Wednesday, February 04, 2015

Disability Retirement

As of February 1st, my status with The Church Pension Fund is "Disability Retirement."  I am grateful to everyone who helped make this happen.  It took a village.  I have been granted two years before a re-evaluation.  During the second of these years I may "work" a minimum amount, and a may return to work after the two years, either fully or partially.

In some places I have been using the term "Medical Retirement."  I chafe at the label "disabled."  Its use is hierarchical and, ultimately, judgmental.  It is part of the cultural worship of productivity being the primary measure of one's worthwhile existence.

I am going to use the coming Lenten season to shape my life with God's help.  First and foremost in seeking to just be, being honest about the ways in which my being is a source of constant struggle and temptation and, therefore, in need of healing.  I will look for some volunteer work to do that has nothing to do with the church, in fact I will have nothing to do with the church save being a Sunday communicant.

The challenge in all of this will be, as much as possible, to integrate my bipolar disorder into my life.  This will not be, I believe, giving in to it, i.e., giving it control over my life.  It is, however, a part of my life that will never go away.  I am weary of fighting it, including having to call forth the extraordinary energy required to mask it publicly.  That is what finally broke me last year, when I could not summon forth the public persona anymore.

It promises to be an interesting journey of much trial and error, with God's help, and that of my family and friends.

Monday, January 26, 2015

The Different Path

Sermon preached on the 3rd Sunday after The Epiphany, January 25, 2015, at St. Michael's Church, Geneseo:  Mark 1:14-20

          Last week I spoke of the simple invitation that is ours to make to the world: Come and see.  I argued that this simple statement is the essence of what we mean when we use the word “evangelism.”  It is the free invitation to explore beginning a different path on the journey. 

          Today we have the equally simple invitation of Jesus to all of us:  Follow me.  And “immediately,” Mark the Gospel writer says, Simon Peter and Andrew drop their nets and follow, and soon after, “immediately” again, John and James did the same.  Jesus offered these fishermen a different path.

          What is this different path?  From this text the path is described by Jesus in this way:

The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news.

          Something is up.  Something good and something new.  We are on the verge of it; it is happening now.  Our response is to “repent and believe.”  Apparently this is the path and these are the actions we must take to heed Jesus’ words, “Follow me.”

          The words “repent” and “believe” have both become encrusted with layers of theological muck.  They have become words of threat, control, and power over others.  “You need to repent and believe the way I believe.”  But this is not their gospel meaning at all.  In fact, correctly understood they are transformational and inspirational words.  The Greek word translated “repent” is metanoia, and it means change your mind, turn around, look at and see something different, open yourself to something outside yourself.  Likewise, our word “believe,” in Latin is credo, from which we get the word creed.  I sounds like a “here’s the program, get with it” kind of word, but it is actually a journey word.  The Latin root of credo is the same as cardia, “heart.”  Credo literally means “I set my heart upon,” or “my heart desires.”

          So what Jesus is saying is something like this:  pay attention to the path you are on and open yourself to a new path.  Find your heart’s true desire, what you seek, what you long for, and let it be your guide.

          And one more thing, implicit in this text:  this path can only be taken with others.  There is no solo journey to the kingdom of God.

          The dynamic we are talking about here is another word that tends to make Episcopalians anxious:  conversion.  It is another word that needs to be broken open and un-encrusted.  Its root is Latin also, convertere, literally “to come together,” used mainly in the sense of “to turn around” or “to transform.”  Its use in Latin is very similar to the Greek word metanoia.  What this tells us is that conversion happens when things come together for us in such a way that they catch us up, transform us, change us.

          Repentance, belief, conversion; all of these words are journey words.  They are not ends in themselves, but signposts along the way.  They happen not in a moment, but throughout a lifetime.

          There is a most likely apocryphal story about a Church of England Bishop who was stopped by a street preacher in London who asked him, “Sir, are you saved.”  His response:  “Young man I have been saved, I am being saved, and I will be saved.”

          It is a good answer.  Salvation for us is not a moment in time but the journey of a lifetime.  It might very well involve significant moments, but those moments are of small importance unless they transform us for the long run.

          So Jesus calls us like he called fishermen to a journey that may very well require us to change our minds, see things differently, understand and act on our longings and our gifts to add to the journey we are all taking by virtue of our baptism to life in the kingdom of God.

          Jesus offers these four disciples a metaphor tied to their own lives that might help them to live into his call to them.  “I will make you fish for people.”  He gives another metaphor near the end of his Gospel, one that has proven over time a means of grace and transformation.  “Take, eat: this is my Body.  Drink, this is my Blood.”

          Jesus says, receive these very ordinary things and experience my extraordinary love, and then go and do likewise to the world.  Be sacrament in the world.

          We have had a very short time together, shorter than I and perhaps many of you would have wished.  But this has been a moment of conversion, when my life and yours met at a particular moment in time and, by the grace of God, we are in a different place, farther along the path, then when we met.  And all by the grace of God, not necessarily our intention.

          I sense that my gift to you has been a glimpse of what priestly ministry can be, and perhaps what you need it to be in this time and place.  I don’t take the credit for that.  God made it happen.

          And you have given this priest a settling of my spirit, a time when I could live in the moment and pay close attention to the longings of my own heart.  Ironically, the support and love of this community has given me the courage to do what I need to do, and, indeed, what I believe God is inviting me to do and be.  After 25 years of fairly intense ministry, while at the same time trying to manage a mental illness, and reaching a profound breaking point, it is crystal clear to me that I must follow Jesus by letting go, at least for a time.

          It is counterintuitive, but it is my experience that a true call from God for any of us is often just that.  It was not what was expected.  But it was at the same time what made sense.

          Remember this as you call a new rector and begin ministry with her or him.  It is the way of God that what is unexpected is actually what makes sense.  I will remember this as well as my journey continues.  It is what Jesus means when he says to each and every one of us, Follow me.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

25th Ordination Anniversary

Saturday, January 10, 2015 was the 25th Anniversary of my ordination to the priesthood.  I was ordained by The Rt. Rev. Ronald Haines, then Bishop of Washington, on behalf of the Diocese of Chicago, at St. James' Church, Washington, DC.  Dr. Verna Dozier was the preacher.

We had a great celebration of these 25 years last Saturday at St. Michael's, Geneseo, with Bishop Prince Singh presiding and our dear friend, The Rev. Canon Susan Russell preaching.

Here's a link to pictures taken by the diocesan Communications Missioner, Matthew Townsend:  25th Anniversary Photos.

And here's a link to a video/audio of Susan's sermon:  25th Anniversary Sermon

Thanks be to God for 25 years.  Susan is right, they have been costly, but they have also been grace.

Sunday, January 04, 2015

The Encounter with God

Sermon preached on the Second Sunday after Christmas, January 4, 2015 at St. Michael's Church, Geneseo.  Readings for The Epiphany:  Isaiah 60:1-6, Ephesians 3:1-12, Matthew 2:1-12

          Right before Christmas I got into a conversation with some folks in a Facebook group of which I am a part.  Someone raised the question about belief in God and a lively debate ensued.  The consensus was that nothing should be believed that cannot be scientifically proven.  I suggested that faith and science were not opposites but friends.  The moderator for the day immediately shut down the conversation and went so far as to remove the thread from the list.

          One person messaged me privately and said she would so like to have faith.  She could see how it could be helpful in her situation and she was sure it brought great comfort to me, but couldn’t I offer just a little proof.

          I don’t have proof, I said.  I only have my experience.  She didn’t reply.

          In many ways what we celebrate in this time we call “Epiphany” is the mystery of our experience of God.  One of the fundamentals for us is that this experience is open to everyone.  That is what the prophet Isaiah was pointing toward as the people were re-building Jerusalem after returning from the exile in Babylon.  It is what Paul is talking about in the reading from Ephesians today.  And the Gospel story of the visit of the magi to the child Jesus is a story meant to show us, among other things, this great truth.  The encounter with God is open to everyone.

          I happened on the word “encounter” to describe our experience of God in a collection of the written and spoken words of Pope Francis during the first year of his time as pope.  He speaks in a homily of our calling to “promote the culture of encounter.”  It seems to me he is speaking of the value of “epiphany.”

          Francis speaks of the “culture of encounter” as being in opposition to the dominant “culture of exclusion or rejection,” which is fueled by the social values of “efficiency and pragmatism.”[1]  By this I think he means that in our world we have a tendency to throw away anything that is not a clear means to an end.  We live in a culture of disposable things, and inevitably this clouds are thinking about one another.  In the 1980’s we began talking about the “me generation.”

          It turns out it was not a generation, but an increasingly deeply held social value.  If you cannot be of use to me, I have no need of you.  Francis says,

Be courageous!...Have the courage to go against the tide of this culture of efficiency, this culture of waste.  Encountering and welcoming everyone, [building] solidarity…a word that is being hidden by this culture, as if it were a bad word—solidarity and fraternity: these are what make our society truly human.[2]

          This is exactly what is going on in the story of the magi, not only in the visit of these strange, foreign people to Bethlehem, but perhaps even more important, their choosing to leave “for their own country by another road.”  Going back to Herod was a choice they could have made.  They would not only have been received well, but rewarded handsomely.

          Yet their encounter with the child and his mother encouraged them (literally “gave them the courage”) to choose a different road, a different journey.  What was it about this encounter that gave them this courage?

          The story does not say.  It only says they gave the child gifts and paid him homage.  In other translations, they “worshipped him.”  The gifts they brought were true gifts, in that they seemed to have expected nothing in return.  And yet they did receive something, the thing that caused them to go home by another road.

          To “worship” someone or something is to give them worth.  Indeed the English word was originally “worthship,” the bestowing of worth.  I believe what happened in the magi’s encounter is what happens for us every Sunday.  We come to worship God and, if we allow ourselves the epiphany, we discover that God returns the favor.  We give worth to God and God gives worth to us.  And we only truly experience this when we recognize and set aside our tendency to make it about me, and discover that our true worth is in our solidarity with one another, a solidarity that must grow, unceasingly breaking down barriers set up when we act as if some people are worth more than others.

          That would have been the road back to Jerusalem and to Herod.  But the magi had come to do homage to a king and experienced in doing so that he returned the favor, and that experience gave them the courage to choose a different way home.

          Pope Francis, it seems, is trying to change the culture of the church, from a culture of exclusion to a culture of inclusion.  We Episcopalians have also been experiencing that change and it is a painful one.  We have experienced that walking the path with God is as challenging as it is comforting.

          The church as a whole has acted like an exclusive club for so long that my Facebook acquaintances, and much of the world around us, only have that lens to understand what it is we are about.  I despair sometimes that the radical solidarity that is the true Gospel, will ever be able to be heard above the noise of the culture of exclusion alive and well in both the church and the world.

          Yet we are invited over and over again to walk the different way and let us continue to do so with determination and, whenever we have a chance, invite people to experience this different road.  Come and experience the God the magi encountered in Bethlehem, who gave them much more worth than they could ever give him.

[1] The Church of Mercy: A Vision of the Church, compiled by Giuliano Vigini (Chicago: Loyola Press, 2014), pp. 58-61.
[2] Ibid., p. 61.  The bracketed text is in the original translation.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

An Upside Down World in Partnership with God

Sermon preached on the First Sunday after Christmas at St. Michael's Church, Geneseo, New York, a Service of Lessons and Carols using Luke 1:5--2:52

I'm willing to bet that, for almost all of you, this is the first time you have heard the whole of the birth stories of John the Baptist and Jesus read in one sitting.

It is an extraordinary tale of visitations by angels and miraculous births, of daring dreams proclaimed has having come true, and of the Holy Spirit, in the words of another Gospel writer, John, like the wind, blowing wherever it wills.

In reading the Gospels it is important to remember that they were written, as it were, “backwards.”  They are not the result of dictation by someone who followed Jesus around, rather they are interpretation of Jesus’ life and death looking back from a post-Easter perspective. Each looks back, moreover, from a different reference point.

It is one reason why the birth stories in Luke and Matthew are so different.  Matthew looks back to Jesus birth with the reference point of Good Friday.  This child was the child born to die for the salvation of the whole world. Some have called Matthew’s birth, which we will hear next Sunday, the “dark side” of Christmas.

Luke has an entirely different reference point for looking back.  It is Pentecost, the experience of the Holy Spirit as the gift poured out on all flesh, the Spirit that creates a community of followers of the way of Jesus who become known as “those people who turn the world upside down” (Acts 17:6).

Here, at the beginning of his tale, Luke has already begun this theme.  As the Holy Spirit touches the lives of people in this story—Elizabeth, Zechariah, Mary, Simeon—their world is upended.  Nothing is left the way it was, nor ever will be again.

Perhaps the pivotal line in the whole story is uttered by the angel Gabriel to Mary, while sending her to her cousin Elizabeth, for a meeting of two extraordinary women who for all generations will testify to the world that "nothing will be impossible with God."

There is something very important in those words, something that hinges on the English word "with," which in Greek is the preposition παρα (para).  In Greek para is the preposition indicating “alongside of,” or “beside.”  So Gabriel does not say "nothing will be impossible for God," but, "nothing will be impossible with God or, literally, “alongside of" God.

It is tempting to hear these stories about the intervention of God in these folks’ lives and understand them to be examples of the kinds of things that can happen when God takes over a situation, does things "for," or even "to" people.

In one sense this is precisely the God we long for, the God who can do something “for” or “to” us, when we ask him to do so. We do not necessarily want the kind of uninvited visitations Zechariah and Mary receive, and the giving of new burdens or responsibilities they bring.

In his storytelling, Luke wants us to make it clear that this is not the kind of God we get.  We get the God of unexpected visitation.  God keeps his own calendar and plays it as close to his chest as the best card shark.

The unexpected visitation, however, is not for the purpose of doing something “to” us or “for” us.  It is for the purpose of doing something “with" us, alongside us.  So strong is this sense of “with” that these stories more than hint that in order to act in these situations God needs the cooperation of the human characters.

God needs Mary, needs her cooperation, needs from her something he does not have—human flesh and human freedom, the freedom to participate or not, to love or not, to hope or not.

The world often seems to us that it is in such a mess that only God can save it.  Well, no, actually, Luke says in these stories.  The world is in such a mess that only God and humanity, the Creator and the creature, can save it together, by their companionship in faith, hope, and love.

It is this very cooperation, participation, companionship that God wishes with us, for we are not fundamentally different from the characters in these stories nor is the desire of God for us any different than it was for them.  The desire is for a partnership of grace, that can bring new things out of old, change the world, raise us up to sing Mary's song about herself and her world about ourselves and our world.

From this day all generations will call me blessed.  The Almighty has done great things for me.  He has scattered the proud and lifted up the lowly.

What does this mean in our lives today? How does it begin, this working “alongside of” God?

One thing that gets said over and over again in these stories by the visiting angels is, "Do not be afraid."  The interior conversation that goes on in each of the characters does not get directly recorded, but in each one it involves a choice.  Shall I respond with fear or not?

Zechariah chooses fear.  We can identify with that, can't we?  He is muted, which is not so much a punishment as it is the natural result of his fear.  It is what happens to us as well, is it not, when we choose to be anxious and afraid?  Does not our anxiety and fear often cause to say “no” to love?

And Zechariah's tongue is loosed when he dares to cooperate with God.  He writes, “His name is John.”  That represents his conscious choice to be God’s partner in a new endeavor, upending the world of his privilege and his credentials, his ancestry, the letting loose of a new power in his life and in the world.

This is one important thing that the Christmas message is all about—a new partnership formed between us and God, the result of which is the fulfillment of the message of the angels:  Glory for God, peace for us.

Peace is impossible for us to bring about on our own, either in our own hearts or in our world.  If it were possible we would have done it long ago.  Likewise, peace is impossible for God to bring about on God's own, again, either in our own hearts or in our world.  If it were possible for God to do alone, he would have done it long ago.

Peace in our own hearts and in our world is only possible with God, in the partnership of our saying “no” to fear and “yes” to hope and a new, different possibility and allowing God the Holy Spirit to bring to birth in us our own salvation, as she did in Elizabeth and Mary long ago.

How do we begin?  It is in our daily lives as simple as heeding the words from a favorite Christmas carol.

O hush the noise, and cease your strife, and hear the angels sing.[1]

Listen.  Hear the angels calling us to be God’s partners in the fulfillment of the good creation.  For nothing will be impossible in partnership with God, a partnership orchestrated by the Holy Spirit.

[1] From “It came upon a midnight clear,” words by Edmund H. Sears (1810-1876).  Found in The Hymnal 1982 at # 89 and #90.

Friday, December 26, 2014

A New Song about a True Light

Sermon preached on Christmas morning at St. Michael's Church, Geneseo, New York:  Isaiah 52:7-10; Psalm 98; Hebrews 1:1-4; John 1:1-14

            I love all three celebrations of Christmas Eve and Christmas Day:  the chaotic and even raucous service in the early evening reminds me of what Jesus once said, to look for the Kingdom of God with the eyes of a child;  the more solemnly joyful late Service makes me believe again that peace on earth is possible.

            But then this morning, to which I look forward just as much as the others.  The quiet and the smallness remind me that God did not come into the world in a big shout, except to a few lowly shepherds.  The only witness to his birth his parents and the animals with them in the barn.

            We get two very important images this morning to help us carry Christmas into the world.  We get a new song about a true light.

            The prophet Isaiah has good news for us, an announcement of peace that calls us to break forth into singing not because all is right with the world, but because “Your God reigns!”

            The psalmist calls this a new song.  Sing a new song to the Lord, the one who has done wonderful things.  Sing of God’s victory, but a strange victory, the victory of remembrance.  God has remembered his ḫesed, his steadfast love, news that is so good the whole earth is invited to join.

            Then we get something a bit more cerebral from the Letter to the Hebrews, trying to wrap words around the immensity of what has happened.

He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word.

            John then tells of this word, with God from beginning, the word of creation, the word that is also the light that shines in the darkness, and which the darkness cannot overcome.

            In short we get a word of good news, that comes to us as a song and as light in our darkness.  And this is greater than any gift we may have received or will receive this Christmas.

            We are here—remnant though we are—to be like John the Baptist, to “testify to the light,” “the true light, that enlightens everyone.”

            That little word “true” is so important in John’s Gospel, as important as the image of “light” itself.  This true light that shines in the darkness is for everyone, that is what makes it true.  “False light” for John is anything that tries to shine for just a few, the special, the insiders, the powerful, whether their power be secular or “spiritual.”  The true light is for everyone just as the Word became flesh and lived not among the few, but among, simply, “us.”

            This is the powerful word that we celebrate this morning, the powerful word that forms a new song, the true light that is true because it is universal, the light that was the word that lived in the world.

            It is amazing to think about it, that all this is summed up in the greeting of this day, “Merry Christmas.”  Happy light, joyous new song, beautiful feet, good news, powerful word, living-among-us flesh.  It’s all there, and it is all here.  May God gives us the courage, the patience and the wisdom to sing this new song and know this true light day by day, because the song and the light are not just for today, but always.

Grace that Dawns Upon US

Sermon preached at the late Christmas Eve Service at St. Michael's Church, Geneseo, New York:  Titus 2:11-14, Luke 2:1-20.

          Every Advent, I dig out a letter I received from my then bishop right after Christmas 1983. More than anything else, this letter reminds me what Christmas means and grounds my faith in this busy time.

          The bishop’s letter was a reply to a rather long-winded and, frankly, whiney Ember Day letter I had written him before Christmas.  It had been a difficult fall.  I had wanted to begin seminary that fall, but he, my bishop, had insisted I work for a year.  I ended up working in my hometown, and living with my great-grandmother.  I felt like I was spinning my wheels.

          My relationship with my family wasn’t good at that point in time.  My sister had just gotten pregnant and had eloped.  I was tutoring a teenager with hemophilia who was having a rough time of it.  I was not a happy camper.  I poured it all out.  I marvel when I re-read that letter that my bishop didn’t prescribe a few more years of growing up.

          But Bishop Wilbur Hogg (yes, that was his real name) wrote me wise words.

Your weeks before Christmas have for you indeed been full of blows and shocks, and these events are not respecters of our own times and conveniences.  We are never waiting as one issue at a time is settled.  Events are continually keeping us off center, and keeping us on the go.  Even in Bethlehem the only stationary actor is the innkeeper.  The shepherds come in from the fields, the wise men travel from the eastern mountains, and even the holy family must pick up and travel to Egypt because of the paranoid jealousy of Herod.  In the middle of all this activity a baby is born in a cowshed and God visits his world.  The mix-up is apparently the atmosphere in which, at least in this world, God works.

It was the first time I understood, as I said last Sunday, that the good news is not only that the light shines in the darkness and the darkness does not overcome it.  It is also true that the light shines in the darkness, but does not simply get rid of it.  What the light does in the darkness is help us to see, to be honest about what waits in the dark for us, confess our fear of it, but then face it with courage and hope.

          No one ever preaches on Christmas Eve on the reading from Paul’s Letter to Titus.  Most preachers look on it as an annoyance more than anything else.  I certainly thought so, until I read the passage in the translation called the New English Bible and its successor the Revised English Bible.  You just heard it in our usual translation.

For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all.

          Ho, hum.  But listen to the words translated a different (but perfectly legitimate) way.

For the grace of God has dawned upon the world with healing for all humankind.

How often does the grace of God–God’s way of unconditional love–dawn upon us as a surprise, as the suddenly discovered way forward through the darkness.  It isn’t as if it wasn’t there all the time–it surely was.  But we so often feel overwhelmed by the darkness, by the confusion or busy-ness or pain or guilt of it that we miss it. We keep trying to figure our own way through some problem or mess, but, again as I said last Sunday, we cannot make the light for ourselves.  We must receive it.

The grace of God dawns upon us and begins, at least, to light the darkness.  This grace is a revelation, usually, that we are loved in spite of the darkness, and that others are as well, and so the way forward is forgiveness or reconciliation with ourselves or one another.  Or suddenly we can see our bondage to something or someone that is controlling our lives, and the grace of God–which is our liberty as a child of God–enables us to break free.

Either of these experiences–or any other experience of the grace of God–brings healing.  The word “healing” here is meant in its broadest, most holistic, and Christian sense.  We find our wholeness, our balance, the integration of all the parts of our lives–even in a world that leads us often into fragmentation, keeps us off balance, unsure of ourselves, and fearful.

These thoughts are what Paul is trying to get across in the rest of that bit of his letter to Titus we heard.  It’s full of religious code words so we might easily turn it off–talk of “godliness,” of “renouncing worldly desires,” and “exercising temperance.”  Paul is talking about the kind of balanced wholeness each one of us longs for, but is a struggle to find in this world.  Paul is talking about his–and God’s–desire for our freedom from all that keeps us from our wholeness.

Now what has this to do with Christmas? In a word, everything. For we Christian folk, the birth of Jesus is “the grace of God dawning on the world for the healing of all humankind.” Why is this so?

Because it is such a radical, revolutionary, revelation of God.  God coming among us not in strength and triumph, but in weakness and vulnerability.  Messiah, Savior, Healer, revealed to us not as adonai–Lord over us–but as emmanuel–God with us.

“This shall be the sign,” the angels tell the shepherds.  “This will be the sign that the Messiah has come.”  Go not to Jerusalem but to Bethlehem.  Look not for a king but for a baby.  Look not for a baby clothed in royalty in a palace, but in strips of old cloth in a feeding trough in a barn.

Amazing.  Truly, absolutely, astounding.  Even if the prophets had hinted that the Messiah would be somewhat different than people expected–no one expected this.  No one expected God to visit his people in the mix-up and mess of life.

It is grace that dawns upon us–unexpected and surprising, though there all along.  And it heals precisely because of its unexpectedness and its surprise.  It heals because it is not our own doing.  It draws us out of ourselves, makes us more than we ever thought we could be, and gives us things for which we never asked.

And this experience–and here it is where what we Christians call the “good news” explodes across the sky like a multitude of heavenly hosts–this experience is for absolutely everybody.  It is not just for the powerful or the successful, or those who have some secret knowledge about life or about God, or those who seem in this life to get everything right, who seem to “have it all together.”

For the grace of God has dawned upon the world with healing for all humankind.

There was no reason for Paul to insert the word “all” into that sentence except to effect this very explosion.  Nobody gets left out of this experience of dawning grace–of the light that cannot be earned but only received–the love that seeks not to bind but to free–that seeks not to separate but to integrate–that makes for healing in our lives.

Pray, my sisters and brothers, for a dawning of grace this night–of the life-transforming experience that in this babe of Bethlehem we are loved no matter what, and can claim our freedom as his sisters and brothers–children of God with him.

Let the air explode with angels of good news.  Glory to God.  Peace–healing–on earth for absolutely everybody and in every mixed-up circumstance you or me can imagine.  Let us make haste to this glory and this peace.

I leave you with a quote from Bishop Charles Henry Brent, the Bishop of Western New York, our bishop, from 1917 to 1929.  He could not have imagined the technology at our fingertips, but this quote is still right on the money:

Modern life is fine in many of its aspects; it is diligent in its labors, honest in its investigations, courageous in its enterprises.  But it lacks one needful thing.  It is too reasoned, and not sufficiently spiced with the recklessness of those whose idealism is a controlling force that sends them to the Bethlehem manger with the racing feet of Christmas haste.[1]

[1] From the sermon “Christmas Haste,” a portion of which is excerpted in Love Came Down: Anglican readings for Advent and Christmas, compiled by Christopher L. Webber (Harrisburg: Morehouse, 2002), pp. 75-76.

Take the Word and the Light with You

Sermon preached at the early Christmas Eve Service, December 24, 2014, at St. Michael's Church, Geneseo.

          Contemplating this Service and watching it come together over the past few weeks, I was reminded by a quote from one of my favorite writers, Annie Dillard,

On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.[1]
          I think Annie would enjoy this service, not only because crash helmets might indeed have proven to be useful, but because she would observe that we are having a lot of fun, but, whether they intended to or not, our young people have brought out the dangerous side of Christmas.
          In trying to give us the perspective of all four of the Gospel writers (or, at least, their mothers), they have pushed us beyond the sentimentality of a familiar story.  They have pushed us beyond concerns about how the story is told, or who tells it.  They have pushed us into “why?”  And “why” is the dangerous question to ask this night.  It is dangerous enough that all four gospels end up in this place, albeit by very different roads.  The child was born, the Son of God came to live among us, in order to change our lives.
          Our young people were quite right, it is helpful to think about the entirety of this thing we call the incarnation by using the Gospel writer John’s images of Jesus as the Word which has been with God from the very beginning, and Jesus as the Light that ever shines in the darkness.
          It is possible to dismiss the Christmas story that seems to want to act like history, but it is impossible get the Word and the Light and not be different.
          If Jesus was the word with God from the very beginning, what was that word?  What are the first words God speaks in the Bible?  “Let there be….?” Which makes something, and then God says, “Good,” (Tov) when it has been made. “Let there be…good!”
          If those words are going to shape your life, you will never look at the world God has made the same.  And is not that word so vitally important right now?  Do we not have a responsibility to treat the world as the precious gift it is?  And given that we human creatures are part of this world, and a part over which God said in the beginning, “Very good,” there are consequences.  We are not responsible for choosing up sides in the latest political or social debate, but for finding new ways to do justice, love kindness, and day by day walk humbly with God?
          And if those dangerous messages get to you, can you carry the light with Jesus into a darkened world?  Blow your candle out after we have sung silent night, but do not dare to let the flame that this night lights inside of you die.
          The world needs good words and true lights these days, as much as it ever has.  It needs these things so bad that I beg you not to leave this place tonight without taking the word and the light with you.  I cannot promise you the world will change dramatically if you do carry them, but I can promise you that if you don’t, it is just going to be more of the same.  We owe it to our young people not to let that happen, and we might even let them speak and light the way.  Why not?  A child once did and still does.

[1] Annie Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk (Harper & Row, 1982),pp. 40-41.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Not if, but Nevertheless

Sermon preached at St. Michael's Church, Geneseo, New York on the Fourth Sunday of Advent:  2 Samuel 7:1-11, 15-16; Luke 1:26-38

          One secular song has done more damage to the message of Christmas than any other.  It was first heard on Eddie Cantor’s radio show in November 1934, 80 years ago. It became an instant hit.

You better watch out, you better not cry,
you better not pout, I’m telling you why:
Santa Claus is coming to town.

He sees you when you’re sleeping, he knows when you’re awake,
          He knows if you’ve been bad or good,
          So be good for goodness’ sake.

He knows if you’ve been bad or good.  The message is that Santa will judge you based on that if.  In the popular imagination that if has long been attached to the Biblical story. If you are good, if you obey God, if you give your life to God, you will receive God’s blessing. You will prosper in this life and at the great day of judgment, you will be found worthy to be with God for ever.

          I won’t deny that the if version of the biblical story can be found in the Bible in plenty of places, but it is not the end of the story. Santa Claus is coming to town did not create the if, of course, but it did attach it firmly to Christmas. Yet the true message of Christmas has nothing to do with this “if.”

We have two stories this morning that are major moments in the biblical story where the threatening “if” of God changes.  And the change described in these stories defines what we Christians call “the Gospel”–the good news.

The passage from the second book of Samuel we just heard may seem to be an odd choice for this Fourth Sunday in Advent. It is easily overshadowed by the dramatic story of Mary and the archangel Gabriel.

Yet this Samuel passage is certainly a keystone in the David story, if not in the whole of the Old Testament.

At this point in the story of King David, he has solidified his power in Israel, legitimated his throne, and begun the building of his capital in Jerusalem.  Part of his legitimation agenda has been to take control of the ark of the covenant–the great symbol of God’s presence with Israel–and settle it in Jerusalem.

Having secured the ark, David now desires to build a temple to house it.  Nathan, the great prophet of David’s reign, responds favorably to his desire and gives him a quick building permit, if you will.

But what had seemed so obviously right to Nathan proves to have been wrong.  God speaks to Nathan and withdraws the permit in no uncertain terms.  “I have not asked for a house,” God says, “nor do I want one.”

Then there is a great play on words in the text, after God reminds David of their history together.

Moreover the Lord declares to you that the Lord will make you a house.

We have shifted from “house” as “dwelling” to “house” as “dynasty.”  And verse 16 goes on to say

Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure for ever before me; your throne shall be established for ever.

In a flash, the dynamics of relationship with God have changed.  Here in the text is the first expression of what will become known as God’s ḫesed, God’s steadfast, unchanging, even relentless, love.

God makes an unconditional promise to David.  Saul, David’s predecessor lost God’s love because of his disobedience.  David, God declares, will never lose God’s love, but more than that. God’s ḫesed shall remain with David’s line for ever.

To this point in the biblical story, the covenant between God and Israel could best be described by the simple word if. The faith of Moses was that God’s good inclinations toward Israel depended upon Israel’s obedience.  It had been this if that had destroyed Saul.[1]

David and his descendants will no longer contend with this if.  That is not to say that it disappears, that God no longer has any requirements of God’s people, but the if will never be the last word.  The last word has changed to but.  In verse 15, which the lectionary inexplicably skips, God says

But I will not take my steadfast love from David, as I took it from Saul. (Verse 15)

Walter Brueggemann translates the but at the beginning of that sentence as nevertheless.  I like that because it makes clear that God is saying “no matter what.”  Here is a proclamation of what we call grace, the good news of God’s steadfast love in spite of all that separates us from God, both of our own doing and of others.  Put simply, “You are a mess, nevertheless I will always love you.”

Now to the visit of Gabriel to Mary, where this nevertheless takes on even greater dimensions.  In this story God finally has chosen a home, a place to dwell. In the story of the Annunciation, God declares through Gabriel that he will take up a dwelling of his own choosing, among humankind, beginning, as humankind begins, in a woman’s womb.

God chooses to take up a dwelling in Mary, about whom we are told nothing, except that she has found favor with God.  Our human minds instantly create reasons why she must have been so favored.  But the text is silent, and that fact alone unleashes a torrent of good news.

Why is the silence important?  In almost every other instance in the biblical story, when God chooses someone for some special task, we are told specifically that they were in some way “righteous” people.

Even just prior to this story of annunciation in the parallel story of the annunciation to Elizabeth, Mary’s cousin, of the birth of John the Baptist, we are told of Elizabeth and her husband Zechariah

Both of them were righteous before God, living blamelessly... (Luke 1:6)

Luke is a master storyteller.  Details are important to him.  It is no accident that he tells us nothing of Mary’s background.  She found favor with God, that is all.  “Why?” is left to mystery.

By this time King David’s line had been reduced to nothing.  There hadn’t been a king of David’s line for centuries.  The old promise had seemed to have been in vain. But the Annunciation to Mary–herself powerless, status-less, which is the real significance of her virginity–delivers the astounding good news that God’s love is disconnected utterly from human notions of power and status.

Mary says to Gabriel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” or, in some translations, “How can this be, since I know not a man?”  On the obvious level this question has to do with the simple fact that she has not had the sexual intercourse necessary to conceive a child, but on a deeper level this means, “How can God make something out of nothing?”  How can God make power out of weakness?

The answer to that question will not only be the story of Mary, but the story of Jesus himself, and the story of all his followers through the centuries.  It is our story.

How can something be made out of nothing?  How can God make love out of a mess?  How can the holy God, the creator of the Universe, whose very name defines freedom, live among humankind, choose, even, to live within them?

Is it possible that you and I will appear before God one day and there will be a great book with the whole truth of our lives written in it and we will tremble at its very opening because we know the truth revealed therein is a very mixed bag at best?

Is it possible that we will hear the words of our lives and fall before the great if of God’s judgment?

Is it possible that then we will hear, “Nevertheless, you have found favor with God.”

Is it possible then that we can, like Mary, squeak out a “yes” even though we can’t imagine why it is true.  Be it to me according to your word.  And the word is grace.  And the word is love.  For us.  Nevertheless.

We serve a God who can make something out of nothing, a God who changes his mind, a God who can wring love out of judgment.  That ought to be enough to send us into a life of utter gratitude and joy, nevertheless.

And that is what Christmas means.  Not if but nevertheless.

[1]I’m following the line of reasoning here of Walter Brueggemann, First and Second Samuel (Louisville: John Knox, 1990), p. 257.