Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Christmas Day 2012: Purity like Mary's

Lectionary: Isaiah 9:2-7, Psalm 96,Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1-14(15-20)

Today's sermon was extemporaneous and is available in audio form only.

Merry Christmas!

Christmas Eve Midnight Mass 2012: We are the sign

Lectionary: Isaiah 9:2-7, Psalm 96,Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1-14(15-20)

We gather on this great and holy night to joyfully receive the gift of our Redeemer,
to collectively behold him with sure confidence of his love for us and his purpose for our lives. Having prepared ourselves during Advent for this moment, we stand together now ready to be reborn with him, as daughters and sons of God.

It is truly a joyful moment - for us and for the whole world. The reason is, we are not passive observers in the story of Christmas or in the continuing plan of redemption. We are active participants.

We aren’t here tonight simply to recount the first chapter of the greatest story ever told. We’re here to live it again.

Each of us is alive in this moment of time, having been sent by God to participate in making manifest the will of God on earth so that everyone will come to know the Good News of salvation in Jesus Christ. Each of us has our part to play, our obedience to give, and our shame to bear as we live into our purpose.

Luke’s gospel narrative demonstrates this for us in Mary, Joseph, and the shepherds. They show us how doing our part requires us to trust God’s love, promises, and the plan of salvation knowing that the working out of that plan unfolds over time.

Luke begins the story of Jesus’ birth with a discussion of the Roman census, which was a means of establishing an accurate tax base. The Roman government wasn’t concerned about justice or fairness, and there was no doctor’s note to get you out of going to register. It also didn’t matter to the Roman government whether the rich and the poor Jews were being taxed fairly or giving proportionately. It only mattered that money came in to support the Roman governors.

Being a righteous man, Joseph, who was a descendant of the great King David, could have said, ‘No, I won’t go register. I won’t participate in this unfair, earthly institution which will feed the monster Roman government that occupies our land. And I won’t submit myself to the public shame Mary’s condition will bring to me.’ He could have said that, but he didn’t.

Instead, he took his pregnant girlfriend 90 miles to Bethlehem to register as he was required to do. By doing so, Joseph publicly and legally claimed Jesus as his son, legitimating him and Mary according to earthly institutions.

Joseph’s journey also fulfilled the prophesy that the Messiah would be born of the house of David (which his adoption of Jesus made official) and in the city of David - Bethlehem. By giving his trust and obedience to God, Joseph participated with God in bringing about the will of God on the earth.

Mary also had her part to play, her obedience to give and her shame to bear. Coming up pregnant prior to her marriage to Joseph, Mary could have been stoned to death for adultery. She could have said, ‘No’ to the public shaming her pregnancy would bring her - but she didn’t. She told the angel Gabriel that she would do whatever God asked of her. By giving not only her ‘Yes,’ but her body and her life to God, Mary participated with God in bringing about the will of God on the earth.

As the plan unfolded for Mary and Joseph, it brought one degradation after another, culminating on this night with their inability to find a decent place to lodge. We traditionally translate this problem as “no room at the inn” but a better translation is: “no room in the guest quarters.” (New Interpreter’s Study Bible, Abingdon Press, 1855.)

It may have been that there really was no room. The census would have brought lots of visitors to Bethlehem all at once. Given the shameful circumstance of Mary’s condition, however, it was more likely that Joseph’s family simply wouldn’t admit them into their homes and the only place made available to them was the space where the animals were kept. It would have been a serious insult to Mary and Joseph.

In the big picture, however, the Word became Incarnate to reconcile the whole world to God. Even his place of birth demonstrates that truth. The poor, the judged, and those excluded from civilized treatment on earth are given a place of honor in God’s plan of salvation.

Even the shepherds, the first to hear of the birth, were as lowly as the manger that held the infant Messiah. When heaven opened up and the glory of God shone on them, the shepherds were given their part to play.

The angel told the shepherds that the Messiah of God had been born in Bethlehem and there would be a sign for them there if they chose to go see it: a baby in a manger wrapped in swaddling cloth. The shepherds talked about it, then offered their collective obedience and went immediately to find this sign.

The shame they bore? They were dirty, smelly shepherds and they weren’t likely to be welcomed into the presence of, much less conversation with, “civilized” people.

That didn’t stop them, though. Despite the potential for rejection, the shepherds went to Bethlehem, found the baby, and made known what they had seen and been told – and everyone was amazed by what they said. By believing the good news of salvation announced by the angels, by seeking and finding the sign they were told about, and by speaking their truth despite the risk of rejection, the shepherds participated with God in bringing about the will of God on the earth.

But these events took place almost 2,000 years ago. What does it mean for us today? Why do we gather now to remember it?

In his book, “Jesus Today” Dominican priest, Albert Nolan, says: “On the whole, we don’t take Jesus very seriously… by and large we don’t love our enemies, we don’t turn the other cheek, we don’t forgive seventy times seven times, we don’t bless those who curse us, we don’t share what we have with the poor, and we don’t put all our hope and trust in God.” (Jesus Today, Orbis Books, xvii).

Why? Nolan suggests that many of us believe these to be great ideals, but that actually doing them “isn’t very practical in this day and age.”

Well, I think Mary and Joseph might have said the same thing in their day – the shepherds too. Following Jesus has never been practical. It isn’t supposed to be. Following Jesus is revolutionary!

And that is why we’re here today. The message is the same for us as it was for the shepherds. We are the ones being invited to not be afraid, to go see for ourselves the sign of God’s salvation in our world.

Where do we find such a sign in this day and time? Well, that’s simple. All we have to do is look inside and recognize that we ARE the sign. I share with you a prayer from St. John of the Cross to Emmanuel:

How gently and lovingly
You wake in my heart,
Where in secret you dwell alone;
And in your sweet breathing,
Filled with good and glory,
How tenderly You swell my heart with love. (From: “Living Flame of Love”)

We are the church – the body of Christ born again this night into the world. Our purpose is to do our part in the reconciling work of Christ.

We are the players in the Christmas story we live today, right now, in this place and time. We are all Mary, giving our “yes,” our bodies, our lives to God. We are all Joseph, giving our trust to God. And we are all the shepherds, collectively giving our obedience, seeking the presence of God in worship together, then proclaiming the truth we know to a world that aches to hear it.

“Joy to the world, the Lord is come. Let us joyfully receive our King.” Amen.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Advent 3, 2012: Breath and fire

Lectionary: Zephaniah 3:14-20; Canticle 9; Philippians 4:4-7; Luke 3:7-18

John the Baptist says: "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” Don’t think you’re home free just because Abraham is the head of your family tree. “Even now the ax is lying at the root of [those] trees; [and] every tree (that is every one of you) that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the… unquenchable fire.”

How’s that for Good News?

If we are to hear what’s good about this, we will have to listen with new ears and a dose of humility.

Let’s start with the basic message of what the Good News is: God promised to save the whole world and to reconcile us to God (which means to co-exist with God) that we might live eternally in the love and presence of God. That promise was fulfilled in Jesus Christ, the Messiah of God, who is the son of God and the son of Mary, and who lived, died, and rose again, thereby reconciling us to God. God in Christ, who was resurrected from the dead, then gave us the Holy Spirit, who is God, and who dwells in us, and called us to participate in the continuing work of redemption until he comes again.

Does that sound about right?

In our gospel story, John the Baptist, who was sent to prepare the way for the Messiah, is teaching those who have power, and privilege, and who understand salvation to be their right rather than God’s gift. John calls them to a baptism of repentance, urging them to change the way they live their lives, to get back on the path of righteousness (right relationship).

John makes this message concrete when the tax collectors, who were notorious for getting rich by exploiting the poor, ask him how they should repent. Be honest, John says. Take no more than is required. And when the soldiers, who were Mafioso type body guards and enforcers for the tax collectors, ask how they should change their ways, John instructs them to be humble, gentle, and honest in their work.

When one is lost, learning how to get back on the right path is Good News.

Using language familiar to his listeners, John explains that those who have strayed from the path of righteousness, including some from the family of Abraham, will be cut off at their roots and thrown into unquenchable fire.

Fire, as you remember, is symbolic language for God. John is describing a kind of spiritual do-over. The fire is unquenchable – just as God’s love and desire for our redemption is unrelenting. Being consumed by the fire of God’s love and purified in that love is a gift, and sometimes it’s the only way to change the course of one’s life.

The Good News here is that in God we can start over. The fire of God’s love will consume us, purify us, and make us new.

The listeners of this gospel story were people much like us. Most of them had enough to live comfortably. Some had more than enough. When they asked how they should repent, John answered them: "Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise."

This is Good News on so many levels.

First, it opens these people up to a world in which they are not the center of attention. Being the center of attention is a way of life that seems attractive but it is actually a trap and soon becomes an obsession. Look at our culture of celebrities.

Secondly, it connects them to others, building in them empathy, respect, and a willingness to enter into friendship with people they used to judge and avoid knowing.

Third, it frees these people from their attachment to things. It makes relationships their priority. John tells them to give ‘their stuff’ away, to be as generous with others as God has been with them.

Imagine also what Good News this is to the weak, the poor, the exploited, and the hopeless. They are the ones who will receive the coats that will be shared. They are the ones who will receive the food that is no longer being hoarded and held away from them.

They are also hearing the ones who have enough, the ones who have been exploiting and harassing them, being told to change their ways. If that happens, they know they will no longer be judged or blamed for their poverty, but lifted out of it.

This truly is Good News.

Finally, John acknowledges to the gathered crowd that he is not the Messiah. He is baptizing with water, but the Messiah, who will come after him, will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire – both words that refer to God.

Holy Spirit, which is translated from the Greek word,‘pneuma’ also means ‘wind’ or ‘breath.’ The Messiah will baptize with the breath of heaven – the very breath that gives life to all that is living and breathes new life into those who are dead.

The Messiah will also baptize with fire – which is the presence and passion of God. Sharing in the presence and passion of God means knowing that we are connected, to God and to one another, bound by the eternal love of God.

And that means we will no longer be able to separate ourselves into groups of ‘us’ and ‘them,’ or even us and God. We will live in the unity of the Love that is God.

Our awareness of our connectedness and unity with one another and with God will transform the world, and the will of God will be manifest on earth as it is in heaven. No one will have to tell us to be honest, or gentle, or humble in our dealings with one another. We will bear this fruit because we will know that
the root we truly spring from is God and we will share the character and nature of God who dwells in us.

Lives transformed by the Good News of our salvation – that is the call of our baptism as much now as it ever has been – as much as it was for the people John the Baptist was teaching… as much as it was for the people to whom Zephaniah was prophesying: “Rejoice… O daughter Jerusalem! … the LORD, is in your midst; you shall fear disaster no more.”

Rejoice. Be joyful. Hear the Good News of your salvation. There is no destruction to fear – only new life to embrace.

Let the fire consume you and be grateful it is unquenchable because it means that God never gives up on us. God always provides the chance for new life, purified life, life in the presence and passion of God.

When we truly trust God we don’t fear for our lives, we surrender them to God just like Mary and Jesus showed us how to do. Like Mary, we give up our expectations for what our lives might be and give ourselves fully to God whose plan is so much more than we can ask or imagine. And we trust as that plan is revealed to us over time.

Living in the truth of the Good News of salvation in Jesus Christ, we remember that resurrection is always God’s response to death. We know that if God calls us to die (literally or figuratively), it is so that heaven can breathe new life into us and into the whole world. So, we can offer ourselves to God, not out of fear, but anticipating joyfully the new life God is waiting to give us.

Muslim poet and Sufi mystic, Rumi, offers this prayer to God: “I have one drop of knowing in my soul. Let it dissolve in your ocean.”

As we enter our final week of Advent preparation, may we faithfully enter the unquenchable fire that purifies us and sets us free from all that divides us and distracts us from the truth of the Good News.

May we drown in the ocean of God where we find the peace that surpasses all understanding.

And may we trust in the bountiful grace and mercy of God to deliver us again and again from death into life. Amen.

Monday, December 10, 2012

The goal of Advent

A message from the rector (found in the December, 2012 newsletter)

Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. This is a familiar Advent theme, and it isn’t clear whether this refers to our personal end (our death) or our collective end (the end of the world as we know it). But it doesn’t matter. The point is, wake up! Don’t waste the gift of life by proceeding through it as if in a slumber. Get up! Open your eyes, breathe deeply, and get going. There is much to do in the ‘already but not yet’ world in which we live!

There are people suffering right here among us and around the world. There are people hungry for food, for friendship, and for God! There is much to do.

During his earthly ministry, Jesus healed the sick, connected with the excluded, and loved even those who executed him. Our earthly ministries should do likewise. We are here on this earth as a people chosen by God, chosen to be partners in the plan of salvation, just as Mary and Joseph were two millennia ago. But doing that work takes preparation – intentional, prayerful, continuing preparation.

That is the purpose and the goal of the season of Advent. All around us the Christmas season is kicking to high gear - carols are already playing in stores and restaurants. Holiday decorations and lights are up all over town. The tree was lighted last week at uptown Shelby. And this season, more than most others, also strains on our time, our attention, and our energy. I would guess that there are some among us who are already bracing for the stress, the depression, and the fatigue this holiday season brings… not to mention the debt.

Advent gives us the opportunity to step out of the madness, to quiet the chaos of the season as the culture experiences it and make space in our souls and our lives for God, so that the amazing event we await - the Incarnation - has the opportunity to have its transforming effect on us.

Advent calls us to include at least some time for quiet reflection and prayer. And from my experience with prayer, it is impossible to dread and fear anything while in the presence and embrace of God.

Redeemer is providing an alternative experience: Advent services designed to allow us to enter the peace, touch the mystery, and be in the Presence of God. Join us the three Thursday evening of Advent at 6:00 for a Soup Supper, then stay for our Advent Services:
* Dec 6: Service of Healing and Light - a traditional service of meditative prayer, songs, and readings from Scripture. The service begins in darkness and welcomes the light of Christ gradually, intentionally, fully. This service includes healing prayer, including anointing with oil and laying on of hands. Officiant: The Rev. Deacon Pam Bright
* Dec 13: Evensong - a traditional service of Evening Prayer sung by the Redeemer choir. Let the hectic-ness of the holiday season fall away into the quiet of prayer, grounded in Scripture, as we all prepare for the coming of the Savior at Christmas. (There is no Eucharist at this service.) Officiant: RoseAnn Evans.
* Dec 20: Advent Service of Lessons & Carols - a traditional celebration of Advent hymn-singing and reading from Holy Scripture focused on the coming of Jesus Christ, the Messiah of God. Officiant: Michele Wiltfong.