Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Christmas Eve 2013

Christmas Eve 2013 I want you to take a moment and close your eyes. And I want you to daydream about what your perfect Christmas looks like…. Is it gorgeous music and candlelight? Is it a peaceful gathering of your family or closest friends? Is it a moment from your past that you remember as being “the perfect Christmas”? Is it one moment more with someone you have loved and lost? Is it peace on earth, forgiveness from one with whom you are estranged, healing for one you love who is ill? Is it the deep assurance that you are enough? Is it innocence? Is it hope? What does your perfect Christmas look like? What is it that brings you here this night? For what are you longing, hoping? I watched a video last week of how a picture of a normal woman is photo-shopped, touched up, and changed almost beyond recognition. I have been pondering that all week as I, like you all, have prepared for Christmas. I think about it as I hear others talk about their favorite Christmas traditions. I ponder it as we set up our nativity scenes at home and here in the church. I think about how we have all, basically, photo-shopped Christmas. Now please, understand me here. I am not saying this in judgment. I do not think that this is some sort of nefarious “war on Christmas.” I think that we all live demanding, difficult lives. I think that we long for comfort, for peace, for the loveliness of a soft-hued, sentiment-filled, Christmas scene. Life is hard and we work hard every single day to stem that chaos that threatens to overcome us. We deeply long for the loveliness, the peace, the beauty, the innocence of Christmas. But we miss out on so much when this is all we ask for from the story of Jesus’s birth. We miss out on the fact that God’s people also had a hard life. We miss out on the fact that the Roman Empire worked diligently to organize and keep the chaos at bay, so much so that it called for an empire-wide census in order to organize everything and everyone. We miss out on the fact that in the midst of this great controlling, and organizing power, God acts on the fringes, in the lives of a handful of people, in a tiny place in the middle of nowhere. When we cling so tightly to our photo-shopped Christmas story, we miss out on the fact that these are a bunch of terrified people who are also trying desperately to keep the chaos at bay. We miss out on the muck and stench of a whole lot of livestock that is not unlike the muck of our own daily drudgery. We miss out on the way that God breaks into their ordinary, confusing, frightening, chaotic and out-of-control lives in a most unexpected way, and we miss out on how God takes all that ordinariness and chaos and claims is as holy. When we cling too tightly to our photo-shopped version of the Christmas story, we miss out on the truth that God uses ordinary, chaotic, frightened people just like us to bring about the Incarnation. We come here tonight, I think, because we just need a break from the difficulty, just a little peace for just a little while. But that is not what God is about in the birth of Jesus. God is not coming into the world to make things just a little bit better, just a little bit easier for us. God breaks into the world in Incarnation. God lives God’s life in perfect union with God’s self. God gives Godself over to death, and God shows that God’s love is stronger than death in and through the resurrection. In and through God’s actions, God gives meaning and power to humanity that we have never known or seen before. We are each given the power of God to be creators of a more-perfect world. Tonight, when we come looking for peace, we are given power. Tonight when we search for “the perfect Christmas,” we find the glory of God that can be uncovered, always on the fringes, in the least, the lost the broken parts of our lives. Tonight we are given the gift to look at the world not as our enemy or something we need a break from. Tonight we are given the gift of viewing the world and those around us with wonder, for each of us is the dwelling place of God. So whatever you have come here looking for this night, I hope you will be disappointed. I hope that God will give you so much more than you can ask for or imagine. I hope that you will find God on the fringes, in the most unexpected of places. I hope that you will remember that you, also, are holy; for you are the dwelling place of God.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Blue Christmas homily--Advent 3A

Blue Christmas homily December 15, 2013 The children of Israel are returning home from exile once again. But they are finding their home a desolation, dramatically different from how they remember it. Isaiah reclaims an old image of a wilderness for this time and this journey for them, and this wilderness holds barren sand, a dry cracked landscape, thirsty ground and an abundance of dangerous wild animals, ravenous beasts. We all know something of this wilderness. It is why we gather for this service tonight. We know that things change and that life changes us, and places which once seemed safe and secure can quickly become wilderness or wild places. Take a moment right now and identify your own wilderness—the place of desolation and dryness and wild, ravenous beasts in your own soul. Where does it come from? What did it used to be? Do you feel yourself lost in it? Stumbling around in a frightening and foreign landscape? Now imagine a way through the wilderness, a clearly marked path, a highway, even. This way is so clear that not even a fool can get lost on it (which is a relief, because we all have a bit of the fool in us, don’t we?). And as you travel on this way, God’s way through the wilderness, imagine that the wilderness around you is being transformed to a place that looks much different than it ever was before--a place of refreshment, hope, and delight.

Advent 3A--John the Baptist and Walter Anderson

Advent 3A December 15, 2013 Sometimes he would dream of the wilderness. The blazing sun. The stark landscape. The wildness. The certainty. He would dream of the people who would come out to see him, and he would dream about the way of the Lord. And then he would wake in his cold, dark prison cell, with the bitter taste of disappointment in his mouth. He had never known before that disappointment had its own unique flavor, but now, it had become his constant companion. What is a wilderness prophet to do once he has been contained, restrained? How does one prepare the way of the Lord in isolation and darkness? Perhaps it was his lowest moment, his moment of greatest doubt of himself and all that he had proclaimed? Perhaps he felt that he had lost the way that had once seemed so certain? Perhaps he was disappointed in what he heard of Jesus, because he was not what John was expecting? Or perhaps it was the culmination of all that he had pointed toward when he finally sent his disciples to ask the question of Jesus: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?" And I can’t help but wonder what John made of Jesus’s answer: “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me." What did he do when he heard those words, all alone in his prison cell? I suspect that he did what all faithful are called to do, even in the midst of our disappointment and our frustration. He waited. But perhaps his waiting took on a different quality than it had before? Where before he had been waiting for the Messiah, now he waited for fulfillment. I had the wonderful opportunity to visit the Walter Anderson museum in Ocean Springs for the first time this past week with Mary Margaret’s class. I found it to be both a whimsical and mystical place, and I was amazed to learn of similarities between Walter and John the Baptist. In two different videos, we learned of Walter’s life, about how he struggled to be a part of this world while longing for escape into his own wilderness on Horn Island, where he would have mystical experiences and live a life of deep meaning and deep connection with nature. We learned of how Walter, at one point, was institutionalized at MS State Hospital at Whitfield, and how he drew a tortured self-portrait during that time of his imprisonment and separation from the wilderness. We learned about how his family never really understood him, until after he died, when they found the little room in his cabin that he had always kept locked, the little room that was covered on all sides with his art in the form of mystical murals and which, to this day, emits a profound sense of peace. We learned how they found hundreds of his paintings, his journals, and it was only then that they felt like they began to know him, to understand him. After Walter’s death, his family, who I daresay, had lived with their disappointment with him as a most untraditional husband and father, found fulfillment with him through the discovery of his art and writing that they had never before experience during his life. Disappointment is a lonely burden to bear, and yet we all know something of it. People disappoint us. Life disappoints us. The choices that others make that directly affect us disappoint us. It is tempting to attempt to run from our disappointment, to try to leave it behind (whether through ending the relationship or situation), to allow it to morph into anger or bitterness, or to try to pretend that our disappointment does not exist, that everything is great. But the work of the faithful disciple of Jesus, the work of a mature spiritual life, is to offer our disappointment to God, and then to wait patiently for God’s fulfillment to come, because come it will. Here is what Frederick Buchner writes of this waiting: “I think we are waiting. That is what is at the heart of it. Even when we don’t know that we are waiting, I think we are waiting. Even when we can’t find words for what we are waiting for, I think we are waiting. An ancient Advent prayer supplies us with the words, ‘Give us grace…that we may cast off the works of darkness and put upon us the armor of light.’ We who live so much of the time in darkness are waiting not just at Advent, but at all times for the advent of light, of that ultimate light that is redemptive and terrifying at the same time. It is redemptive because it puts an end to the darkness, and that is also why it is terrifying, because for so long, for all our lives, the darkness has been home, and because to leave home is always cause for terror. So to wait for Christ to come in his fullness is not just a passive thing, a pious, prayerful, churchly thing. On the contrary, to wait for Christ to come in his fullness is above all else to act in Christ's stead as fully as we know how. To wait for Christ is as best we can to be Christ to those who need us to be Christ to them most and to bring them the most we have of Christ's healing and hope because unless we bring it, it may never be brought at all.”i.
The darkness of our own disappointment is dispelled when we allow the incarnate light of Christ that is within us shine out and inspire us to do his work in the world. We find fulfillment and hope when, in and through us, Jesus’s work is continued: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. In closing I leave you with a quote that is said to be from Walter Inglis Anderson: “I am responsible. Although I may not be able to prevent the worst from happening, I am responsible for my attitude toward the inevitable misfortunes that darken life. Bad things do happen; how I respond to them defines my character and the quality of my life. I can choose to sit in perpetual sadness, immobilized by the gravity of my loss, or I can choose to rise from the pain and treasure the most precious gift I have--life itself.”ii i. Excerpted from Frederich Buechner’s sermon Waiting from Secrets in the Dark. Found at http://www.frederickbuechner.com/content/weekly-sermon-illustration-be-patient ii. http://www.searchquotes.com/search/Walter_Inglis_Anderson/

Sunday, December 8, 2013

2nd Sunday of Advent Year A

Advent 2 Year A December 8, 2013 "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, `We have Abraham as our ancestor'; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” John the Baptist is preaching to the church folk. John the Baptist is preaching to us. I don’t know anyone who can be faced with another person’s judgment without being made uncomfortable. Many Episcopalians find an oasis here from other traditions who preach judgment on a regular basis, so when the topic comes up for us, we are slightly allergic to it; we don’t want to sound like those hell-fire and brimstone Christians, and yet….the concept of judgment is a very real part of the Christian tradition that we have inherited. So let me tell you what’s different about this judgment upon us by John the Baptist, let me tell you what’s different with God’s judgment of us than most likely any other we have encountered in this life. I recently received a rather nasty email from someone who is a member of another parish here on the Coast, and she was judging me, judging my priesthood and my living into my ordination vows based on the little she knew of our recent process of conversations in this parish. At first, I was very angry, and then I was intrigued as to where this was coming from (since I have spoken to this individual only once before). And I realized that her judgment of me, had absolutely nothing to do with me; she doesn’t know anything about me, or my priesthood, or really this parish or any of you. Her judgment was about her own issues, and most especially, her own agenda. If any of you have been the beneficiary of a judgment-based sermon or other experience, then you have experienced this also. (It is the temptation that we preachers face and have to test constantly—am I preaching my agenda or God’s agenda? And we don’t always get it right…) John the Baptist offers us a different kind of judgment. He is the one who is called to “prepare the way of the Lord,” get everybody ready for Jesus. He calls us to repent, to turn from following one’s own agenda, to change our hearts, and amend our lives. The modern day equivalent of John’s admonition to his hearer’s to not rely on their heritage for their righteousness (saying, “We have Abraham as our father”) is the akin to our modern day concept of “We have Christ as our Savior.” While trust in God’s salvation through Jesus is a first requirement, it is not the last. We cannot substitute grace for human responsibility. They go hand in hand. But there’s another layer to this call for repentance from the John the Baptist. Marcus Borg suggests that repenting is about returning home from exile. A self-imposed exile. Many of the stories about Jesus and the stories that he tells are about this—how we live in our own self-imposed exiles, and he calls us to come home. This is also the call of John the Baptist. But we need to be mindful that this call is not only to us as individuals. The call to return home from our self-imposed exile is a call to all of us together as God’s people. The children of Israel are never once returned to the promised land after they had been in exile as individuals. It was always a home-coming of an entire people. Such is the call for us to repentance; it is a call to us as a whole people. We are all in this together. So here’s the good news (and the slightly uncomfortable news) about judgment. God cares about what we do (both as individuals and as a people). “…if God does not care about what I do, I will begin to suspect that God does not actually care about me. If God loves me enough to welcome me into Christ’s family, then God loves me enough to expect something of me.”i Here’s a little story that gets to the heart of all this: “One December afternoon…a group of parents stood in the lobby of a nursery school waiting to claim their children after the last pre-Christmas class session. As the youngsters ran from their lockers, each one carried in his hands the ‘surprise,’ the brightly wrapped package on which he had been working diligently for weeks. One small boy, trying to run, put on his coat, and wave to his parents, all at the same time, slipped and fell. The ‘surprise’ flew from his grasp, landed on the floor, and broke with an obvious ceramic crash. The child…began to cry inconsolably. His father, trying to minimize the incident and comfort the boy, patted his head and murmured, ‘Now, that’s all right, son. It doesn’t matter. It really doesn’t matter at all.’ But the child’s mother…swept the boy into her arms and said, ‘Oh, but it does matter. It matters a great deal.’ And she wept with her son.”ii That is the judgment of the God who dwells with us and in us. We matter to God, so what we do matters. And that’s where we find the strange flip-side of judgment and the call to repentance in our readings for today. Who would have thought the flip-side of repentance (and judgment) would be…hope? “For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope. May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Paul knows something of judgment and repentance. He had judged and persecuted the followers of Jesus, until he had an encounter with the risen Christ on the road to Damascus and was transformed. He knows that hope is not just wishing that things will turn out ok for me and mine. For Paul, hope is cosmic, not just concerned with the self. For Paul, hope is that the promises of God are going to be fulfilled and seeing that rooted and grounded in the person of Jesus Christ. Hope is a gift of the Holy Spirit, that is given to all of us as we repent and God works to realign us within God’s priorities and Christ’s life. Hope is that we matter to God, and so what we do matters to God and makes a difference in God’s Kingdom. I recently read a poem that gets to the heart of this hope that is the flip-side of the repentance we are called to this Sunday. It is called “Hope and Love” by Jane Hirshfield: All winter the blue heron slept among the horses. I do not know the custom of herons, do not know if the solitary habit is their way, or if he listened for some missing one- not knowing even that was what he did- in the blowing sounds in the dark. I know that hope is the hardest love we carry. He slept with his long neck folded, like a letter put away. “I know hope is the hardest love we carry.” “Bear fruit worthy of repentance.” “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” Amen. i.Feasting on the Word Pastoral perspective by David Bartelett p 46. ii.William Muehl as quoted in the above reference