Such a lovely room

Such a lovely room

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Sunday, December 31, 2017

YEAR B 2017 christmas 1

Christmas 1, 2017
Isaiah 61:10-62:3
Galatians 3:23-25; 4:4-7
Psalm 147:13-21
John 1:1-18

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

So, first of all, let me just say Merry Christmas.  (And I hope you’re enjoying those 7 Swans a Swimming today.)  And, speaking of Christmas, let’s talk about Original Sin, shall we?  I have a pastor friend who says the only theological concept that needs no proof-texting is Original Sin.  All you need is two children and one toy.  Merry Christmas kids.

But you know, it’s interesting that the Jewish people have no construct of what we call Original Sin.  They don’t view the story of Adam and Eve in the same way that most Christians do.  There is no Fall there.  The first time the word for “sin” shows up is not at the Tree of Knowledge, but rather when Cain kills Abel.  Many Christians will tell you that death came from Adam’s sin, and of course, Paul certainly helps that idea along.  But Rabbis rightly point out: If eating from the tree of life would have made Adam and Eve immortal, then they were created mortal by God’s own intention.  That is, death was built into the system from the start, and is not the result of people disobeying God.

Where we really get the concept of Original Sin is from St. Augustine.  He serves it up in theory, and Calvin hits it out of the park by introducing heady theological terms like prelapsarian and so forth.  In the Roman Catholic understanding, Original Sin is handed down through the generations, and is then washed away through Baptism.  The Eastern Church does not hold this belief, and pretty much says we’re all capable of sinning on our own, without Adam and Eve’s help, thank you very much.  But for Calvin, we are thoroughly tainted with the Original Sin, and so he gives us the phrase, Total Depravity—which would be a great name for a punk band, by the way.

So, there’s your one-minute discourse on Original Sin, as filtered through the limited understanding of Father George.  I wanted to start with that because I want to talk about creation and incarnation, and I promise it will make sense.  (To me, anyway.)

You will recall from the Genesis Creation account that in the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.  Then God creates light, looks at the light, and declares it to be good.  Then God does some other architectural stuff, and separates the land from the sea, and declares it good.  Then the plants produce seeds of their own kind, and God declares this good.  God does all the stuff with planets and stars and suns and declares them good.  Then God creates animals and birds and fish and declares them to be good as well.  And then, God creates humans, in God’s own image, and God sees that everything is good.  Everything.  Is.  Good.

There’s another way of looking at everything, though.  And it comes to us from Plato, by way of the Zoastrians, Gnostics, and—more recently—in something called dispensational premillennialism.  (Which would be a very bad name for a punk band.)  This view of looking at things is that it’s all gonna burn.  Don’t get too attached to the things of the world, because this world is not your home.  This world is bad, but your soul will rise from the grave, apart from your sin-filled corpse, when you leave this world behind.  (Even though the resurrection of the body is something we believe in, and proclaim together every single Sunday.)

So, to sum up, God created everything and called it good.  But between then and now, we’ve developed a worldview where—at least for some people—humans have declared it all bad.  And by imposing this concept of Original Sin, or separating the mind and body, or viewing it all as background scenery for the Rapture and Armageddon, a good many people say all creation is now somehow tainted and corrupt.  That everything and everyone is going to be better after leaving this planet.  Redemption means being taken away from this world.  Denying the flesh strengthens the soul.  Those who have died have gone on to a better place.  Earthy and earthly are somehow a bad thing.  And yet . . . in the beginning God created, and saw that it was good.

So today we come to part two:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.

Jesus, the Word, the creator of life and light, became flesh and lived among us.  Jesus went through all the stages of life you and I go through.  Experienced the full range of human emotion from birth to death.  Put the stamp of sanctification on every single thing.  It seems to me—if we buy into that original sin argument—then we are left with only two options.  Either, the world is so fallen and broken and ungodly, Jesus would not have deigned to walk among us.  OR, the world was awful and broken and tainted by sin, and Jesus’ walking among us remedied that.  Redeemed it all.  Restored it to fullness.  That’s if we buy into the original sin approach.

But . . . as we heard in this gospel text, “From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.”  Salvation is the fulfillment of creation, not the overcoming of it.  Jesus is the pinnacle of creation, not the solution to it.  Jesus does not rescue us from the world; rather, in Jesus, God enters into the world to be with us.  Emmanuel: God with us.

In the beginning, creation was declared good by God.  And, in the birth of Jesus, creation was declared good again by God.  You are part of that good creation.  You are declared forgiven and redeemed by God.  Worthy of saving, worthy of dignity, worthy of feeding and sustaining.

As we heard, “All who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God.”  And so, now, children of God, come to this altar and receive the one who has declared you to be a child of God.  Come and receive the light in the midst of darkness.  Come and trust that the darkness will not overcome the light of the world.  God is indeed with us, and has been from the very beginning.  And it is good.


Monday, December 25, 2017

YEAR B 2017 festival of christmas

Christmas 2017
Isaiah 52:7-10
Psalm 98
Hebrews 1:1-12
John 1:1-14

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

As you know, the four Gospels were written by four different people.  Or, at least four different people.  And as you also know, I take every opportunity to point that out, because I think it is crucial to understanding what we read and hear in the gospels.  In some ways, the four gospels are kind of like the four Beatles, when you think about it: Paul, Ringo, George, and John; Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John . . . Royal, Earthy, Compassionate, and On Drugs.  It’s fitting that the Gospel of John has the same name as Mr. Lennon, because John’s Gospel often feels like some sort of drug-trip narrative.

Well, maybe that’s putting it too harshly.  But, I do think John’s Gospel is the inspiration for the Beatles song, “I Am the Walrus.”  In the 17th chapter of John, Jesus prays: That they all may be one; as you, Father, are in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us.”  Goo goo g’joob.  Right?  The Gospel of John is often just kind of, you know, out there.  But along with the unusual phrasings, John also gives us some of the best lush poetry of the entire Bible.  Today’s reading is a great example.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. 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.

It’s really just stunningly beautiful, isn’t it?  I mean, perhaps we’re a bit jaded from hearing that snippet so many times over the years, but right out of the gate, John is throwing down his other-worldly, space-age, mind-trip kind of lines, and they set the tone for everything that follows.  It’s a prologue, or a plot outline, sort of.  If you don’t feel like reading the whole thing, you can kind of get the point in these first four sentences.  Jesus was there at the creation of life, which is the light of the world; and the darkness will not overcome the light.  For a more detailed explanation, please continue reading the following 21 chapters.

Although, come to think of it, John’s Gospel ought to start out with the phrase “Spoiler Alert,” because of that last phrase: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”  It’s like beginning a story by saying, don’t worry, this time everyone lives!  Everything turns out okay. 

But having that reassurance at the beginning is actually comforting, isn’t it?  Knowing that no matter how dark it gets, the light (which is life) is not overcome by it.  The light still shines.  And how perfect that is with this time of year.  All through December it just gets darker and darker, and colder and colder . . . well, usually.  But in most years, that Winter Solstice can’t come soon enough, right?  And, as I’m sure you know, it’s not a coincidence that we celebrate the birth of the Savior just as the light begins to return.  John would have LOVED the timing!

Ever since I was little, hearing this opening to John’s Gospel made me think of like a Cosmic Candle.  Out there floating in space, a little candle in a brass candle holder, sitting out in interstellar space.  Darkness everywhere, except for this tiny flame, suspended in the darkness by the hand that isn’t holding it, burning with the oxygen that isn’t there.

And to be honest, that’s still the first place my mind goes when I hear this section of John.  I automatically go all cosmic.  Huge, massive forces battling for good and evil pitted in a contest for life and death of the galaxy and beyond.  And John doesn’t help all that much, because his Jesus is big and powerful and saying “It is finished” from the cross and all that.  John’s Jesus knows he wins in the end, and he kind of acts like it throughout the whole Gospel.  Big cosmic battle between darkness and light fits right with that. 

But this year, I’ve started to bring the battle down to a more personal level.  What I mean is, instead of thinking of the battle being out there in the cosmos somewhere, I’ve been thinking about how it applies to you and me.  Directly.  Not a lonely flame floating in the darkness of space, but rather a light shining within our own personal darkness.  The life which is the light of all people. 

The light shines in the darkness, not just in the world, or in space, but in your heart, in your own uncertain darkness.  These are troubling times in our world, and this worries all of us, but the light still shines.  For those in the depths of despair, the light still shines.  For those who grieve the loss of one who loved you, the light still shines.  For those in financial trouble, or who are out of work, the light still shines.  Yes there is darkness, but there is also light.  The darkness cannot overcome the light, no matter how dark it may be.  The light.  Still.  Shines.  And because this light is life, that means everyone lives.  Everyone has hope.  Everyone has the light, and the darkness cannot overcome it.

And on this quiet morning, we celebrate the light shining from a stable behind an inn in Bethlehem.  A baby has been born, a baby who is the light shining in the darkness.  God is with us.
Merry Christmas!


Sunday, December 24, 2017

YEAR B 2017 christmas eve

Christmas Eve 2017
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.

Well, since the sun has gone down, Advent is officially over, and it is now safe to say, Merry Christmas!  As I learned in seminary, it’s important to get these things right.  You need to do them at the proper time, or else . . . or else . . . Well, I don’t know, come to think of it. No one ever explained why, but it seemed very important at the time.

More to the point tonight though, in seminary I also learned the importance of keeping the different gospels straight.  For one thing, the gospels are not newspaper journalism accounts of “The Life and Times of Jesus.”  The four gospels are written from four different perspectives, trying to offer four different vantage points ofwho Jesus is.  (And Luke is my favorite, if I may tip my hand.)  But only two of the gospels have the stories of Jesus’ birth, and we kind of jumble those two together into a big collage of details, especially in our manger scenes.

But, only Luke has Jesus born in a manger; in Matthew, it’s a house.  In Matthew, Mary and Joseph live in Bethlehem; in Luke, they’re going there to be counted.  Luke has the shepherds; Matthew has the wise guys.  The gospels are different because different people are telling the same story through different eyes, but all pointing at the same truth: Everything is different because this baby has been born.

Everything is different for each of us.  And since we’re all different, we respond to this story in different ways.  Once we encounter Jesus, we are not the same, and yet we remain different from one another.  Wow.  Could I be more confusing?  Let’s go back to something simple . . . Like shepherds.

Luke’s version of Jesus’ birth is very matter of fact.  Joseph and Mary go to Bethlehem for the census.  While there, she gives birth to a son, wraps him in cloths, and puts him in a feeding trough because there’s no room at the hotel . . . Not so glamorous a start.

Meanwhile, a bunch of shepherds (probably the least glamorous audience imaginable in those days) get this stellar display of angels out in the fields.  And they hear the message that there is a newborn baby in town, who is the Messiah, and they’re given a sign.  The sign that they have the right baby is that he will be in the last place you’d think to look: wrapped in cloths and lying in the animals’ feeding trough.  I don’t know which would be more shocking to the shepherds: the angels, or their description of the conditions where the baby could be found.  It makes you wonder whether anyone BUT shepherds would have believed the message, doesn’t it?

And then before the shepherds go to see Jesus, the angels sing a song:
Glory to God in the highest, and peace to his people on earth.  Have you ever heard those words before?  You know, maybe this morning, for example?  On page 356 of your prayer books perhaps?  We sing it or say it almost every Sunday.  The angels sing the Gloria, and then the shepherds go to find Jesus, right where the angels said they would find him.  It’s mighty tempting to make a connection between the song and that manger, and the song and this altar, but I’m not going to press that one . . . tonight.

Back to the stable . . . So the shepherds get to the stable, to Mary and Joseph, and they see the baby.  As we heard, “When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them.”  All who heard it.  Now, who would that be, these ALL who heard it?  Remember, in Luke’s Gospel there are no wise men.  And this little baby was obviously not seen as important to anyone in town, or they would have had a place to stay right?  So, who exactly would be the ALL who heard the shepherds’ story?

Seems to me that would be Mary and Joseph.  And, to me, what’s so amazing about the shepherds’ story is not the angels, or the song.  What is amazing about their story is the SIGN.  The sign that this baby—this little bundle of joy in a feeding trough—is the Messiah.  The one sent by God.  The  insignificant birthplace.  That’s the sign.  Mary and Joseph are amazed at the shepherds’ news, you see?  The very people you would expect to know God is with them, have to be reminded by these absolute nobodies, that they are holding in their arms the Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.  Mary and Joseph don’t seem to be sure of this until the shepherds come and tell them.

Which leads us to the main question I want to get to here: Why would Luke tell us that this message was entrusted to these shepherd nobodies?  Why would they be the ones to confirm for Mary and Joseph who their baby is?  Why would the most important message in the history of the world be put in the hands of these insignificant shepherds?  Here’s the answer:  Little people matter.  Every person matters.  And in Luke, that is an ongoing theme.

In the first chapter of Luke’s gospel, Mary sings her Magnificat.  Remember that from last Sunday?

My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.  He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly.  He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.

To Luke, the physician, people matter.  All people.  Even the little people . . . Or, maybe, especially the little people.  And maybe that’s why Christmas is the perfect time to notice this aspect of Luke.  Because, of course, Christmas is most joyful for the little people in our lives.  People who can’t buy what they want, who can’t feed themselves, or fend for themselves.  You see that message over and over in our Christmas stories and movies . . . The little people come out on top for once.  George Bailey doesn’t go bankrupt.  Buddy the Elf gets the respect he deserves.  The outcast red-nosed reindeer leads the pack and saves Christmas.  The Cratchits finally get the support they need from Ebeneezer Scrooge, of all people.

You and I resonate with this message, the message that the little people matter.  We love an underdog.  And Luke seems to be trying to tell us that as well.  Luke cares about the people others don’t care about.

And Luke has another peculiarity that no other Gospel writer uses.  Luke gets inside people’s minds.  Luke has people talking to themselves when no one’s around.  For example, the Prodigal Son says to himself, “I will go to my father and will beg him to take me on as a servant.”  None of the other Gospel writers does this.  But in Luke, people have thoughts, just like you and I do.  To Luke, people matter.

And we see that in tonight’s gospel.  After hearing the shepherds’ story about Jesus’ being the Messiah, the others were amazed, yes.  “But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.”  Only in Luke would Mary ponder things in her heart.  We get a glimpse of Mary’s character here.  She is one who reacts to world-changing joyous news by pondering it in her heart.

But not the shepherds of course.  No, they return to their fields, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen.  Little people, running out into the fields, pushing each other into the bushes, like hobbits.  Little people, excited to have played such an enormous role in the future of the world.  Giddy with excitement that God has used them in such an amazing way, and has entrusted to them the message of salvation.

And there sits Mary, pondering in her heart.  And it’s important for us to remember that Mary was also a nobody.  Over the centuries we’ve honored her as the Theotokos, the Queen of Heaven, Holy Mary Mother of God, and for good reason of course, because she is those things.  And yet, she’s just a poor girl who finds herself pregnant and giving birth behind a hotel with a “No Vacancy” sign flashing out front.  Mary is a nobody, just like the shepherds.  She treasures the words, and ponders them in her heart, for the same reason the shepherds are laughing and pushing each other down the hill:

Because, for once, the little people matter.  For once, things are as they should be, as they were meant to be.  The angel tells the shepherds: I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people.  ALL the people.

And that good news of great joy is this:  The creator of the world has entered into the creation itself.  That baby in the manger is the incarnate Christ of God.  The one who comes as a helpless baby, born to a nobody, whose true nature is revealed to a bunch of nobodies, so that we can gather tonight to announce to one another that nobodies are everything to God.  Crazy as it is to say it, Jesus came for the nobodies.  And, that’s really the best present we’re ever going to get!

Merry Christmas!

YEAR B 2017 advent 4

Advent 4, 2017
2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16
Psalm 89:1-4, 29-26
Romans 16:25-27
Luke 1:26-38

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

Back when our family lived in New York City, our children attended a Catholic school across town, on the lower east side of Manhattan.  Our first Christmas in New York meant our first exposure to the Catholic grade-school Christmas pageant.  Cristin and I, as dutiful parents, went to the grand event along with all the other parents, which was held in the parish hall basement.  As the 1st grade narrators clomped out to begin the presentation, it could have been any parish hall, in any church, in any city, in any state . . .  even any country, come to think of it.  But then they threw back their heads and quoted today’s gospel text:

The ayngel Gaybriel was sent by Gawd, to Mahry and Joseph in a town cawled Nahzareth . . . .
That unmistakable accent!  Suddenly, everything was localized.  Suddenly, we could be in only one place: The lower east side of Manhattan!

Once those children began speaking, it was clear where we were.  This age-old story, which can often seem remote and distant and impersonal . . . a fairy tale, even, sometimes . . . was once again very real and very near.  The story of Gabriel’s visit, retold in that church basement in Manhattan, became more real to me than it had before.  Because now, it was local.  Now it was personal.  God had come near in a very specific place.  And that is the whole point, isn’t it?  That God comes to us locally, personally, flesh and blood, and everything that that phrase means.

There is a certain danger in the specific.  And there is a risk in general vagueness.  And Christianity has always fought the battle between the two poles of—on the one hand—being specific, and dangerous, and—on the other hand—being vague and socially acceptable.  In the first case, you get the extreme of belief that says, “Christianity or death.”  And on the other hand, you get a vague sort of God as friendly invisible force, floating through the cosmos and encouraging us to do good deeds.  Neither of those two extremes is the real message of Christianity.  Jesus never says, “Believe or die!”  And Jesus never says, “You know, whatever.”

What makes Christianity different from all other religions is one thing:  Christianity is localized.  Not in the sense of localized in the community—since most religions have that—but in the sense of localized in a person.  This is most true in the case of Jesus.  I mean, we call it Christianity for a reason, right?  Centered on the person of Jesus Christ.  But Christianity is also localized in the followers of Jesus . . . you and I are each a little version of Jesus in some way, through our baptism into his Church.  We seek and serve Christ in all people with God’s help . . . which means, we’re also looking for Jesus in the people we meet.

But that’s all just backstory.  Here’s the point I really want to get to, of something being as perfectly local as anything has ever been: The “yes” of Mary.  When Gabriel says all this to Mary in today’s Gospel, the ticking before her response is the loudest sound in the universe.  Everything hangs in the balance.  She could have said, “As if!” and stormed off.  She could have said, “Let me think about it,” and pondered in her heart.  She could have cowered in fear that there was an angel standing in her room!  Mary could have said anything, and I imagine Gabriel just standing there with the most hopeful look in his eyes, not knowing how Mary will react.  As St. Augustine said, “All of creation held its breath, awaiting the yes of Mary.”

Mary could have said anything; and what she says is, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

The importance of this moment is hard to grasp, because everything is about to change . . . and I do mean everything.  Up to this point, God has been dealing with people from afar: in dreams, through the prophets, occasionally in the combustible bush or what have you, but God does not walk among the people.  God is sort of everywhere and anywhere, dwelling in tents, talking on mountains, being somehow present in Israel’s escape from Egypt, and Noah’s boat-building.

Up to this point, God is here, yes, but in an ambiguous sort of way.  In what we Christians call the “Old Testament,” all sorts of things are attributed to God, both good things and bad things.  People have the occasional interaction with God, but nobody invites God over for dinner.  In these stories of the Hebrew people, God is present in a random and mystical way . . . the Jews areGod’s chosen people, whether they like it or not.

With the angel Gabriel’s announcement to the Jewish girl Mary, everything is about to change.  Or not.  All of creation held its breath, awaiting the yes of Mary.

And there it is again.  God did not go to the vagueness of “all humanity” to see if we were up to this challenge.  God did not go to a committee to see if it was The Consensus Of The Group.  No, God sends Gabriel to one specific person, living at one specific time, and bets the house on the chance that she might say yes.

There are those who will say, “Well God knew that Mary would say yes.”  I am not willing to agree so easily.  I think it is an important part of this story . . . perhaps THE most important part of this story . . . that it could have gone either way.  I think it is important that Mary is not a mindless robot.  I think it is important that Mary had the option to say no.  I think it is important that Mary is offered the honor to be the one to carry the Redeemer of the world, and it all turns with this sentence: "Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word."  And until that moment, all of creation held its breath, awaiting the yes of Mary.

The somewhat unpredictable God of the Hebrew scriptures, the one who might save the people of Ninevah, or who might wipe out everybody with a flood, the one who might offer the promised land, but have you wander in the desert for forty years before you can see it, that same God is going to make a radically particular move . . . from the general to the specific . . . a move from the could-be-anywhere to the definitely local.  From all of humanity across all of time, to one young woman, living in Palestine, 2,000 years ago.  All of creation held its breath, awaiting the yes of Mary.

But behind all this is one very big question: Is it true that before this moment God was distant, remote, and just sort of vaguely there?  Does the birth of Jesus mean that God becomes present in some way that God was not before?  It’s a tricky and thought-provoking question, to be sure.  John’s gospel starts with the phrase, “In the beginning was the Word.”  And Jesus says, “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last.”  Jesus was, and is, and will be.  So, it’s not like the birth of Jesus was the start of Jesus.  The Son of God was there from before the beginning.  (To deny this is a heresy called “Arianism,” which can get you slapped by St. Nicholas, which I can tell you about some other time.)

What changes with the birth of Jesus is this: God becomes flesh.  God moves among us in a specific, local, eating-and-drinking, weeping and laughing, living and dying way in the person of Jesus.  Gabriel comes to the specific person of Mary, who answers with a specific “yes,” and God moves from the general could-be-any-basement-in-any-school-in-any-state-or-country to a very specific barn behind a sold-out hotel.  Everything is different because in Jesus, God is present in a local way.

And a particular part of the life of that particular person named Jesus was when he gathered with his friends to share the Passover meal.  You and I remember that meal every time we celebrate Communion together.  That meal happened at a very specific time and place.  But that meal also happens throughout all time and space.  This is the reverse of the process . . .

The specific local meal of Jesus and his disciples moves to the general anywhere and everywhere.  The feast that goes on through all eternity.  An ongoing meal that is distant, remote, and for everyone.  But then something happens . . .

As you join in that feast that is everywhere and always, you reach out your own specific, local, personal hands.  And you make something like a manger as you stretch them out.  And as the bread is placed in your hands, you hear the words, “The body of Christ, the bread of heaven.”
And all of creation holds its breath, awaiting the yes of your “Amen.”


Monday, December 18, 2017

Origin of Some Christmas Symbols

Several people have asked me to pass along my outline from a recent Christian Education class at church.  It occurs to me that posting online is probably more efficient, so here it is.
(Note: This is just sort of the outline.  You can fill in specifics on your own, I'm sure.)
The basic flow goes from pagan practices being "Christianized," to being repressed under the Puritans, to being revived by Charles Dickens, to seeming always to have been this way to us.

The Stuff of Christmastime

I.          Origin of the words “Christmas,” and “Xmas”  1050AD  and 1200AD

II.        How about a date?  Actual birthday?  Dec. 25th rationale  Spring, 6-4BC, 9 months after Annunciation

III.       Timeline of Celebrations. Nativity Feast 336AD.

IV.       How to Christianize pagan practices.  Winter Solstice.  12/21 Egypt Osiris, 12/17-23 Roman Saturnalia &  12/26 Janus, 12/25 Persians Mithras, 12/25 Phoenicians Baal

V.        Those Middle Agers knew how to party!  Communion 506AD, Civic Holiday 529AD, by 1100AD biggest holiday, Christmas to Epiphany brings back the pagan.  12 days of excess

VI.       Those Reformer party poopers.  1600’s pagan practices banned, stores open, Church canceled.  Shortened to 12 somber days.

VII.      Dickens to the rescue!  In the1800s, the goodwill from Saturnalia returns, and “decking” makes a comeback.  Isn't your idealized Christmas rooted in 1860 England? 

VIII.    The mixed bag of symbols
`Creche, St. Francis of Assisi 1200s,
`Christmas and Paradise plays 1100s
`Feasting: Romans fruit wine grains, Phoenicians bulls, Norse bear, harvest
`Gift giving Saturnalia, St. Nicholas Day, 1800s America
`Christmas lights Norse bonfires Yule season, Romans candles in tress, Hanukkah
`Christmas Trees Vikings (evergreens spring will return), Druids (decorated oak trees harvest), Romans (trinkets and candles), Medieval Paradise Plays (with apple) 12/24, 1605 Germany and Martin Luther lights
`Christmas Wreaths, probably German, possibly from Santa Lucia, Sweden 304AD
`Christmas Greens: Mistletoe--Celts (all heal) Greeks (charm) & Norse (kiss)  Holly--Roman (dispel demons), Norse (attract friendly spirits), Olde England (virgin protection), Druids (hair accessory for watching Mistletoe harvest), Germans (good weather luck)  Ivy—Romans (Bacchus) 
`Yule Log Norse-England-America, yuletide lasted weeks, Boar celebration at solstice, Thor is god of Yule and chases away frost, some Christians burn for 12 hours for good luck
`Wassail is cider, sugar, eggs, nutmeg, cloves, ginger, and apples, 12th night.  Anglo-Saxon “be whole,” thrown on trees to invoke gods of trees. Go from party to party singing and wassailing.
`Boxing Day, 12/26, St. Stephen, empty alms boxes for the poor, leftover feast boxed for servants
`Secular Christmas Carols 1300s-1400s (before that, somber Latin hymns)
`Christmas Cards 1843 England

`Santa Claus . . . Stockings Nicholas of Myra 342AD, Norse bring north mix with Odin who could see all, rode horse across sky, giving gifts to the poor and candy to children (Sinterklaas is name travels with Black Peter).  Takes off among the Dutch, Germans, French.  PA Germans call him Kris Kringle.  Clement Clarke Moore “A Visit from St. Nicholas” and CocaCola cement it all together.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

YEAR B 2017 advent 3

Advent 3, 2017
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
Canticle 15
1 Thessalonians 5:16-24
John 1:6-8, 19-28

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

Who am I?  Why am I here?  You may remember the man who famously asked those questions.  It was Admiral Stockdale, Ross Perot’s 1992 running mate in the Vice Presidential debate.  The press had a field day with this opening statement, because it seemed like a ridiculous way to begin a debate of this magnitude.  But Stockdale’s opening statement was actually a question . . . or, in fact, two questions.  Who am I?  Why am I here?  They’re actually good questions to ask yourself.  Because if you can answer them for yourself, then you can answer them when someone else asks, Who are you?  Why are you here?

This is what happens to John the Baptizer in today’s Gospel reading.  He is out there in the wilderness, baptizing people, and these religious leaders come and ask him, Who are you?  And why are you here?  They’re really asking about the baptism that John is doing.  For the Jews of Jesus’ day, baptism was a ritual washing that a person did for only one of two reasons.  The first would be if you’ve become ritually unclean, like by touching a dead body or something.  And the second would be for Gentiles (that is, non-Jews) who wanted to convert to the Jewish faith.  The last step of the conversion to Judaism was to be baptized.  So, only two reasons to be baptized, and you’ll notice that “repentance” is not on that short list of reasons to be baptized.

So, the religious leaders are paying John the Baptizer a little visit to find out where he gets off adding a third religious rite without checking in with the main office.  But that’s their second question, the Why are you here question.  Before they get to that, they have to ask the first question:  Who are you?  And before he can answer, they offer him three options:  1) Are you the Messiah?  No.  2) Are you Elijah, the one who was supposed to come back before the Messiah?  No.  3) Okay, are you a prophet?  No.

And now they’ve exhausted the list of people who could legitimately invent a new reason for baptism.  And they’re like, so . . . then who are you, exactly?  And he still doesn’t say.  He starts talking about someone else.  He starts talking about his identity as the one who prepares the way, who makes the paths straight.  They ask, Who are you?  And he starts talking about someone else.  This interrogation is not going well from the religious leaders’ perspective.  They want to know about John, and he is talking about someone else. Plus, he’s talking about someone who is right there with them, but someone they don’t recognize.  Just the kind of crazy talk you’d expect from a guy who eats grasshoppers.  John says, “Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.”

Translation:  You think I’m a radical arrival in the world?  You ain’t seen nothin’ yet!  John’s baptism with water is threatening to topple the apple cart of the religious system, and John is saying this is just the beginning.  He’s the opening act!  And not even that, he’s saying he’s more like the guy who unlocks the stage door for the main act.  Not in the same league.  Not one of the same kind.  Just another guy named John, doing what God has called him to do.

Before our family moved to New York to go to seminary, we had a huge black lab named Lula . . .  she was the world’s best dog.  Sorry to all of you who thought the world’s best dog was living at your house.  You actually have the world’s second best dog.  Anyway, Lula always wanted me to throw things so she could go get them for me.  The technical term is “fetch.”  But Lula, being a black lab, wasn’t necessarily the world’s smartest dog . . . just the world’s best.  So, sometimes I would throw something for her, and she would stand there looking at me, with her head crouched down, waiting for me to throw it.  And, of course, I would tell her I already threw it, and she always seemed to take that to mean I’m about to throw it.

In frustration, I would point at the thing I threw, saying “Go get it.”  And then, of course, Lula would look at my finger.  So I’d point harder toward the ball, and she would stare harder at my finger.  Eventually, I’d have to pretend to throw the ball again, and then she would run off toward the ball that had been sitting there the whole time.  Not the world’s smartest dog; just the best.

These accusers who come to visit John today are kind of like my dog.  They’re looking at John, and John is saying, “It’s not about me, silly!  Look where I’m pointing!”  And they all stare at his finger.  They want to know about John, and John is telling them to look for Jesus.  They want to know about John’s authority, and John says my authority is just to open the door for the one who is coming later on.  They’re staring at the hand that is pointing, rather than the point of the pointing.  It’s not about John the Baptizer; it’s about Jesus.

Back in 1547, a friend of Martin Luther named Lucas Cranach painted Luther in the act of preaching a sermon.  I’ve seen this painting many times above the Altar in the Town Church in Wittenberg, Germany.  On a cross in the middle of the painting, is Jesus.  Luther is on the side, way up in the pulpit, preaching to the people who are sitting directly across from him.  He is looking at them, and with his right arm, he is pointing at Jesus, on the cross.  The people sitting across from him are looking at Jesus, not at Luther.  The preacher is proclaiming the gospel by pointing at Jesus.  And it is a perfect sermon because the people are looking at Jesus, not at the preacher.

Today’s Gospel reading started off being about John: This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, "Who are you?"  Sounds like it’s going to be a story about John, doesn’t it?  But the story is not about John, even though that’s why the interrogators are coming to talk to John.  They say, “So, John, tell me a little bit about yourself.  You’re doing quite a radical thing here, and we want to know about you.”  And what does John do?  He points to Jesus.  God among us.  The one “standing in your midst.”  He’s talking to them, but he’s pointing to Jesus . . . the perfect sermon!

They ask John, Who are you?  Why are you here?  And he says, I baptize people and tell them that Jesus is coming.  John is doing what Jesus tells his disciples to do at the end of Matthew’s Gospel:  Baptize people, and tell them that Jesus is coming.  And that answer should sound familiar to us, because that has been the mission of the Church ever since.  We gather together, baptizing people, in anticipation of Jesus’ coming into the world.  Baptize, and point to Jesus.  That’s what we do.

Of course, we also do other important and valuable things together, like gather for worship, offer hospitality to others, and minister through community outreach, but the reason we do those things is because we are pointing to Jesus.  We are the ones who baptize people and point to Jesus.  That is who we are, whether we know it or not.

So now if I were to ask you, are you Elijah?  You would say no.  Are you a prophet?  You would say no.  Are you the Messiah?  You would say no.  And then in frustration I would finally ask, Who are you?  Why are you here?

And you could point to the one who is coming into the world.  You could point to Jesus.  Because that’s who you are:  the ones who point to Jesus.  And this morning you can point to this Altar, because that is where Jesus comes to meet us.  In the bread and the wine, right where he promised to be.  Ask yourself, “Who am I and why am I here?"  You will find the answer in your outstretched hands.


Sunday, December 10, 2017

YEAR B 2017 advent 2

Advent 2, 2017
Isaiah 40:1-11
Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13
2 Peter 3:8-15a
Mark 1:1-8

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.
For most of my life, I never realized how different the four gospels are.  I just assumed they all started with Mary and Joseph going to Bethlehem.  You know, the star, the angels, the shepherds, the Wise Men, and Santa Claus coming down the chimney into our living rooms.  Of course, that is not the case.  Especially the Santa Claus part.  No, all four gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, begin differently.  And Matthew has the Wise Men, Luke has the Shepherds, and John starts back before creation.  Put Matthew and Luke together and you get our Christmas Creche designs, jumbled together with all the key highlights and characters from multiple versions.  But Mark, Mark is the absolute outlier.

Mark’s gospel begins with what we just heard this morning, John the Baptist crying out in the wilderness.  If we only had Mark’s gospel, and no Matthew and Luke, we would probably spend advent wearing camel skin and eating locusts.  (So be thankful for Matthew and Luke!)  But yes, Mark is very different.  Some writers think we could view the gospel of Mark as really just being prologue for the crucifixion.  It’s not so important to Mark that Jesus was born, it seems.  What matters is his three years or so of ministry, you could say.  And since the baptism of Jesus is the beginning of that ministry, that’s precisely the place where Mark starts out.  If you want angels, shepherds, and Wise Men, you’ll have to read the rest of the book.  Meanwhile, it’s on to the camel skins and locusts.

So, as we heard in this text, John the Baptist shows up in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.  We’re going to hear more about John next week, but today I want to focus on a particular thing that he was doing out there in the wilderness, this “baptism of repentance.”  And, in fact, I want to focus even closer in on the word “repent.”

When you hear that word, repent, you probably think of one of two things.  You either picture a crazy guy standing on the corner with a hand-painted sign and a bullhorn, harassing people on their way to work.  Or, you imagine someone admitting they’ve done wrong and asking for forgiveness.  I mean the word “repentance” sounds a lot like penitence, after all.  So, yeah, it makes sense to us that repent means something like confess.

But it doesn’t.  (You knew that was coming, right?)  We get the word “repent” from the Greek word metanoia.  (And you probably knew the Greek was coming too, right?)  The word doesn’t mean “feel bad,” or “grovel.”  The word means to turn around.  You know, you’re driving the opposite way of Christmas party you want to end up at, and you metanoia. Turn around.  Go the other way.  Which is a totally different thing than feeling guilty or begging for forgiveness.  You’re driving south when you should be headed north, you don’t open the prayer book to the order of Confession, right?  You turn around.

People were coming out to visit John in the wilderness to turn around and be baptized, which at that time meant a ritual washing.  Turn around and be made clean.  Which does kind of sound like Confession and Absolution, doesn’t it?  But sometimes, we get too afraid of repenting or turning around to do so.  Because sometimes we develop this fear that wrath and punishment will follow after we repent.

It’s like we’re driving the wrong way down the road, but we’re afraid to turn around because we think there are cops back there.  We’re afraid that we’ll get punished for breaking the law, rather than getting a warm drink after arriving at the Christmas party on time.  And that, as usual, comes from a mistaken perception of God, to be honest.  Deep down, we’re all convinced that God is just waiting to punch us in the face.  And if we turn around we’ll be met with a roundhouse to the head.

But listen again to the words we heard from Isaiah this morning:  “He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.”  That does not sound like someone who is fixing to knock you upside the head, does it?  Hard as we may find it to believe, God actually loves us and wants what is best for us, which is exactly why God wants us to turn around.  So we don’t miss the Christmas party!

So where do we get this mistaken impression of the God of love?  Why do we all expect to be punched rather than hugged?  Well, partly, I think, from that guy on the corner with the hand-painted sign and the bullhorn.  “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand!”  There are plenty of people out there who seem to have forgotten the words to “Jesus loves me this I know.”  And they’re super excited to tell you how the same God who lovingly created the world can’t wait to burn it and everyone in it.  That’s the kind of God who would be quite happy to punch us when we turn around, so I’d better just keep driving south, right?  I mean at least it doesn’t snow down south.  Oh, wait . . .

And the other place we get this impression of God is just from, well, living our lives.  We see a lot of suffering, you know?  People we love pass away, people we admire turn out to be no better than us, people we trust let us down and disappoint us.  The world is a harsh place, and we know it.  But we get into trouble when we start thinking that the world is harsh because that’s how God wants it to be.  When we lose a loved one, someone invariably will say something like “God wanted another rose for the garden,’ or “another angel for the choir.”  When things go badly for us, there’s always someone who will show up and say it’s all part of God’s plan.  I cannot say this strongly enough:  The world is not the way God wants it to be.

And we can tell that by looking at the words and actions of Jesus.  Rather than kill people, Jesus raises them from the dead.  Rather than hurt people, Jesus heals them.  Rather than judge people, Jesus forgives them.  Jesus and God the Father are one.  Jesus doesn’t come to earth in order to stymie the plans of the Creator who wants everything to burn.  They’re on the same side; God cannot be divided.  Jesus shows us what God in the flesh acts like.  Healing and making people whole.  If the idea of repentance scares you, it’s probably because you have in mind a god who does not exist.  The God we worship wants what is best for you.  The God we worship is a God of life, and resurrection, and new beginnings.

Which leads us back to the need for repentance.  Turning around.  And when we turn around, what do we find?  A raised fist?  A screaming voice?  A flamethrower?  No, we find one who will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.  That’s the God who is waiting for us when we turn around, with open arms, saying “Welcome to the party!  I’m glad you made it.  Let me take your coat.”

That’s the God who is waiting to feed us at this Altar today.  So I invite you to turn around and come to the meal God has prepared, the pledge of our redemption, the body of our Lord Jesus Christ.  You’ll be glad you did.


Friday, December 8, 2017

for Ruth Cleaver

Ruth Cleaver, 12/7/17
Ecclesiastes 1:1-8
Psalm 23
John 6:37-40

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

You are here today because you knew Ruth Cleaver.  Or, perhaps, because you know her family.  By the time she reached the age of 90, Ruth had touched many lives, and was deeply loved.  When I met Ruth for the first time, it was the day before she passed away.  She knew she was dying, and she was at peace with it. 

As I held Ruth’s hand that day, I asked her if I could anoint her with oil and pray for her, and she said yes.  But she wanted me to know where she stood on a visit from a priest.  She looked at me, and then over at Nancy, and then said to me, “I’m . . . a realist.”  I knew what she meant, and just kept holding her hand.  But she let me pray for her anyway.  Maybe it was because it meant something to her family.  Or maybe because it meant something to me.  Or maybe because she figured it couldn’t hurt.  But I am fully aware that she didn’t have to accept my feeble prayers or the smudge of oil on her forehead.  And yet, she did.  And I know it is an intimate honor that she allowed me into her space at such a transitional moment.

In the gospel reading we just heard, from John, Jesus says, “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.”  In Baptism, Ruth was given to Jesus, and Jesus has promised not to lose what is his.  Ruth was a realist.  And Ruth was baptized.  A realist who was claimed as God’s own forever.

As we go through life, we all become disillusioned about some things.  I know from firsthand experience that it is easy to find ourselves giving up on God, either because of what we experience in life, or sometimes because of what we experience in the Church.  But, what matters is that God does not give up on us.  God’s love is relentless and will chase us down.  And when we think we have let go of God’s hand, we find that we are still safely nestled in the palm of God’s hand, the very place we have been all along.  We do not hold onto God:  God holds us.

Jesus says, “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.”


Sunday, December 3, 2017

YEAR B 2017 advent 1

Advent 1, 2017
Isaiah 64:1-9
Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18
1 Corinthians 1:3-9
Mark 13:24-37

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

Well, welcome to Advent, huh?  So where’s the singing children, and shepherds, and peace on earth, and ho ho ho and all that stuff?  I mean, talk about a wet blanket Jesus, huh?  We just got started with the shopping and decorating and stuff, and suddenly Jesus is talking about the sun and moon going dark, and the stars falling from the sky, and the powers in the heavens being shaken.   What’s the deal, right?

It’s a little strange that this intimidating reading ends with Jesus’ saying, “And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake."  A whole bunch of scary stuff is coming, so keep awake.  If the sun and moon suddenly go dark, I think we’re going to notice, and I doubt any of us is going to be nodding off.  And then the Son of Man will send out his angels to gather the faithful from the ends of the earth.  And then some authors will use this passage to write those Left Behind books and make a whole lot of money because Jesus has just scared the Christmas right out of us!

The reason this reading is so scary is because, quite frankly, we don’t get it.  And part of the reason we don’t get it is because it operates on a bunch of different levels, since there are three different audiences:  There’s the group Jesus is talking to, and the ones it is being written down for, and also the ones who are sitting in Massillon, on this first Sunday of Advent.

So, first, Jesus is saying these words to people who will shortly see him being handed over to his enemies.  They will watch him go to the cross, after being brutally beaten and tormented.  For them the sun will go dark.  The moon will lose its light.  The stars will fall from the skies, and the powers of heaven will be shaken.  The people hearing Jesus say these words will in a very short time see the Messiah suffer and be killed.  The one in whom they have put their trust will be taken away.  And, in the very next chapter of Mark’s gospel, Jesus is praying in the garden and when he comes back, what are the disciples doing?  Sleeping!  What did Jesus tell them?  Keep awake!

So, that’s the first level for this story, the people he is actually speaking to—the disciples.  The second group to consider are those who are alive when Mark’s gospel is being written down.  Even though Mark gives us the earliest written version of Jesus’ life in the Bible, it’s written 30 or 40 years after Jesus is killed, around 70AD, as most scholars have it.  This was a time of insane turmoil in the Roman world, with a massive Jewish revolt starting in the mid 60’s.  The response to this revolt from Rome was to completely destroy Jerusalem, including the Temple . . . the center of Jewish religious life.  For people living in Jerusalem at the time this gospel was written, the sun and moon have stopped shining, and the powers of heaven have been shaken. 

And, in Mark’s gospel, just before Jesus says all that stuff about the coming destruction, he is walking with his disciples out of the Temple, and one of them says, “Teacher, look at these magnificent buildings!  Such impressive stones!”  Jesus tells them that they will all be thrown down, with not one stone left upon another.  You think these walls are immortal?  You think things will just continue right along as they have been, and the world is all hunky dory, right?  Well, Keep Awake!

So, that’s the second group hearing this story.  The ones it was written for.  And then we come to us, the third group of hearers . . . the people who have just had Thanksgiving dinner, and perhaps started some Christmas shopping, and maybe even started digging out the decorations, and maybe already got a pine tree sitting in our living room.  We’re zipping right along with plans for what food to get, and what presents to buy, and whether or not we’re going to talk to that one relative who drives us crazy every year, and just kind of day-dreaming our way into Advent, when suddenly the Reason for the Season says to us:  Wake Up!  Keep awake, because you do not know the hour or the day when the Son of Man will return.  It is jarring, I think you’ll agree.  But, at the same time, we’ve been talking about his return each week, right here in this place.

And that’s because every Sunday, we proclaim together some version of what is called, the Mystery of Faith before Communion.  Lately we’ve been using the one that goes, We remember his death, we proclaim his resurrection, we await his coming in glory.  And for Advent, we will switch to Prayer A, and say together, Christ has died.  Christ is risen.  Christ will come again.  Those little triplets are called the Mystery of Faith.  Past, present, and future.  And it’s the last part, the future, we tend to forget about.  We celebrate Christmas each year, remembering the incarnation of God among us, when Jesus was born.  And we go through Holy week to join in the Holy Mysteries of his death and resurrection.  But the part we tend to gloss over is that third part:  Christ will come again.  Keep awake!  Christ will come again.

And then what?  Well, Jesus tells us, “Then they will see `the Son of Man coming in clouds' with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.”  And who are these elect?  Let’s go back to Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, that section we heard this morning:  He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

“These elect” are the ones called into fellowship with God’s Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.  The ones who have been baptized with Christ into the mystery of his death, and into the promise of the resurrection.  Christ has died; Christ is risen.  In baptism you also have died and been raised again to new life in Christ.  You are among those whom the angels will go and gather when Jesus comes again.  So keep awake!

Christ has died, and Christ is risen, but what now?  What about this long stretch of waiting for the Christ-will-come-again part?  Are we just killing time, waiting for Jesus to return?  Some Christians do take that view.  For some people, Jesus can’t come soon enough, and they couldn’t care less about the suffering of this world because it isn’t “real.”  You know, it’s all going to burn, and this present suffering is nothing compared to the glories of heaven.

Well, I don’t know about you, but that approach doesn’t work for me.  A far-away pie-in-the-sky answer doesn’t work because I do not want a replacement for this world.  I want redemption of this world.  In the Apostles Creed we say that we believe in the resurrection of the body.  And a physical resurrection means that something more than a spirit will be raised on the last day.  It means there will be some continuity . . . something of this world will exist in the next.  I am convinced that there will be backyard football games, and great meals, and healthy pets, and people that we have loved and lost who are raised again.  That is not complete destruction and replacement; that is redemption.  And there’s a big difference between the two.  Jesus did not come into the world to condemn the world, but to redeem it.  And part of “it” is us.

So back to the first question again:  What’s with all the scary language this first Sunday of Advent?  Why the need for all the doom and gloom just to tell us to stay awake?  We are quite aware that things are not right.  We’ve seen the empty chair at the Thanksgiving table.  We know that someone in our family won’t be calling us on Christmas Day.  We see the state of our political discourse, and we know people who are out of work, and we have felt the sting of death in losing the ones we love.

For us, the sun has been darkened, and the moon has lost its light, and the stars have fallen from the sky, and the powers in the heavens have been shaken.

Christ has died; Christ is risen . . . now what?  What difference does that really make in the here and now of our lives?  Things still hurt.  A lot, sometimes.  And this kind of suffering is enough to make you go shopping, to cling to the joy of Christmas, to throw yourself headlong into the preparation of Advent because, quite frankly, it’s hard to keep your chin up sometimes.  Maybe that’s why we want to start the Christmas season even earlier each year.  Because we’re hoping that some of the joy and peace of Christmas will seep backwards into autumn, and then further back into summer, and maybe even all the way back into spring.

But the real joy of Christmas, the true hope of Christmas, is the thing we tend to forget: and it’s that third part of the Mystery of Faith.  It is the promise we can cling to, in order to make some sense of our lives.  The first two parts of the Mystery are just a set-up for the third one . . . the part when everything really will be different.  When Jesus returns to redeem everything and everyone.

Christ has died.  Yes.  And . . . Christ is risen.  Yes.  And . . . Christ will come again.  Yes! . . .  May God give all of us all the strength to keep awake, and to trust in the fullness of the Mystery of Faith.  Christ will come again, and that is good news!