Sunday, December 25, 2011
It's a challenge to visit with him, because he is terribly deaf. He can only hear if you lean in and yell into his good (not very good, indeed) ear. But one must observe the social niceties of preliminary conversation before the administration of communion.
He looked up and smiled as I walked in. Ever the gentleman, he said "Thanks for coming!" I replied, "It's my pleasure."
With a twinkle in his eye, he said "It must not take much to please you." The ears and legs may not work very well, but the gray matter is fully functional indeed.
Blessings and Merry Christmas, Mr Mac.
We have heard the story of the birth of Jesus over these past weeks in incredible detail. We’ve heard of a long journey under less-than-ideal conditions, of stars and angels and shepherds. We’ve remembered the birth of the child in a stable. What more is there to say?
This is what John has to say. The start of his gospel doesn’t tell a history. It doesn’t talk about the baby, or the stable, or the angels singing on high.
No. It focuses on one thing: word. What are we supposed to do with that?
A few years ago, it became popular among the teens and young adult to say “word.” The Urban Dictionary says this usage means “Well said,” or “I am in agreement.”
If you said to your friend, “That dress that Janie is wearing is a horrible color for her,” your friend might respond, “Word!” It’s true, that dress is wayyy too bright against her pale skin. Word!
Well, John’s use of the word “Word” is not too far from that understanding.
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.”
In other words, our starting point is God and the Word that is the expression of God.
A little difficult to understand, right? Word!
But imagine, if you will, God not as the old guy with the white robe and the long white beard – not Santa Claus, but God the Creator – but God as something like a formless, bodiless energy. God as free-floating wisdom. God as Word. God as affirmation of all that is good, all that is creative, all that is alive. Word!
That Word was always there, a beautiful powerful divine energy. That energy caused the world to be created – “all things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.” This Word, this creative energy, did his work, and all was created, and all was light and life.
But how could we poor human beings understand something like this? How could we grasp something as ethereal, as incorporeal, as not concrete as this God-Who-Is-Word? There is no picture that can portray God-Who-Is-Word.
And so God-Who-Is-Word had an idea – he was, after all, essentially all idea, so this is no surprise. God-Who-Is-Word decided we human beings needed a way to understand how magnificently loving and caring God-Who-Is-Word truly is. So he decided to send himself to earth as God-Who-Is-Word, but also God who is Human. He sent his son, a human being like us, but also God-Who-Is-Word like him.
Perhaps this God-Who-Is-Word in human form could help us understand the marvel of God-Who-Is-Word in the heavenly realm.
If the three other Gospels – Matthew, Mark and Luke – are about telling Jesus’ story as a human baby born to a human woman in a difficult world, this gospel, this Gospel of John, is about telling Jesus’ story as a divine being come down from heaven. It is about where and why Jesus came from. Yes, Jesus was human, but before he was human, he was part of the Godhead, and he was part of it always, for eternity.
And the beautiful thing is that Jesus is not only God come to earth, he is also the representation of God-Who-Is-Word continuing to exercise that creative energy. God-Who-Is-Word created the earth, but when Jesus comes, he re-creates the world with a new life, a new energy. He is not simply a representative sent to help us understand who God-Who-Is-Word is, he is himself God-Who-Is-Word in human flesh, and he continues that work of creation by transforming us, redeeming us.
But what happens? John foreshadows the whole of Jesus’ story by telling us that “he was in the world, and the world came into bring through him yet the world did not know him.”
How could they know him, if they would turn away from him and cause his death?
But not all turned away. Some accepted him and his teachings. Some heard him and said “Word!” They came to know the God-Who-Is-Word, and became children of God-Who-Is-Word.
And the result of the presence of Jesus, that little baby that we have sung about, that creative man who was the only son of God-Who-Is-Word, was the best thing: glory.
Because of this Son of God-Who-Is-Word, John tells us “we have seen his glory, full of grace and truth.”
Words have power. The young peoples’ use of the exclamation “Word!” reminds us that there is nothing that carries so much power, so much creative energy. Words are full of possibilities. Jesus, who is the Word, opens our minds and hearts to the infinite possibilities of our lives and of what can happen through God-Who-Is-Word.
So today, on this day when we open gifts that we offer each other, we are reminded to remember that the most valuable gifts came to us not last night, not this morning, but over two thousand years ago. A baby, not gift-wrapped but aglow with that energy that is the Word made flesh. This is the gift, the Word made flesh who dwells among us, and we are surrounded by his glory. Word!
Saturday, December 24, 2011
We think of Christmas as a time when family members come home. If you’ve got college-age kids away at school, they come home. Grandparents invite everyone to their house for a traditional feast, with that great mac and cheese casserole or the pumpkin pie that is better than anything you could buy at a bakery. Friends gather other friends around them, cherishing a feeling of homespun love and appreciation. This is the time when we all come home, even if our homecoming is just in our dreams, as the old song says.
But that first Christmas was a very different story. Each of the people in this story was not in the comfort of their own home…they were away from the familiar warmth and comfort that we seek in our own holiday celebrations.
Think of Mary and Joseph. On the road, despite her bulk with a baby due any moment. Traveling because the government required it, and as far from home as they had ever been. If you’ve ever seen a pregnant couple stressed out and exhausted by holiday travel in the airport, take that image, multiply it by ten, and you’ve got a sense of how Mary and Joseph probably were feeling when they arrived in downtown Bethlehem.
Think of shepherds, who spent much of their lives away from home herding sheep up on the hillside outside of town. They were not exactly the highest-class people in Bethlehem…shepherds were considered outcasts of a sort, because they were smelly and dirty from tending the sheep outdoors most of the time. And it was wintertime, and even in the Middle East it gets cold at night in the wintertime.
Think of the angels. They were not up in heaven, where things are always pretty and peaceful. They weren’t enjoying a quiet evening sitting around the divine throne. No, they were flying around on a cold winter’s night, talking to a bunch of smelly shepherds.
I know this one is the hardest to imagine, but think of Jesus. One moment he’s with his Heavenly Father in, well, in heaven. He’s perfectly comfortable because heaven is, after all, perfect. Then all of a sudden he is a squalling human baby in a cold and ripe-smelling stable, surrounded by a group of folks he’s never met before, and who don’t seem to understand what he is trying to say to them, namely, that he has this strange craving for some milk.
Each of these players in the divine drama is away from home. Each one is in unfamiliar territory, lacking the comforts of their homes, lacking the family around them that would make their difficulties seem manageable.
And yet, something happens.
Something happens, and they manage to create a home. In spite of what they don’t have, they celebrate what they do have.
Mary and Joseph might have expected that their new baby would be born in their own home, with Mary’s mother and cousins helping her with this first childbirth. Joseph might have visualized standing outside the house, waiting for word of the birth, sharing a skin of wine with his friends. But here they are, in this stable, with the wind whistling through the cracks, with animals – animals! – around them. No women to help Mary as she labored. No men to laugh and slap him on his back after the good news. Just the two of them, plus a cow and a donkey and such, breathing their sweet warm breath, and the sharp shine of stars overhead. And somehow, Mary and Joseph, and soon the little baby, make this stable into home. It is home as they watch their newborn, wrapped warmly in swaddling clothes, and they realize they are not just a couple anymore, they are a family, and wherever the family is, is home.
The shepherds, expecting that this would be another cold night on the hillside with meager food, gather close around a small fire to stay warm. They may be away from their families as they herd the sheep and await the birth of new lambs, but, by the heavens, they can make themselves a decent meal and share stories and laughter. A little home away from home, not as good as a warm bed, but it will do. But then they hear this strange and wondrous news from the angels…angels who should be grumbling at being away from heaven in the middle of the night, but who take their mission as God’s messengers seriously and tell these bedraggled shepherds a revolutionary piece of news. And in that moment, the angels and the shepherds are joined together by God’s news, and there is between them a home of sorts, a home and a family of those who have experienced the unimaginable.
The shepherds, shocked by what they have heard, go travel to that new home in the stable, and they become part of the family, too, sitting quietly, basking in the warmth of the Holy Family’s love, in the glow of the infant’s holiness.
And Jesus, a tiny baby, knows that he is where he is meant to be, where the world needs him to be. He is the hope of a troubled world, a world that makes a pregnant mother and her husband travel a long distance near her due date for a tax enrollment, a world that makes shepherds into outcasts, a world that makes a rude stable the only place available for a stranded family.
They are all home. Not the homes that they expected or planned for, but the homes that they need to inhabit. A home of their own creation, of God’s creation.
We think sometimes that the only good Christmas is the one in which the whole family gets together at grandma’s house, eating the familiar foods, singing the same songs, telling the stories we’ve told a thousand times before.
But perhaps the story we hear tonight is that home and family are what we make, with God’s help. Home is the place where we feel God’s peace. Family is the people who teach us Christ’s love. Christmas is the day when we remember what we are called to do in this broken world, to lend a hand to that pregnant family with the flat tire at the rest stop, to offer a dinner invitation to the person who has no place to go on this day, to tell a funny story to someone who feels blue or a shared memory to someone who is grieving.
If we learn nothing else from this story of people away from their homes, ordinary people who became part of an extraordinary story, we should learn that our truest home is not a place, it is in Christ. Our truest family is not those with whom we simply have a biological connection, it is with those in whom we can see Christ, and who can see Christ in us. This is the gift of this story, the one that frees us from the expectations of a confused world. It is about Christ. It was always about Christ. It will always be about Christ. Where Christ is, that is Christmas. That is family. That is home.
Merry Christmas, and welcome home.
What night is this? What do we celebrate this night?
Whose birthday is it?
Yes, it’s Jesus’ birthday that we celebrate. Each year, on this night, we remember the birth of baby Jesus in that manger. We remember the star in the sky, and the angels singing, and the shepherds coming down from the hillside where they were with their sheep to see the remarkable thing that the angels told them about…a newborn Savior who would help all the people.
It’s like the angels invited those shepherds to a birthday party for baby Jesus, isn’t it?
Now, how many of you have had a birthday party this year?
And what happened at that birthday party? You played games, and ate a delicious birthday cake, and you got lots of presents. It was a lot of fun, wasn’t it? What was your favorite gift this past year?
We all love birthday parties, not least of all because we get presents.
So now we’re celebrating a birthday…but what happens tonight when you go to sleep?
Santa comes and brings you presents.
But wait a minute…it’s not YOUR birthday, is it?
It’s Jesus’ birthday. So how come we get the gifts? Shouldn’t baby Jesus get the gifts? Did we forget whose birthday it is?
I’m confused. So I need you to help me figure it out.
So here’s a question for you: why do you get a gift? Maybe it’s something you want, and you’ve been talking about it for a while. But do you think we get a gift because someone loves us and cares about us, and wants to give us something special to show that love?
And you will be getting gifts tonight, aren’t you? Santa will bring things because Santa loves you, and you may also get presents from other people who love you and want you to enjoy something fun. All gifts come to us because someone loves us and wants us to be happy.
But you are also getting another gift, this night and every Christmas, something that’s more important than a Wii game or an American Girl doll. What’s that gift?
It’s Jesus! That little baby, born over 2000 years ago, is the best gift ever. What did the angel said to the shepherds on that hillside: “I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people, all the sad people, all the people who are poor, all the people who are without a job, all the people who are away from home serving in the armed forces, all the people who don’t have a home of their own. Here is why you should celebrate: this evening a baby was born, and he is a very special baby. He will be a Savior, an anointed one who will help all those who are suffering. You won’t find him in a great big palace, as you would expect for a King. No, you’ll find him in a stable, wrapped up to keep him nice and warm and snug, with animals around him to help him stay warm.”
And all of a sudden there were lots of angels singing, and of course the shepherds had to go check out this baby who was to be Lord of all.
And the shepherds went down to see him, and sure enough it was a tiny little baby in a stable. He didn’t really look like any other baby – no, there was a glow around him that made them feel like this was something extra special. The moment they saw him, they loved him, and they didn’t notice the cold of the night because they felt the warmth of his love coming right back at them! It was like he was a gift for them, spreading all that love to them.
Did those shepherds bring any presents to baby Jesus? It was his birth day, after all. But they didn’t have a place to make a birthday cake, and no stores were open that late at night.
What present could they bring him? Maybe some soft wool from one of the little lambs to keep the baby warm. Maybe a little cheese made from the milk of one of the sheep, even though Jesus was too little to eat cheese yet.
But I know one thing for certain.
Those shepherds brought Jesus their own love, and their belief in what the angel had said. They came to worship him, because they knew that he was God’s greatest gift to a troubled world.
So what would you like to give to Jesus as a birthday present?
How about being a good boy or girl? How about listening when mom or dad asks you to do something? How about saying a prayer every night before you go to bed, talking to Jesus about your day? How about being nice to someone who is sad? How about sharing your Christmas toys with your brother or sister?
Gifts don’t always come in boxes with colored paper and ribbons. Sometimes they are doing things that mean more than a toy. So this night, even while we’re all excited about the gifts that will be under the tree tomorrow morning, let’s think about gifts we can give the birthday boy, baby Jesus. The gifts that we give him don’t cost money. They are way more valuable than that. He is the best give to us, and he deserves our most wonderful gifts of love and caring and sharing in return.
Wednesday, December 21, 2011
Last night was our Blue Christmas Service, a time of quiet prayer, meditation, scripture, music, and candlelight for those for whom the season is one of remembered pain or loss rather than jollity. I was glad that we had attendees from the parish and several from outside the parish. Glad to be a resource.
This morning I did a mentoring session with two of our Sudanese parishioners who are participating in a lay leadership program for Sudanese Christians...we are wending our way through the OT prophets. I love these two people and I love the OT prophets, but putting the two things together is not always easy. My brain hurts, but they are so sweet and appreciative.
In 20 minutes, we will have our noon Celtic Eucharist with Laying on of Hands and Healing Prayer. It is the prefect antidote to "Holly Jolly Christmas" and "Rudolph." We have a faithful band of ten people who are almost always there, plus others who are occasional attenders. It is so sweet to have such an intimate service. Some of these folks cannot attend Sunday morning services, for a variety of physical or emotional reasons, and they are so tender to each other.
Christmas prep continues, from the three sermons I am preaching on Saturday and Sunday to finishing knitting a couple of gifts. My hands have been particularly achy (appointment with the rheumatologist in a month) so it's not gone as quickly as I'd like, but the gifts will get done.
In any case, parties that we will host are over, the house is relatively clean in case of any drop-ins, and the Worship team has everything else lined up. Our dear S--- clan will decorate the church with poinsettias and trees, the bulletins have been prepared and are being printed, and relatives of parishioners are heading into town for the feast.
Come, Lord Jesus, come! We're ready for you!
Sunday, December 18, 2011
One of the most remarkable parts of the story of Jesus’ birth is often overlooked. In today’s Gospel, it nearly slips past us.
Oh, it’s very familiar, this story. Our children told it to us last week in the pageant. Mary is puttering around the house, tending to the chores that her mother has asked her to complete. She’s daydreaming about her forthcoming wedding, to Joseph. He is a little older than she is, but that’s alright. She has never much liked the boys her own age – too involved in proving themselves, showing off, getting into trouble playing silly pranks. No, she is happy that Joseph is her betrothed. He’s solid, quiet. He has a good business as a carpenter. He will provide well for her and for any children they might have.
Suddenly she senses someone or something in the room with her. Is it a small animal that has wandered in? Is it her mother? But when she turns to look, she sees that this is not what she expected. An angel – how could it be anything else, with those piercing eyes and powerful wings? – stands there. Mary should be frightened, but she realizes that this is someone who cares for her. His glance is calm and strong but loving. And he has a message for her, a message from God:
“Hello, there, Mary. You are special to God, and you need to know that God is with you.”
Mary is confused now. What does this mean? The angel seems to understand that, so he explains:
“Don’t be afraid. God loves you and has a plan for you. You will have a child, conceived through the Holy Spirit. You’ll name him Jesus, and he will be God’s Son, a true descendant of David. All God promised to David will be fulfilled in this child.”
Well, the angel’s words only make Mary more confused. “I can’t be pregnant. I haven’t been with any man. I know how it works, and you need to be with a man to have a baby.”
The angel smiles softly. “It isn’t a man who will make you pregnant. It’s God. God will send his Holy Spirit into you and you will bear God’s very own son. And just in case you don’t believe that God can make anything possible, hear this: your cousin Elizabeth, who has been unable to have a child for her whole life and who is now quite old, is going to have a child. God makes the impossible happen.”
All the color drains from Mary’s face as she starts to realize that this is real. And then slowly, her cheeks turn pink and she smiles. And she answers, “Yes, I am God’s servant. I will do this thing.”
And that last sentence, that last statement by Mary, that’s the remarkable thing I want us to think about today. Mary makes a choice.
Yes, the angel comes with word of what God has planned.
But she understands that she has the right to say no. She has a choice.
And this untutored teenage girl from Nazareth makes that choice, and says “Yes.”
“Yes” to God and this plan to bear a child by supernatural means, a child who is not Joseph’s but God’s, a pregnancy that will undoubtedly cause the gossips in town to wag their tongues.
“Yes” to a situation that is unprecedented, to things that she cannot imagine, a future unlike what she and Joseph had anticipated.
All because this girl has made a choice.
She has said “yes” to God’s plan. The writer Madeleine L’Engle wrote about Mary’s decision in sharp words:
This is the irrational season
When love blooms bright and wild.
Had Mary been filled with reason
There'd have been no room for the child.
And she responds to this surprising visit from the angel, with his proposal from God and her affirmation, by singing a song, the Canticle we recited this morning in place of the psalm. This song is called the Magnificat, and seems to reinforce just how irrational Mary’s choice is.
My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my Savior; for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant. From this day all generations will call me blessed: the Almighty has done great things for me, and holy is his Name.
Mary is celebrating, is amazing and grateful that God has chosen her to do this thing. She sounds a bit proud, doesn’t she, with her comment that “all generations will call me blessed.”
She goes on to celebrate all that God has done for God’s people. Amazing that she would say that: isn’t life hard for God’s people, under Roman rule? But she names God’s goodness, and God’s faithfulness in the divine promises. She understands that this thing that is happening to her, this thing to which she has consented, is fulfillment of that promise.
But in her youth, her inexperience, she does not know how it will change her, how it will break her heart even as it causes her to rejoice. All she knows, poor girl, is that God has chosen her for something unimaginable, and she is grateful.
It is an irrational choice, as L’Engle says, but what a beautiful one!
It isn’t just Mary who is given choices by God, though. Each of us is given such choices. Isn’t that the whole point of being given the gift of free will by our Creator? Aren’t we all given brains and hearts to evaluate and decide if we will do something or not, whether that something is a good thing or a bad thing?
But do we face those choices squarely, and make our decision, as Mary did when Gabriel showed up in her house? Or do we simply let circumstances play out as they will, stuck in our fears or immobilized by confusion, thus missing the opportunity to make a life-changing, world-changing choice offered to us by God?
Make no mistake, God has plans for each of us, just as God did for Mary. And that leaves us with a responsibility. When we sense that God has in mind for us, do we assent or do we say no? Do we worry that it isn’t really God, that little voice in our heart, that it’s just too much eggnog? Do we fear that we’ll make the wrong choice, so it’s safer just to do nothing? Do we think “nah, God wouldn’t want me to do this important thing?”
And yet who was it to whom God sent the angel? Not a queen, not a prophetess. Just a poor Jewish girl with little education and even less resources, engaged to a carpenter in a little town in the Galilee.
And when God sent that angel, Mary didn’t say “well, gee, there must be some mistake. I’m not important enough to do this thing. Gabriel must have knocked on the wrong door.”
No. She said yes. She said “my spirit rejoices in God my Savior; for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.” She knew that God can do unbelievable things, just as he had done for her cousin Elizabeth, and God was doing it once again, through her. Even her, little Mary.
God can do unbelievable things through us. Even us, here in this church in Virginia in 2011. God has a plan for you. It is time to be brave as Mary. Are you irrational enough to assent?
It’s your choice. Why not say yes? Amen.