December 14, 2008

Advent 3, Year B Sermon

December 14, 2008
Advent 3, Year B, RCL
St. Stephen's & the Incarnation Episcopal Church

For many Christians, there are passages of scripture that hold a special place in their heart, bringing back good memories of family or friends or bringing comfort in troubling times. For my grandmother, it's Psalm 121. For my dad, it's the Pentecost reading from Acts 2 because he gets to read it in Russian. Today's reading from the Prophet Isaiah is one of my favorites. And let me tell you why.

In August of 2000, I was preparing for my first official event as the youth council coordinator in the Diocese of West Tennessee. We were hosting a dinner for diocesan youth leaders at St. Mary's Cathedral in Memphis. Next door to the Cathedral is Diocesan House, which housed the Cathedral and Diocesan staffs, and was where attendees were gathering for wine and cheese before dinner. (This was, after all, an Episcopal event.) I was a bundle of nerves as I headed down Poplar Avenue from my office to the Cathedral. I was looking forward to seeing friends, but there were going to be some people at this dinner who had been, well, shall we say, less than supportive of diocesan youth ministries in the past. I was glad they were coming to the dinner, but I was working myself up to defend the youth council against any disgruntledness they may have had brewing and feeling the need to vocalize. So, I'm thinking about these things and jamming out to some music in my car, and two huge fire trucks barreled past me with speed I'd never seen on a city street during rust hour. I looked towards the skyline in front of me, and I saw thick, black smoke just beyond the trees up ahead. About 17 seconds later, I realized that the fire trucks were heading to the same place I was: Diocesan House and St. Mary's Cathedral. Flames and smoke were pouring out of the top floor of Diocesan House, a 100 year old Memphis. After screaming a few colorful words in the safe confines of my car, I found a place to park and went running up to the scene. Luckily everyone on the Diocesan and Cathedral staffs were able to get out before the flames got out of control. Needless to say, the dinner wasn't going to happen. My rector had heard a report on the radio and called my cell phone to ask how bad it was. Just as he was asking, a fireman turned on the hose and blasted out the Bishop's office window on the third floor. It was a pretty bad day for the Diocese of West Tennessee.

One of the events we were going to promote that night was a clean-up project in the neighborhood behind the Cathedral as part of the efforts around the Jubilee Year. We'd hoped to have a huge turn out of young people to help be repairers of the breech in the poorest Zip code in Tennessee. That event was slated for the end of September, and I was really unsure of how we were going to get as much support and turnout as we needed if we didn't have the face-to-face time with these youth leaders to promote the event. But through the grace of God, the devastation of the fire brought us together. The Dean of the Cathedral called me and insisted that the Cathedral not just be a staging ground for the event in September, but that we start the day with a Eucharist at the Cathedral and then process en masse from the Nave to the neighborhood. He pledged to make sure the entire diocese was invited and would come. He wanted the Cathedral to make a statement in both word and liturgy that the entire neighborhood was going to be rebuilding together.

The Old Testament Reading for that day was the same one we heard this morning from Isaiah:

The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives, and
release to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the LORD's favor,
and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who mourn;
to provide for those who mourn in Zion—
to give them a garland instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.

They will be called oaks of righteousness,
the planting of the LORD, to display his glory.

They shall build up the ancient ruins,
they shall raise up the former devastations;
they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations.

Hearing those words and acting on them was one of the most powerful things I've ever done. The Diocese of West Tennessee was setting out to restore a place that was near to the hearts of many in Memphis; and the people of the Diocese were going to work to restore lives and bring hope to a neighborhood that desperately needed it. This was a journey we were going to go on together.

It is hard to read this passage from Isaiah and not feel some level of pending triumph over oppression or devastation. Years of history of the Episcopal Church in Tennessee had been reduced to dust on that August day; but this was nothing compared to the hopelessness that hung like a cloud over the Cathedral’s neighborhood. Diocesan House and St. Mary’s Cathedral had stood as a beacon of hope during the Yellow Fever Epidemic in 1878 and in the days following Martin Luther King’s death in 1968, and they had every intention of being that beacon of God’s love and restorative power again.

This chapter of Isaiah is nestled between chapters about destruction and judgment. But this section, chapters 60-62, is about the righteousness of God, the goodness and uprightness of God, the faithfulness of God. Just look at all the things that God is going to bring about though the chosen people of God: gladness will replace mourning, people will have praise dripping from their tongues and not timidness, building up of ancient ruins and the repair of ruined cities. There are parts of our country and our planet that could certainly use some building up and repair.

The main theme of this part of Isaiah is, as one scholar says, "salvation and nothing but salvation." The way is being prepared for God's everlasting covenant with the people of Israel. The people of Israel will have to go through division and destruction and captivity to get to that covenant, and although they will turn their backs on God, God does not turn the Almighty back on the Israelites. Every step of the way through their history, God was preparing for the restoration of the Kingdom through the covenant that will not be written on stone tablets but on the hearts of all.

That everlasting covenant is continued in the work of Jesus. The fourth chapter of Luke tells us that Christ reads this passage in the synagogue in Nazareth, and he declares ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’

How many of us would have the guts to stand up and say, “I’m the one bring this scripture to life and fulfillment.” Hopefully none, since there was only one person who could fulfill those scriptures. But the Son of God sees this passage as an affirmation of his own call and ministry. Christ takes this call to bind up the brokenhearted and proclaim the year of the Lord's favor, and he lives it out by not only feeding the poor and healing the sick, but by empowering his followers to do the same.

Advent, one of my favorite times of the Church year, is our time to prepare, or re-prepare, to encounter Christ in the world and to make a place for him in our hearts. Advent is a personal time and a corporate time. It is a journey we take together. We may find ourselves in different places on the journey, but we are on that journey as a people of God, making space in the world for the righteousness of God.

Our call as followers of Christ is to continue to proclaim release to those held captive, physically, emotionally and spiritually. We are called to be the oaks of righteousness, displaying the goodness and glory of God to all we meet, and to share our hope in Christ. We have an opportunity each day to prepare a place for Christ in the world by preparing a place for him in our hearts.

That warm September day in 2000 saw nearly 400 people of all ages clearing land, picking up trash, and repairing homes, bringing hope and love to the neighborhood behind St. Mary's Cathedral. Some of those disgruntled youth leaders even showed up with their young people. The staffs of the Diocese of West Tennessee and St. Mary's Cathedral were in that mix. They moved back into Diocesan House about nine months later, and continue to reach out to their neighbors, bringing them the light of Christ.

May we continue to prepare for Christ, bringing good news to the oppressed, binding up the brokenhearted, and comforting all who mourn, and may each of us be the light of Christ that the world so desperately needs.