Monday, December 28, 2009

The First Sunday after Christmas C. 27 December 2009.



          There have been times when I have been watching the television or a movie and I'll see someone depicted as a Christian, and inevitably, when it happens, I'll cringe.  I wonder if you have had the same reaction.  I want to say to whomever is watching what I am watching that what they are seeing does not really represent most of us. 


          The depictions of Christians are always a little cartoonish—never enough to be truly disrespectful, but often verging on disrespectful.  I'm not bringing this up because I want to preach against Hollywood.  That's not my point.  The question is, how could you really depict authentic Christianity?


          Well, let's see.  You could show someone at prayer—someone kneeling beside their bed, or at a prayer desk.  But you know, every religion in the world has prayer.   Unless you heard the prayer, and recognized it as Christian, but even then, prayer is not meant to be a show.


          You could depict someone in meditation, but every religion has meditation—and you don't even have to be a person of faith to meditate.  I regularly see self-help sections of the Readers' Digest suggesting meditation as a stress relief—no mention of any relationship to God there—just meditation.


          How can you depict an authentic Christian?  You could show someone serving the poor—maybe working in a soup kitchen.  Or maybe visiting the sick, or visiting people in prison.  But you don't have to be a Christian to do that.  In fact, there are many, many people with absolutely no religious affiliation who serve the poor and visit the sick. 


          What if you depicted people doing it as a group?  Well, that's an interesting idea, except that there are many organizations that are not affiliated with any religion who do incredible things for humanity—some more so than the Church, quite frankly.


          Well, what can you do to show a Christian is a Christian?  I don't know.  But it is something I was thinking about when I was thinking about today's Gospel reading.  It is what is known as the Prologue to John's Gospel.  The word "Prologue" comes from the Greek, prologos.  Pro meaning before and logos meaning word—so, before words.


          The intention of John's first chapter is set the stage for his magnificent Gospel.  I don't know anyone who doesn't love John's Gospel; it is simply beautiful.  Some of the most eloquent phrases can be found in John.  It is loaded with beautiful imagery and symbolism and theology…gracious.  If you want theology line by line, then read John.  You almost can't preach on a reading from John; you almost have to narrow it down to a verse.   


          So the Prologue is intended to set the stage, or to frame the context for the story John is about to tell, which is the story of the life of Jesus.  Now if you compare it to, say, Matthew, you will see that John is coming from a much more mystical place when he writes.  Matthew begins with a geneology that traces Jesus' lineage all the way back to Abraham.  It's an amazing feat to do that, but many people just skip the list.  There are some interesting characters in Matthew's geneology, but that's another story. 


          What I'm saying is that Matthew begins with "the man Jesus," but look at how John begins: "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.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it."


          It's beautiful, and it's very dense theologically, but what John is saying is that Jesus transcends the geneology.  Jesus is the eternal Word of God—he was in the beginning with God.  All things came into being through him—even though he was not yet born a human being. 


          He is the light—the true light.  You look up in the sky and see the sun or you see the reflection of the sun's rays brilliantly coloring the distant mountains, but that's just what you can see with your eyes.  Jesus—the eternal—the original light is the true light.  The one who illuminates the hearts of people—the one who, whether you know it or not—created you and knows you better than you know yourself.


          John writes that when Jesus was on the earth, his own people did not understand him or accept him.  This is an important piece of the prologue, because John wrote his Gospel long after Jesus had left the earth.  John is saying, "Folks, the Messiah was right here in our midst and we did not receive him—we did not know what we had."


          "But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh, or of the will of man, but of God."  So—in other words—if you are able to receive Jesus as the Son of God, the Anointed One, the Messiah, then God has given you power to become a child of God.  Therefore you no longer exist simply because of your parents' birth; you are born "from above" "anew."  Because, as John writes, this eternal Word became flesh and lived among us.


          The eternal Word, present at the beginning of time, was incarnate by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, and was made a living breathing person just like you and me.  He had to eat and drink, and learn to walk, and stub his toes, and cut his fingernails and experience pain and loss—God became a human being. 


          So you see that what John has written here, as a Prologue to his Gospel, is really the prologue of our lives as Christians.  John has spelled out for us what the birth of Jesus means, and how it makes Christians Christians.


          Let me put it into the simplest language I can.  If you are able to accept Jesus as the eternal Son of God made flesh, then you have been given the power to become a child of God.           


          And that's why it's impossible to depict Christianity on the silver screen.  Because even though being a Christian is about prayer and serving the poor and all those demonstrable things, it is fundamentally about being a person who has been given the power to be a child of God.  And how that makes us different is not able to be seen with physical eyes. 


          I mean, you can wear a cross, but that doesn't make you a Christian.  I heard about a woman who walked into a jewelry store and asked to see a cross necklace, and the sales lady brought out a selection of plain gold and silver crosses.  And the woman responded, "Oh, no, I want one with the little man on it."   She didn't know who the little man was.


          I wear a clerical collar.  Do you know how the collar became the symbol of clergy?  Back before they made shirts that had the collars sewn on them, you could by collars with with flaps, and you could buy just plain collars that had no flaps.  Usually if you couldn't afford the flaps, you couldn't afford a tie either, so it became a clear sign of under priviledge if you couldn't afford a fancy collar and tie.  So clergy adopted that manner of dress so that they could identify themselves with the poor.  It's ironic now, because a clergy shirt is around forty bucks and a regular shirt from the Clothes Closet is around fifty cents!


          But I wear a clerical collar because it identifies me as a priest.  I wear it for the same reasons that a waiter wears an apron, or a police officer wears a badge.  But the collar doesn't make my deeds more Christian.


          The thing is, you can't see the power we have been given to become children of God.   You can't see the inward assent of the heart that we have received Jesus as the Way, the Truth and the Life.  It's not able to be visible in ways that distinguish us from anyone else. 


          When you are a Christian you are born from above—you are a child of God—and when you meet someone else who is also a child of God, then it's like the Holy Spirit in you can sense the Holy Spirit in that other person, and you know that person is a Christian.  (Pause.)


          But there is another facet of John's Prologue that I want to leave with you today.  John has written these words to set the stage for his Gospel, but really, he has explained something that is absolutely fundamental.  You see, when the eternal Son became a human being, God ennobled all humanity.  God reached down in the person of Jesus, humbled himself to a stable and a manger, and in so doing God said humanity is worthy to hold my presence.  You and I and everyone else who bears the name of Jesus, who believes in his life, death and resurrection as the pivotal truth of existence—we are not just people who, as St. Paul wrote, "are blown about by every wind." Christians are people who are grounded in who Christ is and in who Christ has made us to be. 


          We are not people who get worked up about bad news, or become overwrought when calamity strikes.  We believe in the eternal Son of God, who has made us sons and daughters of the same God.  And like Jesus, we too can go to our own crosses, believing that resurrections will follow.


          To us who received him, who believed in his name, God gave us power to become children of God—children who have learned to rest in the fatherly care of the Almighty, knowing that storms come and go.  Things are up and things are down.  But our relationship with God never waivers.  It is a constant, daily reality, that we are children of the one true God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.






If this sermon was meaningful to you, please consider making a donation to the church where you feel most at home.


The churches of Beckford Parish, where this sermon was preached, are:

St. Andrew's Episcopal Church, P.O. Box 117, Mt. Jackson, VA 22842, and

Emmanuel Episcopal Church, 122 East Court Street, Woodstock, VA 22664


Christmas 2009.



          Our journey through Advent has come to a close, and we have now come to the birth of Jesus.  We come to this service with that mix of solemnity and delight that is unique to this holiday.  Each year we read the timeless words of St. Luke's Gospel, and each year we are perhaps struck by the almost perfunctory description of Christ's birth. 


          Luke simply writes, "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 room for them in the inn."  We are not allowed even the slightest glimpse into the delivery aspects of the story.  We are to imagine that it was perfectly routine—mother and baby are well. 


          And without any transition, Luke begins another story, "In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night.  Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.  But the angel said to them, `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 lion's share of the story takes place out in the fields, not in the stable.  The most interesting part is not the birth, but the announcement of the angels about the birth.  Luke won't let us wash our hands and hold the baby.  He won't even let us Purell and hold the baby!  Luke forces us out into the fields.


          I sometimes imagine what that would be like, to be a shepherd keeping watch in a field at night.  It looks so beautiful on Christmas cards, but that's because the Christmas cards have the bright lights and the angels.  But for the most part, you've got to think that watching a flock of sheep at night must be a pretty lonely, thankless job.  A minute, an hour, a couple hours.  "What's that over there?  Is that a fox?"  "No.  That's just a bush."  "Are you sure?"  "Yep." 


          And we quite forget that there was no light to speak of.  Even in the towns and villages, the only light was from lamps, and lamps where kept inside houses.  You couldn't just flip on a flashlight to see.  You had to keep your senses open.  You had to be attentive and listen in case something should come up on the sheep. 


          So when the angel came and the glory of the Lord was shining, this would have been terrifying.  Light!  Light that was not coming from a lamp, but the shining splendor of the Lord in their midst.  Their job was to guard the sheep with their senses open and their minds and bodies ready to defend.  And here is this angel and bright light. 

          What's going to happen next?  The angel says "Do not be afraid," but how could they not be afraid?  Everything is strange.  Everything that is normal and calm is suddenly abnormal and frightening. 


          "I am bringing you good news," says the angel, "for to you is born this day in the city of David, a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord."  Now, wait a minute!  Did we read that correctly?  Shouldn't it be "to Mary and Joseph is born this day a boy."  But that's not what Luke has written.  The child is born to Mary, but this child is not hers—not really.  He is ours.


          But now, here's the kicker.  The angel says to them, "This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger."  Now, we knew it was a manger, because Luke had already told us that before he started talking about the shepherds, but Luke wants us to watch the shepherds' reaction.  This is strange news.


          "I'm sorry, did you say, the child…is in a manger?"

          "That's right."

          "A feeding trough."


          "Those things that hold feed for cows and livestock…that don't really ever get cleaned all that well."


          "Are there animals around?  Did they clean the manger?  It doesn't seem right to me.  You mean, they couldn't find anywhere else to put him down?  A manger.  It just doesn't seem right."


          Perhaps we've become desensitized to the manger, but if you were drive down the road to French's dairy farm and look at where the cows eat, you wouldn't think that's a good place for a baby.  Anywhere but there.


          This is one of the mysteries of Christ's birth.  A manger.  A lowly place.  A place that probably wasn't very clean—in a stable that probably wasn't very clean.  But still, there is Christ, the Lord.  And that's where you will find him.


          You will find him in a dirty place.  In a ditch outside a homeless shelter.  In a hospital emergency room at 3 o'clock in the morning with gun shot wounds.  In a slum in the inner city.  In a farm house where the children are getting a tiny little meal, but the parents are going to bed hungry.  The parents would rather be hungry than send their children to bed hungry.  And Christ is there, because he's in a manger.


          God became flesh…but look at the way he did it.  He didn't come to a soft feather bed, fire in the fireplace, or even into a nice decent hospital.  Look at how he comes.  Could it be any lowlier?  And God says, "That's okay.  He will be born in a stable, like any beast of the field.  I will come to be with my creation, and I will touch even the lowest of the lows.  There is no place, no matter how unsanitary, no matter how immodest, no matter how poor—I will be there.  That's where you will find me.  No clothes—just bands of cloth, unstitched, unembroidered, untailored to fit the newborn King.  Put me in the manger.  That's where you will find me." 


          There is no place we can go where God is not willing to go to find us.  You can lose your job, your money, your spouse, your health, and all the things that made life, life.  But there is no ditch that is too deep for God to reach in and pull us out. 


          There is no condition of embarrassment, or heartache, or pain that God will find us in and say, "Well, uhm…good luck with that."  That's the mystery of the baby in the manger.  The angel says to the shepherds the same thing the angels are singing tonight: God has come to you and me. 


          God has become one with us and there is no going back.  He can't change his mind now.  He can't be born a new way to new parents.  The story is the story.  And the story is that he's going to know you.  No matter how high you climb or how low you sink, so what?  God will be there. 


          There in the manger.  There in the ditch.  There in board room where the cuts are being made.  There at store where the food is being bought on credit.  There at the nursing home where the woman waits for a visit.   There at the ICU where the man is breathing more and more slowly.  (Pause.)


          What is he doing in a manger?  Nothing.  He's just being there.   Just breathing in and out.  But somehow just being there is enough.  In time the child will grow.  He will learn.  He will teach and heal.  He will travel and he will preach.  He will be baptized, and betrayed, he will be whipped and tortured and nailed to a cross.  He will rise from the dead.


          But tonight it's enough to simply be present in the manger, because just his presence there, ironically—in the place of eating and drinking—is its own message.  And the message is this: "This is my body which is given for you.  This is my blood which will be shed for you.  Take and eat.  Drink and remember.  I am here for you."


          Such is the love of God.


Monday, December 21, 2009

A few words from Jeremy Taylor

Ø The Rule and Exercise of Holy Dying Chapter 1, Sec. 2, Para 5:

Since we stay not here, being people but of a day's abode, and our age is like that of a fly and contemporary with a gourd, we must look somewhere else for an abiding city, a place in another country to fix our house in, whose walls and foundation is God, where we must find rest, or else be restless for ever. For whatsoever ease we can have or fancy here, is shortly to be changed into sadness or tediousness; it goes away too soon, like the periods of our life, or stays too long, like the sorrows of a sinner; its own weariness, or a contrary disturbance, is its load; or it is eased by its revolution into vanity and forgetfulness; and where either there is sorrow, or an end of joy, there can be no true felicity; which, because it must be had by some instrument, and in some period of our duration, we must carry up our affections to the mansions prepared for us above, where eternity is the measure, felicity is the state, angels are the company, the Lamb is the light, and God is the portion and inheritance.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Advent 3C. 13 December 2009.



This sermon is dedicated to my parents, teachers, and mentors, and all who have helped me hear and feel God.


          When I was a teenager—not every night, but often—I used to read the Bible in the evenings, or just before bed.  I don't do that much anymore because—well, frankly I do it so much during the day.  But back then, I did it for two reasons.  And I'll tell you the lesser reason first. 


          The lesser reason was that I was taught to.  I went to a Christian high school.  We went to chapel everyday.  And we were taught to read the Bible and ask questions, and think critically.  In many respects, my seminary education really began in the seventh grade at Eastern Mennonite High School.  Or perhaps I should say, the seeds were sown there.  So, I read the Bible because I was told that it was a good thing to do.


          But the real reason I read the Bible is because—and you're going to laugh at me for this—but to me, the Gospel of Christ has always been something that I have felt in my bones.  I stand up here every week to talk about it, but the irony is that I can't express how deeply I believe it and how much it means to me. 


          From way before seminary, before college, high school, from all the way back before even the fifth grade.  Fifth grade.  My fifth grade Sunday school teacher was Ann Barr.  Call her up and she will tell you.  I had perfect attendance that year.  I was at Sunday school every single Sunday from September through May.  And it wasn't just because she handed out chewing gum every week. 


          I'm trying to tell you, folks, that somewhere along the line when I was not much older than Peter, God somehow grabbed me, pulled me into the sacristy and said, "You can try to run, but it's useless.  I'm not going to let you have any enjoyment in anything other than this." 


          And I could tell you stories about what an awful child I was in church.  My mother will gladly tell you that I went through some times when I hated coming to church.  And do you know what I hated most about church?  I mean, most of all?  I hated the sermon.  Boooring.  Why does he stand up there so long?  Look at these people—they're not paying any attention to him.  Why doesn't he just sit down?


          In the bulletin I would scribble notes to my mother.  "How much longer is this going to last?"  And she would write back, "Another ten minutes."  She didn't know how long it was going to last.  "It's been ten minutes, and it's not over.  How much longer now?"  And she'd write back, "Be patient."  And back and forth we would go.  I hated the sermon.


          Children's time.  The call would come from the pulpit, "I would like to invite the children to come forward at this time to talk with me at the steps of the chancel."  The church I grew up in had a lot of children, and they all liked to come forward.  All of them.  Droves of children.  And then the toddlers came down with their father or mother and be held in their laps.  Where was Alexander?  I'll tell you.  Hiding.  I did not want to go up there.  I did not want to be seen like that—it was embarrassing.  I did not want the little old ladies to coo and giggle at the silly little answers the other children would come up with.


          "Who was Noah?"  "Wasn't he the one who had the…I don't know."  "Oooh   Oooh.  Pick me!"  "Yes, Michelle."  "Wasn't he the one who built the ark and had the animals?"  "Yes, Michelle!  Very good."  As if she didn't know…  Michelle Shirkey.  She knew.  We all knew.  We had all just read about Noah in Sunday school, but Michelle has to make herself look cute.  She had blond hair done up in ringlets, and she'd kind of toss her head around to make them bounce.  Awwwww…  I didn't want to have any part in that.  No children's time.  No, thank you.


          And children's choir.  Ugh…  I sang for a little while and then I made a deal with my mother that if I still didn't like it after a couple months, I wouldn't sing anymore.  My mother was banking on the notion that if I stayed at it, I'd like it.  I hated children's choir.  The songs were all cutesy little things.  "With Jesus in the boat you can smile in the storm."  That's not what the text means.  The song should be about the peace God brings to the storm.  It wasn't a biblically or theologically sound song…why are we singing this?  


          But my mother wouldn't let me give it up.  "You said I could drop it if I didn't like it."  "Well, you can't, you have to sing in the choir."  And of course the joke was on me, because I ended up loving choir when I got to high school.  And I sang in every choir in high school, college and seminary.  But that's another story.


          See, all the way through though…  Even though there were aspects of church that I hated, the Faith still had a hold of me.  I wasn't that good at prayer, really, except that I felt like something in me was always open to it.  The best way I know to describe it is this:  It has always seemed to me that God has been in the room.  I don't know what it's like to be in a room all by myself.  I really don't.  I have not been truly, truly lonely, ever.  Because, and again, this is hard to describe, it's like God is always there. 


          In fact—and you're probably thinking I'm crazy right about now—but when I'm all alone, that's when it seems to me like God's presence is stronger.  So, praying has always been kind of strange, because he's sitting right there.  Why talk with these big formal words when he's right there?  He already knows what just happened.  You don't have to tell him.

          So, I'd sit down to read the Bible in the evening.  Usually to clear my head a little bit, and sometimes because my head was so filled with crazy things that it was nice to let God speak for a little while. 

          And I would flip around because I had various sections that spoke to me every time I would read them.  Psalm 91, "He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty.  I will say of the Lord, "He is my refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust."

          Isaiah 40, "Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God. Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned…Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low: and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain:  And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together: for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it."

          And I used to love listening to Handel's Messiah, all the time.  Just recently, I put on my CD of Messiah—the same one I used to listen to when I was a teenager.  Karin was at the grocery store, and I was at home, watching the children.  And I picked up Peter and carried him around, and then Maggie, and I sang along with the choir, but in my heart I was intensely praying, "God, please grab them like you grabbed me those years ago.  Let these words, let this story of your life and your people, seep into their bones."

          I don't want my children to grow up without this story deep within them…these words deep in their souls.  I cannot imagine my life without the Holy Faith.  I simply can't imagine it.  And try as I might, every week, to give voice to what our Faith means to us personally, and to the world, and to all existence…  I can't.  It's simply too much. 

          One of my favourite lessons that I used to read when I was a boy was the section from Philippians we read today, "Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.  Let your [discipleship] be known to everyone.  The Lord is near.  Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.  And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus."

          I suppose what I am saying today is that those four little words from Philippians, "The Lord is near," have just always seemed so true to me.  I like the King James better, "The Lord is at hand."  He's right here.  He's sitting right here.

          And I know he isn't really.  I know that it's the presence of the Holy Spirit I feel, and I'm no less grateful because God is Three in One and One in Three, but I have this sorrow within me that God is here and not here. 

          God is at hand, and yet we still must wait for the return of Christ.  For me, that is not scary at all—it's a very deep yearning.  I want to see, face to face, the person whose presence is sitting right there in the room when it looks like I'm all alone. 

          God is at hand. "The Lord is near."  When I have the grace to understand that, I don't worry about things.  I make my prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, and the peace of God which passes all understanding guards my heart and mind in Christ Jesus. I want that so much for my children. 

          And I know that a huge reason why I love being here with you, and being the one who talks about these things on Sunday, is because I want this for you, too.  I want you to know that God is both right here AND coming soon.  And I want that to be—for you—the joy of your heart.  To know God…to really know God. 

          To feel him present with you at all times.  Not as someone watching over your shoulder, waiting for you to mess up.  No, no…  Like a kind of warm hug, a Comforter, a companion.  The One who is always there for you AND who we will one day see coming in the clouds with the angels. 

          I guess what I'm trying to say is that I hope you are in love with God.  I hope that you are in love with God.  And if you are not, I hope you will fall in love, because—I'm telling you, folks—there's nothing better.




Wednesday, December 9, 2009

In the first church

I served as a priest there was a woman who had wrestled for years and years with a very rare form of blood cancer.  She had Polycythemia vera.  It's a disease where the bone marrow makes too many red blood cells.  
            Anna had been diagnosed with this disease in the 1970s and she lived, for many years, without any real complications.  But toward the end of her life, the disease made for complications with other conditions she developed.  She was in and out of the hospital over the course of months.  Then she was moved to Fairfax Hospital where they did countless blood transfusions.  I was the Assistant Rector at the time, so the Rector and I took every other day going to the hospital to see her and bring Communion. 

            Finally, it became clear that Anna would not be living much longer.  So the family lined up hospice care and sent her home.  I will never forget the day she died.  Now you have understand, Anna was a devout Episcopalian.  She wanted Communion every day.  But her son was a devout Southern Baptist, and they were big time movers and shakers at their local church.

            I got the call that Anna was losing consciousness and was breathing heavily, so the Rector and I both got in our cars and headed off to see her at home.  Anna lived in a basement apartment in her son's house.  When I pulled up to the house, the driveway was loaded with cars.  I got down to Anna's apartment and she had already died.  In the living room was Anna's hospital bed, and there was the hospice caregiver wrapping up paperwork and flushing medicines down the toilet.  And nearby was the son and his wife looking stoic.  This had been coming for some time.

            Next to them was the entire ministerial team of the local Baptist Church.  I mean, I knew the son was heavily involved at his church, but there was the senior pastor, the junior pastor, the youth pastor, the minister of outreach and hospitality.  Every clergy person from that large suburban church was in the room.  Tall men.  Incredible haircuts.  Golf shirts and penny loafers. 

            When I saw all the support Anna's son was receiving, I decided to go over to Anna's body.  After all, they've got their parishioner, and I've got mine.  I would have been glad to talk with them, but you know…my relationship was really with Anna.

            Well, I don't remember why the Rector didn't do this—maybe it's because I'm a little more high church than he is—but I gave Ministration at the Time of Death (last rites) and while I was praying I remember hearing one of the pastors say to the family, "She's already there.  She's there."

            Now, you know what he was saying, "Anna's already in heaven," but somehow I didn't like that.  And I've been trying to put my finger on why it was that it bothered me.  Because, you see, he was speaking proleptically.  She is going there and she is there.  Surely what he said was theologically okay.  But it bothered me a little.  Maybe it bothers you, too?  I don't know.

            I know he meant it well.  I know he was trying to comfort the family with the holy hope all Christians share that God will bring us home and that the resurrection is coming, but it still got into me.  I think it did because I knew Anna.  And there is something about that space of time—I don't have a word for it—but the first couple hours after a person dies is a special time.

            I don't know what happens cosmically when someone dies.  I have no idea, no one does.  But I have been present enough times just after someone has died to not want to fast forward to heaven so quickly. 

            There is something to be said for speaking as if what God will do has already been done.  Much of our scripture uses that language

            But whenever I want to jump over to a full throated proclamation that what God wants to do is already done, something within me is pulled back to Anna's bedside and the pastor's voice plays in my ear, "She's already there."  And I want to say, "No, not yet."

            Let's give Anna's soul a chance to breathe.  Let's give her a moment to be free of polycythemia vera, and blood clots, and oxygen tubes.  She is bound for the Kingdom, yes.  But let's give her just a little more time to say good bye. I think I could use that time to say good bye, too. 

Monday, December 7, 2009

There seem to be many

who are sick and suffering. Each Sunday I hear of more, and each day I feel I should spend more time in prayer. Please join me.


LORD Jesus Christ, who didst go about doing good and healing all manner of disease amongst the people, lay thy healing hand upon, me, and if it be thy will restore me to my former health. May thy almighty strength support my weakness, and defend me from the enemy. May thy sustaining presence be with me to soothe each ache and pain.

O spare me a little, that I may recover my strength before I go heance and be no more seen. Heal me, O Lord, and I shall be healed. Save me, and I shall be saved, for thou art my strength.

Write, O Lord, thy sacred wounds on my heart that I may never forget them, and that in them I may read thy pains, that I may bear patiently every pain for thee. Write thy love on my heart that I may love only thee.

Lord, be merciful to me a sinner: Jesus, Son of the living God, have mercy upon me. I commend my soul to God my Creator, who made me out of nothing: to Jesus Christ my Savior, who redeemed me with his precious Blood; to the Holy Ghost, who sanctified me in Baptism. Into thy hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit.

Let thy holy angels defend me from all powers of darkness. Let Mary, Mother of God, and all the blessed saints, pray for me a poor sinner.




Christ, when thou shalt call me hence,

Be thy Mother my defence,

Be thy Cross my victory.

-- Prayers in Sickness, St. Augustine's Prayer Book (no copyright claimed)

Advent 2C. 6 December 2009.




          I have decided to preach on the letter to the Philippians today.  We read three lessons a Sunday, not including the Psalm, and I almost always preach on the Gospel lesson.  So, this is the text for today:


I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now. I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ. It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me in your heart, for all of you share in God's grace with me, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel. For God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus. And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.  (Philippians 1:3-11)






          This is the beginning of the letter of Paul to the church at Philippi, which was a Roman colony in Macedonia.  Paul wrote this letter while he was in prison, which is an amazing thing if you read it with that in mind.  If you were to get a letter from a prisoner, it probably wouldn't sound like this—especially if the imprisonment was unjust.  You would expect a bit more frustration, perhaps a note or two of rebuke for his captors, and a couple sentences of denial about what they have said he has done.  But we don't get any of that.


          We don't know exactly why Paul was imprisoned, but we know that he was imprisoned many times and probably for the same reasons of suspicion that many early Christians were imprisoned. 


          Did you ever stop to ask why it is that the Roman Empire was okay with the Jewish establishment and not Christianity?  Well, the answer is a bit more complicated that this, but the Romans believed in a virtue of behavior that they called pietas.  Pietas means duty. 


          They had other virtues, like gravitas.  Gravitas is a wonderful virtue.  For a long time I thought gravitas was to be someone important, weighty in a conversation, an intellect.  But that's not really what it means.  Gravitas means that you are grounded in thought and action.  You don't just fly off the handle.  It's a wonderful virtue, and it is very rare nowadays to find people who are grounded.  When I think of the people who have been most influential to me, they have been people who are grounded.  Mentors.  Gravitas.


          And then there's the virtue called dignitas, but dignitas is not so easily translated as dignity—though dignity clearly came from dignitas.  We don't have one word that sums up dignitas.  Dignitas is the sum total of a person's various attributes, but it can't be measured and quantified.  You don't have twenty inches of dignitas or thirty pounds of it.  Dignitas is a gut level estimation of a man's honor, and it's what you intuitively think about when you size someone up.


          Someone new walks into your presence, and in less than two seconds you can identify their age, their race, their sense of confidence, their social standing, their intelligence.  I'm not saying we should go by these things in deciding whether to befriend them.  No, no, no.  Jesus was very clear that that behavior is wrong.  You will know someone by what they do and say, not by whether or not you like their aftershave.   But the Roman virtue dignitas was about reputation and social standing.  We don't have a word for it.


          We don't have a word for justicia, from which we get the word justice.  Justicia is not about judging right from wrong; justicia is about moderation between selfishness and selflessness.  You go down the line at coffee hour getting treats to nibble on while you talk to people after church.  You really like the cheese, but you don't pick up the platter of cheese and eat it all, right?  No, but you have a couple pieces.  You are practicing justicia.  You take a little and you leave a little—you moderate selfish and unselfish behavior.



          But now, I got into all of this because of the virtue pietas, which is the reason why the Romans left the Jews alone, but didn't care for the Christians.  You see, pietas means duty, but it means specifically, duty to your family, and your family traditions.  If your dad did it, and his dad did it, then you probably should do it to.  It's what you do—it's part of your family's culture. 


          Now this sounds a little foreign to American ears, but if you were to go to France—or really almost anywhere in Europe—this virtue is still deeply imbedded.  It horrifies most Europeans to think about the way we pick up and move and change jobs—change family positions. 


          You might say that our country was founded to be a place where people could change—freedom of religion, freedom of assembly, freedom to move around and do what we please.  And part of that was a rebellion against the culture of Europe, which inherited from the Romans this virtue of pietas, which meant that if you are born Catholic, you die Catholic.  If you are born into a family of professors, you become a professor.   In many parts of Europe, still to this day, you don't just inherit your DNA, you inherit your future profession. 


          But let me come back to the Romans at the time of Jesus.  Romans understood the Jews, because the Jews were practicing pietas—they did what their fathers and mothers had done.  Moses said, "Do this, don't do that.  This is how God wants you to live.  This is the Covenant that God gave us when he set us free from our bondage in Egypt." 

          And the Roman Empire nodded its head and said, "Well, of course you're going to keep doing things like you did them before.  The Jewish faith has all the Roman virtues, gravitas, justicia, dignitas…but most importantly, pietas.  You do what your daddies did.


          And that's precisely why they didn't understand the Christians.  We didn't do what our daddies did—at least in their minds.  We worshipped differently.  At first, Holy Communion was a very private service—and here we claimed to eat the body and drink the blood of someone.  It started getting around that we were cannibals. 


          And this man we worshipped: he was put to death by the Roman Empire—so he died in shame.  We believe that he came back to life—that God himself raised Jesus from the dead.  And that God took Jesus into heaven, and sent the Holy Spirit to be with us and to inspire our worship and our service.  None of this was part of the Jewish faith.  This was an entirely new thing. 


          Of course, you and I don't think that.  If you are a Christian you understand that our tradition is not entirely new—it's a fulfillment of Jewish teaching.  To be a devout Jew is to say that you are still waiting for a Messiah.  To be a devout Christian is to say that the Messiah has come—it's Jesus, and we are following him as the fulfillment of what Judaism began. 




          But the Romans didn't see it as a continuation or a fulfillment.  They just saw that it wasn't what their fathers had done.  So, Christians don't have pietas.  And without that virtue, the others are called into question, too. 


          Where is the gravitas—the nobility of thought, the grounding—in someone who goes all over proclaiming a new teaching?  It doesn't seem right at all.  Where is the dignitas—the clout, the position—in someone who washes another person's feet?  You can't have clout, and honor, and pride, if you're out there serving the poor, and touching sick people, and putting yourself down on their level.


          And what about justicia? –the ability to moderate between selfishness and selflessness?  It seems selfless to serve the poor, but isn't it selfish to run after this Jesus at the expense of your family and your culture?  No, no, no…the Christians have got it all wrong.  (Pause.)


          But Paul doesn't sit there in jail bemoaning this.  He doesn't complain that the Roman Empire can't understand the compulsion of his soul to preach the Gospel.  But what he does, as he starts off this beautiful letter…  And it is a beautiful letter.  You know, you should pick up your Bible sometime and read Philippians.  It's only four chapters.  You could read the whole thing in under fifteen minutes.  It's filled with beautiful verses.


          He starts off by saying:  "I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now. I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ."


          I love that second sentence, "I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion."


          Paul knows that the Christians to whom he is writing are brand new.  They are from PhilippiMacedonia—they are not from the Holy Land.  They are part of the Roman Empire that is now looking at them with suspicion, because they aren't worshiping in the ways of their daddies.  They're not Jews turned Christians.  They are Romans turned Christians.  So they're even more of a threat to the Roman Empire—because they can't even claim that what they are doing is a fulfillment of what they were taught before. 


          No.  Here they are.  Christians.  People with no ties to Judaism, worshipping a man who was nailed to a cross.  And they're out there feeding the poor, caring for the sick, the widows and orphans, the untouchables.  He writes to them, "I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion."


          Think for a moment about those words.  Paul is telling them that God has begun a good work among them, and that God himself will bring it to completion.  I'm not sure, if you and I were Paul, that we'd be able to write those words—from prison no less.  You know what we would write?: 


          "Get on the stick, folks.  The Roman Empire does not like us, they are locking us up and putting us to death.  Jesus is coming and we've got to get the message out there.  I am sitting here in prison—in chains, thank you very much—but you're free, so get out there."  But Paul cannot write those words.  For Paul it is not about what the Church needs to do, it's about what God is doing in them. 


          This is a message that is absolutely central to the Christian faith, and it's a message that we cannot forget:  Every good thing is ultimately God's initiative.  God sent Jesus.  God raised him from the dead.  God implants the faith within us.  God brings good things to fulfillment and bad things to naught. 


          Paul understands this.  He knows that it's this faith that's going to keep him going, and keep the Church going without him.  The Church does not rise and fall because Paul is in prison or out of prison.  It's a work of God, and God will bring it to completion.  (Pause.)


          This is a season when many of us are running around trying to get things ready—trying to get the church's budget together for next year, and make plans, get ready for Christmas and family, and it's all good stuff.  I mean, all the work is worth it.





          But in the hustle of this season, let's hear this teaching from Paul again.  You can run around like everything's on your shoulders, but it's not really.  God has begun good things in you, and God will bring them to completion.   What Paul is really saying is, "It isn't all on me; and it isn't all on you.  It's on God." 




If this sermon was meaningful to you, please consider making a donation to the church where you feel most at home.


The churches of Beckford Parish, where this sermon was preached, are:

St. Andrew's Episcopal Church, P.O. Box 117, Mt. Jackson, VA 22842, and

Emmanuel Episcopal Church, 122 East Court Street, Woodstock, VA 22664