Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Christmas Eve

--the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in the land of deep darkness—on them light has shined.

Those of us who live in the country know what it means to walk in darkness. It is not uncommon to drive down some of our back roads feeling like we are in a cave with only our measly headlights to guide us. There is always the fear that a deer, or worse, a skunk, will jump out in front of us. If it is snowing we can’t even use our high beams we just have to pick our way carefully. If it is clear, we can see the stars. But even out here in the country there is still some light pollution and it is difficult to see the whole array of the heavens.

In Texas, Christmas time is a light show. The electrical consumption doubles in the state of Texas between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Every building, out building, fence, tree and outhouse is decorated with lights. When you fly into the Dallas-Ft. Worth airport the two cities look like they are ablaze. There is no distinction between night and day. Every house has electric icicles hanging from it. There is no groping to find the driveway there. It wasn’t until I moved to Bainbridge 30 years ago that I found out that icicles were not a GOOD thing. In my mind, they were just pretty decorations, not the telltale signs that your house didn’t have any insulation. Up here in the North we know the difference of dark and light. And so did the people in Isaiah’s day.

They found their way by following the stars in the desert the same way that mariners found their way on the sea. They longed for the light of home the same way we look for a porch light on a snowy night. And Isaiah used this metaphor to remind the people that God would provide them with the kind leadership to leave the political and spiritual darkness that had come upon them. Isaiah warned of the coming captivity of the people of Judah, but he also gave them hope that God would relent and give them a future.

Isaiah tells of a leader who would come to show the way from darkness to light. “For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” and for 500 years the people of Judah looked for that child.

Finally in the time of Caesar Augustus, when Quirinius was governor of Syria and the Galilee, that child was born into the tribe of Judah to lead the people out of the political and spiritual malaise into which the people of God had once again fallen. He was to lead the people of God back to living in the light. This child was to know what it meant to be human. But he also was born to know what it meant to be Divine and teach that to us all. He was the Prince of Peace, because when humanity knows the love of God and lives it, peace reigns. He was to familiarize us with the Father—bring us into a common family, all peoples, all tribes, and all faiths for the sake of the whole world.

All ages walk in darkness. All of us personally enter into darkness. It is part of what it means to be human. Even in our light-polluted world where we do not fear the deer or the skunk jumping out in front of us, we still walk in the darkness of doubt, or short-sightedness, or self-absorption, or fear and self-protection. We, too, fumble through life searching for meaning, searching for purpose, searching for connection with others—in short we are looking for that Light of God in our own captivity. We look for the warmth of acceptance, or home, or peace. We often hide from the Light because it is there we see our frailties and shortcomings. But in the Light of God we do not have to hide. We are called not to dwell on our imperfections but to learn from them and sin no more. It is in Christ, that child who was born for us in Bethlehem so long ago, that we can find the wherewithal to trust and let go of fear. This child who was brought to us in a stall in Bethlehem is the Light of the world. It is he who has shown all humanity what it means to totally alive, totally fulfilled, totally satisfied, totally filled with God’s grace.

Tonight, over two thousand years later we still celebrate that moment when God and humanity met and became one. No longer can those of us who claim Jesus as our Lord and Savior find in ourselves only our humanity. In Christ Jesus have had a taste of what it means to be whole and holy. In the Incarnation of Christ we find that the Christian life is not just waiting for the bliss of Heaven. The Christian life is the adventure of drinking deeply of what it means to live fully in the Light of God with the full knowledge of our failings and the full experience of God’s mercy.

Like the shepherds of tonight’s Gospel reading, we too are drawn by the light and music. We too must journey to Bethlehem to see this thing that has been related to us by prophets and sung to us by angel choirs all our lives. We are drawn to the light of home—for it is in Christ we know what we were born for. It is in his name we proclaim our family heritage. It is in his life that we find the pattern for our own.

It is in Christ we know the holiness of our birth. In Him we know not only the particular uniqueness of our personal existence, but we find our commonality with all creation. As we gaze at the manger, we know the lowliness of our birth, even if we were born in a castle. As we look at the tiny fingers of the new born, we see our own hands. As we watch Mary and Joseph we see the love of family and know our mission to pass that love on.

We are a people who have walked in darkness but we know where our Light is. We know that if we do not keep that Christ Light before us, we can opt for fear and dissolution. And all though we celebrate this journey to Bethlehem only once a year, the journey to Bethlehem is something we do daily. Christ is born anew in us each time we live in Christ’s light. Each time we forget ourselves and contribute to the well-being of others we understand why this Child came to us. Each time we stretch ourselves to expand our vision of peace, each time we feed those who are hungry, each time we refrain from vengeance, each time we contribute to the welfare of others we get a glimpse of the light that radiates from that manger—the Light that saves the world.

Tonight we come to Bethlehem, to hear again the story of Christ’s birth and our own. At this altar you are invited to become all that you were hoped to be. In the light of these candles you are drawn to the love of the Father. In the ancient songs and carols you can find your home, that centered place where God and you are made one.

So when you go back to your everyday world next week, someone may ask you, “What did you do for Christmas?” Just answer them, “I went to Bethlehem.” They will probably think you went to Pennsylvania, but you will know better. If they ask, “what did you do there?” You can tell them you saw the hope for the world. You saw in Christ the hope that walking from the darkness into the Light brings. You saw the hope that says that God and humanity have met and are made one. You saw that in Christ that we can do all things in the name of the One who sent him. In Bethlehem you saw the Christ Child but you also saw yourself and all the hope that God has in you. AMEN

Tuesday, December 22, 2009


Once the last Sunday of Advent is over, I start getting Christmasy. I break out my red and green sweater and fuzzy bear-snowflake vest. By then all the gifts I ordered online are arriving and I start thinking about Christmas dinner.
Most of the time J and I have a quiet Christmas Day following all the Christmas Eve services we celebrate. This year J has a Christmas Day service so I will get to have the kitchen all to myself to fix the roast of beef and Yorkshire pudding—the singular nod to our English heritage. There are generally telephone calls to family members and perhaps a movie in the afternoon.

But the real Christmas is in the Christmas Eve service wherever it is. It is in the ancient ritual and music that the world is made right for me. Candle lit faces sing a truth that can only be understood in song and poetry.

Christmas is not an event, some historical moment in time encapsulated in ritual. Christmas is a life lived reminded of how intimate God is. It is a reality of Divine presence and who dwells among all that I know and think of. With Christmas, God is never “up there”. God is constantly within my world whether it is as a child or friend or parent, or creator or spirit beyond the universes. And no matter how far God may seem to be in my restlessness, or how close in my consolation; Christmas Eve breathes God’s intimate breath into my soul and gives me the oxygen of faith to face whatever life holds for me for the next year.

Join us at 7:30 Thursday evening at St. Luke’s for this wonder moment of faith and Christian nourishment. Celebrate, worship and praise the God who comes to be with us within a community who cherish his presence.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Sermon: Joy

Friday night J. and I went out for dinner. As is our habit, we discuss the readings for the coming Sunday. There is a real plus to living with another preacher. “What are the readings?” she asked. “Two readings on Joy and ‘you brood of vipers’, I said and we both laughed. Sometimes our readings seem to be at real odds with one another. The theme for today is JOY and yet our Gospel reading seems decidedly NOT joyful. So what are we to find in today’s readings, or as Luther would have asked “Was ist das?” or “What does this mean?”

In the Zephaniah reading for today we hear words of pardon and return. The prophecy of Zephaniah was written before the Babylonian Exile and tells of the wrath of God that will come because the people of Judah have strayed from worshipping God. They have not followed the Torah—the teachings of God. Zephaniah prophesies that as the punishment of the people of Judah will be great, so will the joy be great when they return from exile. It is this joy that the people of God celebrate. It is the joy that comes after repentance. It should be noted that joy comes after taking responsibility for their sin against God.

In the reading from Philippians, Paul is writing to a community that has been under persecution. Instead of commiserating or cosseting the people of Philippi, he counsels them to “rejoice in the Lord always.” He calls them to be grateful for the misadventures that have befallen them. Because Paul knows that it is through their joy, the truth of Christ’s sacrifice will be witnessed. The good news of Christ’s resurrection will be proclaimed in their sufferings.

Even in the canticle from Isaiah that we read responsively instead of a psalm this morning, we find joy coming in the face of what should be fear. Confidence in God’s salvation brings forth joy, not fear. So our readings really do have some commonality.

John Baptist comes to the people from the desert in the Gospel to preach to the “riff-raff”, the tax collectors, the Maddoffs and Sillings of his day and the Roman soldiers, the gangbangers and mobsters of society. John Baptist does not say ‘believe in the Messiah who is coming’. He says ‘turn your life around.’ ‘Make changes in what you are doing if you want to know the joy of God.’ John was teaching about the coming new age when God’s teachings, God’s Torah would rule the land. He preached that Israel would return to its former glory and God’s law would be the law of the land once again. No longer would the injustice of Roman law prevail. God’s teaching would call from all those living in Palestine a kind of just living that would demand that the tax collectors be honorable and the police serve all the people, not just the Roman landholders or merchants.

Joy, in the minds of the prophets, was the consequence of living out God’s hope and righteousness in community. Joy was the result of living worthy of one’s calling. This is not just some “happy, happy, joy, joy” passing pleasure. It is what comes to those who live out their faith with intention and commitment. Joy was the gift that comes when Christians act on their faith rather than just believe. Joy is how Christians live when they have little concern about themselves and more concern about others.

Often when the days darken, the cold sets in and the idiocy of a consumerism holiday season takes hold, I tend toward grumpiness. This is not an incipient Scroogism, nor is it some deep-seated dislike of Christmas. From the number of people who talk to me during November and December, it is the complaint of many of us. We often wonder why this depression at a time when everyone is singing about joy. And I think it is because we have lost this biblical understanding of joy. We have opted for “fun” or “pleasure” or some passing FEELING rather than that deeply experienced understanding of God’s gift of joy—of that sense of life is “right”, that there is balance and wholeness to our lives in Christ.

Joy is a type of contentment—not the ‘I have finally arrived and I don’t have to change anymore’ kind of contentment. But the kind of contentment that comes with having lost my own self in the service of others. It is a kind of wholeness that does not rest on our labors, but rests in the understanding that God is in charge of our future. The gift of joy comes to us when we find in our faith not ways of manipulating others to believe the way we do, but by evangelizing by exemplifying the courage to become better persons.

Advent is that time when the Church allows us to embrace that sense of Joy. It is a time when we can provide a community of faith that recognizes that we never can be all we want to be. It is a community of faith that recognizes that we are all trying to be more Christ-like than we were last year. In Advent we as a Church understand that we are all works-in-progress, and our goal is still before us. And in Advent we hear of those attributes that God offers us of Hope, Love and Joy that come when we turn our lives over to Christ.

We need not fear John Baptist facing us with our sinfulness as a “a brood of vipers” because we know that it is in repentance that God’s joy comes upon us. We need not fear persecution because in the sacrifice we find God’s joy in us. We need not fear our mistakes because in God’s mercy we know a joy that passes all words. We need not fear a new age because God’s Torah—God’s way is shown to us in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ. We need not fear our grumpiness or depression because it is that abiding gift of wholeness and oneness that God provides us in the midst of our tribulations, our sacrifices and service to others.

In Hebrew there are ten different words that are translated ‘joy.’ In Greek there are at least six. English has several that could be substituted for ‘joy,’ but we are all know what joy means even if we cannot find the word for it.Joy is the result of our dependence upon God alone. And Joy is the result when we have worked hard with the grace of God to transform ourselves into that selfless, Christ-like, whole, person working to bring balance to our world.

In Judaism, our Lord’s faith, the faithful person was one who did “mitzvot”. The word actually means "blessing. But it often conotes an act or deed of goodness or righteousness. We Protestants often get a bit uncomfortable with good acts or works. But a ‘mitzvah’ is the blessing of God putting the world back in balance in the face of human sin through our acts of kindness and fidelity. In John Baptist’s call to baptism, the tax collector and the Centurion ask John Baptist “What can we DO?” John Baptist tells them very succinctly what they are to do: ‘Do not extort’, ‘Do not bully’. ‘Change your life.’ ‘Bring balance back into the community by acting justly.’

Joy, that sense of rightness and balance is there for us when we surrender our lives. For those who know they are saved, hope, love and joy are all part of our daily experience of God. When we do “mitzvot”, those blessings of kindness, those acts of balance, we participate in the God’s reparation of Creation. So I invite you to find things that you can DO to bring about joy in the lives of others. I invite you to do acts of bringing balance into the world, acts of restorative care for others for in it you will find the joy of Christ in them. AMEN

Friday, December 11, 2009

Good Church Order

Often times congregations are unaware of something called ‘Good Church Order.’ It is a manner of operating a congregation or a synod or diocese in a manner that is workable for all. Bishops, priests and pastors and deacons are all responsible for good church order. Some of Church Order is published as rules of order, by-laws or canons but others are merely understood as custom or recognized as ‘polite’ behavior. Some of these customs bridge denominational lines. One of these is: “a pastor does not return to his/her former congregation without the express invitation of the current pastor.”

The social dynamics of churches are often volatile things. Given the political climate of our times, it is not surprising that the emotional climate of most congregations in the US is precarious at best. There are many things that upset folks in our churches these days and the management of good church order is often more like riding a bucking bronco than anything else. The surprise entrance of a former pastor into a current congregation is difficult and often becomes an unsettling element in the parish’s life. When a former pastor attended a church event and asked the present chair of council if he could preach that Sunday, I was stunned. Not only had he ignored the good order of the church, he had crossed the boundaries of the development of affection that were trying to be built by me in my current parish. He wasn’t being mean or malevolent. He was just trying to touch that missing sense of love he had known while pastor.

One of the sacrifices that clergy must make in their lives as priests and pastors is the friendship with those they have served. It is the MOST difficult sacrifice I have had to make in order to be a priest. I work hard at the friendships in the pastor/parishioner relationships in my congregations. I try to give my all to these people in Christ’s name. I spend myself for them. That is not only my job; it is my calling. Most of the time, that service, love, affection and respect in loving them is reciprocated. I get loved back and that feels wonderful. It is in that reciprocal love Christ is most often identified and glorified. It is fulfilling, healing to others and myself. It is the most Christ-like way to lead the community of the faithful.

However, when I leave that position as pastor or rector, that particular dynamic of love and reciprocity is ended for good church order. I cannot expect to give or get the kind of love that I did when I was leading the congregation. It is one of the down sides of my vocation. Even if I have spent my whole life in one congregation, I cannot expect to depend upon those friendships when I leave because those friendships must be reoriented to the new pastor or rector. It is my duty to those I have loved and served not to return. It is my duty to cause no undue tension in the congregation or focus the attention on my needs for love and friendship. It sometimes means that I am lonely after I have left a church. I want to say “My friends can change their relationship from pastor to friend.” But quite frankly most can’t.

When I leave a church there are voids in my life that hurt unmercifully. But that is a sacrifice I must make for good church order. It is the final act of loving for a parish I can do. And even if my successor is a numbskull, a pitiful preacher, or a unloving SOB or not even there yet, I cannot step in to that parish, or even have friends in that parish, until that present pastor has his/her feet on the ground and has developed the reciprocal love that is necessary for his/her leadership in that congregation.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Sermon: Adventual Love

Most of you remember that in October I went out to participate in a drug intervention of my friend in St. Paul, MN. I have known Cece since she was 16 and watched her grow into a well-functioning neo-natal nurse, be a contributing part of society, mature into a 40-something woman that was capable and alert, yet after an injury and extensive surgery became a recluse, drugged, hoarding, cat lady unable to pay her bills or take care of herself. My friend Beth and I confronted Cece with her addiction. It was not a happy event. Cece’s denial was strong and angry. She was afraid to see herself as an addict. It was hard to set a mirror before her and ask her to look at what she had become because of the disease of addiction. But the love we had for her was strong and I believe it got through the drugged fog she lived in. This week I got a long email from her. She has completed the initial phase of rehab and has chosen to go into another phase of rehab that will give her the skills to address the world without drugs. She actually thanked us for intervening.

Love is the theme for this Sunday of Advent. Now, I have spoken lots about love—it is the foundation of our relationship with God. Often it is that soft, gentle love that we want to hear about. We want to hear how God goes after the lost sheep, or welcomes us home like the Prodigal Son’s Father. We love to hear the stories of how we are fed and cosseted by God’s saving grace. But sometimes God’s love is a much more terrifying kind of love—like the love that my friend Cece had to face when she had to look at herself in rehab and see that she had become a drug addict no different from the homeless guy on the street.

Adventual love is the kind of love that hears John Baptist’s cry to “prepare the way of the Lord.” Adventual love is a call to look at ourselves and see where we have fallen from the image that God has for us. Adventual love is ‘tough love’, in which God says to us: “I know you are better than you are behaving right now, and I am giving you a chance to do something about it.” And God holds up a mirror for us and shows us who we really are. That is tough love.

Adventual love does not have to show itself in our lives during Advent. Often times that Adventual love catches us when we have made a real fool of ourselves or when we have run away from our failings rather than face them. But that voice from the wilderness is always there—“prepare a place for God in your life.” Until we are willing to move the barriers to the love God has for us, we can never really know that healing love of God.

Adventual love is the kind of love that says we can risk God’s presence in our lives. It says that when we are loved we can face the shame that we carry, we can admit the sinfulness of our hearts, and we can begin the process of forgiving ourselves because God already has. The kind of tough love that God holds out for us is the kind of love that allows us to love others through their faults—a love that can love through the hurt. It is the kind of love we want to be loved by.

When I began my career in ministry—this was long before I was ordained, I began to study Scripture. It was not long after Vatican II and I was listening to and being taught by teachers who had been liberated from the limitations of Catholic dogma to teach the truths of Scripture. To me it was thrilling. It opened up the Scripture to teach me how God’s love was alive and pertinent to me today. It taught me the history, but it also taught me how the truth of the stories could speak to me in my own time. As I went on in my journey in faith I understood that I was called to the Episcopal priesthood, but more importantly I was to teach others how Scripture impacted their lives.

During the past 10 to 15 years I have seen a reaction going on in the greater Church to Scripture that dismays me. I have seen both clergy and lay opting for a kind of scriptural literalism that is quite alien to our Episcopal or Lutheran traditions. I see people read the story of Adam and Even as if it were stuck in some historical time instead of reading it as if Adam and Eve were US—-letting us seen that our inability to take the responsibility for our actions expels us from the Eden of truth. The story of the Fall is not about what happened back then! It is about what is happening in our lives NOW when we do not listen to God’s voice, when we disobey God’s hopes for us.

When we do not attend to the social contract of how we govern ourselves and ignore the gradual take-over by moneyed interests, or fail in our goodness to care for one another in society, are we not like those in the time of Noah that were drowned in the Flood? Have we not allowed our society to become corrupt because of our lack of attention? And will we not bring our world to destruction if we do not attend to our sense of loving community or the needs of our frail Creation?

Does not the story of Lazarus and Dives, the parable that Jesus told remind us that we have beggars on our streets here in Sidney, and we have been cheap and parsimonious towards them? The Bible is our mirror, Brothers and Sisters. The Bible reminds us of God’s love and how we fail in that love. The Bible is Adventual love—that tough love that God gives us to help us become what God intends for us --when we surrender to that incredible lightness of God’s yoke of faithfulness.

In the reading from Malachi this morning we hear of the messenger that God will send. He is not a warm, sweet Baby Jesus:

"But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner's fire and like fullers' soap;
he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the LORD in righteousness."

The Messiah that Malachi predicts is a God who will love us with tough love—who will scrub us with LAVA soap, who will refine us through difficult times, who will make our offerings of service and worship perfect through the tough love that demands from us our best. God’s love is both the all-embracing love of the lost sheep as well as the well-tested love of those who have failed and have been redeemed. We cannot help but pass this kind of love on when we have known what it means to be saved.

In this Advent season, allow yourselves to read the Bible. Allow the stories in it mirror you to yourself and allow yourselves to see the habits or deeds that are not what God intends for you. Choose one of them and offer it to God as your gift. Let God take that habit, that attitude, that way of doing things from you as you allow Christ’s refining fire to work in you. Read your Bible. (If you don’t have one, I will give you one.) Allow it to mirror you in the light of Christ’s love. Surrender to God’s washing so that you may be an offering of righteousness, of wholeness and balance, of kindness and generosity as a response to God’s love for you. AMEN