Sermons

December 4: Second Sunday of Advent

“Welcome one another, then, as Christ welcomed you, for the glory of God.” Romans 15:4-9.

Forerunner

When writing these words, Saint Paul was in prison — you would never know it, considering his tone and sound advice.

Nonetheless, this apostle was concerned about the welcome that the newly established Church communities would bring to one another with mercy, tenderness and forgiveness even toward those who wished them great harm. It’s this amazing sense of welcome that is so central to the thinking of Pope Francis.

For the past year the pope has impressed upon us how we should welcome those in need during the Jubilee Year of Mercy 2016.

As you know Pope Francis concluded the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy two Sundays ago; and while he closed the holy doors of Saint Peter’s in Rome, and at cathedrals around the world, the pope reminded us that the “doors of mercy” must always remain open and welcome the countless souls that come to the Lord, day by day.

Pope Francis issued an Apostolic Letter in which he reviewed the past year, and recommended how mercy and forgiveness are marks of “pastoral conversion” for a church in his charge.

The pope tells us: “ Mercy renews and redeems because it is the meeting of two hearts: the heart of God who comes to meet the human heart.”

For Francis, the social character of mercy includes, what he calls the “creativity of mercy,” demanding that we not simply stand and do nothing. Instead, do the work of mercy, tenderness and forgiveness; more about this later.

So, Advent is an anticipation of the person of Jesus, the human face of God, and the one who dwells among us.

John the Baptist is such a central figure during the Advent season, and so prominent in the gospels but he is remembered in our liturgical calendar throughout the year — with feast days, sacraments so deeply in Western culture in paintings, sculpture, music and opera.

On this point, the great American writer and humorist, Garrison Keillor reminds us,

“John the Baptist didn’t go to college. He had no seminary training, and did not receive academic credit for his ‘life-style.’ Rather he lived in the desert. He wore camel hair and fed on locusts and wild honey. And he was very convincing, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord!'”

John was at the intersection of the God of the desert and the God of the temple. Like Jesus, not that it was an either/or, the Baptist put privilege aside for the spiritual comfort to those in need. John preached about personal reform, conversion or transformation.

In the gospels, people ask, “What did you go out to see? A reed blowing in the wind?”

How was it that the desert was a place to find God?

For us Americans, our history reminds us again and again the difference when dealing with peoples of the Middle East. Our time in Iraq and Afghanistan is a poignant reminder.

Years ago, when I first saw David Lean’s film, “Lawrence of Arabia,” I was spellbound by this feature length movie, with the vast desert landscapes. I have watched the film countless times, and I have it almost memorized, and I have forced my students to see it.

If only our American leadership had carefully understood Lawrence’s message, that when dealing with the Middle East, these peoples are not nation-states, rather desert tribes.

The film was based on T.E. Lawrence’s “The Seven Pillars of Wisdom” and provides an insight into the creed and stock of the desert people, who Lawrence encountered just prior to World War I, at the beginning of the twentieth century.

A stock of people he writes, “after the man in goatskin (John the Baptist), and his Galilean cousin (Jesus). As clear then, at the time of his writing and even more today, Lawrence tells this truth,

“They were a people of primary colors, or rather of black and white, who saw the world always in contour. They were a dogmatic people, despising doubt, our modern day crown of thorns…. The common base of all Semitic creeds…was the ever-present idea of world-worthlessness. Their profound reaction from matter led them to preach barrenness, renunciation and poverty. They sought the desert not because they found God there, but because… in solitude they heard more certainly the living word they brought with them.” 

With the clarity of the night, the desert could be an extraordinarily cold place — the brightness of the stars, followed by the scorching heat of the day.

For John the Baptist, the desert provided an arid space with no temple and no corruption and no distractions. In the desert, God could be reached.

John the Baptist set the stage for Jesus, preaching the “good news” of the coming age to a very diverse crowd who had come into the desert for discernment and baptism, and the new-life of renewal in the spirit.

John’s message had an added poignancy, namely that “the Lord is near!” His central prescription was that each person was to straighten out their lives, because Jesus will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with a winnowing fan will blow out the dust, debris and desert sand that cover us.

Paul says in Romans: “Welcome one another, as Christ welcomed you.” Like the Baptist, Paul too was a man in a hurry, and saw the “end times,” as he might since he was in a Roman jail.

In this passage, Paul exhorts his faithful that despite their differences as Jews, Greeks or Romans, they must become a welcoming community, and draw on new ideas, contributions and even religious innovations.

In reading, Pope Francis’s most recent Apostolic Letter, you have the glimpse of a very practical pope who is attempting to welcome those in need, but also his own practice what he called the “creativity of mercy.”

For example, during the past year, he conducted his own “Mercy Fridays,” where he paid pastoral visits to the elderly in Rome, a children’s hospital where is photographed holding one of the infants, and most recently the pope visited with so-called “former priests,” their wives and children to extend his mercy and good will toward men who have left the formal ministry but whose hearts are very much with the work of Christ.

For this reason, he inaugurated on November 13th, the “World Day for the Poor,” and with the help of various charities, brought to Saint Peter’s homeless women, men and children, to celebrate a Mass, and to better witness our day to day efforts on behalf of the corporal and spiritual works of mercy.

Lastly, he addressed the priests and bishops who must carry out this work of “pastoral conversion,” with greater emphasis on scripture with the creation of a “Bible Sunday,” and more effective preaching.

By coincidence on this Sunday, the Second Sunday of Advent, and in light of the gospel of John the Baptist, in many Protestant congregations in both the United States and Great Britain, this is considered “Bible Sunday.”

Here the pope gives some of his own ideas about the vital importance of preaching, based on listening to genuine concerns of people with “eye to eye” contact when giving a sermon.

Lastly, with a more fervent and renewed expression of the Sacrament of Confession, Francis is recommending a “24-hours with the Lord,” on the 4th Sunday of Lent.

To put this in perspective, and there are many things that we know about Pope Francis, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the one word to describe him, he is an “activist!”

I should note that the Holy Father turns 80 years of age on December 17th.

“Welcome one another, then, as Christ welcomed you, for the glory of God.” Romans 15:4-9.

lawton_man_of_sorrows

“Man of Sorrows: Christ with AIDS,” (1993) by artist Maxwell Lawton (1956-2006) marks the World AIDS Day on December 1st. Our welcome, care and tenderness extends to the millions of women, men and children who suffer from this disease world-wide. For a thoughtful essay, read Dr. Arthur J. Amman’s commentary posted on the “Journey with Jesus” web magazine.http://www.journeywithjesus.net/lectionary-essays/current-essay?id=1192

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