will start to take us seriously, believing in our Bible.
The Rev. Dr. Munther Isaac is a prophet. I believe he is a prophet for our time. He is challenging and hopeful and joyful. He recognizes that peace is not merely the absence of violence but the presence of justice, not just for his people, but for all people. We heard from the Prophet Jeremiah, who was told to go to the gates of the Holy City and to proclaim a word from the Lord that if we amend our ways, if we amend our practice…. The the Lord will dwell with us. It's not about “the Temple of the Lord” or this holy place or that holy place or this understanding or that understanding or whether a Mezuzah is crooked or straight up and down or whose turn it is to clean the altar of the Church of the Nativity. It's about living as Reverend Dr Isaac has pointed out, as Christ pointed out, as Christlike, as loving, as amending our ways. The more I study and pray and worship, seek to follow and recognize how often I fall
short, the more I think that God is waiting on us to amend our ways; to change our behaviors; to set our our false gods of power and violence and control. To be willing to be born anew in humility, in weakness, to recognize the signs not as a promise of God's angry vengeance on them over there, but on God's promise of New Life; of repeating cycles of opportunities to amend our ways; to be the change we wish to see in the world;’ to truly become members of the body of Christ.
When Jesus called his disciples attention to the Fig Tree, there are different tellings of this story and some of them are quite disturbing. They are leaving the temple, the disciples who have followed him all over what we now call the holy land are impressed by the temple. Everyone was impressed by Herod’s Temple, an expansion of Solomon's Temple, a rebuilding, a platform that stands to this day dominating the skyline of Jerusalem. The Jewish temple is long gone and now a mosque and a shrine stand on the site, it too is a place of repeated threat and violence. The temple stood until 70AD, when the Romans destroyed it. Around the year 30 Jesus told his disciples that not one stone would remain standing on another, that this impressive structure was not truly the seat of God. “3 days they'll tear down this temple,” but the tomb will not hold Jesus. We move from Christmas to Easter knowing that suffering and death do not have the final word, nor do our practices, our beliefs, not our rigidity, not the shrines that we build. We are called to be Christlike.
On the steps of that same Temple, we heard a story from Acts and for me quite frankly it's a bit of a disturbing story. See a lot of the time we look at the miracles of scripture and we say God does that and we pray that God will change our world with a snap of the fingers, that God will change the rules, make an exception, and we look at the miracles of Jesus - the healings and we say “well, see those prove that he's really God!”
So what do we make of the healing attributed to Peter? Peter isn't God. Peter's one of us. Peter's a bit of a screw-up really. So zealous one moment, denying in the next. Falling desperately short, and yet called the Rock on which Christ will build his church and one day after hiding in a locked room; after experiencing the fire of the spirit after bursting forth and proclaiming Christ, he and other disciples are going to worship at the appointed hour for prayer in the temple. They are still Jewish. oh there will come a day when Jews and Christians practices have diverged enough that we close off our holy places to each other, but in the time of Acts 3 that has not yet happened. It's a distant possibility. They are making their way in to observe the rituals of their people and they notice a particular man. There are a number of people set out on the steps. I often wonder if I'm one of those people that sometimes would help somebody go to the steps. I can't solve the problem or at least I don't think I can, but I'll do the bare minimum. I'll set them in somebody else's way so that somebody else might help them out and therefore somehow excuse myself from actually helping them out.
Maybe that's a harsh reading. None of us can do everything. None of us can do it all ourselves. None of us are equipped to solve every problem. Maybe the best we can do is to help them find someone who is… that's a good thing… as long as we're not dodging our own abilities or pretending we don't have skills and resources we do have.
This day the man cries out and what he's looking for is little bit of cash, alms, a blessing. We're good at giving money to solve problems and that is a wonderful, wonderful thing …but for some reason this day Peter and John decide not to take that approach. Maybe they literally don't have any silver or gold on them. I've been there, in a situation where I'm willing to help but I simply do not currently have the means to do it… but they don't say we'll come back later. They don't say sorry can't help They look at him intently… they see him much like Jesus saw people… and they say “I offer you what I have, in the name of Jesus Christ, get up and walk” and the man does!
The longer I do this, the older I get… I wonder if I am limiting God's ability to work through me. Oh I'm a born skeptic and I don't think much of the faith healing practices and most of the things I've encountered or scam artists trying to enrich themselves… but I've been in places where my mere presence or the tangible presence of Christ that I have been privileged to bring has worked miracles. Maybe physically in a couple places… certainly mentally and spiritually in many, many cases. The privilege of being at the bedside, laying a hand on and feeling a patient relax …to know they are not alone. Maybe that's what I'm called to do more of. Certainly things happen that our science cannot explain. Certainly, sometimes people do everything right and they are not healed in this life…
(edited) Our Courtyard we have trellises full of ribbons, many of whom memorialize people taken far too soon… and I don't want this story to guilt us that somehow we could have saved them… that it’s somehow our lack of faith… but I do want us to hear that God does and can heal in this life and the next and that God choses to work through us. That suffering and death do not have the final word and that we are called to do greater things. That's what Jesus promises If people truly come together in his name, they will do still greater things than he did! This Advent, I challenge us to open our hearts and minds to the possibility that we might take Jesus seriously about that. I
I have on my Facebook page a post. it's a reading from Desmond Tutu’s book about the violence in South Africa and I don't remember the quote precisely, but he writes at one point realizing that his people had two options. One practical and one miraculous. Tutu says that the practical option was everybody should fall on their knees and pray for a God to change the world….
the Miraculous option would be that they would actually start getting along with each other and do good to one another and change their ways.
He thought he might be able to convince his folks in the Episcopalian Church of South Africa to fall on their knees and pray, but he didn't think he had any chance of convincing people to just be decent human beings to each other… that would truly be a miracle. and yet through prayer and sacrifice and hard work… the miraculous option happened. Apartheid in South Africa fell largely due to the work of the Body of Christ, who took their call to social, spiritual, physical healing seriously. I invite us to read Acts 3 and to be challenged to do more than the least we can do, because if we take Jesus seriously. We are promised that “whoever believes in me as scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them. This parched and dry and broken world will be nourished and renewed, and we will be like trees planted along the shore of a creek with deep roots and strong and vibrant life and we will be filled with the Fruit of the Spirit and I invite you to say this with me… love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Then the world might know peace. That's what I believe. Thanks be to God. Amen!