New Year, New Name

nameA sermon for January 1, 2019, known as the feast of The Holy Name of Jesus. The scripture readings are Numbers 6:22-27, Psalm 8, Galatians 4:4-7, and Luke 2:15-21.

Listen to the sermon HERE

There’s been a lot of discussion of names in our family recently.  There’s the cousin who is interested in genealogy, the one who has just married into our family and is changing her name, and the ideas, thoughts, and opinions about what the name might be for my much-anticipated great nephew when he is born in a few months.

Today in our church is known as the feast day of The Holy Name of Jesus. Our Roman Catholic friends use today as a special day for the Blessed Virgin Mary, but even there is a focus on the name. The official title of the day is the Solemnity of Mary, the Holy Mother of God. Theotokos, the Greek name that means “Mother of God” is quite a name. It is a name given by the Church, a name argued about, a name prayed to.  The Orthodox Churches focus on the circumcision of Jesus, that very specific way in which we was named, “flesh and blood,” “human,” and given the name, Jesus.

Eight days after the birth, Jesus is taken to the temple as was customary for the circumcision of the Jewish baby boys. Luke’s Gospel shows us that Mary and Joseph were faithful to the Jewish Law and that Jesus followed their example. According to the law, Jesus was brought to the temple on the eighth day. At the temple, his parents brought offerings and Jesus was blessed by Simeon, with the words we say every day at Evening Prayer.

Jesus was circumcised and dedicated. His mother was blessed and purified. The Holy Family went to Jerusalem for the celebration of the Passover. Luke shows us the grown up Jesus who worships in the synagogue, and who fulfills the Law of Moses, the Law of God. He fulfills even as he transforms.

Jesus is given the name that the angel Gabriel had said, the name that is a form of the name Joshua and means, “salvation is from God,” or “salvation is from the Lord.” Salvation is in his name and his saving power continues to work for us.

The life of Jesus saves us from a life lived only to the self. The words of Jesus save us from anything or anyone who would demean us or suggest that we are anything other than a child of God. The healing of Jesus saves us as we pray for wholeness and try to extend his healing to others. The laughter of Jesus saves us from despair. The welcome of Jesus saves us in from the cold. The death of Jesus saves us from the fear of the grave and from dying without a purpose. The resurrection of Jesus saves us from the power of sin to keep us down, the resurrection saves us sin, it saves us— many times—from ourselves.

Jesus saved not only from, but he also saves us for. He saves us for his father, so that God might delight in us his children. Jesus saves us for the kingdom of God, that way of believing and living with one another here-and-now as well as in the future, that way of lifting up one another, encouraging one another and loving one another. Jesus saves us for life—so that in any situation, in any misfortune, in any crisis or calamity we can look through the death to life and to life everlasting.

On this day we celebrate the name that saves and we also celebrate the fact that we share his name. At our baptism, we are given a new name, of sorts, and from that day onward, we live into that Christian name. At our baptism we begin to live into a name that means salvation for each one of us, together but also for each in our own way.

We are together on this first day of a new civil year, perhaps a little sleepy, glad for friends, for celebrations, and for sleep. As we think about a new year and think about those things we might like to do differently, there is the opportunity for us to take on a new name or reclaim an old one. Perhaps that name describes how you’d like to be in the new year. Perhaps a new name marks a transition or a turning point for you. Perhaps it is simply a growing more deeply into a name you have already being growing into.

I leave you with a question like those that appear on the registration forms—by what name would you like to be called this year? By what name is God calling you?

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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The Power of a Word

Logos (word)

A sermon for the First Sunday after Christmas Day, December 30, 2018. The scripture readings are Isaiah 61:10-62:3, Psalm 147, Galatians 3:23-25; 4:4-7, and John 1:1-18

Listen to the sermon HERE.

We all probably know the rhyme,“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” I was taught that saying as a child. But I’m not sure I always believed it then and I don’t really believe it now. Words can hurt. We know it from experience. We see it in the news.  And we know it from history.

Yesterday the Church commemorated Thomas Becket, archbishop of Canterbury, who was murdered on December 29, 1170. Though tensions between Thomas and King Henry II had been brewing, supposedly it was word (or a few words) said in frustration by the king that was then interpreted by the king’s men as a desire to have Thomas killed. And so, in some ways, “a word” killed Thomas Becket.

Words can and do hurt. A little girl thinks she is ugly, does so only because someone has called her ugly. A little boy thinks he’s dumb, not because he is, but because someone has called him dumb. Words shape us. If we were to look back over our lives, I’m sure we could recall times when a word has stuck us as a weapon almost, and it has hurt. Perhaps just as painfully, in a spirit of confession, I bet most of us could recall a time when we’ve used words as weapons and hurt others.

Words can hurt, but words just as surely can heal. A well-chosen and well-placed word can offer encouragement, hope and life.

It is no coincidence that our Biblical account of creation happens by a word. In Genesis we read, “The earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters. And God said, God said, “Let there be light.” And there was light. God said, Let there be this, and let there be that, and after each thing was created, God spoke a single word again: “Good,” God said, “It’s all very, very good.” The Word was busy, shaping and making and proclaiming and blessing.

The Gospel of John picks up on this power of a word to create.

“In the beginning was the Word,” John says, “and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it….And the Word became flesh.”

When John speaks of the “Word,” the Greek term he uses is Logos, and Logos meant more than just a word, more even than all words put together. Way back in Greek philosophy, in the 3rd century BC, Heraclitus said that the Logos “governs all things.” And yet, the Logos is also present in the everyday. Later, the Stoics took up the idea of the Logos and used it to mean “the principle that orders the universe.” So when John uses Logos, or Word, he’s using a term that would have worked as a kind of hyperlink, culturally. To say that the Word was with God and the Word was God, and then to say that this Word, this ordering principle of the universe is completely summed up in Jesus of Nazareth, John was pulling together a lot of different ways of understanding the world. He was describing in his context, what it meant for God to be born in the world. John used a word to bring together different worlds.

While Jesus was born once in the event we celebrate at Christmas, he is also born again and again in our own lives and in our world wherever we make his love known. One way we can bring Christ into our world in through our words.

Just as we know words can hurt, so, through the love of Christ, our words can take on additional power to heal, to love, and to lift up. Guided by the Holy Spirit, our words can do much more than simply offer kindness—though in our world—that is no small thing. But even more, informed and influenced by the Spirit, our words can offer life and love to those who may have forgotten how such words even sound.

As we look toward a new year, I’m hoping to watch my words very carefully. I’m going to be praying that my words might help and heal rather than criticize or tear down. I invite you also to think about your words, pray about your words, and may God guide us all to speak truth, to speak for justice and to speak in love.

Remembering Psalm 19, “May the words of our mouths and the meditations of our heart be acceptable in sight of the Lord, our strength and our redeemer.” (Psalm 19:14)

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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The Secret Word of Christmas

grace

A sermon for Christmas Day, December 25, 2018. The scriptures are Isaiah 52:7-10, Psalm 98, Hebrews 1:1-4,(5-12), and John 1:1-14.

In the late 1980s there was a very silly television program called “Pee Wee’s Playhouse.”  It was intended for children, but it was also entertaining to my friends in college and seminary.  One aspect of the show that found its way into popular culture was Pee Wee’s “secret word.”  At the beginning of each show, the live audience and the viewer would be shown a “secret word.”  Then, Pee Wee would try to get various residents of the wacky playhouse and neighborhood to say the secret word.  When a person said the word, all madness would break out:  lights would go off and on, people would scream and laugh, furniture would move around, and the house itself would shake.

Our liturgy for Christmas Day doesn’t have a “secret word” as such, but if it did, that would might be the simple-yet-complicated word, “Grace.” In an opinion piece for the New York Times on Sunday, Peter Wehner wrote about grace. He recalled the story in which a number of religious authorities were gathered and were discussing what, if anything, made Christianity different from other religions.  The story goes that C.S. Lewis was asked for his opinion and said, “Oh, that’s easy.  It’s grace.”

I don’t mean the kind of grace that has to do with fluidity and ease, with flow or even kindness.  I mean the other kind of grace— the pure free gift that comes when we least deserve it.  Someone forgives us when they have no real reason to do so:  that’s grace.  We’re freed from a burden that’s weighed us down too long, and we aren’t even sure of how that freedom came—that’s grace.  God comes to Mary with Grace.  God comes into our world as grace.  And through the mystery of the cross—the death and resurrection of Jesus—it is grace that frees us from the power of sin, the trap of evil, and even from death itself.

In the back of our Book of Common Prayer there is a catechism.  One of the questions asks simply, “What is grace?”  And the answer is that “Grace is God’s favor towards us, unearned and undeserved; by grace God forgives our sins, enlightens our minds, stirs our hearts, and strengthens our wills.”  That’s some power little word.

In Peter Wehner’s article, he points out the counter-intuitiveness of grace. He quotes Bono of U2, who says, “Grace defies reason and logic,” as Bono, the lead singer of U2, put it. “Love interrupts, if you like, the consequences of your actions.”

If grace were a secret word like on Pee Wee Herman’s show, lights would go off and on, the room would shake, all creation would be animated, and we be shouting for joy.  If we remembered that grace IS God’s word, and God’s action, and God’s movement, and God’s love in the world and in our lives—perhaps we’d accept that grace a little more, and perhaps even we’d become better at extending a little grace to others.

The writer Frederick Buechner puts it this way:

The grace of God means something like: Here is your life. You might never have been, but you are because the party wouldn’t have been complete without you. Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid. I am with you. Nothing can ever separate us. It’s for you I created the universe. I love you.

There’s only one catch. [Buechner adds]. Like any other gift, the gift of grace can be yours only i8f you’ll reach out and take it.  (Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC, p. 34).

Thanks be to God for the gift of himself through Jesus Christ—who shows us how to live, but also who dies to sin and death in such a way that gives us eternal life, eternal love, and eternal grace.  In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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Remembering how God comes into the World

abstract nativityA sermon for Christmas Eve, December 24, 2018.  The scriptures are Isaiah 9:2-7, Psalm 96, Titus 2:11-14, and Luke 2:1-20

Listen to the sermon HERE.

I began this Christmas Eve the way I’ve begun for years—organizing my morning around the 10 AM live broadcast of A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols from King’s College, Cambridge. Even though I listen to that service every year and I often listen to Choral Evensong on BBC 3 online, there is a part of me that still bristles—or if not, “bristle,” as least I notice—when we pray for the Queen. Of course, we pray for the President in our services and for our other leaders, but something about praying for the Queen sends a little shock through my American heart.

I think a part of my attention to prayers for royalty has to do with my ambivalence around authority, in general. Deep down, I’m a rebel and I question all authority. But there’s another part of me that longs for a leader—I want political leaders to be smart, savvy, broadminded, and honest. I want religious leaders to be holy, and moral, and good, and humble. I want academic leaders to be honest and brilliant. I want business leaders to be creative and ethical and entrepreneurial— all at the same time.

With all my expectations of other people, it will not surprise you that I’m often disappointed. As a wise friend of mine cautions me to remember, “Expectations lead to resentments.”

What startles me in the Christmas story this year is so basic and fundamental, it’s embarrassing to say out loud. But I need reminding—yearly, weekly in church, daily in my prayers.

At the Incarnation, the moment of God’s disclosure we name as Christmas, God did not come to the powerful. God did not come to the wealthy, the well-respected, the morally upright, the religious officials, the rulers, emperors, kings and queens. Some of them would come to God—eventually, though it would be difficult, as difficult (using Jesus’s words) as a camel walking through the eye of a needle—yet (also, as Jesus points out) all things are possible with God. (Matthew 19:24-25).

God comes to Mary, a poor, young, Jewish woman living on the outskirts of Nazareth.
God comes to Joseph, an older tradesman, a carpenter.
God comes to the shepherds, the field hands, the roving workers, the ones who live among the animals, close to the ground.
The Magi or Wise men or Kings come later, but they make it through that proverbial “eye of the needle” by risking everything in order to follow the newborn messiah. They put their reputations on the line; the put their lives on the line, and in so doing, their material riches are transformed into the riches of a spiritual poverty.

Saint Oscar Romero, the martyred archbishop of San Salvador, spoke honestly about this in a Christmas Eve sermon in 1978. He said,

No one can celebrate a genuine Christmas without being truly poor. The self-sufficient, the proud, those who, because they have everything, look down on others, those who have no need even of God—for them there will be no Christmas. Only the poor, the hungry, those who need someone to come on their behalf, will have that someone. That someone is God., Emmanuel, God-with-us. Without poverty of spirit there can be no abundance of God. The Violence of Love: The Pastoral Wisdom of Archbishop Oscar Romero, Harper & Row, 1988.

My conflicted relationship with authority continues. I will keep on trying to hold bishops, business leaders, and politicians accountable. But I’m going to try to remember the Christmas Story and the Gospel, that the way God comes into the world—FIRST—always and everywhere, is to the poor, the needy, the forgotten, and the friendless. Whenever I make myself poor—by giving up, by simplifying, by sharing, and by serving—I will experience new life in God.

Christ was born in Bethlehem. But Christ is also born in our world and wants to be born anew in each of us.

May this Christmas bring us a renewed sense of Christ’s life in us and around us and may we have new faith in the Light of the World.

Amen.

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Out of our Sleep

Wallace waking up

A short homily offered at the Service of Christmas Lessons & Carols, Christmas Eve, December 24, 2018. 

Listen to the sermon HERE.

The choir sang a wonderful anthem a few minutes ago called “Out of your sleep” by Richard Rodney Bennett.

Out of your sleep arise and wake,
For God mankind now hath ytake.
All of a maid without any make:
Of all women she beareth the bell.
And through a maide fair and wise,
Now man is made of full great price:
Now angels knelen to man’s service,
An at this time all this befell.

It’s from an anonymous 15th century text, but even though some of the language is strange and poetic, we hear its joy:  God’s coming down to earth raises us to heaven.  Mary favored among all women and made empress of all heaven, earth, and even below. The angels serve at humanity’s pleasure, foes become friends, and grace rules the day.

Out of your sleep, the anthem sings:  Wake up to life!  Wake up to love!  Wake up to God!

Sometimes it takes a lot to wake us up.

Among my favorite movies are those with the clay animated figures Wallace and his dog Gromit. For them, waking up is fairly involved.   cartoon characters Wallace and Gromit, it takes a little more than any of that. There’s an alarm that triggers a tea kettle, which makes steam which activates a giant hand that pokes the underside of the bed. Then there’s the smell of cheese—a good Stilton or “Stinky Bishop,” usually—and then a spring-loaded bed, a slide, a chute that lands them into their clothes, with a cup of coffee made just like they like it.

We wake up, of course, not only in the morning, but all kinds of things can jolt us awake. Someone swerving into our lane on the road. A change in what we thought was to be our employment for the rest of our life.  The arrival in the family of a child–a niece or nephew, or a grandchild. An unexpected test result from the doctor. And then, the other extreme, after worry and fear, we receive clean results from the doctor, and life is different from before.

The Christmas story is about waking up.  Joseph wakes from his dream to find that it’s all true.  Mary awakens to herself, finding that with God, she’s stronger, more faithful, more loving, more forgiving than she even imagined possible.  The shepherds wake to a new world and the magi awaken to new ideas, a paradigm shift, and a world larger than they had thought.

And what about us?  How might God be calling us out of our sleep this Christmas? Are you being called to awaken to another person? To a part of yourself that’s been slumbering?  To a new place in which God might be calling?

With the Baby Jesus himself, may we awaken this night to a new world of faith and a new world of love.

Amen.

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St. Elizabeth & the Moment of Magnificat

visitation

The Visitation by Master Heinrich of Constance, c. 1310-20.

A sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Advent, December 23, 2018.  The scripture readings are Micah 5:2-5a, Canticle 15, Hebrews 10:5-10, and Luke 1:39-55

Listen to the sermon HERE

If you go to the Metropolitan Museum this season and walk towards the Medieval European Court, the Neapolitan Christmas tree grabs all the attention.  But leading the way towards it are silent witnesses that also point to the Incarnation, the fact that God has become human in the birth of Jesus.  In the gallery just before reaching the big Christmas tree, there is a small, amazing carving that portrays a part of today’s Gospel. This fourteenth-century carving of Mary and Elizabeth. It portrays the Visitation of Mary to Elizabeth as the young Mary (who has just found out that she is pregnant with Jesus) visits her relative Elizabeth (who is already well into her pregnancy with the child who will be John the Baptist.)

The sculpture is by Heinrich of Constance, a German sculptor, and comes from a Dominican convent in what is present-day Switzerland.  The sculpture would have stood as an invitation for the nuns to meditate on the stories of Mary and Elizabeth, on their bond, and on their faithfulness.

The sculpture shows the two women almost as equals—similar in age, height, appearance, and confidence.  But that’s not the way church history comes to us, is it? Mary is known and loved. Her song, Magnificat, is sung and performed and prayed daily, and people think of her often.

But what about Elizabeth?  We don’t hear much about Elizabeth. We don’t celebrate St. Elizabeth’s Day, or have churches named after her.  Orthodox Christians maintain a little more tradition around Elizabeth and her husband Zechariah, suggesting that during the slaughter of the innocent children by King Herod, Elizabeth hid John the Baptist and was able to save him.  The same tradition suggests that Zechariah died a martyr’s death, that he is the Zechariah mentioned in Matthew 23:35.  Islam honors Elizabeth as favored by God, blessed with a child after having been barren, being mother of John the Baptist and wife of Zechariah.

But Elizabeth is like so many quiet characters in the story of our faith—people (many of whom are women) who are faithful, strong, courageous, follow God, and nurture the faith of others.

On this Sunday before Christmas, the Gospel invites us to notice Elizabeth.  It invites us, perhaps, to give thanks for Elizabeth, to give thanks for the people in our lives who have been like Elizabeth, and to pray that God will help us to be like her in encouraging others to discover and love Jesus.

Earlier in the Gospel of Luke, we’re told how both Elizabeth and Zechariah are descended from the priesthood of Aaron and that both are “righteous before God.”  But Elizabeth is barren, and they are both growing older. The Angel Gabriel appears to Zechariah and tells him that he and Elizabeth are going to have a child, but Zechariah doesn’t believe him. For his disbelief, Zechariah is struck mute, until (Gabriel explains) all these things come to pass.  Whether Elizabeth gets a visit from Gabriel, we’re not told, but it seems that Elizabeth has faith somehow to understand God’s will from the very beginning. She knows she has conceived and she recognizes it for the blessing it is.

Mary’s situation is very different from Elizabeth’s—Mary is a good bit younger, probably still in her teens, and she’s not yet married.  But Mary, too, has faith in God and believes the Angel Gabriel.  Mary also knows she can turn to her relative Elizabeth.

Some versions of scripture will refer to Elizabeth as Mary’s cousin or kinswoman, but we’re really not sure.  The word used can refer to someone who is a blood relative or someone who is close to the family, so we can simply assume they were very close.

While Zechariah is struck mute—unable to speak, but only able to write, Elizabeth is able to say, tell, prophesy, praise, and interpret to her heart’s content. Because of her faith and perhaps her wisdom, Mary could turn to Elizabeth. And in Elizabeth, Mary found a mirror of her own faith—someone older and faithful who could guide her and stand by her for the road ahead.

Sometimes we might be called upon to be like Elizabeth.  Grounded in prayer, with a sense for God’s presence and movement, we are able to help another person see God moving in his or her life. Perhaps like Zechariah, God might invite us to keep our mouth shut for time.  Or, like Elizabeth, God gives us the words to comfort and to encourage.

Notice what happens when Mary is giving the support and encouragement from Elizabeth—Mary sings her song, the song we know as Magnificat, from the first word in Latin.

Many hear in Mary’s song reverberations of Hanna’s song in the Hebrew Scriptures.  Both Elizabeth and Mary would have probably known Hannah’s song and understood it as a thanksgiving for the blessing of a child, as well as a sign of God’s work in Holy Reversals:

for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.

Mary finds her voice in the calm, faithful company of Elizabeth.

While we’re sometimes called to be like Elizabeth, there may be other times when we feel like Mary: We’re overwhelmed by news that’s either too good to comprehend or too hard to imagine responding to—and so we see the company of someone who is a little older, a little wiser, a little more faithful.  In the Visitation of Mary with Elizabeth, we’re given an image of the Church—a place where we can turn for help, for support, for solace, for encouragement, and a place where we can find our voice and sing a song of God’s praise straight from our heart.

As we encounter the Christmas story once again this year, may the Holy Spirit help us to see reflections of ourselves in the various characters we encounter.  At times, may we have the faith of Zechariah and Elizabeth—(the faith to keep quiet in the midst of mystery, or the faith to be quietly supportive to a person in need), or the faith of Mary herself—to allow God’s presence in our lives to be born again, to renew, to turn things upside, all for love’s sake.   With Elizabeth and Mary, may we be expectant and filled with joy.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

 

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The Simple Good News of John the Baptist

JohntheBaptistA sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent, December 16, 2018. The scripture readings are Zephaniah 3:14-20, Canticle 9, Philippians 4:4-7, and Luke 3:7-18

Listen to the sermon HERE.

Today’s Gospel reading is one that almost makes me laugh. John the Baptist is preaching up a storm, really getting into it, “One is coming,” he says, “who will baptize not only with water but with the Holy Spirit and with fire…” and “His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”  But then the very next sentence is, “So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.”

Good news?  What’s the good news that we’re going to be baptized with fire, and one is coming whose job it will be to separate out the good stuff from the junk and will throw all the junk on a fire?  This is that kind of old-time religion many of us have spent time trying to avoid, or at the very least, don’t find it very motivating. This is enough to make us turn to the TV preachers with big smiles and good skin, who just keep things positive and don’t really talk much about Jesus.

And yet—let’s not turn away from the Gospel too fast.

In John’s message, there IS good news.  Part of the good news is that in the separation of what’s good in the world, what’s salvageable—whether we’re talking material things, jobs, perspectives, or people—it’s not our judgment to make.  God will judge, so we can leave it all up to God.  That’s a weight off, because it means I don’t have to stand in judgment of others (or myself) and don’t need to carry that burden. God’s got it.

But John’s message is also really good news because of what comes just before this section of the Gospel about baptism and judgment.

John’s message begins with the good advice to “clean house.” Throw out what’s no longer useful. Let those destructive habits die away—they’re wearing you out, anyway. Get ready for something new. Prepare. Expect. Hope.

And then John gets really practical.  The crowds ask John what I might have asked John, “Ok, so what do we do? How do we live faithfully? Especially when times are confusing and the bad seem to get more prosperous while the good are steadily losing ground.  What do we do?”

More good news from John:  Do the simple, faithful thing that’s right before you.

Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”

John the Baptist, with all of his slightly scary talk about the end of times and the beginning of new days, of one who is coming who will sort things out and given people their due—when it comes down to it, the way we prepare for God’s coming more fully in to our world is through simply acts of kindness and mercy.

As some of you know, last week I was able to go to Mexico City for a pilgrimage to the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe.   I had visited the Basilica and its sacred image of the Virgin Mary in 2015, but it’s one of those holy places that sort of stays with you. I wondered then how it might be to visit for the big feast, when millions of people from all over Mexico and around the world, come together to visit, to sing, to give thanks, and to ask God for help.

My own journey was only about a four-mile walk, while many people had taken buses, bicycles, or walked from long distances.  Some carried children, or provisions for spending the night, or images of Our Lady of Guadalupe that they hoped could be blessed by proximity to the Basilica and the special image of Mary that hangs in that space.

Though I had read of it, nothing could prepare for the atmosphere along the roads and walkway.  Everyone was helping everyone else.  It reminded me of times of crisis in New York City—9/11, or the great Blackout, or Hurricane Sandy—when people lose themselves for a minute or two and actually look around and help.

In Mexico City, all along the way, people were offering free food—pan, tortas, tomales, all kinds of things; and water, atole, coffee, or juice.  The people giving things out were clearly having fun—they were extraordinarily happy and nowhere did I see anyone pushing their way to the front of a food line or insisting that he or she get a first share.

In yesterday’s New York Times, there was a photo of a 17-year-old man named, Jesús Vicuña, who had prayed that his mother might get well.  In gratitude for her healing, he walked for three days toward the Basilica.  The last stretch, he made his way forward on his knees, helped on either side by his two friends.

During my walk Tuesday night, I saw several people making their way to the Basilica on their knees, helped by family and friends, to make it along the way.

Regardless of what one might think about sacred places, holy images, or including the Virgin Mary in one’s prayers to God—there is an amazing power in getting out of oneself, “bending the knee of the heart” in humility, and moving towards God in need.

John the Baptist preaches about repentance.  But he also suggests that absolution comes not through some kind of religious prescription given by a priest, but true absolution comes through those simple acts of kindness, consideration, and humility: lending a coat, sharing food or money, working an honest day.

Even as we sometimes become overwhelmed with the great issues of the day, may we take time this Advent to make little steps of faithfulness.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

 

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Out of the Wilderness

LightA sermon for the Second Sunday of Advent, December 9, 2018.  The scripture readings are Baruch 5:1-9, Philippians 1:3-11, Canticle 16, and Luke 3:1-6

Listen to the sermon HERE.

The year before I was born, Maurice Sendak published his children’s book, Where the Wild Things Are.  I’m not sure when the book came into our family, but I remember that book as among the very first of my favorites.  I grew up with the story of Max, who puts on a wolf costume, gets into trouble, and is sent to his room.  There, whether by dream or something else, Max’s room becomes a wild jungle.  He sets sail on a boat and reaches an island where there are huge, scary, beasts where “the wild things roared their terrible roars and gnashed their terrible teeth and rolled their terrible eyes and showed their terrible claws.”

Wild places can seem just like that—full of roars and gnashing, with scary mysteries lurking behind every corner. For Max, the “wild place” a long way from home, where family and food are.

Whether we have spent our whole lives in a city or spend some time in the wilderness, the “wild place” exists in an almost archetypal way.  It represents something dark and uneasy deep in our unconscious.

For many throughout history, it was only the barbarians who live outside the walls of the city. Saint Augustine imagined the ultimate Christian community as the City of God, and throughout the Jewish, Christian and Muslim traditions, Jerusalem is imagined as a place of privilege. The city is the holy place, the place of order and justice, a place of charity and community and faithfulness.

Unlike the city, the wilderness is DISorderly.  Rules shift and change, or don’t seem to exist at all. It’s a place of monsters and demons; of chaos and calamity.  And so, deep down in us is a fear of the wilderness. The people of Israel wander for 40 years in the wilderness. Jesus met the devil in the wilderness.

How strange, then, that in today’s scripture readings God’s word comes from the wilderness!

Baruch’s message is that those who are in the wilderness will be brought back. Sorrow and affliction will be turned into beauty and glory. God will bring them back, even on a royal throne, they will return. No one will be forgotten. No one will be lost. But everyone will be included in the new Israel, a place filled with joy and glory and mercy and righteousness.

The word of God comes to John the Baptist in the wilderness, and John seems to have kept one foot in that wilderness experience throughout his ministry, whether his preaching was in the outlying areas or in the courts of King Herod. John’s is the voice of one “crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord.” John the Baptist seems to have been strengthened by the wilderness. He seems to have felt God’s call in the wilderness.

John’s word is especially appropriate for us, I think, because as much as we might like to live in spiritual cities (those places where things are orderly, harmonious, faithful and connected to God), we, most of us, have some sense of living in the wilderness.

For most of us, every day is not Christmas. Every day is not filled with the excitement and assurance sung by Mary when she knew that God was with her and that from that moment onward, God would be with creation in a new way.

For too many, and certainly for many among our number, the day to day experience of God is less that of being near the manger (an arm’s reach from Jesus), but more like being apart from God, in a wilderness.

One can find oneself in the wilderness almost anywhere.

Especially this time of year, in the midst of an office party, between the laughter and lightness, right when everyone else seems to be enjoying themselves, you can find yourself in a wilderness. There is a feeling of emptiness and being alone.

Or as Christmas approaches, travel is expensive, time-off is short and the ones you love are far away. And you feel like you’re stuck in the wilderness.

Or because of health—your own or someone else’s—maybe you simply don’t feel much like celebrating this year, and you feel the wilderness.

Who knows what it is that puts you in the wilderness, that makes us feel like we’ve been sent into exile—the death of a friend or loved one, problems at work, problems in a relationship, family dynamics, questions about God, or just the stress of this time of year—whatever it might be, the wilderness can seem all too real.

But for those who are in the wilderness, or for those of us who know it’s territory, let the word of God be heard: “Prepare. Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” Because “every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be brought low, the crooked, straight; the rough, smooth, and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” All flesh, all people, every one of us—will see the salvation, the saving strength, the saving love, the saving mercy and redemption of God. There is hope in this message. There will be a way out and a way forward, and that way will be filled with Christ.

In Sendak’s book, Max is made king of the wild things.  But eventually, something about the wilderness—something he learns from the wild things or perhaps even from the wild things within himself—makes him miss home.  Max renounces his kingship, sets sail, and returns home, where a warm dinner is waiting.  All is forgiven.

Whether we spend our time in the wilderness or in the city, the Spirit of God invites us with words that urge us to know God’s presence more deeply this season. May we prepare our hearts through repentance—that constant turning toward God—that we may know God and know his love for us and for the world.  May we know that God’s Spirit is with us even in the wild places, but also and always leads us home.  With Advent hope in Christ (and with Maurice Sendak) we can say, “let the wild rumpus start” now.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

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The Gringo and Guadalupe

Guadalupe 2015

Tepeyac, January 2015

People make pilgrimages to all kinds of places. Baseball fans travel to Cooperstown, architects go to see famous buildings, and stage performers often recall their first, life-changing visit to Broadway. People even make a kind of pilgrimage to New York City to visit their favorite store, such as Tiffany’s or Macy’s.

Religious pilgrimages have been an important part of my following Jesus.  The experience of visiting and praying where others have strongly felt God’s closeness has gotten into my spiritual bloodstream, making me more open to God’s presence wherever I might be.  It has made me more open to hearing about God’s movement in the lives of others. Finally, pilgrimage teaches me about Incarnation—that God has come and continues to come into our world in human, bodily, blood-and-sweat ways.

Next week I’ll be making a mini-pilgrimage to Mexico City as I join thousands of people walking, praying, and singing at the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

December 12 is the feast day for Our Lady of Guadalupe, a day that celebrates how in 1531 the Virgin Mary appeared to an indigenous man named Juan Diego on a hill just outside Mexico City.  Because she introduced herself in Diego’s native Nahuatl, some suggest that the name sounded like “Guadalupe” to the Spanish religious leaders, and they simply assumed this was an appearance of the Virgin of Guadalupe from Extremadura, Spain.  The nickname stuck, but this Mexican appearance of the Virgin Mary was a little different from her Spanish counterpart:  the image that appeared on Juan Diego’s cloak (or tilma) showed a young woman of dark or mixed complexion. Around her image were signs and symbols that blended native Aztec religion with Christianity.  Like the biblical Mary, Guadalupe presented herself as subversively faithful and disarmingly loving, all the while, pointing to Jesus. Whatever happened on the hill of Tepeyac, Mexico, Our Lady of Guadalupe would become a unifying symbol, a sign of God’s love for all God’s children, and a strong sense of Mary’s encouragement for us to build a place for Jesus—in our land, in our homes, and in our hearts.

I first visited the Basilica in 2015, when I spent some sabbatical time studying Spanish and visiting churches. As someone who had mostly experienced God through my head (reading, learning, and studying), Guadalupe jolted my senses.  Art, music, smell, taste, movement, pain, grief, joy, ecstasy—all combine as pilgrims from all over the world approach the church to say thank you, to ask God for help, or simply to be quiet in the midst of mystery.

I go to Guadalupe next week with gratitude for all life’s blessings.  And, as always, I go with a lot of curiosity.  I will be giving thanks for each of you, for The Church of the Holy Trinity, and that God would continue to show us how to be a home for Christ and welcome others.

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Escape to the Present

Advent WreathA short sermon for the First Sunday of Advent (since the worship service is especially full with The Great Litany and a Choral Eucharist.)  The scriptures are Jeremiah 33:14-16, Psalm 25:1-9, 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13, and Luke 21:25-36

Listen to the sermon HERE

In our first reading, Jeremiah warns that things are going to get bad before they get good, but eventually, God’s people will live in safety.  In today’s Gospel, Jesus also warns of rough days, but then he says something that, to me, sounds a little counter-intuitive.  Stay awake, he says. Be on guard. Be alert.

Given all the bad things Jesus talks about (“signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, … distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves… People faint[ing] from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world ….”), most sensible people would do their best to avoid dealing with any of this.

There are all kinds of ways we might sensibly avoid fear of the future—we might dedicate ourselves to our work.  We might pour ourselves into family.  Or more honestly, we might avoid fear of the future through too much food, or drink, or TV, or “fill in the blank” with whatever helps you escape most thoroughly and surely.

But instead, Jesus calls us to “escape to the present.” (Perhaps the most difficult and radical escape possible.)

We just heard his words in Luke’s Gospel, but I’ll read them again:

Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly, like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.”

Jesus encourages his disciples and us to be alert, that through this alertness, we’ll become strong, strong enough to endure whatever comes.  This kind of teaching by Jesus is often overlooked, as the Church gets caught a bit more on “do’s” and “don’t’s.”  The idea of mindfulness has come into our culture largely through Westerners who have studied Buddhism like Jon Kabot-Zinn and Herbert Benson, or Buddhists like Thich Nhat Hanh or the Dalai Lama who have helped Westerners understand more about meditation.  But here Jesus is, basically saying to us: Don’t get thrown off-track. Stay centered. Be mindful.

How do we be mindful when our world is racing?  Through deliberate practices.

If I read from the Bible in the morning before I check the news, my day goes better.
If I say a prayer in the elevator or the hallway before visiting someone in the hospital, our time seems more God-filled.
If I pause to breathe a few times before going into a crowded room full of holiday revelers, I find the conversations go better, I gravitate toward sanity, and I’m clearer about my agency in being in the social setting that can easily overwhelm me.

Being alert and at peace requires a certain level of faith:  faith that things will be ok, if we take a minute or two out.  Faith that God is somewhere, somehow in charge.  And faith that we will, indeed be made strong enough, strong enough for anything.

The 11th century Archbishop of Canterbury, Anselm, is often known for his heady theological arguments and attempts to convince or prove the existence of God.  It’s from Anselm that we get the much-loved phrase Anglicans aim for:  “Faith seeking understanding.”  But as philosophical and theological as Anselm could be, he also knew that alertness, wakefulness, and mindfulness to God’s world involves a relationship.  It involves our being open to God.  In the beginning of his Proslogion, Anselm wrote,

…[E]scape from your everyday business for a short while, hide for a moment from your restless thoughts. Break off from your cares and troubles and be less concerned about your tasks and labors. Make a little time for God and rest a while in him. Enter into your mind’s inner chamber. Shut out everything but God and whatever helps you to seek him; and when you have shut the door, look for him. Speak now to God and say with your whole heart: I seek your face; your face, Lord I desire. (Proslogian I, Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury in the 12th c.

As we move through this season of Advent, hearing again the prophecies of the Church and the story of God coming, let us take time.  Let us practice being mindful, and may the Spirit help us escape to the present.

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