Archives for 2011

Is it true?, Christmas Day (A,B,C) – 2011

December 25, 2011

Isaiah 62:6-12; Psalm 97; Titus 3:4-7; Luke 2:(1-7) 8-20

And is it true? The choices of lessons for Christmas Day approach that question in two ways. St. Luke tells us the story, a story we’ve heard year by year. Because we are so familiar with the tale, its truth may not engage us anymore. Yes, it’s a beautiful story. A young girl gives birth to a baby in a cave used to house farm animals. The child is placed in a feeding trough. We don’t know whether Joseph was able to find a midwife to assist in the birth. We do know that they took shelter in the cave because there were “no vacancy” signs on the doors of all the inns, the motels of that day.

Bethlehem was full of visitors because a politician far away had decided on a census, a way to establish how many people there were in an area who could be taxed and what property and income they possessed. In this case, people were not counted where they lived; they were sent back to their ancestral hometowns. Beneath the story runs a tale of oppression, of people at the mercy of a tyrant, a people enslaved by conquerors. The story has a familiar ring to it even today. Dress it up with tinsel, with poinsettias, shining stars and angels if you will, but this is a story of oppression and vulnerability, of injustice with little mercy.

And is it true? It is certainly familiar. It rings true enough. Perhaps its telling again today may inspire us to show mercy and act kindly toward those in need. But the truth of this story lies deeper. It isn’t just a morality play, or a docudrama. So another choice for looking at the gospel today takes us deeper, much deeper. And that’s when things get complicated. We may, perhaps, accept the politics of the story, but can we get our heads around the theology of the story?

The word “theology” can be off-putting. We want a simple faith, even though we don’t like to be thought to be simple ourselves, and theology sounds complicated. Yet the first fourteen verses of St John’s Gospel, Chapter One, is anything but simple. It teaches that the baby born in a cave among farm animals is God the Word, the second Person of the Trinity.

And is it true? If we have much taste for a God, what we want and think we need is a powerful God. True, we want a god who is kind to us. God can be rough on those we don’t like, but must be compassionate to us. Yet Christmas Day reveals a vulnerable God, a helpless God, a baby God. It shows a God who needs parents and friends, who needs protection and care. What an extraordinary idea! This is a God who calls us to love him, even though he can’t do a thing for us except gurgle, smile, and even cry. Here’s a God who keeps us awake at night and yells for food.

Certainly any mother knows how wonderful it is to love and be loved by a baby. Even the hardest heart may be melted by the sight of a radiant mother and her baby. Christmas Day challenges us to see that sight, it calls us to allow our hearts to melt. We are called not to receive, but to give. We are called to give our hearts and love to God the Son, God the Baby, receiving nothing more, or less, than love’s reward. For love is a doing, a giving, a surrendering, a merging. It breaks down our walls of separation, our pride and bitterness, our self-assuredness and pretended autonomy. Christmas teaches us that before we receive from God we must first give ourselves to God unconditionally, come what may. And so God challenges us to see him as a baby, a dispossessed baby born in a cave and placed in a food trough.

John Betjeman, the English poet, wrote a poem called “Christmas.” Here is the last verse of that poem. Listen to it and take it to heart, and then give yourself to Jesus the Baby as he comes in Bread and Wine:

And is it true? For if it is,
No loving fingers tying strings
Around those tissued fripperies,
The sweet and silly Christmas things,
Bath salts and inexpensive scent
And hideous tie so kindly meant,

No love that in a family dwells,
No carolling in frosty air,
Nor all the steeple-shaking bells
Can with this single Truth compare –
That God was man in Palestine
And lives today in Bread and Wine.

— Father Tony is rector of St Paul’s Episcopal Church, La Porte, Indiana, and an examining chaplain to the bishop of Northern Indiana. 

Let us whisper it, Christmas Eve (A,B,C) – 2011

December 24, 2011

Isaiah 9:2-7; Psalm 96; Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1-14 (15-20)

Part of the wonder of this night is the possibility of the meeting of worlds, the coming together of time. We sing, “the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.” Though we live so long after those events in Bethlehem, tonight we find ourselves at the manger. In our mind’s eye, we imagine the holy family in the stable, the mother tired, but radiant; the breath of the animals visible in the cold night air. We hear the lowing of the cattle and the rustle of straw. But most of all, we gaze in wonder at the baby, this long-expected child.

What would we say if we were there? What would we add to Mary’s contented sighing and Joseph’s protective, “There, there”? For, as with all babies, just his existence is a gift. And as with all babies, it’s not just their infancy, but their futures we imagine and dream of and long for. But with this baby, this little one named Jesus, we have seen his future. We have glimpsed what lies ahead for him and what it means for us. So, what do we say to him as we take our place by his manger tonight?

In 1994 the Rev. Richard H. Schmidt wrote a reflection in Episcopal Life magazine entitled, “Christmas: Let Me Hold You, Dear Little Jesus.” Inspired by his image of holding the infant Christ, here are some words for our hearts’ prayer on this Christmas Eve:

Little Jesus, let us hold you now. On this holy night, when you are a newborn baby, let us cradle you in our arms. Let us hold you and keep you warm. Now, while you are small and vulnerable, let us watch over you. We want to hold you now, because many times in time to come, you will hold us.

Rest well, sweet baby. Rest your tiny hands. For though you are the King of kings, you will touch no silk, you will carry no gold. You will grasp no earthly scepter, sign no imperial decrees. You will use your hands for far more precious works: touching a leper’s wound, wiping away a widow’s tear, blessing and breaking bread, and giving it to your friends. Your hands, now so perfect, so tender, so tiny, will someday be wounded for us.

Sleep well, sweet baby. Rest your tiny eyes. For someday you will look at the world and you will see the pain and loneliness and ache that humans bear. You will look at us and see us just as we are, with all our sins and loveliness both. You will look and see the Christ within each one of us, and you will try to teach us to see it too.

Hush now, sweet baby. Rest your tiny mouth. For someday from your mouth eternity will speak. Your tongue will summon the dead to life. Your words will define grace, pronounce blessings, teach, and paint pictures with words so we too might see our eternal God the way you know God to be. Your mouth will speak forgiveness to those who wrong you, will invite us to paradise to be with you forever, will send us forth in your name to all the world. Your words will echo down through centuries, bringing meaning and hope to our lives.

Rest now, tiny child. Rest your infant feet. For someday you will walk many miles to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives. Someday you will stride out in power across billowing waves in a storm-tossed sea. Someday your feet will be anointed with oil by a woman who prepares you for death, and your feet will bear the same nail prints as your hands. Rest your feet now, for someday millions will follow in your footsteps.

And sweet little baby, with your little heart, how much love you will show. Rest now. And let us hold you on this holy night, for someday, you will hold us. Someday we will feel lost and lonely. Someday we will wonder – is this all there is? What does it mean? What am I here for?

Then you will come to us. You will not be a helpless infant then. When you come to find us, you will come as our Wonderful Counselor, our deliverer. You will tell us that you searched for us. You will call us each by name. And when you find us, you will rejoice. You will invite us to your banqueting table and nourish us with your very self. You will remind us that we belong to you; we are yours.

Little baby, let us hold you on this holy night, for someday you will hold us. Someday we will feel deep sadness and sorrow. Something will happen in our lifetimes that grieves us so deeply that we may wonder where you are. But you will come to us, then, not as a helpless baby, but as the Prince of Peace. You will remind us of the promises of God, of the strength of hope, of God’s deep loving kindness, God’s steadfast love. You will hold us close, and if we are quiet enough to hear, you will whisper to us that all will be well. All manner of things shall be well. You will tell us that you are here for us always, not just when we are empty enough to know we need you. You walk beside us, offering us your peace every day.

Sweet infant redeemer, let us hold you on this holy night, for someday you will hold us. Someday we will grow old or sick, our bodies will fail, and it will be time for us to rest from this world. Then you will come to us, not as a vulnerable baby, but as Mighty God, Everlasting Father. You will welcome us into eternal light and life. You will welcome us to a heavenly feast prepared since the beginning of time, a home and a place for us.

You will do all of these things for us at great cost to yourself. You will teach us the meaning of giving, all that we have and are, on behalf of goodness and love, no matter the cost.

But that will be someday. Tonight we adore you as a baby. We welcome you as a helpless, vulnerable babe, as the Almighty God who became a child so we could become full mature human beings; who was wrapped in swaddling cloths so we could be unraveled from the snares of death; who came on earth so we could live beneath the stars; who had no place in the inn, so you could prepare for us mansions in heaven; who became poor, so we could become rich; in whose weakness is our strength. This is the night, the wondrous night when the creatures hold our creator. This is the night of grace, when the Lord of heaven and earth stoops down, reverses roles, and allows us – the finite – to serve the infinite God.

And so, little Jesus, on this one night, let us hold you.

And let us whisper now the thanks that will be yours for all the years to come. Thank you, Jesus. Thank you for loving us. We love you too.

 

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

Mary sings the Good News, 4 Advent (B) – 2011

December 18, 2011

2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16; Canticle 3 or Canticle 15 or Psalm 89:1-4, 19-26; Romans 16:25-27; Luke 1:26-38

“He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly.”

Mary sings the Good News of the Incarnation to break into our Advent anticipation with a description of the coming Reign of God. In the angel Gabriel’s visit to lowly Mary, and then in Mary’s beautiful hymn of praise, the Magnificat, we begin to hear what Kingdom of God is like; it is a world turned upside down.

Mary prophetically sings of God’s kingdom as if it is an accomplished fact, rather than a coming reality breaking into the here and now. The song uses an amazing number of past-tense verbs. Everything is already accomplished for Mary. At first, this not so surprising. God has already looked with favor on his lowly servant Mary. The almighty already has done great things for her.

But as Mary continues to praise God for what God is doing in becoming human, she moves beyond what God has done for her, broadening to include the whole world. Even then, she sings of things to come as if they were accomplished facts. Mary, taking a page from her unborn son’s ministry, proclaims that the Kingdom of God is at hand.

Listen to these words of Mary’s song and ask yourself if the changes in the way the world works have even yet occurred more 2,000 years later:

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.

There are few kings in the world today, but the seats of power still belong to the mighty. The lowly rarely, if ever, get lifted up. The hungry often continue to go hungry, while those who have seem to get more. Yet, Mary speaks of lifting up the lowly and filling the hungry with good things in the past tense.

It is impossible to see Mary’s song as merely naïve. No Jew living in Roman-occupied Israel could think the lowly were being lifted up. Instead, Mary has come to see that what God is doing through her is a sign that all of God’s promises are as good as fulfilled. God is faithful, and the old way of doing things is as good as gone now that God is becoming human through her child Jesus. God’s kingdom is breaking into our world in a new and marvelous way that makes it clear that the lowly are as good as lifted up and the hungry are as good as filled with good things.

Mary’s way of looking at the world in her song shows a Biblical view of how this age – the time we live in – relates to the afterlife, the age to come. First, we have this age, our present time, which includes all time, from creation until this day. Alongside that, we can place the age to come. Until Jesus comes in power and glory to usher in the end of the age, the only way to pass from this age to the age to come is death.

All time is working its way toward the end of this age and the ushering-in of the age to come. There is a forward trajectory pushing us toward eternity, but the two ages seem separate. In the Magnificat, Mary points to the reality that there may be a way in which these two ages intersect. The age to come may break into our present age. The age to come is not present in our own time in its fullness, but as a foreshadowing of what is coming.

Mary knows that the birth of the Messiah to her, a lowly Jewish peasant, is an important sign of what God’s kingdom looks like. It is in the Incarnation that we get our clearest picture of the age to come. God became flesh, not in the person of Julius Caesar or a great Egyptian Pharaoh. God became flesh in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, the son of peasant woman in an occupied land. Without the mighty getting wind of it, they were as good as cast down from their thrones. If the newlywed wife of a carpenter is to give birth to God’s son, then the hungry are as good as having their bellies filled, for God is not only ready and willing to bring about the age to come; God is in fact already breaking the age to come into our world in acting counter to the ways of this present age.

Mary goes on to sing that this is not some new thing God is doing, but it is in fulfillment of all that God has promised Israel. The God of Israel is now acting in human history in such a way that it will not just break the kingdom of God into this age for the Jews, but for all humanity.

As he begins his ministry, Jesus will affirm the very things his mother now sings. Jesus continually reminded his disciples in different ways that the last would be first, and the first would be last. He preached that those who exalt themselves will be humbled. Jesus said blessed are the poor, the hungry, and those who weep, for God will give them the kingdom, fill them with food, and exchange their tears for laughter. Jesus told his followers that he came to serve, and those who follow him must also be servants. Jesus’ whole ministry lived out the words his mother sang, showing how God’s kingdom is radically different from our present age.

In Mary’s Song, the Magnificat, we see in hymn form that the kingdom of God has broken into our present age. Yes, it is still a fallen and flawed world. The powerful still crush the lowly. More times than not, the rich get richer at the expense of the poor. Those with food have more than enough, while others go hungry.

Yet, because of the ways God has broken into human history, we have had glimpses of a different world. Through the life of Jesus, and rarely through his followers, great saints through the ages, we have seen how wonderful the upside-down world of the gospel really can be. No one is too lowly, too weak, or too undesirable for God. There are no outcasts in God’s kingdom. God does not look to the outward signs of status and success, but rather God looks at the content of your heart.

Use this last week of Advent to make more room in your life for God. The more we allow God into our hearts and lives, the more we will find ourselves loving those whom God loves. Every time we reach out to others to share God’s love, we bring the age to come to life into the here and now.

As Mary responded, “Here am I,” to the angel Gabriel, we too are to respond to the gospel and say, “Yes,” to living into our faith, with changed hearts and lives. This is not as a theory to which we give assent, but a life lived in response to the gospel.

When we live into our faith, reaching out to the lost and left out, and proclaim the Good News in both word and deed, then little by little we help turn the world upside down. When we side against the oppressor and speak up for the voiceless, we make the Kingdom proclaimed by Mary real to ourselves.

It is not that we can change whole world, but by living into the concern that Jesus taught us for the poor and the needy, we make the coming kingdom, the reign of God, real in our hearts. Then we have Mary’s eyes to see that the mighty are as good as cast down, the lowly as good as lifted up, and the hungry are as good as filled, for the Kingdom of God has come near.

 

— The Rev. Canon Frank Logue is the Canon to the Ordinary for the Diocese of Georgia.

The royal doors open, 3 Advent (B) – 2011

December 11, 2011

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11; Psalm 126 or Canticle 3 or Canticle 15; 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24; John 1:6-8, 19-28

Imagine the scene. You are downtown in one of the world’s great cities. You’re standing at the main entrance of a huge, opulent hotel, whose solid stone walls soar upward for many floors. The canopied entrance features a red carpet that crosses the sidewalk to the street, and brass fittings that gleam like gold. It’s a damp winter evening. Flurries dance through the air.

Presiding over this elegant space in front of the hotel is the doorman. A mountain of a man, he cuts quite a figure, dressed in a knee-length blue topcoat brightened by braid on the shoulders and the sleeves. The stripes on his uniform pants lead down to his black, shiny shoes. A serious hat rests on top of his head. With utter dignity, he opens doors, orders cabs, greets people coming and going, and lends even more substance than it already has to the building behind him.

There you are at the main entrance. You’ve never been to this hotel before. In fact, in the small town you come from, there are only motels, and no doormen, especially not the sort who are grandly uniformed. But you have come to this metropolis for a convention, and the big banquet is tonight, here at this hotel.

The massive figure in the topcoat and braid now looms right in front of you. Never before have you seen the likes of him, except in old movies. Why should you do?

One option is to question him. Ask him whose army he is in, or is he an admiral? Ask him to count the brass buttons on his splendid coat. Ask him to come in out of the cold; you know a warm hotel lobby, and it’s only a short walk away.

A better option is simply to let him do his job. You’ve come for the banquet; his job is to open the door for you. A genial nod in his direction is all that he expects by way of recompense.

Which option do you choose?

The answer seems obvious, at least to anyone brought up halfway right. Don’t bother the doorman. Let him open the door for you. Go inside, get out of the cold, enter the warm lobby, then find your way to the feast.

This is not how it happens, though, when priests and Levites are sent down from Jerusalem to ask John the Baptist some questions. He works as the doorman, the doorman to God’s hotel. But these priests and Levites and those who sent them simply refuse to have John open the door for them.

They have questions to ask him. “Who are you?” “Are you Elijah?” “Are you the prophet like Moses?” John grows more impatient as he answers each successive question. “I am not the Messiah.” “I am not Elijah.” “I am not the prophet like Moses.”

Again they ask him, “Who are you?” He answers, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness what the prophet Isaiah said, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’“

This is what John insists: “I am only a voice; I am not myself the message. I am the doorman of God’s hotel; I am not the host at the banquet.”

John dresses as noticeably as any doorman, but differently. No topcoat or fancy hat for him. John is bare-chested, wearing a camel’s hair loincloth and a hairstyle that’s shaggy. He looks like a prophet from centuries before his time. He acts the part as well.

But there’s reason to believe that those priests and Levites sent from Jerusalem fail to get it. For all their fussing about John, they seem to miss his message. Standing outside on the sidewalk, chilled by the damp winter air, they don’t have sense enough to let this doorman usher them inside to the banquet that awaits them, an unforgettable feast.

A mistake of this sort happens to us often regarding life in general and religion in particular. We get distracted by what is, at best, of secondary importance. About such matters we think we have special awareness, reason to be in control, the right to take charge.

And so we do something foolish. It may not be as vulgar as mocking the doorman’s attire and his outdoor vigil, but it makes as much sense as that. We want him to count his topcoat buttons, while all the time there waits for us within the hotel the banquet of a lifetime.

We zero in on the inconsequential because we’re adept at small talk, we know how to pass the time, we can go through this routine in our sleep. Ah, there’s the problem, and John the Baptist, doorman to God’s own hotel, would be the first to agree: we spend much of our lives asleep. We hesitate to wake up, even to the splendor in front of our faces.

Sometimes we don’t go downtown ourselves. We dispatch our own priests and Levites to interview John instead. Reality is mediated by somebody else. We think it’s not real unless it’s on TV. We wonder if we’re real since we are not on TV.

But John stands there on the sidewalk, doorman to the greatest of all hotels, while inside candles are burning, and the wait staff are at their places, and the kitchen crew bustle about preparing the splendid feast.

In the Orthodox Church, the sanctuary is separated from the congregation by a wall pierced by several doors. The central ones, known as the royal doors, are opened at certain critical points in the service.

Eugene Trubetskoy, a Russian prince and a religious philosopher, made reference to this in his dying words, when he cried out, “The royal doors are opening! The great Liturgy is about to begin.” What he had seen so often in the church’s liturgy on earth was now apparent to him in the liturgy that takes place in heaven. The royal doors were opening in a new and astounding way.

We might do well, all of us, especially in this time of Advent, to recognize how the death of a Christian is like that. The royal doors open. The great Liturgy is about to begin.

Yet what is true preeminently when we die holds true also as long as we live. We can shift our attention from inconsequential routine, predictable small talk, and all things that seem safe because we think we can control them, and notice instead that the doorman, John the Baptist, wants to usher us inside the greatest hotel of all. We can discover that religion, like life itself, is not a matter of assessing the doorman; it is coming to accept with humility the hospitality of God.

What Eugene Trubetskoy spoke at the moment of his death is true not only when our earthly end arrives. It is true not only in these weeks of Advent. In a way strange and wonderful, it holds true at every moment, if only we remain awake and attentive. And because this holds true at every moment, we can come to our final end receptive and grateful.

“The royal doors are opening! The great Liturgy is about to begin!”

 

— 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). 

Doing what you can, 2 Advent (B) – 2011

December 4, 2011

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

In 2009 the Dutch filmmaker Enno de Jonge returned to Rio de Janeiro to find the street children he had photographed eighteen years before. He started his search where he had begun the project, at St. Martin’s Foundation. St. Martin’s is a citywide program for street children run by the Roman Catholic Carmelite order in Rio, where Enno had taken pictures of 30 homeless boys and girls from 7 to 18 years of age. But after a month of searching, he found only one: Maria, now 25 and the mother of two.

While Maria viewed Enno’s album of aging photographs, she pointed as she went, “This one is dead. This one too. This one died in the children’s massacre. This one has a son living on the street.” Enno estimated that at least a third of the kids were dead, half of the survivors were in prison, and the rest, except for Maria, were still on the street.

Who will hear the cry of Rio’s large population of street children to save them from hunger, misery, prison, and death? So far, society’s response has not been kind. It was not kind to the cries of John the Baptist some 2,000 years ago, nor is it kind now. Is the situation hopeless? Are these and the other causes for God’s Kingdom impossible? This season of Advent calls us to wake up, pay attention, and find the glimmers of light in the overwhelming darkness. Find hints of progress, take courage, and realize the Kingdom at work among us.

At about the same time the filmmaker returned to Rio, Americans Phil and Sarah arrived there, fulfilling a lifelong dream of becoming mission partners. They were to teach at a facility of St. Martin’s in the city’s northern zone that offers educational and recreational activities to Rio’s street children. One of their Brazilian sponsors, used to the unrealistic expectations of many foreign missionaries, had warned them, not unkindly, “These kids will never amount to anything. The most you can hope for is that they will stay with you while you keep them occupied.”

Phil and Sarah chose not to believe such voices. They had resources that included a dedicated building, classrooms, supplies, support staff, even a little money. While Sarah used her knowledge as a professional artist to teach poor children how to draw, Phil drew upon his years as a university language professor to teach English to a small group of adolescents. There were to be no textbooks and formal assignments to frighten the kids off, but rather simple dialogues that would build on one another, week after week, and eventually students would be able to sustain basic conversation.

Although Phil spent countless hours creating lesson plans, almost a year went by and his students were still struggling to master the first dialogue, based on “How are you? I am fine.” Every week he began his class with a review of that material, expecting to quickly move on, and every week almost the entire class hour was taken with just the review. By the time Phil and Sarah left Rio, the group’s English language skills were about where they were when they started. Phil gave thanks he had not invested money in textbooks.

Sarah, for her part, struggled with fortifying the children’s self-esteem. Many were convinced they could not draw, and the least confident used art class as a time to act out. One in particular, Christian, a boy of about 10, was known to be a troublemaker. Few of the staff allowed him into their classes. In Sarah’s workshop, he refused to draw; instead he preferred to create havoc among the other children by shouting and shoving. Sarah knew it was not worth indulging in lecture and punishment; that was probably already a constant in his short life. Instead, Sarah simply stayed with him, offering encouragement until one day the child began to draw. It took perseverance, but by the second month of classes, he was absorbed in his work – sometimes. Sarah never knew which Christian she would encounter on a given studio day – the troublemaker or the budding artist.

Both Phil and Sarah felt a bit like John the Baptist, described in today’s gospel reading, after the text of Isaiah, as “the voice of one crying out in the wilderness”; as one to whom many flocked, but whose message went, if not unheard, unheeded.

At times like this, it might be well to recall that we are to repent from believing we are in control. None of us, not Phil and Sarah, not John, perhaps not even Jesus, is in control; the Spirit is. We lead lives of holiness by heeding St. Paul’s reminder to the Philippians that “it is God who works in you, inspiring both the will and the deed, for his own chosen purpose.” This puts a humble lowercase on the word “ministry.” We may think we know how and what we are doing, but in reality it is the Spirit working in and through us. Be patient, Advent mandates. Things are not as they seem; persevere in seeking and following even the smallest glimmer of God manifest. This is your repentance.

It wasn’t until the bitter end, when they were moving on to a new ministry in the south that Phil came to realize the worth of his work. He was stunned by the outpouring of affection he received from his students upon saying goodbye on his final day in Rio. They organized a going-away party and gave him a long-sleeved sweater, sorely needed in the cold south. And upon his arrival at the new site, he received a touching e-mail in which one of his Rio students said, ruefully, she had learned little English, which Phil knew, but she had gained admiration for the person who had left everything to serve the poor. Phil realized with some astonishment that English-language learning was the least of it. It was his presence among them that the teens had come to cherish.

Phil and Sarah thought back to the challenging words: “The most you can hope for is that they will stay with you,” and realized they had missed a sign. The English “stay” is only one translation of the Portuguese “ficar.” A more common translation is “be.” The missionaries had not been told the street children would stay with them as much as they would be with them. Their ministry was not one of doing, but one of being present to Jesus in their midst.

Sarah learned early on that her work was less about art and more about presence: she to the children but more, seeing Jesus in the children. This was not so hard to do on the good days, but when Christian was out of sorts, she struggled to hang on to the light of hope that Christian emitted on his better days.

John the Baptist was right; the Kingdom of God is at hand. It is right here, right now. Advent asks: Who of us will echo his voice? Who of us will respond?

Only the strong of heart have the courage to try. A Brazilian teacher at St. Martin’s likens it to the fable of the hummingbird who tries to put out the fire raging in its beautiful forest home by carrying in its beak one drop of water at a time to the blaze. When asked by the other animals why she even bothers, the hummingbird responds, “I’m doing what I can.”

John did what he could, one baptism at a time. St. Martin’s, as well as Phil and Sarah, are doing what they can, one child at a time. What are you doing?

 

— barbara baumgarten is a visual artist and author. She holds her doctorate from the Graduate Theological Union at Berkeley, California. David Catron is a linguist and writer with a Ph.D. in Romance Languages from the University of Michigan. Currently, barbara and David are partners in mission with the Igreja Episcopal Anglicana do Brasil (IEAB). 

We are all searching, 1 Advent (B) – 2011

November 27, 2011

Isaiah 64:1-9; Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18; 1 Corinthians 1:3-9; Mark 13:24-27

We are all searching for something or someone. Not just the small things, like our house keys or a parking space, but also bigger things, deeper things, people, places, and relationships that we hope will fulfill us, bring us joy, grant us peace. Many people are searching for a job, but also more than a job, for the sense of purpose and value and security the hoped-for job will bring. Many people are searching for wisdom, but also more than just an education, for the sense of truth and goodness and direction that we hope real wisdom will bring. Many people are searching for relationships, but also more than Mr. or Mrs. Right, for the sense of fulfillment and flourishing we hope loving and being loved will bring. We are all searching for something or someone.

But experience teaches us that that something or someone is elusive. We photograph the perfect sunset, but when we look at the pictures later, it looks rather ordinary. The excitement of a new career settles into the humdrum of a job. The first flush of a new relationship turns into coordinating schedules and dates. Even when we find what we think we are looking for, we may find the experience quite exquisite but also leaving us unsatisfied.

That is why spiritual writers tell us that what we are all searching for, whether we realize it or not, is God. The longed-for thing or person who will ultimately fulfill us, bring us joy, and grant us peace is God. Everything else, even the exquisitely true and good and beautiful things of this life, will leave us unsatisfied at some level. Life is transient, and we continue our search for true fulfillment and flourishing and love.

In our gospel lesson for today, Jesus tells his disciples to “keep awake.” This admonition comes at the end of a long apocalyptic discourse about the end times. He and his disciples had left the temple, and he told them that someday it would be thrown down, not one stone left upon another. The disciples naturally enough ask when this will be, and Jesus responds with a long discourse that involves apocalyptic signs like the sun being darkened and the stars falling like the heaven. It’s all rather complex and confusing, but in the midst of it there is an assurance that some day the Son of Man will return to set things right.

This will be good news for some and bad news for others. We ought to prepare so that we can receive the coming of the Lord as good news. And yet, no one knows, not even the Son, when all these things will take place. But take place they will.

Therefore, Jesus says, keep awake, keep alert, and keep looking for the true Lord who will bring all things to fulfillment. There will be many pretenders, many people saying, “Look here is the messiah” or “Look! There he is!” But do not believe in these pretenders. They are false and they will let you down. Trust only in the true God, the Lord of heaven and earth, and his only Son. Keep awake for someday he will come.

Apocalyptic language is hard for us to understand today. But the basic message is easy enough. We are all looking for something, and that something is God. There will be many pretenders and false messiahs who will try to offer us the fulfillment that only God can provide. Remember the allure of the perfect job or perfect wisdom or perfect relationship. All these things inevitably let us down because they can’t deliver the promises they make. They are good enough in themselves, but when we look to them as our ultimate source of truth and meaning, they inevitably let us down and leave us feeling unsatisfied. More than that, we can be damaged in the process: broken promises, broken relationships, broken hearts, broken spirits. Only God can truly fulfill us and the desires of the whole groaning universe. Jesus tells us to keep awake, to turn away from false messiahs, and to look for the coming of the true God. The Good News is that even as we flit about in our search for truth and meaning, God in his holiness and his graciousness is already racing to meet us. God is coming. The Son of Man is coming. Keep awake!

Advent is the season in the church year when we try to reflect on who or what we are truly searching for. It is a time to meditate and pray about what it is that will fulfill our hearts’ desires. The Good News of Advent is that God is also searching for us. The story of Advent is not a story of a God waiting to see if we human beings will finally figure it out and find God. The story of Advent is that God comes to us, and better yet, that God has already found us. We may feel like we are always looking for something or someone, but the Good News of Advent is that God has already come to us, is coming to us, and will keep coming to us. In our searching and seeking, we often fail to see that the gift has already been given, the gift of “God with us,” the gift of Emmanuel.

The word “advent” means “coming,” and that refers to the coming of Christ in the past, in the present, and in the future. Advent is saying that there is never a time when Christ is not with you, yesterday and today and tomorrow. At its deepest level, Advent is an invitation to give up our search and let ourselves be found by the God who came among us as child, by the God who comes into our hearts, by the God who will meet us in every future. In the search, in the finding, in the daily living of our lives, we have already been found and loved by the God who is with us always, even to the end of the ages.

Elam Davies, long-time pastor of Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago, tells of a time when he and his wife visited a spot on the coast of Wales called the Great Orme. The Great Orme is a giant rock, right at the seaside, and people gather on it to watch sunsets. On clear evenings, people watch the yellow sun drop into the sea, backlighting strands of clouds in a way that turns the whole horizon into a kaleidoscope. Because the sunsets are so spectacular, people at the Great Orme often weep. One night, while Davies and his wife were there, a beat-up, old car drew alongside of them. In this car were a couple of elderly people and also a man who seemed to be their son. Some accident or illness had come to this son with the result that he was clearly disabled. He lay in the back seat, limp and exhausted. Then, as the great ball of fire began its final descent to the sea, the two old folks got out of the car and came round to the back seat. They reached in, hoisted their son up to the sitting position, and maneuvered him forward to the edge of the seat. And just as the sun in its full flame, in a final burst of glory, dropped below the rim of the world, the parents reached under their boy’s chin, raised his head, and pointed him out there toward the horizon. Davies says, “And I knew at that moment that God can dazzle us with all the magnificence of the universe, but that the secret of the universe lies in a love that comes to us in our weakness and in our need.”

The season of Advent begins today. It is the season of hope. Stay alert. Keep awake. Lift up your heads. Look to the horizon. Look to the future. Look for the God who comes to us, who came to us, who is with us, now and until the end of the ages.

 

— The Rev. Dr. Joseph S. Pagano is the associate rector of St. Anne’s Episcopal Parish in Annapolis, Maryland.

The Nativity of St. John the Baptist (A,B,C) – 2011

June 24, 2011

Isaiah 40:1-11; Psalm 85 or 85:7-13; Acts 13:14b-26; Luke 1:57-80

Much has been made in the popular press in recent years of so-called “helicopter parents.”

Never heard of them?

Well, they, of course, have nothing to do with flying machines. The term refers instead to parents who seem to “hover” over their children constantly, making many of life’s decisions for them – sometimes giving them no room to make their own mistakes or, for that matter, to soar on their own to heights which the parents themselves might never have dreamed possible.

Whether this is a recent phenomenon or has always been a part of the parental and societal impulse to protect children we can leave to the experts to decide. Far too many parents are blamed – or take responsibility upon themselves – for developments in their children’s lives that are more or less out of their control anyway, no matter how much they hover. Even under the best of circumstances, parenting is not an exact science and probably never will be. In every generation, there are sure to be a lot of parents who quite understandably want their children to be like those of Garrison Keillor’s mythic Lake Wobegone – “above average, every last one of them.”

In our gospel text today, the people of the “the entire hill country of Judea” ponder the birth and naming of the child John – hovering closely over him and his parents, Elizabeth and Zechariah. “What then will this child become?” they ask in amazement mixed perhaps with some confusion. It is a question of course that parents and family members have asked for millennia at the birth of every child, whether in ancient Judea or contemporary New Jersey or Nebraska. For the birth of any child is a reaffirmation of life itself and its mystery. No one can hold a small child and not wonder – perhaps sometimes even fear for – what the future has in store.

There may not have been helicopters in the ancient Holy Land but, it seems, parents and relatives do not much change over time either. It is perhaps reassuring to learn from scripture that a child’s birth could stir an entire community and get them thinking and involved. Sometimes, it does indeed take a village – or an “entire hill country” – to raise a child. And Zechariah’s words are a profound declaration of one parent’s faith as he, “filled with the Holy Spirit,” begins to speak in prophecy to his own son. “You, my child,” he says tenderly and perhaps even with a parent’s pride, “shall be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways.”

“What then will this child become?” This is the answer. This is what John will become. As we know well from our Christian perspective, he will become the last of the great prophets, the one to baptize our Lord and prepare his way.

But in some larger sense, the infant John – and every child – is already a “prophet of the Most High” because every child is paradoxically an image of the loving Father who sent to us not only John, but his very own Son Jesus, whose ministry John will grow to affirm. After all, “the child is father to the man,” as the poet Wordsworth reminded us. The Father knows well that only a child is truly capable of calling us back to the simplicity and fullness of divine love. John did not need to grow to manhood to prepare the Lord’s way. And the Lord did not need to hover. The child himself prepares the Lord’s way; and it is from John, and every child, that we must learn.

Yet sadly, it is exactly the child that our world today too often forgets. We read with horror of the abuse of children in our own country and elsewhere. Their images haunt us in scenes of famine and war in faraway lands, situations from which not even the most obsessive helicopter parent could rescue them. On the other hand, in some quarters of our contemporary consumer society, children seem to have become little more than nonessential commodities – neither profit centers nor revenue enhancers – perhaps at best parental status symbols and fashion accessories.

All children are in themselves signs of the abundance and bounty of a loving God. Zechariah knew this instinctively. It is a lesson that each generation of children teaches us anew. That is, if we are willing to understand. Our gospel text today ends ominously enough with John “in the wilderness,” surely not a place Zechariah – much less any self-respecting helicopter parent – could ever have wished his child to be. There was to be no Ivy League for John, no high-paying job in software development or finance. But what John learned in the wasteland, he proclaimed at the Jordan. And it is the most valuable lesson of all. It is the very thing Zechariah foresaw at John’s birth: that the Lord “has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.”

And it is a lesson learned from the child.

 

— The Rev. Dr. Frank Hegedus is chaplain of Saint Margaret’s Anglican Episcopal Church in Budapest, Hungary, www.anglicanbudapest.com.

What to do about Lent? , Ash Wednesday (A,B,C) – 2011

March 9, 2011

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

Ever since the bottom fell out of the sackcloth and ashes business, we’ve not known what to do about Lent. “What do I give up?” seems to be the primary question, an inversion of Jesus’ call for us to give. Lent isn’t a time to slim or to save money by not buying chocolate or going out to dine. Too easily our resolutions begin to look like holy variations on New Year’s resolutions, and we know how long they last!

Part of the problem is that we individualize Lent. We begin with me. Because we begin with me, the whole thing slides into another form of personal spirituality, perhaps somewhat ruined by our sly hints to others about just what it is we are sacrificing.

Sacrifice in Christianity, as with our Jewish ancestors, means the offering of life. Its culmination is Jesus’ offering for us on Calvary. The central way we commemorate this is in our offering of the Eucharist, a corporate offering “together” of the life, death, and resurrection of our Lord. In baptism, each of us is joined to those who “in Christ” offer the sacrifice, the life-offering of the Savior. We make this offering through Jesus for the world, in all its reality: for the homeless, refugees, those starving to death, those terrified by war and civil war, and even the rich living hopeless lives of denial and indulgence. In short, we get involved with the reality of life as it is.

Lent’s forty days prepare us for the Cross and the Resurrection, and no good intentions about giving up something gets us to that “Green Hill far away.” True, once our goal for Lent is established, fasting and abstinence is a way to keep us on track, but the goal comes first. The goal is simple but profound. It begins with our parish church. How does our community of the faithful intend to spend Lent together? What extra acts of worship or study will be added to the calendar? In what ways will the parish reach out to the world? We begin there. These extras on the calendar are not for the holy few. They determine how each of us may spend Lent, and guide us to choose individual acts of love that fit into that wider program.

At the same time, we remember that what we do doesn’t earn us God’s love. The question rather is how may I, and we, as a parish, become worthy of Christ’s death and passion? How do we deserve His conquering death for us and giving us eternal life?

On the one hand, we can’t earn and can never deserve God’s love for us in Christ. But we can open ourselves to the gift and seek to rid ourselves of those things that get in the way of God’s redeeming grace. We used to call these impediments the Seven Deadly Sins. Obviously gluttony was among them. Those old sins – do look them up or Google them – were neat ways of reminding us just how “self” gets in the way of service. Now, of course, you may feel you do pretty well in avoiding these failings and fallings. But just ask your partner, your children, your parents, or your best friends. With a little nudging they will come up with examples of bad temper, feeling sorry for yourself, being envious, or angry.

The point isn’t that we dwell on these things, but that we offer them daily to God in our devotions, certain that God forgives and strengthens us.

The gospel today reminds us that the smudge of ashes on our foreheads may either be a boast, or it may be a sign to us and to others that this Lent will be about more than giving up chocolate; it will be a time when God’s redeeming work transforms each of us and our parishes.

So may it be.

 

— Fr. Tony Clavier is rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, La Porte, Indiana, in the Diocese of Northern Indiana. He is also dean of the Michigan City deanery.