Friday, December 25, 2020

Christmas Day, 2020: Christmas joy!

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

En el nombre del Dios, que en Trinidad en Unidad. Amen.

It’s a strange thing to be in our church yet proclaiming our Good News online. My body wants to sing great Christmas carols, share hugs, laugh and eat with friends, enjoy a chaotic peace where we have to be called back to worship. You see, Christmas is something that happens in us, in our bodies as well as our lives, and this year, in the midst of this pandemic, we ache to feel it.

That’s a good thing - because we are not passive observers in the story of Christmas. 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 - right now.

What Luke’s gospel shows us is that doing our part requires us to trust God’s love, God’s promises, and God’s plan of salvation knowing that God is redeeming all things, all people, all the time. 

Joseph had to trust God who asked him to care for Mary and her baby. By taking his pregnant girlfriend 90 miles to Bethlehem to register as a family, Joseph publicly and legally claimed Mary as his wife and Jesus as his son.

Mary had to trust God that she would live to carry and birth the Messiah of God into the world. In her time, coming up pregnant prior to her marriage to Joseph, Mary could have been stoned to death for adultery - but she wasn’t because God had a plan.

Mary and Joseph knew they would not be celebrated but shamed, yet they kept taking the next step anyway, trusting God and each other. When we read that there was “no room for them in the inn,” we should remember, this wasn’t a hotel that was full. It was the guest quarters at Joseph’s family’s home. Their own family closed their doors to them because of Mary’s shameful condition and offered them nothing more than a space where the animals were kept.

Even the shepherds, the first to hear of the birth, were as lowly as the manger that held the infant Messiah. Shepherds were dirty, smelly people from whom “good people” would turn away. That didn’t stop them, though. They took their next step and made known what they had seen and been told – and everyone was amazed by what they said.

But these events took place 2,000 years ago. What does it mean for us today?

I think of what Dominican priest, Albert Nolan, once said: “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, Joseph, and the shepherds might have said the same thing in their day.

Following Jesus has never been practical. It isn’t supposed to be. Following Jesus is revolutionary!

The love of God made manifest that first Christmas changed everything forever. The spirit of Christ now lives in us as we live in our world. We are the players in the Christmas story we live today, right here, right now. 

So then, about what do we need to trust God? Maybe we need to trust that God, who loves us beyond anything we can comprehend, has a plan and is redeeming all things, all people, all the time.

The pandemic isn’t the whole story of our lives right now. Our relationships can survive at-home isolation for a time, and so can our church. In the meantime, people all around us are suffering losses of every kind and need - more than ever - to be able to show up and ask for room in our hearts and our lives, without shame or fear of being turned away. 

Y’all, Christmas is happening in us today - in our bodies, our lives, and in our world, so let’s live this truth in the way we can do it now as we worship together by video. 

Get up, put your coffee down, and raise your hands in prayer. Let's let our bodies and our voices sing: “Joy to the world, the Lord is come. Let earth receive her King! Let every heart prepare him room. and heaven and nature sing…. and heaven and nature sing…. and heaven and nature sing….” Amen.

Thursday, December 24, 2020

Christmas Eve 2020: It's happening still!

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

En el nombre del Dios, que en Trinidad en Unidad. Amen. 

I love a good TV commercial. One of my all-time favorite commercials was called “Frogs (Boys night in).” It came out almost a decade ago but the tag line still echoes in my thoughts today, especially today. (Tells the story of the commercial)

A voice-over says, “There was a time when poker night was what you looked forward to all week. So who’d have ever thought boys night out wouldn’t hold a candle to boys night in? Having a baby changes everything.”

Another commercial in that series, asks: “…who’d have ever thought the biggest thing to ever happen to you would be the smallest? Having a baby changes everything.”

The biggest thing to ever happen in the history of human experience came to us in the form of the least: a baby, born to a poor, young peasant woman, in a barn in a remote village in the Middle East. 

This baby changed everything.

Sometimes, the Christmas story is so familiar, so sanitized that we forget the harsh reality of it. Mary and Joseph traveled 90 miles to register as a family in Bethlehem according to the law. 

She was 9 months pregnant… On a donkey… for 90 miles….

When they finally get to Bethlehem Joseph’s people turned them away claiming there was no room in their guest quarters. The truth is, Mary was pregnant before she and Joseph had married and that brought shame on them all.

So they sent them to the barn and Mary’s baby had to be born there among the animals. Nothing was sterilized. No one came to help, to comfort or assure them or feed them, or clean up for them. It must have been so scary for them.

But then… there he was. The baby conceived by the overshadowing of God was born. He was so tiny so they swaddled him which made him feel safe. They talked to him so he didn’t feel alone. They fed him so he could be content and sleep.

And they reveled in him knowing this baby has changed everything.

The first to hear of this birth were some shepherds in the fields. Now for most of us, the image of shepherds brings to our minds peaceful, pastoral images…but back then, things were different. “Shepherding was a despised occupation…they were scorned as shiftless, dishonest people who grazed their flocks on other [people’s] lands.” (Footnote 1)

Shepherds didn’t bathe much so they didn’t smell good and people avoided them. And these particular shepherds were the lowest of the low… working the grave-yard shift.

But God, who sees differently than the world does, chose these lowly shepherds to be the first humans to hear the good news that the Messiah of the world had been born and could be found in Bethlehem. The shepherds went to Bethlehem to find this child, then ran home to tell everyone they knew about it “…and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them.” They must have radiated their good news in such a way that everyone who saw them noticed them, listened to them, and were amazed by what they heard.

Mother Theresa of Calcutta once said, “If you know how much God is in love with you, you can’t help but live your life radiating that love.” What if we lived our lives like that? What if we radiated the Good News of our salvation in the child born this night?

The thing is, the good news of Christmas is a present reality, not just an ancient story we remember together. Christ is being born in us today… now. 

The radical truth of Christmas is that the extravagant love of God, was made real for all of us to know, see, and experience in Jesus. “It’s one of the most radical things” Archbishop Desmond Tutu once said.“… All belong… All are meant to be held in this incredible embrace that will not let us go… Black, white, yellow, rich, poor, clever, not so clever, beautiful, not so beautiful…gay, lesbian, …straight. All.” (Footnote 2)

Yet even in this joyous moment people all around us are suffering losses of so many kinds in this pandemic. What if we wrapped them in our love to make them feel safe, or talked to them so they didn’t feel alone, or fed them so they could be content and sleep?

On that first Christmas, God took the form of the smallest and the least - a baby who changed everything. What happened once in Royal David’s city, is happening still. God’s love is being born in each of us, in all of us.

So tonight, together with the shepherds and the angels, and with all the saints in heaven and on earth, we sing out our praise: Glory to God and joy to the world! A child is born this night who is Christ the Lord.

Footnote 1: New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary (NIB), CD-Rom, Vol. IX, 65

Footnote 2: From the Article, Archbishop Tutu Calls for Anglican Unity and Inclusion, Ruach, A Publication of the Episcopal Women’s Caucus, Christmas 2005, Vol. 26:1, 11. 

Sunday, December 20, 2020

4th Sunday in Advent, 2020=B: Unafraid

Lectionary: Micah 5: 2-5a; Canticle 15; Hebrews 10: 5-10; Luke 1:39-55 

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

In our Collect today we prayed: “Purify our conscience, Almighty God, by your daily visitation…” What if God actually visited us the way God visited Mary in today’s gospel? You realize we just asked for that.right? And that God hears and answers our prayers. Just sayin’…

So often we listen to this story of the Annunciation and assume that Mary is afraid because heaven just broke through into earth and an angel is standing there in front of her. Legend describes him as having wings as white as snow and eyes like flames.

We don’t know that - or if the angel just suddenly appeared, walked or flew through the window or door to Mary’s room, or if he found her outside - the gospel doesn’t tell us. All we know is that the angel Gabriel came to Mary and greeted her by calling her “favored one.”

Given that Mary’s response to Gabriel’s greeting was to ponder it, it doesn’t appear that his presence made her afraid. If you heard the strength of her faith proclaimed in the Magnificat last week, it’s clear that while Mary may be humble, she is anything but faint-hearted.

I think when Gabriel tells Mary not to be afraid he’s referring to what he’s about to say - that God has chosen her to bear the long-awaited Messiah into the world. Still clearly unafraid, Mary responds with a very practical question - how? To which Gabriel replies, the “Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most High God will overshadow you…”

There are several times this word, “overshadowed” appears in Scripture. Adam was overshadowed by God in Genesis. (2:21) Moses was overshadowed by God in Exodus. (33:21-23). The disciples were overshadowed by God on the Mount of the Transfiguration in Luke. (9:34) Each time God was affirming for these faithful servants the power, presence, and protection of God, not just in general, but specifically for them, as they set out to accomplish what God was giving them to do.

When Gabriel told Mary that God would overshadow her, she would have known the stories in Genesis and Exodus, and what being overshadowed would mean for her. Her proclamation in the Magnificat that all generations would call her blessed can then be understood not as a departure from humility, but as an acknowledgment of her destiny.

I’m sure Mary had lots more questions swirling around in her mind as she pondered the reality of what was being asked of her. Like most of us, and like the prophets before her, Mary had to wonder, ‘Can I really do this?’ Do I have what it takes?

As if hearing those questions in her mind, the angel Gabriel assures Mary (and us) that God is already making this happen. Her cousin Elizabeth, who was barren and too old to have a child, is pregnant. Mary now has a companion for her journey, and as we will see later, so do their sons. 

“For nothing will be impossible with God.”

One word that does describe Mary, as this gospel makes very clear, is purity. Mary was pure – not in the patriarchal, puritanical sense, but in the spiritual sense. To be pure is to be undistracted, to be completely in line with God and God’s will.

Mary’s response to what she was being asked to do was purity personified: “let it be done with me” as you have said. It is an affirmation of her faith that the God of love is with her and will accomplish through her the part of the plan of salvation designed just for her to do. As we said when we lit the fourth candle today - there is no power greater than love. Mary knew that, trusted it, and so could respond faithfully to God’s call to her.

Mary has been an important part of my spiritual life since I was a little child - 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, sanctifies us, and calls us to bear that into the world – each in our own way, in very real ways, according to God’s plan. 

As this season of Advent draws to a close, I pray we, like Mary, welcome the love of God into our lives and our bodies as God continues to work for the salvation of the whole world. I pray we, like Mary, truly believe that God is with us, in us, and will accomplish through us the part of the plan of salvation designed specifically for us - as individuals and as the body of Christ, the church. 

 Let us pray… Purify our conscience, Almighty God, by your daily visitation that we may know your presence, and be bearers of your love, mercy, and justice into the world. By your presence in us and with us we know that anything is possible, any risk worth taking, any price worth paying. Because you have asked it, we will give ourselves to it - fully, faithfully, as our Mother Mary did. Amen.

Sunday, December 6, 2020

2nd Advent, 2020-B: Set free by forgiveness


Lectionary: Isaiah 40:1-11; Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13; 2 Peter 3:8-15a; Mark 1:1-8 

En el nombre del Dios que es Trinidad en unidad. Amen. 

So, I have a serious question for you… is God Three in One or One in Three? A Trinity who lives in Unity or a Unity who lives as a Trinity? 

While the answer to this seems obvious to us - both are true - this actually broke the Christian world apart years ago. 

The first Christian churches, whom we now refer to as the Eastern Orthodox Church, began with God as one who lives as three - a unity of three persons: Father, Son, and Spirit. The Western Roman Christians began with God as three who live as one - a Trinity that lives in dynamic unity.

The disagreement was so fierce that in 1054 the church experienced The Great Schism when the Eastern and Western Christian churches broke apart. To be fair, there were lots of things they disagreed about like the date of Easter and papal primacy in Rome, but this issue of how to understand God was at the heart of them all and it led to a disagreement that is still being argued today: the procession of the Holy Spirit.

As The Episcopal Church enters a new phase of revising our Book of Common Prayer, you should know that this disagreement is part of the discussion - again. In the Nicene Creed, we say “We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son.” That’s the sticking point and it’s called the filioque clause.

The Eastern Christians totally disagree with the filioque clause because in their worldview, the Spirit can’t proceed from Father and the Son since God is One. The Western Christians, who begin with God as Three, would argue that the Son proceeds from the Father, and the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son.

Who’s correct? It all depends on your worldview.

So how do we find a way to live together with such different worldviews that lead to very different experiences and practices in life and worship? The answer to that matters because it will either lead us toward unity or further division.

Another discussion in the revision of our prayer book is about making the language about God more expansive, that is, less male-gendered, except in the sacrament of Baptism where the person will still be baptized in the name of the “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” This decision was made to promote reconciliation between the divergent views on what to call God and to prevent further breakdown of ecumenical relationships among members of the global Christian family.

For some God is only Father. For others, God is also Mother and it’s been that way throughout our history according to the writings of many church fathers and mothers. Both ways of describing God are present in our Testaments, Old and New, but the male-gendered names took priority in our habit, probably due to the patriarchal nature of Jewish and early Christian societies.

Three in One or One in Three. God as only Father or God also as Mother.

What’s all this got to do with our lessons today? In our gospel, John is preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sin. So, the question is: how do we understand sin, repentance, and what a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sin means?

In this century, we have such a habit of viewing sin as individual choices for bad or wrong behavior. Repentance then is to stop doing that bad or wrong thing. A baptism of repentance then becomes a transaction: if you stop, you will be forgiven. Then you will be saved.

There is some truth in that. If we stop whatever bad or wrong behavior we’re doing, life will be restored. Ask any alcoholic or addict. But that isn’t the whole of it because it completely overlooks our collective sins like racism, sexism, heterosexism, able-ism, classism, and individualism.

It also has the process backwards. Forgiveness is not a reward for our repentance, but the means by which we are able to choose to repent.

John preached that by forgiveness, we are set free from sin but it requires that we change our minds, change how we think. The Greek word for repentance, μετάνοια (metanoia), means a change of mind affecting the whole life.

When we choose to change our minds in a way that affects all life, ours and everyone else’s, then we will be set free from sin, which can be understood as anything that disrupts the shalom of God - the way things ought to be according to God’s plan of redemption.

Theologian Paul Tillich* describes sin as a three-fold separation: from God, from each other, and from ourselves. This separation is caused by seeking our own will rather than the will of God, and it distorts all our relationships. For Tillich, sin is individual and collective, and it is only by God’s grace and our willingness to repent that our relationships are restored and we are returned to right relationship with God, one another, and ourselves.

This is the kind of repentance John the Baptist is calling the people to in today’s gospel. John is proclaiming that the kingdom of heaven is coming near and people need to change their minds in a way that affects all life so that they can recognize and receive the grace that is coming in the one who would come after him, the one who is more powerful than he is, the one who will baptize them with the Holy Spirit and fire.

And the people were flocking to John to hear his teaching - even the religious authorities were coming - because everyone wanted what he was offering: new life in the shalom of God.

In every age, restoration to life in the shalom of God, in the light of Christ, requires us to choose to repent, to choose to change how we think in a way that affects all life, to choose a new way of being in relationship with God and each other.

As long as any of God’s creation suffers lack, degradation, harm, or disrespect, we are all living in sin and God’s shalom is in a state of disruption. But the grace of God breathed upon us continually and patiently offers us forgiveness that will set us all free to repent and be restored to life in the shalom of God.

Let us pray. Eternal Reality, Breather of Peace and Justice, give us grace to change our minds in a way that affects all life, that your shalom may be restored and all of your children will be transformed by your love, live in your light, and know the peace that comes from your justice. Amen. 

* Tillich, Paul, “The Shaking of the Foundations” (Wipf and Stock Pub, Eugene, OR, 1948).