Thursday, December 24, 2015

Security Blankets and the Coming of Christ: a sermon for Christmas Day 2015

“Security Blankets and the Coming of Christ”
Christmas Day 2015
St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church, Richmond, VA

Into this world, this demented inn,
in which there is absolutely no room for him at all,
Christ has come uninvited.

But because he cannot be at home in it,
because he is out of place in it,
and yet he must be in it,
his place is with those others for whom there is no room.

His place is with those who do not belong,
who are rejected by power because they are regarded as weak,
those who are discredited,
who are denied the status of persons,

With those for whom there is no room,
Christ is present in this world.

-Thomas Merton (from Raids on the Unspeakable)

Today is Christmas Day. Christ has come. He entered into our life by being born, crying out with his first breath. He embraces all it is to be human. He points us to the Divine by the choices he made. The miracle of the Incarnation, Christ coming in the flesh, is not so much that Jesus points us to God. It is that God points us to Jesus. That is my way. That is my truth. That is my life.

Merton reminds us that in the world, this demented inn, where there absolutely no room for him at all, Christ has come uninvited.

The other day at a store, I was standing in an aisle, waiting for people to clear a way ahead. I was not moving, just standing there in the aisle, and being as big as I am I am hard to miss. A woman walked right toward me, did not look at me once, and pushed her and her cart between me and the shelving a foot away. No excuse me. Not even a desperate pleading look. A shove, and a cart being her means of intrusion. I felt for her, the crush of whatever it was was eating her so much she could not even acknowledge my humanity. But sometimes the sick need to have the doctor come to them, because they are not even aware they are sick.

And that is what Christ did. He came to the sick, those who knew it, and those who did not. He came for those were outcast and no way of being let in, and those who were incast, so entrenched in the sinful systems of this world that they cannot even acknowledge the humanity of others and in doing so miss the humanity, what is most precious, in themselves.

Into this world, this demented inn,
in which there is absolutely no room for him at all,
Christ has come uninvited.

I heard an interesting piece of trivia this year. I am shocked I had never noticed it before. This being the 50th anniversary, A Charlie Brown Christmas has received a bit more interest and attention. In it, Linus stops the production of the Christmas show rehearsal to tell Charlie Brown the real meaning of Christmas, and he quotes Luke 2.

8 And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field , keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 And, lo , the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid . 10 And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold , I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. 11 For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. 12 And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes , lying in a manger. 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying , 14 Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.

“That’s the meaning of Christmas, Charlie Brown.” Linus, being a cartoon character, is defined in simple ways. He is a believer, trusting or naive, depending on your point of view. He also is comforted by his security blanket. He holds tight to his protection from his insecurities, and most of us cannot think of Linus without it.

But if you go back to watch the video, and I did to make sure a couple of times, while he is quoting Luke, a most amazing thing happens. As soon as he says “Fear not!” his hand disappears from the screen and it returns without the blanket. The boy who is so timid, so fearful, goes center stage and let’s go of his fears, or at least his comfort from his fears. You see, the one who can stand with Linus, the one who can stand beside Merton in this demented inn, the one who can stand beside me in my weakness and insecurities and you in yours has come into the world. “Fear not: for, behold , I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.”

We as Episcopalians are a part of the Anglican Communion, and the leader of the Anglican Communion is the Archbishop of Canterbury. Archbishop Justin Welby, in his Christmas message, says this to us this year: “As Christians we are called to be people who take that first step, who take the risk of kindness because we believe the other person is a gift to us from God, just as we can be a gift to them. We’re called to be people who don’t accept narratives that seek to divide us as communities – wherever we hear them – because we have a better narrative: that God poured out his love for us by sending his son to be with us in a world of fear and danger. We have the capacity to share that risk-taking love with whoever we discover is our neighbour – not just this Christmas, but always.”

And in that light, the better narrative that Archbishop Welby speaks of, in that narrative Christ’s light came into the world, the light that the darkness cannot even comprehend arrived in this our demented inn, and we are given a peace, a peace that passes all understanding. We are given the Christ, this precious God-in-man Jesus. Uninvited, but oh, so welcome.

Merry Christmas.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Magnificat: a sermon, Year C Advent 4 2015

Year C Advent 4, December 20, 2015
St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church, Richmond, VA

Johnny Lee sang with his unforgettable twang that he was “lookin’ for love in all the wrong places.”

I think we do the same thing with God.

In movies there are angels singing and lights erupting. But we see today that God arrives in the simple, in the lowly, where least expected. God arrives in Mary.

The story starts with Mary visiting her much older relative Elizabeth. Luke had already covered the miraculous pregnancy of Elizabeth and Zechariah with their son-to-be, John. The visit of Mary happened in the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, soon after the Annunciation to Mary by the angel Gabriel.

The middle-eastern tradition of unbelievable hospitality remains to this day, and a guest, coming under the home’s protection is welcome while they are there. Once, while working with Palestinian refugees in Bethlehem, of all places, a grandfather fed me a chicken leg, by hand. Waiting on me, turning it after every bite. He said in broken English, “From my hand, from my heart.” We have NO CONCEPT of that type of hospitality, even here, in the land of pineapple trivets.

Mary received that same hospitality. Mary arrives, probably without notice, and immediately is greeted by Elizabeth. Remember the premise, a young, unmarried woman is arriving at her relative’s house recently having learned she is pregnant. But rather than a story of shame and regret, both Mary and Elizabeth celebrate and rejoice over the news. They both are wrapped up in the miraculous and are able to look with the eyes of faith. God’s work is at play in both their lives, and they rejoice.

This is not the only place that this story is told. Many of you may not be aware but the story of the Virgin Mary is also told by our Muslim brothers and sisters. In their holy book, the Koran, Mary is told that she will give birth to a son, Jesus, even though she is a virgin. However, instead of being driven to Elizabeth’s home, to rejoice, she is driven to the wilderness to a date tree where a spring erupts at her feet to care for her during her pregnancy. Dates and water. Mercy from God, but no rejoicing. In both accounts, Mary is portrayed as a Guest. But only in Luke is she celebrating and celebrated. This tone in Luke is not mercy, but rather Grace, and for that I am so thankful.

But Mary was more than just a Guest. So much more.

The story of Mary and Elizabeth is a favorite of mine, now. I never really appreciated it until I went to college. I was cautious around Mary. In fact, I was probably a bit skeptical from my upbringing. I knew my Catholic friends loved St. Mary, and there was even a prayer that had something to do with football that I could never figure out. In College when I took a religion class entitled Hebrew Prophets, I was surprised that one of the last lectures was on what we read today, Mary’s triumphant prayer of praise and thanksgiving we often call the Magnificat. I knew enough to know that it was in the New Testament, our Christian scriptures, so it was not in Hebrew but Greek. So with a little trepidation and a dab of curiousity I went to hear Dr. Frank Eakin, head of the religion department explain to me how Mary was a Hebrew prophet.

He did his job.

You see, this young girl who said yes, epitomized the nature, themes and approach of the best of the Hebraic prophetic tradition. What she said, and how she said it were there among the best of the old men in their robes and beards.

Luke 1: 46b- 55
"My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.
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.
He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever."

We see in her words the personal joy in the works of God. We see her recognizing and honoring the faithfulness of God across the generations. We hear again that those who raise themselves will be laid low, and the lowly will be raised. This is a theme referred to as the Great Reversal, and it came before her, from her, and through her in the preaching of her son Jesus.

We see Mary as Guest, but without question she is a Prophet here. We have misconstrued that word so that it means one who tells the future, but in the biblical understanding, it is one who is a spokesperson for the Almighty. She here speaks of the actions and the nature of God, of a god who sides with the lowly, who uplifts the cast off. A god who would choose to come in the fragile vessel of an unwed teenage girl who would normally have been rejected at best, or stoned to death at worst.

We still look for God in all the wrong places. This simple girl who said yes, repeatedly points us to God. Mary was a Guest, Mary is a Prophet, but even more, Mary is the Fulfillment of what she is saying. She takes the prophets one step further. They spoke to what would or had happened, and she spoke to what God was doing in her.

More than from her mouth, from her very life she fulfills that God is a surprising God, whose ways are not ours, whose choices are righteous, and true and good.

Mary proclaimed:
“...he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed.”

And we do, “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee, blessed art thou amongst women...:” She was the lowly being raised up. She was the reject being brought home.

Mary continues:
“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.”

We see the nature of God in the choices God makes. Think on it from a biblical example. The Philistines chose Goliath, huge, monstrous, a tower of strength. The Israelites chose no one. Saul could not convince anyone to go out. But God chose David. (He had already chosen him through Samuel, unbeknownst to most.) But David was chosen and accepted God’s call. So much of a pipsqueak he could not wear King Saul’s armor, he went out with a slingshot to take on a giant with a sword and shield. But think of how the Philistines saw it, after the fact. If a mere boy of the Israelites, with nothing but a slingshot can take down our mightiest warrior, what does that say about their trained soldiers? They ran in fear. We are known by the choices we make.

In our own lives, people may judge us by our cars, our houses, our kids, our spouses, our politics, our whatever. We make choices, and others make an appraisal about our choices. God chose Mary, and in doing so, he was saying that the ways of Heaven and the ways of earth are not the same. The Wise Men sought the newborn king at the palace in Jerusalem, but were led to the stable in Bethlehem. That is like saying they came to the Governor’s mansion here in Richmond, when God was showing up beside the loading dock behind the Wal-Mart in Mechanicsville. God will constantly surprise us. He certainly did with Mary.

Some of you may have seen the news this week, that a group of Orthodox Rabbis have made a statement advocating partnership with Christians and appreciating the religious value of Christianity. Yes, I read that correctly.  A group of Orthodox Rabbis have made a statement advocating partnership with Christians and appreciating the religious value of Christianity. From the December 3 statement entitled: “To Do the Will of Our Father in Heaven: Toward a Partnership between Jews and Christians” from the Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation (CJCUC) in Israel many conclusions were made. The Rabbis said that after Vatican II, the Catholic Church’s approach to Judaism was so fundamentally different that true dialogue could happen. It was inspiring and impressive. The points that struck me hardest were these.

“We Jews and Christians have more in common than what divides us: the ethical monotheism of Abraham; the relationship with the One Creator of Heaven and Earth, Who loves and cares for all of us; Jewish Sacred Scriptures; a belief in a binding tradition; and the values of life, family, compassionate righteousness, justice, inalienable freedom, universal love and ultimate world peace…

“Our partnership in no way minimizes the ongoing differences between the two communities and two religions. We believe that God employs many messengers to reveal His truth, while we affirm the fundamental ethical obligations that all people have before God that Judaism has always taught through the universal Noahide covenant.

“In imitating God, Jews and Christians must offer models of service, unconditional love and holiness. We are all created in God’s Holy Image, and Jews and Christians will remain dedicated to the Covenant by playing an active role together in redeeming the world.”

From ORTHODOX Jewish rabbis we are being called to be missionary in our actions to redeem the world, while they are as well! From Muslim grandfathers we are reminded, “With our hands, with our hearts” we are called to serve and change the world.

God shows up where we least expect God. Truly, God was at work with Mary, two millennia ago, and God is still at work showing up in surprising and delightful ways. Thanks be to God!

Let our souls magnify the Lord, and let our spirits rejoice in God our savior! Amen.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

"The Day of the Lord": a sermon

“The Day of the Lord”
Year C Advent 2, Dec 6, 2015
St. Thomas’ Episcopal, Richmond, VA

Happy Feast Day of St. Nicholas.

Today, as we have heard from all our readings, the Lord is on his way. The Day of the Lord approaches. Be ready. We hear this again and again. Straighten what is crooked. Level what is out of whack. God is on the way.

And we cannot be willy-nilly about our arrangements. We cannot sweep things under the proverbial rug. We must be about the tasks that need to be done. There is no choice in this. We need to be ready, because we cannot claim that we did not know God was on the way.

When the troops of Catherine the Great of Russia defeated the Ukraine and the Crimea, she made her advisor and paramour Potemkin the governor. His job was to rebuild and resettle the warzone, and move in a population of peasants to inhabit the devastated countryside. Lacking time, resources and the ability to convince people to move into the previous warzone, he came up with a desperate plan. He and his entourage would put up a village that was all fronts, a theatrical set like on a Hollywood lot, and his men would pretend to be villagers through the imperial visit. They would tear it down, then the next day set it up downriver and do it all over again. Surprisingly it worked. Potemkin knew Catherine very well it seems.

Catherine may have been fooled, but God will not be. Setting up some Potemkin Village will not work. God will see through our facade.

Looking to the Gospel reading we are able to see the arrival of John the Baptist through two sets of lenses. He had come to announce the Day of the Lord, the Messiah’s arrival. Luke makes it abundantly clear when that was:

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas...

All that being said, scholars are a to get this date to within a surprising accuracy two millennia later. The dating for this is near the end of what we call AD year 26 and the beginning of 28. We can safely say it was circa 27.

This the the chronological dating. When, in the course of events, something took place. Chronologies look very logical and exact from the outside, but actually they only convey what time and or date something took place. We see none of the set-up, none of the preparations, none of the aligning of events to make something transpire. The Bible has a phrase we use to see that side of things, and it is “the fullness of time” which is used a few times amongst the various Eucharistic prayers. I have spoken at length about this before so I won’t go into that.

But these varying views of time have special words in the Greek. One we still use. Chronos is the tick-tock of the clock. It is the sequential ordering of our minutes, hours and days. It is where we get the word chronological from in the first place. It is the idea that John came preaching with shouts of “Be ready” very close to the year 27. That is Chronos, the chronological dating.

But there is another Greek word for time, which we see here as well. Kairos is the view of time when everything comes together. Like at the end of great novel, when all the disparate strands are rewoven, and the cord of the story is strong and whole once again. As people of faith, we see this as when God has finished setting up the dominos and something wonderful is about to take place. This is the event in the view of the salvation history.  That starts with Adam’s fall, and moves through Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection, and continues to us today. John’s preaching was a strand of the salvation history. Kairos shows up in the passage in a simple phrase:

the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.

When God stepped in and gave John his word, the time was right. All had been taken care of on the stage and behind the scenes. Kairos had broken through.

Kairos breaks through all the time, but we are limited in our ways of seeing it. I do tell a lot of stories about my kids, and I apologize in advance, but they teach me so much.

Earlier this week, my youngest asked me the date, and I responded, “December the first.” She then said, “Do you know what that means? SEVENTEEN days to STAR WARS. EIGHTEEN days to the Sunday School Christmas Party [Thanks Emma!] and TWENTY days till we go to Busch Gardens!” You see, she was naming the Chronos till what she saw as a season of Kairos.

I then asked her, “Well, what about Christmas and your birthday the next day?” Her response, “Well, yeah!”

She was establishing in her mind the Chronos, so she could prepare for a magical season for her that was beyond coincidence. She saw in it a reason and purpose. Her joy was the reason, and all this had aligned into three events just three days apart. When you are 8 that counts as miraculous.

We have a choice about our Chronos, and we have a choice about how we prepare for Kairos. That is the message of John. Ready yourself, while you have the time, for Kairos is about to break through! That was the message of John in the first century, and it is his proclamation to us today. We announce it in some way almost every Sunday in our Eucharistic prayer, Christ will come again. How are you shaping your now for that then?

I think on Jesus’ parable of the bridesmaids who has to keep their lamps lit, readying themselves for the coming of the bridegroom. Some were ready and were invited in. Some were not and there was weeping, and gnashing of teeth.

I love that Luke gives the longer version of the Isaiah quote that John preaches. It is a reminder that he is proclaiming that the long-awaited prophecy is right here, right now. But even more, in Luke he shares the outcome of the Day of the Lord.

"The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: 'Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth;
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.'"

Why are we reshaping our Chronos? Why are we looking at our crooked ways and straightening out our lives? Simple. We can do it. Or it will be done for us. You and I both know that it will be much more responsible and probably much less painful if we do it ourselves. And think about it, we are being invited to join in the very work of God. Raising up the Low. Bringing down the High. Straightening the Crooked. And before you start thinking I am speaking of anyone else, most of the great teachers remind us that we have enough of the lowly and the high and the crooked within ourselves that we certainly can start there before going on to anyone else.

But why? What is the reason that we just do not wallow in the now. It is not “Jesus is coming, look busy!” but rather that last line quoted from Isaiah.


Even our own.

From our collect today we are reminded of why there are prophets and why there is Kairos. It all comes back to our need of God’s endless Grace:

Merciful God, who sent your messengers the prophets to preach repentance and prepare the way for our salvation:
Give us grace to heed their warnings and forsake our sins, that we may greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer…

We are given each day as a gift. How will we use it? I love this season. I love all the special events, and all the joy. I love all the carols and hymns. The cliche is that Jesus is the Reason for the Season. I would counter that. We are the Reason for the Season. The Season, Advent, is here for us to ready ourselves for when Kairos breaks through. We can so easily get caught up in the Chronos we forget the mystery and wonder and joy that can be found in the thought that so much had to transpire to bring us to today.

When I do weddings, I try to work out the Chronos pretty strictly. At 2 minutes till the groom’s mother is seated. At one minute till the bride’s mother is seated. At the hour, I walk out with the groom and the groomsmen. That is the cue for the coordinator to open the door and the procession begins. All the Chronos in the world can be planned and implemented but if the bride or the groom are not there, it is all moot. I make sure that everyone is in place, and then the wedding can happen. Kairos comes when all is set.

God is wanting to break through in all our lives. God is wanting to arrive. In our Chronos, are we preparing the way of the Lord with what we say, in what we do, in who we are? If so, hold your breath. The Lord is coming! If not, start today. Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight God’s path. Kairos is coming. Amen.