Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Christmas 1B. 28 December 2008.


          When I was younger, my dad and I would get in the car and drive up and down the Valley, and we'd stop in at all the antique stores.  We did this long before it became a fashionable thing to do—long before show like Antiques Road Show came on.  Nowadays people look in antique stores like panning for gold, but for dad it was always—and he'll tell you it still is—the thrill of the hunt. 


          I liked to tag along with him. I was never much into antiques, but the fact is that without knowing it those antique stores were a big part of my education.  You can learn a lot of history in those places.  And if your imagination is anything like mine, you start to think of what the world was like when those things were new.  I used to look in display cases and see: straight razors, strops, shaving bowls.  Relics of time when men would get their faces shaved by a barber.


          I used to look at sets of bone china, crystal, tarnished old sets of silver.  Teapots of every shape and size.  Magazines that would probably crumble to dust if you picked one up.


          Across the room, filled with old chairs and tables, there would be this grand, venerable old china hutch.  Wash basins with great big pitchers from the days when there was no running water in the house.  Old, yellowing linens lying on little tables. 

          I would say that one time in fifty I bought a little something, but most of it, for me, was like visiting a museum.  It would delight my father if I stopped in at those old shops—some of them are in this area—but I really don't want to.  There is nothing there for me.  None of those things really seems relevant—and unless you have the space for it, or you collect those things, or you're trying to turn a dollar—you don't really go in.  There is nothing there for you.


          I remember in college I knew a girl who played the piano.  She played Beethoven, Brahms, Mozart, and she played show tunes, contemporary stuff, old standards.  I remember one time she played for her parents, and she played some kind of contemporary thing, and I said, "Play some of that Beethoven."  She wouldn't do it.  She looked at me, as if to say, "Don't ask again."  There was a trace of fear in her eyes. 


          I asked her about it later.  She said, "I don't play classical music for my parents."  I asked why.  She said, "Because they don't think it's for them."  "What do you mean," I responded, "not for them?  They don't like it?"  "No," she said, "they just don't think it's for them…they don't think people like them listen to classical music."


          A couple years ago, I was at a church social: this was at St. Paul's Memorial Church in Charlottesville.  St. Paul's is right on the grounds of UVA.  Karin used to be an Associate Rector at that church.  I was then the Rector of a church in one of the neighboring towns, but I was there in coat and tie, being a spouse, not a visiting priest.  It was a lovely wine reception.  Lots of people. 

          A man came up to me, and we got to talking.  I didn't mention that I was a priest.  He said, "I'm so glad I've found this church."  I asked him what he liked best about it.  He said, "Well, it's very liberal here.  I've been through every red door in this area (he meant every Episcopal church) and they're all a bunch of closed-minded snobs.  (Pause.) What do you do?"  I told him, "I'm the Rector of a bunch of closed-minded snobs."  No, I didn't say that!  But I told him I was a local Episcopal priest.  We talked about other things, but what he said stayed with me…  St. Paul's was okay…but those other churches?..there was nothing there for him. 


          Little boys and girls have been opening up Christmas presents.  When I was a little boy, there was nothing like looking under that tree and seeing those presents, and the little tags that had my name on them.  What was in them?  Doesn't matter.  They're for me!  There's one over there.  There's one over there.  They're for me! 


          One year, on Christmas Day, the phone rang.  It was a very distant relative—he was a trucker, and he was making his way, with his driving buddy, through Virginia, and it was Christmas.  He wanted to stop by. 


          Well, you can't pull an eighteen-wheeler up to the curb, so we had to go get him and his buddy from the truck stop.  They were a little scruffy, but we put another leaf in the table, and put out another couple of place settings. It was a strange at first, but there was room, there was food.



          I remember thinking as a boy, we don't have any presents for them.  I wasn't being a good boy—part of me was worried that some of those presents would go to them instead of me.  But it bothered me—there's nothing under that tree for them.  Not one present.  How can you have Christmas without presents?  (Pause.)


          Do you know what I find distressing?  I am distressed by the number of people who don't feel that they can go into a church.  You see churches of every size and shape.  You see old ones, new ones, ones that look like they were dropped from the sky from another century, and some of them that are just store fronts in strips malls.  But regardless of what kind of church, there are a lot of people who see the sign "church" and they run.  No way.  I'm not going in there.


          I have met people of almost every Christian background: Roman Catholic, Protestant, Anglican, Baptist, who won't go to church.  They had a bad experience.  Maybe their parents forced them to go, but never taught them why, or what it means.  Maybe they heard sermons that scared them, or made them feel worthless.  Maybe it's like that man at St. Paul's—they don't want to be around a bunch of closed-minded snobs.  There could be any number of reasons why someone wouldn't come to church.


          And some of them do, but they come in a look at the stained-glass and the pulpit and the altar, and it's like nothing else in their lives.  Some folks cannot feel comfortable in a pew, they don't want to do something that people will notice, or criticize.  They don't want to stand or sit at the wrong moment.

          But I think the biggest hindrance is that many people just don't feel like there is anything there for them.  The church comes across as a museum. 


          The church I served before I came here is a quaint little Gothic-style church with a lovely interior, pipe organ, a history that goes back to just after the Civil War.  One year, I was asked if the church could be on the Garden Club tour, and I said yes.  The Junior Warden organized a big, yard clean-up day.  Everything was readied.  Flowers everywhere.  The organist played in ten minute segments every half hour.  And people from all over Virginia came to visit us. 


          They had been visiting stately homes and gardens.  It was a very society thing to do.  I was there all day in my best suit, trying to look "Rector-ly."  People looked at everything, and listened to the organ.  "Such a lovely church.  Who are you?"  "I'm the parish priest."  "Oh, this is an active church?"  "Yes, ma'am, this is an active church."  "People come here?"  "Yes, ma'am, people come here." 


          There was amused silence.  A little uncomfortable, in fact.  I said, "You're welcome to come here on Sunday."  And the response was always polite, "I may do that, young man," which seemed to me to mean, "No way, sonny boy.  There is nothing here for me." 





          To many people, Jesus is the little boy on a Christmas card; a shepherd on a stained-glass window; a harsh painting of a man being crucified.  The church is where he lives, or where some people think he lives—or I don't know. "I'm not welcome there," they think, "They don't know me, they don't want me." 


          The irony is that God sent Jesus to break through all of that.  Instead of remaining, immortal and invisible, in Jesus, God became mortal and visible.  "The Word [of God] became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory of the only one born of the Father, full of grace and truth."


          That baby in the manger is one of us.  God with us.  He is not an antique.  He is not a picture in an art gallery.  He is not confined or restricted by the brick and mortar of this church, or of any church, or of any community.  He is not a relic.  He is not a conversation piece.  He is not just a figure from history.  And his followers—if they are truly devout followers—are not closed-minded snobs. 


          Jesus is not irrelevant.  He is God made flesh.  He is the only one who is both fully human and fully God—and he is fully able to embrace you, and be known to you.  He was born of a woman, just like you.  He lived on this earth, just like you.  He breathed the air; he ate the food; he had friends; he had enemies.  He loved his enemies.


          He offered his life and his love for the world, and the world did not understand it.  He was raised from the dead, and he'll raise you from the dead.


          He is the source of love; the ground of your being, the life force from which all things proceed.  His the beginning and the end, and everything in between.  And he loves you. 


          Don't say—don't let anyone, anyone say—that there's nothing here in this church for you.  Everything is for you.  The music is for you, the pews are for you, the bread and the wine are for you, this sermon is for you. 


          Jesus is for you.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Christmas Sermon 2008.


          Tonight (Today) we gather around the sacred texts (and hymns) that mark our celebration of the birth of Jesus.  Through the power of the Holy Spirit, the birth of Christ is as powerfully, and as palpably holy as it was two thousand years ago.  The beautiful words of St. Luke's gospel are read with great care.  This is the Church's text.  We sit before Luke like grandchildren sit before a grandfather, who tells again the old, old story. 


          "In those days a decree went out from the Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn."


          The story is given with an economy of words.  There are no embellishments, no colorful descriptions.  Everything else—all the artists' renderings, all the images that play before our minds—are all footnotes to this stark and solemn text. 

          No stable is mentioned.  The mentioning of an inn is almost an afterthought.  What we have, is simply: Bethlehem, a family, and a manger.


          It is at this point that the story is diverted.  We have become so familiar with the story that it does not seem jarring, but Luke pulls our attention away from the birth of Jesus just as quickly as it happens.  Suddenly, we are out in the fields of Bethlehem, where there are shepherds, "keeping watch over their flocks by night." 


          An angel appears to the shepherds, and Luke records that the glory of the Lord shone round about them, and they were terrified.  But the angel says, "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!'

          The angels depart, and we are left there with the shepherds.  Luke wants us to join them.  He doesn't let us go anywhere else.  We are standing there with the shepherds who say, "Let's go see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us."  And they go.

           Shepherds are not supposed to leave their flocks; they have a responsibility to watch, but the announcement of the angel was such good news that it made everything else meaningless.  Even the most scrupulous shepherd would have left his flock to go.

          So they went with haste, and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had happened; and all who heard it were amazed.  But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying God for all they had heard and seen.  It is at this point that Luke's story of the birth of Jesus ends.  If you want wise men you'll have to wait for Epiphany—I don't care what the Christmas cards look like.

          Luke insists on placing us with the shepherds.  He won't let you sit with Mary and Joseph and hold the baby.  He won't let you follow a star, or stay out there in the fields with the sheep.  Luke has made us watch the heavenly host, and then he has forced us to drop everything and go to Bethlehem. 

          Tonight/Today you have dropped some things to come here.  The presents are wrapped.  The ham or turkey is ready to go.  Family is on its way, or what have you.  But you haven't dropped everything.  You might still be holding on to some concern about…oh…I don't know..the economy?  A health situation?  World tension?  The news lately has not been good.  We have certainly heard a lot of bad news, and that stuff can stick to you. 

          If it sticks to you long enough it can become real anxiety, and my guess is that many of us are holding on to some serious anxiety this evening.  What will 2009 look like?  There is a lot of uncertainty.

          Tonight/Today the angels have asked us to drop all of that.  They have asked us to surrender the heavy loads we are carrying and go see the baby.  It's as simple as that.  There in the manger lies the hope of our salvation.  Not that Jesus will deliver us from our problems, but that Jesus will deliver us in our problems.  (Pause.)

          I want to tell you something.  And I want you to listen very carefully, because it is very important.  God loves you.  I don't mean like some distant relative you only see once in awhile.  I don't mean love like the Sunday school teacher told you when you were a little boy or girl.  I mean, God loves you. 

          Despite all the ways that we hold back, God is not holding back on us—and will never hold back on you.  If you come to him tonight, he will embrace you and never let you go.  He loves you.  He thinks you're wonderful.  He wants to know you, and he wants you to know him.  Did you know that? 

          You are loved by God.  You are welcome in this church—your life is welcome in this church.  No matter what you have done, God sends his Son to you, because he loves you.  When all the presents are unwrapped, and all the cookies have been eaten, he'll still be there.  He will never leave you or forsake you.  He loves you. He loves you so much. 

          How you respond to that love is not all that important—it only affects every day of the rest of your life.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Santa Claus is coming to town

Santa Claus is a unifying myth.  He is consistently benevolent to all deserving people.  Santa Claus looks on the heart to see if you are naughty or nice.  Santa is a big man with a long beard.  He is approachable, but not even quite so human as Jesus is depicted.  Santa is other-worldly, yet he brings stuff. 
The sleigh is wonderful, let's face it.  The idea of reindeer flying, and flying so fast that a sleigh full of toys does not drag them down.  I will admit that I even get a little choked up when I watch the movie "Elf" and see the Clausometer recharge as people sing, and the sleigh takes flight.  I don't know why.  It gets me everytime. 
I recall when I was a boy, walking home from the candlelight service at church on Christmas Eve.  My grandparents lived down the street. They stopped at their house for the night, and I had my eyes on the sky.  I was looking for Santa Claus long after I stopped actually believing in him.  And even now, after conducting the late service on Christmas Eve, I still glance up toward the stars...just in case.
St. Nicholas was a real Saint.  Bishop of Myra.  Patron of children.  Clement Clark Moore and several Christmas carols have made him the "elf" that he is now, but he was a devout Christian originally.  The world loves the presents he brings. 
But don't ask Santa what he really might find out that God is actually much more loving than he is.  You see, Santa Claus only brings good things to nice children.  God?  Well, a lot of people don't know this, but God actually brings gifts to everyone--even to people on the naughty list. 
So if you've been a good little boy this year, look under the tree, there might be a little toy there for you.  If you've been a bad little boy, look in the manger....there's an even bigger present there for you.
Ho! Ho! Ho!


Blue Christmas Sermon

21 December 2008. [1]

Well, it’s almost Christmas. Children are bouncing up and down with excitement. They’re ready for new toys and clothes. How about us adults? Are we excited, too? Some of us, maybe.

Well, not me. I usually get a little grumpy this time of year. For years, almost from the moment Thanksgiving is over, I develop a seasonal depression that lasts all through Advent. I try to hide it, but if you were to ask me to be brutally honest, I would tell you that I just wish I could go to sleep and wake up next month. I’m not a Scrooge. I like buying and wrapping presents. I like Christmas Day, itself. But I feel sad during Advent.

This is the loneliest time of the year. I’ve spent hours asking myself why. I think many people feel lonely and depressed as the machinery of Christmas lurches back to life. I’ve often wondered if reverse psychology was the culprit. The expectation is that preparing for the holidays makes us happy. We’re supposed to be happy looking forward to presents, and another big dinner, and family, and all of that.

In the back of my mind, I hear the doleful music of the Charlie Brown Christmas special. And I hear Charlie Brown’s mournful voice saying, “Everyone is happy at Christmas, but I’m not happy.” Amen to that Charlie Brown.

There’s something sad about unpacking those dusty old boxes of Christmas decorations. Out come the little ornaments—balls, and tinsel, Santa figurines, Christian symbols, nice ornaments and tacky ornaments—all getting hung on the tree. The expensive ornament of the Washington National Cathedral gets to hang right next to the poorly glued colthespin made out to look like Santa. Why? I don’t know. The creche is put out and arranged tastefully right next to the old clockwork Santa Claus. All these little decorations find their place.

Colder weather is meant to bring us closer together, right? Closer together. Huddling and hunckering down. We have to wear layers and layers of clothing, distancing us from our environment, and reminding us of our frailty. The cold weather just makes me feel more alone, more isolated from those around me. I told you; I get grumpy.

This is the time of the year we visit family members we only see once in awhile. It’s what you do. Every one else is visiting their families so you visit yours. We get together to confirm what we already know—we are all another year older, and we still have roughly the same personality flaws. The first few minutes are usually pretty great. Big smiles, and hugs, and bringing stuff in from the car. There’s an excitement about that. The house smells comforting and familiar. You are still pretty much in your own world, but then those minutes tick by and the couple of stories you had saved up have been told, and slowly, but surely, it’s just you and them.

And even though you love them dearly, and want only the very best for each member of your family, the fact is that you’ve been living your life, and they’ve been living their lives, and you haven’t been living together. That’s why this is a visit. That’s why it feels a little weird. You are visiting each other, not living with each other like you used to. It’s different. And there’s a loss there. A little greiving about the loss of bumping into each other at the sink, and doing those little chores together like you used to do.

Adult children tend to regress a little in the presence of their parents. We’ve matured a bit while they weren’t looking, but somehow we slip back into some old patterns of talking. We’re pushing them away a little, like we did when we were teenagers, and they don’t know quite how to relate to that. Because, you see, the parents would like nothing more than to pick you up again like you were two years old and cuddle you, and read you a story, and give you a snack, and put you to bed. They want their little boy or girl back—the one who used to kiss them and giggle at their funny faces. So while the adult children are pushing their parents away—secretly mourning the loss of their childhood—the parents are also mourning the loss of their early years with us. It’s a sad time; it really is.

We don’t know how to show our love for each other. If we could, we might say, “You make me crazy, but I love you.” But do those words even touch the complexity of those feelings? “I love you”? How can we tell our family members how deep that love runs, even while every little thing they do gets on our nerves.

We convey this love with awkward moments of affection: thoughtful gifts, helping with the dishes, telling old stories that we know they want to remember. How else do we communicate our love, when we know that we’d cry embarassingly, if we said it any other way?

We go to visit family members in the nursing homes. Have you ever done that? I used to volunteer at a nursing home when I was a boy, and I have seen so many little awkward family reunions at Christmastime.

The adult children and grandchildren come to visit mom in the second floor solarium: a big empty room with old linoliem, smelling of disinfectant and talcum powder. Wheelchairs are lined up at the picture window, and the folks in them have been sitting there, staring out the window in varying degrees of wakefulness.

Mom has just had her bath and lunch, and has been wheeled over to face a leatherette couch where the family have gathered for a visit. The conversation does not flow. The younger members of the family are ready to go as soon as they arrive. They saw the Coke machine and the snack machine, and they want a treat.

They don’t know what to say to grandmother—they have no idea how to relate to her. They’ll have to lean over to give her an awkward hug, and get a slightly too wet kiss on their cheeks. They sit on the couch trying to pay attention, but there’s a soap opera playing on the television in the corner, reminding them of the countless places they’d rather be—reminding them that the life they know is still going on, but not here.

The adult children ask, “How are they treating you?” The answer is never very informative. What can Mom say? They wash her; they feed her; they see that she gets her medicine, and has her books nearby. They turn on the television and give her the remote control, or they wheel her to the solarium or down to the beauty parlor. How do they treat her? Fine.

All the questions and comments relate to the facility. Nothing about life together, because they don’t have a life together anymore. This is not a home. This is a place to be taken care of. The people are nice, but they’re not family. This is not home.

The Christmas tree in the corner was put up by Sandy, the activities director, and is filled with non-descript little lights and cheap decorations. The lights on the tree fade on and off at intervals, bathing the room and the sullen faces of the residents in blue, then red, then orange, then yellow, and then back to blue.

The soap opera goes to a commerial, and the lights on the artificial tree start back though a ten count color salute of red, orange, yellow, and blue, and there’s nothing but silence. Lonely, tired silence. Mom doesn’t have anything to say, the adult children have run out of stories. The grandchildren have finished their snacks and sodas, and have gone to the nurses’ station to get a key to the bathroom down the hall. They return a few minutes later, slowly wiping the residue of the antibacterial soap on their jeans.

The visiting family members feel the need to stay longer. They just got there fifteen minutes ago, but they find themselves caught in the time warp of the rest home. Each minute is an hour, and each hour a year. How much longer should we stay? It doesn’t feel right to go. We only see each other once or twice a year. We live half the country away. Is this the same coat I was wearing last year?

Finally, forty minutes later the announcement comes that dinner will be ready soon. The grandchildren’s eyes have seen the light at the end of the tunnel. The adult visitors try not to spring up immediately; they ease off the leatherette couch trying to seem reluctant to be heading off. Mom can sense the discomfort of the moment, and has started feebly thanking everyone for coming.

She wants to go with them.

She wishes they could bundle her up, and take her back across the country to their home, but it’s not going to happen. And she knows that it’s not for lack of love that she’s here—they simply can’t take care of her at home. And the distance between them has become so obvious that it’s truly uncomfortable.

They have lived apart now for so many years that the visits are more out of duty than devotion. And everyone knows that. Mom knows it; the adult children know it; the teenage grandchildren certainly know it. But they want to pretend that it’s okay that they’re not together any more. It’s for the best. Mom’s getting the medical care she needs. She understands that. They understand that. But it means that year by year the ties that bind are getting thinner and thinner. And that’s painful.

There is a cosmic loneliness. There is a cosmic loneliness to this time of the year. I have watched countless scenes like that one play out, and I have wondered why we can get so lonely, even around family? Why does Christmas seem so awkwardly sad sometimes?

I have wondered if maybe there was a point to it. Maybe it’s a reality check from our souls that not all is calm or bright in the real world. Maybe the expectation of some great Christmas miracle that suddenly we can all be happy together has gone unfulfilled for so many years that we don’t even hope for it anymore.

It’s a dark feeling, but it’s a true feeling. And the only answer that gives me any theological satisfaction is the thought that perhaps these feelings serve a divine purpose. That maybe these feelings remind us that it’s not the holidays themselves that make us happy. It’s not the family, or the food, or even the presents. It’s God’s willingness to see our suffering, blundering, grumpy selves, and still send Jesus.

It would have been so easy to hold back on us. It would have been so easy to let all our experiences of life be as bland and lonely as the bleak December sky, but God so loved the world…

And Jesus is born and the angels sing. God comes sneaking into our hearts when we least expect it, and says, “Hello there little man! Why are you so grumpy?”

And a tear starts to form in the corner of our eyes, we don’t know why. We don’t even really feel all that much better, but at least we get a answer back from the void. A little reassuring sensation. And the world is not quite as lonely somehow.

It’s the Holy Spirit. It’s a distant echo of the angel choirs that sang in the Bethlehem sky that night so long ago. We only get to hear it in little bits over the course of this short life, but it’s there. God is there.

He was sitting in the corner of the solarium watching the awkward conversation. He was washing dishes with you when you were visiting your folks. He was standing beside you while you were taking out the dog, and wondering what this life is all about.

He is—after all—Emmanuel, God with us. God with us, even when Karin calls us Mr. Grumpy Pants. He’s still with us. And he still loves us enough to send Jesus.

[1] Originally preached on Advent 4A. 23 December 2007 at Christ Church, Gordonsville.

Advent 4B. 21 December 2008.



          At times, I see her so clearly in my mind.  She is so beautiful.  Just beautiful.  Soft face, delicate fingers, wispy hair that she brushes from her cheek to behind her ear while she folds the laundry.  She's beautiful, but she doesn't really know that yet.


           She doesn't know that her eyes twinkle.  She doesn't know that the boy down the street notices every soft line, every color she wears, every move she makes.  She has yet to own the power that comes with feminine youth.  She is but a girl.


          At her mother's side she makes flat bread.  Dusting her hands, pouring water over rough-milled flour, mixing in palms-ful of oil.  Back and forth her hands sculpt the mass of gooey paste, at last portioning them into little balls that are rolled out and flattened.  Her hands run along the smooth surface of the iron plate, until it becomes too hot to touch.  She dips her fingers in the water, letting it trickle down onto the plate where it sizzles.  Then she plops down the disks of dough, which heat quickly, browning in spots, cooking out the water on the surface.  She piles them in towels to keep them warm, ready for dinner.


          She has gone outside to get a fresh bucket of water from the well.  She kicks up some dust with her sandals.  The wind blows her hair out from the corners of her veil, as she holds the bucket to her stomach. 

          Up comes the bucket from the well, and with a dipping spoon, she ladles the water into her own bucket.  The first dose splashes against the bottom and comes up across her left wrist, making the hem of her cuff wet.  The wind cools it so quickly that it sends a shiver up her spine.  More water, the bucket becomes heavy.  She leaves some room at the top where water will still splash out during the journey home.


          She sits at the table with her mother and father.  She is engaged to a man, a good man, a carpenter.  She doesn't know when her father will let Joseph come and take her.  The feelings are mixed.  On one hand a new life awaits her, but on the other hand she will have to say good bye to "this." 


          "This" is many things.  This is a set of dishes she has been washing for years, a bed she has slept on for years, a kettle she burned herself on just four years ago.  This is a floor that she sweeps, a game she plays, the smell of her father's clothes, her mother's hair brush.  This is her mother.  This is her father. 


          The rhythm of the house settles after dinner, clothes are changed, dishes washed, the lamp is snuffed and it's time for sleep.  One day she will be the only woman of her own house.  There will be her things that she gets to use the way she likes—but "this" will never be the same again.





          In the sixth month, a messenger named Gabriel was sent to the town where she lives, called Nazareth.  She was out behind her house, mending a patch in the stone fence that some boys had pushed through.  The messenger said to her, "Hello, Mary.  You have found favor with God.  The Lord is with you."  She stood there, face expressionless, saying nothing, but feeling different.  Something was about to change. 


          Who is this man?  Where has he come from, and what do his words mean?  "Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God.  You will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus.  He will be a great man, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of your ancestor David.  He will reign over the House of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom, there shall be no end."


          And there was silence.  A deep silence like the silence felt in creation when the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters…when the earth was without form and void, and darkness covered the face of the deep.[1]


          A new creation was about to occur, but first she must ask, "How can this be?"  And the angel said to her, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called the Son of God."  "Mary, I understand your fear, you are searching for proof.  See your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren.  You see?  Nothing is impossible with God."


          The silence returns.  She thinks.  She sees Joseph—how will she explain this to him?  How will she tell this to anyone?  She could be cast out of her community for this.  She could be stoned, if they do not believe her. 


          Creation is hanging in the balance.  The silence is penetrating.  The face of God is on the waters.  The earth hanging dizzy in space.  Mountains are shaking at the thought of this answer.  All life is groaning for the appearing of the One.  And finally, she says, "Behold, the handmaiden of the Lord, be it done unto me according to thy Word."  Or, as one might also put it, "Let there be light."  And there was light.  "The light that enlightens all people was coming into the world."[2]  And the angel departed from her.

My soul doth magnify the Lord, *
    and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Savior.
For he hath regarded *
    the lowliness of his handmaiden.
For behold from henceforth *
    all generations shall call me blessed.
For he that is mighty hath magnified me, *
    and holy is his Name.
And his mercy is on them that fear him *
    throughout all generations.
He hath showed strength with his arm; *
    he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He hath put down the mighty from their seat, *
    and hath exalted the humble and meek.
He hath filled the hungry with good things, *
    and the rich he hath sent empty away.
He remembering his mercy hath holpen his servant Israel, *
    as he promised to our forefathers,
    Abraham and his seed for ever.

          I see her so clearly sometimes.  Her face smiles.  She is so beautiful.  She is the Mother of God.  She is Mary. 

[1] Genesis 1:1-2

[2] John 1:9

Tuesday, December 16, 2008


 I am fascinated with the angel appearing to St. Joseph in a dream--in four separate occurrences.
God sends an angel to Mary, but not in a dream.  Why send an angel to Joseph in a dream? And look at the context.  For Mary it is the Annunciation--"Greetings Mary, the Lord is with you..."  She didn't dream this!  But for Joseph, he gets warned in dreams all the time.  "Do not be afraid to take Mary as you wife...the child is holy."  "Get up, go to Egypt."  "Get up, go to Israel."  And then finally, "Go to Nazareth."  Four dreams--all of them directing Joseph.
What do you think...  Were they dreams in the way that we think of dreams?  Or were they appearances of angels in some other faculty of the brain?  When you have a dream that seems too real to be a dream, you know what I'm talking about. 
There is quite a difference between a vision and a dream.  Dreams are softer.  Dreams are gentle, usually.  Visions are stark, abrupt, unsettling.  I need to play with this some more.  I think a nap is called for.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Advent 3B. 14 December 2008.

          Occasionally, I have the privilege of solemnizing a marriage.  That's a fancy way of saying, "I get to do weddings."  When I am asked to do a wedding, I ask my couples to go to a trained counselor for pre-marriage counseling.  I'll give theological instruction on what the Episcopal Church believes of Holy Matrimony, but I think couples need to be asked questions that I myself am far too timid to ask—questions about intimacy, and money, and family. 


          There are so many ways that couples can hide from each other in those conversations.  You need a trained counselor to really "take it" to them—make them communicate with each other.  It's not easy, but it has to be done, because I don't want to solemnize a marriage, unless I feel that the couple really knows each other, and is still willing to take the plunge.


          You can really mess things up if you get married based only on your feelings.  But that said, the feelings are pretty good.  Sometimes the feelings are so good that couples assume that those first feelings will be like a library book that you can just keep turning in and checking out again and again. 





          You hit your first argument and you take the book back to the library.  He's no good; he made me order the sandwich.  I wanted the entrĂ©e.  Cheapskate.  "I want to turn this one in…he's no good."  The librarian says, "He's not due back for another week, are you sure you don't want to keep reading?"  "No," she says, "I want to turn him in."   "You want another one?"  "No, they're all the same."


          She goes home.  Plops down in the chair.  (Pause.) She looks around.  Magazines.  No, I read that one.  Nothing to read.  She goes back to the library in a couple hours, and there he sits on the shelf.  He looks all right.  Why did I did return him?  The sandwich tasted good.  At least he paid for it.  She takes him down from the shelf, and checks him out, again.  All is forgiven.  He's due back in a couple weeks.  Who knows what kind of trouble he'll get into by then.  As long as the feeling gets renewed, she's okay with him. 


          Of course, I could switch the genders around.  I've met plenty of men—myself included—who fall hard and fast.  She's so pretty.  Her face, her hair, her eyes.  Lord have mercy—that smile.  When she smiled at that moment...  When she brushed her hand over mine, like it was just an accident, but it wasn't an accident…  We were on that double date, and we sat in the backseat of the car.  The way the moonlight played on her face…  The way she talked, the way she laughed…




          You're out on the date.  Somehow you find yourself talking about something that she's either going to love or hate.  You don't know how it's going to go.  And she agrees with you, totally.  She thinks you're right about that.  Can you imagine it?  She's "the one"!  It's all over, right now.  All the doors have just opened.  All you have to do is take her hand and keep walking, and you'll wind up at the Altar. 


          That's how it was with me.  At a certain point in the courtship, I just knew.  The space of time between now and "I take you Karin to be my wife" was just math—we were going to get married.  I didn't even really think I had a choice in the matter—it was crystal clear.  She's the one. 


          And you get married, and the feelings do get renewed, but you make peace with the fact that he doesn't do everything the way you'd like—she's not always as romantic as she was at first.  The perfume doesn't go on every day.  Instead of flowers or chocolates, sometimes it's just getting the prescription filled, or taking the kids here and there.  You know…it's not a movie in your head anymore…it's life.  It's reality.  Some folks come apart when they realize that he's not the be-all and end-all of manhood, or what have you.  (Pause.)  After awhile it's not that she's "the One," it's that he's mine, she's mine.  That's not quite the same thing. 


          I'll admit to you that I have always been kind of a hero-worshiper.  I fall for people.  It's not an unhealthy sort of obsession or anything.  But I "take a shine" to people who do things well and I sometimes try to emulate what I like about them. 


          I have my favourite preachers.  I won't tell you their names, because it's kind of embarrassing.  You might think, "why would he listen to them?"  But I like listening to other preachers; I have for years.  I've got my style, they've got theirs.  Sometimes they can say things in a way that I can't.  Quite often, they're understanding of the text is better than mine.  It keeps me on my toes. 


          And I'll listen and listen and listen, and eventually, I'll hear a sermon that isn't one of their best, and I'll have to face reality.  They're not perfect.   They sometimes have a clunker, like everyone else.  They live in the same world I do.  They've had to clean out the garage.  They've had to apologize for mistakes.  They've had to take out the trash, and rake the leaves—just like I have.  And then, along comes another…smooth voice, perfect delivery, and I'm star-struck all over again.  It's embarrassing.  You'd think that I'd learn! 


          There is a preacher I know who isn't very smooth, but he's very good.  He can be hard to listen to sometimes, but I want to tell you about him.  Out in the wilderness, some years ago, this preacher was preaching.  He didn't look like much.  He wasn't a trained preacher or scholar.  People might say he was more spit than polish, if you catch my drift.


          He was dressed in very common clothes.  If you saw him you would never think he was a preacher.  You would think he was a farmer, or maybe a brick-layer.  He looked like the guy ahead of you in the drive-thru at McDonalds—old Ford F-150, the metal trim around the truck bed has pulled away, leaving a trail of rusty, chipped paint. 

          He was out in the wilderness, and he had a group of people around him.  People came to hear him from all over—little towns, big cities, foreign countries.  They came to him.


          His voice was rough.  He said, "You are all good people, but you've stopped caring for each other.  You act like it's just you, and no one else.  You act like this is all it's going to be, and if someone needs something you say, `Tough, get out my way.'  Well, folks, I'm here to tell you that there's a man who's coming who is going to change things.  He's a good man.  He knows a lot.  He's better at this than I am.  My job is to work the soil…get it ready for seed.  You know what I'm trying to say here, right?    It's time to shape up.  Get your act together.  Stop whining.  Stop taking advantage.  Stop being so selfish, get after it.  Help each other out.  Change your ways."


          The man's name was John, and if you saw the people who were listening to him, you realized, this guy has a following.  I mean, when he started to preach—he might not reach you—but he was reaching some people who would never come to church.


          Well, as you might imagine, this got the attention of the local authorities, both religious and secular.  They sent out a deputation from the Temple, because they had believed that one day someone like him might appear: a preacher who was to prepare the way for the man God had anointed. 



          The thing of it was: they didn't know for sure what was going on.  John was drawing these big crowds.  He might actually be the Messiah.  He never said who he was.


          So they went out to the place where John was preaching, and they asked him, "Who are you?  You've got all these people listening.  You can understand why we want to know.  Preachers and prophets have come and gone.  People have fallen for them, thinking "they're the one."  And they've fallen in love with them and their words, and then they see that they aren't—you know—the "real deal."  It's gotten to be so that we don't just take any preacher on face value anymore.  You need credentials."


          And John said, "I am not the Anointed One." 

          "You're not?" 


          "Well, what then?  Are you Elijah?  You know, the one who was to prepare the way?" 

          "No," said John. 

          "Well, we need to know something. You have to tell us what to tell the people back at the Temple.  Who are you?" 

          And John said, "I am just the voice of one crying in the wilderness, `Make straight the way of the Lord.'" That's what the prophet Isaiah had written.

          "Who are you?" 

          "I'm just the voice." 

          "Are you `the One?'" 


          "Are you sure?" 

          "Yes.  Don't fall in love with me.  Don't hold on to me as if I'm the Savior.  I am not the One you are looking for.  You are looking for someone whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.  I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit."  (Pause.)


          You know, in every church you've got a handful of people who will talk about their faith at the drop of a hat.  I don't mean that they are sanctimonious or self-righteous.  I mean that there are people in every church who don't mind sharing the ways that they have wrestled with their faith, messed things up, gotten it right a couple times, but always moved closer to God.  Do you know what I mean?  You could probably name names.


          And within every church you've also got a lot of people who would be scared stiff to be standing in the pulpit.  Twist their arm, and they'll stand for vestry.  Ask them to help with moving the tables and chairs…no problem.  Just don't ask them to speak.  Don't ask them to say anything about their faith. 


          Clergy have misunderstood them for years, because we fall into the category of the talkers.  I'll talk about God till the cows come home.  And so often clergy have thought that the men and women who don't say anything simply don't believe, but that's not true.  It's not that they don't believe—it's that they do believe. 


          They believe so strongly and so deeply that it's far too close to who they are to even open their mouths.  Some of it is `stage fright,' but let's not cheapen it by calling it that.  They're not really afraid—they just don't know how to put it into words.  The faith bounces around inside them.  They whistle hymns when no one is looking.  They pray all the time, more often without words.  Their hearts are lifted to God almost all the time, but they could never talk about it.

          If they did know how to talk about it, they would probably sound a little rough…a little untrained, but people would listen to them.  And the people listening would hear the best sermon that can be preached.  A sermon so good that it would put any priest or preacher to shame.


          If you listened to them you would see the open door of the empty tomb.  You would see the angels of God ascending and descending, and hear choirs singing, just from the few rough, heart-felt words of a preacher who isn't a preacher.


          That's why they listened so closely to John—because he was one of them, and he was saying what they could not say.  "He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him.  He himself was not the light, but he came testify to the light.  The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world."


          And they asked him, "Are you the One?"

          And he said, "No.  I am not the One.  But he is coming."