Sermon 1/14/2018 “Are your ears tingling yet?”

Preacher: Jo J. Belser
Location: Church of the Resurrection
Text: 1 Samuel 3:1-20
Day: 2Epiphany 2018 (Year B)

“Are your ears tingling yet?”

In our first lesson today, the Lord said to Samuel, “See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make both ears of anyone who hears of it tingle.”

Have you ever heard of God accomplishing something that made both of your ears tingle? What would God have to do to make your ears tingle?

And how would God accomplish ear-tingling things?

I have a theory, so listen up!

When I was a teen-ager, Saturday morning was chore day. And my siblings and I always wanted to sleep in. That’s when my father would turn on his stereo system, the one he’d wired with speakers throughout the house, and crank this Imperials song up at full volume:

Did you ever hear God, speaking to you,
saying “I got a job to do,
and I’ll sure be needing you,
if it ever gets done?”

And, apparently, God had a dirty job for Samuel to do: God wanted the boy to tell his mentor that he was to become judge in Eli’s place. Why did God want to oust Eli? Not because he was old, although he was. Not because he was blind, although he was. And not because Eli’s sons, both priests themselves, were evil—although they were. God was replacing Eli with the boy Samuel because Eli knew his sons were committing grievous wrongs in the Temple and Eli hadn’t done anything about the situation.

Something of the sort happened to the boy Samuel in our first lesson today. Like me and my siblings, Samuel also was living in a place of privilege: The Lord’s House. In my case, our house was literally attached to the church. There was a door on the back wall of the altar that led into our living room. In Samuel’s case, his barren mother had promised to give her first-born to the Temple if God would give her a child. That child, Samuel, was now 11 or so, we reckon, and he was servant to Eli, the High Priest and next-to-last Judge of Israel. Eli slept next to the Ark of the Covenant in the Temple, whereas Samuel slept next door.I would bolt awake, sit upright in bed, each and every week, with groans and rolling eyeballs, to the realization that the Powers That Be—at least in my household—wanted something from me. And there was that not-so-subtle reminder, somehow, that I owed my very existence, not just room and board and clothes and everything else—to the one who had given me life.

So, God spoke to Samuel. God called to Samuel. God had a job for Samuel to do. The reality is, God is always calling us to do things that should make people’s ears tingle. God apparently had called Eli to deal with his evil sons. But Eli let God’s word “fall to the ground.” Now God was calling Samuel. God spoke directly to him in a voice Samuel knew and trusted, a voice so much like Eli’s voice that Samuel got up and ran to Eli over and over again to see what his mentor wanted.

This child was willing. No groans. No eye rolls. Samuel just went to Eli, who finally recognized what was happening and told Samuel what to do. “When God calls again,” Eli said, “say, ‘Speak, for your servant is listening.’”

Listening to what God wants, when God speaks, is step one of three in the three-step process of becoming the hands, voice, and heart of God in our community and in our world. Step one is listening. And here are a few hints in addition to Eli’s instruction about how to listen for what God is calling you to do: Slow down. Sit down. Lie down. Turn down the volume. Turn off whatever’s on. Then say, “Speak Lord, for your servant is listening.”

Step two is deciding. Is this a God-task, or my own idea? Will this task help someone? Will it promote the dignity of others? If we decide it is a God-task, we take the final step: we act.

Notice that deciding whether we are qualified to carry out God’s task isn’t part of the decision process. “God doesn’t call the fit; instead, God makes fit those he calls.” This saying was a great comfort to me during seminary, because the reality is that no one is fit to do what God wants them to do. And if we were somehow already “fit” to do God’s will, we would get confused and think that WE were the ones able to do whatever miraculous task God gives us to do. Ut uh: God calls the un-fit and makes them able to do his work so that we will know, so that all will know, this is something God achieved, not us.

“You want me to clean the toilet, Lord? In the middle of the night? Sure thing; I don’t know why you need it done now, but I’ll get right on it.”

“You want us to build affordable housing, Lord? Don’t you know any developers? Property lawyers? Low-income housing tax credit experts? Younger people? Richer people? What’s that? We have everyone, and everything, needed to do what you are asking us to do? And you’ll keep us together? Well, OK, we’ll give it a shot.”

Throughout, we continue to ask: “Am I still doing your will, Lord, or have I veered off your path onto my own way? Is everything provided to do the task? Do I get more energy, overall, than I give by doing it? Does this task, as hard as it is, give me life satisfaction, if not joy?

So, like Samuel, we get up out of our comfort and we do this hard thing God is asking us to do. And, in the end, whatever comes of our actions to do God’s will, remember this scripture lesson today:

The Lord has acted, and we are but his servants.
Let him do what seems good to him, and
let both ears of everyone who hears of it tingle.

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Sermon 1/7/2018 “Using your superpowers for others”

Preacher: Jo J. Belser
Location: Church of the Resurrection
Text: Mark 1:4-11
Day: 1Epiphany 2018 (Year B)

“Using your superpowers for others”

I know from our Alexandria Lenten series two years ago that many of you are not Harry Potter fans. In fact, most of you have never read J.K. Rowling’s epic stories about a young boy’s coming to terms with life, which is to say, his discovery of who he is and his need to choose between good and evil.

You may not have been enthralled with Harry Potter, but a whole generation of now-adults were, and they will forever view the world through the lens of this tale.

I was reminded of this aspect of our culture this week, when a much younger friend posted online that he was “deciding how to use his superpowers this year.” We might say he was making his New Year’s resolutions, but in our post-Potter age, that’s not how he sees things. He knows that he has been given gifts (which is to say, he’s been given talents and abilities) that he can use, or not, for good or for evil, to help other people, or merely to perpetuate his own life and well-being at the expense of others.

My friend, by the way, is an administrative law judge in D.C. who funded his move here by winning on Jeopardy multiple times. In other words, he has considerable superpowers to use, or not, for himself or for others.

What superpowers do you have? How will you use them this year? Have you decided yet? How will you use your superpowers in this life? If you don’t yet know, you better get thinking and deciding (or always hold on to the handrail)!

Giotto di Bondone, Baptism of Christ fresco, c. 1305 (Cappella Scrovegni, Padua, Italy, via Wikipedia, public domain

I imagine that a young man from backwater Palestine, a young man named Jesus, might have been asking himself these kinds of existential questions when he sought out John at the River Jordan. WE know that Jesus had the ultimate superpower, that he bore the very essence of God. But did Jesus know this about himself, yet, on this day at this river?

A careful reading of Mark’s gospel suggests that “No,” Jesus became aware of his super-self as his life progressed, as he continually said “yes” to God. I won’t argue this point with you; the alternative could also be true. BUT, there’s no little-boy-Jesus in Mark’s gospel, or any authorized gospel, for that matter, resurrecting dead birds or animating clay figures. THOSE are made-up stories about what life as a boy-God-child might be like. You know, the made-for-TV version of adolescent Jesus, before television existed.

I think J.K. Rowling understood what Jesus’ early life might have been like: like OUR lives, a dawning awareness that we have gifts, a dawning awareness that we can use our gifts for ourselves alone or for others, and the realization that we must make a choice between good and evil, that EVIL IS NOT A MYTH, and that refusing to speak evil’s name somehow gives evil more power.

Jesus never flinched when confronting evil. But his confrontation began, somehow, according to Mark and the other gospel writers, when he arrived at the Jordan River. He came by choice. Like the rest of Jerusalem and Judea, including the spiritually hungry and the merely curious, Jesus came to hear what John the Baptizer had to say. And when John preached repentance and baptism for forgiveness of sins, of course Jesus the Christ chose to participate.

I wish I had a nickel for every word ever written about WHY Jesus, our sinless savior, needed to participate in a repentance ritual. “He was metaphysically washing away the sins of the whole world,” my favorite explanation says. This is a great theoretical answer, and we could discuss for hours on end why, then, if Jesus’ baptism cleansed the whole world of sin, did he have to die on the cross? <long_pause> What we need is A REAL answer, not a theoretical one, for why Jesus chose to be baptized.

Here’s a real answer: Had Jesus not stepped into the water, he would have been saying, “Look at ME, I’m sinless. I don’t need to be baptized. But YOU do.” Instead, he stepped in, let himself be dunked down under, knowing that HE didn’t need repentance waters, but that WE DO. In other words, Jesus led the way for us, showed us the way. He chose living for us, not living for himself. He said “yes” to God, “yes” to good, “yes” to others, and “no” to self. Is there any wonder the heavens literally “split open,” as Mark’s gospel says, and thundered divine approval? Jesus was becoming aware of his identity as Christ, Jesus was using his considerable superpowers in the very way he was sent to do: to show us the way, and ultimately to create that way for us to follow.

We don’t know whether Jesus knew, at that moment, that he would be required to make the ultimate sacrifice, to give his very life for all of mankind. I think not. I think our “yes” choices for good, our choices for God and for others lead us to bigger and bigger chances to use our superpowers in this way. In other words, today’s steps of faith become training for tomorrow’s bigger and bigger leaps of faith.

What’s true for people who are faithful to Christ Jesus is also true for organizations. I’m thinking here of our own Church of the Resurrection. There was a time, when dedicating this building, that our beloved rector Jim Green declared if we ever ran out of money we would jettison the building in favor of helping others. Do you think that having THIS PRIORITY implanted in our very DNA is affecting our priorities now? We haven’t run out of money—far from it, but this priority, implanted deep within our culture, is definitely a factor in our decision-making processes today.

There was a time, for years and years in our history, when we gave away any money with which we were fortunate enough to end the year. The idea was that God would provide for us and, if not, we shouldn’t continue to exist.

Thanks be to God and to you, we are going to end 2017 with a surplus without having to draw on any of the almost $28,000 from savings that we had programed for operations. Are we going to give this money away? You betcha: it’s going to buy food to feed our hungry neighbors through our food pantry. And this will help us manage the uncertainties of our budget for next year, because we were going to feed people first, as a priority.

I wonder what this act will become a training leap for, in our future? Can you hear the heavens opening? Can you hear the voice calling US “beloved?”

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Sermon 1/5/2018 “A time capsule life”

Preacher: Jo J. Belser
Location: Church of the Resurrection
Text: John 11:21-27
Day: Karl Boughan’s Memorial Service

“A time capsule life”

You are in a time capsule today, a literal time capsule.

You know what a time capsule is, don’t you? A time capsule is something we collect now and leave for people in the future to discover and use. A time capsule is usually intended to give future people (such as archaeologists, anthropologists, or historians) a glimpse into who we are and what motivates us to act the way we do. A time capsule is our intentional witness to the future, if and when we decide to create and leave this kind of witness. Not a legacy, but a witness.

If you were going to create a time capsule, what things and what information would you include? Undoubtedly you would include a photo or video of your family, those you love, and others who are important to you. You might include a recording of the music you love. You might tell what you did to earn a living, and what touched your soul when you got to play instead of work. You might include your conclusions about the purpose of “life, the universe, and everything,” or just why you thought you existed.

Karl Boughan is one of the things (most dear!) we place in our Church of the Resurrection time capsule today. Karl was one of the very best things about Resurrection. He came here, originally, when he was “four days dead,” like Lazarus in today’s gospel lesson. This might sound backwards to you. You might ask me to explain, pointing out that Karl didn’t die until last week. And I will tell you what Karl would tell you, if he could speak for himself today, that when he came here he was “lost,” that he was in that “lost decade” you might have read of in the biography of Karl’s life. He was “four days dead.”

And yet, Jesus loved Karl, just like he loved his friend Lazarus so long ago, just like he loves each of you, and me today: beyond measure. So, Jesus poked Will—a longtime member here, and pointed out to Will that it was cold, and Karl didn’t own a coat. So, Will gave his coat to Karl. Not an extra coat from his closet, but the coat off his back, literally; Will took off his coat and handed it to Karl. Karl was touched, and Karl returned. He didn’t dwell on this part of his story, but he made no secret of it, either. He wanted everyone to know that Christ Jesus calls sinners, not he pure, to repentance, just like he calls dead people, not the living, into life.

This dead Karl I speak of happened a long time ago, you understand. In recent years Karl was vibrantly alive, paying forward all that he had been given: his musical gifts, his love of learning, his awareness that not everyone who appears to be alive really is alive (but can be), that a little help can go a long way in providing hope, his rock-solid belief in Christ Jesus and his deep conviction of life eternal. And, over time, Karl’s belief in a far-away, all-powerful but unknowable God changed into a living relationship with Jesus Christ. He was wise and, for the most part, gentle. He spent a lot of time helping others. Karl wasn’t quite sure how and when it all happened, but something had happened to him over time, and his became a living, daily relationship with Christ Jesus. Not that we Episcopalians talk about such things much; it’s one of our failings. But we sing about them, and every hymn today is one that Karl loved deeply.

Do you believe that you will never die? (I do!) Like Lazarus’ angry sister Martha, who deeply grieved her brother’s loss, Karl believed that Jesus is the Christ and that, through him, he would never die. Karl had already received, had already experienced new life in Christ, you see, right here in this time capsule. Before the surgery to repair the damage to his neck from his fall, the most unimaginable outcome to Karl was not death, but the possibility that he might not be able to sing when all was said and done. And yet, shortly before he died, when he could speak at last, Karl merely expressed gratitude for all that had been done for him.

I pray that God has or will give you the kind of faith that Martha had so long ago, the kind of faith that Karl had. “Yes Lord, I believe that I will never die.” And, I will add, I believe that Karl is singing now, even more gloriously than he ever did here in his earthly life. Which isn’t to say that we are not grieving Karl’s loss. But we know, deep in our hearts, that we can’t really keep Karl in a time capsule. All we can do is rejoice that he found life in this life, before he died, rejoice that we were privileged to know him, and that he found life everlasting.

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Sermon 12/25/2017 “No room in my inn”

Preacher: Jo J. Belser
Location: Church of the Resurrection
Text: Luke 2:1-20
Day: Christmas Day II

“No room in my inn”

Amid the fun of our 4Advent and Christmas celebration yesterday, for a brief moment I got to embody the innkeeper. You know, that forever nameless person in Bethlehem all those years ago who will be forever known for saying “No” to God.

Think about it. Literally forever, ever since God made humans—well, ever since we got ourselves thrown out of that perfect world God had made, out of Eden into THIS place—we humans have been crying to our creator to “Come down, come back, walk with us again, restore harmony in creation, be with us, help us, fix this MESS you made” because (as we heard in our lessons a couple weeks ago) “Yes, we have sinned, but that’s all YOUR fault, God, you left us alone for too long, come back put things right, make US right.”

And then, when God FINALLY acted, finally did what we had pleaded and pleaded, demanded and demanded, God to do and came back to us here in this world, God came to MY DOOR, knocked on MY DOOR and asked if he could come in—and I told him “NO.” I said, “No, sorry, there’s no room here. I’m all filled up. NO place for you here, I’m too busy. Can’t you see I’ve got a full house here? Can’t you see I’m busy making money? Can’t you see how ridiculous you look, God, disguised as you are as a baby not yet even born to a teenaged girl and her perplexed fiancée? And they had some Alt-Fact tale about a virgin birth, of all things; she must think I was born yesterday! AND a supposed visit by an angel, even. THAT takes the cake! Bethlehem is too full of people (and donkeys, donkeys everywhere) for angels to be among us.

At any rate, I’m the one who told God, “No, you can’t be born here. You can’t come in. No room in the inn.” You know about me, I bet, if not my name, you know that about my life.

But I’m not completely heartless. I let them rent space in the barn (for only slightly above the going room rate; I could see they didn’t have much money, or even food). With all the donkeys in town I could have gotten a pretty drachma for that space, let me tell you!

I don’t know why history has been so hard on me. I was just providing for my family. I was just stating the obvious: There was no room inside for this family to come in, unless I shared MY bed. HA; as if!

Why are you looking at me that way? Haven’t YOU ever said “No” to God when he came knocking on YOUR door? I’ll bet he wasn’t so cleverly disguised at YOUR door. At MINE, the Messiah, the creator of all that is, was hidden inside a pregnant teenager, a pregnant homeless unwed child.

I’ve told MY story thousands upon thousands of times in the millennia since I turned away the Christ Child. And other people have shared about the disguises the Messiah has used on THEM: a prisoner, a street person, an addict, you name the unlikely appearance. I’ve heard that he’s taken in YOUR day to disguising himself as politicians. You’ll see what I mean!

God himself, when he came to MY door, just didn’t look like the supreme ruler of the universe. God forgive me—literally—I turned him away. Sent him to the barn! Well, I sent his mother and her fiancé to the barn, along with the donkey she rode in on.

Something called to me, though, gnawed at me all night long. I kept watch. Maybe the bright star shining down over my barn kept me awake. We didn’t have street lights, you know, so this star was something special. I’d seen this star for a while, but now the thing seemed to have stopped right overhead. I expected the animals to be upset by the star, but they seemed to all be drawn to the barn, as if there were something supernatural going on in there. It was supernaturally calm; I was amazed, and a bit afraid.

Then I saw shepherds appear. I thought they were going to have the nerve to ask to stay in the inn. I wouldn’t have let them, even if there had been room. Shepherds smell of, well, sheep. And they’re not such great people, shepherds. You’d have to be desperate for cash and food to take a job like that, just one step above swineherding. But the shepherds went straight into the barn as if they were on a mission. And I swear I heard joyous singing, the likes of which you’ve never heard. It was as if there were a whole heavenly host of angels singing, right there over my barn.

All right, I SAW a whole host of angels. Don’t tell anyone; they will think I’ve got dementia and put me away. When I asked the shepherds what had brought them to my barn, they told me. They told me all about this family, all about this child, all about this barn, all about ME (about me saying “no” to God). So they came to see for themselves and to worship the child.

Then the most amazing thing happened. These smelly shepherds told ME, “Fear not, this child loves you.” This child had just been born, but the shepherds said, “This child says he has plenty of room for YOU in his eternal kingdom. He says he will prepare a mansion for each of us there.”

So (and I’ll bet you didn’t know THIS) I have followed this child, from Bethlehem to Egypt to Nazareth to Jerusalem to Capernaum to Gethsemane and beyond. All so that I can tell you this today, “this baby that is born today will return again. And, at this coming, everyone will recognize him. May he find in us a mansion prepared for him to dwell in, rather than a sign that reads, ‘No room in THIS inn.’”

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Sermon 12/24/2017 “Gifting the Christ Child”

Preacher: Jo J. Belser
Location: Church of the Resurrection
Text: Luke 1:26-38 and Luke 2:1-20
Day: 4Advent/Christmas Eve

“Gifting the Christ Child”

See/hear this sermon on YouTube

Today, you’ve seen and heard the gospel lessons for both 4Advent and Christmas Day, except for these bits, which you will recognize as my very own paraphrase:

While Mary and Joseph were in Bethlehem, Mary gave birth to her firstborn son. Because they had no clothes for the baby, they wrapped him in rags. And because this family was homeless, they slept in a barn and put the baby to sleep where the animals were fed. We don’t know what they did for food, but we can imagine. And somehow, in THIS setting, the glory of the Lord shone all around them, showering them with such love and grace that later, when this baby had accomplished the purpose for which he had been born, his mother consoled herself with these memories of his birth:

Shepherds came with a story of having been told about the child by angels. The shepherds worshiped this child in the manger and then they told everyone they knew about him. And all who heard the shepherds’ story were amazed. The shepherds glorified and praised God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them. But did they clothe the baby? Did they feed the baby? And when the King began killing infants, did they and the others who worshiped this child shelter him and the other children and help them escape?

They must have. True worship always seems to lead to helping others in the name of the one we worship. What gifts will you bring to this child in the manger? Where will OUR worship of this child lead us this year? Who will we tell of what God has done for us?

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Sermon 12/17/2017 “Rejoice always??!!”

Preacher: Jo J. Belser
Location: Church of the Resurrection
Text: 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24
Day: 3Advent, Year B

“Rejoice always??!!”

Can you imagine if the Apostle Paul were your pastor? You might go to him in a very great time of difficulty and share the burden of our life. For example, you might tell him a con artist had stolen all your money. Or that you had just received a terminal diagnosis.

Our epistle lesson today tells us what Paul would say, what Paul DID instruct the church at Thessalonica to do:

“Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”

I’m not sure I would appreciate such advice, but that’s Paul’s. No half measures. Don’t just pray; pray without ever taking a break. Don’t just give thanks for the good things that happen to you, but be really glad about the bad things, too. WHAT? Don’t just rejoice once, but rejoice ALWAYS, forever and ever!

I suspect that we all would find these instructions impossible to carry out, and maybe even very hard to begin. Tasks we know to be impossible are SO hard to even start. Surely Paul knew that no one could do these things always, without ceasing, in all circumstances; no exceptions!

This is why the great evangelical theologian John Stott thought that Paul was instructing the whole church at Thessalonica to do these things, not individuals. Yes, we as individuals should rejoice, pray, and give thanks as a lifelong pursuit, Stott said, but a whole community of people would be required, he reasoned, to actually achieve these things all the time.

I knew John Stott, in my younger years. I thought he was a prophet when I moved to London, so I attended his mega-church there, where he was rector emeritus. What I discovered was that he had feet of clay, as they say. He had a rigidity about him that stifled his joy, especially on certain subjects.

This might not have been what the rock group, the Beatles, meant, but Stott’s understanding was “We get by with a little help from our friends.” Perhaps Stott thought this because he needed assistance from his community of faith to do what Paul instructs. And maybe we all need help from our friends, from our community of faith, to permanently stay in a place of real joy, real prayer, and continual thanks to God.

Stott also thought that we humans cannot call up joy on demand. However, Abe Lincoln—a person of great Christian conviction—would have disagreed with Stott on this. Abe thought we are, each of us, exactly as joyful and content as we determine to be.

I wonder what you think: Can we “rejoice always” all by ourselves? Can we be joyful by determining to be joyful? And “Why should we even care?” you may be wondering.

In Paul’s day, the people in the young church in Thessalonica cared. Jesus hadn’t yet returned, as he had promised, and the people were being ostracized and discriminated against, even persecuted, all because of their belief in Christ Jesus. And Paul’s advice was to rejoice, pray, and give thanks, not just a little bit, but all the time. Think about that: Rejoice at being persecuted and give thanks for suffering, because Jesus suffered.

According to Paul, we are to rejoice because we belong to Christ Jesus, and (whether we know this or not) Christ Jesus always has our situation in hand. We can count on Christ, whatever happens to us.

Isn’t this what Paul himself did in prison? Paul sang praises to Jesus in prison—and Christ Jesus invariably would send an angel or earthquake or something that would break him out of prison. But Paul didn’t run away after he got sprung; he would wait in his cell, the door ajar, for the jailer to come so he could tell him and his family about Jesus.

According to Paul, we are to pray without ceasing so we can know and follow God’s will. In other words, we need continuous prayer to discern what God put us here to do and for the courage and wherewithal to do it. Isn’t that what Job did, when he lost everything? Pray, pray, pray! Eventually everything that Job had lost was restored to him.

Finally, according to Paul we are to give thanks no matter what. Because, after all, outcomes are NOT OUR RESPONSIBILITY. Outcomes are up to God. This is what we preachers remind ourselves each week: To be faithful, we merely have to do our part, do what God has called us to do. We give thanks for the opportunity to participate in whatever God is up to because it gives meaning to our existence.

Paul’s prescription for life is simplistic, in a way, but not easy to do. And yet, this way of life, of God-living, is far healthier than running around trying to subdue the universe to our will.

What would Church of the Resurrection look and feel like if we did these three amazing things: Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing. Give thanks in all circumstances.

On one level, we could truthfully say that our church would look a lot like it looks now. But here are a few examples:

Would we rejoice that our lights keep malfunctioning and see this as a “sign?” Would we give thanks for the children we have, rather than thinking of our church as child-deficient? Would we see our musicians as the gift they are RIGHT NOW, not some faded remnant of past glory? Would we give thanks for each misstep by one of our three tenant congregations, who surely are teaching us how to be, ourselves, good tenants?

Perhaps (God forbid) our redevelopment project will be “tagged out” at this late stage in the planning process. This is hypothetical, you understand, but would we blame our discernment? Each other? God? Or would we heed Paul’s instruction and continue to rejoice, pray, and give thanks to God, continuing to discern through prayer what God would have us do? I used to worry about this potential outcome, but no more.

Or (scarier yet) perhaps our redevelopment project will be approved. Would we rejoice about that? Would we continue to pray to know and follow God’s will? Would we give thanks, even as we grieve the change required to do what we are called to do?

My money’s on Church of the Resurrection, by the way. Why would we stop rejoicing now, discerning now, or giving thanks now, come what may? But I’m surely going to need to lean on you!Sermon 12/10/2017 “No ho-hum Advent”

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Sermon 12/10/2017 “No ho-hum Advent”

Preacher: Jo J. Belser
Location: Church of the Resurrection
Text: Isaiah 40:1-11/Mark 1:1-8
Day: 2Advent, Year B

“No ho-hum Advent”

Usually, in preparing to preach here at Church of the Resurrection, I not only pray on the scripture lessons, I read all the sermons preached here, in this place, in the last four or five lectionary cycles. This isn’t as hard a task as you might think. Years ago, I gathered the old sermons up, digitally speaking, and indexed them according to our three-year lectionary cycle.

This practice of reading what’s been preached here has given me a lens through which to understand your previous Rectors—the two people on whose shoulders I stand each week when I stand in this particular spot. And I get to see what the gist of their concern, over time, was for this church.

They both, by the way—as many of you know firsthand—were very good preachers. Almost as good as our seminarian, AnnaMarie Hoos, is going to be.

At any rate, this past week I read in a sermon that the Rev. Dr. Anne Gavin Ritchie preached here in 2005 that she was concerned about your souls, your individual souls. Dr. Ritchie wanted you to use the weeks of Advent to grapple with the pile of stuff that might have accumulated in your life and the need to stop meandering around the mess and do something to straighten up your God-lives. Her message was John the Baptist’s ancient message, “Repent!”

This makes me wonder, “What were you all up to?” (Mine is strictly a pastoral interest, you understand!)

All joking aside, Advent is a time when we are each, individually, supposed to examine our life. We are to take stock. Clean house, so to speak. Because God is coming anew once again. And we need to get ready to welcome God into our lives. Maybe we have let our God-lives slip a bit. If so, the way we are now is not the way we have to be.

Are you excited that Jesus is on his way to us anew? Or—ho hum—are you thinking, “Been there, seen that; big deal?”

Lenore and I have a family saying she’s allowed me to share with you. We were living in London, and one day one of us looked up and said, “Ho hum, Big Ben.” We knew right then it was time to return home. But that saying came home with us. Now whenever we see something truly spectacular, one of us says, “Ho hum, Big Ben.”

Has Advent become all Big Ben to you? If so, maybe the commercialism is the issue. Maybe the rat race and crowds are getting in the way. Or parties, concerts, events, shopping, cooking, lines, etc., all just chores to do. Or maybe Advent depresses you. Has your LIFE become all Big Ben, trapped in our little realities, be they health-related, or simply due to failing energy or inertia?

But has the Christ Child become Ho Hum, too? I sincerely hope not.

Mark’s gospel doesn’t even mention a Christ Child. No pregnant Blessed Virgin Mary. No long-suffering Joseph. No angelic visits or heavenly hosts. No magi, even. Just this: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”

You might think that this invalidates Mark’s witness. You might think that this makes Christ Jesus’ miraculous birth untrue. I have another theory. The Gospel According to Jo Belser is this: Mark is written for US, for our time, for our skeptical, scientific brains that demand to know how God does the things God does before we believe them. We say, “If a virgin birth were scientifically possible, I would believe.” But when we figure out how God accomplished this miracle, and instead of believing we declare the theological equivalent of, “Ho hum, Big Ben.”

See, Mark cuts right to the meat in HIS gospel. No matter how God delivered himself into human history, Mark declares that God accomplished this in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. And for Mark’s proof he didn’t dabble in science, but in scripture. Mark reminds us that the prophet Isaiah had foretold the coming of the Messiah and that there would be someone ahead of him in the wilderness preaching repentance.

Here’s where Dr. Ritchie’s 2005 sermon comes in. She shared a discovery she had made in a commentary that there were no public works projects in early Palestine. She was a lot more delicate than I’m going to be. The “vehicles” back then had “exhaust” that accumulated on the ground rather than in the air. And the “roadway” would veer around piles of… exhaust… lest they be stepped in. Hence, the roads got curvy with accumulated… stuff. And chokepoints, such as the entry into town, received a lot of accumulated “exhaust.”

When a dignitary was coming to visit, the locals would clean up, prepare the way, and make the roads leading into town to be straight again. Those cleaning up the mess would sell the compost to local farmers and haul the rest to the dump. Sorting was required.

So, this is what Mark is urging us to do today, channeling Isaiah and John the Baptist: “Clean up our mess; get ready. Our King and Savior now draws near.”

But before we can make the classical response, “Come, let us adore him,” I need to ask, “Have you prepared the way of the Lord, made his paths straight into your heart? Or are you thinking, ‘Ho hum, another Advent?’”

We know that we simply can’t change the reality of our lives all by ourselves. We need God’s help to change who we are. We need God’s help to extract us from the mess we may have made of our lives. We need God’s help to be the best self we can be. This is why God sent his son, Christ Jesus. This is why we hang out with each other each week and often in between, helping each other to clean up, get ready, and stay ready. No ho hum here.

Mark said that Jesus of Nazareth was the BEGINNING of the Good News. The ENDING of that same Good News is that Christ Jesus is coming back soon.

Prepare the way of the Lord; make his path straight.
Our King and Savior now draws near.
Come, let us adore him.

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