“What should we do?” – Homily for the Third Sunday of Advent

Note: As I was heading out the door last night to church, I was moved almost to tears by the words of a young father, Robbie Parker, whose daughter Emilie was killed in Friday’s horrible event in Newtown. He began by extending his own family’s condolences to the many families who lost loved ones — including the shooter’s family!

December 15, 2012

For the communities of Dignity/NoVA at Emmanuel Church-on-the-Hill in Arlington, VA and Dignity/Washington at St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church, Washington, DC.

I’ve been thinking and praying this past week about what words I might offer on this, the third Sunday of Advent.  As you know, I sometimes like to begin with a little levity, a little humor… and so thought about coming up with something humorous to say about the unique Liturgical color we have for today and our gathering as a community of LGBT Christians, because there’s no doubt something “gay” could be said in that regard! Some clergy, by the way, go to great lengths to make the point that the color is rose and not pink!

I also thought about pointing out that we have a unique Liturgical color because today, this Third Sunday of Advent, is also known in the Liturgical Calendar as “Gaudete” Sunday … Gaudete being the first word of the opening prayer of the Latin mass:  “Gaudete in Domino semper – Rejoice in the Lord always!” “Iterum dico, gaudete! – I say it again, Rejoice!”

But then … yesterday happened.  I had taken the day off from work on Friday, and I was proud of myself for not sleeping in too late and for going to the gym in the morning.  But then, on the way home, I heard the first coverage of the horrible tragedy that had only just occurred in Newtown, Connecticut.  I heard first on the radio, and then I turned on CNN as soon as I got inside.  I spent much of the day absorbed by the media coverage of that awful tragedy.  I also watched and even participated in various conversations online as people expressed their outrage, their anger, and their thoughts about the issues related to inadequate gun control laws and the insufficiencies of our fragmented mental health system.

And so, as I thought further about the liturgy for this evening, it didn’t seem like the appropriate time to be making light of things or trying to be humorous.  And, it seemed even less appropriate to be speaking about “Rejoicing” when there was clearly no rejoicing, but in fact just the opposite – such incomparable sadness and grief and a whole host of “non-rejoicing” emotions – unfolding in that small New England town, and dare I say, around the country and beyond.

The sudden and tragic deaths of twenty-eight people – most of whom were little children less then ten years old – have caught the world’s attention, as the emerging news of this sad event continues to do so even now.

And so I found myself – appropriately – focusing even more closely on the scriptures. The one line that I kept returning to over and over again is in that opening exchange in the Gospel of Luke where Luke has the crowd put this question to John the Baptist:  “What should we do?”  It’s a question that was spoken by many seeking to find some way to respond to yesterday’s sad event.

In the passage immediately preceding the Gospel passage we just listened to, followers of John the Baptist heard him speak forcefully his message of Repentance. They heard him minimize the significance of their claim to being “children of Abraham” – as if being “children of Abraham” would be enough to bring them to salvation.  But John tells them that God can raise up out of the very desert stones countless “children of Abraham,” so there’s really nothing special in that! They also heard him say that the ax is at the ready – ready to cut down those trees that do not produce good fruit – knowing full well that they were the trees about which he spoke.

And so they ask, “What should we do?”  They come asking not what we should believe, or what we should think.  They come not with a question about what is in the mind or even in the heart … but wanting to know what action they should pursue in order to come to know the salvation that the Baptizer proclaims.

John does not disappoint. And though it is certainly not meant to be exhaustive, he gives a list of things to do, actions to take, in order to be the true “children of Abraham.” These actions are ones that many – even many Christians – would reject out of hand.

  • Got two cloaks? Give one to someone who has none.
  • Got more food than you need? Give it to someone who has none.
  • Even to the tax collectors and soldiers who also ask what to do, he admonishes them not to abuse their power, but to use their authority with restraint, with honesty, and to be content with what wages they earn.

In short, John tells all to be attentive to the needs of the less fortunate, to be content with what we have so that others might not go without; and to use power and authority with restraint, free from abuse, and never use it to meet selfish or self-serving interests.  John’s “to do list” is rooted in a biblical sense of what is right and what is just, understanding that ultimately we can claim nothing as our own, that all is from God. To use language of a later theology, John reminds us that all is grace, and that if we are to live grace-filled lives, we must never forget the graciousness and justice of God.

I’m sure that this time of year – and even all year long – most of us try to support those in need and to be attentive to helping the less fortunate.  But the crowd’s question asked of John is one that we also ask, especially when faced with situations of confusion, of hurt, of anger, of rejection, or even of violence:  What should we do, how should we respond as people of faith and children of God?

Specific answers to that question each of us must find for ourselves. But, regardless of what struggle we face, what tragedy we encounter … we should remember this:  It is a fundamental truth of Christianity that no matter what has happened in the past, what might happen in the future, or even what is happening however horribly in the present, the Jesus of Nazareth, who is the Christ, the Incarnate Son of God, this very Jesus is in our midst right here and right now. It’s a Truth we proclaim so loudly every time we gather to break open the Word and to share in the Eucharist. This belief in the ever-presence of Jesus whom we call Lord should guide us in whatever we choose to do and in every action we choose to pursue. As Americans, we know that greed, selfishness, and abuse of power and position are still with us – and all-too-often with us in abundance. Where, we may ask, in our day is there a voice crying in the wilderness?  Perhaps what we should really ask is a question of ourselves:  What am I doing and what choices am I making to live a life of grace, turned always toward God by looking squarely in the eyes of my brothers and sisters, trying each and every day to live as fully as I can the Good News that John and Jesus proclaim?

(c) Copyright 2012 – Timothy J MacGeorge

“Give them some food yourselves”

Homily for the 18th Sunday of Ordinary Time – July 30/31, 2011
For the communities of Dignity/NoVA at Emmanuel Church-on-the-Hill in Arlington, VA and Dignity/Washington at St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church, Washington, DC.

Readings: Is: 55: 1-3, Rom 8:35;37-39, Mt. 14:13-21

One of the inescapable aspects of human life is that we all wear many hats. Almost from the day we are born we play different parts and relate in different ways to the people and situations of our lives. We begin as children, sons and daughters of our parents or caretakers. We may have siblings with whom we relate as sister or brother. Later we become playmates and friends; students and athletes. As we grow older and mature, we become workers; boyfriends and girlfriends; perhaps even someone’s “significant other” or spouse, and maybe even a mother or father to children of our own. Some of these roles are relational, based on our connections with others; while some of them are more functional, based on what we do or activities in which we engage.

Today we have listened to Matthew’s accounting of a miracle story that must have been so important to the early Christian communities that it is recounted in all four Gospels. It’s the story of the feeding of the multitudes. As with many gospel stories that are so familiar to us, it’s very easy to miss some of the significant and very telling details. When I first read this particular passage in preparing for today, something struck me that I had never taken notice of before. It’s that first line, delivered almost parenthetically, in which Matthew says, “When Jesus heard of the death of John the Baptist…” It’s easy to miss that the reason Jesus gets into a boat and goes off by himself, alone, … is because he’s in mourning. He has just heard the sad news, delivered directly by the disciples of his cousin John, that his cousin has been brutally killed. Immediately before this sentence, Matthew tells of the terrible way in which Herod – fulfilling the request of his niece who danced for him at his birthday – had ordered John to be beheaded, his head presented on a silver platter. Hearing this news from eyewitnesses directly, is it any wonder that Jesus wants some time to be alone with his grief, and to mourn in solitude, the way any grieving family member would do?

And yet, the crowds who knew of his preaching, will not let him be. In the previous chapter, Jesus had delivered a number of sermons which biblical scholars call “Kingdom Parables.” Jesus gives numerous examples of what “The Kingdom of Heaven is like…” It is like a man who sowed good seed in his field; it is like a mustard seed that grows to be the largest of plants; it is like the yeast a woman mixes with three measures of wheat flour; and it is like a treasure buried in field, or a net thrown into the sea.

This is the background of what we listen to today. And even though Jesus wanted to be alone, wanted to honor his role as the cousin of John the Baptizer, Matthew tells us that his heart is moved with pity at the sight of so many people who came to hear him, who knew him as the one who spoke of God and the Reign of God for which they longed. I don’t need to recount the story, but there’s another element that we can so easily miss. Up until this point, the disciples of Jesus, the ones who even now encourage Jesus to tell the crowds to go away, have largely been observers of his preaching and the miracles he has accomplished. The hat they have worn, the role they have played has largely been passive and receptive.

With this event, however, the disciples begin to take on a new role. They begin to mature in their role as disciples and become active participants in the miracle that unfolds. They bring to Jesus what little they have for just themselves; at Jesus’ direction they distribute the 7 items of blessed food – five loaves and two fishes – to the thousands now seated in this deserted place; and they gather up the leftovers, filling 12 wicker baskets. The symbolism of these numbers is important – for 7 was the number of known Gentile nations, and 12 the number of the Tribes of Israel. In short, Matthew is telling us that the message of Jesus about the Kingdom of Heaven, is for everyone, Jew and Gentile alike.  Matthew is reminding us that NO ONE – no nation, no race, no people, no tribe, no clan, no group, no person – is excluded from the bounteous goodness and reign of God. He is saying, in effect, that Jesus fulfills the word of Isaiah in that if we listen to Jesus, we will “eat well” and “delight in rich fare.” If we come to Jesus and don’t just merely “listen” but listen “heedfully,” … then we will have life itself.

Each week we gather here wearing the many hats of the roles of our current lives. At times, one such role may be more prominent than the other. But if we are to be faithful followers, faithful disciples of Jesus, we must do in our own lives what the disciples do in today’s Gospel. We must heed the command of Jesus to give food to our brothers and sisters who hunger. As we look at the world around us, let’s be careful not to spiritualize away the hunger that Matthew speaks of. Yes, the hunger of the spirit must be fed, and we must not be afraid to live in the light as disciples of Jesus. But so too must the hunger of the belly, the hunger of the body, be nourished. In saying that, I am so very mindful of not only the thousands and thousands of our fellow citizens – mostly children – who go to bed hungry every day; but I am also so very mindful of the millions upon millions of people around the world – especially in the drought-stricken countries of East Africa, where the lack of food has pushed hunger into starvation. Hunger and starvation in AfricaThe United Nations estimates that 12.5 million people in countries in the horn of Africa are on the brink of starvation, lacking water and the simplest of food; and, if aid is not increased to help, by the middle of September 2,500 women, men and children will die each day.

Like those first disciples, we too are called not simply to sit by the sidelines. Rather, Jesus speaks to us today, as he did two thousand years ago: “Give them some food yourselves.”