Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Christmas Eve and Day. 24, 25 December 2011.

For the audio version, click here and select Christmas Eve.


To the Glory of God and in memory of The Rev. Peter J. Gomes, Minister of the Memorial Church, Harvard University

 Born May 22, 1942 –  Died February 28, 2011

 

          Before I begin my sermon, I want wish you all a very happy Christmas, and to say, especially to those of you who are visiting, or returning to this holy place as a spiritual home, how grateful we are that you are here to celebrate. 

 

            Christmas has a long and interesting history as an observance.  We believe that the Church celebrated some sort of anniversary of the Nativity of Our Lord on or about May 20th.  After all, there is nothing in the Bible to confirm that it happened "in the bleak mid-winter" as Christina Rossetti's poem reads.  But somewhere in the latter part of the fourth century, the Nativity of Jesus began to be observed on December 25th.  It was likely moved there to oppose a festival known as Natalis Solis Invicti, the birth of the Unconquered Sun, or perhaps Saturnalia, another winter Roman festival celebrated with joy and merry-making.

 

            But whatever the reason, I think we can be grateful that this is the time of year we celebrate the birth of Jesus.  There is something so very fitting about placing it in the context of the winter months, when the sky is grey and dreary, and we are all in need of new life and family and warmth.  The shepherds are never depicted as shivering, but we shiver with them in their loneliness out in the pastures near Bethlehem.   

 

            The lack of a precise date for the Holy Birth is also somewhat fitting in that the time frame given by Luke's account also poses some historical problems.  There is no other record of a census or a registration of the Roman Empire under Caesar Augustus.  Neither is there any other source to suggest that people had to return to the home of their ancestors in order to be enrolled.  Also, Luke writes that it happened when Quirinius was governor of Syria, though it is likely that he was appointed governor some years after Jesus was born.  

 

            Now, before you pick up stones to throw at me, let me explain why I think these facts are not a threat to the story, or, more importantly, the deeper meaning of Christ's birth. 

 

            The simple truth is: this is how we remember it.  You can change the date we observe it.  You can raise questions about how and when, and what—but the plain truth remains that we will always remember Mary and Joseph making their way to Bethlehem, because they were being obedient to what they were told. 

 

            We see, in their story, a young family having to jump through hurdles to do what was right.  And in the midst of that, we find Mary giving birth to Jesus under less than desirable circumstances.  Instead of some cozy story of Mary and Joseph staying put in Nazareth, and having the baby surrounded by their family and synagogue, we find them this evening, and at every Christmas, alone, probably afraid, and the infant placed in a feeding trough. 

 

            Shake away for just a moment the cozy depictions of the greeting cards and the nativity scenes, and see them as they are: a young family, "harassed and helpless, like sheep needing a shepherd."  And that is the mystery.  That God comes through the womb of a human mother and is born humbly—some might even want to say, shamefully. 

 

            And so Christmas, like Easter, confronts our notions of stateliness and dignity with a depiction of the complete opposite.  Should you go from here, this evening, and encounter a young family holding a baby in their arms, not knowing quite what to do next, you will see a much more realistic depiction of the first days of our Savior.  Is that good news?  Yes.  It is the news that "lifts earth to heaven, and stoopes heav'n to earth."[1]  It is the glorious news that God's ways are not our ways, nor our thoughts, his.  His ways and thoughts are higher, ironically, in sending the heir of all Creator to be placed in a lowly manger.

 

            We celebrate not only the birth, but the ironic circumstances of the birth, which altogether preach their own sermon: that God is pleased to be with humanity in all its broken beauty.

 

            Such a mystery.  Such a never ending mystery that is the person of Jesus Christ: Son of God and Son of Mary; fully God, fully Human.  And by his holy Incarnation, God takes your hand and says, "I know what this feels like.  There is no more us and you—now, there is only us."  Even if he had never been crucified and resurrected, God had embraced humanity simply by being born and living among us.  (Pause.)

 

            In the Western rite of the Church, it is traditional that three celebrations of the Holy Eucharist are offered—once for each facet of Christ's birth.  Once at midnight—or late at night—symbolic of the birth of the eternal Son, who would come to be born of Mary.  Once at dawn, symbolic of the birth of Jesus from the womb of Mary.  And once during Christmas Day—and this one delights me to no end—symbolic of the mystical birth of Jesus in the souls of faithful Christians.[2]

           

            So it should not bother us at all that we cannot know the precise date of the Nativity, or the exact date of its anniversary.  In a sense, that is completely and utterly fitting, because neither can we know the precise moment when Christ is born in our hearts.  As with all other actions of God: It happens then, and it happens now.  It is timeless; it is eternal.

 

            When your heart makes the space for him, he will, like a baby be born there in your soul, which is often "harassed and helpless, like a sheep needing a shepherd." 

 

            And Jesus, will be both infant and shepherd—leading you like a little child to discover meaning in the smallest of things, and in the simplest of joys.

 

            If you have never really believed in Jesus authentically …  If it has been difficult to see him because the Church has gotten in the way, or because it seemed too trite or unsophisticated to believe that God is real, and his Son loves you—well, then I really am very sorry about that.  The Church is not always the best example of Christ's teaching—and we are painfully aware of that.    

 

            But these things are not apprehended merely by intellect.  Christianity in its fullness combines the spirit and mind.  So when the candles start to be lit, and the music starts to play, you may discover a little baby of a thought in your lap.  A little baby looking up at you they way you once looked up at your mother or father, seeing you for who you are, and what you hope to become.   The baby comes into your life—however imperfect you may be, however harried and uncertain—and changes everything. 

 

            Like a child, he will come to ask you why you do certain things, and say certain things.  He will wonder if you care about others the way you care about him.

 

            The little Messiah will grow in you—perhaps difficult and uncomfortable at times, but always somehow delightful.  And one day he will grow up, but he will always be your little boy.  (Pause.)

 

            If time has made you cynical, and the slings and arrows of life have pierced and deflated the joy you once knew—I want to tell you tonight, from the bottomless love of God—that it can come back. 

 

            It will happen when you respond to the Angel the same way Mary did, when she said, "Let it be with me according to your word."  The Holy Spirit will overshadow you, and the power of the most high will come upon you.

           

            When it happens, how it happens…  That is a complete mystery, but it does.  And then you will understand the words of Isaiah (9:6), "Unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given."  God's Son, and our son.   So fully human as to understand and question and ponder, and so fully God as to save us from ourselves.

 

-o0o-

 

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

 

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

Emmanuel Episcopal Church, 122 East Court Street, Woodstock, VA 22664, & St. Andrew's Episcopal Church, P.O. Box 117, Mt. Jackson, VA 22842.



[1] Crashaw, Richard 1612-1649

[2] Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, Christmas, pg. 335.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Advent 4A. 18 December 2011.

For the audio version, click here and select 4th Sunday of Advent.


 

            The last two Sundays we have been reading about John the Baptizer and recalling his background as well as his ministry—which are two very different things.  I think it is clear from a comparative study of the Gospels that John was born in an aristocratic family of Temple priests.  He was likely educated by the best teachers.  He was probably expected to become—one day—a Temple priest, like his father and his ancestors.

 

            The Temple priests were of a group of people known as Sadducees.  The Pharisees were rather like the middle class—but I have to be careful with saying that because there was no middle class.  In first century Palestine, you were either rich or poor.  The difference is one of social position, not money, which is hard for us to fully envision, because in America, we believe—at least we say we believe—that all people are created equal. 

           

            The disparity—we like to think—is financial.  In other words, money equals status, but that's not at all as it was in first century Palestine, and it's not the way it is, even still, in many parts of the world today.  The disparity between Sadducee and Pharisee was not money, but privilege and position.  A Temple priest might or might not be as wealthy as a Pharisee, but that didn't matter.  If the two should be in the same room, there is no question that the Pharisee will defer to the Sadducee.

 

            Today, we step aside from John; and we turn our attention to Mary.  And since I have been talking about John's aristocratic background, my train of thought rather forced the question about Mary's social position.  Let me ask the question that, honestly, rather surprised me:  Was Mary a Pharisee? 

 

            Well, it's an interesting question.  One of my clergy friends was quick to say no, because she was a woman and women had no standing in first century Palestine.  While that may be true, it is still, I think a fair question, since it's really a question of what group of Jews her family belonged to.

 

            Now, let me back up just a moment.  I am well aware that many people, when they hear the word "Pharisee," they check a little box in their minds next to the word "hypocrite," which really isn't fair.  The word "Pharisaical," which may not be in the common language anymore, is defined as "hypocritical," but again, that's really not fair.

 

            You may be tired of hearing me defend them, but the Pharisees were people who really tried to do the best they could.  They were trying to be faithful to their understanding of the Torah, and they did that rigorously—I think—because of the Babylonian exile.  They understood the exile to be a direct result of their ancestor's lack of faithfulness, so when they were allowed to return, they would likely have taken great pains to be as scrupulously faithful to the words of the Law as they could. 

 

            Once burned, twice shy.  If we got in trouble with God for not obeying the commandments and the Torah, then we need to set up better schools and synagogues, and we need to be a little more strict with our teaching so that we don't wind up in Babylon again.  God had clearly said to Moses—as it is written in Deuteronomy:

 

See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess. But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess. I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the Lord swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob. (20:15-29)

 

            I think, when the elders returned from captivity, they sat down and drew up a system of rigorous Judaism that was intended to insure that they would never fall away again.  And for that, I admire them greatly.  There were some bad apples in the same way that there are always bad apples—but most of them were decent, respectable, clean-cut people.  I am convinced that I would have been one of them.  I would probably have been one of those who didn't think Jesus was the Messiah at first, because I am a creature of habit, and resist change.  I'm an Episcopalian.

 

            So here's the question.  Was Mary of Nazareth, Mary the Mother of Jesus, by birth, upbringing, and culture a Pharisee?  What makes me ask that question is that the angel Gabriel is sent to her.  God chose her to be the mother of his only-begotten Son, and that story is recorded in Luke's account of the Annunciation. 

 

            When I read it, I am sure you noticed that the story is very much about the history of the Hebrew people: "the Lord God will give him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob for ever, and of his kingdom there shall be no end."

 

            My question is based on the fact that God is entrusting his only-begotten Son's birth and rearing to Mary and Joseph.  Presumably, God has selected Mary for her health and personality, and any of the intangibles that make her an ideal mother.  And I wonder if part of that list of attributes would include her levels of devotion.  If she was a very devout and observant Jew, then I wonder if she had Pharisee parents and was born a Pharisee.  It makes sense, because Gabriel would not have needed to educate her on what the birth of Jesus would mean. 

 

            If I walk up to a stranger on the street and say, "Wine and Bread," they might know about Holy Communion, but they might not register anything meaningful to them personally.  Whereas a Christian might go to a restaurant and see wine and bread on the table and suddenly find themselves thinking about church.  You see?  If Mary knows the story and can envision herself as part of that story, then it places her in the column of the faithful Jewish people—the Pharisees. 

 

            I don't know.  I asked the internet, which is always a dangerous thing to do.  You have to separate the wheat from the chaff.  In one place I looked, the author of the article reminded me that the Sadducees did not believe in angels, and the Pharisees did.  So for Mary to accept the angel's word, that alone meant she was a Pharisee. 

 

            Couldn't she have just been a common, ordinary Jewish Galilean woman?  If you never had to think about it, that's probably where you would file her.  But there were three groups of Jews: Sadducees, Pharisees, and Essenes.  The Essenes were, relative to the size of the Pharisees and Sadducees, a small group of ascetical Jews—they were even more rigorous in their observance than the Pharisees.  They undertook a lot of fasting and self-denial—some refused to get married.  There is nothing in the Bible that speaks about them directly—we can only piece together aspects of their traditions from the accounts of Josephus.  In one place I looked it said there have even been some scholars who doubt the Essenes ever really existed as we have thought. 

 

            We might want to believe that Mary had no affiliation to any of these three groups, but if it is true that you had to be Pharisee or Sadducee, then we are left with the inevitable conclusion that Mary and Joseph were Pharisees—and I think that's rather wonderful, quite honestly.

 

            I think it's wonderful that Jesus's background was Pharisee, because it fits with the Spirit of the New Testament, and what we want to believe about Jesus, that he had an absolutely ordinary upbringing within the tradition.  And like John's implicit criticism, leaving the Temple culture to be with the common folks, Jesus similarly criticizes his own people when he begins his ministry. 

 

            Both men were saying, "The tradition isn't wrong!  Our way of observing it is wrong.  We have come away from the first principles of the Torah, which are to love God and care for those who are harassed and helpless: the widows and orphans, the sick and suffering, the poor, and the despised.  (Pause.)

 

            I wonder how close to that conviction Mary was.  Don't you?  You have to wonder what the conversations were like around the family dinner table with Joseph and Mary and Jesus.  I would like to think that there were some incredible conversations. 

 

            "I saw Rachel today from across the street," says Mary.

            "How is she doing?" asks Joseph.

            "Well…it's been hard.  Her husband is sick, so they haven't been making much money.  They don't feel like they're welcome at the synagogue because of the sickness, and they don't want to ask for help, but you know they have to buy food…"

 

            Jesus sits there, not a man, not a boy—how old would he be?  Around 10?  Has he heard these conversations all his life?  Have Mary and Joseph been helping Rachel across the street? –carrying little amounts of food over there.  Letting them have an old coat, because it's getting cold out there…

 

            Jacob, the cantor at the synagogue…great guy.  Everyone loves him.  Lovely man.  Mary and Joseph like him a lot.  His wife died a few years ago, and they miss Miriam, too.  Jacob and Miriam always brought that special herbed bread to Sabbath dinners, and Jacob would tell the funniest jokes.  Miriam always rolled her eyes at the old, old jokes.  Jacob still tells those stories, but it's not the same without Miriam rolling her eyes. 

 

            "Have you seen Jacob lately," asks Mary.

            "No…" says Jacob,  "Well…actually, yes.  He was at the synagogue, but he's not singing as much.  He sits in his seat close to the front, and listens to the rabbi, but there is this far away look in his eyes.  He hasn't told any jokes lately.  I'm beginning to worry about him."

            "Maybe we should go visit him."

            "Maybe we should."

           

            I have to believe that Mary and Joseph were like this.  I have to believe that Jesus grew up with parents who –okay, were Pharisees—but who represented a righteousness that was a heart level devotion.

 

            And I don't think it's too much of a stretch to imagine little scenarios where Jesus would have seen the depth of love that was envisioned in the sacred story of the Hebrew people.  It seems to me that Word became flesh through Mary, because God knew—long before he sent Gabriel—that he could trust her. 

 

            I have a special place in my heart for Mary. Depending on which side of the Episcopal Church's broad spectrum of piety you are, you might be more or less comfortable with her.  I grew up only really acknowledging her presence at Christmas, and even then, she was pretty, silent, and on the whole, inconsequential—except that "someone had to be the mother of Jesus."

 

            I don't really feel that way anymore.  I look at my son, Peter; and I watch as my beautiful wife cares for him, and it becomes impossible for me to look at Jesus without looking across the room to Mary.  She watches him, carefully, when he is teaching.  She hears every word; she notices every wrinkle in his clothes.  I see his eyes occasionally look over to her, as if to say, "How am I doing?  Is this okay?  Do you approve?" 

 

            The son looks at the mother, and the mother looks at the son.  Love looking at love, looking back at love. 

 

            This is a relationship that was formed the moment Gabriel found her, and asked her, "Will you do it?  Will you teach him?  Will you show him the way that he should go?  Will you be the mother of God?"

 

            And she said, "Yes."

 

           

-o0o-

 

 

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

 

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

Emmanuel Episcopal Church, 122 East Court Street, Woodstock, VA 22664, & St. Andrew's Episcopal Church, P.O. Box 117, Mt. Jackson, VA 22842.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Advent 3B. 11 December 2011.

For the audio version, click here and select 3rd Sunday of Advent.


 

          Last week I spoke at length about John the Baptizer.  I spoke about the fact that he was born to Zechariah and Elizabeth, who were both of Temple priestly families.  John likely grew up expected to succeed his father in the Temple hierarchy, which makes his appearance out in the wilderness, preaching, such a fascinating story. 

 

          John would likely have been taught all the customs of the Temple—how to offer incense—the theology of his Israelite ancestors, the history, as well as the underbelly of Temple politics. 

 

          One can see John comparing what he learned from his masters with the way many of the actual faithful knew—saw the disconnect between public and private piety, the corruption of the sacrificial system—and when he coupled that with his own convictions about the people's need for a deeper understanding of God, he emerges—much more understandably—in the wilderness, trying to bring authentic devotion to the people, wanting to bring God out from the shadowy ritual of the Temple to the very midst of real people.

 

 

 

 

          I am convinced that John's story is rooted in the prophetic tradition of the Old Testament—and that he understood himself to be a continuation of that tradition.  It's a tradition that continues on to this day, and we see it every once in awhile in the man or woman who has an experience of the Holy Spirit that propels them into wanting to spread the Gospel.

 

          It happens to me, from time to time, that the Gospel of Jesus becomes so incredibly beautiful and important that I want to shout it from the street corners.  But like anyone who has ever felt those stirrings, we inevitably bump into the awkward cultural reality that many have heard, but haven't really heard.

 

          If you start to talk about the Gospel in mixed company, a.) it's hard to do, b.) it may be considered impolite, and c.) if you live in places like Shenandoah County, most people do have a cursory knowledge of the story, but they don't believe it, or d.) they don't like "the church," or e.) they think Christians are crazy.  And of course, lest we forget, in any multiple choice, there is f.) all of the above.  

 

          However, I think it's a mistake to believe that it was easier for John the Baptizer.  We don't have all of his story.  We do not see him failing miserably with some people; we meet him as a success, everyone coming to hear him.  People from all over Galilee—even from Jerusalem.  But it's very likely that many people viewed him as a religious fanatic, and didn't listen at all.

 

 

          That he wore the camel's hair and leather belt—the clothes of the prophet Elijah—was probably John's attempt to communicate non-verbally who he was and why he was speaking.  Like a department store Santa Claus—you see the costume and you know instantly why he's there and what he wants to do.

 

          Elijah was a beloved prophet.  The narrative of the Hebrew people spoke of his return—and so it was likely quite jarring to see him.  His sermon was simple, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near."

 

          And as his message was heard, people felt the need to do something to respond, and so the symbolic action of being baptized became part of the experience.  It was a symbolic action going all the way back to the most primitive civilizations—cleansing the body, cleansing the soul.  It's a perfect metaphor, and therefore a perfect liturgical expression. 

 

          Holy Baptism continues to be the rite of initiation in the Church, but for the disciples of John, baptism was not an eternal sacrament, but a response to their inner conviction of sin and the need to repent.

 

          John's following grew and grew.  Like many of the prophets, they had disciples—people who followed John around, and formed the "Amen pew," people who felt that God was speaking through John.  So the questions began to arise—who is this man?

 

 

          We have been studying John's Gospel in our Advent study on Sunday evenings.  The community that John's Gospel would have been written for were likely—in part—followers of John the Baptizer who had become convinced that Jesus was the Messiah.  This section of John's Gospel (that we read today) is likely a recollection of the confusion John the Baptizer caused.  Is he Elijah; is he the Messiah; is he a prophet? 

 

          The community of John's Gospel remembered that the leaders of the Jews sent priests and Levites from the Temple to question John about who he is.  Now, remember, John the Baptizer likely grew up in the Temple!  It is somewhat surprising that John didn't simply say, "It's me…John! Son of Zechariah," but that's not the point, is it? 

         

          The question is "Who are you?"  And John begins by saying, "I am not the Messiah."  So they look at his clothes and say, "What then?  Elijah?"  He said, "No."  "Are you the prophet?"—which is the same as saying "are you Elijah?"  He answers, "No."  So they say, "Well, just tell us…what is your self-understanding, who do you believe yourself to be?  And John replies with the words of Isaiah, "I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, `Make straight the way of the Lord.'" 

 

          Well, that's okay.  It's not as much of a threat if he's just out there preaching—and there is a long and venerable history of country preachers.  A man sits in the synagogue listening to the stories, asking questions of the rabbi, and he wants to say a few words at the marriage feast or the bar mitzvah.  Let him speak.  He loves God—we love him.  He's a nice man. 

 

          The answer almost ended the conversation, but the priests and Levites said, "Well, now wait a minute.  If you are just a voice in the wilderness, why are you baptizing?  What is that all about?"  In other words, the voice is just a voice, but when you add the baptism, you're saying that this is more than just words.

 

          You see, they really took this as a threat to the power structure of the Temple, and the local power structure of the synagogue.  If John the Baptizer wanted to do this right, he should have started off as a cantor, working his way to rabbi, and then he might be able to get away with a little country preaching.  But this is…  you know…  coloring outside the religious lines.

 

          So why are you baptizing, John?  He didn't say why.  He almost shrugs off his own baptism in a way.  He says, "I baptize with water."  What's that?  Everyone washes themselves.  You wash you hands all the time.  You take a shower.  Water is just water.  But then he says, "Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal." 

 

          Wouldn't you love to see the looks on their faces?!  Here they came to plug the hole in the dam, and John pokes another hole—a bigger hole.  He says someone else is coming—bigger and better—we don't know who, but he will be the real deal. 

 

 

          It seems as if John is almost winking with his answer.  "You're looking for Elijah or the Messiah? Well…there is someone coming who might just fit that bill…I don't know who…but when you head back to your cronies in the Temple, let them know: this isn't over with `ole John.  (Pause.)

 

          I never really used to like John the Baptizer, but lately I have been spending more time with him.  At first I was put off by his outfit and diet.  The camel's hair and leather, the locusts and wild honey.  I saw him as a sticky mess of honey and hair.  Maybe my imagination was too vivid.

 

          But John has grown on me a lot lately.  I was actually looking forward to seeing him this Advent, because of his authenticity, and because of his drive.  He really believed—in the way that I think of Abraham believing—that God was speaking to him, and that God was speaking to us all.

 

          John had a lot of followers, and he probably felt on top of the world when he was preaching and watching these people come forward for baptism.  How could he not?  And he would end up paying for his deeds with his life. 

 

          You remember the story.  Herodias's daughter danced for Herod at his birthday.  You can see it now, if you close your eyes.  You can hear the laughter and wine being poured, and music and women.  Young women.  And Herod was pleased.

 

 

          When the young woman finished her dance, Herod said, "Anything you want, missy.  It's yours."  And Herodias put it into the mind of her daughter, "Ask for the head of John the Baptizer."  And that was that.  (Pause.)

 

          The Church draws aside with John the Baptizer in Advent.  We do it because John continues to stand just outside of our community, calling us to repentance and renewal.  If you look at his face and clothes, you see a mess of leftover locusts and honey—a tangled, complicated, unrefined, rough sort of creature. 

 

          If you corner him, he will tell you that he is just "the voice;" and his baptism, just water.  But even that is a glimpse of the kingdom of God, which is coming after him.  In the kingdom of God, "the voice" is also Elijah, the water is also the living water, bread and wine are not just bread and wine.  Everything that follows John carries in its bosom the fullness of God.

 

          The Holy Spirit is on the move, transforming everything, redeeming and sustaining, causing things that seem trivial to become pregnant with the power of God, who breaks into human history with the humble consent of an ordinary Galilean woman.  We'll meet up with her next week.  But until then, listen to John.  See the future in his gaze, and hear the Good News from his lips. 

 

          His voice continues to be heard down through the centuries. Sometimes it sounds like a whisper, and sometimes, a shout, but the message is unmistakable for those who stretch their hearts wide enough to believe. 

 

          The voice says, "Behold, the king is coming."

 

 

-o0o-

 

 

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

 

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

Emmanuel Episcopal Church, 122 East Court Street, Woodstock, VA 22664, & St. Andrew's Episcopal Church, P.O. Box 117, Mt. Jackson, VA 22842.

 

 

 

Monday, December 5, 2011

Advent 2B. 4 December 2011.

For the audio version, click here and select the 2nd Sunday of Advent.

 

          If you really want to know someone you almost have to know their family and how they grew up.  I want to tell you about two very devout people named Zechariah and Elizabeth.  Zechariah and Elizabeth were from similar backgrounds.  They were both born into priestly families in the Jewish tradition.  Zechariah was born of the order of Abijah and Elizabeth of the tribe of Aaron.  Aaron, you may recall, was Moses's helper, and from his family, a tribe was formed.

 

          When I say they were of priestly families in the Jewish tradition, you must understand that the priests were the men who served in the Temple—and the Temple, you will recall, stood in Jerusalem.  It was this massive stone structure with inner courtyards and outer courtyards and places and buildings for everything. 

 

          There is no way to describe how large and how meaningful that place was for the Hebrew people.  There were many synagogues in which the faithful would worship and learn the sacred story; but, there was only one Temple.  The Temple was the place.  The Temple was where the physical presence of God abided in the stones that Moses had inscribed with the Torah—the Law.  The stone tablets were kept inside a gold encrusted box, called the Arc of the Covenant.  The Arc was kept inside the Holy of Holies, which was the most special room in the Temple. Only the Temple priests could enter the Holy of Holies, and even then, only one day of the year, which is known as Yom Kippur—the day of atonement.

 

          The Temple had a system of hierarchy that was just as intricate and political as, for instance, Washington DC.  You have your insiders and your outsiders.  You have honest and dishonest.  Inside the system, you know exactly who you are, and who everyone else is.  If you were born to a Temple priest, then you were at the top of the social ladder—you are a Sadducee.   You could not join the priests—you were born one.  You knew who your father's father's father was.  You knew that you would always, always have a place in the system—because the Temple was too large and too important to fail or be destroyed.  We will always have a Temple; we will always need the priests to care for it—guaranteed job security and social status. 

 

          The Pharisees were a different group—highly devout, very political—but for the most part these were the middle class.   We almost can't see them clearly anymore because Jesus spends so much time fussing with them, and sermons that mention the Pharisees almost never really paint a full picture. 

 

          I don't mean this to sound offensive—truly—but the modern day equivalent would likely be us.  I'm not saying that we're hypocrites.  Not all Pharisees were hypocrites.  But it's this group of people were the rabbis, the people who went to synagogue regularly and gave to support the widows and orphans.  Yes, some of their folks were corrupt—and yes they got in trouble with Jesus. 


          Most of what Jesus did not like was their lack of care for the less fortunate, and their inflexible social structure.  Jesus did not like that they often taught one thing and did something else—but they were not without merits.  In one place, Jesus says, "Your righteousness must exceed the righteousness of the Pharisees."  Meaning that they were a decent group—but not as righteous as the followers of Jesus should be.

 

          But now, as with the Sadducees, if you were born a Pharisee, you were a Pharisee.  You may have become a rabbi, or a cantor, or some other official in the synagogue, but you could not be a Temple priest.

 

          Zechariah and Elizabeth were advanced in years, and had no children, though they had prayed and prayed for a child.  Zechariah was a priest of the Temple, and one of his duties was to offer incense in the sanctuary—which was the enclosure just before the Holy of Holies.  People would come to pray outside the sanctuary, and the priests would take turns offering incense in the sanctuary.

 

          One day, while Zechariah was offering incense the angel Gabriel appeared to him and told him that his prayers had been heard, and the God was allowing Elizabeth to have a son.  Gabriel said, "You will name him John and he will make you very happy, because the Holy Spirit will be upon him.  He will turn the hearts of many of the Israelites toward their God." 

 

 

 

          Zechariah was thrilled, but doubted.  "How can this be?" he asked, "Elizabeth and I are too old to have children."  Gabriel responded, "I'm not the pizza boy, Zechariah.  I stand in the presence of God, and I'm telling you, you're going to have a son.  But because you have not believed, you will be mute, and unable to talk until these things have happened."

 

          So Zechariah was unable to talk, and Elizabeth did, indeed, become pregnant.  And after she gave birth to a boy, and it was time to circumcise him, they asked for the boy's name—although it was a foregone conclusion what the child's name should be.  Zechariah.  His dad's name.  Temple priest, born to Temple priest, Order of Abijah.  Zechariah was the son of Zechariah, who was the son of Zechariah.  Plain as the nose on your face.

 

          Elizabeth said, "No; he is to be called John."  "Excuse me, did you say, uhm…John?"  "Yes, John."  Well, now wait a minute.  We need to ask the father.  The family line comes through the mother, but he's a boy, and his father is entitled to pass along the name.  Zechariah is mute.  Unable to speak.  But they ask him just the same, and he said, "His name is John."  And everyone was in shock, because he had been unable to speak until then.    

 

          And Zechariah praised God and fear came upon everyone—they said to one another "We're going to have to keep our eyes on this child.  He's going to be something special—the hand of the Lord is upon him.  (Pause.)

 

 

 

          The Bible does not tell us anything about John's childhood or puberty, but look at his background.  He was born into the class and culture of the Temple priests.  He was surrounded by a community that prayed and worshipped regularly, and frequently.  He learned the Torah from the best scholars, he learned the intricate choreography of Temple worship, its hierarchy, its privileges.  I am sure that he learned the under belly—he saw the corruption, the pettiness. 

 

          I would imagine that he played with other little boys, born to Temple priests, and knew the families who were jockeying for position and power.  He would have been tested and graded and scrutinized and altogether expected to become a Temple priest.  Even though his name is different, even though the story of his birth is a little different than the others—his life is mapped out.

 

          What happened to him?  What happened to make him leave all that behind and become a prophet in the wilderness?  What made him trade the fine clothing—long cassocks and embroidered capes—for camel's hair and a leather belt.

 

          I think I know.  I think John grew up learning the Torah so well that he looked around at the Temple system and said, "There is very little in the way we do things here that corresponds with God's Law to care for the widows and the orphans and the strangers." 

 

 

          "I don't see how we can expect the poor to come and pay the fees we are telling them they need to pay to offer sacrifices in the Temple.  They come and empty their pockets to sacrifice pigeons and sheep, and what happens?  We slaughter them, and then we have to clean them up, and if we don't burn the carcass, who get's the meat?  The people who paid?  No.  We do.  We're eating and drinking at their expense—and here, we're supposed to be helping them

 

          "And what about the sacrifices?  David said in the Psalms, "For you have no delight in sacrifice; if I were to give a burnt-offering, you would not be pleased. The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.  Psalm 51:16,17. 

 

          "I think we have a problem here.  I think we have some systems that have very little to do with God, and an awful lot to do with keeping the poor down and the rich rich.  And what really turns my stomach about it is that we're doing that in the name of God." (Pause.)

 

          John knew the Torah.  He started at a very early age and probably knew it better than Zechariah.  He knew about the prophet Elijah, who was supposed to come and herald, or announce, the end of the age—the coming of the Messiah.  John knew that Elijah was described as a hairy man who wore a leather belt.  He knew the prophecy of Isaiah, "The voice of one who cries in the wilderness, "Prepare the way of the Lord."

 

 

          So John packs up his things, shakes the dust of the Temple off of his sandals.  Shakes off the traditions and the culture and the hierarchy, and he makes his way to the region around the Jordan river.  He puts on the clothes of the prophets of a bygone era.  No one wore camel's hair and a big leather belt.  These were the vestments of Elijah.  To see him out there in the wilderness was to see the Torah come to life.  The Word was becoming flesh in John.  The Word of God, written in the book, leapt off the page and there he was.  Is he….Elijah? 

 

          John was rooted in an incredibly devout background.  The son of a son of a son of a Temple priest, and with all the learning of his aristocratic background, he shed every vestige to bring the Gospel to the average, poor, lonely people of Israel.  He came to the lost sheep.  And his message was simple, "Repent, prepare…there is someone coming who is more learned and powerful than I am.  I am baptizing you to cleanse you from your sins, but there is a man coming who is going to baptize you with the Spirit of the Living God.  You might think I'm something, but I am not worthy to shine his shoes." (Pause.)

 

          John's message has become the Church's message in Advent.  A call to repentance, a call to prepare the way for the Messiah.  Like John himself, this time is deeply rooted in tradition, but always new and relevant. 

 

          It is time to wake up, shake the dust of worthless endeavors off our sandals, and reclaim the true teaching of the Torah—to care for the poor and the helpless, to prepare for the coming of the Messiah.

 

          John's background made it possible for him to carry the best teachings of the Torah out to the countryside, and made space for the Holy Spirit to move anew.  We all have this ability.  We have all been groomed in the Church with the wisdom of the Torah.  We have feasted at the table of plenty.

 

          The wilderness is calling.  The mission field awaits.  So, in the spirit of Advent, go, and prepare the way.  Behold, the King of glory is coming.

 

 

 

-o0o-

 

 

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

 

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

Emmanuel Episcopal Church, 122 East Court Street, Woodstock, VA 22664, & St. Andrew's Episcopal Church, P.O. Box 117, Mt. Jackson, VA 22842.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Advent 1A. 27 November 2011.


For the audio version, click here and select 1st Sunday of Advent.


 

I can't believe it's Advent already.  How did we let this happen?  I am beginning to feel as if time is simply slipping through my fingers.  Of course, I know, and you know, that it doesn't.  A minute is a minute is a minute.  But that's not how it seems.  

 

I remember some years ago hearing Brother Curtis Almquist of the Society of St. John the Evangelist at clergy retreat.  He told the story about an Abbot in a monastery who was known for his absolute devotion to God.  He would go and spend hours and hours in silent meditation and prayer, and had the respect of the older and younger brothers.  

 

Well, the Abbot had contracted some sort of illness that advanced very quickly, and within a month's time, he lay dying in his cell.  The Prior of the monastery sat by his bed, and in time, behind him sat the sub-Prior.  In a little while, the novice master sat behind him, and then the elder monks, and down through the seniority all the way to the youngest novices.   

 

The Abbot was dying.  The question arose and came up through the line, "What is the Abbot's parting wisdom?"  The Prior asked him, "Father Abbot, what would you tell us?"  After a few minutes of silence, the Abbot whispered to the Prior, "Life is like a cup of tea."  (Pause.)  Nothing else was said.

 

So the Prior turned to the sub-Prior and said, "The Abbot says, `Life is like a cup of tea.'"  The sub-Prior turned to the novice master, and he to the elder monks, and the wisdom was passed, verbatim, down through the ranks to the youngest monk.  The youngest monk thought about it for a few minutes, and said, "Why is life like a cup of tea?"  And, then that question was passed through the ranks, back up to the Prior, who turned asked the question, "Father Abbot.  Why is life like a cup of tea?"

 

Again, silence.  The whole monastery was positively on edge.  Finally, the Abbot responded, "Perhaps...   perhaps life..  is not like a cup of tea."

 

When I first heard this story, I thought probably the same thing you did—that what was supposed to be serious was indeed a joke.  Or that what was supposed to be meaningful turned out to be meaningless.  

 

I suspect that many of you are all too familiar with expecting one and getting the other.  How many times have you sat down to a book or a church service, or a television program, expecting something profound, and feeling unfulfilled?  Of course.  We've all been there.

 

I'm going to tell another story, but this one, while it may or may not have actually happened, is genuinely meaningful.  It sounds very similar.  A man went to visit a Buddhist holy man, high in the mountains.  He was allowed to visit the holy man, and ask his question, "What is truly real?"  And after a respectful silence—but not too long—the holy man responded, "What is truly real is what takes your awareness."

 

Christians don't usually talk in these terms, except among people who really pray, and who desire to follow God.  The pulpit is always tempted to talk about doing better, or being better.   I recently heard that Christians don't really come to hear a sermon—they come to learn how to pray.  I like that a lot.  I think it's very true—at least, it's true for me.  I come to church to know God better. And awareness of God is something that every Christian wants.  

            Do you realize that awareness is the most precious commodity the developed world?  Businesses want our awareness of their products.  The competition is for as many eyes and ears as possible.  If you are aware of something that you like, you may think of buying it.  If you are aware of something, someone, someplace that might fulfill a need, you may pursue it.  Without awareness, you can't make decisions.  

            Of course there are levels of awareness.   When I work on a sermon, I can't listen to music, or do other things.  I have to be aware of my thoughts and listen for the Holy Spirit.  I like to have that kind of attention when I'm talking to someone.  It's easier in person than on the phone.

            Have you ever been to one of these restaurants where there is too much going on?  It's too loud.  There are televisions on in the corners of the room.  There are servers running everywhere.  

            You try to focus on the person across the table, but the table is large, so you can't hear them very well, and there's a television in the corner of your eye that is constantly seducing your attention with it's light and movement and sound...

            I'm starting to sound like my dad.  Or perhaps I'm finally beginning to understand why I like things to be settled.  (Pause.)  Wanting peace and quiet is not wishing for some kind of absence of life—but a better awareness of it.  

            Think for a moment...  Be aware of!  The things you spend your awareness on.  Are they meaningful?  Consider how many things really aren't!   Consider how many things are only relevant to today, or this week, or this month.   

            Now I have to be careful here, because just because something is temporary doesn't mean it's meaningless.  Little things can be very big.  I was talking with a friend of mine who is a lawyer in Richmond, and he told the story of the judge who refused to hear certain cases on Mondays during the autumn, because he might give a harsher sentence if his college football team lost the day before.  

            But why do we focus our awareness so often on truly meaningless things?  Why is it that I, for instance, will read a book, knowing that by the last page I will likely have forgotten most of it already?  Why do I listen to the news about a celebrity, knowing that it has no actual relevance to my life?   

            I could make a longer list here, but you know what I'm saying.  If take the intellectual change out of my pocket on a really good day there's a silver dollar, but most days it's just pennies and nickels.  

            Why do we consistently fix our minds on meaningless things?  Well... I think I might know.  Because when we fix our minds on things that are truly meaningful, it scares the living daylights out of us.  

            That's why the lesson from Mark is so jarring.  We feel this whenever we read something from the apocalyptic tradition in the Bible.  Apocalypse comes from the Greek--calypso, meaning Afro-Caribbean music about bananas and the daylight coming.  Anyone?  Day-o?

            No... apocalypse comes from apokalyptein  which means "to lift the veil," or to uncover.  I like to think of it as the curtains getting pulled back so that you can see what's on the stage.   It's this notion that there is a deeper reality, or a more profound meaning and function of existence that we are either oblivious to, or have forgotten.  The role of the prophet is to remind the people of this.

            The pastor or priest stands within the people.  The prophet is one of the people, but stands slightly outside, often calling the people to awareness.  Awareness of the lives we lead, awareness of the sin that infects our lives, and even our noblest actions.  Awareness that God cares and sees and loves.  Awareness that God is aware.

At first, Jesus was called a prophet, precisely for this reason—he was calling people to repentance, just like John the Baptizer—whom we will encounter in the next two weeks.  Of course, Jesus was much more than a prophet, but that's how he first got the awareness of the people around him.

 

In the thirteenth chapter of Mark's gospel he describes the end of all things.  A revelation, an apocalypse—the sun being darkened, the powers in the heavens shaken, and this depiction of the Son coming in the clouds with great power and glory.  And the theme he repeats again and again is "keep alert, keep awake."  He says it several times, "Beware, keep alert, keep awake, keep awake."

 

Now, speaking frankly being  "alert" or "aware," or "awake" is not one of our weaknesses.  In the morning I drink my coffee and I watch the news.  I begin my day trying to become as alert and aware as I can, and I'm sure you do, too. 

 

The point of the apocalyptic genre—whether from Jesus or John, or any of the prophets—is to be aware that there is more around us than just the latest news.  That there is a deeper story than who said what to whom, and which team won the latest whatever.  And that deeper story is the story of God's ongoing relationship with humanity. 

 

If you read or listen to these words as an outsider—they seem foreign and scary.  Maybe they even sound a little scary as a Christian!  I know what that feels like. 

I remember when I was in seminary, I was watching television one evening and I flipped around and discovered a rebroadcast of a Billy Graham Crusade.  I sat there listening to Billy Graham, recorded in the 1970s.  He was wearing a polyester suit, wide lapels.  Big fat necktie.  I was absolutely riveted.

 

He came to the end of his sermon, and he was talking about something missing from my life. –something that I knew just wasn't quite what it should be, and that what was missing was God. 

 

Now… I've been baptized, confirmed, and have the stamp of the Commission on Ministry and the Bishop of Virginia on my forehead. I'm in seminary, for Pete's sake!  And I still sat there wondering if I had turned my back on God!

 

Maybe you sometimes feel that way, too?  Do you?  No matter how long you've been coming to church.. prayers said…read the Bible, served the poor, served on the vestry, helped out here and there all your life…  And you come across the apocalyptic language and you begin to wonder…  "Have I missed it?" 

 

I think that's the point.  I think that's why we read something from the apocalyptic genre in the Bible every year on the First Sunday of Advent.  It's like the lectionary has built in a little alarm clock that goes off like 6:30 in the morning.  Wake up.  Keep awake.  Be alert.  There is more to your life than just the news of the day.

 

So be attentive—as we head into Advent to the ways of the Spirit, because that story—the story of God's desire for you, and me, and all of us—is about to unfold all over again.  We are about to launch into another year of remembering the sacred, profound, passionate story of God.

 

Have you heard it before?  Of course, you have.  Some of you know it like the back of your hand.  But though the story doesn't change, we do.  We are not the same people we were last year.  We are different.  So let this story baptize you again, and wash over you, and come into you.

 

Like a little child, welcome it into your hearts and let it blossom and flower.

 

"Hear, O Shepherd of Israel, leading Joseph like a flock; shine forth, you that are enthroned upon the cherubim…Stir up your strength and come to help us..." Behold, the King is coming. 

-o0o-

 

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

 

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

Emmanuel Episcopal Church, 122 East Court Street, Woodstock, VA 22664, & St. Andrew's Episcopal Church, P.O. Box 117, Mt. Jackson, VA 22842.

 

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Community Thanksgiving Service. 20 November 2011.

Community Thanksgiving Service. 20 November 2011.

The Union Church in Mt. Jackson, Virginia

The Rev. Alexander D. MacPhail

 

          Many a school child in the United States has been taught that Thanksgiving began with a celebration between the Indians and the English settlers, and while that may be true, it did not thereafter become the holiday known as Thanksgiving.  President Lincoln established Thanksgiving in a proclamation on October 3, 1863.  And I would like to share part of that proclamation with you now.  The next words will be those of Abraham Lincoln:

 

The year that is drawing towards its close has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies.  To these bounties…others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart, which is habitually insensible to the ever-watchful providence of Almighty God.  In the midst of a civil war of unequalled magnitude and severity…peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict…

No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things.  They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.

It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and voice by the whole American people.  I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.  And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him …[that they] fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and Union.

-o0o-

          It is quite a proclamation, isn't it?  You might be surprised by how intimately President Lincoln has communicated his desire that the people of the United States give thanks to God.  His language is incredibly moving on a heart level, while at the same time presidential. He acknowledges the strife of the battlefield, and celebrates our lack of conflict with other nations.  He says that harmony has prevailed, except in the theatre of battle—that we were good to each other except in the place of our greatest disagreement.

          We are sitting in a building that has known first hand the division between North and South.  The Union Church housed both armies at one time or another during the Civil War. It was owned by Alexander Doyle, but purchased by Reuben Moore and left in his Will to be used in perpetuity as a religious meeting place, school house—and the land, a place of burial.  It predates the Civil War, and will likely be here long after us.  It would not surprise me at all if the Lincoln Proclamation was read aloud in this place to an assembly of people like us.  And as I read it again, I wonder, if these bricks, mortar, and plaster could talk, what would they say to us?

          We are still, and will always be, in need of the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal our wounds.  We are still, and will likely always be—by the very nature of our democracy—a land where some measure of conflict is unavoidable.

          But the substance of the proclamation is not the conflict.  The substance, and indeed, the soul of this holiday, is that we draw aside from what separates us—we call a truce to the divisions of party politics, and denominational identity—and give thanks to God with one heartfelt voice.

          Notice that there is no turkey in the proclamation.  No mashed potatoes, no pumpkin pie.  They have nothing to do with the original vision of this holiday, which is simply to thank God, and fervently pray for the healing of our country.

          There are no sermons preached in the proclamation.  It is simply an invocation, a call to prayer.  I don't want to take the proclamation beyond it's original intention, and thereby show disrespect for Lincoln by hyper-extending his words; however, I am a Christian, and I am addressing Christians.  And it is therefore appropriate to bring this impulse of Thanksgiving from religious neutrality of the public sphere, and speak of it as Christians do. 

          In our context, our thanksgivings may be enumerated generally as friends, family, recovering from illness, God's provision of money and food, shelter, but ultimately the thanksgivings culminate and find their fullest expression in thanksgiving for Jesus, whom, we believe, is the one we should be most grateful for.  For his life, death, and resurrection—which, all together, save us now and eternally.

          This is a deeper story than the Civil War—and a deeper reality.  Implicit in Mr. Moore's desire that this building should be used in perpetuity as a church building is a desire that the Gospel of Christ should be proclaimed in this place.

          And this is the Gospel: that Jesus of Nazareth is the one anointed by God to be the Savior of the World.  We believe that he was born of God and Mary, lived and died as one of us—a human being.  But Jesus did not stay dead.  God raised Jesus from the dead.  Through his resurrection, into which we are baptized, we are granted new life that extends into all eternity.  And that is the beautiful source of our hope and courage and dignity, and peace.

          Many people who do not believe in Jesus have simply never heard why this tradition works, or understood what it really means.  They do not know, or have never experienced the deep beauty that can well up inside our hearts for no apparent reason.  They may never have experienced a holy tear on Christmas Eve, or a joyful Alleluia on Easter Sunday.  Or they may have experienced those things, but the feeling never deepened—it did not reverberate into their soul in a way that changed their lives.

          The only way I know to change that is for those of us who authentically believe to be willing to share what is different in us, because of our ongoing experience of Jesus.  It is quite simply not enough to just live our faith, as if people will interpret our kindness as Christianity in disguise.  Even the tax collectors and sinners do that.  Being nice has never really distinguished a Christian from anyone else. 

          We have to say something.  Some of us are from a time when the rules of politeness were such that we don't talk about politics, sex, or religion.  It seems like people talk very freely about sex and politics now.  Maybe it's time we talked about religion, too. 

 

 

          And I think many of us who hear the sermons encouraging evangelism find ourselves somewhat wanting to do that, but when we actually get into a situation where we are on the cusp of telling someone, we freak out.  We become frightened that talking like this will change our relationship with the other person.  And that it will brand us as a crazy person.

          I was recently reading the New Yorker magazine and came across a cartoon that showed a solitary man on a subway, and he was wearing a t-shirt that read, "Ask me about my religion."  And the caption read—something like—"How to have the train all to yourself." 

          I think the reason why evangelism has become such a dirty word—can I be honest with you all?  The reason is because the old way of doing it is selling something that very few people believe they need.  If you talk about getting to heaven, or eternal salvation—getting your ticket punched by St. Peter—you can just forget about it.  No one wants to hear about that.

          But if you talk about how living your life in relationship with God—with Jesus—has helped you through the loss of your husband or your wife.  How this faith has kept you from being overwhelmed by the sufferings and craziness of life, people will listen to that.  People will listen to the real story of how just the simple act of praying each day keeps you sane and grounded. 

          How you feel in your soul when a certain hymn is sung, or a certain prayer means something to you that you don't even fully understand…  I could preach a million sermons and they'd never be as effective as just one non-preacher Christian speaking from the heart about this.

          It's why John the Baptizer was so effective.  Have you ever thought about John the Baptist?  Rough man, rough clothes, out in the wilderness.  He wasn't a rabbi.  He wasn't someone who was taught how to preach, and people came from all the surrounding areas, including Jerusalem, to hear him talk.  He was so effective that it worried the leading Pharisees and Temple priests, because people were coming to hear him instead of going to the synagogue.  They were listening because what he was saying was real.  It was from the depth of who he was.  And people will listen when you say "This is really important in my life." 

          But I think there is actually an even deeper issue here.  I think many of us don't really even know how to express the contours and benefits of the Christian life.  How do you get your mind around it?  How do you describe it? 

          It's like a flower that blooms inside of us—ethereal and wonderful in its beauty.  It blooms, it dies, and it blooms again.  As often as it dies, it blooms.  It is a source of endless hope and love, and when properly nurtured with prayer, it blooms even larger and brighter.

          The most beautiful people I know are Christians.  To be around them is to be in the presence of God.  When they speak, there is a richness to their language and their being.  I don't know how better to describe it.  You feel safe in their presence.  You feel that God has let you see just a glimpse of heaven in their laugh and in their smile.  Do you know what I mean? 

          These are the people who have been my mentors and teachers, my neighbors and friends, my family—some are ordained, but many are not.  People who drink daily from the living water.  I grew up wanting to be like them.  I grew up with this vision of the kingdom of God being here and now among people like you and me. 

          Thanksgiving, for us, is not just a civic holiday.  It is yet another opportunity to recall the deeper story, and to have that Word become flesh again.  Our flesh. 

          If you are a Christian, I want you to think about how you might describe to someone—authentically—why you believe in Jesus.  How does this faith make you different inside?  And then, I hope, you will share that with someone else.  If you think it would kill you to do it, just think—they'll write on your tomb stone—"Died in the mission field."  It doesn't get better than that.

          So, let's give thanks this evening, as Mr. Lincoln has asked us to do—for our country, for the healing of our nation's wounds.  But as the Church, let us also give thanks for the deeper story of Jesus.  And may God anoint us and help us tell this story so that more people will come to know and believe and give thanks.

 

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