Sunday, December 28, 2014

Fullness: a sermon

Year B Christmas 1
“Fullness” Dec 28, 2014
St. Thomas Church, Richmond, VA

(Scriptures used: Galatians 4:4-7, John 1:1-18)

In the Name of the God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Merry Christmas!  This is the fourth day of Christmas, and I do not know about you but I am stuffed.  Feasting leaves one in want of a salad.  Maybe a piece of fruit.  I feel full.

Some of you may remember that this time last year my family and I were in Germany, visiting my exchange family from high school.  They had always wanted to meet my girls, and they had always wanted us to come for Christmas.  Last year, we knew, would be the last Christmas I would probably have off ever again.  One of the costs of being a priest.  One of the phrases that I taught my girls before we went was, “Ich bin satt.”  When I first went to Germany, my teacher ground this phrase into our head.  “Do not say, ‘Ich bin voll.’  Say, ‘Ich bin satt.’”  While “Ich bin voll,” may translate word-wise as I am full, culturally speaking, “Ich bin voll,” means I am pregnant.  This is a very different rendering.  “Ich bin satt” means I am satisfied.  In other words, I cannot eat any more.  My exchange family was always pushing me to eat more, try this third dessert, here is another wurst.  Being 15 when I first went, and my daughters being 6 and 8, learning to say when is an important skill set.

Being full is an important thing to recognize.  That word is used twice in today’s lectionary readings, but as fullness.  The condition of being full.  We hear that word in the Galatians reading and John’s Gospel reading.  Because we did not read the Galatians passage because we were doing lessons and carols, let me include a few verses.

Galatians 4:4 But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, 5 in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children.

Paul here speaks to the fullness of time.  When the time was ripe.  When the time was complete.  When everything had been fulfilled.  I must be honest here, when Stephanie and I were first pondering the Episcopal church, I heard this phrase used in the liturgy.  It was used in Prayer B of the Eucharist, and it struck me, “Hey, these people know their Scriptures.”  This once used phrase in Galatians has always been one of my favorites.  The richness of the phrase always pleased me for some reason.  It’s like time was pregnant, and ready to be bursting forth.  Like that German phrase, “Ich bin voll.”  Prayer B looks to the fullness of time when Christ will come again.  Prayer C and Prayer D both use the phrase as it is used in Galatians.

Why did Christ come when he did, in the way that he did?  In the fullness of time, Christ came.  Everything was ready.  Everything was complete.

On Christmas day we made a feast.  I cooked a turkey.  Stephanie made pies and vegetables.  It took hours of work and preparation.  It took coordination for the items to all come out fully ready at close to the same time so we could sit down and eat.  In the items fullness, we found our fullness.  In the fullness of time Christ came.

In the John reading, fullness is used differently.  “16 From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.”  This prologue to John shows that his Gospel will be different.  Mark, the earliest written, starts with Jesus’ baptism.  Luke gives the backstory to John the Baptizer and the relationship to Jesus.  Matthew gives us a genealogy, showing where Jesus fits into the Jewish history and heritage.  But John is different.  He begins with the pre-incarnate cosmic Christ, the agent of creation and redemption since before time, at one with the Father, begotten, not made.  And from this place, we hear this message.  16 From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.  From Jesus’ abundance, from his overflowing cup, we have received that Grace upon Grace.  Grace greater than we can imagine.  Grace beyond our comprehension.  Amazing, abundant Grace.

This first Sunday of Christmas, as we sit in the glow of family and the hearth, may we celebrate our fullness.  We have feasted in celebration of the newborn king.  May we remember the time past in its fullness that allowed Christ to come, and the time to come in its fullness when Christ will come again.  And may will be filled to the brim with his Grace upon Grace.  Come one, come all, revel in the Fullness.  Amen.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

The Song of the Mockingbird and Other Things that Haunt this Teacher/Priest's Soul

Every morning I choose to do something for the common good.  I am an English teacher by choice, instead of vocation.  I was supposed to finish last year after 10 years of teaching, but I stayed on for a bit longer with a toe in the door.  Instead of fully leaving Anna Julia Cooper Episcopal School after four years there, at the end of last year I chose in coordination with the Head of School to stay on and teach one class and do chapels on Wednesdays.  So every morning from 8:20 till 10 a.m. I work on writing and reading with a gathering of students and supposedly guide them through 8th Grade Honors English.

I love working on writing with the students, but my real passion is for stories.  A good book can change a life, and a good life can change the world.  I weave magic every morning, sharing words of passion and heartbreak, violence and justice, love and forgiveness.

The last few weeks have been hard for me as I have wrestled with my students, all of them African-American and me a white Anglo male.  The privilege and class disparities are never far from my mind.  I have choices in my life, both for myself and my children.  One of the reasons I feel so passionately about my school and the work we are doing is that we are trying to create choices for these students.  The cycle of the same-ol', same-ol' does not have to be.  Our recent wrestling has been to finish one of my favorite books before people start heading out for Christmas break.  We are going to make it, but we are cutting it close.  We only have a a few score pages left and we will have completed To Kill a Mockingbird, and every time I read it I feel like it reads me.  It is one of the few books I know that gets better with every devouring.  It is filled with truth, both for the time it represents and for us as well.

[Warning: Spoilers Ahead.  If you have not read To Kill A Mockingbird, for God's sake stop reading this and go pick it up right now.]  This morning we read of Tom Robinson's death in our time together, and how Scout had to keep on a happy face like a "lady," while the women's Missionary Circle was gathered in her home.   Later, Mr. B.B. Underwood, editor of the The Maycomb Tribune, wrote an editorial about the event of Tom's death at the prison while he was trying to climb the fence. 

Mr. Underwood did not talk about miscarriages of justice, he was writing so children could understand.  Mr. Underwood simply figured it was a sin to kill cripples, be they standing, sitting, or escaping.  He likened Tom's death to the senseless slaughter of songbirds by hunters and children, and Maycomb thought he was trying to write an editorial poetical enough to be reprinted...(p. 323)
This is an echo, of course of earlier in the book, when Scout and Jem received air rifles from their uncle.
Atticus said to Jem one day, "I'd rather you shot at tin cans in the back yard, but I know you'll go after birds.  Shoot all the bluejays you want, if you can hit 'em, but remember, it's a sin to kill a mockingbird."  That was the only time I ever heard Atticus say it was a sin to do something, and I asked Ms. Maudie about it.  "You're father's right," she said, "Mockingbirds don't do one thing but make music for us to enjoy.  They don't eat up people's gardens or put nests in corncribs, they don't do one thing but sing their hearts out for us.  That's why it's a sin to kill a mockingbird."
As I pondered that today in my class full of children, I could not help but think about the headlines of the recent weeks.  Ferguson and New York, neither one in the supposed "racist South," have erupted, and we are still in the midst of riots and some looting around the country.  Berkeley, California getting the most headlines lately.  I ponder this story set in 1935, and I get queasy thinking that it is 2014.  Have we gone so little ways down this road in so long a time?  I think of the mockingbird, and its song.  I hear the cries from the protests, and I have to ask myself if they are not one and the same.

Perhaps the cry of the mockingbird, and the shocking push back of race, class and privilege, is no longer pleasing to us, but rather a song we need to hear.  "Black lives matter.  Black lives matter.  Black lives matter."

As we love each other through this time and these events, and as people of privilege let go of the fear and perhaps listen to those crying out, I believe that things can and will be better.  That is my prayer, as well as my hope.  We all can and must do what we can to take a collective sigh, a moment of grace, and make the future a better and brighter place.

Riding from school to church today, Sting's haunting lyric from the song Fragile has stayed with me, circling my brain like another cry of the mockingbird.

     Perhaps this final act was meant, 

     To clinch a lifetime's argument
     That nothing comes from violence and nothing ever could

     For all those born beneath an angry star
     Lest we forget how fragile we are

During this season of hope, and in the true spirit of Advent (The Arrival), may we all draw closer to one another and what we hold dear, lest we forget how fragile we are.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

"Living in the Tension [Preparing a Life]": a sermon

“Living in the Tension [Preparing a Life]”
Advent 2, Year B Dec 7, 2014
St. Thomas’ Church, Richmond, VA

In the Name of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Today’s Gospel lesson from Mark is its opening verses.

1:1 The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

As if we were uncertain, Mark makes it quite clear.   He is setting out to tell us a tale.  It has a place to go, and he will make certain that we get there.  But like all good story tellers, he knows that the events he is sharing had their precedents established long before

2 As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, "See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way;  3 the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: 'Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,'"

The prophet’s cry comes the Isaiah text which begins: “Comfort, O comfort my people says your God.” (Is. 40:1)

The time has come for the Lord’s appearing.  The waiting is over, the day has arrived.  There are many moments in my life with that hurry up and wait moment.  Living in that tension is always uneasy.  It gives us moments to fret.  It gives us moments to worry.  Is everything done?  Did we accomplish all that we had to do?

When I was young, we would always go and visit my great-grandmother.  Thanksgiving, Christmas, and a week or more every summer, we would traipse down to Burlington, North Carolina and visit the family matriarch.  She had raised my mother so she was more of a grandmother to me, and some of my favorite memories are of her.  She was a caring and compassionate soul.  When I would get a cut or a scratch outside, I would come in and seek attention more than a band-aid.  She had a phrase, “Don’t you worry.  It will be better before you get married.”

That phrase stuck in my mind when I cut myself shaving on my wedding day.  I was about to say it out loud when it struck me that it would not.  It would not be better on my wedding day.  The waiting was over.  The future, what always had seemed so far away, was now.

This is the cry of John, stretching back to Isaiah’s prophecy.  What was to be future tense is John’s present.

4 John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.  5 And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
The people’s waiting was soon to be over.  The future long awaited was here.

6 Now John was clothed with camel's hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey.  7 He proclaimed, "The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals.  8 I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit." 

John’s unique clothing and food choices were not him being weird or strange.  He was fulfilling the vows of a Nazarite, a person fully committed to God.  So much so, they had a special distinction in the culture of ancient Israel.  He was called to a life as simple as could be.  No spun cloth, just a camel fur poncho with a leather strap to keep it on.  He would scavenge for food.  Locusts, wild honey, and other kosher things he could scrape up in a wild nomadic existence.  In his simplicity, people heard him pointing to something far more complex.  “I have baptized you in water,” he said, “but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”  If we really want to get technical, the word baptize is a transliteration from the Greek, baptizo, to immerse.  He is saying here, “I dunked you in water, but he will immerse you in the Holy Spirit.”  It has a different ring when we take out the word we have become so comfortable with as a one-time ceremony.  When we can do it with babies we may forget its power.

John so wanted that day to arrive, and I trust we do as well.

Jesus came that first Christmas, which Mark’s gospel did not include.  And we know the rest of the story.  We have now been waiting longer for Jesus to come again than the people between Isaiah and Jesus’ first arrival.  For almost two thousand years, we have awaited his imminent return.

In fact, as you read trough the New Testament, again and again, you will see these little moments of frustration of the longing to see Jesus again, RIGHT NOW.  They want the Lord to return.  There are days and times when I feel the same.  I want the Lord of Righteousness and the Prince of Peace to come and clean up this mess.  But Jesus’ return is not about being a Giant Hoover from Heaven, vacuuming away the awful.

In our waiting, the same waiting from the first century of the Church I remind you, we also need the patience that was also expressed in St. Peter’s passage today.

I Peter 3:9 The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance.  10 But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and everything that is done on it will be disclosed.  11 Since all these things are to be dissolved in this way, what sort of persons ought you to be in leading lives of holiness and godliness, 12 waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set ablaze and dissolved, and the elements will melt with fire?  13 But, in accordance with his promise, we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home.  14 Therefore, beloved, while you are waiting for these things, strive to be found by him at peace, without spot or blemish; 15a and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation. 

“Regard the patience of the Lord as salvation.”  Peter is telling us that this is to our benefit, for the Lord to not come again.  He even asks the question.  “What sort of persons ought you to be in leading lives of holiness and godliness?”    What sort of people should we be?

Most of us know the people we should be.  But there is the rub; we know, but do we want to put in the time and effort for us to be the sort of persons we should be.

As we “Prepare the ways of the Lord, and make his paths straight,” we are not talking about a quick clean-up, a tidying because the relatives are coming over.  We are also not talking about setting up Potemkin villages, to trick the visiting monarch, some Disney facade that gives a feel and not a reality.  What we are speaking of is wholesale change.

In our Preparation for the Lord, we are flattening mountains and leveling valleys.  Or so encourages Isaiah and John.  As John waited for Christ to come, and we are waiting for Christ to come again, are we immersed in the Holy Spirit, steeped with God in our lives?

When we look at who we should be in our Preparation, we need a metaphor shift in our brains.  We are not preparing for an event, but for a new way of being.  When the Lord comes, everything is changed.  We are changed.  That is why a tidying will not do.

We are not looking at waiters setting up for an evening meal.  Those are not the preparations we are calling for.  Rather, think on people who have to prepare for any and every eventuality.  

Think on ER doctors who never know what is going to walk through their doors.

Think Firemen and Soldiers.  They need to train and practice.  They do drills and training exercises.  They are always in a state of readiness, or they cannot be who they are supposed to be.  Firemen and Soldiers do not get to use phrases like, “When I get around to it.”  

Trumpet players and Singers, they get never know what they will get handed.  They practice and take care of their instruments.  I remember when I played tuba in college.  My professor talked about his daily routine.  He played scales for an hour a day.  An hour a day.  He was someone who could do these scales in his sleep.  After so many years, he could probably play these scales in a coma.  I found it amazing that something I took for granted, was something that he took as assumed.   I was the player I was, because a couple of times a week I would warm up with scales for a few minutes.  He was the player that he was because he started his day with an hour of scales before he began to practice.  He was the master, and I was the student.  He still is the Master.  

As the old story goes, a world famous pianist was leaving the stage at Carnegie Hall.  A fan stops him saying, “Maestro!  I would give my life to play like you!”  The maestro, actually taken aback for a moment, says, “Oh, but I did.”  You and I are both giving our life to something.  What are we giving our life to do?  What are we giving our life to be?

In our Preparation this Advent, think on who you are.  Who do you want to be?  How do you practice your faith?  How do you live out what you believe?

There are many places where we could start.  But, we will stay with our theme for the day.  If Jesus were showing up here today, how would you be?  What would you do?  Where would you go?  How would you act?  What would you say to your children?  How would you spend your day?

If Jesus were coming back in, say, 18 days, on December 25, what would you do differently between now and then?

If he were coming back in 100 years, what would St. Thomas’ do the prepare the way of the Lord?  

How about this, why don’t we live today like he is coming back tomorrow, and decide to make Richmond the way we would want him to find it in 100 years.  I think between those two ideas our preparations would be grand.  Amen.