Archives for December 2006

Endings and Beginnings, Christmas 2 (A,B,C) – 2006

Endings and beginnings

December 31, 2006

1 Samuel 2:18-20, 26; Psalm 148; Colossians 3:12-17; Luke 2:41-52

Our life is filled with endings and beginnings. Today is the last day of the calendar year. Yet we know in the church calendar that we began a new year on December 3, Advent Sunday. The federal budget year began on October 1, and many institutions have a fiscal year beginning on July 1. Sometimes endings and beginnings mark clear boundaries, and at other times they seem to blend. For example, when someone finishes a program we say they have graduated, yet the service is often called a commencement. When loved ones die we say they have entered larger life. Throughout our life we experience other endings that lead to the possibilities of new beginnings.

We might remember some of those experiences when recalling events in children’s lives. A child is named and handed over to the priest who, after baptizing her or him, gives that child back to godparents, symbolizing their important role in that child’s life. A new expanded family responds that they too will support that child in the days and years ahead. A child is dedicated to a life of service of God and God’s people. Endings and beginnings are telescoped in the short duration of childhood and soon new endings and new beginnings can bring expanding horizons to both the child and to all of us who journey with them. Yet our journeys are somehow inextricably connected to each other, if only in memory. In some special way what affects one affects the other.

In our lessons for today we get a glimpse of two little boys whose lives were undergoing a radical change and whose endings and new beginnings were to transform not only them but also the world around them. Both of them were fortunate. They experienced what many young girls and boys don’t; namely to be loved and treasured in those early years that is so crucial for a lifetime of health, wholeness, and the possibility of growing into responsible maturity. Both accompanied their parents in a religious journey to offer sacrifice and to remember how much God (Yahweh) was involved in their child’s life and in their own.

Samuel had been dedicated for service to God very early in life. Hannah, who had been barren, was able to become pregnant and offered her son, Samuel, to the priest, Eli, for service to God. He stayed in Shiloh and as it says in 1 Samuel 2:11 “served the Lord under the priest Eli.”

Jesus, son of Mary and Joseph, accompanied his parents to Jerusalem at the time of Passover. Passover was a special time of giving thanks to God for allowing their ancestors to flee from bondage in Egypt, to remember that God had been with them in time past, and to anticipate the coming of a new messenger. This messenger would announce that the new age had begun. The hope that God would send them someone to announce this new age was growing, especially in the 200 years before the birth of Christ. A cup was placed on a table (the cup of Elijah) in hopes that the messenger might appear, drink from the cup, and announce that the new age had indeed arrived. It was believed by many that Elijah, who at his death was assumed up into heaven by chariots of fire, would return as that messenger and announce the new age had begun. This cup and this sacred meal are also part of the Seder meals celebrated in our time at Passover. Little did anyone know that a young boy attending the Passover with his parents that day in Jerusalem would be that messenger.

So these two young boys, Samuel and Jesus, both seen as gifts from God, were indeed about ready to transform the world in their day and in ours.

At least Hannah knew where her son was. He was in Shiloh with the priest Eli. But Mary and Joseph, trusting that their son was with the familiar crowd who had gone into Jerusalem suddenly lost track of him. This is a parent’s worst nightmare. It was after a day’s journey that they realized he was not with the group. Perhaps you and I might have a hard time understanding the lag in time but obviously this was a trusted group of family and friends who were walking together.

Panicked, Mary and Joseph went back into Jerusalem to find him, and it took another couple of days to do so. When they did, Jesus was in the temple sitting with the teachers, listening to them, and asking questions. His depth of questioning and understanding apparently astonished the teachers.

When Mary and Joseph expressed their worry about his being lost, Jesus responded that it should have been obvious where he was, as it was his Father’s house. We might wonder what the scriptures are not telling us – for if any of us got an answer like that from one of our children after being missing for three days, we probably would be a little upset with him. The story did say that Jesus returned with his parents and was obedient to them but also said that Mary treasured all of these things in her heart. Apparently in the midst of her worry and Jesus’ response to her worry, Mary sensed that something profound was going on here, so much so that she took it into her heart and pondered the meaning of it all.

The stage is set for the next chapters in Samuel’s and Jesus’ life and ministry. What can we make of all this, and how did what happened to them in their youth affect our lives? These lessons for today say two important things: (1) the signs of God’s activity are prevalent in children; and (2) children can be given opportunities to grow, question, and flourish in ways that will benefit them and us for a lifetime.

In the baptismal service we pray that the baptized person might have an inquiring and discerning mind, the courage to will and to persevere, a spirit to know and to love God, and the gift of joy and wonder in all God’s works. These are gifts that ultimately both Samuel and Jesus possessed, but they began possessing them when they were very young. So on this last Sunday in the calendar year and the first Sunday after Christmas when we still hear the wailing of a new born babe in a manger as well as his changing voice throughout his life, on this day we are invited to consider again how important children and child-rearing are.

Samuel and Jesus, in his full humanity, were both able to see what others did not, in part, because of their connection with others who cared about them at a very early age. What we know about child development is that the time before the age of 6 is critical in forming a person’s identity, an identity that will be able to carry them, healthily, into later years of life.

There is a wonderful photograph of a granddad taking a picture of his granddaughter. The picture shows the shadow on a sidewalk of the granddad taking the picture of his granddaughter who had just turned over a rock to seek a bug that had gone under it. The discovery of the bug was a pearl of great price. The particularity of the search was, and is, a reminder of treasures in life being unearthed in minute forms or in hidden places. God is not only available to us in obvious ways but also in the still, small voice; the quiet wisdom from the lips of a friend or stranger; the example of courage and faithfulness of the frail and infirm; in a drop of wine and a small morsel of bread; and in the gaze of a child making a new discovery.

Children not only need to be welcomed to our church, but we need them in our church. We need their inquisitiveness, energy, restlessness, forthrightness, sense of awe and wonder, playfulness and laughter. We need children amongst us not only because they are significant and important and have wonderful abilities to show God’s love, but also because they can help unlock the child that is still in us, the children that Jesus, as an older man, welcomed into his midst and into the new kingdom that was evolving around him.

We gather around Holy Table to remember, to be reminded, and to be surprised. Like Samuel gathering with Eli or Jesus with his parents, family, and friends in Jerusalem at the time of Passover, we gather to remember the stories of our tradition. As we remember them, we are reminded of who we are, whose we are, who is the “we” that we yearn to be, and the work that lies ahead. And all along the way surprises come to us, often in people and circumstances we would least expect. And in this rhythm of life, this rhythm of remembering, being reminded, and being surprised we can realize that it is never too late to dig wells of future memories for another person. For Samuel and Jesus, their early years of observation were of great value to them in their ministries. We obviously can’t help people recoup their early years but we can do something. To help dig wells of future memories for others helps them remember that they are – and have been – treasured by another human being and by God. It reminds them that they have gifts and an identity as a child of God that can never be taken away from them, as well as an ability to dance with life so that they can, like the writer C.S. Lewis, be surprised by joy. When this happens, that person and us are never the same again.

So here we are at the precipice of a new year, looking back at what was, looking forward to what might be, and invited to look around and within to see what we might do and be in the here and now.

We gather around stories from our tradition and expressions of prayer and song. We gather to exchange peace, which can be an entry way, a foyer, to digging wells for future memories. When we exchange peace we realize three things: (1) we don’t gather here alone; (2) the Eucharist or other worship service is not just about any of us individually or what we can get out of it, but rather what God can do through the worship and through us for God’s work of reconciliation and love; and (3) we realize that the greatest gift we can give one another and the stranger about to come into our midst is to offer the peace of God.

These were gifts given to Samuel and to Jesus of Nazareth. These were gifts they gave the world, and the world has never been the same since. We are called to do the same. May it be so on this special day of the year and in the year to follow. Shalom.

 

— Bud Holland is coordinator of the Office for Ministry Development at the Episcopal Church Center, which is involved in a number of initiatives related to education, lifelong learning, leadership and ministry development. He has previously served in congregations and other diocesan positions.

The Word became flesh and dwelt with us, Christmas Day (A,B,C) – 2006

December 25, 2006

Isaiah 52:7-10; Psalm 98; Hebrews 1:1-4 (5-12); John 1:1-14

We are all used to party political agendas. We’ve just survived an election season and although there’s two years to go before the next general election, the television networks daily parade possible candidates before us and we hear their plans to transform America. We can count on their plans being expensive. To get them enacted takes a great deal of powerful persuasion. The more power and influence a politician can recruit, the better the chance of success.

Even then, transforming a nation, and more so transforming a world, isn’t easy. Some of us remember the ’60s. We were sure that the Civil Rights Movement would liberate African Americans, women and minorities. Much wonderful work was done. Yet drive through the inner cities today and one soon sees what was not done. It’s almost as if legislators, secular and religious, get their enthusiasms, struggle to get them enacted and then forget about them and go on to something more exciting. It’s easy to become cynical.

On the wider stage, we look at the world as it is. We see wars, civil disturbances, bigotry, tribalism, disease, and starvation. Nothing seems to change. Countries promise aid and then don’t give it. We can look at the most frightful things on television while eating dinner. It’s easy to become cynical.

“Wait a minute” you say. “This is Christmas.”

So it is. The great gospel lesson from St. John echoes in our ears. It has just been read to us. We may not understand the profundity of its theology, but in these mysterious words, “In the beginning was the Word,” we reflect on the extraordinary truth about Jesus. To the Greeks of his time, or some of them, the idea of the Word was a philosophical theory. Scholars suggested that there was a source of eternal truth and this source they termed The Logos: “The Word.” There was nothing personal about the idea. It was assumed that only an educated elite would be able to contemplate truth.

The idea of an eternal Word tells us two things. The first is that there’s a truth, an eternal truth to which we have access. The second idea is that this truth is communicated to us by God. “The Word became flesh and dwelt with us.” St. John here says something extraordinary. The eternal truth of God, God communicating to us, is not a philosophical ideal for scholars, but a Person for us all. Jesus is the Truth, Jesus is God communicating. Jesus embodies God’s agenda for the Church and for the world.

“The Word became Flesh.” God entered into a human body. A young unmarried woman became God’s Tent, God’s Temple, God’s presence. In the Old Testament we read about the Tabernacle or tent in which the presence of God dwelt. Later Solomon builds the Temple in which, in the Holy of Holies, God’s Presence was to be found in a special manner. But now, through teenager Mary, God became human in obscurity and weakness, in a stable, surrounded by farm animals and filth. God became vulnerable and powerless.

It is easy for us to look at the crèche and see glory. In reality the crèche is an extraordinary symbol of God’s identity with those who have nothing. The Holy Family, tired, homeless, Mary in labor, stumble into an abandoned, dirty cave. The floor is covered with animal droppings; the manger with old food. It’s one of those cold Middle Eastern nights. Perhaps Joseph takes off his coat and puts it in the manger. “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”

God intends an end to all wars, bigotry, famine, and disease. God has started the process. True, God uses politicians and the powerful, often without their knowing it. But God uses you and me, for as God became human in Mary’s womb, so God the Son, the babe in the manger, enters our humanity, changes us and sends us to change the nation and the world. That is what Baptism is all about. The transforming future is God at work in frail, powerless human beings who risk death, even the Cross in order to be reborn into hope.

We are those human beings. We become agents of God’s purpose as we do as God wants us to do. We tell the gospel story to others. We love one another. We work to transform the world by caring for the sick, the outcast, the starving, those in the midst of war and civil disturbances, those who know not God, and the drunk in the street, and the single mother abandoned by her parents. On this Christmas Day, accept with gratitude the abiding presence of the Christ child in your flesh and then, in him, go into the world to love and serve the Lord.

 

— The Very Rev. Anthony F.M. Clavier, who has most recently served in France in the Convocation of American Churches in Europe, has returned to the United States and is interim rector of St. Thomas a Becket Episcopal Church in Morgantown, W. Va.