Such a lovely room

Such a lovely room

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Saturday, December 31, 2016

YEAR A 2017 holy name

Year A, 2017
The Name of Jesus
Numbers 6:22-27
Psalm 8
Philippians 2:5-11
Luke 2:15-21

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

Last night in Europe, while you and I were just sitting down to dinner, they were already claiming it was 2017.  Here in the Eastern Time Zone, where the real change actually happens over in Times Square, we made the 2017 name change six hours later.  No matter what they were calling it in Europe, it was still 2016 here.  And, even though you know that it’s now 2017, on the first few checks you write, and the first few cards you send, and the first few things you sign in some office, you know you’ll write 2016 and then sheepishly change it to 2017.  It doesn’t matter how much you try to guard against it; this is going to happen to you, so you might as well accept it now.  The name of the year has changed, no matter what your brain and hand tell you.  And no matter what you call it, the new year has a name: 2017.  The name doesn’t change reality; but sometimes, reality changes the name.  Let’s start here . . .

When God first appeared to Moses on the mountain, Moses wanted to know God’s name.  He said to God, "If I come to the Israelites and say to them, 'The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,' and they ask me, 'What is his name?' what shall I say to them?"  God said to Moses, "I AM WHO I AM . . . say to the Israelites, 'I AM has sent me to you.'"  Which makes me wonder, how do you work that name into a proper sentence?  Of course, the answer is, you don’t.  In the Hebrew scriptures, the name of God is written using four letters, and pointed so that when the reader comes to the name he or she reads “Adonai,” or “LORD,” instead of God’s name  The name of God is sacred, set apart, not to be uttered by unclean human lips.  God’s name has power, and must not be abused.  So to guard against this abuse, God’s name was not to be used at all.  Period.

You might think it’s the claiming-power-by-naming in this prohibition against speaking God’s name.  Throughout human history, we claim power over something by naming it.  Think of Adam in the Garden, naming animals.  Or God changing Abraham’s name.  Or Jesus changing Saul’s name into Paul.  Think of how we use names:  Name dropping, name calling, taking names; these are all examples of getting or using another person’s name as a way of increasing our own power.  If I know your name, you become a person instead of some nameless force.  Imagine standing around at coffee hour and being introduced to someone who says her name is I AM WHO I AM.  Much better all around if she says, “Harriet Jones.”

Or, for example, having a meeting scheduled with Fr. George is just a name in your daily schedule.  Whereas, meeting with The One Who Is, seems a little more, I don’t know, off-putting?  Knowing the name puts you at ease.  As children of a certain age can tell you, in the Harry Potter stories everyone is afraid to say the name of the Dark Lord.  The ones who are willing to say his name, the brave people who are willing to speak the name “Voldemort,” are the ones who do not cower in fear of him. 

Speaking his name empowers those who do not fear him.  Voldemort becomes a person as opposed to “The Dark Lord.”  That which we fear becomes less frightening when we can give it a name—even if that name is “fear itself,” as when Franklin Roosevelt rallied the nation.  To give something a name that we can speak allows us to begin to understand that thing.  When we contract a serious illness, knowing what is attacking us allows us (and the doctors) to know what we’re fighting against, and how best to fight it.  In good medicine, the first step is always to diagnose--to get the thing’s name.

In previous versions of our church’s prayer book, the Rite for Baptism included the priest’s charge to the parents to “name this child.”  This is a long-standing tradition across denominational lines, and that’s why a person’s first name is still referred to as his or her “Christian name.”  At baptism, it seemed important to mark one’s identity in this new birth.  Children had no name until sealed with the cross of Christ.  I am curious why we don’t continue this practice . . . there’s something wonderful to me about waiting to name a child until that particular moment . . . But, as a priest, I guess that’s what you’d expect me to say.

In today’s Gospel reading, we see Mary’s son being taken to the temple on the 8th day to be circumcised and given a name.  There he is “called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.”  There was no doubt as to the name Mary and Joseph were to give this child.  You may recall from a few weeks back, when the angel came to Mary and told her she would conceive a child, she was to call the child Jesus.  And, in Matthew’s Gospel, we see the connection that he is to be called Jesus “because he will save the people from their sins.”  Mary was obedient to God in bearing the child, and she was obedient in naming the child.  She gives the child the name Jesus, which means “God saves,” or “God is my salvation.”

Of course, knowing what we know, it is not surprising that the name Jesus means “God saves.”  It only seems natural to those of us who know how the story ends.  We know Jesus saves; we know Jesus is God; so the connection seems almost too obvious.  Jesus means God saves.  Literally!  And it’s worth reminding ourselves that the name Jesus does not mean God condemns, or God judges, or God hates.  Jesus means God saves, no matter what you might have heard Jesus means . . . from yourself or from someone else.

But what is truly new and surprising, when you think about it, is that Jesus has a name at all.  To this day, our Jewish brothers and sisters will not speak the name of God.  The name Jesus doesn’t mean “The one who must not be named,” or “the one who is from the one who is.”  In Jesus, God now has a name we can speak, AND that name points to the most important thing about God: God saves.

And here’s a strange thought: Consider that in giving Jesus a name, the people now have power, in a way.  Because God is now a person who can be categorized, or at least known.  The child has been named, and we now have the power to speak his name.  In knowing the name of Jesus, we now know something about God.  And what do we know?  We know that God saves.  Whenever we say the name Jesus, we are proclaiming that God saves.  If that is not significant, I don’t know what is.

But consider where we can go from there.  Jesus says, “whatever you ask in my name,” and “whenever two or more are gathered in my name.”  Asking and gathering in Jesus’ name means something because God saves.  Or, consider what we just heard from Philippians, “God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth.”  And, again, what is that name?  Jesus: God saves.  Every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth at the name Jesus . . . The most powerful name imaginable.

Of course, the power of Jesus’ name is not the five letters arranged just so in some magical pattern.  The word itself is not the point; the origin of the name is the point.  It is the person of Jesus, the Christ, in whom God saves.  The power we have in the name of Jesus is the power to rely on the promises of God.  How do we know that God saves?  Because of the name of Jesus, the one who went to the cross.  The one who rose from the grave.  The one into whose death we are baptized, and the one into whose resurrection we shall rise again.

We have power because we know the name of Jesus.  And the power we have is knowing that God saves.  Each time we gather at this Altar, we are reminded that God saves: that God has saved, God is saving, and God will save.  You are redeemed; you are forgiven; you are loved.  In the holy name of Jesus, God saves.


Sunday, December 25, 2016

YEAR A 2016 christmas day

Christmas Day 2016
Isaiah 52-7-10
Psalm 98
Hebrews 1:1-4
John 1:1-14

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

There’s a famous scene at the end of the movie Thelma and Louise.  Perhaps you’ve seen it, or at least the clip of the final scene.  In a tribute to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Thelma and Louise sit in a car, poised to be captured.  They point the car at a cliff, and drive off into the air. . . The movie ends.  People are moved.  But the original ending of the movie showed the car actually falling, bouncing off the cliff, and exploding at the bottom.  You know why they changed it?  Because it was too sad.  Too final.  Too hopeless.  As ridiculous as it seems, just showing the car driving off into the air left some glimmer of hope, however tiny, that something miraculous might happen, once the characters left the certainty of the camera lens.  Always a chance . . .

There are many books that, when translated onto the screen, get a completely different ending.  "I am Legend," and "Bladerunner," and "The Time Traveler’s Wife" all got massive remakes of their ending, because . . . well, we do not want a hopeless ending in our movies.  Han Solo was supposed to die in the sixth Star Wars, and instead everyone goes to an Ewok party.  Of course, that particular choice was based less on hope, and more on the sales of plastic figurines.  But the principle remains.

We want hope.  We want there to be a glimmer of possibility that things might just turn out all right in the end.  We want to know that some day, some how, it really will be alright in the end.  As Julian of Norwich wrote, All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.  That’s the kind of assurance we want before we close our eyes at night.  The confirmation from somewhere that this deep longing we have to trust in the future is not misplaced.  We want somebody outside ourselves to tell us that it really is going to be alright.

And I’m not just talking about times when we are suffering.  Because, oddly, that kind of reassurance doesn’t always help.  When we are truly suffering, hearing a friend say, “It’s going to be okay,” doesn’t necessarily make you feel better.  Because, come on, how do they know?  How do they know your medical bills will get paid?  Or that a new job will be there?  Or that you will be able to feed yourself, or do anything?  They don’t know that, and deep down, we know that they don’t know.  Sometimes, hearing “It’ll be okay” is not the least bit helpful.  In fact, sometimes--in the very worst times--it can make things worse.

Because the person saying, “It will be okay” isn’t there to look at the empty chair on Thanksgiving.  They aren’t there the first Christmas morning when our loved one isn’t sitting next to us by the tree.  Though our friends are trying to be helpful, hearing “it will be okay” can actually make things seem worse, because there’s no glimmer of “okay” on the horizon for us.  And that’s because our friends don’t have a plan for making it “okay.”  Our friends do not have a solution that is going to make “all manner of thing” well.

In the reading we just heard, there is a promise.  It’s a subtle promise, to be sure, but there it is:  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

This may be the most powerful statement in the whole of scripture.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.  That is the message of Christmas.  And even if we’re not aware of it, that is why we put lights on our houses, and bring pine trees into our living rooms.  To remind ourselves that light shines in the darkness, and that something stays green through the winter.

And, in some way, that is why we so resonate with this Christmas story we observe each year . . . Because it’s a story about a baby.  Babies bring hope, and a new beginning, and a chance to start over.  It wouldn’t be the same if Jesus showed up as an old man, would it?  Old guy with a beard and a cane . . . Cute, but not necessarily going to inspire us to have hope for the future.  Jesus’ arrival as a baby is a reminder that things might be different this time.  Maybe you’ve heard that saying, attributed to Mother Theresa, “Every time a child is born, it is a sign that God hasn't given up on the world.”  And I would add to it this, from Martin Luther, “Even if I knew that the world would end tomorrow I would still plant an apple tree today."

Or, to put it another way, even the most cynical people I know still love babies.  People may think the world is all screwed up and hopeless and beyond redemption . . . And they set all that aside when you hand them a baby.  And the reason for that is hope.  Babies bring us hope.  And everyone accepts a baby.

Jesus comes to us as a baby not a warrior, because babies bring hope.  Jesus comes to us as an infant instead of an adult because babies offer hope.  Everyone accepts a baby.  And, in the end, it is hope that lures us to face a new day, and a new year.  Because deep down, we all have an unshakeable sense of the truth of the gospel: 

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.

Merry Christmas!

Saturday, December 24, 2016

YEAR A 2016 christmas eve

Year A, 2016
Christmas Eve
Isaiah 9:2-7
Psalm 96
Titus 2:11-14
Luke 2:1-20

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

Okay, I have to be honest.  After this long, happy reading, you know what word stands out to me in this Christmas story?  Angel.  We hear that the Savior of the world has been born, and I can’t get past thinking about angels.  And I want to ask you to think about angels for a few minutes too.  But, as the angels might say, do not be afraid.

First, though, has anyone ever called you an angel?  I mean, you know, for being nice to them or whatever?  You help someone fix a flat on the highway, you’re an angel, right?  You pick someone’s kids up after school for them, and you’re an angel.  In our day-to-day life, we call someone an angel when they do something nice for us . . . Something above and beyond the call of friendship or neighborliness.  I don’t know when that started, but it’s generally accepted that you might call someone an angel when they help you out in a big way.

Of course, that’s not like the angel in the story we just heard.  When you show up to help someone fix a flat you don’t have to announce, “Do not be afraid” when they see you.  Apparently, the shepherds’ reaction to the angel was fear and trembling.  In fact, the text even says, “they were terrified.”  This angel didn’t strike them as just showing up to do them a favor, right?  There was something very scary here.

Which leads me to my next question for you to ponder in your hearts, as Mary might.  When you hear the word, “angel,” what exactly do you picture?  What image forms in your head?  Big or small?  Male or female?  Wings or no wings?  What does an angel look like for you?  Does it seem scary?  Sweet?  Translucent?  Solid?  The image you have in your mind when you hear the word sets you up for the question I really want to ask: If that angel showed up when you were out in a field, would they have to say, “Do not be afraid?”  If you’re picturing a chubby baby with tiny wings, and a little bow in its hands, then probably not.

We get the word “angel” from the Greek word angello, which means simply, “messenger.”  And, in the Gospels, anyway, that’s all you get.  Sure, sometimes it also says, “clothed in white,” or something like that.  But there are no wings; there are no descriptions of any kind.  An angel is a messenger from God.  An angel is some kind of creature that is sent from God to tell somebody something that God wants them to know.  That’s it.  Maybe they have wings, or maybe they drive cars, or maybe they fix flats on the side of the road.  Hard to say, based on what the Bible tells us.

So, an angel is a messenger sent by God.  The angel in today’s text has THE most important message to deliver since the beginning of time.  I mean, we can’t underestimate the importance of this message: God has been born in the flesh as an actual complete human being.  God is lying in a manger behind a hotel in Bethlehem and will physically walk among people for 33 years or so.  This is THE most important thing that has ever happened, and the task of announcing it falls to one angel.  One messenger is sent by God to start the announcement ball rolling here on earth.

Step outside the story for a moment now and put yourself in that angel’s place.  Just imagine you have never heard the story we just heard . . . You’ve got one chance to make the announcement that everything is about to be different.  Where do you go?  Think about it: whom do you tell?  The President?  The Pope?  Fox news?  Where would you go to make this one announcement?  The mall?  The state capitol?  Mexico City?  It’s important to try to answer that question for yourself, so that you can see how absurd it is that the angel in the Gospel story takes this message to . . . a bunch of shepherds sitting in a field.

I mean, really?  This is where you deliver THIS message?  To a bunch of dirty, uneducated, nobody shepherds?  What . . . didn’t the angel get the memo: this message is IMPORTANT?  The angel scans the world, and picks out . . . shepherds?  Shepherds.    Well done, Clarence.  No wings for you!

At the time of Jesus’ birth, there were about 300 million people living on the planet.  And the angel sent by God to deliver this message goes to shepherds in the fields.    Ah, but the important point I’m skipping is that this angel was sent by God to make the announcement.  The angel didn’t pick the shepherds as the people to deliver this message to.  The angel was sent by God, just like the angel was sent to Mary to announce that she would be the one to give birth to this baby.  God sent that angel to those shepherds.  They were the chosen ones, to be the first to receive this message.  And that brings us to the obvious question tonight . . . Why?

Why would God send the angel to these shepherds, sitting in a field?  People with no connections, no public platform, no influence?  If spreading the gospel is so important, why would God choose the least important people imaginable to be the first to receive that message?  Why would God entrust this most important announcement to people who could not read or write, who could not gain entrance to the Governor’s mansion, who couldn’t vote, or give interviews, or take out newspapers ads, or build a cathedral?  Why . . . shepherds?

Well, at the risk of having my Priesty Card revoked, I tell you:  I don’t know.
But here’s my guess . . .

God sends the messenger to the shepherds for the same reason that Jesus arrives as a baby.  Despite how we might like to imagine God as an all-powerful, earth-shattering, lightning-throwing, Zeus-god of destruction, the message of the birth of Christ is the very opposite of that: a helpless baby—as fragile as any newborn—whose birth is announced to lowly shepherds--as simple as any people ever.  God is taking a chance that things could be different.  That the system could be overthrown from within.  God is jumping into the world with no safety net, no escape plan, no Plan B.

The Savior of the world comes as a baby, and his birth is announced to shepherds.  Strike two, for those keeping score at home.  This makes absolutely no sense to us, and that is exactly why it works!  The messenger goes where God says to go, which is the last place we would think to look, like the palm of your hand.  And that’s where you and I come in . . .

Because if the best news ever is entrusted to a bunch of shepherds, then maybe we can accept that it’s entrusted to us too.  If it starts with them, then it can continue with us.  If they can head out from the manger glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, then maybe we can go in peace to love and serve the Lord.  But first things first . . . Let’s go back to angels . . .

There are things going on in this story that parallel what we do every time we gather.  If an angel is a messenger of God, then in some ways the bread and wine of communion are not only the body and blood of Christ, but are also angels sent by God.  They’re sent to the least likely people—you and me—and they come with the angel’s proclamation: “Do not be afraid; for see--I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people.”  And the message of salvation appears once more in the place we’re least likely to look for it: in the palm of our hands.

We open our hands to receive this message, and we thank God for the gift of salvation.  The shepherds returned to their fields, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.  And, as God’s messengers tonight, you and I return to our own fields, saying the same thing, in our own language: Christ is born.  God is with us.  Merry Christmas!

Sunday, December 18, 2016

YEAR A 2016 advent 4

Advent 4, 2016
Isaiah 7:10-16
Romans 1:1-7
Matthew 1:18-25
Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18

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

As you probably know, I used to make a living playing in a band.  And back in the 90’s, my bandmate and I adopted a section of highway in upstate New York.  We were very excited at this prospect, and actually went out and cleaned up the trash a couple of times on our little section of roadway.  Over time though, it occurred to us that most people who raced past us while we picked up litter were not thinking, “Oh, what a public-spirited band those fellows are!  We should buy some of their albums!”  No, most people were probably thinking, “Pleaded guilty to a lesser offense.”  Or, “Alternative minimum sentencing program.”        

People could imagine the wide spectrum of available sentencing options, and assumed we didn’t deserve the chair, so instead we were picking up garbage on the side of the Robert Moses Parkway.  There was more going on, but it sure didn’t look like it to people driving past.  And we never even got one of those blue signs declaring that it was our mile of highway.  If we at least had a sign, people might have understood that this was a matter outside the law.  Something different.

But that alternative minimum sentencing is what I want to talk about for moment.  You know what I mean by that, right?  A judge decides to have pity on some not-so-dangerous criminal who has run afoul of the law, and imposes the lightest possible sentence?  The judge must still sentence the offender to something, but hard time doesn’t seem like the right answer, for one reason or another.  The law does not allow the judge to simply ignore the offense and carry on like before the offender offended.  A righteous judge must still operate within the law.

In today’s Gospel reading, we hear that Joseph was a righteous man.  And we assume that he loves Mary.  I mean, the look on his face on all those Christmas cards I get sure looks like love to me.  A righteous man, in love with Mary, but when he discovers she is pregnant, he decides to “dismiss her quietly.”  And we ask, “You call that love?  You call that righteousness?”  That sounds a little, I don’t know, cold, doesn’t it? 

Ah, but here’s where the alternative minimum sentencing comes in.  Joseph was a righteous man—one who lived by the law, one who tried to follow God’s commandments.  An observant Jew in, say, the year 3 could not marry a pregnant woman.  It was unthinkable.  The range of Joseph’s options ran from putting Mary on trial and having her stoned, all the way down to dismissing her quietly.  Joseph planned to do the most loving, caring, compassionate thing that a righteous man was capable of.  Does that mean it was what he wanted to do?  I don’t think so.  No, I think if it were up to Joseph, he would have preferred some other option.  Something outside the range of available options.  Maybe one of those blue signs that declares that this mile of highway is not merely the most merciful option available under the law.

Okay, so hold that thought for a moment while we go back and look at King Ahaz and his encounter with the prophet Isaiah.  If you’re like me, for most of that reading your eyes just kind of glaze over until you hear the part about the baby, and then you see some kind of connection, but you’re not sure exactly what.  But I can give you the Cliff’s Notes version of the story. 

Ahaz is the southern King.  The fierce Assyrians were threatening  the north, and the Northern King wants Ahaz to join up with them to fight the Assyrians.  If Ahaz refuses to join with them to fight the Assyrians, they will knock him off and replace him with someone who will join them.  Ahaz begins thinking that he should join up with these others to fight against the Assyrians.  In his smallness, he can only think in limited earthly terms.  Be put to death by the Assyrians or be dismissed quietly by the Northern Kingdom. 

Even if God is on his side, Ahaz is facing the most powerful armies on earth.  But God is telling Ahaz to stand firm against these ones who want to replace him.  To stand firm in his faith.  And, through Isaiah, God offers reassurance and offers to give Ahaz a sign.  Any sign he asks for, anything from heaven all the way to . . . that other place.  Anything as a sign to show that God is on Ahaz’s side.   Even perhaps a big blue sign by the side of the road declaring that this mile was outside the law as we all know it. 

And how does Ahaz respond to this exciting offer for a sign?  He says, “I will not put the Lord to the test.”  By which he meant, “Let’s not get all supernatural here, God, because I’ve got a plan, and while it’s not exactly the same as your plan, it’s still a pretty good plan, and it involves doing, well, doing the exact opposite of what you’re commanding me to do.”  And then we get the familiar response . . . Therefore the Lord himself will give to you a sign: Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.  There is considerable dispute over who exactly is meant in this prophecy.  Our Christian glasses make us immediately think of some connection to Jesus, which is perfectly understandable, given that Gabriel quotes this verse to Joseph in today’s gospel reading.

Ah, but Gabriel doesn’t quote it exactly.  Isaiah says, the young woman will name him Emmanuel.  From Gabriel’s mouth it is they shall call him Emmanuel, which means God with us.  So who is meant by “they?”  And what difference does this little pronoun shift make?  Well, “they” is us.  Or, I mean, we are they.  We are the ones who will call him Emmanuel, God is with us.  You see, in Gabriel’s prophecy it is not some woman way out of sight who will symbolically name a child as a reminder to a king who is about to get sacked.  No, this baby will also be born way out of sight to be sure, but it is we who say Emmanuel, God is with us.  And in this baby, we get more than a sign that we did not ask for, because Joseph also has some naming to do.

Picking up our righteous dismiss-her-quietly fellow where we last left him, Joseph has decided on the most merciful course that God’s law will allow—to dismiss her quietly.  And he goes to sleep.  Gabriel comes to visit him in his dreams, telling him not to be afraid to take Mary as his wife.  The angel speaks in a dream, not when Joseph is awake and in control. The expectation of this coming child is outside our normal way of thinking.  While awake and in control, Joseph has consciously decided how to act within the law.  But God has a plan that is outside the law.  Or, better, God’s plan is the fulfillment of the law.  The final revelation of God’s promises.  A big blue sign by the side of the road that explains everything.  God’s plan is so outside Joseph’s thinking that God sends an angel, in a dream, to explain it to Joseph.  And the way Matthew presents it, Joseph wakes up, gets up, and takes Mary as his wife.  Simple as that.

But there’s more, of course.  Joseph is to name the baby Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.  Jesus, which means, God saves.  This is the sign that pulls it all together I think.  Because, when it comes right down to it, it makes little difference that God is with us if God just stands around watching us suffer.  A God who is present but does not save seems cruel actually.  Right here next to you while you suffer from the brokenness of your sin, but powerless to save you. 

And, from the other side, it makes little difference that God can save if God is not here to do the saving.  God must be here where we are in order to do something.  A doctor can’t perform heart surgery over the phone. 

In the birth of this child, we get both promises perfectly proclaimed.  Emmanuel: God is with us.  Jesus: God saves.  With those two statements, what else is there?  God is with us, and God saves us.  We go from being quietly dismissed to finding a very present help in time of trouble.  But if we’re like most people, we still want a sign.  We still want some reassurance that this life-changing thing is really true.

Here’s a possible sign: When you first heard how to receive the sacrament at the Altar, perhaps you were told that you should put your left hand over your right and make a little cradle to receive Jesus.  It’s kind of the perfect explanation, especially to a child.  And in making that cradle, you welcome Jesus just as he arrives in the world: as a baby.  In the Sacrament of Holy Communion, we are reminded once more of the birth of Jesus, and the saving presence of God in the world.  In that bread and in that wine, God comes to us once again, as a sign that everything is different because of those two words . . .
Emmanuel: God is with us.  Jesus: God saves.


Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Santa Lucia

Santa Lucia, 2016
Song of Solomon 6:1–9
Revelation 19:5–8
John 1:9–13
Psalm 131

Loving God, for the salvation of all you gave Jesus Christ as light to a world in darkness: Illumine us, with your daughter Lucy, with the light of Christ, that by the merits of his passion we may be led to eternal life; through the same Jesus Christ, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

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

As with most Saints of the early Church, the story of St. Lucy is shrouded in mystery.  We know that she lived in Syracuse, and was martyred during the Diocletian persecution of Christians.  Beyond that, it depends on which version of the story you believe.  Most accounts have her born to a wealthy family, to a Christian father and Greek pagan mother.  After her father died, she pledged her dowry to feeding the poor, against her mother’s wishes.  Her mother, fearing for Lucy’s future, pledged her to a wealthy local pagan.  However, her mother became sick, and after a pilgrimage to a Christian shrine, she was healed.  Then she agreed to Lucy’s plan to spend the dowry on the poor, which angered the man to whom she had been pledged, such that he told the authorities of her Christian faith, which resulted in her possibly being tortured, but definitely being executed.

Perhaps the most interesting part of Lucy’s story, and the connection to us today, is in the description of her service to the others, who were living under this same persecution.  It is said that Lucy visited the faithful, hiding out in the catacombs.  She would bring them food and encouragement.  And in order to carry as much food as possible, Lucy wore candles on her head rather than carry them, so that both her hands were free to hold the food along the way.  If you’ve ever seen any sort of Santa Lucia procession, that’s why the young lady wears what looks like an advent wreath on her head: to light the way, while bringing sustenance.

But there is more:  the name Lucy has the same Latin root as the word for light.  Her name means “of the light.”  You can perhaps see why Santa Lucia is so popular a festival in places like Sweden and Norway.  While the winter days get shorter all over the northern hemisphere, in those northern European countries, the sun hardly comes out at all.  The battle between light and darkness is far more stark in that region, and it’s no coincidence that the feast of Santa Lucia is closely linked with the Yule festivals and the winter solstice, when the light returns to the world.

St. Lucy is a symbol of hope in the midst of despair.  She brings the promise of light to those who live in darkness.  She brings food to the hungry.  In this way, Lucy is emblematic of us as Christians.  We have the message of hope to share with our neighbors.  We bring the light of Christ to a world shrouded in darkness.  We feed the hungry and we share the good news.  In a sense, she is the embodiment of our Baptismal Covenant, in which we seek and serve Christ in all people.

As we continue through Advent, may the coming of the Christ child, the light of the world, inspire us to share God’s good news, and to announce that the light has shined in the darkness, and that the darkness will not overcome it.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

YEAR A 2016 advent 3

Advent 3, 2016
Isaiah 35:1-10
Psalm 146:4-9
James 5:7-10
Matthew 11:2-11

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

If you’ve had a child since 1984, or even if you haven’t, you have probably heard of the book, “What to Expect When You’re Expecting.”  It’s a very helpful book for first-time parents, since it gives you some idea of . . . well, what to expect when you’re expecting.  However, a book written for everybody can’t possibly cover everything that might happen.  And so, though you have expectations when you’re expecting, you never really know what to expect, right?  You have expectations, but they could be way off, for better or for worse.

In today’s Gospel reading, John the Baptist is in prison.  As you probably remember, that doesn’t end well for him.  But for now, he sends his disciples to talk to Jesus, to ask Jesus a straight-up question:  Are you the one we are expecting, or are we to wait for another?  It’s a bold question, that doesn’t leave room for a lot of, you know, kinda-sorta responses.  Either Jesus is the One they’ve been waiting for, or they will be waiting for another.  Simple as that.

John the Baptist was waiting for the Messiah.  He was expecting the Messiah to fulfill the reading from Isaiah that we just heard: “The eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.”  He was expecting the Messiah, and he knew what that meant, but he was still in prison.

Jesus could have told John’s disciples, yes or no.  You know, a simple up-or-down vote, as the politicians like to say.  I mean, it really was a yes or no question that they asked him.  Or, maybe more like an A or B question.  Are you the One, or should we look for another?  Please circle A or B, and place the form back in the self-addressed envelope.  Just answer the question Jesus; it’s just one question.

But Jesus, being Jesus, gives them a completely different kind of answer.  He says, “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.”  That’s his answer to the yes or no question.  And why does he say all that, of all things?  Remember what Isaiah says in the first reading today?  When the Day of the Lord comes, “then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.”  (Special Jesus subtext here: Go and tell John to remember what Isaiah said about the day of the Lord.)

So, maybe you’re asking yourself, why doesn’t Jesus just answer their question?  The answer is, he wants to make the connection crystal clear:  John was the voice crying in the wilderness, and Jesus is the One who has come into the world to save it.  John expected the Messiah.  In fact, just last week, John predicted the Messiah . . . the one whose sandal he is not worthy to carry, the one who will cover the threshing floor and burn up the chaff and smite the wicked and etc etc.  John was expecting the Messiah, yes.  But what John was not expecting was, well, Jesus.

John was expecting a vengeful warrior on horseback who would overthrow the Romans while kicking things and taking names.  When John’s disciples head back to tell John what Jesus told them, Jesus turns to the crowd and says: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces.”  John was tough.  John expected the Messiah to be tough.  John was expecting the arrival of the ultimate fighting machine.  John is not expecting the arrival of  . . . a baby.

But Mary is.  Mary is expecting, and in fact, there’s probably a whole lot of anxiety in your life right now because Mary is expecting a baby.  And so are we.  We’re expecting a baby.  Kind of.  I mean, we all know that Christmas is about a baby being born.  But it’s very easy to let that thought go on December 26th and start wondering, like John did, when we’re going to get the vengeful warrior on horseback who will overthrow the Romans while kicking things and taking names.  You know, the person John was expecting.  We look around and we don’t see God crushing our enemies underfoot (whatever that might mean), and we don’t see God fixing all the problems in our lives (whatever they might be).  Something is not living up to our expectations here.

We understand that a baby is coming in a couple weeks, sure, sure.  But I suspect that around mid-January or so, we’re all going to be a bit like John the Baptist.  We’ll look out from inside the contained space of our lives, whatever that means for us, and we’ll want to send our friends to ask Jesus that A or B question:  Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?  Because right now, we’re not seeing a whole lot of kicking things and taking names on our behalf.  Of course, we don’t dare say that.  Aloud.  No, we just kind of press on, secretly waiting for the God who is going to clear the threshing floor and trample our problems underfoot.  But inside ourselves, at some point or another, we’re each going to be asking: Is this the Savior who is to come, or should I wait for another?

And what does Jesus say to us?  Pray harder?  Be stronger?  Straighten up and fly right?  No.  Jesus sends the messengers back to us to proclaim the gospel:  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 if that is true . . . if that is true, then there is hope for me and you.  Because if Jesus can heal the sick and cure the lame, then Jesus can heal us too.  If Jesus can rise from the dead, then Jesus can raise you from your grave as well.  We may not be literally blind, or lame, or deaf, but we have something like those things going on in our lives.  Something that needs the healing touch of Jesus.

We have our expectations.  But we never really know what to expect.  We have an idea of how we want God to show up.  You know, in a big red suit, rewarding the good people, and punishing the bad ones.  That’s what we expect, but that’s not what we get . . . thank God.  Because God does not save you because you are good.  And God will never reject you because you are bad.  In all cases, God saves because of Jesus, whether the things you do are naughty or nice.

And speaking of expectations . . . In a little while, you will come up to this altar, expecting to get some bread and wine.  And you’ll get those, when you hold out your hands.  But you’ll also get much more than that.  Because God is always giving us more than we expect.  More than we can think to ask.  God is always giving life, and forgiveness, and a chance to start again.  No matter what you’ve done or where you’ve been.  No matter whether you live in a palace or in a prison.  Jesus is the one who is to come.  You do not need to wait for another.

So go and tell the world 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, in spite of what we might have been expecting.


Sunday, December 4, 2016

YEAR A 2016 advent 2

Year A, 2016
Advent 2
Isaiah 11:1-10
Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19
Romans 15:4-13
Matthew 3:1-12

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

In case you forgot, we’re still in the Advent season, not the Christmas season.  So, the Gospel readings are still very far removed from the happy little Christmas tunes you hear every time you leave your house.  We’re still being reminded why we need a Savior.  We’re still hearing about what is coming, but not yet here.  We are hopeful, yes, but this gospel reading gives us fear.  So, with that in mind, I’ll just start right out with this claim:  Hope beats Fear. 

Now I know, I know, some people are going to ignore everything I say for the next ten minutes so they can spend their time formulating political-election arguments as to why that statement is not true.  But, I still think it’s true: Hope beats Fear.  When it comes right down to it, Hope always beats Fear.  If that still makes you uncomfortable, think of replacing those words with Carrot and Stick, or Honey and Vinegar.  Okay?  Okay.

It’s important that you hear the contrast.  Because this week, the lessons really are all about Hope and Fear.  We live our lives between Hope and Fear, and move back and forth between them, putting our trust in one or the other at different times.  In all today’s lessons, these two themes are either prominent or lurking in the background, and it might be helpful to look at what we mean by Fear and Hope.

We could set these two up as opposites.  Fear comes from having a negative feeling about the future; hope comes from having a positive view.  You can, of course, tweak them both in one direction and then say Fear is realistic, and Hope is being foolish and unprepared.  Or you can take them back the other way and say Hope is realistic, and Fear is pessimistic and defeating.  And though I hate to have to keep dancing around these two words, I want to try to get on some common ground about them so that you can hear what I have to say.  So, let’s just leave it at that: Fear and Hope can be thought of as opposites, and you can split hairs with me during coffee hour, okay?  On to the lessons then . . .

Let’s look at Hope and Fear, starting with the Psalm for today.  You may remember last week I said that peace and justice must go hand in hand.  In an unjust society, there will be no peace, since inequality causes violence and unrest.  So, look at how Psalm 72 starts out, “Give your King your justice, O God, that he may rule your people righteously and the poor with justice.”  And it goes on . . . rescue the poor, crush their oppressor . . . the righteous will flourish and there will be peace until the moon shall be no more.  Who’s got the hope here?  Well, the poor and oppressed of course.  And the fear would be for the oppressor and the wealthy.  The fear would be in losing power and wealth; and the hope would be for a just and peaceful society.  You see how the goal of hope is NOT to become the oppressor?  Hope here wants equality, justice; fear wants status quo, where some people are oppressed—as long as I’m not one of them.  Hope and Fear stand opposed to one another, but they want different things.

In the first reading, from Isaiah, it’s all more pronounced.  From the opening verse, we have a stump (which is dead) and we have a shoot growing out of it (impossible life, in the midst of death).  The “stump of Jesse” here refers to King David’s father, Jesse; so this is a new and surprising branch growing out of the line of David.  And, with any family of power, fear kept David’s line going.  All sorts of scandalous things along the way, but David’s line continued all the way to Joseph.  Fear kept the family line going, but Hope appears in this little shoot growing from the roots. 

The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him.  The spirit of wisdom, understanding, counsel, might, knowledge and Fear of the Lord . . . a different kind of fear, right?  But I find it fascinating that he will judge not by what his eyes see, or by what his ears hear.  How would it affect our judgment not to use our eyes and ears?  Not to accept society’s standards of value, and judgment, and justice?  Not to judge with eyes and ears, but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth.  The spirit of the Lord rests upon him, and he will judge the people with righteousness.

And then what?  What difference would that make in the world?  Well just look at that list!  The wolf lives with the lamb, the leopard with the kid, the lion and the calf, and the little child shall lead them.  But it gets worse!  The cow and the bear will graze together?  The lion will eat straw beside the ox?  Children playing with poisonous snakes?  What kind of crazy world is this?  I imagine this is a world that scares us, to be honest.  This is not the way the world is supposed to be.  It’s not the world we hope for, I dare say, and maybe it’s a world we have some fear over seeing.  But imagine this for a minute . . .

What if that crazy world, the one where the wolf and the lamb are at peace, and where lions and bears eat grass, what if that world IS the normal world?  What if that’s the way things are supposed to be?  What if the way things are is the wrong way?  What if in order to truly judge with equity we had to close our eyes and ears?  We can’t imagine a world where the lion and the lamb lie down together because the images burned into our heads are the ones from Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom.  We think of lions taking down gazelles, not lying down next to them.  But this branch from the stump of Jesse sees the world differently than we do.  “On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.”  Hope and fear.  Do we hope for that day?  Or do we fear that day? 

And let’s consider today’s gospel reading, from Matthew.  There’s that wacky John the Baptist, wearing fur and eating grasshoppers.  Screaming about repentance like the guy with the bullhorn and the sandwich board.  It probably took some serious nerve to approach this guy.  (Let alone take off your clothes and let him hold you under water!)  Imagine the fear in your heart as you come to John to be baptized.  Imagine the hope in your heart that something might be different. 

John was not baptizing in the same way that we baptize today.  Well, I mean, first of all, he’s standing by a river, right?  But John is specifically baptizing his fellow Jews.  This is not a Christian baptism, into the death and resurrection of Jesus.  No, this is a ritual cleansing, which was not to cleanse from sin, but was to purify the body.  If your soul was already purified by right actions, then this washing of the body was just sort of to seal the deal.  And, again, the people’s hope for a good result must have somehow over-ruled their fear of this grasshopper-eating scary guy. Hope beats Fear.

And though I hate to bring up politics again, John’s reaction to the Pharisees and Sadducees is just that.  “Brood of vipers.”  As the historian Josephus says, there were three major groups within Judaism at the time of Jesus.  The Pharisees had more rules and believed in the resurrection; the Sadducees stuck to the written word with fewer laws, and denied an afterlife.  But John, it is said, belonged to the third major group, called the Essenes.  Pharisees and Sadducees would have been his political enemies.  And he comes right out and calls them a “brood of vipers.”  Yikes!  They’re like his religious and political enemies, and John is using his soapbox to explain what’s wrong with their religious views.  John is insisting on a change of action, repentant hearts, on bearing good fruit.  It will no longer do to cling to the ancestry of Abraham.  John is trying to strike fear into their hearts, it seems.

But the interesting thing is that they still come.  Their hope in being truly sanctified outweighs their fear of approaching their religious and political enemy.  It’s like they come to John with their hats in their hands, their hope overcoming their fear.  They live between hope and fear, and have inched their way a little closer to hope by coming down to the river to meet with John the Baptist.  It’s a crazy world when the Pharisee and the Sadducee would meekly approach the Essene.  That would be like lions and sheep sleeping in the field together.  Right?

Fear and Hope are always present in our lives.  Sometimes we give in to one, and sometimes to the other.  But Hope, not political slogan hope . . . I mean big Hope . . . hope is destined to win in the end.  The ridiculous kind of Hope that sees not with eyes and ears, but with righteousness.  The kind of Hope that imagines wild enemies eating straw together, or children leading animals into peaceful pastures.  The kind of Hope that dares to dream that even religious and political enemies might come together in the hope that righteousness would rule the earth until the moon shines no more.

As we heard in Romans this morning . . .
‘The root of Jesse shall come,
The one who rises to rule the Gentiles;
In him the Gentiles shall hope’.

May the God of hope fill us with all joy and peace in believing, so that we may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.