Sunday, December 31, 2017

Year B Christmas 1 2017 Grace Upon Grace

Year B Christmas 1, 31 December 2017 
St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA 
“Grace Upon Grace” 

John 1:1-18 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.  There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.  He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.  And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father's only son, full of grace and truth. (John testified to him and cried out, "This was he of whom I said, 'He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.'") From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father's heart, who has made him known. 

If you pushed me and I had to pick, I would say that this Gospel reading is my favorite passage of Scripture. John’s poetic beginning harkens back to the very beginning by its first words echoing Genesis 1, “In the beginning…” 

But here, John takes a different tack. While Genesis starts with the beginning of time, as time is a creation, John goes to the period before time, when the pre-existent word set about creating. The Logos, the Divine Word, took it upon itself to set about Creation. “All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.” Here we see the Centrality of this Logos, this Divine Word, as the central hub of all Creation. All the spokes lead back to here. And to what purpose? What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. 
And like all great mythos, we set up the struggle here, from the very beginning. The Word brings light into Darkness. And think on that. Light and Darkness are not opposites, as some of you heard me speak about on previously. Love and hate are not opposites. Love and apathy are opposites. Light is the substance, darkness is the absence of the Light. 
And it goes on, speaking of John the Baptizer pointing to the Light. Then the Light came and some saw and believed, and others did not. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God. And there it is. We have been invited into the Light, by the Light. 

It goes on to what I find to be one of the most powerful, if not the most powerful, descriptions of the Christian life.  From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.  
Grace upon grace… χάριν ἀντὶ χάριτος (in the Greek- karin anti karitos). So pivotal in my understanding of what Grace is, I have a very hard time spelling it without a Capital “G.” I can think of no greater word to describe what God has given, and this phrase Grace upon Grace tries to envision and embody what is being said here. The word upon is an okay translation, and in English, I can think of no better. The problem is that the Greek word Anti can mean a few things. We still use anti- as a prefix meaning against. And it can mean that, but in this context, Grace against Grace makes no sense. The meaning that does, however, is when Anti is seen as “in place of.” So when one Grace is removed, Grace appears. So this phrase is going after something like this.  

From his fullness we have all received, grace after grace after grace after grace after grace after grace after grace after grace after grace after grace after grace after grace after grace after grace after grace…  

Peel away God’s Grace and only Grace remains. For from his fullness we have Grace in place of Grace, forever. 

And what does that Grace look like? This prologue to John ends with just that: 
The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father's heart, who has made him known.  

If you want to know this Light, this Divine Word, this Grace Upon Grace, start with and look no further than Jesus. That is why this poetic opening is called the Prologue. John the Gospeler uses the opening to setup the rest of the story he aims to tell about Jesus. He is “the Author and Perfecter of our faith.” [Hebrews 12:2] He came that we “might have life and have it more abundantly.” [John 10:10b] Jesus is the Word made flesh, the Incarnation.  

And the miracle of the Incarnation, according to John here, is not that Jesus is like God, but that we finally get an accurate image of what God is like when we look to the actions and the words of this Beloved Son. We kept confusing, and misinterpreting, and confounding what or who God is, but now we have a face. Now we have a name, a name that is above all names.[Philippians 2:9] Jesus the Christ. Merry Christmas! Amen 

Monday, December 25, 2017

Year B Christmas Day 2017 Traditions

Year B Christmas Day 2017 
St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA 
“Traditions” 

We all have them. We might not see them as Traditions, but we do things in the same way for comfort, for ease, for our brains to go on automatic pilot at times. We also carve out space in our days or seasons to do things with intention. Christmas is filled with intention.  

Last night we got in so late that one of my traditions, wrapping presents to the Midnight Mass from the Vatican, was already over, but I got to see the replay of Bethlehem’s so it was alright. 

Some of our family’s traditions are extra special. Stephanie and I were married on the 19th, so on our honeymoon we began to read the three Gospel accounts of Christmas from Luke, then Matthew, the John. And then we read the Gospel according to Dr. Seuss. The Grinch is Gospel, as there is a conversion when his heart “grew three sizes that day.” We got to read those together last night in the Rectory, after we had another Tradition Ritual, the eating of Chinese Food which comes from my birth family who always went to the Chinese restaurant after the Christmas Eve service. 

Traditions warm our hearts. Traditions make us comfy inside. 

Another one of my traditions is to cry when I hear, “I Heard The Bells On Christmas Day” which comes from a poem by Longfellow. A simple song, a throwaway song almost until you hear the words with Longfellow’s thoughts in your mind. Two years after his wife died in a tragic accident, which also left him permanently scarred, Longfellow’s son enlisted in the Union Army in the Civil War. Receiving a grave wound, Charley, Longfellow’s son was in hospital in Washington, D.C. Longfellow joined him there to help in his recovery. On Christmas Day, in the midst of personal tragedy and in a beloved country ripping itself apart, he penned these words. 
  
I heard the bells on Christmas Day Their old, familiar carols play, 
and wild and sweet 
The words repeat 
Of peace on earth, good-will to men! 

And thought how, as the day had come, The belfries of all Christendom 
Had rolled along 
The unbroken song 
Of peace on earth, good-will to men! 

Till ringing, singing on its way, The world revolved from night to day, 
A voice, a chime, 
A chant sublime 
Of peace on earth, good-will to men! 

And in despair I bowed my head; "There is no peace on earth," I said; 
"For hate is strong, 
And mocks the song 
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!" 

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep: "God is not dead, nor doth He sleep; 
The Wrong shall fail, 
The Right prevail, 
With peace on earth, good-will to men." 

And that poem became a song when we are tired and beaten by a world that ignores the message of Hope and Love we share at Christmas. One cannot be cynical and call oneself a disciple of Christ. It is as hypocritical as the bigot, the sexist, the blatant sinner. Cynicism is a sin of heart. And this song reminds us of that. 

Speaking of Hope, one of my favorite Christmas traditions is Charlie Brown’s Christmas Special.  
I heard an interesting piece of trivia this. I am shocked I had never noticed it before. 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 Longfellow in his pain and grief, 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.”  
 Maybe that is the greatest Christmas Tradition of them all, and it started with Mary, then Joseph, then the Shepherds all the way down to us. “Fear Not.” Amen 

Year B Christmas Eve Candlelight Service 2017

Year B Christmas Eve Candlelight 2017 
St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA 
“Tis a Fearful Thing” 

“Tis a fearful thing…” by Yehuda HaLevi 
Tis a fearful thing to love what death can touch.  A fearful thing to love, to hope, to dream, to be –  to be, And oh, to lose.  A thing for fools, this,  And a holy thing,  a holy thing to love.  For your life has lived in me, your laugh once lifted me, your word was gift to me.  To remember this brings painful joy.  ‘Tis a human thing, love, a holy thing, to love what death has touched.  
Scripture puts it this way: 
For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.[John 3:16] 

God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loed us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. [I John 4:9-10] 

That is what it all comes down to isn’t it? Freud said that the two greatest needs of the human psyche is to know that we lovable and capable of loving. And the message of Jesus, the grown up version of this babe we celebrate was just that, God loves us and enables us to love one another. So simple it seems foolish...  
A thing for fools, this, And a holy thing, a holy thing to love.  
Tonight we stand on the brink. We stand on the brink of time, awaiting the Arrival.  
We wait in hope.  
We wait in want.  
With bated breath, we wait... 
We wait because we desire the comfort and the joy that can only come from above.  
We long for the vindication of the weak against the strong, the impoverished against the powerful, the child against the oppressor.  
And we wait.  
We wait for the Christ. 

We wait in the Dark awaiting the Dawn. 
Rarely do we think of God’s perspective.   
Through the Fullness of Time God has waited. Through millennia like seconds on our clocks, God has ticked the way through history, His Story, galaxies coming and going, all for this moment, all for the culmination of the hopes and fears of all the years meeting in this singular moment, the Incarnation. And God the Father is wanting and has declared that the moment has finally come.  
And what of God the Son? 
What is being asked of him? 
To live, to breathe, to love, to die.  
The Jewish mystic Yehuda HaLevi expressed the reality of life, of love, of the Christ if you will, in the poem I started with tonight: “Tis a fearful thing…” by Yehuda HaLevi 
Tis a fearful thing to love what death can touch.  
And here we are, the only animal that knows that its going to die.  
Tis a fearful thing to live.  
Tis a fearful thing to love. 
With bated breath we wait, but of God the Son, with bated breath he chooses Love. 
With bated breath the Infinite becomes the Infant. 
Can you get a glimmer of the fear that becoming finite would bring?  
All heaven above and all creation below awaits in silence. Time has reached its fullness. 
God the Son chooses to step into our skin and become one WITH us, he chooses to move into our neighborhood, and become one OF us. 
He chooses Pain. The first tooth, the skinned knees, the loss of kin and friend, the heartache of love, the heartbreak of life. He chooses to be Emmanuel, God-with-us. 
And, he chooses Death. 
Tis a fearful thing to love what death has touched.  
And to love us, he became one of us, to taste the sweet and the bitter fruit of life, the fruit of love, the fruit of death. 

For God so loved the world.  
Tis a fearful thing to love. 
Tis a fearful thing to live.  
But despite the fears he chose to live, to love, to be one of us. 
For God so loved the world. 

A thing for fools, this. 
A thing for fools, and a thing for God. 
A holy thing.  
‘Tis a human thing, love, a holy thing, to love what death has touched.  
But for love, God did not count the cost. 

Thomas Merton, from "Raids on the Unspeakable" 
"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, tortured, excommunicated. With those for whom there is no room, Christ is present in this world."  -Thomas Merton, "Raids on the Unspeakable"  
For God so loved the world, that he gave and gave and gave, even his Beloved, his only begotten Son… 
For God so loved you. 
For God so loved me.  
Tis a fearful thing to love what death can touch. A fearful thing to love, to hope, to dream, to be – to be, And oh, to lose. A thing for fools, this, And a holy thing, a holy thing to love. For your life has lived in me, your laugh once lifted me, your word was gift to me. To remember this brings painful joy. ‘Tis a human thing, love, a holy thing, to love what death has touched.  
And yet he did it in the eternal Now we call Christmas. Merry Christmas. 
Amen.