Saturday, December 25, 2021

Christmas Day & Baptism, 2021-C: Extravagant love

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

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

As a former marketer, I love a good TV commercial. One of my all-time favorite commercial series was called “Frogs (Boys night in).” It came out about a decade ago but the tagline echoes in my thoughts today, especially today as we prepare to Baptize Amelia.

In this commercial, you see a picture of some men playing cards as a voice is saying, “There was a time when poker night was what you looked forward to all week.” Then the picture changes to one of those men holding his baby on his couch., and the voice says, “So who’d have ever thought boys’ night out wouldn’t hold a candle to boys’ night in? Having a baby changes everything.”

The biggest thing to ever happen in the history of human experience came to us as a baby. Born to a poor, young peasant woman, in a barn in a remote village in the Middle East - this baby changed everything, forevermore.

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. Since Mary was pregnant before she and Joseph had married, it’s likely they were sent in their shame to the barn, and Mary’s baby had to be born among the animals. Nothing was sterilized. No one came to help them or feed them.

It must have been so scary for them. But then… there he was. The baby conceived by the overshadowing of God was born. They swaddled him so he felt safe, talked to him so he didn’t feel alone, and Mary fed him so he could be content and sleep.

Mary, who was probably only 14 years old, had to figure out how to nurse her newborn. As most mothers know, newborn babies don’t always latch at first and we often need help getting that going. Joseph had to make sure the afterbirth was delivered completely so Mary didn’t bleed to death, and how many of us would know how to intervene with an afterbirth hemorrhage?

It must have been so lonely for them. I hope there was a quiet moment, after the baby Jesus was born, cleaned, nursed, and resting that Mary and Joseph could revel in what just happened. They knew that this baby was about to change everything.

But I wonder, don’t all babies change everything – in that ‘flutter of a butterfly wing affecting global weather systems’ kind of way? It may be inaccurate science, but it’s good theology. Every one of us is born with a divine purpose. We are unique and uniquely gifted by God and sent into the world to discover and fulfill that purpose.

It’s why our faith community matters so much. When we baptize someone, we are welcoming them into a community that will love them, notice their gifts and passions, nourish them, train them up, then trust them to use those gifts in service to God and God’s people.

The primary role of a faith community is to promote, embody, and increase the establishment of love: God’s love for us, our love for one another, and our love for ourselves, in all our diversity, knowing God created us exactly as we are and has a purpose for us.

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.” It’s our goal as Christians to live our lives like that.

Luke says an angel of the Lord appeared to some shepherds in the fields and told them of the birth of the Savior. For most of us, this brings to our minds a sweet, pastoral image of men sitting on the grass watching over their sheep who graze peacefully unaware. The reality, however, was a little different. Shepherds were generally scorned as shiftless and were sometimes hated because they would graze their flocks on other people’s land without permission. They didn’t bathe much so they didn’t smell good and people typically just avoided them. In addition, these particular shepherds were the lowest of the low… working the graveyard 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 in Bethlehem. The shepherds rushed off to find this child, then ran home to tell everyone they knew about it “…and all who heard it were amazed.”

They must have radiated their good news because everyone who saw them was astounded by what they heard. What if we radiated our Good News the way they did?

Angels don’t need to come and tell us about Jesus anymore because he lives in us. The good news of Christmas is not just an ancient story we remember together, it’s a truth we live today. Christ is born in us, dwells in us, heals and loves through us - now - and baptizing a baby on this day is the perfect manifestation of that truth.

New life, actual new life, is being baptized today in the extravagant love of God in Christ by her loving family in the presence of her loving faith community – and that is the radical truth of Christmas: extravagant love.

On that first Christmas, God took the form of the smallest and the least - a baby who changed everything. Today, we have the joy and privilege of welcoming Amelia, into the Christian family, in the sacrament of Baptism, whereby she will be marked as Christ’s own forever. May her life, her love change everything.

(The Celebrant invites the candidate for Baptism to the font). 

Friday, December 24, 2021

Christmas Eve, 2021-C: What we are celebrating

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

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

There’s a meme floating around social media of the Flintstones wearing Santa hats and celebrating in front of a decorated Christmas tree. The meme asks: “Seriously - what are they celebrating?” 

It’s a fair question… even for us today. What are we celebrating?

At Christmas we celebrate that God took on human form in the person of Jesus, eliminating all that had separated us, and reconciling all humanity to God. This new relationship, a divine-human union, happened on that first Christmas and happens still today because as we said in Advent: Christ is coming. “Christ is always coming… always entering a troubled world, a wounded heart.” It’s an amazing thing, a miraculous event, and definitely something to celebrate.

Even with the pandemic happening all around us still (and God knows how tired we are of that!), we want to celebrate together. We want to worship, share holy Communion, and sing Christmas hymns. We want to eat good food, drink good wine, share stories, hugs, and build memories. We want to celebrate together as the beloved community of God!

So today, we gather in-person and online, to celebrate the birth of the Savior of the world. It’s a great story – the greatest one ever told, they say.

According to the Gospel writer, Joseph, who is descended from the house of David, must travel to Bethlehem to register in accordance with a decree from Caesar Augustus. Mary, who is engaged to Joseph, is pregnant and near delivery.

Ordinarily, travelers like Mary and Joseph would have stayed with family or friends who live in the area, but they arrive to find “there was no room for them at the inn.” We need to remember that in first-century Palestine, an inn was not a hotel. It was the guest room in a typical peasant house.

Some houses had upper rooms, like the one the disciples hid in after Jesus’ crucifixion. Most houses had lower rooms, rooms below the main living quarters where the animals were kept. Mary and Joseph were basically sent down to the basement where the animals were. Imagine having to give birth there.

It’s very likely that Mary and Joseph were being shunned by their family and friends who didn’t approve of Joseph showing up with his pregnant girlfriend. To them, Joseph was violating the law by staying with Mary, rather than putting her out and letting the community stone her to death for adultery.

People looking at Joseph and Mary saw sinners, but God saw partners in redemption. The sad part is, how many people continue to miss the miracle of Christ coming into a troubled world and wounded hearts because they’re too busy moralizing…?

The judgment of God, who is the only real moral authority – is (are you listening?) salvation for the whole world. And this salvation is in Jesus the Christ whose birth we celebrate today.

By taking on flesh Jesus linked heaven and earth, eternity and time, from ages past to this present moment,
reconciling us to himself and ensuring that everyone is included in God’s plan of salvation… the clean and the unclean, the Jew and Gentile, the saint and the sinner.

There are some people who would limit God’s grace only to those who deserve it (as they define that, of course). Well, the truth is, none of us deserves it, yet all of us receive it, because that is the nature of the extravagant love of God.

Luke affirms this in his telling of the Christmas story. The first to hear of the birth of the Messiah were some shepherds. It’s a peaceful, pastoral scene in our imagination: shepherds sitting under a star-filled sky keeping watch over their sheep.

We’re all fans of the shepherds, aren’t we? They were simple, hard-working, regular folk. We’re simple, hard-working, regular folk. We feel like we can identify with them… but we need to remember that in that time, “shepherding was a despised occupation…they were scorned as dishonest people who grazed their flocks on other [people’s] lands.” Shepherds also didn’t bathe much so they didn’t smell good; and this particular group of shepherds was the lowest of the low – the ones working the graveyard shift.

But God, who sees differently than the world does, chose these lowly shepherds to see the glory of the presence of God, which, Scripture tells us, shone all around them. God chose them to be the first to hear the angel’s proclamation of good news of great joy for all the people.

Today, we celebrate that we are the ones God is choosing to see the glory of the presence of God all around us. We are the ones God is choosing to be God’s partners in the plan of redemption.

We celebrate that the light of God’s love fills us to overflowing and, like those shepherds, we can’t help but share this good news of great joy. As 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.”

Seriously, this is what we are celebrating. 
The good news of Christmas is our present reality. It isn’t just an event in ancient history or a great story. Christ is being born in us again right now.

So, let’s celebrate that, singing out our praise: Glory to God in the highest heaven! For unto us is born this day a Savior, who is the Messiah, Christ the Lord. 


Sunday, December 12, 2021

3 Advent, 2021-C: Welcoming joy

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

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

The Third Sunday of Advent is known as Rose or Gaudete Sunday, hence the pink vestments. It’s one of my great joys that while the church pushed women out for centuries, it kept pink as a liturgical color. So, now we get to see the girl color, recognize the value of the feminine and associate it with joy! Pink means something different for us than it did for them - but I’ll bet the church fathers didn’t see that coming!

The word 'gaudete' comes from the Latin and while we translate it as “rejoice,” it literally means 'to welcome and to be filled with joy.' On this Sunday, we make an intentional choice to welcome the joy God is waiting to give us – joy that anticipates the redeeming love of God; joy that trusts that nothing is impossible with God.

We rejoice that we have been redeemed by the forgiveness of our sins, so anticipating our promised reconciliation, we commit during Advent, to honestly discover where we have gone astray in our lives, our faith community, and our world. We can’t repent, that is, change our minds or our direction, if we don’t know where we’ve sinned.

A great tool for this is the Rite of Reconciliation of a Penitent, what some call “Confession” as an Advent practice. I’m happy to talk about this with anyone who wants to know more about it or make an appointment.

So, let’s talk about sin for a minute. When people come to me to “confess” their sins, they often tell me what they’ve done that is wrong. That isn’t the sin, I tell them. That’s the evidence of sin.

Sin is separation where there should be relationship, disruption where there should be union, and opposition where there should be harmony and it happens deep within us, in our hearts. Sin disrupts our relationships with God, one another, and ourselves. The evidence of our sin is the behavior that results from that disruption, behavior that is self-centered, harmful, or disrespectful.

In our Rite of Reconciliation, we look deeply within and see where this disruption has happened, and where the reconciliation Jesus promised us needs to happen again, remembering that it is by the power of God’s bountiful grace and mercy that we are restored. The words of absolution, spoken out loud, initiate that restoration, and it’s a powerful experience.

Sin is part of our lives, and sometimes, when we allow ourselves, we realize just how messed up things are. For instance, how do we faithfully and justly deal with the racism, sexism, homophobia, and other sins built into our systems? I was chatting with a deacon friend recently who does this work and she tells me that finding an unhoused person shelter for the night right now can be a frustrating endeavor – and she knows the system! Imagine how impossible it must be for someone without a knowledgeable advocate!

Our Collect today reminds us that sometimes we need a hero; someone who has the power to make things different… better; to restore justice where there is none. Sometimes we just need to know there is power out there that can set right what has gone wrong.

Zephaniah talks about God as a “warrior who gives victory” but let’s not overlook how that victory is described. Speaking through the prophet God promises to rejoice over us with gladness, to renew us in God’s love, and to exult over us with singing. God promises to redeem disaster, deal with our oppressors, save the lame, gather the outcast, and change our shame to praise. This is what victory looks like, and it is truly cause to rejoice.

Paul affirms this in his letter to the Philippians saying, rejoice because “the Lord is near.” We don’t need to worry about anything. Pray and give thanks, he says, because we are assured that all will be well, and our assurance feels like peace – peace in our bodies, our minds, and our spirits. Peace that makes no sense, because it is a peace that trusts completely in God, whose power of abundant grace and mercy leads us to the victory Zephaniah described.

So, today, we welcome God’s joy and let it fill us to overflowing whereupon it will spill into the world.

What, then, do we make of this Gospel reading? The first thing John the Baptist says is, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you of the wrath to come?” It feels kind of like Scriptural whiplash, doesn’t it? But it does make sense and it is good news.

John’s essential message was: change the way you’re thinking, believing, and acting because the Messiah is coming – and it won’t be like what you think. In fact, as it turned out, Jesus’ Messiahship wasn’t what John the Baptist thought either. Jesus didn’t bring salvation just to his own people, but to all people for all time, and he brought it by the forgiveness of sins, that is, Jesus restores relationships that have been separated, unity where there is division, and harmony where there is discord. 

John the Baptist knew that he was chosen by God to herald the coming of the long-awaited Messiah. He knew that God’s people needed to repent because the Messiah was bringing the Spirit’s renewing fire, but even he didn’t know how radically different God’s plan was going to be from his own expectations. None of us does – something to keep in mind as we journey together through this Advent into the next chapter of our life as a faith community. 

Thomas Merton once said: “You do not need to know precisely what is happening, or exactly where it is all going. What you need is to recognize the possibilities and challenges offered by the present moment, and to embrace them with courage, faith, and hope…” and I would add – with joy!

On this Gaudete Sunday, we welcome all that God is waiting to give, knowing that God’s plan for us and for the whole world is a plan of love, full of bountiful grace and mercy - and that we have been chosen by God to proclaim that Good News to the world.

How can we be anything else but filled with joy? Gaudete! Rejoice! 


(Image of John the Baptist, by El Greco)