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Remembering Refugees on Holy Family Sunday, 1 Christmas (A,B,C) – 2009

December 27, 2009

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

[NOTE TO READER: The word Chuuk is pronounced to rhyme with “look.”]

On the island of Guam, a U.S. territory in the western Pacific, there are many people who have come seeking a better life for their children. One of them is a man we’ll call Andrew.

Andrew is from Chuuk State, a chain of islands surrounding a large lagoon in the Micronesian archipelago. The Federated States of Micronesia are part of the Compact of Free Association that allows Micronesians to travel and work anywhere in the U.S. without a visa.

Andrew came to Guam with his common-law wife and several children, seeking a better life and to escape from the grinding poverty that afflicts much of Micronesia. He has no marketable skills and a minimal education, so he is barely literate in his own language. But he is a handsome, strong man who is willing to work.

Since his arrival on Guam, his family has broken apart, and he now is responsible for two of his five children: a young girl, and boy for whom he is the sole support. As he seeks employment, he subsists with the aid of food stamps and keeps them safe, seeing that the older girl is in school. Meanwhile because of the scarcity of housing and priority given to U.S. citizens, he has moved his family at least five times in the last two years, often leaving belongings behind as they move.

Joseph and Mary spent much of Jesus’ infancy in exile, staying ahead of Herod and his henchmen, who were determined to keep any rival kingship at bay. Their life, like Andrew and his children’s, was one of displacement and fear. Joseph often had to move his family out of harm’s way as Andrew does; Joseph because of political threats, Andrew because of drugs, alcohol abuse, and violence in the places he can afford to live.

This Sunday is often called Holy Family Sunday. In the familiar lectionary the theme was always focused on the Holy Family and their flight into Egypt. The Revised Common Lectionary has shifted the focus a bit, but the theme of light shining in the darkness could well apply to those who seek a safe place to raise their children in a dark, chaotic, and violent world.

There are now more refugees throughout the world than ever before, most of them victims of war and economic displacement for which they are not responsible. All they seek is a secure place with reasonable food, safe drinking water, and a chance to educate their children.

Consider the words in today’s reading from Isaiah:

I will greatly rejoice in the LORD,
my whole being shall exult in my God;
for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation,
he has covered me with the robe of righteousness.

These words were written to express the joy of a nation delivered from exile; but they could well be words of a refugee family finding a safe haven.

Regrettably our political and economic systems have failed in their ability to provide such places for people seeking refuge. Even with efforts by churches and volunteer organizations to resettle refugees, many remain in camps and compounds, some waiting for resettlement for years. Their faith and hope diminishes over time, and the failure of governments to find solutions is surely a great sorrow.

Like many problems, the solution to this dilemma seems often beyond our reach. We care, but what can we do?

Saying we can do nothing is not an option. There are numerous private reputable organizations that address these conditions, among them Episcopal Relief and Development. Choosing to join a mission that is capable of addressing the plight of refugees and homeless people is easily done online with the stroke of a few keys.

One couple that lived on Guam has partnered with the Episcopal Church in Micronesia to assure that Andrew and his children have the basic necessities. Others have adopted a child, a family, made sure a family has a goat or cow through organizations like Episcopal Relief and Development. There are opportunities for everyone and a wide range of gifts to choose from that can make a difference.

Today’s gospel reading begins with the theme of Jesus as the Word that was before anything was. For John, Jesus is the one true light coming into the world, “the true light that enlightens everyone.”

In our baptismal relationship with Jesus, we begin to see what the darkness often hides: the needs of the poor, the oppressed, and refugees. To turn away from them is to say no to the light. Then we become dwellers in the darkness as well.

As we remember the Holy Family this Sunday, remember also that they represent to us all political and economic refugees. The response to the gospel message requires more than remembering them, it calls us to action – an action of relief and support that ensures that the light shines in the darkness.

 

— The Rev. Ben Helmer lives with his wife, Jane, in Holiday Island, Ark. He is the vicar of St. James’ Episcopal Church in Eureka Springs, Arkansas.

Celebrating the Word Becoming Flesh, Christmas Day (A,B,C) – 2009

December 25, 2009

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

“The Word became flesh and lived among us.”

Here’s a question for you this Christmas Day: Say there had been no fall from grace in the Garden, and humankind had never sinned. In that case, would God have become man? Would God have become part of our human race? And would we today be celebrating Christ’s birth?

Medieval scholars pondered these questions long and hard.

Many answered with an emphatic no, citing the clear witness of scripture and the creeds. Christ came to bring salvation to humankind, they maintained. He lived among us and taught us, and his death on the cross became the means of our redemption. That was the reason he came to earth – to save sinners. In their view, if we had not sinned, there would have been no need for redemption or salvation and so no need for the Incarnation – no need for Christmas. Humankind would have remained at peace in the Garden – in a state of bliss as some writers might call it – and the person of Jesus Christ would simply not have been. And we would never have been the wiser.

Other scholars however were deeply troubled by this train of thought, which appeared to make the Incarnation contingent – that is, dependant – upon evil itself and the sinfulness of humankind. Yet how could that be? After all, in Christ, God and creation had come together as one, and God was united with humankind forever. God’s love for us, these scholars argued, was so deep and profound that the world itself would be unthinkable – un-creatable, to coin a word – without the Incarnate Christ at its center. Christ, the God-Man, was no afterthought to sin, and Jesus Christ was far more than just a cosmic Mr. Fix-It. No, they concluded, God would have become human no matter what.

There can of course be no absolute answers to the hypothetical questions posed ages ago by these scholars. Perhaps both schools of thought have a point. Christ certainly came to save sinners. But humankind did not have to sin in order to experience God’s love. For us as Christians today, it can be reassuring to imagine God in Christ at work in our lives and in our world from the very beginning of creation regardless of our human and sinful nature.

The Gospel of John seems to reaffirm this basic truth of God’s creative love.

In terms that would have been familiar to ancient Gentile philosophers, the Evangelist tells us today, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”

This “Word” of which John is speaking is the essentially creative principle of life – something much more than a one-syllable lexeme or unit of language. The “Word” explains God’s way of making things happen. It is the assurance of God’s intimate and vital involvement in the world and ultimately in human affairs as well. And this divine “Word,” or creative force, is none other than Christ our Lord, born in Bethlehem centuries ago. In Christ, “all things came into being … and without him not one thing came into being.”

In other words, God in Christ was not content to remain somewhere beyond the stars and galaxies – distant and aloof from that which had been fashioned and brought to life in creation. In Christ’s birth, “the Word became flesh and lived among us.” And that is what we celebrate this Christmas. The birth of Christ into our world is in a very real sense the birth of the universe itself: the Big Bang in the manger.

“Word” and creative principle and creation may well seem like so many philosophical and theological terms and abstractions. But there is nothing abstract about the birth of a child. It is the most real thing there is. Ask any mother. Every parent who has been up all night with a child has experienced first hand the reality of life and creation in all its godly resilience and human vulnerability.

Everything we know and even everything we cannot know has been brought into being through the small helpless Christ Child born this day into time and history. The fretful cry of this infant has become the Word proclaimed in our gospel message across the ages and throughout the world. In Christ, the world is not just redeemed and saved from sin. In Christ, the world has come to be in the first place. And in him, it continues to be made new each and every day.

Merry Christmas!

 

— The Rev. Dr. Frank Hegedus is interim minister of “The Episcopal Church in Almaden” in San Jose, California.

Light is Born, Christmas Eve (A,B,C) – 2009

December 24, 2009

Psalm 89:1-29; Isaiah 59:15b-21; Philippians 2:5-11

The stars in Africa shine brightly. Like when you were a child, and there was far less light pollution than there is now. The dark of a night without moon would ignite the stars as bright sparks. The stars in Africa are those sparks.

If you look patiently, you can see the Milky Way, as a swath of faint cloud, flowing as a stream through space. The lights of the sky, the universe itself, extend forever, as an infinity pool, where horizon and sky are as one. A magical place where the temporal kisses the spatial, and there is no longer a distinction between time and space.

It is perhaps there that you will find God; it is perhaps there that you will find eternity.

Imagine yourself as a hobo traveling through space. You speed past the star Vega, and the constellation Hercules. You spiral outward through the Orion Arm of the Milky Way into its fingers, past nebulae, and into the space of galaxies.

You race infinitely faster than light toward the edge, but now the edge is obscured, only black extending to black. Galaxies distant, planets are now unimaginably behind you. Through this darkest night, even of your own soul, this darkest night, even of the soul of humanity, an even darker space, looms unimaginably in your path, a black hole, darker than the black space that surrounds it.

You can’t actually see a black hole. You perceive it. You sense it, by the absence of matter, by the absence of light and time. And as you approach it, the black hole sucks you into itself, its gravity bearing on you as chaos; you are spiraling downward into its center.

The hole swallows you eternally, as into the abyss. The violence of the black hole is unimaginable; you are alone, and there is no hope.

But light is born.

Light is always born where there is no hope, in black holes. Light as pinprick appears, a star, bare and stark against the black. You reach to apprehend the star, but inexplicably, the light from the star apprehends you!

The light captures you, and as if by magic, and you are no longer subsumed by black hole in distant space, but by some strange Einstein phenomenon, by some wrinkle in time, you find yourself here, in this world – newly alive, freshly born. Created, or is it re-created? Oxygen fills your lungs, and you cry as a newborn. You are a person drowned, but inexplicably alive!

Do you see? The Star? The distance between the farthest star and your heart is hair’s breadth, and eternity is there, in that slightest distance, both across the universe, and within your soul – for eternity is not as you had imagined.

The star as a pinprick of light into life’s deepest darkness, the edge of your universe. Time and space are of no account, at the edge of your reality, there, at that edge, you will find the Holy.

The Divine, God as Almighty. Inaccessible. Invisible. Absolute.

Even time must account to Elohim, for with this God, a day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years is a day. Even light and dark must account to the Great “I Am,” for with this God, there is no distinction between them; for the night and the day are the same. Even distance and space must account to El Shaddai, for with this God, the edge of the universe is at the tips of your fingers.

The prophet, Isaiah, acknowledged the plight, ours and that of the human race: the people walk in darkness, and elsewhere, deep darkness enshrouds the people. A black hole without hope.

We thought we could save ourselves. They called the beginning of the twentieth century, the New Century. Optimism abounded. We found ourselves at peace, on the brink of scientific breakthroughs; there was nothing we couldn’t do. We could fly to the sky, build skyscrapers, peer into galaxies.

We awoke from that dream to the reality of two world wars, massacres in Cambodia and Rwanda, AIDS and malaria pandemics, and macabre catastrophes. It became apparent that we cannot save ourselves as we had imagined. Even now, prophets warn of a global environmental catastrophe.

Although our education and scientific knowledge can help, we are still in need of more. We are in desperate need, for the dark night is black. We are hurtling through space past galaxies and nebulae, at warp speeds, toward black holes and an uncertain end, and we are sore afraid.

We need a Savior.

The people who walked in darkness, have seen a great light.

And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them. … And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.

You imagine the Christmas star to be about a baby, born one more time, this year, the same as last, but only a baby misses the point. This night shines as day because eternity itself, El Shaddai, the Great “I Am,” the ever gentle Elohim, transcended the barrier dividing time from space, as light and life and hope, to save us from darkness.

For unto us a Child is Born, a Son is given.

Several years ago, the earth traveled through a meteor belt of some sort, and if you cared, you could sit outside at night and watch thousands of meteors etch lines of light across the sky. Imagine sitting in your backyard, 40 degrees at four in the morning, wrapped in a blanket, huddled in absolute wonder as light after light appeared suddenly – here, there, darting to and fro. Imagine the joy of discovering light.

Do you want to know what Christmas is about?

The people who lived in darkness have discovered light.

For tonight, this night, pure love has permitted itself to be pulled into your black hole, spiraling downward, chaotically and critically until it came to rest in a manger, in a stable, among barn animals and hay, on a dark, crisp night, much like tonight, when the stars shone as in Africa.

If you looked up, that night, you could see the Milky Way, as a faint stream floating across the sky.

Christmas is about a God who still condescends to earth, and that means this: Christmas is about the human soul, for the God of pure light chose to become as us, bounded by time and space, even – now get this – to bow down to us, to save us from the death, the darkness, the fear. But more than that: God esteemed your soul as worthy.

God esteemed you as worthy. For you, a light shone in the darkness, which is why the Savior beckons you out of your Christmas stupor, and into a real faith, a true and living faith, a faith in which you touch something – someone – you have never touched before, and you see a light you have never seen before.

And suddenly there appeared the heavenly host, who began praising God and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and peace to his people on earth.

Peace to his people on earth.

Amen.

 

— The Rev. Rob Gieselmann is the rector of Christ Church in Sausalito, California. Originally from the Diocese of East Tennessee (serving at St. Luke’s, Cleveland), he has also served in the Diocese of Easton (St. Paul’s Church, Chestertown). Before entering the ministry, Rob practiced law for ten years. Rob is the author of “The Episcopal Call to Love” (Apocryphile Press, 2008), and is the father of two wonderful children.

4 Advent (C) – 2009

The winter Feast of the Visitation

December 20, 2009

Micah 5:2-5a; Canticle 3 or Canticle 15 (Luke 1:46-55) or Psalm 80:1-7; Hebrews 10:5-10; Luke 1:39-45 (46-55)

In the beautiful month of May, in the springtime of the year, the church keeps a feast known as the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The gospel reading on that occasion is the one we just heard, the story of pregnant Mary’s visit to her elderly relative Elizabeth, who is herself pregnant with John the Baptist.

Now, at this time of year when the days are shortest and the nights are longest, we hear that visitation story again on the final Sunday of Advent, in preparation for Christmas, which comes in only a few days. We can call today the winter Feast of the Visitation.

What happens? Young Mary, a teenaged girl, has heard the angel’s monumental message that she is to be the mother of the Messiah, the other parent to the Son of God. In an exercise of the bravest faith and submission, she agrees.

Mary agrees, though this pregnancy seems to promise the end of her engagement to Joseph. She agrees, although her people remember well how in the past they would put to death a woman about to marry who was found not to be a virgin.

Mary agrees to this remarkable and scandalous motherhood. It seems she has been brought, all in a rush, to a dark stone wall. But her faith finds a door, her faith finds a door.

One barrier after another collapses in Mary’s life. Now she is on the road to Elizabeth’s home, a house in the hill country. Pregnant women in Mary’s time and place did not travel; they stayed at home. But Mary gets up and goes.

Why does she go? Is it to find refuge with an understanding relative against criticisms thrown against her because of the scandalous circumstances around her pregnancy? We do not know. But the meeting of these two pregnant women is thick with surprises.

It is common for babies to move in the womb in ways their mothers can feel. Sometimes these movements are called kicks. But John in his mother’s womb did much more. He jumped for joy! When Mary called out upon her arrival, John jumped in the womb of old Elizabeth. How startled his mother must have been!

The Holy Spirit then filled Elizabeth, and she cried out to her visitor, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.”

Theirs is a culture that honors the elderly, but here we have the older woman offering extravagant honor to the younger one, a teenager mysteriously pregnant. Yes, the world is turning upside down! The old era, which Elizabeth represents, has not much time left. The new era, ushered in by Mary, is about to dawn.

“Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” Elizabeth is the first to utter this acclamation, which becomes a favorite Christian devotion down through the centuries.

She then says more. She asks:

Why has it happened that my Lord’s mother has come to visit me? As soon as I heard your greeting, the baby inside me jumped for joy! You’re blessed, Mary, because of the child you carry. You’re blessed, Mary, for believing that what the Lord told you would come true.

Here the older woman does not bless the younger, but recognizes that the younger woman is already superabundantly blessed. Yet we who know what will follow recognize that this blessing is not all springtime. It will have its winter season. A sword of anguish will pierce the heart of blessed Mary. She will cradle the baby at Bethlehem, yet years later she will cradle her dead son at Golgotha.

Suddenly the scene at Elizabeth’s house becomes a sacred opera. It moves into music. Mary does not speak; she sings. And what a song she sings!

We call this song the Magnificat, from the first word in the Latin translation. We also call it the Song of Mary. It is a universe away from any self-indulgent, sentimental ditty. Instead, what we have is an explosive celebration of the God who saves: the one who looks with favor on a humble servant, who does great things, whose name is holy. The God whose mercy is known by those who reverence him, who shows his arm to be mighty, who scatters the proud and throws down the powerful and throws out the rich, who lifts up the lowly, and leads the hungry to a banquet. The one who keeps his promise to our forbearers in faith, whose name is holy, who does great things! This is the God who sets Mary to singing, and maybe, as Herbert O’Driscoll suggests, Mary, pregnant Mary, footsore after trekking up the hillside, not only sings for all she is worth, but starts to dance as well.

Often we Christians don’t get it right about Mary. Protestants and Pentecostals and Anabaptists tend to ignore her, except perhaps at Christmas. Catholics and Orthodox appear sometimes to deify her, exaggerating the honor of she who is already higher than the cherubim. Episcopalians love the Mother of the Lord, but are rather diffident in talking about her. But sometimes we Christians do get it right about Mary. May this be such a moment.

For it seems that, in some mysterious way, reflection on Mary unlocks the door to Christian joy.

That joy rings out in ancient hymns – Greek, Latin, Coptic, Syriac – many of them modeled on Mary’s own song.

It sounds forth in the work of Anglican poets and preachers, among them Henry Vaughn, who calls out:

Bright Queen of Heaven! God’s Virgin Spouse
The glad world’s blessed maid!
Whose beauty tied life to thy house,
And brought us saving aid.
This joy radiates in the bright madonnas of Italy. It shines in stone in medieval cathedrals named for Our Lady.

Yes, reflection on Mary unlocks the door to Christian joy. Mary shares her song with us, asks us to sing the Magnificat. She invites us to delight with her in the God who turns the world upside down, who saves us through this girl’s courage.

Mary always points us to her Son, the one redeemer. Her existence reminds us that we can be as she is: the faithful disciple, the one who brings Christ to birth, the soul espoused to God.

Without such joy, Christianity is ever in danger of becoming less than itself, falling into respectable dullness or mean-spirited fanaticism.

However, where this joy of Mary singing the Magnificat is set free, Christianity becomes confident, the harbinger of an eternal springtime, rich with hope for this world and the next.

We live in a time, my friends, when people ache for such a hope. May we help them find it in the liberating God who is the subject of Mary’s song and the center of Mary’s life.

 

— The Rev. Charles Hoffacker is an Episcopal priest and writer. He is the author of “A Matter of Life and Death: Preaching at Funerals” (Cowley Publications, 2002).

3 Advent (C) – 2009

God is still calling us to transformation

December 13, 2009

Zephaniah 3:14-20; Canticle 9 (Isaiah 12:2-6); Philippians 4:4-7; Luke 3:7-18

Have you ever heard the saying, “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know”? Networking has been an established social function in society for as long as there have been people. We often use our connections to get us into social circles and places we might have difficulty getting into alone.

On television shows and in the media we see people getting things they want because of their family connections or social circles. Most of us have probably done the something like that too. For example, we would rather go to someone we know or to someone recommended than go to a stranger for a haircut or to get our car fixed. That sort of networking is harmless, right?

But when does it cross the line? What about when we find ourselves connected to an individual or a group that demands respect when, in fact, they are driven by arrogance and a misplaced sense of entitlement? Have you ever heard someone say, “Don’t you know who I am?” Have you ever witnessed someone being excused from what would normally be inexcusable behavior because of their connections to a family, a community, or even a belief system?

It doesn’t just happen on TV; it happens anywhere there are people. And it isn’t just a modern-day issue.

We hear John the Baptist in our gospel today chastising the crowds before him for this very thing. “You brood of vipers!” he accuses.

“Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.”

What vivid imagery! What a dire warning. But most of all, what a reminder of the power of God.

John is telling the crowd and telling us that what our ancestors have done in the past doesn’t matter now. It is what we do in the present that matters. There is an immediacy in John’s declarations. God’s power is being stirred up, and we don’t know what form it is going to take or what the outcome will be. We are powerless before the mystery of God.

Like anyone who feels threatened, the people in the crowd listening to John wanted to avoid judgment, avoid God’s wrath, and avoid pain. They panicked. Human nature hasn’t changed much over the centuries. We still feel the same way in the face of the unknown. We want to control it, we want to analyze it, and we want to have power over it. When we can’t do that, we transmit our anxieties to others who we think we can control and have power over. Exploitation makes us feel better.

It seems as if greed, accumulation of material things, and apathy toward others can create a protective shield around the fearful trembling of our distorted hearts. Like the strange, frightening picture in Oscar Wilde’s story of Dorian Gray, our true selves, our inner selves that should be turning to God, end up atrophied and diseased as we slowly become monsters of our own making, while everything on the outside seems to be going along swimmingly.

“What then should we do?” We ask with the despairing crowds.

John tells us we must bear fruits worthy of repentance. We must turn to God – our hope and our salvation.

This calls us as individuals to decide how we will open our hearts, tearing down our useless shields, to let the love of God, through righteousness and justice, bear our fruits of repentance. It is through righteousness that we restore the relationship between us and God, as well as the relationship between each other; and through justice that we restore our relationship with material things – being good stewards of all that we have.

John, in essence, tells the crowds, the tax collectors, and soldiers that the first step to a restored community as God intended is to redistribute wealth and stop exploitation.

Each individual’s decision is key – it is the idea we have today of thinking globally, but acting locally. Systems don’t change all at once, but through one person at a time. This may be something as small as being honest if a cashier gives you too much change back or going through your closet to give away clothes that another can use. Every small action leads to a larger transformation, not just of ourselves, but of the world around us.

We are to prepare our hearts for the coming of the Lord. Our hearts are filled with expectation and questioning.

We know the answer to the crowd’s question of “Who is the Messiah?” because we have heard this gospel story before. Yet, even though we know that God is about to do something new by being with us in the flesh – Immanuel, “God with us” – and we claim to believe that God is still doing something new – revealing, redeeming, sustaining, and moving in the present time – what are the fruits of our repentance? How are we living our lives with righteousness and justice?

We hear the prophet Zephaniah and the prophet Isaiah proclaiming the goodness of the Lord in our scriptures today; what hope they hold! “The Lord is in your midst,” Zephaniah exults. How then, do our hearts respond? Are we living as if we believe this?

Sometimes it seems that since the gospels were written in a different time and different place, they are not applicable to the world we live in today. What we often forget is that the same God that came among us back then is in our midst now, stirring up power, doing new things. The God of the gospels is the God of the twenty-first century, and He is still calling us to transformation.

If a doctor diagnosed someone with heart disease or diabetes and then gave that person instructions on how to keep it from getting worse, we’d hope that person would follow the doctor’s advice. After all, we trust doctors to prescribe the right diet and medication. But if we ignore our doctor’s advice and adopted the attitude of “this can’t happen to me,” then we are just asking for trouble.

So, too, with our spiritual lives. John the Baptist is helping us prepare a way in our hearts for the Lord to come.

This is an exciting time. We do not know how God will stir things up – but we do know that God’s work always comes to good. If we don’t clear a path, then how will we be able to respond with joy when the Lord is in our midst? How will we be able to hear the call for transformation in our lives and in the community around us if our shields are up?

We have the choice to allow God to come afresh into our lives, giving us new eyes, deeper wisdom, and profound compassion. We have the ability to repent anew and to affirm the covenant made in our baptism, proclaiming the good news to all people. This is no longer our parents’ choice, or our grandparents’ choice, or our ancestors’ choice – we cannot rest on their laurels. The choice is ours. May we choose wisely.

 

— The Rev. Danáe Ashley is the associate rector at the Episcopal Church of St. Peter-by-the Lake in Denver, North Carolina. She is indebted to Whitworth University, Gonzaga University, and the School of Theology in Sewanee for her richly diverse theological education.

2 Advent (C) – 2009

Repent, turn around, accept help

December 6, 2009

Baruch 5:1-9; Canticle 4 or 16 (Luke 1:68-79); Philippians 1:3-11; Luke 3:1-6

“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’”

What MapQuest had indicated was a real road was, in fact, a road under construction. He should have known, the man sighed to himself. When he had turned onto the road and left the main highway, there had been a warning: “Proceed at Your Own Risk. Construction Ahead.” But the sign gave no information about how long the stretch of construction was.

Just past the turn-off, the surface was paved, but there were no markings, just blacktop. After a few miles, the asphalt gave way to gravel and a thin layer of tar. The smell of the tar and the sound of gravel bouncing up against the bottom of the car got the children’s attention. They had been sleeping in the back seat, dozing while the family made its way to the next stop on their vacation. They had slept while their father had driven them through this vast section of forested wilderness on their way to the lodge in a national park where they had reservations. Now they were awake.

“Are we there yet?” “How much farther?”

“We have a ways to go,” said the father as he rifled through the glove box looking to see if he still had an old-fashioned map in the car.

When the gravel ended and they hit dirt, he started to worry. It didn’t help that they seemed to be the only people on this road, and they had seen no one else coming from the other direction. Worse yet, what at first seemed to be dirt was actually mud. He decided to keep driving and hope that this was just a bad patch – that the “real” road, the passable road, was just ahead.

It was clear, though, that the car had begun to sink. The pinging noise of gravel against the car’s undercarriage had given way to a slurping sound as the tires kicked up mud and then were enveloped by it.

“I have to keep going,” he thought. “If I can just keep moving forward, we’ll be all right. We’re way behind schedule, but we’ll be all right if we can just keep moving.”

But the mud deepened. The car became mired in the mud, sunk right up to the chassis, tires half submerged. He gunned the engine, pretty much expecting the result he got, but he did it anyway, because it was something to do.

He turned the car off.

“What’s happening, Dad?” the children asked from the back seat. “Are we there?”

He thought for just a moment about what to say. He considered a lie: “Why, yes we are. Look at this fascinating scenery.” Or perhaps, “I was hoping for some real adventure on this vacation, and here it is.” He thought about blaming MapQuest or the people who posted such a useless sign. Instead, he told the children they would need to be patient and maybe they could teach him some songs they had learned in school while they waited for some help to come by.

Help came in the form of a tow truck with great big tires that traveled that stretch of road a couple times a day in case things like this happened. The car was towed back to the main road, and directions were given for a much longer, but passable, route to the lodge.

That part of the vacation became known as “the repentance trip” because it embodied so well the definition of repentance – an active turning around, going a new direction, a change of heart, a change of mind, rather than continuing down the same path, moving in the same direction that is leading nowhere or somewhere dangerous, fast.

Repentance is not the same as remorse or regret. It is not listing all the ways things could have gone differently. It is not wishing you were a better person, that some things had never happened, that bad things wouldn’t keep happening to you. It’s not feeling guilty or ashamed. It’s not feeling afraid. It’s not something that leaves us stuck, or standing still, or spinning in circles, going nowhere.

Repentance is about movement, letting yourself be grasped by God, getting new bearings, and relying on God for directions.

The new life that follows repentance, the new direction that comes with a fresh start is what John was proclaiming in the wilderness. John’s message is a call to action: repent, turn around, accept help. God is coming to meet you on a road in the wilderness.

And when God comes to us, our response can look like the picture from Baruch: a widow who puts away her mourning clothes and instead puts on a beautiful garment. It’s not that sorrow has never happened or that there was not a reason to grieve. She accepts the robe of righteousness and a crown of glory because she trusts that her wholeness and joy lie ahead of her in some future that God is preparing, down a road that God is constructing.

Repentance can happen when you are confronted by something, maybe remorse, maybe disappointment or regret, maybe the sense that you are stuck or spinning your wheels. Maybe it comes from something as small as wishing you hadn’t said something, or wishing you could take back an action. Maybe it comes from something as large as the report from the doctor that indicates more tests are needed, and you decide that whether it turns out to be something or it turns out to be nothing, whether you have three more decades or three more weeks, you want that time to count for something, to be something you can offer back to God. Maybe it comes when you realize there are other people with you on your journey and that your decisions affect them too and the wilderness is not a good place to be forever.

Repentance comes in many ways. When God turns us around, offers us a way to get unstuck, move ahead with a new way of life, our response is to say thank you.

 

— The Rev. Dr. Amy E. Richter is rector of St. Anne’s Episcopal Church in Annapolis, Md.

1 Advent (C) – 2009

Choose: God or idol

November 29, 2009

Jeremiah 33:14-16; Psalm 25:1-9; 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13; Luke 21:25-36

Choose: God or idol? Given our druthers, what do we ultimately choose: God the Creator or those earthly things that command our attention, our concern, and too often, our devoted fascination? What is the real choice here? Can we exercise a balance of the temporal with the divine? In other words, can we have both?

At core, Christians believe that God is loving and merciful. In the scripture appointed for this first Sunday in Advent, the beginning of the Church’s liturgical calendar, we again hear of the loving and merciful Creator described as a God of hope and expectation; a God of promise and fulfillment. These dual themes of hope and promise are fulfilled, historically and prophetically, in the birth of Jesus of Nazareth.

Advent is the season of preparation not just for the retelling of the story of the nativity of the Lord under the humblest of circumstances, but perhaps, more importantly, for the return of the Messiah in glory. There is an understanding amongst disciples of Jesus from the first century through to the present day that the Messiah’s first appearance “on this fragile earth, our island home” was to reopen the way to the Creator, to allow us to reconnect to the God of all creation. And those who have the audacity to humbly proclaim discipleship also wait – with a sometimes wavering or tentative expectation – for the second appearance of Jesus, when “the Son of Man” returns to complete the work of creation.
Wait. Why a wavering and tentative expectation?

Today’s reading from the Letter to the Hebrews and the gospel reading both describe a God of accountability. In short, God’s merciful love, hopeful expectation, and fulfilled promise are an offer to those who are ready to receive these gifts. To be accountable to God’s call, we must not give such centrality to what scripture calls idols or idolatrous living. Jeremiah’s and Jesus’ words in Luke are not some historical musings meant for our forbearers. These are powerful words that point to a choice in the here and now. Which god is worshipped? In whom or in what do we really believe, and in whom or in what do we really place trust? More than two and a half millennia after the time of Jeremiah, what do his words as a prophet say to us today? Almost two millennia after Jesus spoke, what do his words mean today?

Jeremiah’s prophetic work begins during a time in history when the King, Josiah, was attempting to reform the religious practices of the people of Judah. Indeed, the first part of Jeremiah’s work focuses on what will befall Israel because of their religious practices, which were displeasing to the God of accountability. Early in the book of Jeremiah the prophet proclaims:

“Thus says the Lord: What wrong did your ancestors find in me that they went far from me, and went after worthless things, and became worthless themselves? The priests did not say, ‘Where is the Lord?’ Those who handle the law did not know me; the rulers transgressed against me; the prophets prophesied by Baal, and went after things that do not profit.”

These people lost the way of their God, choosing little “g” gods over the Creator. After the return from the Babylonian exile, that is, after suffering the consequences of their idolatrous ways, the loving and merciful God reappears. Jeremiah proclaims that “the days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah.”

In the Gospel of Luke we hear Jesus say, “They will see the ‘Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory.” More importantly, “Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly, like a trap.”

Jesus warns us to “be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.”

Throughout our lives, we are faced with this choice between little “g” gods, idols, and the Triune God, the Creator, the Redeemer, the Sanctifier. What can we trust to the total exclusion of God: the lure of money or fame, the power of position, the fascination with technology, or the rightness of religion? To whom is our primary and sole allegiance: partner, self, employer, or mentor? We should know that these things and persons in and of themselves are not inherently idolatrous. Indeed, these very things and people can be a source of goodness for one and indeed for all. Yet, these things and people can become idols. We make the choice.

And in the midst of worries, how is it we can be distracted from God? When faced with seemingly insurmountable obstacles, why do we often forget to seek God’s peace? The disciple of Christ understands God as the source of all good things. Why not seek God in the midst of all the things in our lives, both good and bad?

Do not be distracted by earthly priorities, things, and worries at the expense of forgetting the “fount of all one’s blessings.” When we become preoccupied, the object of our preoccupation or the preoccupation itself can become an idol or little “g” god. When we are preoccupied, we risk cutting off the love and mercy of the real God. When we choose the idol over the expectation of God’s fulfilled promise, we forget the notion of divine blessing.

In the end, even though God calls us to faithfulness, remember that, ultimately, it is our choice. God calls. We choose.

And before choosing, take a moment and remember Jeremiah, the people of Judah, and the Babylonian exile. Before choosing, stop and remember the apocalyptic words of Jesus. At the outset of the new liturgical year, think this over with great care and choose wisely.

 

— John E. Colón is an active Episcopal layperson and is director of Human Resources at the Episcopal Church Center in New York City. He attends Grace Church, Brooklyn Heights, in the Diocese of Long Island. 

Death confronts us on this night, Good Friday (A,B,C) – 2009

April 10, 2009

Isaiah 52:13-53:12Psalm 22Hebrews 10:16-25 or Hebrews 4:14-16; 5:7-9John 18:1-19:42

The readings for this sad day and night should stand alone, without the need of a sermon. So it is with trepidation that one approaches this sacred time, aware that the sermon writer cannot add to the tragic story, only make a feeble effort at an interpretation that may sound more personal than universal.

Written in stark prose, the gospel story tears at the heart. Writing in incomparable, grave poetry, Isaiah and the psalmist inspire, terrify, even confuse. How can a Christian read the Second Isaiah passage and the opening words of the Psalm of Dereliction without making the connection with John’s telling of the last hours of the beloved Jesus? It is impossible to separate the two; no wonder the early church saw the Suffering Servant of Second Isaiah as the prophetic precursor of Jesus of Nazareth. Many of the images of Isaiah find flesh in the hours of the Passion.

Listen again to the words of the prophet: “He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth.”

The gospel writer speaks of a baffled Pilate who goes in and out of his headquarters in confusion over this prisoner. Pilate asked Jesus, “Where are you from?” But Jesus gave him no answer.

The psalmist writes:

“All who see me laugh me to scorn;
“They curl their lips and wag their heads, saying,
“He trusted in the LORD, let him deliver him.”

The gospel writer recalls:

“And the soldiers wove a crown of thorns and put it on his head, and they dressed him in a purple robe. They kept coming up to him, saying, ‘Hail King of the Jews!’ and striking him on the face.”

After the night-long mock trial, the dragging of the innocent Jesus from Annas to Caiphas to Pilate, the story reaches its climax. Here the writing is at its simplest, allowing us to imagine the horror, to enter into the suffering without any commentary: “So they took Jesus; and carrying the cross by himself, he went out to what is called The Place of the Skull, which in Hebrew is called Golgotha. There they crucified him.”

Death confronts us on this night. The death of One who is well loved. The death of One who is condemned unjustly. The death of One who is young and who dies horribly. How many of us have faced such pain? How many parents the world over can identify with the sorrow of his mother because they too have lost a child? How many mothers and fathers have seen a son or daughter destroyed because of war? And how many of us have lost beloved friends? On this night let us confront the reality of death and let us think of all those who are suffering because of the death of a loved one, because of the death of an innocent. This night we remember, we pay attention, we grieve.

God gave us the capacity to grieve. We are allowed to shed tears and to cry out in supplication. Listen to the testimony of the epistle to the Hebrews writer: “In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission.”

It doesn’t say that he was saved from death; but it does reassure us that he was heard. For those of us who grieve over the world’s suffering, this teaches us not to expect miracles but to be reassured that we have a God who hears our cry and understands our pain.

This, after all, is the Christian message of the Cross – that God entered our human experience fully, even unto death. A God who hears us is a God who shares in our suffering. Once more the epistle to the Hebrews testifies: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize without weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.”

Isaiah had written: “By a perversion of justice he was taken away. Who could have imagined his future?”

We are his future. How well have we continued his ministry? On this night of remembered death, let us also remember to grieve and to cry out to a God who hears us.

 

Katerina Whitley is a lecturer at Appalachian State University and the writer of Walking the Way of Sorrows: Stations of the Cross (Morehouse, 2003) and other books of Biblical storytelling.

To become more merciful, Ash Wednesday (A,B,C) – 2009

February 25, 2009

Joel 2:1-2,12-17 or Isaiah 58:1-12; Psalm 103 or 103:8-14; 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10; Matthew 6:1-6,16-21

In the epistle we just heard, St. Paul beseeches us to be reconciled to God. And his way of being reconciled may surprise you. Paul does not suggest a confession, or propose any self-examination, or lay out a lengthy program or exercise. He tells us that we should simply accept the grace of God when the time is right, and, behold, now is that acceptable time.

This is not a message many of us are ready to hear. Most of us were taught that the lengthy period of Lent was one of penitence and fasting, a time provided for those who were separated from the church by their sins, so they could be reconciled by acts of penitence and forgiveness. In fact, we will hear words very similar to those following this. That is, of course, one meaning of our Lenten season.

For most of us, Lent is the time of sometimes painful self-examination, during which we scrutinize our habits, our spiritual practice, and our very lives – hoping to make ourselves better, trying to make ourselves worthy of the love of God.

We “ramp up” our prayer, fasting, and self-denial in order to remove worldly distractions from our lives. And we take on Bible study, classes, and service projects in order to add meaning and depth to our existence.

For some children, Lent means no candy. Or a coin in the box whenever they say a bad word. For adults, it may be consuming less meat or alcohol, or attending that Lenten program at the church.

However we go about it, the goal is pretty much the same: Lent makes us ready for Easter. Quite simply put, we are better able to appreciate Resurrection joys come Easter Day by enduring these Lenten disciplines now.

Except, just a moment. St. Paul says we need to be reconciled to God – now, today.

Not after enduring a forty-day fast. Not after lengthy Bible study. Not even after we pray, but now, here, today: Be reconciled to God.

And the blessed apostle not only invites us to be reconciled to God, he actually beseeches us. That is, he pleads, implores, presses, begs, and demands. “We beseech you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. … Now is the acceptable time, now is the day of salvation.”

For many of us, this could mean a whole new kind of Lenten discipline. Instead of putting our hand into the refiner’s fire, we would be dancing in flames of love’s delight. Instead of seeking to squelch the voice of sin within us, we would be cultivating the sounds of joy. Instead of wallowing in our guilt, we would be reveling in our gratitude.

For not only did God create us, and everything there is; not only is all of creation wonderfully good; and not only are we offered the grace of God; but we are also offered that again, and again, and again.

We are offered God’s love in times of hardship, affliction, and tumult; in times of hunger, calamity, and sickness; and in times of peace, surplus, and prosperity.

We are offered God’s love both in times of distress and in times of accomplishment; in times of triumph and in times of failure; in times of righteousness and in times of sin.

Yes, that’s right: even when we sin. When we do things we know are wrong; when we hurt ourselves or others; when we lie, cheat and steal: that is when God loves us most.

Because when we sin, we need God even more. We need courage to turn away from darkness and to face the light. We need daring to turn away from the world’s false comforts and to accept the enduring grace of God. And we need faith to turn away from death, and face the new life that is freely given to all of us.

To paraphrase the blessed Apostle, God has put no obstacle in anyone’s way. God finds no fault in anyone’s ministry. And so, as servants of God, we are called to commend ourselves in every way. We are called to seek those qualities St. Paul writes about: purity, knowledge, forbearance, kindness, the Holy Spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, and the power of God.

Some of these are character traits we can cultivate in ourselves. We can commit ourselves anew to promote forbearance through patience, to emulate purity through simplicity, to encourage knowledge through study, to foster kindness through gentleness, and to nurture truthful speech.

The rest are not things that are up to us, really. They are not results of our labors, or products of our will. The Holy Spirit, genuine love, and the power of God are not up to us. There is nothing we can do to create these, nothing we can do to snuff them out.

But we do have a choice. And that choice is whether to allow ourselves to be led by the Holy Spirit, whether to let genuine love enter our heart, and whether to open ourselves up to the power of God.

And in this we have an entirely new idea for a Lenten spiritual discipline. Not giving up things, if such a discipline makes us miserable. Not taking on things, if that makes us miserable. But cultivating good qualities and opening ourselves up to the power of God, because only that can make us truly satisfied and content.

So, let’s go through that list of St. Paul’s in detail.

First, forbearance. What can we do to increase our patience, to cultivate self-control, tolerance, and restraint? The list of specific steps will be different for each of us, but the objective is the same: to become more merciful.

Next, purity. Now, we can’t become more pure, we cannot restore innocence – but we can cultivate decency, transparency, and simple cleanliness.

Then there’s knowledge. This may be more like a traditional Lenten discipline than many of the others, for we can increase our knowledge and love of for the divine by meditating on God’s holy Word. We can increase our knowledge of the church through reading. We can devote ourselves to learning more about who were are as Christian people.

After this comes kindness. This Lent, let us all seek to be more compassionate, more gentle, more considerate. It can be our aim to set aside all spite, viciousness, and harsh talk – no matter how people treat us.

Last among the virtues we can work on, is truthful speech. Honesty, candor, and integrity can be elusive. It is sometimes easier to tell a white lie than to maintain fidelity to truth. But if we take a few tentative steps in that direction, we will be better for it.

To become more merciful, more pure, more knowledgeable, more kind, more truthful – these cause us to behave more like God. And how can we do this? How can we emulate perfection, how can we aspire to the goodness that is the divine?

That’s where the second part of this discipline comes in: to allow ourselves to be led by the Holy Spirit, to let genuine love enter our heart, and to be open to the power of God.

The only way any of this can work, the only means of making this a life-changing season, the only method for making permanent changes from destructive patterns of behavior is to seek divine assistance.

And that is what we are especially called to do in Lent. To acknowledge that we are not doing the best we can, to aspire to do better, and then to seek God’s guidance and God’s help in the lifelong process of becoming all that we can be.

For in each one of us is a spark of divine goodness that compels us to persevere with great endurance through afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, tumults, labors, watching, and hunger.

We do this because we know at our core we are called to something better. As Christians, we are called to cultivate purity, knowledge, forbearance, kindness, and truthful speech. And this we do through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, in the force of genuine love, and by the power of God.

So, this Lent, may we all be reconciled to God; for, behold, now is the acceptable time.

 

— The Rev. J. Barrington Bates is rector of the Church of the Annunciation in Oradell, New Jersey.