Month: December 2017

And laid him in a Manger

A sermon for Christmas Eve, December 24, 2017

Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey

She gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger.

So how did baby Jesus end up in a feed trough?  A year or so ago, I read an article by a scholar who suggested that the way we have been reading this sentence for centuries is mistaken. We have all seen the Christmas pageants, some of which include a kid in the role of the mean innkeeper who tells Joseph and Mary they can’t come in— “Go stay in the stable!” But the thing is, the words we translate, and what we understand by those words, don’t always match up with how things were when the words were first written. Remember, this is a long time before Mr. Marriot built his first hotel or before Motel 6 started its first franchise. In fact it’s a long time before the first public houses and inns of medieval England, which is how most of us think of the word “Inn.” When people traveled in first century Palestine, they usually found some connection, often a distant relative, who would let them couch surf.

Of course, they didn’t have a couch—the houses were quite small, basically a room where the whole family slept and a spare room used for gatherings, dining, and such like. Sometimes that area was the upstairs of the house, like the room where Jesus had his last supper with his disciples.  The word we translate as “Inn”—

kataluma, was used for that room.  At the far end of the living quarters was where the family brought in its livestock at night. Why? Because there were predators and thieves abroad, and people didn’t want to risk losing their few precious animals by leaving them outside.  And at that end, there was a trough dug in the dirt floor to feed the animals and encourage them to stay in place overnight. If we were sitting in the 250-year-old farmhouse where Paula and I live outside Frenchtown, this would be much easier to understand: in previous times, spaces were small and people lived close together and at close quarters with their animals.

So imagine, the house is filling up with guests, travelers who maybe came to town for the census registration. People were used to piling in at close quarters, sleeping virtually on top of each other. Not a big deal. But this young woman who has arrived is starting to go into labor. What would the mother of the household do? Typically, she would get the kids to take the animals outside and watch them, clean up the end of the house where the animals normally were, and make room for Mary so that she could have some privacy, dignity and space while she delivered her child.

She laid him in the manger, for there was no space in the other room. Of course, there are other possibilities, there might have been some kind of public lodging and a stable. Either way, what we see are very ordinary people, without power or wealth, making do with what’s available, and bringing life into a very crowded and complicated world.

What we know of Mary is that she was courageous and generous. Rejoicing in the love of God. Generously giving of herself.

But the great generosity in all this is God’s generosity. God rejoices in life so much that God joined this world of very ordinary people, as vulnerable as the rest of us, subject to hardships, and sorrow and grief. Vulnerable to danger, indeed to death.  And Mary took that fragile newborn, and wrapped him carefully and lay him down where there was space, in a trough where the animals had eaten. Among my favorite Christmas music are classical pieces that set the medieval Latin text: O Magnum Mysterium—it’s translated:

O great mystery,

and wonderful sacrament,

that animals should see the new-born Lord,

lying in a manger!

 

The image that God’s love for creatures is so great that they were the witnesses of the moment of the Incarnation, is so beautiful, and it emphasizes that what God loves in us is our life—not our accomplishments, our intelligence, or our worldly possessions—but life itself—ordinary, difficult, joyful—rejoicing in God’s generosity, God’s love, God’s presence among us. Even as a small child.

Word of the birth spreads and the first people the messengers of God, the angels, seek out are shepherds.  I remember as a kid thinking that shepherds were some exotic, dreamy guys with big hooks, living an ideal existence. I had no idea that they were the same thing as sheepherders, whose wagons you could see up in the mountains of Idaho when I was young. Scruffy guys, not well respected, well washed, or well paid. On the low side of ordinary by most people’s lights. Years later I discovered that that is exactly how the shepherds were regarded in ancient Palestine—not trusted, not respected. But God sent the angel to announce to them: I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.

It was in this way, by manifesting his glory to the very ordinary and humble workers, that God chose to reveal his great work in the world. God blesses human life in his own human life, and blesses our love by giving of himself.

So the shepherds said, “Let’s go!” Let’s see this thing! And they went and they saw the baby in the feed trough.  Everybody was astonished when the shepherds told them about it, but the shepherds, they rejoiced and glorified God and praised God, because this was pretty wonderful and amazing.

As Christians, we live in hope. Hope is not wishful thinking and it’s not about the future, at least not the far-off future. With all God’s creatures and all God’s people we receive the gift of life, and living that life is hope. As a fragile baby and in his resurrection from the dead, Jesus continues that life that is our hope, not exalted or proud, but very ordinary. Let us join those sheepherders :

“An angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them—and they were terrified.  But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid, for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for ALL the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

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He was not the light

A sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent, December 17, 2017

Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey

“He was not the light…”

The Gospel lesson today is about John the Baptist. Of course, he made quite a sensation out there in the wilderness. Lots of crowds, lots of disciples. John was like the rock-star prophet of first century Palestine. Even the people who his harshest criticism was aimed at came out to see him. It was quite a show, with people queued up to be baptized. It was the thing to do, the place to be seen. Get baptized, that will prove that you are repentant, you’re not guilty any more of those bad things that John is talking about.

This was not exactly what John had in mind. The Gospel of Matthew quotes him saying to these people: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee the wrath to come?” One of the ways in which we falsify the Gospel is to look for human heroes, put all the responsibility on them, adulate them, then quietly slip away without taking continuing responsibility for living the life of the Gospel, of standing for justice, repenting and living courageously and humbly with our God every day. John the Baptist was having none of this. So, the priests and Levites come up to him and say, “You preach pretty well … you’re really edgy … that’s quite a look … really authentic … hey, maybe you could be the Messiah? … we sort of need one of those … try on that idea, you would be a really good candidate…somebody go find some oil…”

John replies, “I am not the Messiah.”

“Oh… well, yeah, but you’ve got to be something… maybe Elijah? He was pretty cool…”

“I am not.” — “Well then maybe the Prophet? You look like a prophet after all, we could call you THE Prophet, how about that?”

“No.”

“Then what ARE you, we have to have a category to put you in—after all you can’t do marketing without a brand.”

John gives a big sigh: “I’m a voice. One crying out in the wilderness, for crying out loud… ‘Make straight the way of the Lord’ It is not about me, it’s about the Lord and about how you should live.”

People love to find “heroes” or “leaders” or “saints” who are going to fix things for them. About fifty years ago, Andy Warhol said, “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for fifteen minutes.” With the internet and social media, that future has pretty much arrived. We go through a cycle of finding, building up and debunking heroes at a dizzying rate. Fame can be both tempting and damaging for individuals who might have their fifteen minutes, but I’m actually concerned about the other side of the question. What is the reason for the celebrity of heroes and leaders? Somehow, a celebrity, whether it is a political leader, or an actor, or an athlete, is credited with being somehow special, and having the answer that ordinary people somehow lack. Of course, some people are more talented, or beautiful, or smart than others. But, the step from saying that someone is really smart, or attractive, or loving ,to believing that they have some solution to problems that you don’t have is a big step and a very dangerous one.

Those guys wanted to treat John the Baptist like he was the light, all on his own: look at John, he’s the prophet, let him baptize you and he’ll take care of everything. We want leaders of one sort or another to be our lights. But they aren’t, or at least, if we treat them as such we will become lost very quickly. How frequently do we see people blame last month’s light for their problems this month? John came to bear witness to the light, not to be the light—and he came to hold people responsible for their own actions and their own lives—thus the baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins—real sins, our own sins, for which we are responsible.

This Advent we look for the true light, the light of God to break into this world. But we don’t discover that light by just finding the closest shiny object. No. We listen to the testimony of John: make straight the way of the Lord—know and accept the truth of yourself and of this world. Follow no false prophet, and do not succumb to the temptation to assume anyone else can take responsibility for your life or solve your problems.

We follow God and God alone. We look for him—that small light burning in the darkness, that life so small and fragile—coming among us, to lead us in to truth by his living.

“The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor…to comfort all who mourn; to provide for those who mourn in Zion—to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.”

Comfort my people

A sermon for the Second Sunday of Advent, December 10, 2017

Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey

“Comfort, O comfort my people,” says your God, “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term…”

These words were first spoken to the Jewish exiles in Babylon. It had been a very difficult time: dragged away from their homeland after military conquest and at least two generations in captivity in a foreign land and now they were faced with the possibility of return—a daunting possibility for weary people.

So the prophet speaks: “in the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord”—make a straight highway in the desert, completely flat with every valley filled and the hills graded down, so you have a completely straight shot, an easy ride back home to Jerusalem… Kind of like I-78 to Newark, but without as much traffic.

There is no evidence of any kind that a road like that was ever built, but the prophet is saying: God is taking care of you, will take care of you and you will make it, and you will be God’s people. The people did make it back to Judea, to Jerusalem and without the journey being a particularly noteworthy hardship. God sent the prophet Isaiah to speak to them because they were weary and fearful.

Now, the word of hope and encouragement from God does not in any way deny the realities and difficulties of this world. It says here, “The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.” We can be afraid, we are afraid, and things do happen, of which we have been afraid…

So many things in the news, in our national consciousness. So many instances and patterns of sexual intimidation and bullying—almost as if the way to success has been to hurt and shame others; to use a bit of advantage to degrade others and make oneself comfortable. This is not unlike the tyrants and despots of ancient days who the prophets of Israel prophesied against. It is what Jesus came to save us from, despite what a certain candidate for public office wants to suggest in trying to protect his own taking advantage of teenaged girls. Sometimes we even find these things happening in religious institutions, even our own Episcopal church. People find pious, theological or righteous sounding words to mask their own self-serving and destructive behavior.  Jesus called it out in his own generation—he faced it. God come among us faced this for us. And yet we see it persisting in our own day.

It’s enough to make you weary, and fearful.

But then what does the prophet say to those weary and fearful people?

Get you up to a high mountain,

O Zion, herald of good tidings;

lift up your voice with strength,

O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings,

lift it up, do not fear;

say to the cities of Judah,

“Here is your God!”

God’s comfort for his people is at the same time his call. Lift up your voice, do not fear! That is the only thing that any of us can do to combat that malignant fear that infects this country and which protects those who lash out and even kill the powerless. Here is your God!: The God who came into this world, not in an imperial palace, or even in the courts of the privileged, but as a powerless baby in a stable in an out-of-the-way little town.

That God: “He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather them in his arms, carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.” This God protects his people and in so doing calls us all to not fear, and to lift up our voice and say that we are not afraid.

There are many things that people fear. For some of us, it is losing our privilege or security, for others it might be fear of being the target of abusers and bullies, whose cowardice leads them to selfishly destroy and demean others. But we are a new creation in Christ. This Advent we look toward his coming. In him, in that powerless child, the spiritual power of fear is broken. We can stand and speak the truth—the truth that the only value that counts is compassion, God’s compassion for us and our compassion for one another.  Things happen, the grass withers, the flower fades, but we fear them not because we are in the presence of the Lord.

In today’s letter from Peter it says: “The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance.” Justice, and freedom from fear, are painfully slow in arriving, but it is God who is patient with us. Let us hear again the end of this lesson:

But, in accordance with his promise, we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home. Therefore, beloved, while you are waiting for these things, strive to be found by him at peace, without spot or blemish, and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation.

Lift up your voice. Do not fear, but proclaim that the God of justice is here, to hear and protect us all.

Came to Visit us in Great Humility

A sermon for the First Sunday of Advent, December 3, 2017

Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey

Give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life, which your Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility…

Today we begin the season of Advent. In the four Sundays before Christmas we prepare for the feast where we celebrate God come into this world, as a human being, specifically as a helpless and powerless baby from a family that was basically poor. One way that Christians celebrate this feast of the Incarnation is to give gifts, in honor and rejoicing that Jesus is in this real world where real things are important.

Of course, the culture around us sort of overemphasizes that a bit. The stuff outshines the star and even the baby. But even while the church affirms the enjoyment of Christmas and its material aspects, it has always prepared for it in a very different way. Advent is not about stuff. It is not about a baby. It is not about buying or cheery songs about snow. Advent is about the coming of the Lord; the day when all humanity shall see and be accountable to God. The images in our lessons are not light or superficial—in fact, they can be downright scary. “After that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.”

In other words, prepare to meet your God.

But why? Why can’t we just have a merry little Christmas and be all cozy and party as the days grow dark and the weather gets cold? It’s a good question. I like to have fun and enjoy the holidays. But let’s remember, Christmas is real—Jesus really was born and came into this real world for us. And the world he came into, and continues to come into is very real indeed, and it is not all sweetness and light.

We live in a time and in a world where it is all too easy to listen to our fears, to let them take shape in groups that we can blame or be angry at.  It’s easy to listen to confident and glib people tell us why we should be scared, and who we should blame. In our time, we are well acquainted with the works of darkness.

For example, on Wednesday, the Archbishop of Canterbury who is the senior member of the clergy of our worldwide Anglican Communion, found it necessary to make this statement:

“It is deeply disturbing that the President of the United States has chosen to amplify the voice of far-right extremists. Britain First seeks to divide communities and intimidate minorities, especially our Muslim friends and neighbours. Britain First does not share our values of tolerance and solidarity. God calls us as Christians to love our neighbour and seek the flourishing of all in our communities, societies and nations. I join the urgent call of faith groups and others for President Trump not just to remove these tweets, but to make clear his opposition to racism and hatred in all forms.”

My job, the only one that I have, is to encourage you to cast away those works of darkness and put on the armor of light. Our hope is not in fearfully pretending, but in trusting in the living God—putting on the armor of his love, his mercy, his tenderness for his people. It can be a fearful thing to give up the darkness, to face fear and to see others as they are—people, not caricatures. The temptation is to go back to that cloaking of darkness—But you know what else is fearful? Those images of judgement in the readings today from Isaiah and the Gospel of Mark. God tears open the heaven and comes among us—those fearful behaviors won’t hide us from the appearance of the living God. “You do not know when the master will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn…” The judgement is terrifying only to those who think that they can protect themselves, and use the works of darkness to make themselves invulnerable.

God took the first step—doing the most amazing thing—he entered into our world—into this world at a time fully as troubled as our own—in the most vulnerable of all possible ways: as an infant, born to young parents of no power or influence, with little enough security for themselves: “in great humility…” no grand tutors or teachers, no background, position or wealth. It was that very humility, that vulnerability that Jesus had as his armor of light. For God is not about power, but about love; not about protecting what we have, but about generosity. The armor of light is not about always being right, it is about always having God’s mercy, about being a human being along with other human beings—knowing that they need mercy and that we receive mercy together.

St. Paul had Calvary Church in mind when he wrote this:

“I give thanks to my God always for you because of the Grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus…–so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ. He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord…God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.”