Tuesday, December 25, 2018

Year C Christmas Day 2018 Traditions

Year C Christmas Day 2018 
St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA 

Collect: Almighty God, you have given your only-begotten Son to take our nature upon him, and to be born [this day] of a pure virgin: Grant that we, who have been born again and made your children by adoption and grace, may daily be renewed by your Holy Spirit; through our Lord Jesus Christ, to whom with you and the same Spirit be honor and glory, now and for everAmen. 

John 1:1-14 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. 
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 Traditions, and that means 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. And after two big services, I was too tired to enjoy anything, anyway. 
 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, whether I want to or not, when I hear, “I Heard The Bells On Christmas Day.” The song 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 the 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 year. 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.” “Fear Not!” Amen 

Monday, December 24, 2018

Year C Christmas Eve 10:30 2018 Dawn of Redeeming Grace

Year C Christmas Eve (10:30) 2018 
St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA 
“Dawn of Redeeming Grace” 

Collect: O God, you have caused this holy night to shine with the brightness of the true Light: Grant that we, who have known the mystery of that Light on earth, may also enjoy him perfectly in heaven; where with you and the Holy Spirit he lives and reigns, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen 

Titus 3:4-7 When the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to his mercy, through the water of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit. This Spirit he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life. 
Luke 2:1-20 In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid; for see-- I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger." And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, 
"Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!" 
When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, "Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us." So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them. 

In these days, these holidays, these holy days, our family gets to spend more time together. We sit longer at the table. We share stories. We reminisce. We talk about days gone by, and old stories about the hilarity of our kids when they were ittie-bitties, older stories about their mom and dad before we were parents, before we were who we have become.  

There is an odd look in my children’s eyes trying to envision their dad or mom, doing things that seem out of character now. Being in situations that would land our kids in trouble if we knew about it. 

We all are in flux. We all morph, and change, and grow. Every saint has a past, and every sinner has a future. Never write anyone off.  

We celebrate this Season, knowing the rest of the story. We resonate with these days, because we all have a start and we seek to find a narrative when there may not be one. We want a sense of purpose and meaning, and it is even better when it is true. 

The followers of Jesus loved him so. They loved him so much, they restructured and reshaped ALL their life around his actions and teachings. And when we love something so much, we want to know about it. We want to learn the details, the trivia, the anecdotes; it makes us feel closer and we immerse ourselves in the facts and in so doing immerse ourselves in the love we hold so dear. 

That is what my kids do when they ask me about my adventures and mishaps. When they ask about who I was, it is because of their love. One time I walked in on the girls, and before they knew I was there I heard, “So, what is your favorite dad story?” I am still here and have already entered the level of myth and legend. I felt pretty special, even when the stories shared were about moments of less than brilliance. 

The Gospel writers all took the story back to where they saw the starting point. From here, the story begins… And then they fill in the blanks as they saw it. 

Mark begins with the Baptism of Jesus, and sets the stage for the other four Gospels because they include it as well. Mark starts Jesus’ story with his obedience. Jesus is the one they came to love and celebrate because of what he did. He was obedient in submission in baptism, and then obedient to the point of death. 

Matthew wanted to show the Kingship of Christ, from the line of David. Proving through lineage and prophecy that he was the Messiah and rightful King. He starts the story with who Jesus was by being born, so much so that foreign sages came to pay homage. He truly was a King of Kings, and a Lord of Lords. Jesus does what he does because of who he is. 

John takes a different tact altogether. Forget obedience and actions. Forget lineage and prophecy. For John, he sees in Jesus something altogether different. He was before anything. Before time itself. He was with God in the beginning and WAS GOD. What a different way to tell the story, what a different way to see. Even the first words, reshape our understanding of Creation itself. John starts with “In the Beginning,” rewriting Genesis from a Christ perspective. 
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 that 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.” 
John wants us to see the preincarnate divinity that was Jesus, the fullness of the invisible made flesh. 

But tonight we hear the story from Luke. And Luke comes from a different perspective as well. Luke’s Gospel is a letter, a love letter to Theophilus. Now was Theophilus a person, or is it to us? Theophilus means Lover of God. And seeing you came out on a cold winter night, one of the longest of the year, to worship, I might assume you are Theophilus, a lover of God. And if so, Luke’s story is for you. He says clearly, he went around and asked, he witnessed and interviewed those who witnessed the stories he shares here. He is doing his best to share what he saw or he trusts to be true. 

I imagine him sitting with Mary, talking about going to see Elizabeth her cousin, writing down the song of praise she sang (a very true one to the Hebraic prophetic tradition, by the way), and hearing about going to Bethlehem so far from Nazareth, especially when she was so pregnant. And the story she tells is one that most would not include unless it were the absolute truth. In speaking with the children of the church at our story time this week, I asked them what they thought this would be like. I described the shepherds who were out with their sheep at night because it was time for the birthing of the lambs. They were dirty and bloody. The were ritually and literally unclean. People looked down at them because of all of that. One of the kids said it was like Garbagemen. I said, that is really close to how they would have been seen. 

Now imagine, Mary in a stable amongst the animals. She just gave birth. Exhausted. Exuberant. Weeping. Laughing. Very vulnerable. Very human. A new mom, so far from home and family. And then a bunch of smelly, untouchable shepherds barge in with a miraculous story of angelic visitations, and prophetic utterances of this tiny infant wrapped tight and asleep in the only crib available, the trough there in the stall.  

I love the line in the story here, “Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.” She did then, and we do tonight. We talk about choirs of angels, but do you hear them? We talk about dirty shepherds, but do you smell them? In our holy musings we need to put ourselves in the story, we need to love God with all we’ve got, including our imagination. Especially this time of year.  

Like my kids telling and retelling my adventures and misadventures, these stories can reach mythic proportions. But I would invite you to scale it back. I would invite you to see through the pageantry, to the simple girl who said yes when offered to bear the Son of God. 

To the Shepherds who were the last to be included, who became the first invited to the first Christmas party. Remember back to your childhood when you sat in fearful anticipation if you would be picked for whatever it was? These guys had so written themselves off from societal inclusion so long ago that their Hosannas and Hallelujahs were even more authentic.  

The Gospel of Luke with the stories he tells repeatedly comes to those who were out have now become in, and those who thought of themselves in will find themselves out. The last will be first and the first will be last. Mary sang it in her song of praise, as did Elizabeth, AND Zechariah, AND Anna, AND Simeon in theirs. The Great Reversal has begun. Luke began where he did to bring the loftiest, the very angels of heaven, to the lowliest, the untouchable shepherds alone and apart. We see in the flesh the metaphor of the Gospel in action, all on this most holy night. 

“A beginning is a very delicate time,” (Frank Herbert, Dune) it is said. But even here we begin to see a pattern that is to be repeated and retold in word and deed throughout the life and ministry of Jesus. “With God all things are possible.” Luke 18:27 And it all began here. You and I are here now, because of what happened there and then.  

As Paul reminded Titus and us:  
When the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to his mercy, through the water of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit. This Spirit he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life. Titus 3:4-7 

Mary pondered all these things in her heart. On this night, may we as well. 

Jesus put on human flesh and made himself at home, out of LOVE for you. 

Jesus taught us and modeled GRACE, out of LOVE for you. 

Jesus took any excuse of sin and debt away by taking any and every penalty on the cross, out of LOVE for you. 

Jesus was born into poverty, lived a meager, hard, lonely life, and yet we still speak of him over 2,000 years later. There must be something to this simple, humble life that began in such inauspicious beginnings. And he did it all out of LOVE for you.  

No matter where you are, God is there. No matter where you were headed, God is calling you home. God can take any situation, and transform it into something glorious. 200 years ago tonight, Joseph Mohr, an Austrian priest, and Franz Gruber, an organist and teacher, presented for the first time a song they wrote. Times were hard for Mohr’s parish. Shipwrights and Salt Miners composed most of his working class congregation along the river just south of Salzburg, Austria. Mohr had written the poem in dark times. The Napoleonic Wars had just ended, devastating the economy and the famines from the summer before took its toll. The year was called the Year without a Summer. No one realized the effect of a volcanic explosion of Mt. Tambora could hamper the northern hemisphere’s weather for a whole year, but the dust in the upper atmosphere took its toll in Europe and here in North America. But here they were, a poor hurting population looking for hope. The organ was not working well, damaged from recent flooding, so Mohr the priestly poet and Gruber performed a song of Hope we still sing today. It speaks to a hope that God is working all things to good, even when our eyes may not see it, but our heart still hopes. In simple words it sings of a time when God is in control, and the wrongs of this world, these days we find ourselves in, will cease, because of what happened that night. 

Silent night, holy night! All is calm, all is bright. Round yon Virgin, Mother and Child. Holy infant so tender and mild, Sleep in heavenly peace, Sleep in heavenly peace 

Silent night, holy night! Shepherds quake at the sight. Glories stream from heaven afar Heavenly hosts sing Alleluia, Christ the Savior is born! Christ the Savior is born! 
 Silent night, holy night! Son of God love's pure light. Radiant beams from Thy holy face With the dawn of redeeming grace, Jesus Lord, at Thy birth Jesus Lord, at Thy birth 

This night we remember the beginning, that dawn of redeeming grace. We hold to that light even in the darkest of days. Jesus Lord at thy birth, Jesus Lord at thy birth. Amen