Saturday, December 24, 2022

Christmas, 2022: God chooses us

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

En el nombre del Dios, creador, redentor, y santificador. Amen. 

Tonight (today) we celebrate that Christmas is about God choosing us. God chooses life for us. God chooses joy and peace for us. God chooses redemption and reconciliation for us, and God chooses us to be partners in the reconciliation of the whole world to God. God chooses to be born in us again on Christmas, to dwell in us and renew us, to make us vessels overflowing with God’s own grace, mercy, and love for the world.

As author Marianne Williamson once said, “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, 'Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?' Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God… We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It's not just in some of us; it's in everyone.” Source

That is the real meaning of Christmas – the manifestation of the glorious love of God in the world. Sadly, so much distracts us from that and instead, we get caught up in public and moral outrage over whether or not to use the Greek letter chi (which looks like an X) when writing the word Christmas, or whether to say Merry Christmas or Happy Holidays. The shaming I see on social media about this is just nuts. And who remembers the Christmas coffee cup debacle a few years ago? The coffee company changed their cup to a solid color which led a pastor to accuse them of hating Jesus.

Focusing on the wrong thing, like buying presents we can’t afford, or moralizing over how others get Christmas wrong, leads us to miss the overwhelming, life-changing, world-changing good news of Christmas – that the glorious love of God is being made manifest in the world.

If it helps, the same thing happened that first Christmas.

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, so they travel together.

Ordinarily, travelers like Mary and Joseph would have stayed with family or friends who live in the area. But Mary and Joseph can find no place to stay. The Christmas story, which we know so well, says ‘there was no room for them at the inn.’

Mary and Joseph were only offered a rough, dirty place in the part of the house where the animals were kept. The baby would have been placed in a feeding trough to keep him from getting trampled by an animal.

Joy Carroll Wallis, author and priest in the Church of England, suggests that Joseph and Mary were being shunned…their family and friends morally outraged, because Joseph showed up on their doorstep with his pregnant girlfriend and everyone knew it wasn’t his baby.

The Messiah was being born right under their noses, and they missed it because they were busy moralizing. They judged Joseph and Mary to be sinners whom they felt justified in rejecting and excluding, unaware that God had chosen them to be partners in the reconciliation of the world.

The judgment of God, who is the only real moral authority, is salvation in Jesus who is the Christ. By taking on flesh like ours, Jesus links 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.

So many "religious" people would rather God offer grace only to those who deserve it. The truth is, none of us deserves it, and yet all of us receive it because that is the nature of the extravagant love of God.

A perfect example is the shepherds in the fields who were the first to hear of the birth of the Savior. In those days shepherds were seen as a group of dirty, low-class nobodies. Yet, God chose them to be the first to hear these tidings of great joy. God chose them to be the first to see the Christ-child. When the shepherds told about what they saw, the grace of God flowed through them so that all who heard them were amazed, and the shepherds themselves could do nothing but praise and glorify God.

Today, God chooses us. We are the believers described in the letter to Titus - people transformed by God’s love and, therefore, zealous for good deeds, remembering of course, that our good deeds are simply the manifestation of God’s grace moving through us into the world.

Tonight (today) we are reminded that Christmas is about God choosing us. God chooses to be born in us again, to dwell in us and renew us, to make us vessels overflowing with God’s own grace, mercy, and love for the world.

God chooses us because that is the nature of the extravagant love of God.

Like Mary, Joseph, and the shepherds, we must remember that God will love us, protect us, care for us, and bless us, while providing us with everything we need to do what God asks us to do. All we need to do is choose to trust God.

Merry Christmas! 


Sunday, December 18, 2022

4 Advent, 2022-A: Reciprocal love

Lectionary: Isaiah 7:10-16; Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18; Romans 1:1-7; Matthew 1:18-25 

En el nombre del Dios: creador, redentor, y santificador. Amen. 

I commend to you a non-profit group called StoryCorps whose mission is to build connections between people by sharing real-life stories. Most of the stories are about ordinary people doing ordinary things: a grandmother telling her grandchildren about falling in love with their grandfather; one friend telling another what their friendship means to them.

StoryCorps has produced several books of these stories. One of them is called, “Listening is an Act of Love” and, as they say on their website: “Everybody’s story matters. Every life counts.”

We have a similar mission as Christian churches – to build connections among all people, languages, races, and nations within the shared story of our redemption until the whole world is reconciled to God in Christ. It is true for us too, that listening is an act of love – reciprocal love with God.

We believe that all creation has been spoken into being by Jesus through whom all things were made. He is the Word of God, the reason or plan of God eternally active in creation. At Jesus’ Baptism by John God said, “This is my beloved, listen to him.” (Lk 9:35) Listen to him… Hear and respond to him...

We feel like we do listen to him – or at least we try to. We try to obey Jesus’ command to us to love God, neighbor, and self. We try to obey the rules of our faith as we live our lives in the world. But when God said, “listen to him” at Jesus’ baptism, we weren’t being told to obey Jesus. We were being invited to respond with our “yes” to him, reciprocating his love for us with our love for him.

In today’s Old Testament story, King Ahaz (whose name means, “has held”) demonstrates what happens when we do not reciprocate God’s love. Ahaz is a faithful Jew and holds fast to the Jewish law in Deuteronomy, the one that says, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test” (6:6) so when God invites him to ask for a sign from God, Ahaz says “no, I can’t.”

God, however, is ready to do a new thing and be known in a new way. God is waiting to save the Jewish people besieged by war, but Ahaz can’t say “yes” to God because he has put his obedience to a rule ahead of God’s offer of comfort. For Ahaz, this encounter is outside his expectations for who God is, what God wants, and how God acts.

Seeing this, the prophet, Isaiah, clears things up, proclaiming that God is already acting to save the people and will give them a sign. Look, Isaiah says, a young woman is pregnant, and by the time her child grows up, the city and the nation of Jerusalem will have been saved from their enemies. This child will be named Immanuel, which means “God with us” because he will be the sign of God’s presence, a reminder of God’s promise of salvation.

The story of Ahaz stands in contrast to the story of Joseph, who in the gospel story today, listens with reciprocal love.

An angel appears to Joseph in a dream saying what angels always say: Don’t be afraid… God is acting in this moment. Your Mary is pregnant and the son within her is from the Holy Spirit. When he is born, you must name him Jesus, actually ‘Jehosua’ in Hebrew – Joshua - which means ‘God saves,’ for he will save his people from their sins.’

Both Matthew and Isaiah proclaim a God who knows what the people need and acts to redeem even before they ask for it. This is how God has always acted.

The prophecy in Isaiah was not about Jesus being born of Mary in Bethlehem. It was about God - who loves us, is always present with us, and is already acting to redeem even before we ask.

In Isaiah, the young woman bore a son who was a sign that God would save the people from their enemies. In Matthew, the young woman bore a son who would save them from their sins.

The story of Joseph’s “yes” to God offers us so much to talk about, but for now, the gift I want to focus on is what it cost Joseph to say “yes” to God.

Nobody around their village would know - or believe - that Mary came up pregnant by the Holy Spirit. They’d have done what folks usually do – put the pieces together in a way that makes sense to them. The obvious conclusion would be that someone besides Joseph got Mary pregnant.

According to the law, Joseph was supposed to have Mary stoned to death for adultery. His inclination, however, was to dissolve their marriage contract and “dismiss her quietly.” That would have spared Mary’s life, but it also would have destined her and her child to a lifetime of poverty, and shame.

When the angel asked Joseph to take the already pregnant Mary as his wife, Joseph knows saying “yes” to God means he will have to sacrifice his righteous reputation and live out his days as the pitiable man with the unfaithful wife.

Joseph could have said to himself, ‘God doesn’t speak to someone like me.’ Or he might have reasoned that God wouldn’t ask him to violate the very laws God gave his people to follow. He could have written off the whole thing as nothing more than a delusion. But he doesn’t.

When he awakens, Joseph gives his “yes” to God because he was righteous. Joseph was in right relationship with God. His conscience was pure, that is, aligned completely with the Word of God given to him.

In our Collect today, we asked God to purify our conscience, to align us completely with the Word of God who dwells in us. The voice of God within us, individually and as a community, leads us forward in the way we are meant to go. It tells us what our divine purpose is and how to live it out.

St. Paul tells us that we have been prepared to do this, having received grace and apostleship from Jesus. We are by definition a gathering of apostles – a people sent on a mission. And what is our mission? To use everything we’ve been given, and risk everything we have, so that God can be made known, and God’s love made manifest in the world in new and unprecedented ways, until all people, languages, races, and nations are “restored to unity with God and one another in Christ.” (BCP, 855).

As we practice our last week of Advent together, I pray that we will listen faithfully and fearlessly to the voice of God within us and respond as Joseph did, with our “yes.” Amen.

Sunday, December 4, 2022

2 Advent, 2022-A: Peace in our believing

Lectionary: Isaiah 11:1-10; Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19; Romans 15:4-13; Matthew 3:1-12 

En el nombre del Dios: creador, redentor, y santificador. Amen. 

As a pastor and a spiritual director, I have the privilege of being invited into deep conversations with people when their faith is being challenged, or they’re experiencing a “dark night” where they feel no sense of the presence of God in their lives. Some are seeking faithfully to discern God’s path for this moment in their lives. Others are just trying to stay connected. 

In all of these conversations, what is foundational is the person’s relationship with God. Who is God to each of these? How do they relate to God and how do they experience God relating to them?

Some of us who grew up in the church learned how to understand and relate to God in certain “acceptable” ways. Others among us either didn’t grow up in the church, or grew up being taught awful, sometimes unfaithful doctrines that continue to affect how we relate to God. Still others have had personal, mystical experiences of God leading to an intimate, convincing relationship with God. Whatever religious doctrines or practices or theology we have, when life is challenging, it’s our belief in and relationship with God that carry us through.

(Photo credit: VM Sherer, "God" by Manuela Rivera Mulvey)

What I’ve noticed is that the challenging moments of our lives often affect our belief in God. I think of medieval mystic Julian of Norwich whose physical challenges led her into an experience of God that completely transformed her believing, and therefore how she related to God, leading her to her famous description of Christ the Mother of Mercy and her equally famous proclamation that “God is not wroth” which she clarifies by saying that wrath is found in humans, but not in God who loves us mercifully, tenderly, and completely.

In his letter to the Romans, St. Paul is encouraging the members of the new Christian church in Rome to relate to one another differently: to live in peace and harmony. Jews and Gentiles, Roman occupiers and those they occupied are now members of a new community of faith. The Scriptures, he reminds them, foretold that God’s plan of salvation would be revealed through the Jews, but that it would reach all nations and peoples, and habitual enemies would live together in peace.

This is what we heard described in the reading from Isaiah. The coming of the king will signal the inauguration of a time of profound peace born of right relationship. In this new era, the peace will be so deep, so complete that even natural enemies will share cooperative, peaceful lives.

Looking around then and now, this seems like a dim possibility, but our belief assures us that with God, nothing is impossible. So, Paul exhorts the church in Rome to continue to hope and believe praying this beautiful blessing over them: “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” Peace in believing…

If we believe that God is just and kind, full of compassion and mercy, that God cares for those who suffer and hears their prayers, that God’s love for us is steadfast and sacrificial, then even when things have gone array, we can have peace in our believing. Even when the world has gone wrong, our belief that God chooses to be in loving, sustaining relationship with us will sustain our hope.

What gets in our way is sin, but that’s one of those words… How do we understand it?

I offer you what German-American theologian Paul Tillich wrote just after WWII came to an end. Tillich describes sin as a three-fold separation: from God, from each other, and from ourselves. This separation, which is caused by the seeking of our own will instead of the will of God, distorts all of our relationships. It is only by God’s grace and our willingness to repent that our relationships are restored and we are returned to righteousness, that is, to right relationship. (Tillich, The Shaking of the Foundations, Whipf and Stock Pub., 1948)

This is the kind of repentance John the Baptist is calling the people to in today’s gospel. John proclaims that the people need to repent so they can receive the grace about to come in the one who would come after him, the one who would baptize them with the Holy Spirit and fire.

And the people were flocking to John to hear his teaching. They wanted what he was offering – a new way of being in relationship with God and each other.

Even the religious authorities were coming, but when they arrive, John doesn’t mince words with them. Why was he so caustic with them? We can’t be sure if the Pharisees and Sadducees came to observe what John was doing in order to prepare an “official response” or if they were, like many others, coming to him drawn by the message of this new way of being. My guess is, it was probably a bit of both.

John’s prophetic teachings used apocalyptic language familiar to the listeners of the day. We have taken them to be punitive, but they really are promising and uplifting. Otherwise, why would so many flock to hear him?

The scariest thing John says in this gospel is probably this: “His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” So let’s look at that more deeply.

The Messiah is coming. The winnowing fork enables him to separate fruit that is ready to be used, from the chaff. Chaff is a natural by-product of the process, and of itself isn’t bad. It just isn’t useful in its present form so it is burned.

The habitual association with hellfire and eternal punishment often clouds our thinking on this, but John says the chaff will be burned in “unquenchable fire.”

As we’ve discussed before, fire is biblical language for the presence of God. Think of the burning bush and of John’s proclamation that Jesus would baptize them with fire. God’s steadfast love and mercy cannot be quenched by us or anything we do. In God, whose mercy endures forever, all who aren’t ready in their present form will be made new by the unrelenting love of God.

We sin. That doesn’t make us bad – just human. Advent calls us to own that and repent, trusting that God loves us and stands ready to restore us to right relationship. When we choose to repent, we may find ourselves “struck by grace,” as Tillich says, “the way St. Paul was on the road to Damascus, knowing deeply the truth that God loves us with an incomprehensible love...”

Repentance opens the way for all of our relationships to be changed, empowered by the grace of God’s unquenchable love. Trusting in the steadfast love of God who is always faithful, we can choose to repent in the way John the Baptist taught and change the way we’re in relationship with God and with one another. 

Then we can live together in peace, and we will have within ourselves peace in our believing. Amen.