Thursday, December 25, 2014

Christmas, 2014B: Birthing the way of humility

Lectionary: Isaiah 9:2-7, Psalm 96; Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1-14(15-20)
Preacher: The Rev Dr Valori Mulvey Sherer, Rector

En el nombre del Dios: Padre, Hijo, y Espirtu Santo. Amen.

I was born in NJ, in Dec, in a blizzard, at 3:30 in the morning. The story of my birth is one of our family’s “legend” stories because of the extreme and dangerous circumstances of it. If you’ve ever been in a car driven by my father, you know what I mean. Add to that the blizzard and my mother in labor and you can see the
beginnings of a legendary birth story.

Through the years, I’ve noticed that people LOVE to share birth stories – especially the dramatic ones. We love the details, like how much labor the mother endured, what kinds of medical interventions (if any) saved the day,
whether or not the father keeled over from the gory reality of the birthing or from being overwhelmed by the miracle he was witnessing.

Car issues, weather issues, near misses… We love birth stories.

While it’s true that each of us is unique and wonderfully made in the image of God, and beloved of God, there is no birth story like the one we celebrate tonight. The reason is this birth story isn’t legendary – it’s true, and it changed everything for everyone, for all time.

This birth story is not only dramatic, it’s transformative. God became a human so that we could come to know God, intimately, actually, as one of us. Our relationship with God was transformed from a relationship with a scary, celestial being to one with a member of our own family, a brother, and a friend.

God became a human so that we could be lifted up out of our self-imposed exile in lowliness and reconciled to God whose deep desire to be in relationship with us has been the subject of our Scriptures from Genesis through Revelation.

The story of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth marks the historical moment when that reconciliation happened. God and humanity became one in Jesus. Think about that - the splendor and magnificence of the Almighty God in heaven was made one with the simplicity and humble reality of creation on the earth.

This really is good news! Being reconciled to God in Jesus became our reality in this birth story. And the lessons from this story are so many….

• humility (as in: do what you are commanded – as strange, uncomfortable, or risky as it sounds),
• trust (how many times does heaven tell us: Do not afraid when it comes near?)
• faith (nothing really is impossible with God)
• action (tell everyone and watch how they are amazed by truth).

But the one that stands out this evening is humility. To be humble is to hold a modest estimate of your own importance. It also means to be of low rank (socially or politically), to be unprivileged.

In this gospel story, all of the main players displayed humility. For example, even though Joseph was a descendent of David, he was not privileged and held no rank. He was a simple tradesman engaged to a peasant woman. Joseph and Mary really didn’t have a choice but to obey the edict to register in Joseph’s hometown of Bethlehem. There was no privilege his familial connection to King David, so he was not exempt from the trip – which was dangerous for a woman late in her pregnancy.

So they traveled the 90 miles, and arrived at the home of Joseph’s kin, only to be turned away. Being pregnant and unwed, Mary would have been judged harshly by her in-laws. Her very presence brought shame to the family.

The family wasn’t heartless though, they were just people of their time living according to the norms of their culture. Remember, judging an unwed pregnant woman persisted until only recently – for some, it persists still.

Anyway, Mary and Joseph were not invited to stay in the guest room (which is how the word “inn” translates). It didn’t mean a public hotel. It was a manger. Back then houses were typically joined to a manger which was used for storage and to shelter animals – kind of like a modern day garage or pole barn.That’s where Mary delivered her firstborn son – cast out by her in-laws, an embarrassment to them, with only a feeding trough to cradle her newborn.

Both Mary and Joseph knew the importance of this birth, but neither insisted they be privileged because of it. They simply accepted what came and allowed God to act in it.

Next there are the shepherds – a humble lot in that they too had no rank and no social standing. In fact, they were generally despised by “decent folk” exiled to the fringes of society. It was to these humble ones that heaven announced the good news first, making them the first witnesses of the miracle of the Incarnation.

They were also the first evangelists – the first to tell of the amazing, transformative birth story that changed everything for everyone for all time…and all who heard them telling about this birth story were amazed. What amazed them? Was it the details?

When the angel stood among the shepherds (notice the angel wasn’t hovering over them as most art depicts this scene), the shepherds saw the glory of God shining all around them. I wonder how they described that when they described this birth story.

In the moment, the shepherds were terrified. The angel acknowledged that, then comforted their fear. Suddenly a whole lot of heavenly being appeared - praising God – but instead of being scared all over again, these humble shepherds knew they were in the presence of truth, and that this thing that was happening - this baby born in Bethlehem – was a truth worth telling.

Finally, there is God, who certainly has the privilege, rank, and importance to have had a different birth story, but God chose to come among us in humility. As one commentator says, “The birth of Jesus was a decisive energizing toward a new social reality.” His birth upset the status quo and earthly systems where those in authority “lord it over” others. (“Birth, A Guide for Prayer,” Bergan and Schwan, St. Mary’s Press, 1985, 26) His birth established a new way. The way of Jesus is a way of humility. As followers of Jesus, this is our way too.

Being a humble people means not overestimating our importance, but not underestimating it either. And that’s good news!

We are not God, which means we are not required to (nor could we if we tried) guide or control the world, other people, or even ourselves. That is the sin of hubris – which is the lesson of first two chapters of the Book of Genesis. God invites us instead to relax, relent, and rest in the love and care of God.

Nor are we to underestimate the value of ourselves or any other person, creature, or resource God has created and given us as gift. That is a sin too. We know this, because the story we re-tell today, the story of the day God and humanity began to coexist in a real, manifest way, reconciles those exiled to the margins and lifts them up as the first to partner with God in the reconciliation of the world to God in Jesus Christ.

The first shall be last, and the last shall be first. This is humility.

God humbled God’s self, and sought out humble partners to bring about the reconciliation of the whole world to God on that first Christmas Day. Not much has changed. God is still seeking humble partners in the continuing work of redemption. May God find us to be humble partners, ready to serve.


Sunday, December 21, 2014

Advent 4B, 2014: Partnering with God

Lectionary: Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11; Canticle 15; 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24; John 1:6-8, 19-28
Preacher: The Rev Dr Valori Mulvey Sherer, Rector

En el nombre del Dios: Padre, Hijo, y Espiritu Santo. Amen.

As many of you know, Mary has been an important part of my spiritual life since I was a little child. Mary has been a constant presence, strength, and inspiration for me as I have grown in age and spirit. She has truly been for me, theotokos, the God-bearer, bringing Christ into my life and experience in very real ways.

These experiences taught me that I, too, am a God-bearer. We all are. The Spirit of Christ dwells in each of us, and we are called to bear that into the world – each in our own way, in very real ways, according to God’s plan.

The Church’s teachings about Mary – whether or not she herself was conceived without sin and whether or not she conceived Jesus as a virgin or by her husband – have been a source of disagreement and debate throughout our history. For Episcopalians, belief in the doctrines of the immaculate conception, and the virgin birth are certainly accepted but not required.

Remember, we have only two dogmas: that God is Trinity in Unity, and that Jesus Christ, who is the second person of the Trinity, is the Savior. Everything else, including what we believe about Mary, is up for discussion.

For example, Episcopalians believe in the real presence of Jesus Christ, in the Eucharist. How that happens, whether the molecules of the bread and wine are physically altered or not, doesn’t matter. We acknowledge that it’s a mystery.

The point for us isn’t so much HOW God does it but THAT God does it.

And the point of this gospel story is that God took human form. And the human body God chose to inhabit was born of Mary, the daughter of Joachim and Anne, from Nazareth.

What’s amazing about our Christian narrative is that God invites us into active participation from the beginning. From to stories Genesis through to this gospel from Luke, God seeks our partnership, our companionship, our relationship.

Tradition tells us that Mary was a devout Jewish peasant girl just shy of marrying age. Already engaged to Joseph, Mary was heading into a fairly typical and predictable life, the only complication being that her husband-to-be was a good bit older, which meant she might end up widowed at an early age. Having sons would safeguard her from a widowhood of poverty.

In this gospel story, the one we read today, St. Luke tells us that Mary was visited by the angel Gabriel. I want to stop here and have us check our assumptions about what this means. When I imagine this scene, I imagine Mary in her room alone, and the angel, Gabriel, comes and he has big wings and is surrounded by a heavenly light – he looks like an angel. But Scripture tells us that angels are hard to recognize.

When Mary saw the angel she was “stirred up” (which is how the Greek translates there). Perplexed is not wrong it isn’t. But it leaves out the accompanying physical sensation that often happens when the veil between heaven and earth is lifted. It’s an excited state – on the verge of overwhelming.

So there is Mary, alone in her room, and all of a sudden, there’s a man there, and he says to her, “Don’t be alarmed… you’re safe… for God’s grace is lighting upon you.” This phrase brings to mind what happened when the Holy Spirit descended on Jesus at his baptism and on the disciples at the first Pentecost. It’s how God does. God lights upon us, gently, like a dove.

Then the angel prophesies to Mary: ‘You will conceive and bear a son. You will name him Jesus (which in Hebrew is Joshua, and it means ‘YAHWEH is salvation.’ It also means ‘deliverer’). He will be great, like his ancestor David was, but of his kingdom there will be no end.’

Mary asks how this could happen since she had, at this time, not known a man and she was not yet married. The angel’s reply was that the Holy Spirit would “overshadow” her and she would conceive a son, like her elderly cousin Elizabeth had just done, because “nothing will be impossible with God.”

We need to remember that the spirit of God also overshadowed Moses on Mt. Sinai, and Peter, James, and John, on the mount of Transfiguration. This is also how God does.

Then Mary gave her “yes” saying: “Let it be to me according to your word” and Gabriel left her.

When God chose to become one of us, God chose to partner with us in order to accomplish the plan of salvation. This was no small invitation. Mary would be called upon to submit her whole self – her body and her life – to this.

Back then, childbirth was a risky business, and Mary was only about 14 years old – on the young side for childbearing. In addition, being favored by God sounds like a good thing, but it didn’t mean she would avoid pain and suffering. To the contrary, by saying ‘yes” Mary invited a whole lot of pain and suffering into her life.

Being found pregnant before her marriage to Joseph would have ruined Mary’s reputation and could have cost her her life. She could have been stoned to death according to Jewish law. Or, she could have been divorced by her fiancĂ© and cast out from her community, ending up alone, exiled, and destitute: which is basically a death sentence for a woman of that time.

So you see, this was no small invitation and no small “yes” given.

Mary’s “yes” to God eventually led her to witness the execution of her first-born son. It was also the death of her expectation about salvation. Jews in that time believed that a Davidic king would come and free the Jewish people from Roman occupation. God had something else in mind…

And sometimes, the death of what we think and what we expect is what makes the accomplishment of God’s unfathomable plan possible. This is what Jesus was talking about when he said we had to die to ourselves in order to live.

Death and resurrection are at the core of our Christian narrative and it’s why you’ll often hear me say, “We’re Christians. We don’t fear death. Death for us is simply the doorway to new life.”

In her new book called “Pastrix,” Lutheran pastor and author Nadia Bolz Weber says: “God chose to reveal who God is by slipping into skin and walking among us as Jesus. And the love and grace and mercy of Jesus was so offensive that we killed him… But death could not contain God. God said “yes” to all of our polite “no thank yous” by rising from the dead. Death and resurrection. It is the Christian story as it has been told to [us], starting with Mary Magdalene, the first one to tell it; and as it has been confirmed in [our] experience.” (p xvii).

At the tender age of 14, Mary, daughter of Anne and Joachim, gave her “yes” to God and died to herself. She bore the Christ into human life, making room for the plan of God’s salvation to be manifest in the most unexpected way.

Partnering with God means trusting that we too are favored by God – which literally means that God will make us acceptable for the purpose God has for us. Partnering with God means going where God leads, no matter how the path looks at any given moment, trusting that God will only lead us to salvation- and not just us, but the whole world.

This same invitation was extended to us at our Baptism and is given to us again today - and it’s no small invitation for us either. Like Mary, God calls us to submit our whole selves, our bodies and our lives. Like Mary, we will be made acceptable. We have no reason to believe that we will be spared pain and suffering. Mary wasn’t, neither was Jesus.

We aren’t here to avoid anything. We’re here to welcome everyone and everything as a gift from God; even the hard things. We are here to live the fullness of life promised to us by our Savior and to fulfill our purpose as partners with God in the plan of salvation.

Magnify our souls like Mary’s was, O Lord, and may our spirits rejoice in God our Savior. For God has looked with favor on us, his lowly servants, and from this day all generations will call us blessed. The Almighty has done great things for us and holy is his name. Amen.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Give Thanks and Pray: Pastor's article for The Shelby Star

By: The Rev. Dr. Valori Mulvey Sherer, Rector

Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. (1 Thes 5:16-18) It seems like St. Paul is asking the impossible. How can we do this in the real world?

First, we can remember that prayer is more than we sometimes allow. As our response to God's call to us to be in relationship, prayer is a discipline, a strength we build through practice.

There are many kinds of prayer: adoration is prayer without a goal, just going into the presence of God and resting there, as in centering prayer. Praise is glorifying God simply because the love and grace of God causes gratitude to overflow from us. In prayers of thanksgiving we acknowledge our awareness of God's many blessings and in penitential prayer we confess our sin, those things that put a barrier between us and God and promise to amend our lives. In prayers of oblation we offer ourselves, our lives, and all we do, to God, in union with Christ, for the working out of God's purpose in the world. Intercessory prayer brings before God the needs of others, and petitions bring our own needs to God. There are prayers of healing, often accompanied by anointing with oil.

We pray by reading Holy Scripture as in the discipline of lectio divina, using Rosary or prayer beads, walking a labyrinth, or contemplating an icon. When we watching a sunset paint the sky and it fills us with joyful awareness of God's majesty, creativity, and tender love for creation we are praying. When we sing hymns to God or listening to music that inspires us to love and serve. we are praying.

We pray by joyfully tending to mundane tasks, grateful for the gift of life and for health which enables us to do them. We pray when we hear and respond to the cry of a neighbor in need, respect the dignity of a homeless person, or protect the innocence of a child.

When we pray we are submitting ourselves and our world into the care of God, seeking only God's will. That’s different from seeking to bend God's will to ours by rattling off our lists of things or people we'd like God to change.

Jesus told his disciples about “their need to pray always and not to lose heart” in the parable of the unjust judge (Lk 1:1-8) Jesus teaches us that unlike the unjust judge, God will act quickly to grant justice. God cares deeply about the powerless, unimportant widow and God desires a close relationship, granting respect and dignity even to the least, unlike the unjust judge.

What God ultimately desires from us is relationship which is why prayer matters. It's how we go from knowing about God to really knowing God. When we enter into that kind of relationship, we realize that God's really does live within us and we begin to see the world with God's eyes, to hear with God's ears, and to love with the heart of God. Then we begin to see how very possible it is to give thanks in every circumstance, to rejoice and pray without ceasing.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Advent 3-B, 2014: Welcome the transformation

Lectionary: Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11; Psalm 126; 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24; John 1:6-8, 19-28
Preacher: The Rev Dr Valori Mulvey Sherer, Rector

En el nombre del Dios: Padre, Hijo, y Espiritu Santo. Amen.

Today is the third Sunday of Advent, known as Rose or Gaudete Sunday, also known as Mothering Sunday. The word 'gaudete' comes from the Latin and we translate it as “rejoice” but it means 'to welcome and to be filled with joy.' The form of the word is the
imperative, so we are commanded to do this. So no matter what has us weighed down, brokenhearted, angry, frustrated or hopeless, God is commanding us this day to set that aside and open ourselves to be filled with joy – joy that anticipates the saving action of God who comes with great might and bountiful grace to help us; joy that trusts that nothing is impossible with God.

In the third week of Advent we read from the prophet Isaiah. It’s a very familiar passage, probably because Jesus quoted this passage when he read from this scroll in the synagogue in Nazareth, his hometown, and declared it fulfilled in himself. This took place after Jesus’ baptism by John and his 40 days in the wilderness where he was tempted by Satan. So he came back to Nazareth, went into the synagogue and began to teach. When the people heard Jesus declare this Scripture fulfilled in him, they were enraged and tried to drive him off a cliff, but he “passed through the midst of them” and went on his way to begin his earthly ministry – a ministry which fulfilled the rest of what the prophet Isaiah claimed would happen to one whom God has anointed and upon whom the Spirit of God rests.

The identity of the speaker in this Isaiah passage isn’t known, which is significant. Jesus heard himself identified in this passage. I suggest that we should too.

Since we are the bearers of the Spirit of God in Christ, a gift given to us in our Baptism, we too have the Spirit of God resting upon us. We have been anointed in our Baptism and some of us at Confirmation which means we too have been called to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners – just like Jesus did.

Let’s stop and reflect on what this call means for us as individuals and for our ministries at Redeemer today.

Who do we know here in Shelby, NC who is oppressed?

Anyone who has lost hope: the battered woman, child, or elderly person who believes the lies their abuser told them – that no one will believe them, or help them, or even care about them; the person addicted to alcohol or drugs whose life seems to be spiraling out of control into devastation; the gay person whose God-given identity is used by some to harass, shame, even fire them from their jobs; the wealthy person whose self-sufficiency and habit of power mislead them into thinking they deserve or have earned their gifts and that they get to decide how those gifts are used; the working poor trying to do the impossible - raise a family on minimum wage; the person constantly on the brink of homelessness or struggling with chronic food insecurity or real and present hunger; the people in our country who witness the deaths of unarmed men of color and wonder if Dr. King’s dream will ever be our reality. To these, God calls us to proclaim the good news of God’s bountiful grace and mercy and God’s readiness to help and deliver us.

Who do we know who is brokenhearted?

Any person who has forgotten, or has never learned, their belovedness to God and to us; and any community that is breaking or broken apart. God calls us to bind these up – to pull together the broken pieces and repair the breaks.

Who do we know who is captive or in prison?

Anyone who lacks the freedom to choose, to live, and to love. There are people in actual jails and prisons, then there are those in a different kind of captivity. We can be held captive by our beliefs, our habits, our expectations, our fears, our insecurities, our memories, and our arrogance. We can be the prisoner of an unethical employer, therapist, physician, family member, or life-partner. Our prison cell can be construct3ed from memories, exile, or discrimination. It is to these God calls us to go, bear the light of Christ to them, and walk with them on a God-guided journey into freedom.

The prophet Isaiah also reminds us that we are called to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. This is the time of jubilee when all debts are forgiven, when we harvest what we haven’t sown, when relief and rescue are apparent – but it’s only part of our message.

The other part is the day of vengeance of our God. The word translated here as “vengeance” also translates as “to be reassigned.” The prophet Isaiah is describing a process by which God restores shalom, which is the wholeness and completeness of creation as intended by God.

We have come to understand this passage to be about punishment because for those whose gifts of power and privilege are being reassigned, it feels like punishment. It looks like that too to those who are witnessing it. They tend to judge the moments within the reassignment rather than trusting the whole of the transition that is happening.

Shalom is being restored, and for some it will be liberating, but for others it will feel like punishment. God is making all things right again, and refuses to be blamed any more for what we made wrong. By God’s great power and bountiful grace and mercy, everyone and everything that is out of step with God’s will, is already being transformed; and justice and peace are already being restored in our hearts, in our relationships, and in our world. The challenge for us is to remember this truth even in the midst of discord, suffering, oppression, and brokenheartedness.

The bottom line is: God doesn’t hate anyone whom God has made. All people, all nations belong to God and are beloved of God. It isn’t God who forgets that – we do.

So then, we aren’t the only ones who are waiting during Advent, are we? God is waiting too. God is waiting for us to welcome the transformation God is already working in us. God’s waiting must be joy-filled too, because God knows that when this transformation is complete, shalom will be restored. The reconciliation of the whole world to God will be complete. Justice and peace will abide on the earth just as it does in heaven. The oppressed, brokenhearted, and those in prison will know freedom and light – the light of God’s salvation, who is Jesus the Christ.

But that hasn’t happened yet. It’s happening now, but it isn’t finished. And so we wait… with joy-filled expectation, welcoming all God brings to us, knowing we are partners with God in this work, and trusting the process of transformation that was started when Jesus picked up that scroll of Isaiah in the synagogue and said “this has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

Let us pray…

Stir up your power and with great might come among us now, O Lord.. We welcome you. We trust you. We love you. We know we put up roadblocks. Let your bountiful grace and mercy… help us to take them down – to take down all barriers between us and you, and between us and one another. Deliver us from all our barriers to Love, so that we may heed your command and rejoice to proclaim your good news to the hopeless, bind up the brokenhearted, and walk into freedom with those held captive to anyone or anything. In your holy name we pray this. Amen.