Month: December 2018

The Only Son who has made Him known

A sermon for the First Sunday after Christmas, December 30, 2018

Trinity Episcopal Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.

No one has ever seen God. The God who created the heavens and the earth, the galaxies and the elements is too big, too complicated for anyone to comprehend. Some are brilliant at observing, thinking and reasoning; others have tremendously powerful religious experiences. Yet none of them can say in all honesty that they have seen God in God’s fullness—the finite human mind, and indeed all the minds in all ages put together, and all the computers and books that we might put together to help us, cannot hold, or comprehend God.

 

Human beings are but one small slice of God’s glorious creation.

Yet God loves this world and God loves human beings. And that love is also far more than we can comprehend. God loves us so much that from the beginning he chose to be among us. Jesus is what a human being is from God’s perspective—his love is genuine, his honesty is compassionate, he does not give in to the temptation to make his allies and benefactors comfortable at the expense of those who nobody cares about. God’s Word became flesh. In him, the unknowable God is made known.

Anyone who looks and listens can understand Jesus, his compassion, his calling people out when they represent themselves as being the holy or righteous ones while they are really just trying to get the advantage over others; his courage for the sake of others, especially the poor and the weak. When people don’t understand, it is because they wish not to understand that listening to Jesus might disrupt their strategy to be on top, or their desire to hold on to things or status. The stories, the images, the message, and the life of Jesus are not incomprehensible—all it takes is openness to the truth—he is The Way, The Truth, and The Life. What is incomprehensible, is the love of God, that God would do this—spend everything so that human creatures could know how to live humanly. The compassion of Jesus, is the compassion of God and the only way to be human is to live in God’s compassion.

To choose against compassion is to choose hate, and that will eat you up and destroy you. Some appear to think that merely using the word, “Jesus,” takes the place of listening to him; that piously calling themselves “Christian” means that compassion isn’t necessary; and that it is okay to trumpet their own righteousness while despising the poor and blaming those who suffer. There are Christians in our country who are happy to see children incarcerated in camps in Texas and New Mexico without even basic medical attention. When our Gospel says that Jesus “came to his own, and his own people did not accept him,” it is referring to such people. We are called to receive him, not just in forms of words, but by internalizing God’s compassion, living truthfully and thus humbly, by being God’s children, not defending ourselves through hate of others, but in lives of generosity.

The Word became Flesh to give us life, abundant and joyful life, not destruction. It is not some manual of instructions that he brings, not a set of teachings or rules to memorize. It is the very life of Jesus, God come in the flesh, that shows us God’s compassion – how to live as compassionate human beings.

The Latin word for “becoming flesh” is Incarnation. And God’s becoming flesh and blood with us is so important that the Church celebrates the feast of the Incarnation for twelve days. Monday night, we had mass on Christmas Eve. Today is the sixth full day of that feast, the first Sunday of Christmas. We feast and celebrate. We call to mind that the power of Jesus’ love is in his entire life, even as a tiny baby. Today we celebrate and rejoice in his coming.

Let us bless the Lord and rejoice in his love for us. As it says in today’s psalm:

Worship the Lord, O Jerusalem; praise your God, O Zion;

For he has strengthened the bars of your gates;

he has blessed your children within you.

He has established peace on your borders; he satisfies you with the finest wheat.

Merry Christmas!

Advertisements

The Shepherds returned, Glorifying and Praising God

A sermon for Christmas Eve, December 24, 2018

Trinity Episcopal Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

“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…”

Tonight’s Gospel story places us in a world where many were right to be terrified. The Emperor Augustus was the first Roman emperor. The Romans had been around and expanding for a while, conquering other countries, but Augustus was the one who brought one-man rule and consolidated the world empire. He was the first who could decree that all the whole world should be enrolled and taxed. Augustus had a lot of power; for one thing, he had at his disposal the Roman army, which also served as the police force, and that army were never known for restraint and gentleness in enforcing imperial decrees. The early Roman Empire, when Augustus was consolidating his rule, was indeed a fearful time for most people. Everyone was being herded to their places of origin to facilitate efficient and organized registration. And so this man and his fiancé have to travel almost a hundred miles, mostly on foot. And she’s in the last stages of pregnancy. The whole thing sounds pretty frightening to me.

Yet, in Bethlehem, they found a place to stay. What it says here in the Gospel was that Mary wrapped the baby up warm and put him in a manger, because there wasn’t any space for them in the spare room. There’s no reference to a Motel 6 with no vacancy or even to a late medieval English country inn. Mostly people like Joseph and Mary found a place to stay with distant relatives or friends of friends if they traveled away from home. Hospitality was a duty in the ancient Near East and most honored it.

But Palestinian houses were not that big, usually only a single room with an upstairs that resembled what we would call a sleeping loft that was used for various things, including entertaining guests. That room was full, maybe with other guests, maybe the stuff stored there made it too crowded for a woman to go through labor and delivery. At the far end of the main room of the house, away from where the family slept and ate, was where they brought in their animals for the night to be safe from thieves and predators. So there would be a manger there for fodder to keep the cattle occupied and quiet through the night. There’s no mention of the animals being there when Mary put Jesus into the feed bunk, we just fill that in with our imaginations. Maybe this night the animals were left outside with a guard, while this mother had her baby.

In this frightening world, Mary found a safe place for her baby. It wasn’t luxurious—it was a feed trough—but he was warm and loved and safe.

So then we have these shepherds. They are outside, protecting their animals through the night. They are not very high up the social ladder. They aren’t wealthy owners of large flocks—those people spent the night at home in bed. These are probably hired hands, barely getting by. Hired shepherds were regarded as low, vile, untrustworthy—the whole list of things that poor and disadvantaged groups always get called—that’s what you find in ancient descriptions of shepherds.

And the angel of the Lord appeared to these shepherds. And the literal text in Greek translates, “And they feared fear very big.” A lot of fear. And some of that is awe in the presence of the most holy, the Glory of God, but it’s the fear also of those in an insecure and dangerous situation faced by new and unknown power.

So the angel says to them, “Don’t fear.” The angel tells them to see what God is doing. Notice that if the angel just told them that a young, unmarried woman had just had a baby in town, in a place where cattle spend the night, it would have been pretty much no news, let alone good news, nothing different in this fearful chaotic world.  But …

“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.”

The fearful shepherds heard the army of God’s angels singing and they went to Bethlehem. They saw that baby. That human being who we know was always living as a human being from God’s perspective, the perspective of love.

“Glory to God in the highest, and peace …”

It is God’s doing and not ours. God loved Mary, the mother of that child, who loved him, cared for him, kept him safe and warm. The Source of Love knew he was loved as his mother held him there.

In a world filled with chaos and fear, the shepherds saw God’s glory right there. And the angel army sang, “Peace on earth” – not peace sometime else or somewhere else: Peace on this earth. Peace is the opposite of fear and chaos. We often think of peace as just the absence of war or violence, but that is not really it. Shalom in Hebrew and the concept of peace overall, signifies wholeness and health. Peace brings integrity of existence—the opposite of chaos and fear.

If you look at the news, the agents of chaos are abroad. It’s entirely understandable that people are afraid. The devils of chaos will do their worst and many will be terrified, but God has come among us, bringing peace even as a newborn infant. We worry about money and we worry about the church, but God’s angel army sings, “Peace on this earth to all people in God’s overwhelming mercy.” When we say, “Do not be afraid,” it is not because those agents of chaos aren’t out there, or that there aren’t bills due, and obligations to meet. The angels and the saints and the church, present, past and yet to come, say, “Do not fear,” because God is bringing peace among us, that is to say, God is bringing us together, binding us together as a whole in the integrity of Christ’s love.  Fear paralyzes us, but God’s peace makes it possible to live, to be courageous and to be generous in all aspects of our lives.

So the shepherds said what the angel had told them about the child and everyone was amazed. But for Mary, “But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen.”

Let us also glorify God, for what he has done among us.

Let us pray.

Almighty God, you have given your only-begotten Son to take our nature upon him, and to be born this day of a pure virgin: Grant that we, who have been born again and made your children by adoption and grace, may daily be renewed by your Holy Spirit; through our Lord Jesus Christ, to whom with you and the same Spirit be honor and glory, now and forever.