Sunday, November 29, 2009

Advent 1 Year C

Advent 1C
November 29, 2009

Let us pray. Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or weep this night, and give your angels charge over those who sleep. Tend the sick, Lord Christ; give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous; and all for your love's sake. Amen.
This collect, which may seem inappropriate to be read in the middle of the morning, is one of my favorites in the prayer book. It is found in our daily office, in both evening prayer and in compline, the liturgy for the close of the day. It is pure poetry, and I love the image of us asking God to keep watch with us.
It’s also a beautiful image for us as we begin this strange season of Advent. Today we hear from the prophetic voices of Jeremiah and Jesus. We light the first candle on the Advent wreath to signify the prophets and their message. And what is the message of prophets? It is to keep watch. “The days of the Lord are surely coming… when I will fulfill the promise I made…” “Be alert at all times…” “Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down…” “Stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” Keep watch.
Jeremiah is speaking to the children of Israel, hostages in Babylon who are being seduced to start a new life there. Jesus is speaking to the children of Israel, oppressed in their own promised land by foreign occupants. Keep watch. Do not be worn down or won over. Keep alert, even in this twilight time, for the fulfillment of all you have been promised will be here, and you won’t want to miss it. Keep watch.
But what does it mean for us? How do we keep watch? It is not a common practice in our society that has little time or patience for waiting. Really, the only times that most of us keep watch are when we have absolutely no control over it. Armed service personnel still keep watch as they are assigned. We keep watch with those who are mourning, those who are dying, as the collect reminds us. We keep watch with those who are expecting. Keeping watch is a practice that we do in the twilight time, the time in between times, the time between dark and dawn, the time between life and death, the time between creation and birth. The season of Advent is also a twilight time, a season between the already and the not yet; when the world around us wants to rush toward the false lure of fulfillment, we are called to keep watch.
During Advent, the feelings of desolation and exile, the longing, the loneliness, and the expectation that run just below the surface of our lives are invited out into the light, and we examine our longing and we make a choice. We can either push it back down to where it always dwells, or we can use our longing, letting it help us to be ready, to stand watch for the fulfillment of our expectation. The fulfillment of all our hope has come and will come again. And we are called to keep watch.
Let us pray. Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or weep this night, and give your angels charge over those who sleep. Tend the sick, Lord Christ; give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous; and all for your love's sake. Amen.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Proper 28B sermon

The 24th Sunday after Pentecost—Proper 28B
November 15, 2009
I was expecting my first child, and I was two days overdue. We were staying at my parents’ house as we all awaited the birth of their first grandchild, and I was like a “watched pot.” I awoke from an afternoon nap, and I began having contractions. We waited a while, and then David and I drove to Jackson to the hospital. After I was admitted and hooked up to the monitor, the attending nurse kindly told me that I was not in full labor and should go home until things progressed a little farther. I was frustrated and more than a little uncomfortable, but we went back home and I went to sleep, and when I woke up in the morning, in full labor….I thought I was going to die! I felt like I was being ripped apart, and I honestly did not know if I would survive it.
In our gospel lesson for today, Jesus and his followers have entered into Jerusalem and the disciples marvel at the grandeur of the temple. Jesus then begins to tell them what the end times will be like: the temple will be destroyed, false messiahs will come and lead people astray, there will be wars and rumors of war, nation against nation and kingdom against kingdom, earthquakes, famines, but this is not the end….The end is still to come. “This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.” (And then, in a part we don’t read today, he goes on to predict how the disciples themselves will be persecuted and put to death.)
As I listen to Jesus’s words, I wonder what it must have been like for his followers to hear him say all of this. Things were already bad for the people of their time. They were the lowest of the low, barely scraping by an existence, and now they are being told that things are going to get worse before they get better. I wonder what it was like for the original hearers of Mark’s gospel; scholars think that Mark, the oldest of the gospels, was written right around the time of the war in Jerusalem (in 66-70), right around the time that the Romans destroyed the temple for the second time. What must it have been like for them to hear these predictions coming from the mouth of Jesus while they were living it and experiencing it in their reality? What must it have been like for them to hear him say, “This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.” Where is the good news in this?
In childbirth, even though I had moments when I thought I would not survive, I was able to preservere because I had a goal I was working toward—the birth of my child. I was working toward a new creation. Y’all know something about that here, you who have worked to give birth to a new St. Peter’s by-the-Sea and a new Mississippi Gulf Coast after what must have seemed like the end of the world as you knew it. In following Jesus, in living the Christian life, we are called to be co-creators with God. Now, what does that mean?
One of my favorite writers, the late Madeleine L’Engle, explains the concept of being co-creators with God in this way: “God created and it was joy: time, space, matter. There is, and we are part of that is-ness, part of that becoming. That is our calling: co-creation. Every single one of us, without exception, is called to co-create with God. No one is too unimportant to have a share in the making or unmaking of the final showing-forth. Everything that we do either draws the Kingdom of love closer, or pushes it further off.” (Madeleine L’Engle, And It was Good; Reflections on Beginnings. Harold Shaw: Wheaton, 1983, p.19)
We are invited to join with God, and through our actions, our choices, to help God draw the Kingdom of love closer. That is a weighty and worthy charge, and it is also quite a gift, that God would allow us that part in building God’s kingdom of love. So how do we accomplish this?
How can we be co-creators with God ? There are as many different ways to do this as there are people here, but I can give you a good place to start in three simple parts.
1. Show up for worship. We gather together to remember who we are as God’s people and to reaffirm God’s work of love and redemption and transformation that is recorded in our sacred stories and lived out in individual and corporate life. The writer of Hebrews writes “and let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching”—suggesting that worshipping together is one of the ways that we are able to hold fast to our hope when times grow difficult.
2. Turn in a pledge card. Last week, I devoted my whole sermon to the story of a poor woman who gave me her gold butterfly necklace when I complimented her on it and the lesson that I learned from that powerful experience: that every person is created by God with the need to give. It connects us with God and with all of God’s creation when we are able to offer pieces of ourselves and things that we hold to be dear and of value.
3. Find at least one new way (beyond the first two) of being involved in life at St. Peter’s by-the-Sea. The work that we do as the church is our best attempt at being co-creators with God, at showing forth God’s love to a needy and hungry world. And every person who worships with us needs to be engaged in this co-creative work. We do it because we are grateful for all that God has given us, because we believe that we have a unique way of telling the story of God’s redemption and love and salvation, and because God has invited us to join God in this beautiful and life-giving work.

“This is but the beginning of the birth pangs,” Jesus tells them. Now you can look at that two ways. You can see Jesus telling them, that the suffering has only just begun—more doom and gloom. But I choose to look at it as Jesus telling them that all this suffering is a natural part of the birthing of a new existence and a new way of being, that yeah, it sure huts right now, but in the end, with a whoosh of fluids, a cry of loss or triumph, a great release, and there is a new life. All of the wars and the poverty, all of the diseases and the cancers, all of the terror and injustice, all of the cares and concerns that weigh us down in our daily life, all of these things are but the beginning of the birth pangs. As Christians, we live our lives in hope that even though we face hardships and persecution and suffering, we continue to be a part of a process of new life, new birth, in which God will use us co-creators. Being co-creators means that how we live our lives in the midst of suffering and hardship matters because as we are able to continue to love, and to worship, to honor and to give thanks, we do our part in helping to bring God’s creation toward its fulfillment, toward the end for which it was created. We live our lives in hope because we hold onto Jesus’s promise that once we endure the pangs of labor, we will actually hold in our arms that new life and the promise that our life has meaning.
Won’t you join us as we make the choice to work with God to help the kingdom of God’s love draw closer?

Friday, November 6, 2009

Pulling Weeds

Yesterday afternoon, I spent another hour of my life on the phone with AT&T. This is the fourth month that I have had to call AT&T because they have yet to bill us correctly for the new phone service that we signed up for when we moved. My call time each time averages about an hour, and by the time I spoke with the fifth individual yesterday, I was absolutely livid.
I took a deep breath when the customer service rep asked me, "How can I exceed your expectations today?" and I answered, "At this point, it would exceed my expectations if you could actually fix my problem and not pass me on to yet another incompetent customer service rep." I then took another deep breath and apologized to that individual and told her I was very angry and frustrated, but that I had no right to take it out on her, and I proceeded to relay (for the fifth time that hour) my saga of interactions with AT&T over the last four months. After some time working on the problem, the rep assured me that the problem would be taken care of (where have I heard that before?), and then she proceeded to try to get me to sign up for some new AT&T service. I answered that I had no intention of signing up for anything new until the proved they could effectively offer me what was initially promised, and we ended our conversation.
When I got off the phone, I was furious. I needed some way to channel my anger, so I took on a project that I always dread, but that has been hanging over my head since September. I put on my ratty clothes and my Crocs; I dug out my gardening gloves, and I went out into the front yard to weed the front flower bed. Now, I absolutely HATE gardening (probably because I usually manage to contact poison ivy whenever I go anywhere near a flower bed). But on this day, it was exactly what I needed. As I ripped out weeds, I imagined all the incompetent customer service reps I had talked to over the past few months. I even got the shovel out to work up a particularly large and pernicious weed, and I took great delight in imagining what I could do with the phone AT&T corporation with my shovel.
About half-way through, I began to cool down and think about God. I often think of how God uses life, circumstances, etc to weed out the weeds from our own souls. I thougth about the appropriate use and funciton of anger in our lives and marveled at how easy it is to cross the line between appropriate and inappropriate expressions of anger. As the evening began to grow dark, I finished my task in a much better frame of mind, and I spent some time outside in the early evening with my husband and son who came out to keep me company.
Even now, I am on my way to Gray Center for Presbyters' Day, in which the bishop has invited all priests to come and discuss the latest flare up among the clergy that started at clergy conference this year. This whole situation has inflamed a great deal of anger in my heart, and my prayer, as I journey there, is that God may grant me a spirit of discernment and control toward the appropriate expression of my anger and frustration.
Maybe some part of that will be a reminder of my pulling weeds and the weeds in my own soul that still need to be weeded out. But I think that I've made a really good start just by leaving my shovel at home.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

All Saints' Day sermon

All Saints’ Sunday
November 1, 2009
This time of year, alot of people like to hang out in graveyards. The Sun Herald has been chock-full of listings of cemetery tours and haunted houses this week, and even NPR did a story on a ghost hunting expedition to a haunted estate that was built on the burial ground of a Native American tribe in Florida. This is one of the few times when the liturgical calendar of the church and the pop-cultural Hallmark-fueled calendar of holiday observance are in alignment, and even we Christians find ourselves hanging out in a graveyard this morning.
In our gospel reading for today, we see Jesus, hanging out in a graveyard. He has arrived too late to save his friend Lazarus, and so he joins the mourners outside Lazarus’s tomb. But the story does not end with a tour of the graveyard. Instead, Jesus acts, commanding that the grave be opened, offering a prayer to God, and then commanding Lazarus to come out. And the result of all this, the writer of Luke’s gospel reports, is that “the dead man came out” still bound and wrapped in his funeral cloths.
In our worship this morning, we also will spend some time in the graveyard. First, we will take this sweet, innocent baby, Virginia Anne Wolford, and we will bury her with Christ in the waters of baptism. She will then come through Christ’s death out the other side to be a new creation, marked as Christ’s own forever and a member of the body of Christ. In baptism, we are acknowledging what has already happened, that this child is a beloved child of God, but in that process, death must occur. And we remember that death and new life, that powerful transformation, in our own lives as we renew our own baptismal vows.
Then, later in our Eucharistic prayer, we will read the names of the faithful departed, those whose lives have impacted ours, who now dwell in the communion of God’s saints, among all God’s faithful believers. This reading of the list of the faithful departed of our lives and the life of St. Peter’s is the equivalent of meandering through the graveyard and placing flowers on each grave, and it is also so much more. It is reaffirming our connection with those who are with us no longer and also reaffirming our hope in Christ that one day we are all united at the Great Eucharistic feast, the heavenly banquet at which God will wipe every tear from our eyes and will make all things new.
The Celts of the British Isles, our ancestors in our Anglican heritage, maintained that there are “thin places” on this earth, places where the boundary between earth and heaven, between past, present, and future, is so thin that it can be crossed over. For whatever reason, we often find such thin places in graveyards, and All Saints’ Day is also such a thin place. Even as we remember and celebrate our past and those who have made us who we are, we celebrate our present and our future as the body of Christ—those who have died and been resurrected through our baptism into Christ’s death and resurrection.
And so we also gather today, during this thin place, to make our pledge to support the continued work of Christ’s body in the world through support of St. Peter’s over the coming year and on into the future. We remember those who have given of themselves to make this place a sanctuary and a haven for us, those who have blazed a trail or paved the way before us. We look around and give thanks for all those present with us here today, our fellow pilgrims on a journey, fellow travelers on the road. And we also look forward into the future of St. Peter’s and give thanks for those who will come after us to continue our work and our mission in this world when we are nothing but dust in our graves in the graveyard.
In closing, I leave you with some words of hope from a portion of the poem “Thanatopsis” by William Cullen Bryant. So live, that when thy summons comes to youTo join the innumerable caravan, which movesTo that mysterious real, where each shall takeHis chamber in the silent halls of death,Thou go not, like the quarry-slave at night,Scourged to his dungeon, but, sustained and soothed,By unfaltering trust, approach thy grave,As one who wraps the drapery of his couchAbout him, and lies down to pleasant dreams.

And let us be thankful for all that was, all that is, and all that is yet to come