Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19
Like it or not, our Gospel for this Second Sunday of Advent challenges us with two profoundly counter-cultural realities in our time and place: prophecy and repentance. As we continue our spiritual preparation to celebrate the birth of the Messiah two-thousand years ago, and to welcome him anew into our hearts and into our world—now, and at the close of the age—holy Church asks us to hear and to heed the fundamental message of the prophets of God throughout salvation history. For, regardless of the historical circumstances, every prophet has sounded one clear and consistent message over the ages: The “people of God” have fallen short of the glory God intends for them, and they must remedy matters by “repenting,” by “changing the direction from which they are seeking their happiness.” Whether it’s by the Hebrew word “teshuvah” or the Greek word “metanoia,” the biblical call to repentance always requires a radical “change of mind and heart,” a turn-around, and reformation of life.
It should come as no surprise, then, that prophets themselves are usually even less popular than their message. And very often, they find themselves either expelled from their community or murdered by the “Powers and Principalities” of this world, as Saint Paul refers to them. It was true for the prophets of the Hebrew Bible; it was true for the prophets of Jesus’ own time; and, regrettably, it will be true for the prophets of today and of every era. John the Baptist, the forerunner of the Messiah and the focus of today’s Gospel, suffered beheading at the command of Herod Antipas—Rome’s puppet ruler of the Galilee—after which John’s head was presented on a silver platter to Antipas’ wicked stepdaughter Salome. According to the Gospels, the news of John’s judicial murder shook Jesus to his very core—and for obvious reasons. His execution was the prologue to Jesus’ own Passion and Death. Continue reading →
2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12
Over the last two years, our political discourse in this country has focused much attention—and, some might say, far too much attention—on the questions of identity and belonging. It’s not an exaggeration to observe that this nation of immigrants seems very conflicted about the matter, the Statue of Liberty with its moving inscription about welcoming the “tired,” “poor” and “huddled masses” notwithstanding. As the grandson of Italian–American grandparents who entered this country one hundred years ago at Ellis Island and the port of Boston, I have found this discourse about immigration, frankly, insulting. Such vicious talk about national identity becomes even uglier, however, when it concerns matters of religious faith. For fifteen years, I taught a fall semester, religious-studies course called “The Heirs of Abraham: Judaism, Christianity, & Islam,” and I did this with the certain knowledge that all three of these monotheistic religions claim Abraham as their ancestor in faith, albeit with very different interpretations of that relationship, as Harvard University’s Professor Jon Levenson has demonstrated in his recent, magisterial book “Inheriting Abraham.” So, on the eve of this contentious presidential election, it seems only “right and just” that we should use the occasion of this morning’s Gospel, which ends with the words, “he too is a son of Abraham,” to reflect on Jesus’ criteria for judgement on these highly contested issues. Continue reading →
Colossians 2:6-15, (16-19)
During my first of many trips to the Land of the Holy One, our guides gave us pilgrims a very welcome orientation to the unique customs and practices of the Middle East. To alleviate our fears and to reduce our “culture shock,” they introduced us to the practices and protocols of the bazaar known as the suq in the Old City of Jerusalem. And it was only then that I really grasped—for the first time—something of the meaning of this morning’s reading from the Hebrew Bible, together with a much deeper understanding of the whole life of prayer.
Our guides informed us that negotiation and bargaining are an integral part of doing business in the Middle East. Shopkeepers and merchants of the bazaar expect you to bargain with them for a price lower than the one first quoted; in fact, they are deeply insulted if you don’t negotiate with them for that better price. The price, we were told, is never the real issue. In the Middle East, still a deeply traditional culture, bargaining establishes a personal relationship between the buyer and the seller in a society where relationships are everything. Continue reading →
As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram, and a deep and terrifying darkness descended upon him.
The book of Genesis, from which this morning’s Old Testament lesson is taken, though perhaps best known as a book about creation, is also a book of “dismemberment;” in Genesis, much is broken. Look no further than chapter three and Adam and Eve taking the apple to see how quickly we humans began to rend God’s world. Then Cain killed Abel. Then the Lord is so sorry that he made humankind that he sent the flood. Then there is strife – a tearing at the family fabric – between Abraham and his nephew Lot, between Abraham’s wife (Sarah) and her maid (Hagar), between Abraham’s son Isaac and Isaac’s uncle Laban, between Isaac’s twins Jacob and Esau, and between Joseph and his brothers. Indeed, the stories of the patriarchs are so full of dismembering that appropriately the sign of God’s covenant with them is circumcision, a cutting. Genesis does include the story of creation, but… it is also a book of dismemberment and brokenness. Continue reading →
The Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.”
OK. We’ve known each other long enough that I can finally admit to you… that I love the Dixie Chicks. What a great band! I love their clear voices and tight harmonies. I love their instrumentals, how skillfully arranged and played they are. I love how they’ve got a knack for a catchy tune and a moving text. And, OMG, Natalie Maines’ voice (Natalie Maines is the lead singer) – so powerful yet fluid, with a wide range, not merely in pitch, but in tone: now it’s tender, now defiant; now it’s playful, now sassy; now it’s like a Camaro, now a Mercedes. With nine children between the three of them, it’s rare to see them in concert, and the country music stations tend to carry the newer stars, so it’s possible that some of us may never have heard one of their most famous hits, Cowboy Take me Away. Here are the opening lines:
I wanna touch the earth I wanna break it in my hands I wanna grow something wild and unruly
I wanna sleep on the hard ground In the comfort of your arms On a pillow of bluebonnets In a blanket made of stars Cowboy take me away Fly this girl as high as you can Into the wild blue Set me free oh I pray Closer to heaven above and Closer to you, Closer to you.
As I try to imagine what it was like to be Abram obeying God’s command to “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you,” I can’t help but think of “Cowboy.” Continue reading →