Merry Christmas

With Advent 4 and Christmas Eve falling on the same day this year, there isn’t much time to switch gears.  This is true in the life of the parish.  The greenery is already hung, candles are in the windows, and the remote control for the battery powered pillars has been located.  It is beginning to look a lot like Christmas, but only beginning.  The poinsettias and magnolia won’t show up until after the morning services are complete.  The Christ candle, lit twice this season in celebration of the Resurrection of the Dead, won’t get lit until Sunday night.  The decorations have only begun, but we know there won’t be much time to make the transition.  The same it true for preachers.  I’m grateful for the blessing of a staff.  This means that unlike many of my colleagues, I won’t be preaching Advent IV in the morning, Christmas Eve that night, and Christmas Day early the next morning.  While this blog has been focused on Advent IV, my exegetical life has been already focused on Christmas Eve.  This also means there isn’t much time to make the switch here either.  So, with apologies to the Advent Police, today, with the O Antiphons still on our lips, I take a moment to consider the joy that comes on Christmas.

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It seems that every Christmas, my interest is drawn to the same place.  Having twice been in a labor and delivery room, I’m not real interested in hanging out with Mary and her midwife for the delivery of the Christ child.  Instead, since it isn’t my child, I’ll act like a 1950s dad and hang out on the greens.  I’m always glad for the shepherds in the Christmas story.  I’m grateful that it is to them that the Good News of Great Joy is first delivered.  There, out on the margins, is where the heavenly hosts arrive to sing praise to the God of our salvation.

Nobody liked shepherds.  They were a necessary evil in a world still transitioning from nomadic farming.  They were smelly and suspect in character.  They were not to be trusted, and yet, it is to them that the Good News has been entrusted.  The unbelievable witnesses will tell the unbelievable story of God’s unbelievable love for all of humanity.  There is something comforting about all that disbelief.  It makes me feel like maybe, just maybe, I too might be qualified to tell the story.  It makes me sure that you, dear reader, have what it takes to spread the Good News of Great Joy for all the people.

As you make the quick transition from Advent to Christmas this year, my prayers are with you.  May God bless you with the words necessary to share the unbelievable joy that comes in a manger on the outskirts of Bethlehem.  Merry Christmas, dear reader, I will see you in the new year.

The importance of proclamation

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I wish there was a YouTube video I could share with you, but as of yet, there is not.  You’ll have to just trust me that the Betty Carr Pulkingham setting of the Mary’s Magnificat is legit and that if your congregation isn’t singing Mary’s Song this week, your worship will be sorely lacking.  If you have a hymnal handy, you should pull it out and open it to S247.  If you do, you’ll not that Pulkingham uses the opening verse of Mary’s famous hymn of joyful hope as an antiphon, which is just a fancy church word for a refrain.  It is set as a canon in two parts.  The way the setting is written, there is a certain highlight on the opening words of Mary in the ICET translation of the original Greek text.

My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my Savior; for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.

The focus of Pulkingham’s antiphon is on Mary’s proclamation, which is interesting, given that the title Magnificat is Latin for the Greek word that Luke’s gives Mary’s Song, that is better translated at “magnify.”  I haven’t been able to locate the ICET’s working documents on the Magnificat translation, so I cannot be sure why they made the switch from magnify to proclaim, but I’m certain they didn’t do it without careful consideration.

While I take great delight in the old version, “My soul doth magnify the Lord,” there seems to be something important about this newer version’s attention to proclamation.  Mary’s intent, it seems, isn’t simply to shine a light on the greatness of God so that she and Elizabeth can experience it, but rather, her ministry as the God bearer is to show forth the greatness of God for all the world to see.  By proclaiming that God has looked with favor on an unwed mother and that God is already in the process of turning the world upside down: casting down the mighty, scattering the proud, lifting up the lowly, and filling the hungry with good things; Mary is shouting from the rooftops the Good News that will come to completion in the life, death, and resurrection of her Son.

As we read and/or sing the Song of Mary this Sunday, mere hours before we light the Christ candle and rejoice in the birth of our Lord and King, it might be worthwhile to spend a few moments pondering the importance of proclamation, both in Mary’s Magnificat and in our own lives as disciples of the soon-to-be newborn King.

A comfort in perplexity

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The Annunciation by Liviu Dumitrescu

Among the many prayers that are said during The Celebration and Blessing of a Marriage in the Episcopal tradition, this one came to mind as I read the familiar story of the Annunciation: “Give them wisdom and devotion in the ordering of their common life, that each may be to the other a strength in need, a counselor in perplexity, a comfort in sorrow, and a companion in joy.”  The word “perplex” is not one that gets a lot of use these days, and it is a word for which very few of us have a working definition.  It means something deeper than confusion.  To be perplexed is to be totally knocked off kilter by something; to be completely baffled, mystified, and thrown off balance.

In the marriage rite, this word makes sense because life will inevitably throw us off balance.  When entering into a covenant to share life with another human being, it must be assumed that there will be moments when one or the other or both of you will find yourself in a state of perplexity, needing desperately someone to come alongside and help you find your footing.  It might come in the doctor’s office, the boardroom, or by way of a phone call in the middle of the night, but it seems likely that for everyone, a moment of perplexity will come.  So, we pray that the couple might serve the other in those moments as a counselor, one who will offer wisdom beyond the immediate circumstances of life, in order to rebuild the foundations that are crumbling.

While I think that role of counselor is important, and I get that the author of this prayer needed comfort for the antithesis of sorrow, I really think the best role any of us can take on during someone else’s perplexing time is that of comforter, and I think the angel Gabriel is the archetype of a comforter in perplexity.  The Greek word translated as “perplexed” carries within it even deeper meanings of fear and upset.  Mary wasn’t just confused by the reality of an angel standing in her room telling her that she is favored and that the Lord is with her, but she is downright scared, anxious, confused, and totally taken aback.

Rather than working to counsel Mary by offering her suggestions as to how she might overcome her state of perplexity, Gabriel takes on the mantel of comforter with the words that angels always bring to those to whom they are made manifest, “Don’t be afraid.”  He then calls her by name, an uncommon occurrence for women in the Scriptures.  There is something reassuring about hearing one’s name be said aloud.  In calling her Mary, Gabriel assures this young bride-to-be that she is seen and valued.  Even as she feels the ground crumbling around her, Gabriel assured Mary that her core identity is secure.  She is, and will always be, even as she will soon become the Theotokos.  Gabriel then reiterates her state of blessedness, being favored by God. Literally, Gabriel says that she has been found in the grace of God.

Life can be perplexing at times.  It is good to have close companions who can serve as a source of God’s comfort in those moments, and it is a holy assignment to be asked to be a comforter in perplexity.

Our Mary Story – Saint Paul’s 90th Anniversary Sermon

You can listen to yesterday’s sermon over on the Saint Paul’s website, or read it here.

On December 20th, 1924, in the home of Mrs. J.H. Shepherd, Saint Paul’s Episcopal Church in Foley, Alabama was founded.  We can assume that some prayers were offered, but in good Episcopalian fashion, we hear nothing about that in the official record.  Instead the two sentence account of that first gathering reads like the minutes of a short vestry meeting, listing only the officers elected: A.A. Rich, Warden; Dr. John Stark, Treasurer; E.D. Hanson, Secretary; W.W. Manning, and E.A. Smith, Trustees.  The Rev. Joseph R. Walker or Mr. Walker, as they called their priests in those days, was the priest in charge of mission outposts in Foley, Daphne, Robertsdale, Loxley, Bay Minette, Flomaton, Atmore, and Brewton.  As you might assume, clergy leadership in these early days was hard to come by, and the Episcopal Church in Baldwin and Escambia Counties was necessarily built on a foundation of strong lay leadership, which has sustained this congregation throughout the highs and lows of the last nine decades.

As the story goes, Saint Paul’s got its name from none other than Mr. John Burton Foley himself.  His children attended a boarding school in New Hampshire called Saint Paul’s, and Mr. Foley was so impressed with Saint Paul’s School that he suggested the newly founded mission in the town that bore his name should have Saint Paul as its patron saint as well.  As I read over the lessons for this week and thought about the history of this parish I began to realize that though Saint Paul’s is a good and appropriate name for this community, it could just as easily been named Saint Mary’s as for 90 years now, The Episcopal Church in Foley has lived into Mary’s model of faithfulness: seeking to share the love of God with the wider world.  Of course, the name Saint Mary’s would have never flown in low-church, Protestant, evangelical South Alabama.  Even hundreds of years after the Reformation, churches formed in response to the excesses of medieval Roman Catholicism aren’t quite sure how to handle the Mother of our Lord.

At times, the Blessed Virgin Mary has been elevated to near godlike status in Roman Catholicism.  In the peak of the Middle Ages some theologians began to speak not of the Trinity, but of a Quaternity of God: Father, Mother, Son, and Holy Ghost.  In response, we Protestants, and yes Anglicans are included in that broad title, have shied away from Mariology, which is unfortunate because there is much we can learn from the example of Mary, especially in Luke’s Gospel where she is lifted up as the pre-eminent example of what it looks like to be a faithful follower of God.  In her conversation with the Angel Gabriel, we see Mary coming to terms with what it means to trust in God fully: a struggle that anyone who decides to follow Jesus will encounter.

The story begins in the backwater, nothing town of Nazareth in Galilee.  Mary is a young woman of maybe twelve or thirteen, betrothed to a carpenter named Joseph.  As she awaits the return of the bridegroom who will take her to his father’s house, Mary finds herself face to face with the Archangel Gabriel.  He begins with words of comfort and blessing, “Greetings favored one!  The Lord is with you.”  Mary is perplexed and she debates within herself what sort of greeting this might be.  Mary is wise beyond her years here.  Clearly she is being buttered up for something by the divine-being standing before her.  “What’s going on here?” she must wonder, “What is about to happen?”

It is in that moment that Gabriel speaks the most common words that angels speak, “Be not afraid.”  Notice that all of this has happened before Mary has committed to anything, before even Gabriel as begun to share with her the good news of God’s plan for salvation.  Mary is favored by God just where she is, just how she is.  She has been offered the grace of God, and quite frankly, she’s not sure what to do with it. Often, we aren’t either.

Our story begins in the early days of what was once a backwater, nothing town called Foley in Baldwin County, Alabama.  By 1924, the city had been incorporated for almost a decade, the railroad had been transporting crops for nearly twenty years, and the city had a school, several churches, and even its own newspaper.  Yet for a small group of Episcopalians, there was still something missing.  There was already an Episcopal congregation in Bon Secour, but getting to worship at Saint Peter’s wasn’t easy, and because the priest came to Bon Secour from Mobile by boat, which was very much weather dependent, you could never be sure if there’d actually be services when you got there.  So Mrs. Shepherd along with the Holks, Wenzels, Mannings, Heltons, and several others petitioned Bishop McDowell for a missionary priest to serve them.  God had found favor with these faithful Episcopalians long before Saint Paul’s was founded, and in response to that grace, and despite some bouncing around, meeting in the Agricultural Building at Foley High School, the Odd Fellows Hall and the Masonic Temple, they found ways to be the Church in South Alabama and on May 22nd, 1928, the cornerstone of the current chapel building was laid.

Sensing Mary’s trepidation, the Archangel Gabriel implored her to not be afraid, and then laid out before her a plan for the salvation of the world that was as amazing as it was hard to believe.  “How can this be?” was Mary’s response.

“Nothing is impossible with God.”

“How can this be?” has been a popular question in this congregation as well.  Finances have been an issue here since the very beginning.  It is only thanks to the generous donation of several lots at the corner of Pine and Orchid Streets by John Foley that Saint Paul’s was even able to consider building a place to call home, but it took raffles, the sale of homemade Easter baskets and even a quilt or two to raise enough money to actually build the church.  Even then, the building had to be built as inexpensively as possible.  The bricks, which were fired in Bon Secour, were thought to be of such poor quality that that many thought they simply would not hold up, and to keep the sewer bill paid, the Boller and Rich families sponsored card parties.  Through it all, and despite a few pretty crummy priests along the way, Saint Paul’s has faithfully lived out the Gospel call to love God and love our neighbor.  Like the Virgin Mary, there have often been doubts, but the steadfast love of God, through which nothing is impossible, has continued to sustain this Church for 90 years.

Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”  Despite her fears and doubts, Mary responded with faithfulness.  Through Mary, God’s plan for salvation came to fulfillment.  In Mary we find an example of faithfulness despite the odds and a call to follow the Lord no matter the cost.

As we look forward to the next 90 years for Saint Paul’s in Foley, my prayer is for continued faithfulness.  There is a tendency in the church to look back on our past and think longingly about how things used to be, but instead, I hope that we will remember that God is continuing to call us forward, continuing to propel us out of these walls and into the world to share the good news of Jesus Christ in word and deed.  Let us never forget the faithfulness of Mary and the faithfulness of our founding mothers and fathers who followed God’s call, took risks, tried new things, and by the grace of God were able to accomplish infinitely more than they could have ever imagined.  Let it be with us as you have promised, O Lord, and bless us with faithfulness and grace in the years to come.  Amen.

How can this be?

If I had to pick the one place where my life intersects that of the Virgin Mary’s, it would be in her initial response to the prophecy of the Angel Gabriel, “How can this be?”  For those of us who strive to follow Jesus on an ongoing basis, there will be moments when it feels like God is pushing us in a new direction and often our initial response is to dig in our heels and say, “I’m not ready.”  Over the last 12 years, starting with my call to ordained ministry on a cold February weekend in Pittsburgh, I’ve had the opportunity to share and hear shared spiritual autobiographies of all shapes and sizes.  One constant in each of those stories is in that moment when God comes calling, the initial response is “Who me?” or “I’m not worthy.” or “How can it be?”

Scholars tell us that this is consistent with the pattern of Old Testament call narratives which include a greeting (1:28), a startled reaction (1:29), an exhortation not to fear (1:30), a divine commission (1:31-33), an objection (1:34), a reassurance (1:35), and the offer of a confirming sign (1:36-37). Moses objected to God in the burning bush, asking God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh?”  Isaiah balked crying out, “I’m a man of unclean lips living among a people of unclean lips.”  It is not uncommon for human beings to trust more in their own shortcoming than in the Lord’s ability to provide infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.

Thankfully, the Lord is gracious, full of compassion, slow to anger, and of great kindness.  Mary’s hesitation doesn’t doom her and all humanity to the dustbin of our own sinfulness.  Instead, “nothing is impossible for God.”  God’s faithfulness outweighs even our deepest doubts and fears, if we’ll just let God in.  I should know, for it is through God’s faithfulness and despite my own objections that I’ve ended up an Episcopal Priest serving in Foley, Alabama.  Thanks be to God.

That Greeting

The Angel Gabriel said to Mary, “Greetings favored one!  The Lord is with you.”  And Mary was much perplexed by his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be.  Mary may have been young, but she was wise beyond her years to be perplexed and full of wonder at the words of Gabriel.  As if seeing an Angel appear before you wouldn’t be frightening enough, this one begins with words of praise and comfort.  Clearly she was being buttered up for something, and so Mary was perplexed and full of wonder.

More than that, and perhaps more accurate to the Greek text, we might say she was troubled and argued within herself at what kind of greeting this might be.  Certainly Mary was asking herself, “What’s going on here?  What is about to happen?”  It is then that Gabriel speaks the classic greeting of the Angels, “Be not afraid,” and the rest, as they say, is history.  But I’m still struck by that greeting.  It is a powerful word from God to this young woman from Nowhere, Israel.

“Greetings favored one.”  Before any request is made of Mary.  Before she ascents to be the Mother of our Lord.  Before anything else, Mary is favored by God.  In all the hoopla over the Blessed Virgin Mary, it is easy to forget that what makes Mary the prototype of our faith isn’t that she gave birth to the Second Person of the Trinity – none of us will have that chance – but that she was a recipient of God’s grace, just like the rest of us.  She was offered the grace of God as “favored one” and everything that followed happened in response to that grace.

You might not see the Angel Gabriel standing in your living room, and you most likely won’t be asked to carry Jesus 2.0 in your womb, but every one of us has the opportunity to respond to God’s grace-filled greeting in loving service.

Here I am. Here we are.

Mrs. Shepherd's 1916 Hymnal

Mrs. Shepherd’s 1916 Hymnal

On Saturday, December 20th, Saint Paul’s will celebrate the 90th anniversary of its founding in the living room of Mrs. J.H. Shepherd.  On Sunday, December 21st, we will gather to celebrate the Fourth Sunday of Advent and the first day of our 91st year.  As we look back on all that Saint Paul’s has done for the Kingdom since December 20, 1924 and look forward to all that God has in store for us over the next 90 years, the lessons for Advent 4 seem particularly appropriate; especially the words of young Mary as she responds to Gabriel’s word from God.

“Here I am.”

There is a popular saying in Pastoral Care circles that goes, “90% of ministry is just showing up.”  I’ve found that to be true over and over again in my ministry.  Just showing up, just being willing to say “Here I am,” can begin to do wonders for everyone involved.  In the case of Mary, a very young woman, pledged to be married to a honorable carpenter, these words forever changed history as she presented herself, fully, the the Lord.

We can learn a lot from Mary’s example, but as important as it is to show up and say “here I am,” it is even more important for a community of the faithful to join together in saying “Here we are,” and that is exactly what Saint Paul’s has done for 90 years.  “Here we are, devoted and engaged disciples of Jesus who are committed to bringing the Kingdom of God to earth in Foley, Alabama.  Let it be with us according to your word.”  Mary was present to the Lord and through her came salvation to the world.  We have a chance to be present to God as well.  As we live into our baptismal covenant by seeking and serving Christ in everyone we meet and loving our neighbors as ourselves, we share the good news of God’s love for the whole world and continue the work begun through Mary; the redemption of the world.