God is here

One of the things that I love the most about being an Episcopalian is the rhythm of our liturgical life.  People often ask me how I don’t get bored doing the same thing day after day, week after week, but to be honest, I love the repetition.  Saying the Lord’s Prayer again and again is calming to me.  Hearing the familiar words of the Eucharistic Prayers makes me feel at home.  I can’t wait until the day we get to say them together again.  I am certain I’m not the only one who feels this way.  Over years and decades and the course of a lifetime, these ritual actions, repeated again and again, eventually write themselves in our minds and on our hearts – they become imprinted on our bones.

I learned this truth during my first summer of seminary.  One of my responsibilities during that summer of Clinical Pastoral Education was a rotation with the hospice program at a large tiered-care retirement facility.  My hospice patient was a woman who lived in the memory care wing.  The first time I went to visit her, I found her sitting on one of the couches, dressed to the nines, ready to welcome a guest into her home.  To her, the year wasn’t 2005, but 1945.  I wasn’t a chaplaincy student coming by to pray with her, but a gentlemen suitor there to take her out on a date.  We talked and laughed, and I enjoyed our time together.  As the summer went on, her condition deteriorated rapidly.  Eventually, my visits took place in her room, where she rested in a hospital bed.  As the end drew near, my colleague Peter and I took to praying and reading the Bible out loud to her.  I can still remember the moment, as I began to read the King James version of Psalm 23, when I saw her lips move.  I couldn’t hear anything, her voice was too weak, but I watched as she recited every word of the Psalm right alongside me.  She couldn’t remember her family, her own name, or even how to eat, but these ancient words of praise in the midst of anxiety and hardship were written down deep within her.

The 23rd Psalm seems to know when we need it.  It was the Psalm appointed for the Sunday after the Boston Marathon bombing and the chaotic week that followed.  It has appeared in the Lectionary during particularly trying weeks in my personal faith journey.  It is always there at the time of death.  The 23rd Psalm shows up in moments of hope and joy as well.  It was the Psalm appointed for the feast day of Mother Becca’s ordination to the priesthood, a day we weren’t quite sure would happen in the midst of what she now calls “Not Cancer.”  The 23rd Psalm is versatile.  It is able to carry some heavy burdens, and I am particularly grateful that it was assigned for us to pray through today.

On this our second of what will be quite a few Sundays of “Church at Home,” after ten straight days of new guidance, new rules, and short-lived new normals, I needed the comfort of “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.”  As the news continues to remind us that no one is exempt from the “valley of the shadow of death,” I’m finding a new and deep appreciation for the “still waters.”  As the need to come up with answers to questions I never dreamed of asking has threatened to overwhelm me, I am comforted by the promise of God’s cup that overflows.

The most profound lesson that Psalm 23 has taught me this week came as I scrambled to find some words to say to you on Thursday afternoon.  Sitting next the water heater in my basement tool-room-slash-office, with the washing machine rumbling nearby, I pulled up my go-to preaching resources.  There, on WorkingPracher.org was a post on Psalm 23 that cited James Limberg, Old Testament Professor Emeritus at Luther Seminary.  Professor Limberg noted that in the Hebrew version of Psalm 23, there are exactly twenty-six words before and after the phrase translated as “thou art with me.”[1]  Smack dab in the middle of this Psalm of comfort, the poet embedded our deepest truth, God is here.  In the midst of anxiety, disruption, pain, and fear – God is there.  In the midst of joy, laughter, excitement, and ease – God is there. God is always in the very middle of it all.

We hear the same message in our Gospel lesson for this morning.  In the middle of the mess, God, in the person of Jesus, is there.  In the middle of a debate over whether someone’s infirmity was the result of sin, Jesus was there, not to settle the argument, but to show how misguided it was.  The man born blind’s problem wasn’t that he was blind.  His most immediate problem was the bigotry and toxic theology that kept people from reaching out to him in love.  So, Jesus stepped into the middle, got his hands literally dirty and figuratively unclean, and violated the laws of the Sabbath to heal the man.  When the debate shifted and the man, momentarily restored to community, was once more exiled from his family and Synagogue, Jesus showed up again, this time to welcome him into relationship with the Savior of the world.  No form of disconnection is beyond God’s capacity to show up and be present to us in our need.

In a Pastoral Directive issued on Friday, Bishop White called for the suspension of all in-person gatherings until further notice.  The Bishop went on to say that we should be prepared for this to be our reality through the end of May.  That’s a really long time to be apart from one another.  For those of us who aren’t tech savvy and can’t livestream a worship service, who can’t feel connected when they see the likes, hearts, and comments coming up in real time, the distance and isolation from your church family can feel overwhelming.  Even at home, surrounded by my own family, there have been moments this week when I have felt like the man born blind, all alone as the world swirls around me.  Thankfully, those moments haven’t lasted too long, and I’ve been able to remember, with regularity, that God is here, right smack dab in the middle of it all.

Isolation is hard, even if it is what we need in this moment, but isolation doesn’t mean you are all alone.  God is here.  God is right there in your living room, and in this moment, the Church has a unique opportunity to be there as well.  I believe that we are being called to take our role as the Body of Christ more seriously than ever, and to be right in the middle of the messiness.  Committed to fulfilling our mission in new and different ways, Christ Church will be present with you, even in our isolation.  The Staff and Vestry have divvied up a call list, and will be checking in with every member of the congregation weekly to make sure we stay connected.  We will continue to offer worship online for those who can connect, and we are developing ways for all of us to worship God, to learn and grow, and to radiate God’s love, even as we are stuck in our houses, especially during the Holy Week to come.

Thankfully, our liturgical tradition means many of you have some go-to prayers already written on your hearts and in your bones.  You can connect with the ever-present God anywhere and anytime, but in this time of isolation, as the Body of Christ in Bowling Green, Kentucky, Christ Episcopal Church is with you.  The waters won’t always be still.  The pastures won’t always be green.  But the Lord, the Good Shepherd, the Comforter, and Christ’s Church will continue to be with you this day and always.  Amen.

[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=4385

holy Lent high points

In case you didn’t notice the Great Litany at the start of today’s service, I’m here to remind you that Lent is upon us.  On Wednesday, almost one hundred seventy-five of us gathered across three services to take part in the Ash Wednesday call to repentance.  With ashes upon our brows, we confessed our sins, recalled our mortality, and gave thanks to God for the gift of eternal life.  In her sermon, Mother Becca invited us into a season of fasting, not in a self-help kind of way, but for the sake of the Kingdom of God and the redemption of the world by the loosening of the yoke of oppression.  It is interesting how, when one hears a sermon three times over, different things stick out.  On my first hearing, I was very much in tune with her use of the yoke metaphor.  At noon, I was wondering about my own fast and what I am called to do to loose the bonds of injustice.  By six pm, as the day grew long, I was caught short by the reality that Lent lasts 40 days.

I’m sure this never happens to you, but instantly, my imagination went off on a wild goose chase. I began to think about the ways in which I have marked time and waited for things in the past.  One favorite way that we’ve used with our girls is the paper chain.  When we’re just so excited about a future event that we can’t even stand it, we pull out the calendar and count how many days until the event.  Once we know how long it is until Christmas, Spring Break, or a visit from Uncle Nate, and since each child needs their own paper chain, we’ll cut twice that number of paper strips, staple them in intertwining loops, and voila, a countdown mechanism.  Every morning, another ring comes off until the big day arrives.

Last week, we heard the story of Moses entering into the cloud of fire atop Mount Sinai.  The lesson ended by telling us that Moses was on the mountain for forty days and forty nights.  I wonder if he made a paper chain?  Or, since paper wasn’t really a thing yet, did he weave together strips of papyrus or mark off the days on a stone tablet of some kind?  When Jesus was sent out into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit to be tempted by the Devil, I wonder if he knew how long he’d be out there?  Matthew tells us that Jesus fasted for forty days, so I’m guessing he didn’t bring a whole lot out to the desert with him.  Certainly, he didn’t have a stapler, but perhaps he marked his days on the rock he used as a pillow.  I don’t know, the imagination is a funny thing.

The Season of Lent makes paper chain making challenging.  In our tradition, the forty days of Lent actually take forty-six days to get through.  Beginning on Ash Wednesday and ending with the lighting of the Great Fire at the Easter Vigil, the season itself lasts forty-six days, but the fast is only forty.  Sundays are a free day, a mini-Easter, a celebration of the Lord’s resurrection, even as we await the fullness of that celebration on Easter Day.  The six Sundays are in Lent, not of it, so you can maybe cheat and have dessert on Sunday, but you shouldn’t pull a rung of the paper chain unless you want Easter to fall on Monday of Holy Week.

The Lenten fast lasts forty days in line with Moses on Mount Sinai, Elijah’s journey to Mount Horeb, Noah’s rain storm, and of course, the Gospel lesson for every first Sunday in Lent, Jesus’ temptation in the desert.  In Judaism, the number forty marked periods of transition and preparation.  As inheritors of that tradition, Christians define Lent as a forty-day period of preparation for the resurrection of Jesus.  This morning, on our first cheat day, 10% of the way through the season of Lent, we have the opportunity to reflect on how we might live in preparation for the joy of Easter Day.  In the Ash Wednesday invitation to a holy Lent, we were invited to self-examination and repentance; prayer, fasting, and self-denial, and reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.

Jesus’s fast was heavy on self-denial, but if we look closely at the story from Matthew’s Gospel, we see that Jesus hit all the holy Lent high points.  Remember that immediately before being led into the wilderness, Jesus was baptized in the Jordan River.  As he came out of the water, the heavens were opened, the Spirit descended on him like a dove, and a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”  The Gospels don’t tell us much of what happened to Jesus before this moment.  We don’t really know how confident Jesus was in his calling as the Messiah leading up to his baptism.  I can’t help but wonder if Jesus really needed to hear those words from heaven.  Maybe his forty days in the wilderness was an extended opportunity for self-reflection.  These forty days were for Jesus, and can be for us, a chance to spend some time listening carefully for God’s call upon our lives and to repent, to turn our attention away from self and toward the mission of God to restore all things to right relationship.  In order to engage in a time of intentional self-reflection, many people will choose to give up one or more of the distractions of our world like social media, television, gossip magazines, or video games.  With more space for silence, we have a greater chance of hearing God’s still small voice.

As I said, Jesus was heavy on prayer, fasting, and self-denial during his own personal Lent.  Matthew goes so far as to tell us that by the time his forty day fast from food was over, Jesus was famished, which is where the Devil saw his chance.  It was through Jesus’ stomach that the Tempter first tried to get Jesus to overstep his bounds.  It was because of his forty days of fasting and self-reflection, however, that Jesus was able to be clear about his call.  God hadn’t yet called him to perform such a miracle.  It wasn’t his time.  I find that fasting is where the Devil can get me as well.  Being hangry is no good for anyone, but the act of intentionally going without can be an opportunity to be reminded that everything we have comes from God. Going without for a while is a wonderful opportunity to be thankful for what one has.

Finally, this lesson from Matthew reminds us of the power of the Holy Scriptures.  Jesus didn’t have an iPhone to kill time on in the desert.  Instead, he probably spent his days going through the stories from the Hebrew Bible that he knew so well.  Stories that his mother had taught him since his youth; stories that he had studied intently as a rabbinical student; stories that had become written on his heart, so that, even when the Tempter tried to use the Bible against him, Jesus was ready to respond.  As you maybe set aside one of life’s many distractions in order to make space for God, I invite you to pick up your own Bible and to read and meditate on God’s great love story contained therein.

There are 42 more days in Lent and 36 more days of it.  I pray that, rather than just biding our time until the celebration of Easter, this holy season might be for each of us an opportunity to be still, to listen, and to grow deeper in our relationships with God.  Amen.

More than enough

One of the great gifts of ordained ministry is the opportunity to engage in continuing education.  In my almost 12 years as a priest, I’ve had the privilege of traveling around the country, learning from some of the leading voices in practical theology and liturgy.  Of course, as many of you probably know from experience, continuing education opportunities can be intimidating at times, especially early in one’s career.  I still remember vividly my first continuing education event way back in November of 2008.  I had come across a conference put on by the United Methodist Church called “Worship in a Postmodern Accent” that just sounded really cool.  I booked a flight to Oklahoma City, everyone’s favorite vacation spot, for a few days at some non-descript, airport-adjacent hotel.  It really was a fantastic conference, filled with impactful alternative worship experiences, lectures by some of the most creative minds in worship planning, and good fellowship with people some whom I still have contact through social media.  For all the good that weekend had to offer, I also still vividly remember the overwhelming feeling of inadequacy that threatened to swallow me whole.

In November of 2008, I had been a priest for half a minute.  I was twenty-eight years old, and still not sure what this life of ordained ministry would really look like.  There I was, mixing it up with some of most imaginative and talented people in their field, and I began to wonder, “Do I even belong?  Not just here in Oklahoma, but in the priesthood.”  It all came to a head on the second day, in one of the lower level meeting rooms, at three o’clock in the afternoon.  Jonny Baker, then-head of the Fresh Expressions Office in the Church of England, had set up a labyrinth experience unlike anything I’ve ever seen.  A dozen or so prayer stations had transformed a room with loud carpet and foldable walls into a sanctuary.  There was a working television at one station, a sand box at another, and various light displays.  It all led to the center where Jonny had somehow created a flowing river in this hotel ballroom.  As I took in what was happening in that space, a little voice crept into my head and said, over and over again, “You’ll never be this creative.  Give it up.  Why waste your time?”  Still, I plodded through the labyrinth because I had signed up for it and I’m a One on the Enneagram.  In the middle, at the bank of the manmade river, we were supposed to write down our fears on a piece of paper, and I kid you not, fold it into an origami boat, to float down the river.  This really happened.  By that point, I knew my fear all too well.  I was afraid I wasn’t enough.  I was afraid that I would never be enough.  Not just to create some crazy alternative worship service someday, but that I’d never be enough to be a good priest.  I grabbed a pen from the bucket and began to write.  A few letters in, the pen dried up.  Of course, it did.  I couldn’t even do that right.  I looked down in exasperation at the pen in my hand and noticed that it wasn’t your typical gray Bic that you can buy a dime a dozen.  It was a promotional pen, not for Saint Swithin’s by the Sea or the United Methodist Church, but it said, “God doesn’t call the equipped.  God equips the called.”  I thanked God for the moment of reassurance, tucked that dried up pen in my pocket, and have been mostly able to trust God to sustain my ministry ever since.

That experience came to mind this week as I read the story of Jesus’ baptism by John at the Jordan River.  Last we heard, Jesus was a twelve-year-old boy who had stayed behind at the Temple in Jerusalem while his parents made their way back to Nazareth after the Passover Feast.  Last we heard, Mother Becca was inviting us to think about how, during those three long days, Mary must have struggled with her own inadequacy in the call to be the Mother of God.[1]  Today, we’ve fast-forwarded 18 years. Jesus is now about thirty and at the Jordan River asking John for baptism.  John knows he’s not adequate for the task at hand. He couldn’t even tie the thong of Jesus’ sandal.  John shouldn’t baptize Jesus, Jesus should baptize John, but Jesus is resolute.  John is more than enough for the job because this is the way to “fulfill all righteousness.”  My friend Evan Garner spent a lot of time thinking about that phrase this week.  It’s an odd turn of phrase in Greek and it is very difficult to capture the idiom in English translations.  Righteousness is one of those fifty-cent church words that gets used a lot, but I’m not sure any of us really knows what it means.  Joseph was described as righteous when he decided to dismiss Mary quietly after she was found to be pregnant out of wedlock.  He was a rule follower, but more than that, he was compassionate.  Righteousness was found in the delicate balance of doing what was allowable under God’s law, while also doing what was best for Mary; not taking it to the extreme.  Having Mary stoned to death was also allowable under the law, but it would seem that was not the righteous or just option for Joseph.  The Contemporary English Version, an authorized Biblical translation for use in the Episcopal Church translates the whole sentence as “For now this is how it should be, because we must do all that God wants us to do.”  Evan argues, and I agree, that what Jesus is saying to John isn’t that this moment of baptism is the capstone in God’s work of redemption for the world, but rather, it was, in that moment, the right next step in God’s ongoing unveiling of the Kingdom on earth.[2]  That’s what the season of Epiphany is all about, glimpses into God’s plan for salvation, spotlights on the still ongoing work of restoring creation to wholeness.

As Jesus came up out of the water, the heavens were torn in two, the Spirit descended like a dove, and a voice from heaven spoke, maybe only to Jesus, saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” Here too, the Greek is hard to bring into English.  Well pleased isn’t a bad translation, but another possible rendering is “whom I have gladly chosen.”  Jesus, the human manifestation of God the Son, had been chosen from before time and forever.  We won’t hear the Temptation story for a couple of months, but in all three Synoptic Gospels, we are told that immediately following his baptism, Jesus spent forty days in the wilderness being tempted by Satan.  As a kind of pre-emptive encouragement, God affirms Jesus’ calling, names him as beloved, and reminds him that he has all he needs for what lies ahead.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t remember any voices from heaven at my baptism.  Still, whether you were baptized at 6 months or 60 years, I firmly believe that in that moment, as water ran down your brow, God named you as a gladly chosen member of Body of Christ, heir to the Kingdom of Heaven, and co-worker in the ongoing work of fulfilling all righteousness.  Through the sevenfold gifts of the Holy Spirit and the specific spiritual gifts imparted upon each of us in baptism every one of us has been equipped for ministry. With God’s help, none of us is inadequate for the task at hand, whether that task is building chairs for a new Sunday school classroom, leading a book study, packing sack lunches, or sharing the Good News of God’s work in your life.  God is still at work in the world, fulfilling all righteousness, and invites each of us to take our part in it.  When you feel overwhelmed.  When you feel like you aren’t enough.  Just remember, you, like Jesus, are loved by God, you were gladly chosen for the task at hand, and you are specifically equipped for ministry by the power of the Holy Spirit.  God doesn’t call the equipped.  God equips the called for the salvation of the whole world.  Amen.

[1] https://beccakello.wordpress.com/2020/01/05/three-days-time/

[2] https://evandgarner.blogspot.com/2020/01/fulfill-all-righteousness.html

Blessed and a Blessing – a homily

As with most great and storied traditions, we have no idea where the ancient practice of chalking doors with “holy graffiti”[1] on the Feast of the Epiphany got its start.  We can assume that the concept grows from the ancient roots of our Judeo-Christian heritage.  In the Exodus, as the descendants of Abraham prepare for their final escape from Egypt, the LORD commanded them to mark their door with the blood of the Passover lamb as a sign for the Angel of the Lord to pass over their homes when it came to kill the firstborn of Egypt.  Later, in Deuteronomy, this image of marking doorposts was used again.  Moses is again instructing the people about how they might find favor with God, this time as they finally prepare to enter into the Promised Land of Cana.  Moses gives the people what would become their foundational prayer, a mantra of sorts, that is still used by the Jewish faithful of today, “Hear, O Israel: The LORD is God, the LORD alone.  You shall love the LORD you God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.  Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart.  Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise.  Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.” (Deuteronomy 6:4-9, NRSV)

Tonight, as we gather to remember the coming of the Magi from the East to pay homage to the child born as king of Jews, we hear in their story the blessedness of hospitality.  As guests in the home of Mary and Joseph, the wise men brought gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, meant to be blessings to the holy family in the days to come.  But as guests, the sages from the east were also surely blessed by Mary and Joseph.  Hospitality was assumed in the ancient world.  When a stranger entered your home, they were offered water to clean their feet, food to eat, and wine to drink.  No matter how little you might have, you would bless your guests upon their arrival because you never knew when you might find yourself in need of a blessing along your own journey.  The chalk that we bless tonight is meant to mark a sign and symbol of God’s blessing upon your homes, but also as a sign and symbol of God’s blessing upon all who will pass through those doors.

This double blessing is symbolized in the three letters, C, M, and B that make up the blessing.  C, M, and B are the initials of the three names that tradition has given the Wise Men, Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar, reminding us of the blessing that comes from welcoming guests into our homes.  They also are the first letters in the Latin blessing, “Christus Mansionem Benedicat,” which means “May Christ bless this house,” as we ask God in this holy season to be present among us as God the Son was made manifest upon earth in his Incarnation.  In this Epiphany Season, may you be blessed with a safe lodging. May you be a blessing to all who pass through your doors.  And may this church be a blessing to all who pass by and through, shining as a beacon of God’s grace and love in a world that desperately needs it.  Amen.

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[1] https://www.episcopalnewsservice.org/2020/01/06/for-an-epiphany-blessing-chalk-the-door-with-holy-graffiti/

Testify to the Light

Long before I took any sort of flying lessons, I spent many hours in the right seat of my father-in-law’s single engine airplane.  Around the hangar, I learned that one of the pithy sayings in the flying community is that “every take-off is optional, but every landing is mandatory.”  The primary goal of a pilot is to bring the aircraft to a safe landing at its destination.  This requires all sorts of training as well as reliance upon many safety mechanisms both inside and out of the cockpit.  Travelling down Scottsville Road near Rafferty’s on a gloomy evening or foggy morning, you might notice a light occasionally streaking across the sky from south to north.  This light, which shines brightly out into the night sky is the Bowling Green-Warren County Regional Airport Beacon.  One of the first things a student pilot is trained to look for in lowlight conditions is this beacon.  No matter where you might be above the earth, you should be able to see at least one white and green light calling you home.  From the air, these lights are visible from many miles away, which can help a pilot flying under Visual Flight Rules locate an airport and begin the approach process.  These beacons can be particularly helpful in an emergency, when finding an airport quickly can mean the difference between life and death, but on a less dramatic level, the reality is that if you can’t see the beacon at an airport, you can’t legally land there under VFR.

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One of my jobs as co-pilot for my father-in-law was to find the beacon.  While he was busy getting the plane ready to land, communicating with air traffic control, and going through his check-lists, my eyes were fixed in the general vicinity of the airport, looking for that familiar light to flash across the windshield.  “Got it,” was my usual response when the airport beacon was in sight.  These two words were enough for Doug to know that the mandatory landing ahead of us would be as standard as a visual landing can be.  As the co-pilot, I am the one responsible to testify to the light.

John the Gospel writer is very careful to remind his readers that John the Baptist was not the light, but one who had been sent as a witness, to testify to the light that was coming into the world.  Both the noun “witness” and the verb “to testify” are translated from the same Greek root, martyr.  John the Baptist would die a martyr’s death because he lived a martyr’s life, as a witness to the light of Christ and testifying to anyone who would listen about the light that darkness could never overcome.  To stretch the flying metaphor a bit, John the Baptist was given the ability to see the beacon of God’s work in Christ long before the rest of the world could see it.  He was called to get on the radio to tell anyone with who would listen where to find the light; calling everyone back to their home field.  John’s role was to invite everyone within earshot to open their eyes and see the light shining in the darkness.

This morning, as we gather on the First Sunday after Christmas Day and hear the familiar, yet lofty words of the prologue to John’s Gospel, we are also welcoming two new members into the Body of Christ.  Through the gift of the Holy Spirit that Maya and Alex will receive today, they will join with us as inheritors of the primary vocation of John the Baptist and every disciple in every generation as witnesses of the light.  In just a couple of minutes, we will all make a pledge to support these two young people in their life in Christ by living our lives as examples of what it means to testify to the light of Christ that shines in the darkness.  It isn’t hard to notice that the world is in a constant state of low light conditions, but filled with the light of Christ, Christians of all ages are called to shine in the darkness,  With God’s help, we are called to show Alex and Maya what it looks like to share the Good News of Jesus, and to help our family, friends, and neighbors to see the beacon that is so often obscured by the fog of fear, anger, hurt, and regret.

A little more than two years ago, when we baptized Jocelyn, Maya and Alex’s big sister, I asked you to consider how you might live into the commitment you made.  “As you renew these promises, are you doing all in your power to grow in the knowledge and love of God?  Are you reading the Bible?  Are you praying?  Are you giving? Are you serving?  Are you sharing the Good News and the hope that is within you?  Are you giving back to God everything that is God’s?”[1]  Today, I wonder how those same practices of discipleship are helping you shine the light of Christ in a world filled with darkness?  How is God inviting you to testify to the light?  As followers of Jesus, we are to carry Christ’s light out into the world to help people see that in the light of Christ there is life, and that life is abundant with joy, compassion, grace, hope, and love.  No matter how dark it might seem, the beacon of Christ’s hope is always shining, always visible, and always calling us home.  Amen.

[1] https://draughtingtheology.wordpress.com/2017/10/22/giving-our-lives-to-god-a-sermon/

Defying Traditions

This might come as a surprise to you, as we gather at a very traditional Christmas Eve service,  in a very traditional church, wearing very traditional vestments, singing very traditional carols, but I’m really not that big on traditions.  I am keenly aware that most of “the way things have always been” started in the 1950s, and I don’t really think they need to be held on to just for tradition’s sake.  For example, I’m not really a fan of singing Silent Night by candlelight, but I also like my job, so I’m not going to change it for change sake, either.  Anyway, that’s another sermon for another Christmas Eve.  I am also keenly aware that of all the days of the year, Christmas is the one that carries with it the most tradition – family, civic, cultural, and religious.  Many of you are probably here this evening, up way past your usual bedtime because it is just what you do on Christmas Eve.  I’ve been attending a “Midnight Mass” at an Episcopal Church on Christmas Eve for as long as I can remember because it was the tradition in my own family.

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I may not see the need to hold on to traditions for tradition’s sake, but I understand quite well their importance.  Traditions are important because they give us something to hold on to when the world around us seems to be shifting right before our very eyes.  The cold, dark winter days; the changing of the calendar year; children growing up; it seems that tradition is especially important around Christmas because this time of year reminds us that time marches on.  In the face of that unrelenting reality, we hold on to the past, to things that bring us comfort.  For my family growing up, the tradition we repeated every year was the annual Friday after Thanksgiving cutting of the Christmas tree.  We’d get up early and drive an hour north of town to a huge Christmas tree farm, in search of the perfect tree.  When we found a good one, my sister or I would stand by it, while rest went in search of one better.  When THE TREE was finally settled upon, my dad would take out his trusty hacksaw and fell it like a lumberjack of old.  We’d tie it to the top of the minivan and head home, excited to cover it with lights and decorations.

There was one problem with our big annual tradition, however.  My mother, my sister, and I are all very allergic to pine trees.  Wheezing, hacking, sneezing, with a headache to boot, our time spent decorating the tree was mostly a misery, yet year after year, we held on to that tradition.  One year, my mother read an article that said you could cut down the allergic effects of a real Christmas tree by running it through the car wash on your way home.  Having once again found the perfect tree, we tied it to the top of our Dodge Caravan and headed home.  On the way, dad ran through a car wash to rinse off the pine dander, and by the end of the day, we had a beautifully decorated tree with somewhat less itching or sneezing.  However, as the weeks went by, we noticed that despite regular watering, needles seemed to be falling of the tree faster this year than most. And then, on Christmas Eve morning, as if the tree knew what day it was, every last needle dropped to the floor. There we were: my mother crying while the rest of us were red-eyed and sneezing because the allergy reducing effect didn’t last, staring at a dead Fraser fir, decked in lights and ornaments and popcorn and cranberries, but lacking all of its needles. As this story has been told over the years, the amount of money the replacement tree cost has risen with inflation, but whatever the price, it was way too much to pay for a Christmas tree. Whether the blame falls on the scalding hot water, forgetting to deselect the hot wax option, or the turbo dryer at the end of the car wash, we will never know, but one thing was certain on that December the 24th, the tradition to which we had clung for so many years was finally over.  By the next Christmas, we had a lovely fake tree all ready to decorate Thanksgiving weekend.

The Gospel lesson for Christmas Eve is a story of tradition.  Each person named plays their traditional role.  Caesar Augustus plays the traditional role of the capricious political figure who used his power to move people around like pawns on a chess board.  Joseph, of the House of David, plays the traditional role of nervous father-to-be.  His job was to help Mary, a very traditional young, first-time mother along the arduous, hundred-mile journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem.  The baby is born in the traditional manner, albeit in the non-traditional location of an animal pen.  The shepherds play their traditional role, doing the twenty-four hour a day, hard work of tending sheep outside of town.  Shepherds were considered unclean, and weren’t able to move about like other people.  In the midst of this traditional scene enter some very non-traditional characters.  An angel of the Lord appeared before them, joined quickly by a whole choir of angels who sang out with great joy the Good News of the birth of a Savior, the Messiah, Christ the Lord.

All of a sudden, all that is traditional goes out the window, and the whole world changes.  The shepherds run to the city to see this thing that the angels described.  Breaking tradition by entering the city at all, especially at night, once the gates had been shut, the shepherds, unclean as they are, find their way to the cave where Mary, also unclean from having given birth, Joseph, and the baby are resting, as best they can, on this most holy and different kind of night.  In the birth of Jesus, all of Creation, broken as it was and continues to be, was turned right-side up, if only for a fleeting moment, the twinkling of an eye, the flashing of a star.

Now that I’m grown and have my own children, we’ve created our own traditions.  In our family, we don’t have a real Christmas tree, but we do watch some of our favorite Christmas movies.  Home Alone 1 and 2, the Santa Clause 1, 2, and 3, and of course, A Charlie Brown Christmas.  I defy you not to get goose bumps when Linus steps out onto that stage and recites Luke’s Christmas Gospel.  It was pointed out to me for the first time this year that while Linus says those same traditional words from the King James Version that Deacon Kellie just read, as he comes to the place where the angel appears before the shepherd and says, “Fear not,” Linus lets go of his blankie.  A traditional symbol of that to which we cling, Linus is able to let go even as the shepherds are able to resist social norms in order to rush into the city of Bethlehem to see the newborn King.

Linus has me wondering this year what I need to let go of.  What kind of things am I holding on to that are keeping me from embracing the love of God that was fully made known in the birth of Jesus Christ?  For some, tradition holds them back.  Sometimes, it is that the tradition has become the object of worship.  For others, the tradition has lost its power and simply feels like a rote expectation placed upon them.  I think for most of us, the thing that we cling to that keeps us from fully embracing the gift of the Messiah is fear.  That’s why Linus carried that blanket, isn’t it?  To keep the fear at bay?  Fear made Mary and Joseph travel to Bethlehem in the first place.  Fear kept the shepherds out in the fields at night.  Fear tells us that we are not enough or that there isn’t enough to go around.  Fear grips us and holds us back, even as we cling to it because at times, it seems to be the only thing we know for sure.

But all traditions were broken and fear lost its power when, in a field outside Bethlehem, an angel appeared and said, “Fear not.”  Let go of your fear.  Join with the shepherds, set aside traditions and fear this Christmas Eve, and rush toward the Messiah, so that you too might leave this place glorifying God in your heart with praise on your lips, for unto you, and me, and the whole world is born this night, in the City of David, a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.  Amen.

Hope in the Spirit

As I helped Eliza with her 5th grade math homework this week, I realized two things.  First, they are apparently doing algebra in 5th grade now.  Second, I realized how little math I remember beyond basic addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division.  I never thought I’d forget to “please excuse my dear aunt Sally,” but alas, I’ve replaced it with some very limited basics of Biblical Greek, the Constitution and Canons of the Episcopal Church, and since we had kids, the plot and major characters of every Disney movie ever made.  While I’m only a little bit sorry that I don’t remember much about how to solve for x, I am profoundly grateful to have made all kinds of new memories, to have learned all sorts of new things, and to have a computer with one hundred thousand times more computing power than Apollo 11 in my pocket at all times.

Two of the few things I can recall amidst the fading memories of my seminary days are lessons I learned in my Old Testament class.  Our professor, Dr. Cook, was a fan of the Canonical Method of Old Testament criticism.  This method says that the books of the Hebrew Bible should not be read in isolation.  Verses and Chapters should be read within the wider context of the book from which they come and even whole books themselves should be read with an eye toward how they fit within the larger narrative of Scripture, God’s love story for creation.  Dr. Cook also taught us to pay attention when reading the prophets and to note that any prophecy of destruction would be followed soon-there-after by a promise of some sort of restoration.  It might only be an assurance for a few, but the prophets never left the people of God without some hope for the future.

Somewhere this week, between basic algebra and the Canonical Method, I ran across an article by Casey Thornburgh Sigmon from the Saint Paul School of Theology, who suggests that understanding Isaiah eleven requires looking at the bigger picture.[1]  I was immediately reminded of Dr. Cook’s teaching and began to take a larger look at our Old Testament lesson for this morning.  It begins with a word of hope.  It is the promise of restoration to the people of Israel.  “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse and a branch shall grow out of his roots.” If it is true that the prophets never offer judgment without hope, then we can reasonably assume that a word of future hope is rarely offered in isolation from past devastation.  Turning back to Isaiah chapter ten, we see the tail-end of a long prophetic oracle on the impending destruction of the Northern Kingdom of Judah.  In her article Professor Sigmon notes that in order to understand this image of the stump of Jesse we first have to see how the end of the Assyrian army is promised by way of some very woodsy imagery.  “The Sovereign, the Lord of hosts, will lop the boughs with terrifying power: the tallest trees will be cut down, and the lofty will be brought low.  The Lord will hack down the thickets of the forest with an ax, and Lebanon with its majestic trees will fall.”  Chapter ten ends with forest felled completely.  All that is left are stumps as far as the eye can see.  The trees of Judah destroyed by the Assyrians.  The trees of Assyria destroyed by the power of God.  It is a barren wasteland, stark as the bleakness of mid-winter.

As we turn to chapter eleven, suddenly, hope springs forth from hopelessness.  From a stump that is as good as dead, we see the tiniest shoot breaking forth, reaching toward the sun.  In the midst of the reign of the destructive, idolatrous King Ahaz, Isaiah looks forward in hope by hearkening back to the ideal model of kingship for the Israelites, King David.  Yet, even with David in his sights, the prophet is careful to avoid the language of any sort of human monarch, but rather builds this future redemption exclusively upon the power of God to restore all things.  The leader who will bring forth life from the stump that was left after the destruction of Judah must be one who is grounded in the Spirit of God; a spirit of wisdom, understanding, counsel, might, knowledge, and the fear of the Lord.  With these gifts of the Spirit, the leader of this renewed Israel will judge with equity, will care for the needs of the poor, and will strike down the evil with nothing more than a breath.

Over the years, one of the three things that I have filled my head with in the place of algebra is the plot to almost every Disney movie ever made.  In 2016, Disney released a film called Zootopia.  It’s a fantastic film that everyone should watch, no matter their age. It tells the story of a bunny name Judy Hopps who becomes the first rabbit police officer in the city of Zootopia, a city built upon the idea that predators and prey can live together in harmony.  The city slogan is “Anyone can be anything,” but that gets put to the test when predators, who had evolved beyond their ferocious pasts, suddenly find themselves reverting to their “primitive savage ways” for some unexplained reason.  The whole stability of Zootopia becomes threatened by fear and the love of power.  Since seeing that movie in the theatre three years ago, I can’t read Isaiah’s portrayal of the peaceable kingdom – wolf and lamb, leopard and baby goat, calf and lion all living together in harmony – without thinking about the story of Zootopia and how precarious the peace that God promises is, unless it is built upon a foundation of the knowledge of the Lord, the pursuit of justice, and the love of neighbor.

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Heard in the light of King Ahaz and his fondness for self-preservation, worshipping false gods, and entering into treaties with the enemies of God, Isaiah’s vision of a new godly leader for Israel would have been met by hearts filled with joyful expectation.  Reading Isaiah some 2,700 years later and through the lens of our faith in Jesus Christ, it is easy to see how this vision of a restored Israel became a popular one for Christians looking for the promise of a Messiah in the Hebrew Bible.  It is easy to see how this vision of the peaceable kingdom became a popular one for Christians looking toward a hope-filled future after the second coming of Christ.  Even so, we don’t have to read this text as only describing what is possible through the coming of the Messiah or the second-coming of the Christ.  This vision of a future built on peace is possible at every level of society – individual, church, community, nation, and even the world, if we set our hope, as Isaiah would remind us, on the power of the Spirit of God.

While we shouldn’t exclusively read this lesson through the lens of our faith in Christ, as disciples of Jesus, it is our natural tendency to see the promise of the shoot of Jesse’s tree as the promise of the Messiah who we believe to be Jesus of Nazareth.  We believe that in baptism, we receive the gift of the Holy Spirit promised by the prophet.  That same Spirit of God lives within each us, guiding us toward wisdom and understanding, counsel and might, knowledge and the fear of the Lord.  With our eyes fixed on the hope of the holy mountain of God, this Advent season, we join with the beleaguered people of God throughout the generations and search with joyful expectation for the shoot of new life breaking forth from the stump of sin and death.  Like our ancestors in the faith, we don’t wait passively, but rather, with God’s help, we live our lives seeking to be at peace with our neighbors, caring for those live on the margins, working toward justice for all people, and striving for the day of righteousness when we will join with the heavenly chorus and sing out the truth for all creation, “Rejoice! Rejoice!  Emmanuel has come to thee, O Israel!”  Amen.

[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=4316