Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Christmas Eve/Day 2014

Christmas 2014.



            As we gather to celebrate Christmas, I think of the wonderful hymn, Adeste fidelis, "O come all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant, O come ye, O come ye to Bethlehem."


          Those brief words describe the Church, and her desire to be connected with the sacred story of Christ's birth.  They make us spiritually present at the birth of Christ.  The Church is not bound to the strict ticking of the clock at moments such as these.  Whatever year it happens to be is immaterial.  And we call that sense of timeless observance anamnesis.  If I teach you this word you can use it to impress your friends. 


          Anamnesis is remembering something in a way that makes you a participant in the original events.  For instance, whenever the Holy Eucharist is celebrated we are brought into the upper room with Christ and his disciples.  It is not just a memory.  To have it as a memory would be to describe it, but then move on.  But instead, we re-enact it.  The priest, on behalf of the Baptized, recites the story, speaks Christ's words of institution, "This is my body…Do this in remembrance…"  And then we literally do it.  We receive the Bread and Wine as Body and Blood, and time collapses.  It is as if all Christians throughout the world, and throughout time are taking and eating in remembrance.  Anamnesis.



          In the same way we recite the story of Christ's birth, and like the shepherds, we have come to Church—spiritually to Bethlehem—to worship and adore.  Time further collapses as we recall in the Holy Eucharist that the Christ Child is also the one who became our Lord, who suffered and died "for us, and for our salvation." 




          The hymn calls us "faithful, joyful, and triumphant," which also collapses time to the very end of time, when the Church is gathered together in heaven.  So in a sense, all of time is fully present in this liturgy.  What is now, is also then, and is also at the very beginning.


          You will likely experience something like this in your own family celebrations.  There are traditions and decorations that will link you through memory to your childhood, and every year since.  But if it is only looking backward, then it isn't anamnesis.  It's nostalgia.


          Nostalgia is looking back with emotion.  Nostalgia is like eggnog—a little bit is okay, but too much can make you sick.  Nostalgia says that the good old days were better, and that it will never be as good as it was.  It can be tempting to succumb to those thoughts, especially when there are people we miss, whom we wish to see again.




          But the Church does not celebrate Christmas with nostalgia, as if life was fine then, when Christ walked the earth, but then it's been downhill from there.  We celebrate with anamnesis—giving thanks for then, celebrating now, and looking forward with holy hope to the promise of Christ—the promise of the fulfillment of time, the fulfillment of the Kingdom of God. 


          And because of that, we can celebrate as the hymn calls us, "faithful, joyful and triumphant."  Not as poor wretches missing better days, but as the Baptized, holding our heads and hearts toward the future, trusting that God will accomplish his promises.


          We read that in the lesson from Isaiah, "The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in the land of deep darkness—on them light has shined." 


          The light that shines on you at Christmas emanated from the night sky in Bethlehem when "suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, `Glory to God in the highest heaven.'" 


          It is the light that emanates from Christ's own being lying in a manager, a newborn promise who is at once fulfilled, fulfilling, and yet to be fulfilled even more.



          You may not feel yourself to be "faithful, joyful, or triumphant," but you are.  Being that has almost nothing to do with your own efforts.  Christ came to seek and save the lost, not the already found.  The great gift lying in the manger is the Incarnate Love of the living God, who sees us as we are.  Who sees our brokenness, our frailty, our sinfulness, and is still deeply and devotedly in love with us. 


          Through anamnesis—though our enacted, hope-filled memory—we are given the experience of being present in all time, past, present and future, and of knowing that we are loved and accepted by God in our past, present, and future. 


          So come all ye faithful, joyful, and triumphant, come ye, o come ye, to Bethlehem!  Come and behold him, born the King of angels!  O come let us adore him—for this time, and for all time!






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Go Ye Into All the World and Preach the Gospel


Monday, December 15, 2014

The One who calls you is faithful.

Advent 3B.  14 December 2014.


1 Thessalonians 5:16-24


               The Epistle lesson this morning is almost the very end of the first letter to the Thessalonians, the church in Thessalonika.  Each of the Epistle lessons in Advent contain a sense of urgency, and a call to a more devout life.  The urgency in these words is hard for us to internalize in the same way that the letter's original recipients internalized them.  They believed—and we are also meant to believe—that Christ's return is imminent. 

            Therefore the injunctions to rejoice and give thanks, and test, and not to quench, and to abstain, and so forth, are tersely given—like the last words of someone leaving someone else in charge.  "Remember to feed the cat, and water the plants, and the trash goes out on Wednesday."  Paul is drawing the letter to a close, and he's doing so with these reminders.

            And the last words—at least of this lesson—contain a short benedictory prayer with an important promise.  Paul writes, "May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ." 

            The prayer is that the church be sanctified—that God would hold them and keep them apart from the world around them with its corrupting influences—and that their spirit, soul, and body be kept sound and blameless.

            It's an important prayer, especially for the early church.  Remember that they have no roots in history to draw from.  The cemetery does not contain the remains of generations of Christians before them.  This is a brand new faith.

            In addition to that, Thessalonika is not in the Holy Land, which would provided, at the very least, a cultural Jewish tradition to draw from.  Thessalonika is in Macedonia, which is northern Greece.  So here they are, a little church in a Greco-Roman city.  They have converted to a new faith that has deep roots in Judaism—itself a foreign religion—and is based very much on this belief that Christ Jesus is due back at any moment.

            For them to be "sanctified entirely" means that they would be held together in mutual love, and in the disciplines that Paul has taught them for worship, for maintaining the Christian faith.  Paul addresses them as their spiritual father.  He wants them to be safe, and to not let go of what he has taught them.

            And so, after this prayer comes a promise.  Paul writes, "The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this." That God who has welcomed them into this faith is going to be actively with them, and within them.  Let me suggest that that is very profound; and something we can blithely ignore when times are good, but draw strength from when evil days come.  "The one who calls you is faithful."

            You may or may not consider yourself called, but you are.  The Church must never allow our understanding of "call" to become domesticated, or hostage to the traditional orders of bishop, priest, and deacon—as if they represent some sort of post-graduate diploma to one's Christian identity.  To use one of St. Paul's favorite expressions:  μὴ γένοιτο "May it never be." 

            Sacred orders are important, but they are only meaningful if they serve to help the whole church discover the deeper call, and that is the call within you.  Within all of us.  It is a call to know God, and to be known by God.

            God is deeply and devotedly in love with you.  You might just allow yourself to sit with that thought at some point.  Maybe in your devotional life, you could put aside your prayer list, and even your books—and let yourself sit with the single idea that God is deeply and devotedly in love with you. 

            Our heads get so filled with other messages, don't they?  And even if you have a regular form of private prayer, it's so easy to sit down to it and not have your mind on it.  It becomes this thing to do

            I have learned after many years that stillness must precede prayer.  It's like listening for the dial tone.  And then, when we can finally rest in oratory of our souls, and a sense of connection is nurtured—we discover God within us—then finally a prayer may be said.

            There are so many occasions when prayer is expected to be on our schedule.  The prayer before a meal, or the prayer before a meeting, or something, and I invariably feel this internal awkwardness about it, because the food is getting cold, or people are impatient.  I remember one time I had someone come into my office for help—she wasn't a parishioner, she was in need of assistance with something financial, and she said, "I really need you to pray for me."  It was like, if I didn't start saying words right now that something bad was going to happen.

            So I tried to calm her a bit by saying, "Let's just bow our heads and take a minute first."  But after about five seconds she said, somewhat angrily, "Are you going to pray for me or not?" 

            Why do we pray if it isn't to find the giver of the gift, as well as the gift?  Everything about Christ, and the story of his life, death, and resurrection is meant to communicate the very simple fact that God is deeply and devotedly in love with us.  And within that love there is a constant call to deeper relationship, too deeper trust in the one who loves you most.

            What is so powerfully profound about the promise is that the one who calls us is faithful.  We all know what it is to experience unfaithful love.  We all know what it is to be enticed by a feeling or a thought only to be disappointed.

            This is a frequent theme in ordination sermons.  Young men and women brightly arrayed in their albs with red stoles standing by.  They fidget in their band-new clerical collars, and the sermon is often along these lines, "The one who calls you is faithful."  It's a sermon the ordinands need to hear and can already preach, because if you manage to make it through seminary, internships, hospital chaplaincies, the General Ordination Exams, and the Commission on Ministry, by goodness, you have learned that God is faithful.

            But again, this isn't, and shouldn't be, just about the ordained.  Everyone needs to hear that following God's voice will not be in vain.  That we aren't being teased, or led out on some fragile branch that cannot bear our weight.  But it can be a real struggle sometimes, especially if the road ahead is uncertain, and if we are already planning certain outcomes. 

            Anxiety does that.  Anxiety is a pick-pocket thief of emotions.   Anxiety talks to you about wisely planning for contingencies, and all the while it has its hand in your pocket taking away all your faith, and all your happiness.

            Anxiety is a fortune-teller, a palm reader.  Give him your peace of mind, and he'll give you nightmare scenarios that will likely never happen.  No one can see into the future.  No one can account for every little thing that adds up in your life to influence you or the immediate world around you. 

            And at the same time, neither do you really understand the full power you have.  The significance of your being.  You have the ability in any given situation to influence it for the better or worse.  We so often think of the problems and people in our lives as inflexible or insurmountable obstacles.  And we think we could never do anything to make it better.

            There is a church I know of that had a major situation that had built itself around a central issue, namely that Mrs. SoandSo would never be okay if we did X.  It was taken for Gospel that she would be deeply offended, and no one wanted to do that.  It was subject of whispers and worries for weeks on end.

            So one day, the priest got tired of it, and explained the situation to Mrs. SoandSo, line by line, what had brought us from this to this, and what finally has led us to wanting to do (GULP)….this-thing-that-we-just-knew-she-hated.  And she said, "Oh, well, when you put it like that, it's fine.  Go ahead."  And when she said that, a whole tangled mess of anxiety, strained relationships, weird little attending problems, all of them resolved almost overnight.  We forget that people are always in transition from one thought to the next, and from one feeling to the next, and what is "no" now, may be "yes" tomorrow.

            The word confidence is from the Latin confidere, which brings together con, meaning with, and fides, meaning faith.  To have confidence, to be with faith, or with trust.  And so to have confidence in God is to believe that the one who calls you is faithful.  That you will not be left without comfort, or without love.

            As you have come to church today it is likely that you bring with you an assortment of feelings about this time of the year.  It's cold and grey.  There are people we miss.  There may be strange sadnesses that come upon us that we do not even know how to explain. 

            We need to hear that below it all, or perhaps above it all, the one who has called us into relationship through his own beloved son, is faithful.  You are not alone.  You have not been teased, or led out on a branch that cannot bear your weight, God is faithful.



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Go Ye Into All the World and Preach the Gospel


Monday, December 8, 2014

Who was John the Baptizer?

Advent 2B.  7 December 2014.[1]

Alexander D. MacPhail


            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.  I spoke about it last week.


            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 some of them 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 merit.  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 clean you from your sins, but there is a man coming who is going to clean 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.  Now, the wilderness is calling.  The mission field awaits.  So, in the spirit of Advent, go, and prepare the way.  The King is coming.




[1] Adapted from a sermon preached on 4 December 2011.