Archives for December 2012

Sharing Frensdorff’s dream, 1 Epiphany (C) – 2013

January 13, 2013

Isaiah 43:1-7; Psalm 29; Acts 8:14-17; Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

Wesley Frensdorff was the bishop of Nevada in the early 1970s. He also served as assisting bishop of Arizona and interim bishop of Navajoland. He was one of the early visionaries of a movement called “total ministry,” a strategy for living out our Baptismal Covenant in community.

Our Baptismal Covenant, the promise we make together at every baptism, calls us, among other things, to “seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself” and to “strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.”

At its very heart, Frensdorff’s ideas of total ministry push the limits of how we carry out our baptismal promise in the world, and how we “do” church. His ministry was not without conflict and opposition.

Tragically, he died in a plane crash on the rim of the Grand Canyon in 1988. But 30 years ago, before he died, Frensdorff wrote a poem called “The Dream.” The poem begins:

“Let us dream of a church in which all members know surely and simply God’s great love.”

This first line of Frensdorff’s poem brings to mind a metaphor that the great Protestant Reformer, Martin Luther, used in the sixteenth century: “Can a rock that has been in the sunlight all day not fail to give off warmth and heat at night?”

Martin Luther leads us to ask ourselves, Can a Christian who has lived in the sunlight of God’s love not fail to give off warmth and love?

The answer is no. But we can’t radiate God’s love until we’ve opened our hearts and let it in.

We can’t expect ourselves or anyone else to simply start loving each other and be nice. We must first live in the sunlight of God’s love. We need to bask in the sunlight of God’s compassion. We need to absorb God’s light, allowing it to replace all those parts that are not of God within us – all of those past hurts that take up our inner space and block out God’s life-giving light.

Once we allow God’s love in, we can then begin to give off that love.

Let us dream of a church that radiates God’s love.

Thirty years ago, Frensdorff dreamed of a church unafraid of change. Is the church any less afraid of change than it was 30 years ago?

Maybe not. In fact, it may be even more afraid, which is understandable. Our world is changing so fast that sometimes a changeless church might seem the only refuge in a world that may be almost unrecognizable from what we used to know.

So we cling to what was, for comfort. But in so doing, we cut off the growth of new generation.

A woman tells the story of how, when she moved into a house in Connecticut, she decided to trim back the wisteria vines on the front of the house. The vines grew with abandon and flowered prolifically. In her attempts to shape it up a bit, and redirect it, she went out and bought some electric shearers, which she described later as being a big mistake. Not being an experienced gardener, she began to cut and cut and cut. And you know what? That wisteria never flowered again.

It didn’t die, she explained. It was still alive. Sort of. It lived as a brownish stalk that would only shoot out a few weak green bloomless tentacles each spring. She later learned that wisteria only produce flowers from the previous year’s new growth, and those few weak green shoots were unable to capture the nutrients necessary to bring forth flowers.

Let us dream of a church so vital and alive that it grows and flowers with abandon.

Thirty years ago, Frensdorff wrote in his poem that he dreamed of a church “so salty and yeasty that it really would be missed if no longer around.”

Let us share that dream and envision a bold church that exists beyond its walls, a church that fearlessly speaks out against the unjust structures of society. A church that doesn’t always choose the safe route. A church that is nimble enough to continue to be relevant and responsive in our rapidly changing social context.

A church that is not satisfied with feeding its members pablam, but instead takes risks, speaking out, and acting, regardless of consequences, against those things that are not of God.

A church where the members are so on-fire by their own conversion experiences that they can’t help but reach out and share the good news, both with people “like” themselves, and people who are very different.

Have we lost our salt? Let us, as Frensdorff did, dream of a salty church.

Thirty years ago, Frensdorff dreamed of a church where “each congregation is in mission and each Christian, gifted for ministry; a crew on a freighter, not passengers on a luxury liner.”

Let us also dream of a church united by a common vision defined by Christ’s teachings. A church where the mission of the church is the mission of Jesus Christ, and each member, regardless of ordination status, is part of the one crew.

Frensdorff’s vision was of each member as part of a crew on a freighter. But when we look at the church universal, with an estimated 38,000 different Christian denominations, when we look at the fractured Anglican Communion, and even when we look at the dynamics within individual communities, it’s hard to see one freighter. Instead there appear to be thousands of individual life rafts floating adrift.

Let us dream of a church where each member is part of that crew on one boat with a common vision. How much more could we do if our forces were united?

And finally, 30 years ago Frensdorff dreamed “of a people called to recognize all the absurdities in ourselves and in one another,” and a people “serious about the call and the mission but not, very much, about ourselves.”

Let us share his vision of a playful church, a church that takes its ultimate goal seriously, but itself – not so much.

A church that acknowledges that we might have a lot to learn. That we don’t know all the answers. And that we fall short, corporately and individually. A church where the members are blessed with hearts that forgive, and a sense of humor. That worships a God who we know also forgives, and who, we pray, has a sense of humor.

Consider this image of one day coming to know the nearer presence of Our Lord.

God is there to welcome you. You talk. God reminds you of your Baptismal Covenant – the same covenant that we will reaffirm together today. God reminds you of the teaching of Holy Scripture.

By now your post-earthly-life stomach might be turning, whatever that feels like.

But the conversation moves on to one of mercy, with God’s eternal words of welcome: “My dear child, you tried. Sometimes you even came close to getting it right. But other times, well, you missed the mark. Sometimes you fell a little short, and sometimes you got it really wrong. Sometimes your efforts were actually silly, and they even amused, giving us a good laugh. But my dear child, you tried. Your heart was in the right place. You are forgiven; you are loved; come on in anyway.”

Let us dream of a church that is serious about God’s love, and just maybe, not so serious about itself.

Today as we celebrate the Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord, and all the baptisms today throughout the church, let us ask ourselves, What kind of a church are we bringing our new members into?

Will it be the kind of church that we dream it could be?

Will it be the kind of church that Frensdorff dreamed it could be?

Will it be the kind of church Jesus dreamed it to be?

All of us who are gathered have a part in shaping the answer. What kind of church are we going to create for these beautiful children?

 

— The Rev. Suzanne Watson has served in congregations in California, New Zealand, Connecticut and on the staff of the Presiding Bishop in New York. She is currently exploring a call to medical missionary work, and just completed her first semester of medical studies at St. George’s University in Grenada, West Indies, where she is also serves as  a priest.

Will Prosser

Will Prosser is a third-year student at Berkeley Divinity School at Yale. He enjoys long walks with his dog, reading and traveling. Check out his blog: whatyouknowaboutmicah6.wordpress.com.

Read Will’s comments on the Revised Common Lectionary readings for Epiphany.

Read Will’s comments on the Revised Common Lectionary readings for 4 Easter (C).

Bible Study: Epiphany

January 6, 2013

Will Prosser, Berkeley Divinity School at Yale

“On entering the house, the three wise men saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage.” (Matthew 2:11)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Isaiah 60:1-6; Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14; Ephesians 3:1-12; Matthew 2:1-12

Isaiah 60:1-6

It’s Epiphany! This is the day of the year that we celebrate the Incarnation of God into the person of Jesus Christ. From the Incarnation flows everything else in our faith: the teaching of Jesus Christ, the Crucifixion, and the Resurrection. Without the Incarnation, these things do not happen. Part of the power that comes from Epiphany is where it is placed in our liturgical season, for to get to Epiphany, we must go through Advent. We have gone through four weeks of fasting, repentance and darkness to get to the light of Epiphany.

After this “darkness” that will “cover the earth” and “the people,” Trito-Isaiah proclaims “Arise, shine; for your light has come!” Most scholars agree that the book of Isaiah is written by three authors, and that the core of this third Isaiah is Chapters 60-62. As Joseph Blenkinsopp points out in “Isaiah 56-66: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary” (Yale University Press, 2003), this core speaks exclusively of salvation, and uncharacteristically of the prophets, there are no denunciations or conditions. In other words, this is a time of celebration. The day spring has come. Our God is with us, and it is now time for cheer and for the gloomy clouds of night to disperse.

Isaiah, as if entering into our Advent, proclaims a message of light and salvation into our dark and gloom.

One can become accustomed to the dark and gloom after a period in both. How might we be willing to accept the light and salvation of Jesus into our dark and gloom?

Discuss the feeling of this light entering in and how you are experiencing it.

Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14

I think this psalm is incredibly useful to us in understanding the environment that Jesus comes to through his birth. This, among other reasons, is why the apostles seem constantly perplexed by Jesus’ teachings and actions. Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, he is supposed to come in and start judging “with righteousness” and “crush[ing] the oppressor[s].” In more concrete terms, the expectation is that Jesus will come in, drive the Roman Empire out of the Holy Land, and overthrow false kings like Herod the Great. So when we come to Jesus’ ministry and he tells people to keep his identity a secret while preaching love of enemies, the apostles and the other people of first century Galilee want to know, “What gives?”

However, as we continue reading, we see how the last four verses give us the meaning of Epiphany and tell us “what gives” about Jesus’s ministry. The rulers of Tarshish, Sheba and Seba come to pay homage to the king. These places represent that which is foreign, strange and far away, in much the same way as the Magi when they visit Jesus. Christ, as the king in the psalm does, comes for the “the weak and the needy” and those who experience “oppression and violence,” and the foreigners who came from afar to pay homage are included in this promise. The King, Christ, comes to redeem the lives of all, including those foreign.

How do you feel about subverting expectations? Have you ever had God answer prayers or do something completely outside of your expectations?

Ephesians 3:1-12

Well, if Jesus subverted some traditional expectations, Paul confused everyone. Paul began persecuting followers of Christ when they first appeared. After having a revelatory experience on the road to Damascus, Paul became one of the most fervent followers of Christ and one of the faith’s most vocal proponents. Then, Paul, a Pharisee trained in a Hellenistic world, says that God called him to bring the faith to the gentiles. A member of one of the most conservative and traditional sects of Judaism wants to bring the faith of the promised Messiah to the Jewish people to those who know nothing of Judaism, the promised Messiah, or Jesus. Let’s just say that Paul raised a few eyebrows with his ministry.

This is a message of hope that Paul brings to the believers in Ephesus, for he says that the promise of relationship and covenant that God has historically promised to the Jewish people since they first heard the story of their patriarch Abraham is now available to all peoples through Jesus Christ. This, plain and simple, is why we should all be excited about Epiphany. The vast majority of us, Christians that is, are not of Jewish heritage, and the reason we know Christ at all is because we were brought in to the salvation story through Christ and told about it through his servant Paul. “Through faith” in God, we now have the “boundless riches of Christ” and the “wisdom of God.” Thanks be to God!

Do you ever think about your life in Christ within the framework of the covenant given by God to the Jewish people in the Hebrew Bible? What do you think about that?

In light of this, what do you think about our relationship with our Jewish brothers and sisters? What should it be?

Matthew 2:1-12

The story that we celebrate on this day of Epiphany presents a clear dichotomy between Herod the Great, false king, and Jesus, genuine royalty, according to Ulrich Luz in “Matthew 1-7: A Commentary” (Fortress Press, 2007). Herod’s fright upon hearing from the Magi in verse 3 is the opposite of the joy that the magi have upon realizing that they will see Jesus soon in verse 10. Herod’s evil plan in verses 7-9 is frustrated by God in verse 12. Even in its structure, this story is meant to undercut Herod while “paying homage” to Jesus. (Interesting note: The verb used here for paying homage, προσκυνεω, is only used in reference to Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew.) This is clearly the story of the gentiles, the magi, coming for a connection with Judaism, for they specifically ask to see “the king of the Jews.”

Now, of course, what we always remember from this story is the star and the magi. Julius Caesar, Augustus and Herod all had stars on their coins to symbolize their kingship. Some theories would like to explain the star using science. Ulrich Luz, for example, points out a Jupiter-Saturn conjunction as one of the explanations. But this misses the point. The point is that God uses a miracle to symbolize God’s son’s kingship and divinity. This miracle shows God’s will in bringing the gentiles into the unfolding salvation plan. The star hanging in the sky is God announcing to the world, “Arise, shine; for your light has come”!

The story of the magi often gets lost in the mix of the nativity story. What do you think of the story when we see God’s will throughout it in the background?

Discuss some periods in your life when you look back and can see God’s influence over what was taking place.

‘Us’ and ‘them’, Epiphany (A,B,C) – 2013

January 6, 2013

Isaiah 60:1-6; Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14; Ephesians 3:1-12; Matthew 2:1-12

Today we pass out of the Christmas season, beyond the simplicity of Luke’s story of a humble birth with angels and shepherds, and beyond John’s exquisite message of the Word becoming flesh and living among us.

Today we begin the Epiphany season – shifting from rejoicing at God’s coming among us to reflecting on what it means – to us and to the life of the world.

Christmas is a traditional time for unity. Even during world wars, combatants often stopped fighting and sang to their enemies or even walked across the battle line to share gifts with them. Christmas ceasefires also became common during the Korean, Vietnamese and Gulf Wars. At the local level, rarely is conflict tolerated at Christmas, a time when everyone seems to be able to focus primarily on peace.

But Christmas has passed. And if we are honest, we understand that also any temporary spirit of peace has passed away. If we are honest, we will admit that no assessment of the current world and national culture is clearer than the realization that people everywhere seem willingly to tolerate a deep ideological divide. We live in a time when compromise is often seen as a negative – as a weakness. We live in a time of party and tribal purity, in which the classic “us”  verses “them” dominates.

“We” are the good people, the ones with the right way of thinking and acting. “They” are the bad people, the ones with a wrong way of thinking and acting. “They” constitute a threat and everything about “them” is suspect.

This is a time of asserting that every social ill is “their” failure. Emotionalism, blaming and scapegoating take precedence over reason and accepting responsibility. This is a time of believing that if you are not like us, you must be against us. If you do not agree with us, you must be wrong. Only “we” have the right answer or access to God.

This is a time when the list of “us” verses “them” seems almost endless: whites against people of color; pro-life advocates against pro-choice supporters; liberals against conservatives; Westerners against Middle Easterners; Muslims against Christians; rich against poor; male against female; native against foreign; whoever against someone else. “Us” against “them.”

The early biblical story is instructive in this regard. It presents an account of ancient Hebrew people developing a strong ethic of internal unity against all who were “other.” In part, this resulted from an understanding that God set them apart as an example to the nations. It also served as a form of self-defense, as they sought to acquire or protect land their considered God-given. And in part, it came from an attempt to maintain the purity of their faith; the intrusion of outsiders into their realm threatened the integrity of what they saw as God’s demand. Therefore, they divided the world into “us” and “them”  – the people of Israel on the one hand verses all others, whom they termed “gentiles.”

They felt forced into a distinction common among human beings and similar to the opening lines of “Outwitted,” a poem by Edwin Markham:

“He drew a circle that shut me out –
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.”

Israel, out of a perceived necessity, drew a circle around itself, seeing its particular people as a race specially chosen by God. Gentiles, foreigners, were anathema.

Nevertheless, there were other faint voices in Israel’s literature that envisioned a more universal reality. That view finally found fulfillment in Christian expression. Today’s classic gospel story opens the door for a new understanding. Jesus, born in a small town in a totally Jewish environment, was visited by wise men from another world. These foreigners came into the midst of the chosen people and claimed it for their own. And in so doing, they claimed it for all people.

The story of wise men paying homage to the Christ child marks the beginning of the new understanding. It is the story of a God of all people, a God of unity, a God who moves his people beyond the trap of “us”  against “them.”  It is like the final two lines of Markham’s poem:

“But love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle and took him in!”

Wise men, bringing gifts, highlight the fact that the ultimate gift is that God loves all people, in all times, in all places – a gift for every contentious “us”  against “them,” empowering movement toward a spirit of fundamental unity.

The Epiphany gospel story is a powerful symbol of something critically important in the development of our faith – in the understanding of who and what God is. The transition from “us”  versus “them”  to a clearer view of the unity of all people does not come easily, however. The early church struggled mightily to understand what God was doing in Christ. One of its earliest conflicts centered on whether Christians had to be Jews first, whether the new faith would be only a reformation of Judaism or a whole new and expanded one. Ultimately, the Spirit moved first-century followers of Christ to accept a broader understanding.

Today’s epistle reading provides an insightful view of this new reality. The writer of Ephesians, speaking in Paul’s name, clarifies the truth that beneficiaries of Christ include not only Jews who followed him, but also gentiles, like the wise men. He spoke of a mystery being revealed by which “the gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.”

The meaning of today’s readings reminds us of the challenge for all people to live in a spirit of unity. The Body of Christ is a unifying image that can draw us toward the challenge of eliminating the current divisiveness of our national and global environments. Clearly, this also applies even among Christians today, because an uncompromising spirit of “us”  against “them”  continues to divide and damage.

The three foreigners of today’s gospel remind us once more that our task is to embrace and teach the view that no one is so different that we dare treat them with less love or less respect than we would show those whom we know as brothers and sisters. The epistle reminds us that there is no gentile, no “other” who exists beyond the circle of God’s love. It reminds us that divisiveness like we experience so often is not consistent with the values of God.

Both lessons remind us of the Godly reality of the unity of all people – Jew and gentile, Christian and Muslim, conservative and liberal, rich and poor, male and female, black and white and red and brown, brave and cowardly, married and single, gay and straight, young and old – “us”  and “them.”

Through a unifying God, we are related to all people – not just related like the kinship of a common humanity, but related in a much more profound way – through the Christ honored by the wise men and acknowledged as Lord of both Jew and gentile.

Today’s lessons help us paraphrase Markham’s poem into a useful watchword in a divisive environment:

They drew a circle that shut “us” out –
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But love of God had the wit to win:
Christ drew a circle and took all in!

— The Rev. Ken Kesselus, author of “John E. Hines: Granite on Fire” (Episcopal Theological Seminary of the Southwest, 1995), is retired from full-time, active ministry and lives with his wife in his native home, Bastrop, Texas.

An invitation to intimacy with God, Holy Name (A,B,C) – 2013

January 1, 2013

Numbers 6:22-27; Psalm 8; Galatians 4:4-7 or Philippians 2:5-11; Luke 2:15-21

When we think about January 1st, usually, what comes to mind isn’t the Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus – also know as the Feast of the Circumcision. Nonetheless, today was the Feast of the Holy Name long before it became New Year’s Day. In fact, January 1 has only been called “New Year’s Day” since 1752. Before then, for more than a thousand years, we observed March 25, the Feast of the Annunciation, as the beginning of the year.

At the same time, finding some significance in the ceremony by which every Jewish male was formally given his name eight days after he was born is a bit trickier than putting up the new calendar. It’s tempting to see the whole thing as just odd; and to ask, with Romeo, “What’s in a name?” The answer, as Romeo himself found out none too happily, is that there’s a great deal in a name, and that names are pretty special things.

This may be easier to get at when we start with ourselves and our own names, and the names of people around us. After all, we not only have a name, we have quite a few of them: We have first names, and middle names, and last names and titles; many of us have married names, maiden names, nicknames, pet names, and those other names we would rather forget. And which of those names we use and the way they are used says a lot.

For example, one male priest described his family’s reaction when he was first ordained; his brothers and sisters had a ball talking about “my brother, the father,” or one sister who still sometimes calls him “Father brother.” Which is all good fun, but imagine what it would mean if he actually insisted that his brothers and sisters address him only as “father.” It would not only be weird, but also hurtful, for a couple of reasons.

First of all, he’d be saying something harsh about his relationship to them, since the names we use acknowledge and express our relationships. And second, since his name is a sort of key to who he is, insisting on a title instead of a name would be a way of hiding the real him, his personal self, from his family.

The opposite thing is going on when some 16-year-old smart aleck working in a fast-food restaurant insists on calling customers by their first names. And we all know plenty of other examples of that sort of thing.

What’s happening in all of these cases is a sort of dishonesty. These are times when names – which do turn out to matter quite a bit – get used in ways that don’t properly acknowledge and express the relationships that in fact exist; and so, an important insight into who we are and what we are about is being misused – and something false is implied.

Now, with all of this in mind, we can look at another name, the name of God the Father. Remember, God the Father has a specific name – a name he revealed to Moses on Mt. Sinai. Depending on what translation we’re using, both the reading from Numbers and the psalm make this point more or less clearly. Both readings include God’s name, Yahweh, which is sometimes translated as “THE LORD” in capital letters. Yahweh is probably the way that the proper name of God was pronounced when it was spoken in Hebrew, but there’s some debate about that.

About 600 years before Jesus was born, and well after today’s readings from Numbers and the psalm were written, the divine name, the name God gave Moses, was not spoken in Israel, so attempts to re-create how it sounded have led to a variety of conclusions.

The name of God was not spoken, in part to keep it from being profaned – you couldn’t take the name of God in vain if you didn’t say it – but on an even deeper level, not speaking God’s name says something very important about how Israel had come to understand God, and Israel’s relationship to God.

The name of God was not spoken – and at the same time Israel came more and more to understand God as distant, as apart from his people.

In other words, Israel was no longer on a first-name basis with God; and this lack of the use of God’s name was both a way of expressing and of constituting this new, and more distant, relationship, and of removing from Israel an important key to God’s immediate presence.

This is why the Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus is truly important; and why it belongs right next to Christmas.

The point here is not that we’re celebrating the fact that Jesus was named “Jesus” instead of, say, “Floyd” or “George.” Instead, today we celebrate the fact that God has again spoken his name to his people – and not just as a word, but as the Word made flesh.

God has spoken his name to us as a person. Eight days after Christmas, God again gave us his name, this time with a force, a potency and a significance that overshadows Sinai, and for us, supersedes whatever Moses was told on the mountain.

For in speaking his name as “Jesus,” God has changed forever his relationship to us – from the studied formality of a name too holy to speak to the special intimacy that is implied by being on a first-name basis at its best – and more.

It’s not that in the name “Jesus” we have some kind of magic word, a sort of verbal talisman we can wave around and make things happen. That’s not it all. That’s superstitious magic. Instead, God has given us the fullness of what is only hinted at in our own names. We have been given the gift of a new relationship with God, a first-name relationship that is more intimate than casual, more immediate than informal.

And with that comes an invitation; an invitation to intimacy with God – to intimacy with all of the power, the love and the inherent connection to all of creation that are parts of who God is. Remember, the name of Jesus is the name of God the Son, and it is in the person, the whole person, of Jesus Christ that we see and know most clearly and most completely who God is, and what God is about as far as we are concerned.

So we celebrate the Holy Name of Jesus for the same reason we celebrate Christmas: the promises to Mary and Joseph and Israel have been fulfilled, a virgin did conceive and bear a son, and his name most certainly means that God is with us. It is the name that is above every other name, and – in joy and thanksgiving – at the name of Jesus, every knee shall bow.

 

— The Rev. James Liggett has recently retired as rector of St. Nicholas’ Episcopal Church in Midland, Texas. He is a native of Kansas and a graduate of the University of Houston and the Episcopal Divinity School. He has served parishes in Kansas, Texas and Oklahoma.

The Word, the logos, the Christ, 1 Christmas (A,B,C) – 2012

December 30, 2012

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

Love Christmas. Love this Gospel. For this is John’s Christmas story. Or perhaps it makes more sense to say that this is John’s version of the Incarnation. No shepherds, no star, no kings, no Bethlehem, no manger, no Joseph and no Mary. Had John been Rogers and Hammerstein, he would have started his version of the good news of Jesus with the words, “Let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start.”

And so we are transported way back to the beginning of time. To before the beginning of time. Before anything at all was created, before the world began, the Word, the logos, the Christ, was with God and was God.

Was God. In the beginning, the Word was God. Astonishing! We are meant to be astonished. We are meant to be hushed. All our fumbling theologizing about Christmas and the Incarnation is silenced by this pushing back of the story to the very beginning of all things.

For the very next thing we are told is that “all things were made through him.” That would be as in all things, everything and every one. Simply breathtaking.

Which would explain everything about who we are. We are those people who have promised, and continually promise over and over again, to seek and serve Christ in all persons. Not some people, not most people, but all persons.

Most unfortunate, this good news John is proclaiming at the outset of the fourth gospel. Unfortunate because very often we do not want to recognize the Word, the logos, the Christ, in all persons. There are some persons we might not want to be of Christ so as not to have to serve them!

So we might not wish John had started at the very beginning. The beginning is not a very good place to start at all. It is hugely inconvenient to start there because it leads to all this seeking and serving of persons, quite frankly, we just would rather not seek and serve.

Christmas is so much easier if you just stick to the nativity scene and think about cuddly sheep, and a cow in the background, and hay in the manger, and shepherds falling all over themselves with excitement like so many children under the Christmas tree, which, just as inconveniently, does not seem to be a part of the story.

Until you get to the part about light. “In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” Martin Luther is said to have lit the first Christmas tree with candles so as to make it look like the stars in the sky!

Now when you light a candle, you tap into an ancient and nearly never-ending cycle of life-giving energy. The chemical energy of photosynthesis in plants is passed up the food chain, for instance, to grazing cattle and then on to tallow in a candle. As Roger Highfield, in his book “The Physics of Christmas,” explains,  when the candle is lit in the gloomiest of nights, it releases “cryptic sunlight” and returns the complex fat or wax molecules to the form in which the plants found it in the first place – water and carbon dioxide that can be incorporated into living things all over again.

And here’s the kicker: the Word, the logos, the Christ is in all of that. The logos is in the photosynthesis and the cryptic sunlight. “Without him was not anything made that was made.” Oh, my. That no doubt includes fruitcakes, that awful necktie from Uncle Joseph and every one of the Pittsburgh Steelers in town for one day only to make or break the Ravens’ season.

This is more complicated than Christmas ought to be. But here it is, in black and white, Christmas as seen through the eyes of the fourth gospel, John. “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us … and from his fullness have we all received grace upon grace.”

“Dwelt” means something like “pitched his tent” among us. This means that when we pick up our tent stakes and move on, the Word can pull up and travel with us. And the fullness of this Word from which all life, all things, all light doth proceed, is shared with us all. As in “all.” Not some, not a lot, but like creation itself, all persons and all things receive this grace. Have received this grace. “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound.”

So here in this corner is the Word, and all that he has done since before time, in time and beyond time. And in the other corner is John, the man who was a lampstand. “He was not the light, but came to bear witness to the light.”

So now, maybe we could do that, too. We could bear witness to the light that comes from the Word who was with God and was God in the beginning. Maybe we could be like John and be a lampstand from which this light that comes from the Word who was with God and was God in the beginning can shine forth. Think here of “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings.” Think Bilbo Baggins, Frodo and Sam, think Gandalf and Aragorn, think Pippin and Merry, think, yes, even Boromir and Gollum.

We might ask, which character in “The Lord of the Rings” is most Christ-like? But then, that would be the wrong question. Each character of Middle Earth fighting the forces of darkness carries something of the light, the logos and the Christ within them. All together they are the body of Christ. Alone, none of them can get the job done, move history and the world forward. Together the world is saved. Changed, but saved.

This is what we are called to be and do: bear witness to the light and do all in our power to help others do so as well. This is best done by seeking and serving Christ, the Word, the logos, in all persons, everywhere, at all times.

None of us can be Christ-like unto ourselves. Yet, we each carry some particular Christ-like characteristic. We each carry a piece of the light. All together we can make up a Christ-like community. That is why, when we baptize new members of the Body of Christ, the whole body is changed and made new. That is why it is so important to take the promises we make seriously. Especially the promise to do all in our power to support one another in our lives in Christ. Because the piece of Christ that I need is the piece you have, and the piece you need is the piece I have. Together we can strive for justice and peace for all people, and respect the dignity of every human being. We are the body of Christ.

Together we make up the mosaic that is the Word, the logos, the Christ, for the world. Merry Christmas! God bless us every one. Amen.

 

— The Rev. Kirk Alan Kubicek has served as rector and assistant in a broad variety of parishes over the past 28 years. He is currently chaplain and teaches at St. Timothy’s School for girls, the diocesan girls’ boarding school in the Diocese of Maryland, where he teaches World Religions and IB English. His sermons are archived atwww.perechief.blogspot.com.

Susan Sevier

Susan Sevier is currently an M.A. student at the Virginia Theological Seminary and a church musician at the Calvary Baptist Church in Washington, DC. When she is not busy practicing her Hebrew verb paradigms, she works as a freelance classical musician and writer. She blogs about her seminary experiences at www.sevierlybaptist.com and continues her musings on the relationship between music and faith at www.singingthejourney.com.

Read Susan’s comments on the Revised Common Lectionary readings for 1 Christmas (C).

Read Susan’s comments on the Revised Common Lectionary readings for Easter Day (C).

Bible Study: 1 Christmas (C)

December 30, 2012

Susan Sevier, Virginia Theological Seminary

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.” (John 1:1-4)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Isaiah 61:10-62:3; Psalm 147:12-20; Galatians 3: 23-25, 4:4-7; John 1: 1-18

Isaiah 61:10-62:3

The writings of the prophet Isaiah are some of the most prominent as we walk through the teachings of Advent and Christmas, and today’s lectionary cycle begins with an outburst of hope and salvation – not a bad beginning for our worship on this first day of the Christmas season.

In these words, we hear the kind of hope that many of us may be feeling at this time, looking back on our holiday celebrations and looking forward to the promise of the New Year ahead. But read carefully; the hope in our text is the hope that comes with second chances, the hope that is built on the ashes of failure. It is a second marriage in v. 10; it is a return to fertility from fallowness that fills the garden of v. 11; it is, in fact, the return from exile to the land of Israel. It is the hope born of learning our lessons, licking our wounds and pulling together our inner strength to start again. And yet, it is a song of praise and thanksgiving that invites us all to live into this time, this season, and every day of our lives, fully – full of hope and possibility. Let your praises ring; let your hope fill the air. That is the message of this reading for today. Take a minute, and read this passage again along with the “Song of the Vineyard” in Isaiah 5. Compare the condemnation of that passage with the thanksgiving and praise of today’s reading. How far has Israel come from the moment of exile? What lessons are there for us in this? How can we move from our lowest point to reclaim that feeling of hope and praise and thanksgiving that can help us move on and continue our work in this world? Who is the speaker in verses 62:1-3? Is it God? Or is it the unknown writer? Is it meant to be you or me? When have you stepped forward to praise the Lord in a time when things around you did not look necessarily praiseworthy? What does the ability to praise from a place of faith rather than from a place of proof say about the strength of your faith?

Psalm 147

Our psalm for today is part of what is often called the “Hallelujah collection,” a five-psalm set that brings to a close the Psalter and therefore continues the praise and thanksgiving of our reading from Isaiah. In particular, the psalm continues praise and thanks for the blessings granted to Jerusalem. It offers praise for the God who provides, praise for the God who renews and uses nature imagery to weave this hymn of praise. But again, it is a hymn of praise built on the ashes of failure, because like our passage from Isaiah, this song is a song at the end of exile. And we know that the historical truth was that the Jerusalem to which the Israelites returned was smaller, more poor and in many ways a pile of rubble. At the end of the period of exile, the Israelites had nothing; they needed the God that made the grass grow and the water flow. And they needed the God that would strengthen their gates and grant peace where there had been none. And yet, in that need, they were still able to sing praises and remember the majesty of that God, the God that heals the broken-hearted and binds up their wounds.

In this season of Christmas, many of us have given and received gifts. And despite the piles of things and gifts that surround us, and the general bounty of the culture in which we live, maybe we too, are empty-handed like the Israelites and in need of the God who provides. The question of this psalm is, can we look past our material surroundings and see what is important? Can we stand empty-handed before God despite our material comforts and sing praises of thanksgiving for all God does for this world? Read carefully v. 7-11 and v. 15-20. There are two types of giving here. What are they? Are there any conditions on that giving? Is there any particular danger in v. 20?

And finally, this psalm is written completely from the perspective of the receiver, not the giver. What is it like to be the receiver? What is like to need the gift, as did the people of Jerusalem? How does the knowledge that we need the gifts God has to offer change our relationship with our Maker?

Galatians 3:23-25, 4:4-7

Our psalm of praise and thanksgiving ends with a statement of Israel’s chosen position among all nations, that they are chosen because they alone adhere to God’s ordinances or Torah. And our passage from Galatians begins by connecting our obedience to God’s laws and faith in the redemptive power of Christ. Here we stand, drained by the Advent journey to Christmas, and Paul offers us a vision of the Pentecost ahead: yes, God sent the child born of woman to lead us from simple obedience to the Law, and now, because we, as children of God, have accepted that greatest gift of all, we receive the blessing of the Holy Spirit in our hearts.

Paul says that the Holy Spirit enters our hearts crying “Abba, Father!” Why? What does this tell us about our relationship with God and with Jesus? In the Greek text, at the beginning of v. 7, the pronoun “you” changes from the plural form used early in the passage to a singular form: the text suddenly becomes less universal and more personal. What does this mean for Paul’s message to us?

John 1: 1-18

Our gospel passage for the day contains words that are simultaneously among the most comfortable and the most difficult in all the gospel texts. We hear the story told from the creation of the world through the resurrection of Jesus as the Christ. We are offered the Word, who was one with God, who became flesh and walked among us, but we do not known Him. And we hear the echo of Paul’s letter to the Galatians in v. 17: “The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” And then, if we believe, the light will dawn and we too will see God through his Son, Jesus Christ.

Much of this passage is devoted to the unfolding identity of Jesus in the world. What metaphors are use to describe him? What do those metaphors mean to us today?

Read through the passage and look at all the references to “light.” And then, think about the first creation story, in which God creates the world with the words “Let there be light” (Gen. 1:3). What relationship is there between these two passages?

In v. 10, we are told that Jesus was here on earth, but the people did not know him: “He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him.” What are the ways every day (and in particular during this crazy holiday season) that we miss the presence of Christ in our world and our lives?

Finding our way in the dark, Christmas Day (A,B,C) – 2012

Finding our way in the dark

December 25, 2012

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

Have you ever stumbled in the dark? Better yet, have you ever had to do something without the benefit of adequate light? Not only is it difficult, we have a higher chance of messing up or injuring ourselves. (Remember the last time you stubbed your toe moving going to the bathroom or kitchen in the middle of the night?) Most often we feel comfortable enough making the attempt to move through the darkness in familiar surroundings, because we are accustomed to where things are and we feel safe while in our homes and offices.

Most of us aren’t so adventurous or courageous when we are in a place with which we are unfamiliar; yet doesn’t it seem that life is a lot like that? We are often asked to move into the inky darkness of life, in ways that are not so much different than our stumbling through our houses late at night. But even as we think about how difficult it is to navigate without adequate light, we are rarely, if ever, in complete darkness. Whether we live in urban or rural areas, even without our personal lights on, we are never in complete darkness. Even when we are far away from so-called civilization, away from man-made light, even without the moon, under a cloudy sky, there is still some ambient light that allows us to see something.

In many ways, that is what the Nativity of Christ is all about – finding our way in the twilight to that place where and that time when God’s glory breaks forth and floods our lives, and the world. God’s light, shining through the infant ruler, Jesus, is the light that, even in its brilliance, helps us to see more clearly. The shepherds, Mary and Joseph and maybe even the angels, did not know what to expect. The shepherds were treated to a heavenly concert that they hadn’t even bought tickets for. Mary and Joseph just wanted to do their civic duty – be counted and pay their taxes – and to have their child born safely and healthy. The angels were bringing the message that they were given, but no one really knew what was going to happen or even what the outcome would be. They were all stumbling through the dark, trying their best to do what they needed to do, but with just enough light, just enough information to give them some measure of courage to continue to move forward.

They all continued with the hope that the end of this leg of their journey would make a difference. They trusted that, even without all of the details, they were going to experience something wonderful.

Friends, we have seen the savior in many ways and through many people. Some have even heard the angel’s message and their song:

“Do not be afraid; for see – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

We know the end of the story, we know the baby, where he was born and what he was born to do. We don’t have to fear the times when we have to stumble through the darkness – Christ’s light is so bright that even when we are traveling through deep valleys and languishing in the darkness of a closed building or room, if we can get continue to move toward a place where we can get out and look forward, we will see the light increasing and our way brighter and more sure.

Remember, on this day and throughout the days of this Christmas and Epiphany season, that we need not stumble for long in the darkness, because the Light has come.

Remember the words of Hymn 91:

“Break forth, O beauteous heavenly light and usher in the morning. Ye shepherds shrink not with afright, but heed the angels warning. This child now weak in infancy, our confidence and joy shall be. The power of Satan, breaking. Our peace eternal, making.”

 

— The Rev. Lawrence Womack is rector of St. Anne’s Episcopal Church in Winston-Salem, N.C.

God comes to us in our gritty reality, Christmas Eve (A,B,C) – 2012

December 24, 2012

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

Christmas Eve: Is there a more magical time? In the larger culture, this is often one of the few times when family and home regularly take precedence over other concerns. People light fires in their fireplaces, fill their households with candlelight and the smell of cinnamon; families eat special meals together with the glow of memory surrounding them.

There’s some irony to the coziness of Christmas Eve in our culture, since what we celebrate is the birth of a child to a couple in challenging circumstances far from home. The outbuilding in which Jesus was born did not smell of cinnamon brooms or roasting turkey. It wasn’t decorated in lights and bows. It smelled quite frankly of animals and hay. It’s hard to imagine Mary feeling completely at ease in these circumstances, much less glowing with that supernatural light that appears on Christmas cards. The first Christmas Eve was a struggle for Mary and Joseph; they had been traveling  – and we’re not talking planes, trains or automobiles; Mary was doubtless in pain; Joseph had to be worried and frustrated that there was no place for them to be secure.

The shepherds, who have graced their share of beatific Christmas cards themselves, did not bring tiny white lambs to the crèche. Shepherds were pretty far down the ladder in status and economic standing. They were almost certainly dirty, and perhaps staved off the cold with something to drink.

Our lovely Christmas-card illusions of the first Christmas Eve detract us for the gritty reality of the story, where the extraordinary nature of this story actually lies.

God came to us in Jesus. God came among us, not in the first-century equivalent of a Lear jet or a black limousine, but to a humble couple of travelers far from home and family. Jesus’ first attendants were from the edges of polite society, not from the center. This appears to be a clear signal from the writer of the Gospel of Luke that God’s story in the life of Jesus is going to unfold in unexpected ways, far from the trappings of royalty, distant from the centers of religious authority, among the poorest and the least. And that is by God’s choice.

What are we to understand about God through this story?

The writer of the Gospel of Luke goes on to tell the story of Jesus’ life with a particular emphasis that’s consistent with this birth story; Jesus continues to deal kindly with people on the margins, and tell stories with unexpected heroes, such as the Good Samaritan. The God we see through the portrayal of Jesus in Luke is a God who reaches past the boundaries of race, class, gender and religion to touch people who are on the outside, and it starts with the story of this night.

The earliest Christians did not celebrate Christmas. This observance came later, when Christians began to talk about Jesus as more than a prophet; they began to see him as divine, and therefore to think about his whole life as a message to humankind from God. They began to talk about a concept called “the Incarnation,” by which they meant that God entered human history in a human life. This made the birth of Jesus a signal event in history, an event that changed the world forever.

In Luke’s account, the conception and birth of Jesus follow the pattern of stories from the Hebrew Scriptures, in which God is always acting in unexpected ways to make relationship with God’s people. Just as Sarah conceived when she was old; just as Hannah conceived when she had been barren; just as Moses was called to lead, though he felt inadequate to the task – so Mary, another person who was nobody special, became the mother of Jesus. The place and time were not ideal: they were far from home and Mary went into labor. The historical timing was difficult, too; Mary and Joseph were of the Twelve Tribes, but they lived in an occupied nation and had to answer the call of the Roman governor to be counted.

In the midst of ordinary human history, with one more oppressor occupying one more province; in the midst of ordinary human experience – a pregnant woman and her betrothed, traveling uncomfortably and surprised by a birth far from home – God’s presence is known. God comes to us in the everyday; God is not excluded from a hard day at the office, a challenging commute, a hospital room, a government office. The birth of Jesus says to us that God’s desire is to be with us in all times and places, not only when the house is clean and the children are asleep. Those who visit him in Luke’s account suggest further that this good news is for everyone, and perhaps especially for those whose lives on the margins make them most open and receptive to good news.

One of the names for Jesus in scripture is Emmanuel, “God with us.” This familiar story of a man, a woman, a baby and the unlikely companionship of angels and shepherds, claims for all time that God is indeed with us, wherever we find ourselves, however difficult the path may be. As Martin Luther points out, the angels declare that he is born “unto us,” not merely born. Ultimately, we are called by this story to understand the birth of Jesus as a gift, something precious that blesses us and binds us to the Giver in love.

Like all the best gifts, this one can change our lives, if we let it. We always have the option of merely visiting this story once a year and allowing the Christmas-card images to wash over us, enjoying the sweet story without really entering its power. But this story’s true value comes in its gritty reality, its affirmation of human experience, its narrative of God’s great love for us, known in Jesus of Nazareth.

God intends for love to grow us, change us, heal us, remake us – not merely to delight and comfort us. This story takes its true power, not from birth, but from resurrection, the continual rebirth of all that is good and true and beautiful, the conquering of the powers of darkness and death that are seen most visibly in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

Tonight we remember just the beginning of that story, and its sweetness can sustain us through the coming year.

Let every heart prepare him room. Amen.

 

— The Rev. Kay Sylvester is the rector at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Tustin, Calif. She is a teacher, trainer, retreat leader and preschool chaplain. Her prior experience includes teaching piano and guitar, and selling volleyball and wrestling equipment.