Such a lovely room

Such a lovely room

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Sunday, January 13, 2019

YEAR C 2019 the baptism of our lord

The Baptism of Our Lord, 2019
Isaiah 43:1-7
Psalm 29
Acts 8:14-17
Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Back in the 1980’s, I went to see Peter Gabriel in concert.  This was his first tour after leaving the band, Genesis, and there was excitement in the air.  Last we all knew, Peter Gabriel was a long-haired theatrical rock star, wowing the masses of prog-rock fans.  At show time, the house lights were still on, and people were still filing into their seats, when down the aisle came a short-haired man carrying a teddy bear.  He made his way past the people, down to the foot of the stage, climbed up, put the bear on the piano, and started singing.  It was Peter Gabriel, moments previous, a guy walking down the aisle; now the man we had come to see.

I am reminded of that experience in reading today’s Gospel text.  John the Rock Star, er, I mean, John the Baptist, has the people in a tizzy.  His baptism is all the rage, and Luke says the people were “filled with expectation.”  The people were gathered around, wondering if John might be, you know, the Messiah—the anointed one from God?  The one all the papers (or scriptures) had been hinting would be coming to town.  (After all, the paintings I’ve seen of John do make him look like some kind of long-haired rocker.)  And, true to rock-star form, the people flocked to him without knowing why.

John grabs the mic, and says “Ladies and gentlemen.  Thanks for coming.  I can see you’re all really thinking this is the big finale of today’s show.  But hold on to your camel skin, cause you ain’t seen nothing yet!  I’m just the opening act!  Following me, there’s a guy who’s going to melt your faces!  I’m not worthy to tune his guitar!  He’s got pyro you won’t believe.  He’s got a winnowing fork in his band, and will play leads that will separate the wheat from the chaff!  And the chaff will burn in the unquenchable fire!”  The crowd roars, and they all jump into the water.

That’s the big intro.  So where’s the flashy entrance?  Where’s the drama?  The lights?  The pyro?  Where’s the mind-blowing stage show?  Well, there isn’t one. 

As Luke says, “when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also was baptized and was praying . . .”  That’s it?  That’s the entrance?  Yep.  Jesus gets baptized right along with everyone else.  Luke doesn’t give us any details of the baptism.  Jesus is just baptized along with everybody else.  Or, as Luke says, right along with “ALL the people.”  All the people were baptized, and Jesus also was baptized.  Kind of an understated entrance for the one for whom John has been stumping, isn’t it?  I mean, the set-up seems a little overblown, doesn’t it?

But, of course, you know what happens next.  Jesus is praying, the heavens open up, the Holy Spirit descends in the form of a dove, and there is a voice from heaven saying, “You are my son, the beloved; with you I am well pleased.”  Whole theological careers have been built on this sentence.  And mine will not be among them.  There are too many questions about what this means for Jesus’ own sense of his Messianic identity for me to wade into.  But this voice from heaven sounds remarkably similar to what comes just prior to the reading we heard from Isaiah this morning.

In Isaiah 42 we read, “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations.”  Of course, we might conclude that Luke intends for it to sound remarkably similar, and that’s why it does.  But the echo is certainly there, and it would make the connection clear for anyone familiar with the writings of Isaiah.  You know, like ALL the people who came to be baptized by John.

And just after that prophecy, in today’s reading from Isaiah, we have a series of promises.  I have called you by name and you are mine.  Do not fear; I am with you.  You are precious in my sight.  I am the Lord your God, your Savior.  These are promises to God’s people.  These are promises to you and to me.

And these texts from Isaiah parallel the announcement at Jesus’ baptism along with the people.  ALL the people.  Isaiah 43:2—When you pass through the waters, I will be with you.  Hmmm.   When you pass through the water, God is with you.  You are God’s beloved child.  In you, God is well pleased.  And how do we know God is with us when we pass through the water?

Jesus meets us in the water, and God is well pleased.  Jesus joins each of us in the waters of baptism, just as he meets all of us at this altar in the sacrament of his body and blood.  When Jesus meets us in the water, the water overflows with promise--forgiveness, new life, God calling us by name, God proclaiming us beloved. Like Jesus, we are named precious, honored, and loved. God is with us always; we do not need to be afraid. Jesus is the fulfillment and embodiment of God's promise.

And, after meeting us in the water, Jesus meets us in every circumstance, every season of life, even in the moment of death. From the water, Jesus meets us always in the journey of our lives, ending at the cross, and the empty tomb. Jesus has gone before us, and walks with us.

But there’s a sticky point I kept running into this week, and maybe it’s a thought you’ve had yourself at some point, and it is this:  If Baptism is for the remission of sin, you know, forgiveness of sin, and since Jesus is without sin, then why does Jesus have to be baptized?  Why does Jesus get baptized along with ALL the people?  Well, two thoughts on that . . .

First, we kind of have the shoe on the wrong foot here.  It’s not that Jesus is baptized like us; it’s that we are baptized like Jesus.  Jesus isn’t doing what we do in baptism; rather, in our baptism, we are doing what Jesus does.  We are joining in the baptism of Jesus.

And secondly, baptism is not a requirement; baptism is a gift.  God doesn’t love us because we have been baptized.  Instead, we get to be baptized because God loves us.  And that’s particularly clear when we remember those words from Isaiah.  God says when you pass through the waters I will be with you.  Which is quite different from after you have passed through the waters, I will love you, right?

And as we saw in today’s gospel reading, when ALL the people were baptized, Jesus was with them.  And not just watching them from the shore, nodding in approval.  No, Jesus was baptized right along with them.  Not in some special, private, rock-star baptism, but right along with them.  Like a guy carrying a teddy bear from the crowd going up onto the stage.  Jesus is the one we have come to see, and it turns out he is right here in the midst of us!  Rather than looking up at the spotlights, we should look around the room.  Because that’s where Jesus is.

In our own Baptismal Covenant, we promise to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbors as ourselves.  We renew that covenant every time we witness a baptism.  Every time we see someone get confirmed.  Every time the Bishop visits.  Every Easter.  And, as with all the promises we make in church, we make the promise along with the phrase, “with God’s help.”  We promise to do the impossible, with God’s help.  To seek and serve Christ in all persons, with God’s help.  Because God is with us.

Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.  When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.   For I am the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you.

Amen.

   

Sunday, January 6, 2019

YEAR C 2019 feast of the epiphany

Feast of the Epiphany, 2018
Isaiah 60:1-6
Ephesians 3:1-12
Matthew 2:1-12
Psalm 72:1-7,10-14

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

They say the road to hell is paved with good intentions.  And if that’s true, then it doesn’t matter why you do something; what matters is the outcome.  You might intend to help someone across the street, but if they get hit by a bus . . . Or, you might have intended to make a romantic setting with candles throughout the house, but if the curtains catch fire . . . .  Well, you get the point.  But saying that intentions don’t matter—that results are what count—is a cynical approach to life, a pessimistic view of the world.  It’s a quantitative concept, where what happens is more important than why it happens.  This is how most businesses are run.  Why you do your job is no one’s concern.  The outcome of your efforts, that’s what matters.

So, is the opposite approach therefore also true?  You know, can bad intentions lead to good outcomes?  If we do something for the wrong reason, but the result is ultimately good, isn’t that just putting the shoe on the other foot?  It seems that God works this way all the time.  In fact, the central point of our faith, the resurrection of Jesus, is exactly this kind of thing, isn’t it?  God bringing good results from humanity’s bad intentions?  There is a very important distinction to be made in answering that question, and we’ll get to that in a minute.  But first, let us look east together.

In today’s gospel reading, we have the visitors from the East coming to look for the new king.  The first step for us this morning is to clear away all the baggage that these men have accumulated over the years.  (This will make their journey easier, I think.)  And before we even get to them, I want to take a moment to get everyone in the right gospel book.

The shepherds are in Luke’s Gospel.  The Magi are in Matthew’s Gospel.  These gospels have two very different Christmas stories, and the people in them are there for very different reasons.  In our Christmas decorating, we often put the Magi in the crèche, along with the shepherds and the infant Jesus, and an angel, surrounded by camels and cows and stuff.  And I understand why that is.  The more the merrier, right?  But, honestly, you kind of have to choose which group of visitors you’re going to talk about, because—as I say—they’re there for different reasons.

In Matthew’s account, Mary and Joseph live in Bethlehem.  In a house, no less.  In Luke’s Gospel, they go to Bethlehem to be counted in the big census, and Jesus is born in a stable behind the inn.  In Matthew there’s no journey, and in Luke there’s no home.  So, when we mix it all up into one big story and try to claim that it’s the way it really happened, well, we’re going to get into trouble.  The shepherds are characters in Luke’s version, and the Magi are characters in Matthew’s version.  They are all part of the salvation story, but they are not the point.  The point of this Christmas story is the one who has been born, not the ones who come to visit.

So today we have the Magi coming from the east.  We don’t know how many there are in this group, but in the middle ages the number three came up, since there are three gifts, and then some names got assigned to these three visitors.  Then, at some point, they got promoted to being kings, which has been forever cemented in our minds because of a certain song calling them 3 kings of orient . . . are.  An alternate name for them is wise men, which is how their title typically gets translated, like in the NRSV, the translation we use here in church.

However, these visitors are not kings, and they are not wise men.  The best title for them would be something like astrologers: the kind of people who spend their days writing horoscopes.  They study the stars and planets, and make predictions about the future based on what they see there.  As today’s story goes, they saw the new king’s star rising and have come to pay him homage.  So that song should go, “We indeterminate number of astrologers are.”  Which is more accurate, but not very catchy around the living room piano.

So why am I telling you this . . . Well, because it’s important to Matthew’s Gospel to get these astrologers in the proper role.  They are not kings coming to visit the neighboring country’s new ruler.  They are not wise sages brimming with the wisdom of the ages.  They’re a bunch of guys who sit around looking at the stars, trying to use what they see there for their own personal advantage.  They are coming to pay homage.  Pay their respects.  Make alliances with the future ruler before he grows up and rules the land.  For the Magi to visit Jesus is like the stockbroker getting the inside tip, and sending a fruit basket to the company’s president right before the big public stock offering.  You could say they’re hedging their bets, or making a political contribution during the primary season.  Backing the right horse before the race begins.  They know from the stars that the new king has been born, and they come looking to drop off some Christmas gifts.

And we know they’re not wise men because they go to the current king and ask where they can find his replacement!  Hello!?!  Not exactly the sharpest knives in the drawer here.  Of all the people to stop and ask directions, Herod should be last on the list.  So, they’re not kings, and they’re not wise.  And it is important in Matthew’s gospel to get that point.  There are two kings in Matthew.  One is an evil tyrant who does and will do terrible things.  The other king has just been born.  For Matthew, these two kingdoms are in a battle to the end.  And, in Matthew, foolishness is wisdom.  Children enter the kingdom of heaven.  The wise cannot see the mystery of the kingdom of heaven.  Jesus and Herod are the kings, and the seemingly weak and helpless baby king will eventually conquer the strong and powerful king.

So, back to the indeterminate number of astrologers.  These Magi come in total innocence on the one hand, trusting that Herod will lead them to his own enemy.  And on the other hand, they bring these gifts assumedly in order to win favor with the future king.  It seems to me that they do not have good intentions, and based on what happens after they leave—what Herod does to all the male children—their actions have tragic results.  They have neither pure motives, nor good results.

And yet, they end up at the feet of Jesus.  In spite of the questionable reason for their journey, and in spite of the horrific result of their visit, they end up at the feet of Jesus, offering up the gifts they have.  Bad intentions, and bad outcome, and they still end up at the right place.

I don’t know whether the road to hell is paved with good intentions.  But I do know that the road to heaven is often paved with bad intentions.  You may know this from your own life’s journey.  That in spite of what you have done, or why you have done it, you still end up at the feet of Jesus.  But the really crucial thing is that God brings good results from all our intentions, whether they are good or bad.  Whatever the pavement of the road to hell is made of, whatever our actual intentions have been or will be, it is God who turns all things to work for good, in Jesus.

Whether you’re considered royalty or a servant, you end up laying your gifts before Jesus.  Whether you are wise beyond measure or make all your decisions based on the horoscope, you find your attention drawn to this king of the universe.  No matter how or why you have come, you are in this place today.  You have come to worship the king who brings peace rather than bloodshed.  You have come seeking the wisdom of the ages rather than hedging your bets.  You have been drawn by the one who draws all creation: Jesus the Christ.

We each come here offering our own gold, frankincense, and myrrh in the form of our time, talents, and possessions.  We bring what we have to the feet of Jesus, and through the magnanimous generosity of God, our ordinary gifts are  turned into extraordinary blessings for the world.  And, as we bring our bread and wine to the Altar, God promises to somehow transform it into the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ.

The Magi came in confidence that they would find Jesus at the end of their long journey from the East.  And we come in confidence to this Altar today, knowing that we will find Jesus in this place.

You and I have followed a star this morning as well, and it has come to rest over this altar.  The cross is the star that draws us, because the cross is the key to our salvation.  Whatever our intentions, God’s redemption shines by way of the cross.  Today, you and I bring what gifts we have to offer, and we find rest after our long journey, together here at the feet of Jesus, the king of peace, the wisdom of the ages, the Savior of the world.

Amen.

Sunday, December 30, 2018

YEAR C 2018 christmas 1

Christmas I, 2018
Isaiah 61:10-62:3
Psalm 147
Galatians 3:23-25, 4:4-7
John 1:1-18

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Happy sixth day of Christmas to everyone!  I hope you’re enjoying those geese a laying.  Tomorrow you should be getting seven swans.  There’s a surprising amount of poultry in these twelve days.  But on to more important matters . . .

In the beginning was the Word.  It sounds like the start to a fable doesn’t it?  As if we should all cozy up to the fire with egg nog and blankets so Father George can tell us the ancient tale called “The Word Who Came to Dinner.”  Even though most of the coming year we will be hearing from Luke’s gospel, we always get the opening of John’s gospel this time of year.  And, as a reminder, John’s gospel is kind of esoteric . . . by which I mean, “trippy.”  You cannot talk about the opening to John’s gospel without sounding just a little bit off your rocker.  And, with that disclaimer, let’s jump right in . . .

In the beginning was the Word.  Funny thing about words . . . they never appear in just one form.  Or, I should say, they operate on many levels.  If you’re reading a book, and you come across the word “dog,” you see the shape of the letters on the page, and your mind tells you those shapes together spell the word “dog.”  But then you might also get a mental image of a dog.  Some sort of vague archetype at least, if not your actual furry beast waiting at home by the fire, drinking your eggnog this morning, or chasing your six geese.

Dog is a word.  But “dog” only makes sense because you’ve seen a dog, or loved a dog, or been bitten by a dog.  “Dog” does not exist outside of having some concept of what an actual dog is.  Swirls on the page get translated into letters in your mind, and then into a word, which then calls up the appropriate concept of dog, and you get a mental image of a dog.  I bet you’re probably picturing a dog right now, aren’t you?  Okay, enough of my Timothy Leary talk.  Here’s why I’m bringing all that up.

When you hear the phrase, “In the beginning was the Word,” what do you picture?  A giant 3D version of the word Word floating through the stars and rotating slowly as light reflects off it?  I can admit to you that this is still what I picture . . . until I make it stop.  A canopy of stars and a giant four-letter styrofoam “Word” spinning out from a nebula.  Four years of seminary, and nine years as a priest, and the opening of John’s gospel still turns me into a kid watching an episode of Sesame Street.  Brought to you by the letter W.

But lest you think I slept through seminary, let’s go to the Greek.  (I promise it’s just for a second.)  When we see “the Word” in today’s gospel, it’s from the Greek logos, which is the spoken word.  But what I am picturing in my Sesame-Street mind is lexis, the written word.  Lexis is my spinning styrofoam that needs mental interpretation to get meaning.  Logos is spoken and heard, and skips the whole writing thing entirely.  And so why is that important?

Think of John’s gospel opening like this: In the beginning was the spoken word.  Or, in the beginning was the speech.  And now, think of the opening of Genesis: In the beginning, God said . . . And it was good.  The spoken Word of God.  In the beginning was the spoken Word of God.  And the spoken Word was with God, and the spoken Word was God.  Through this spoken Word all things were made.

And this Word, this spoken Word, became flesh and dwelt among us.  So think of that for a moment: The spoken Word of God, by which all things were made, becomes flesh and dwells among us.

I think one of the dangers of our careful Trinitarian formulas is that we often miss the beautiful symmetry, hiding in plain sight.  When we see the words on paper, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, there’s a chance that our mind reads the words, and then forms a mental picture of three white men, standing in the clouds: An old father with a beard, a younger son with a beard, and a little guy with a sheet over his head.  Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.  We can’t help but carry our immediate images in our minds, bizarre though they may be.  (Remember, I freely admitted to that spinning styrofoam Word.)

So, let’s try thinking of the Trinity in a different way.  God the Father speaks, the breath of the Holy Spirit comes forth, and the Words formed are the spoken Word of God.  This is how creation comes to exist.  God speaks it into being, through the breath of life, and the spoken Word of God.  Maybe that’s not so radical after all, right?  Certainly more helpful than three guys standing in the clouds.

And then, the spoken Word of God becomes flesh and dwells among us.  Jesus is the spoken Word of God.  In Jesus, God is speaking not in words but in the flesh.  In a living, breathing, human being.  The spoken Word of God has become a visible, tangible human being.  No longer do we have to come up with some images in our minds about spinning styrofoam letters and men standing on clouds.  We don’t have to guess what the spoken Word of God looks like.  Well, I take that back: we’ve got a couple thousand years of mostly European artists’ interpretations in our collective memory.  So we probably do have a stock image of Jesus that we carry around in our heads.

But let’s not think about how Jesus looks and let’s concentrate instead on what Jesus does.  When the spoken Word of God walks on the earth, wonderful things begin to happen.  Water turns to wine, the lame walk, the blind see, sins are forgiven, the dead are raised to life again.  Jesus isn’t sent to earth on some kind of reverse spacewalk where he’s in radio contact with the Father ship through prayer.  Jesus is the Word that God has spoken into creation.  And when the spoken Word of God is in our midst, things are brought to perfection.  Things are returned to the way they were meant to be.  If you want to hear God speaking, look at what Jesus is doing.  Jesus is God’s “Make it So,” if you will.  The answer to the question, “What would it look like if God’s words became an actual person?”

“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.”  I have always loved this little phrase.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.  That’s the basis of all our Christmas movies, right?  In fact, that’s the basis of all movies . . . or, all good movies.  You know, the cavalry riding over the hill, darkest just before the dawn, just when all hope seems lost, the little spark catches fire once again and the flame burns bright, and everyone drinks egg nog and sings songs.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness does not overcome it.

The interesting thing about light is that it isn’t pushy.  It’s not like wind, or water, or even fire.  Those forces can just bowl you over and overwhelm you.  But light . . . light is different.  You can close your eyes and shut out the light.  You can turn your head and ignore the light.  You can squint, or get sunglasses, or close the blinds.  But that doesn’t eliminate the light.  You can stop seeing it, but you cannot send it away.  You can reject the light, but the light still shines in the darkness.  Always there.

And honestly?  We won’t often admit it, but we prefer the darkness.  Because light is judgement in a way.  Light exposes who we are, and what we do, and how we live.  And, because of that, the more light there is, the more hopeless things can seem.  It’s a powerful irony, actually.  Because the light shines in the darkness of us.  And yet, even the despair of our darkness cannot overcome it.  And there is the hope: The light shines in the darkest places of us.

Because what has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, all the darkness--all the darkness, all the time, and the darkness did not overcome it.

We need not fear this light.  Because this light is the very spoken Word of God.  Remember?  The spoken Word who heals, and forgives, and brings life and resurrection.  The light that has come into the world is the spoken Word of God.  The same Word that declared from the beginning, “It is good.”

And then there’s this curious phrase, “And the Word became flesh and lived among us.”  The word that we get as “lived” is actually tabernacled, which is not usually a verb in our world, I know.  You probably think of that little box over by the altar when you hear the word tabernacle.  But as a verb, you can think of it as like, camping among us.  Not a permanent structure where there are utility bills and a garage to clean out.  More like, you know, pitching a tent on your front lawn.  The spoken Word does not buy a house in your neighborhood, but rather camps among us.  Ready to move when the time comes.

And that’s important because of this:  The tabernacle, as you may recall, is the portable dwelling place of the Divine Presence for the Israelites as they wander through the desert.  It was God’s tent, which the people brought with them on their journey in the wilderness.  The importance is clear, right?  God did not stay back in some building in Egypt; God goes with the people through the desert of their lives, present in all their troubles and triumphs.

The spoken Word became flesh and camps among us.  The spoken Word of God goes with us, walks with us, journeys with us.  We need not fear, because this spoken Word is with us.  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 this spoken Word reminds us where to look to find the light and life.  This is my body; this is my blood.  Given for all people, for the forgiveness of sin.  The body and blood which we keep in that tabernacle right over there, as a matter of fact.  A reminder throughout the week that the spoken Word of God dwells among us in the darkness, and in the light.

God.  Is.  With.  Us.  Emmanuel.

Amen.

Monday, December 24, 2018

YEAR C 2018 christmas eve

Christmas Eve, 2018
Isaiah 9:2-7
Psalm 96
Titus 2:11-14
Luke 2:1-20

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

So, a couple weeks ago, a reporter from the Massillon Independent asked me to join two local pastors for an interview, to ask about our holiday service schedules, and to have us explain what Christmas means to us.  Part of that interview involved making a video, where we each could speak for one minute and make our case.  Imagine, keeping clergy to speaking for just one minute.  Especially the Baptist pastor!  But we did it, and when I watched the video later, I kept thinking how interesting it was that we all focused on a different aspect of the birth of Jesus.

I said, essentially, Christmas is the annual reminder that God sides with the poor and oppressed.  The nondenominational church pastor talked about the sacrifice of Jesus.  And the Baptist pastor talked about how Christmas is the last chapter of God’s love story with human beings, the fulfillment of God’s promises.  We all said completely different things, but they were all completely true.

Ask any group of people what Christmas means, and you will get a group’s worth of responses.  And that same group of people will probably have different responses if you ask them next year.  In the most obvious example, a child and her parent have totally different ideas of what Christmas means.  Finding “the true” meaning of Christmas is kind of like that old example of three blindfolded people touching an elephant and describing the animal.  None of them is wrong, but they experience completely different things; so saying one thing about Christmas is just saying one thing about Christmas, is my point.

So, speaking of Christmas, are you ready for Christmas?  (This is where all the children say “yeah!,” and the adults ask, “are you kidding?”)  I have realized that there are two kinds of people:  Those who are not yet ready for Christmas, and those who have not yet realized they are not yet ready for Christmas.  If you think you are ready for Christmas tonight, well . . . as I say, there are only two kinds of people.  No matter how much you do to prepare, you will never get it all done.  And what exactly is the “it” that we never get done?  Well, take your pick.  Christmas preparation is an ever-expanding horizon.  Everything you did last year to get ready is just the preparation to get ready for this year.  This is just the way life is; you cannot fight it; you can only submit.

But what is it exactly that we are all racing around doing to get ready?  Well, that varies from family to family of course, depending on your traditions and stuff.  Decorating our houses, sending out Christmas cards, getting trees, tipping garbage collectors, paper and mail carriers, hanging stockings, and watching the Charlie Brown Christmas Special . . . or Die Hard.  Not to mention parties and school assemblies.  There’s a lot to do to get ready for this day, and we never seem to get it all done.  As much as we prepare, there is always something missing.  And that seems appropriate, in some way.  Because, despite all our preparations, we can never be ready for God breaking into the world.

Many years ago, when our nephew Walter was about 2 years old, he noticed there was something missing from the manger scene his parents had set up.  His family always waits until Christmas Day to put Jesus in the manger—as many of us do.  Although, come to think of it, we do put the shepherds and wisemen there long before Jesus arrives, so I guess we’re not all that rigid about it.   Anyway, nephew Walter noticed that the manger was empty, and realized that his Oscar the Grouch finger puppet was the perfect size.  Each day, Walter would wrap the Grouch in swaddling clothes and lay him in the manger.  Because there was no room for him at the Inn of  Walter’s Patience
Still, you can’t hurry a baby.  A baby comes in the fullness of time, and not a minute sooner, even if some of us can’t wait forever.

Parents, on the other hand, can wait forever—at least when there’s a deadline of a newborn breathing down our necks.  Here comes December 25th.  We’ve known it was coming for more than nine months.  But still it’s not enough time to prepare.  There’s a baby coming, and we are not ready.  But can you ever really be ready for a baby to come?  As every first-time parent can tell you, the answer is no.  No matter what you do, no matter how many books you read, or classes you attend, there is too much uncertainty in the birth of a baby ever to be truly ready.  Still, you hopefully do something to prepare for the birth of a baby.

But what if you’ve done nothing to prepare for this baby?  What if you have intentionally decided to say, “bah humbug” to that whole Christmas spirit stuff?  What if you have spent the last four weeks refusing to buy into the commercialized hype?  Or, what if you have spent these past months grieving the loss of someone who meant the world to you?  Or wondering how you will explain to your kids that their parents are not living together on Christmas morning?  Or what if the last thing you want to do is celebrate some religious holiday that makes no sense to you, based on a god you don’t believe in, but you came to church tonight in order to make your mom stop complaining about the loss of family traditions? 

What about those of us who just don’t get it?  Well, I think we’re in good company.  Just look at all the people in the story who don’t get it.  We could start with the innkeeper.  Not only does the innkeeper not understand, he has no room for Jesus; he sends him away.  Tells him to go find somewhere else to be born.  Hustles the parents around back where the animals live, sending a king to be born in a stable.  And the shepherds?  Just look at the language they use to describe Jesus’ birth.  They know something has happened (angels appearing over your head and singing songs is a pretty good clue of that), but after the angel explains, they say, “let us go and see this thing that has happened.”  And then they go out and tell people about “this thing that has happened.”

“Hey, you’ll never guess what happened!”
“What?”
“This Thing!!!”

Or take Joseph.  In Matthew’s version of the story, he is planning to send Mary away and break off the engagement quietly.  It takes a personal visit from an angel to make him consider welcoming Jesus.  And in Luke’s version, Joseph is essentially just the guy leading the donkey, heading off to be counted.  And Mary?  She is treasuring words and pondering these things in her heart.  Sounds nice, dreamy even.  But as any child knows, if you ask your mom for something and she says she will ponder it in her heart, the real answer is “probably not.”  Way back when, as I got down on my knees in the sand and asked Cristin to marry me, if she had said “I will ponder this thing in my heart,” well . . . I would have taken that to mean, “no thanks, pal.”  To ponder in your heart isn’t even close to “Yes!  I totally get it!”

In the story of this baby being born—God coming into the world—nobody gets it.  Nobody understands.  Nobody is ready.  But the baby comes anyway.  Perfect.

And so what does this mean?  What does it mean that nobody knows what it means?  When three clergy people living in the same town have three completely different answers to the question, “What does Christmas mean?”  We all want to know what it means -- to understand this Christmas story.  And, on cue, Hollywood steps in with the answer.  How many movies and stories talk about the “real meaning of Christmas?”  No matter the plot of any Christmas story, somewhere in the last few minutes, I guarantee that somebody is going to learn “the true meaning of Christmas.”  Happens every time: because they see Santa Claus, or because the villagers gather and sing despite having no gifts, or because an angel gets his wings, or because the Christmas spirit makes a sleigh rise up over Central Park, the point is always that someone finally learns the true meaning of Christmas.

But that’s life in the movies.  After all my years of actual life, including being ordained for nine years, I do not understand the full meaning of Christmas!  And I don’t think anyone could explain the full meaning of “this thing that has happened.”  But we all know it when we see it, don’t we?  We must have some shared idea of what it means, because we appeal to people’s sense of “Christmas spirit.”  Come on, pal, where’s your Christmas Spirit?  We don’t have this with other days—not even Easter.  And certainly nobody ever questions your sense of Whitsunday spirit, or Transfiguration cheer.

Christmas is kind of a trump card: a get out of jail free pass.  You go to your boss with your hat in your hand and remind her that it’s Christmas, and you probably get the day off.  (Unless you’re a priest, of course.)  Cop pulls you over on Christmas, and you’re not breaking a serious law, you might get by with just a warning.  The phrase “but it’s Christmas” has deep meaning for us, even for people who don’t consider themselves to be Christian.  But what exactly is that deep meaning?

It’s got something to do with an undeserved gift, doesn’t it?  There’s some hint that none of us deserves what we’re getting, so we are generous to one another.  There’s some admission that none of us is ready, and the baby comes anyway.  There’s some recognition that we’re all in this together, no matter how different or distant we might seem from one another in these divided times.  After all this preparation, we are not ready; after all the trying so hard to be good, we are not worthy; after a lifetime of hearing this Christmas story, we still do not fully understand it.

Here’s the crazy thing.  No matter how much we have done to prepare, it is not enough; but no matter how little we have done to prepare, it is enough.  We do not understand, and God understands that.  Jesus meets us at this altar, whether we are ready or not.  Jesus promises to be in this place—to meet us here, whether we understand or not.  You are welcome here because God has broken into our unwelcoming world.  The one born in a stable sets a table before you and says, “Come and eat—you are welcome, and I am here for you.”  We are not ready, and we do not understand, and we don’t feel ready to meet God.  And that’s okay.  Because, in the birth of Jesus, God is ready, God understands, and God has come to meet us.

Merry Christmas indeed!

Amen.

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Rhea S. Bossart

The Burial of Rhea Bossart
Isaiah 25:6-9
Psalm 23
Revelation 7:9-17
John 6:37-40

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.
The first time I stepped into this pulpit, two and a half years ago, Rhea shouted out, “I love you!”  In some ways, that tells you everything you need to know about Rhea.

When she was well enough to come to church, Rhea always sat in the front row, with her caregiver.  She was very much like a part of the church itself, at least from this vantage point—Sunday morning, look to my left in the front row, Rhea.  Or, walk out of the 8 o’clock service into the parish hall, Bob and Rhea sitting at a table, with Rhea making some beautiful creation out of yarn.

But there’s more than that.  If you look at the church photo on the wall in the lounge, you can see Rhea nestled among the people.  And if you look back through the baptismal records, you’ll find Rhea.  And in the marriage records, you’ll find Rhea.  And now in the necrology, you’ll find Rhea.  But you will also find Rhea in our hearts and in our memories, because Rhea is everywhere, it seems.  She lived her entire life as part of this church.  Given to God in her baptism, and now given to God in death.

Jesus said, "Everything that the Father gives me will come to me, and anyone who comes to me I will never drive away . . . And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day.”

The Rhea we knew in her earlier days might have seemed lost to us these last few years, but she was not lost to God.  No one is lost to God.  Though the Rhea we cherished slowly slipped away from us this past year, she was always known to God, always cherished by God, and always redeemed by God.

You could say that in death, Rhea has now stepped through a door to another room, to be greeted by the ultimate caregiver.  And I imagine Jesus greeting her the way she first greeted me, shouting out “I love you!”  Because that would make Rhea smile, like only Rhea can smile.

One day we will see Rhea again, and it will be a glorious reunion indeed.  And in the meantime, we hold onto that promise from Jesus:  I will lose nothing that has been given to me, but will raise them up on the last day.  Rhea is safe, in the arms of Jesus, and we will see her again.

Amen.   

Sunday, December 16, 2018

YEAR C 2018, advent 3

Advent 3, 2018
Zephaniah 3:14-20
Canticle 9
Philippians 4:4-7
Luke 3:7-18

Grace, Mercy, and Peace be unto you from God our heavenly Father, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  Amen.

Or, as John the Baptist might put it, “You bunch of snakes! The wrath is coming for you. Don’t say, 'My parents built this church’'; because God can make Episcopalians from these stones. The ax is cutting down trees, so don’t be a tree.  Amen.”

John the Baptist was not a hit at parties.  And he obviously didn’t have an ear for how to start a sermon.  On the other hand, the people definitely listened to him, so maybe we preachers should take a hint from his dramatic opening today.  He certainly got the people’s attention by calling them a “brood of vipers.”  And their response is to ask, “What shall I do?”

And then John has a prescription for each group.  To the general folks he says, share what you have with those less fortunate.  To the tax collectors he says, don’t cheat people.  To the occupying forces he says, don’t use your power to oppress people or take advantage of them.  Despite John’s crazy, radical opening, these are not crazy, radical demands.  And they sit nicely with you and me because they honestly sound a lot like saying, take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints.  Don’t take your sister’s toys without asking.  Or, never cheer for the University of Michigan when visiting a friend in Columbus.  Common sense rules of decency.

It almost seems like the people ask John, what must we do to be saved?  And John says, everything you need to know about being saved, you learned in kindergarten.  There’s nothing all that radical here.  Be nice, play fair, don’t cheat people just because you can.  If you do this, the world will be a better place.  And I hate to sound flippant, but . . . Duh!  If everyone was nicer to others, the world would be a better place.  And if I am nicer to my neighbor, then I too will be saved.  It seems to me, there’s no need for Jesus in this proclamation.  Everyone just needs to be a little nicer, okay?

In fact, if that is John’s point, then he’s really getting us ready for Santa Claus, not Jesus.  Making a list, checking it twice, gonna find out which tax collectors have been overcharging and which soldiers have been taking advantage of the weapons in their hands.  If you want candy instead of coal in your stocking, then by all means start being nice to people.  And there’s the rub . . .

If it were simply a matter of our decision and effort to treat people better, we’d have no need for Jesus.  If it were within our power to make the world into the kingdom of God, then we would not need a Savior.

I know it’s tempting to turn this Gospel reading into a social-justice message.  And I know many priests and pastors will be doing just that with this text.  Which is not to say that’s wrong, but--well, as I've told you a thousand times by now--I grew up Lutheran, and my catechism teacher would never forgive me if I did that in a sermon.  If I were to tell you that the point of Christianity is to be nicer to people, then I would forever be haunted by the Ghost of Catechism Past.  There simply has to be more to this text than, be nice, and play fair.

And, of course, there is.  But before we get there, I think it will be helpful to remind ourselves that one of the points of this time we call “Advent” is to remind us why we need a Savior.  To remind ourselves why we cannot do it alone.  Why it is that we welcome the birth of the long-awaited Messiah of God.

From the very start of our Scriptures, God lays out what people need to do to be reconciled to God and one another.  Way back with Cain and Abel it’s as simple as “don’t kill the only other child on the planet.”  And before that it was, “don’t eat the fruit off this one tree over here.”  Whether you view these stories as factual historical episodes, or as mythical plot points, the resulting message is the same: We can’t follow simple instructions.  Oh, sure, we think we can.  The ten commandments seem pretty straight forward . . . until we dwell on the meaning of the word “covet” . . . or until we consider what gods we put ahead of our Creator.  Not to mention that Jesus goes and ups the ante by saying that thoughts are as good as deeds when it comes to following these simple rules.

So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.

That’s how today’s gospel reading ended.  Remember that?  Did it strike you as almost funny in the context of what John tells this brood of vipers?  Like he lays out all this scary stuff about a winnowing fork and unquenchable fire and hell and damnation and then we get, and in many other ways,  “he proclaimed the good news to the people.”

That’s the good news, John?  Really?  Please don’t say you’ve got some bad news, right?  But let’s follow the arc of this overall story here . . .

The people come to John to be baptized.  A few verses before today’s gospel text, he has been walking up and down the Jordan River, on both sides, telling the people they need to repent and be baptized.  And when the people come to John, he calls them a brood of vipers and asks, “who told you that you could flee the wrath that is to come?”  It’s tempting to picture them saying, “Uh, you did John.  Remember how you just told us to repent and be baptized?”  And this is a sticky little point we have to look at:  John tells them to repent and be baptized, but he never says that it will save them from the wrath that is to come.  It seems as if John is saying they need to repent and be cleansed, but the wrath that is to come is a completely different animal.  And that’s because, well, He is.

As John says, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”  Water cleanses; fire purifies.  John baptizes with water; Jesus baptizes with fire.  What does this mean?  Well, everything.

If your car is broken down and also dirty, John will come along with a bucket and a sponge and clean the outside.  But your car still will not run.  If your house needs painting and the foundation is crumbling, John can slap a new coat of paint on it.  If you’re lying on your deathbed and your hair is messy, John has a comb he can use to straighten things out.

But on your deathbed, you need more than a cosmetic makeover.  You need someone who will save you.  You need someone who will purify your soul.  You need someone with a “winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire."

You need Jesus.

In the here and now, you need to be baptized with water, yes.  And if you ask the preacher how you should live, the answer is to be nice to your neighbor, and share with those less fortunate, and not take advantage of people less powerful than you.  But those answers do not save us from the wrath that is to come, silly brood of vipers that we are.  What saves us from the wrath that is to come is one thing and one thing only: The baptism by fire of the little baby whose birth we are eagerly awaiting.  Only Jesus can purify our hearts.

The winnowing and the threshing floor and the unquenchable fire are not the wrath.  They are the purification.  The sanctification.  The things that make us what we were meant to be.  What is burned away is not what we are.  What is burned away is the rust that has accumulated.  The barnacles on the boat.  The stuff that clouds our true nature as redeemed children of God.  The wrath comes in not trusting the one who can make us whole.  The only wrath we face is the self-imposed one of not opening our hands to let go of the chaff and receive the gift of life.

And today, at this altar, we have yet another opportunity to unclench our fists and receive the gift of life, in body and blood, of the One who is coming to save us.  We need not fear his coming, because he is coming to cleanse us with a purifying fire, to be what we were always meant to be.  To sanctify us, that we may faithfully receive this holy sacrament, and serve him in unity, constancy, and peace.  And at the last day, this brood of vipers--this thing we call the Church on Earth--will join with all the saints, of every time and every place, in the joy of God’s eternal kingdom.

Amen.
   

Sunday, December 9, 2018

YEAR C 2018 advent 2

Advent 2, 2018
Malachi 3:1-4
Canticle 16
Philippians 1:3-11
Luke 3:1-6

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

I figure it never hurts to remind us all that every Advent, the Church begins a new year.  And when we begin a new year, we make the move to focus on a different gospel book.  And this year, starting last week, we switched the spotlight to Luke, which is my favorite of the four gospels (but please don’t tell the other gospels).  And using the phrase “switch the spotlight” is perfectly appropriate for Luke’s gospel, because the first three chapters are really like a little musical.

The story is just moving along in Luke and, when there’s a dramatic moment, the characters are beside themselves with excitement, and this calls for a song!  Two pregnant women, Elizabeth and Mary, get together, and they’re so thrilled that Mary breaks into what we all call the Magnificat.  Then, Elizabeth’s son, John the Baptist is born, and his father is so happy—and he can finally speak again—that he sings out the Song of Zechariah—which today’s bulletin insert calls “Canticle 16.”  Then the Spirit of God tells Simeon that he would not die before seeing the Messiah, and when he sees the baby Jesus in the Temple, he breaks into Simeon’s Song, “Lord, let your servant depart in peace.”  Luke’s gospel has just got started, and we’ve already got three chat-topping hits—arguably the three most popular songs in the history of the Church.

So, that’s one reason I love Luke so much: because it’s like a musical.  But let me interrupt myself here to complain about what the church year does to Luke’s narrative flow.  In the section of Luke that we just heard, John the Baptist is, you know, somewhere around 30 years old, and he’s out in the desert.  And soon, Jesus is going to come to him to be baptized, because Jesus will also be around 30 years old.  (Six months younger than John, by tradition at least.)  But the Canticle we heard from the Choir today is the song of Zechariah, which happens right after John has been born.  And, since this is the Second Sunday of Advent, that means Jesus himself won’t even be born for another 16 days.  Because of these assigned texts, today is sort of a wibbly wobbly timey wimey, or Jeremy Bearamy kind of day.  You’ve just got to go with the flow, disjointed though it might be.

Okay, but here is what I most want to focus on: the opening sentence of today’s gospel reading.  And I’ll tip my hand from the start by asking, see if you hear an action verb in the following:  In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas . . .”  And now I’ll answer my own question: No, you did not hear an action verb.  ALL of that stuff is what we call a dependent clause.  (And by that I don’t mean one of Santa’s children.  Hey, Dads are gonna Dad Joke.)

All of those names and places are dependent on the action part of the sentence, which is, “the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.”  That’s the point of the sentence: the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.  All that other stuff is like Luke adding the phrase, “One day,” before the action part.  Or adding, “Once upon a time.”  The beginning of the sentence doesn’t really do anything.  Which raises the question, why is it there?  Why tell us which leaders were ruling which things, and who led the Priesthood and all that?

Well, two things.  First, has it ever struck you as odd that the name Pontius Pilate comes up in the Nicene Creed?  Like we’re just going along with all this really ethereal language and these theological concepts and suddenly there’s this guy, whose name we only know because he put Jesus to death.  Why is he in there?  Well, one reason we say his name in the Creed is to anchor the life and death of Jesus to a specific point in human history.  Historians will always be able to tell us what years Pilate was in charge, which means we know when all this happened, like in actual human years, with dates.  When you look at Greek and Roman mythology, there are no anchor points tying them to real history.  And that’s why we call it mythology.  Could have happened last week, or a billion years ago.  But Jesus was put to death at a specific time and place.  And Pilate’s name tells us when.

So, one of the reasons Luke names all those people is to tell us where and when we are in human history.  John the Baptist was in the wilderness when Tiberius was Emperor, and etc etc.  Tiberius is in the history books, so we know John lived at a particular time and place, and later on, Jesus will come to be baptized by him.  (You know, after he’s born . . . later this month.)

But as I said earlier, all those names and titles are a dependent clause to “the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness,” so linguistically speaking they’re not important.  And here’s why I love Luke so much:  Because they are important.  Luke turns everything upside down.  The beauty of that sentence is that those people are important in society’s eyes.  In fact, they’re the only people who are important!  That list is a who’s who of everyone you need to know in first century Palestine.  And the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.  Who is Zechariah?  Nobody.  Who is John?  Nobody.  Where is the wilderness?  Nowhere.  The word of God came to John . . . son of Zechariah . . . in the wilderness.

You would expect the word of God to come to the Emperor, the governor, the ruler of Galilee, the high priests.  But the word of God came to John.  In Luke’s Gospel, God comes to the lowly, the outcasts, the unimportant.  To Mary, to shepherds, to Bethlehem, to the wilderness.  God is at work where nobody expects to see God working.  Lifting up the lowly and casting down the proud.  Raising up the valleys and leveling the mountains.  God bypasses the rich and powerful, living in their important cities, doing their important things, and seeks out John, a nobody, in the wilderness.

And, quite frankly, that is the best news you and I are going to get.  Because in the 18th year of the 21st century, when Donald Trump was President of the United States, and John Kasich was Governor of Ohio, and Kathy Catazaro-Perry was Mayor of Massillon, and when Michael Curry was the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, the word of God came to St. Timothy’s Church, in Massillon, Ohio.

God does not need for you to be strong and good and rich and powerful in order to come to you.  God does not need you to be popular and worthy and upstanding to seek you out.  In fact, at least the way Luke tells the story of Jesus, you’re almost better off not being any of those things!  Because the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.

And as I never tire of reminding you, we all receive the bread of heaven just as a beggar receives bread, or a child receives a gift:  with our hands stretched out in front of us, expecting nothing, but hoping for everything.  Deserving nothing, but hoping for a miracle.  And God bypasses the rich and powerful and important things of this world to come directly to you, because you are loved, more than you could ever imagine.

The word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness, and the word of God comes to you.  To you!  Thanks be to God.

Amen.