Humility

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.”

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Lord, when was it that we saw you?

A sermon for the Feast of Christ the King, November 26, 2017

Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey

Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you…

Today is the last Sunday before Advent begins. It is often called the Feast of Christ the King and it is indeed the day when we celebrate Jesus Christ as our Lord and King. Funny thing about that though—the King we celebrate is powerless. He has no wealth, no army, he doesn’t even have much influence with the powerful or the wealthy. How does this king rule? “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger…”

Jesus is a stranger…in this world of ours he doesn’t fit in. Certainly not with those who make it clear that people are to be judged as good people based on their success in making money and fitting in with the “right kind of people.” Jesus was all about hospitality, about welcoming people and attending to their needs. And plenty of the people he welcomed and feasted with, were one way or another the wrong kinds of people: tax collectors, sinners, women accused of being prostitutes—even those Samaritans, that ethnic group that was just a little bit on the wrong side of the religious and ethnic divide from Jesus’ Jewish heritage.

So this stranger Jesus is the King we celebrate. But not a foreign king like Alexander the Great, the Greek who conquered the world, or Augustus, the Roman emperor who ruled the world up to Jesus’ time. Jesus is strange because power, prestige and control are not what he’s about.

The image he presents in the Gospel reading today is this:

The judgment day is presented, and the Son of Man is standing on the plain with all the angels, sorting out people just the way

that everybody knew a shepherd would separate the sheep and the goats into separate groups, treating each species according to its own needs and nature.

I read it this way: After it’s all over, after the course of life is run, we’ll just see. The Son of Man comes in glory to invite his people in. It is really the invitation that he has been giving us all along, and the kingdom is not so much different as we have right now, truth be told. It’s just hard to see it sometimes amidst our anxiety and worry—perhaps it’s difficult to see the kingdom while we ourselves are busy producing the problems that the Kingdom of God heals. But Jesus is here.

Two weeks ago, I attended a meeting of Calvary’s Good Shepherds who work with Mother Ann to visit and care for the sick and shut-ins of our community. Our youth group gathers together to support one another and to reach out for the good of others—today they are putting up the Angel Tree, which gives us an opportunity in cooperation with Readington Township Social Services to give gifts and convey caring and hope to people who are having a difficult time and perhaps not seeing so much brightness in the coming season. Our parishioners share the joy of Christ’s love with our community in hosting Halloween Trick or Treaters and having a float in the Christmas Parade. This Friday some of us will take warm hats and scarves as well as needed toiletries and supplies to the Seaman’s Church Institute to give to merchant sailors who are far from home and often quite isolated. And our Way of St. Paul Group is working hard on listening to one another and all of you in the congregation—in helping us work on ways to foster deeper connection among us and to discern more clearly where God is leading us together.

This story about the sheep and the goats might tempt some to try to keep score: how many times did I help the needy? How many times did I fail to see Jesus? But Jesus’ teaching is not about keeping score. It’s about character. What sort of people are we becoming? You notice that both groups—both the blessed and the accursed—are surprised by their status. The reason for this is not because it is some sort of secret magical trick meant to keep us on edge. The blessed don’t know because it has become so much of their character to respond with generosity and respect to everyone—particularly those who are hungry or thirsty or alone—that it doesn’t even occur to them to do it any other way. And the accursed, their character becomes so defensive and self-centered, that they are surprised that everybody else doesn’t do it like them. “Oh, I’m sure I fed the hungry somehow—didn’t I have that on my schedule in between my spa treatment and foreclosing on those mortgages?”

When the habits of Jesus’ love for us become the habits of our hearts, we are indeed blessed. When we actually look and see what others need, and offer them in generosity that cup of cool water, or that helping hand, it builds us up inside. Our reverence for God’s people builds reverence for God, and it is in God that we live in joy.

As St. Paul said in the Epistle to the Ephesians today:

I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he called you…

May we all rejoice as we live in the power of the humility of Christ our King.

The breaking of the bread

A sermon for the third Sunday of Easter, April 30, 2017

St. James Episcopal Church, Lincoln, California

I wrote this sermon three years ago, for a church in Westchester County, New York.

And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?”

This is a gently amusing story. We have all been told at the outset that it’s Jesus himself who has fallen in step with these two disciples. They are the only ones that don’t know what is going on. He says, “What are you talking about?” And they stop.

Cleopas says to him “Are you the ONLY ONE who doesn’t know the things that has happened?” If this were a play, I would expect Jesus to take a quick look at the audience, maybe even wink, before turning to Cleopas, “What things? Tell me how you would describe it.” So Cleopas and his companion tell Jesus the story that we have all gone through in the last month, in order that he can understand why they are so depressed, confused, and discouraged. “We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.” So Cleopas is telling Jesus that he’s clearly not the one that is to redeem Israel.

Like many of us, Cleopas knows what he knows, and the things that he expected and wanted didn’t go the way that he wanted and hoped for them to go, so he knows it’s all for naught. So Jesus starts walking with them again—and talking—this one who is to redeem Israel, why is it that he should not suffer? What is the real life of Moses and the prophets, if not filled with both suffering and the Glory of God?

Cleopas and his companion are very real, very understandable—and a lot like most of us. And like most of us, they found it easiest to focus on their own expectations, what they thought should happen, how the good things that they like should continue always in a straight line, always getting better. It’s easy to focus on ourselves, our own problems, and our own solutions. Another way of saying that is that it’s easy to not listen to the Gospel. God has something new and different for us, and we find it in this real world, often not in the ways that we predict, and almost always not by looking for what we ourselves want.

I always wanted to get a doctorate and be a famous professor. At the time I went through seminary, it was fashionable for bishops to require that anyone who was going to be ordained, be first interested in full-time parish ministry, not in primarily an academic calling. So I told him that’s what I wanted to do. I finished seminary and found positions in parishes in the Midwest—with the expectation that I would return to graduate school and become a professor with valuable parish ministry experience informing my scholarship and teaching. The thing is, nothing came out as I expected. I won’t go into the details and personal drama, but the timelines that I had sketched out didn’t work out, the prospects for funding and careers for graduate students in the humanities were quickly drying up, and I realized that the jobs that I envisioned were only going to the superstars and the extremely fortunate, not to those who were just good enough. There weren’t huge scholarships coming my way, or high-powered recruiting.

With three small children, I had to give up that scenario that I had created in my mind. As that was happening, I had the opportunity to watch the work of academic reference librarians and I realized that the work that they did was far closer to my own strengths and the things that I enjoyed than the dissertation writing and classroom teaching of professors. At the time, that meant giving up many things in the story I was telling myself, especially the status that I projected for myself. It also meant giving up employment by the church—it was almost 20 years before I joined the faculty of the General Theological Seminary as the Director of the Library and I never earned that doctorate. There was difficulty in giving up that story I wanted for myself, but I have never regretted it—the enjoyment of doing those things that I was meant to do far outweighs the pursuit of fame and honor.

Of course, after I wrote this sermon, more things happened. My colleagues and I left the institution where I was librarian and I found that I was called to preach the Gospel and minister in parishes from a new perspective, one that is fulfilling to me in ways I had never expected. While I regret the pain that some have suffered, I have no regrets about any of the turnings of my life.

My story isn’t that unusual; almost everyone has their own version of it—either career related or something personal—we have all experienced grappling with disappointments and setbacks and eventually giving up on something we thought was all-important, only to discover something even more meaningful.

God has something new for us, and I certainly never predicted that it would be my being a librarian. These guys out on the road, they thought they knew how Israel was to be delivered, and this Jesus guy seemed like he might have the stuff to be the right kind of leader. Maybe, finally, there would be one person who would wield power justly—but Jesus didn’t wield power at all.

It was not an instantaneous thing for the followers of Jesus to realize that his crucifixion was the source of their hope, not their utter defeat. You can see the church struggling to come to terms with this, not just in this story, but in the whole of the New Testament. Giving up this story about ourselves and how great and powerful we are, and accepting this even more exciting story about how God brings life to the humble, and defeats death with love.

So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him…

Let us share bread, and perhaps our eyes, too, will be opened.

In remembrance

A sermon for Maundy Thursday, April 13, 2017

St. James Episcopal Church, Lincoln, California

“When the hour came, he took his place at the table”

It was a solemn feast, of deep religious and national significance when Jesus gathered his apostles with him that evening.  He says to them, “I will not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.” Jesus’ ministry, from beginning to end, was the proclamation of the Kingdom of God. His prayer for his disciples: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done,” was a prayer of the Kingdom of God. God’s direct rule of God’s people, the dropping of human manipulations and oppressions, the welcoming joy of life with God without the death and downward pressure of human sinfulness: that is the Kingdom of God.

This was Jesus’ last meal, certainly his last meal with his apostles. I have no doubt that he knew it, and all the others in the room were expecting it as well.  The Kingdom of God is hard for human rulers to take—and not just kings. Jesus had brought freedom and healing to people in ways that inconvenienced all sorts of people who profited or gained status by demeaning or hurting others. It was uncomfortable for them when Jesus revealed their hypocrisy, mendacity, greed or cruelty by speaking simple truths or telling stories with a humorous or ironic take on life.  This had reached a point when everyone could see that something was about to give, and Jesus entered Jerusalem in a mock triumphal procession—on a donkey, instead of the horse that a conquering king would ride.

The wine, the cup of blessing, the cup of the celebration of God’s Kingdom, “take this and divide it among yourselves.” Anticipating the Kingdom.

The bread, simple sustenance or bread of affliction. Perhaps the bread that the Israelites baked in such a hurry that they could not let it rise, because they were fleeing the Egyptians. But Jesus wasn’t going to flee the Romans. “My body” “For you” “Do this in remembrance of me.” In memory, we re-member, re-assemble the love of Jesus for us. We are one body in Him, because his love is re-membered in us.

And the final cup, the Gospel says it is the same as the bread—“Poured out for you as the covenant in my blood.” We are remembered by God in the remembrance of Christ in the Holy Eucharist.

Of course, no sooner had he said this than they began to act like every other church assembly or other human assembly since then. “A dispute arose among them as to which one of them was to be regarded as the greatest.”  The text doesn’t say whether Jesus did a “face-palm.” It might not have been a current gesture back then, but nobody would blame him if he did.

“Not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves.” Clearly, Jesus saying it hasn’t made it magically true among Christians of any age. But he is clearly meaning the same thing as in the Gospel of John where he says, “A new commandment I give you, that you love one another,” as he interprets his washing of the disciples’ feet. The word “Maundy” refers to the Latin word for commandment, and there is only one commandment for Christians, that we love. That love is not so much a nice feeling as an attitude of our will to actively seek the best for another. In other words, we are commanded to serve God’s people as the love of Christ.

The institution of the Holy Eucharist is founded in this commandment of love. We remember that it is God who first loved us in Jesus Christ, we remember that we are bound together in his love, we remember that he is among us as our servant, and we become that love of God by partaking of Christ’s Body and Blood in this bread and wine which he gives us.

Almighty and everlasting God, whose will it is to restore all things in your well-beloved Son, the King of kings, and Lord of lords: Mercifully grant that the peoples of the earth, divided and enslaved by sin, may be freed and brought together under his most gracious rule; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

Walk humbly with your God

A sermon for the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany, January 29, 2017

St. James Episcopal Church, Lincoln, California

Blessed are the poor in Spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

Blessed are the meek for they will inherit the earth.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

Blessed are the merciful for they will receive mercy.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see god.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God.

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are YOU when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

In the Sundays leading up to Lent, our lectionary is taking us through the beginning of Jesus’ ministry in the Gospel of Matthew. Last week he called the first disciples and the lesson ends: “Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.”

The next thing Matthew says is a description of the great crowds who travelled from all over that started following Jesus. Jesus’ response to those crowds was to teach them. Over the next four Sundays we will be going through this detailed account of the teaching of Jesus which is known as the Sermon on the Mount. This teaching is the fundamental foundation of Christian spirituality.

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The introductory part, which I just read, is called the Beatitudes—the blessings, or the description of those who are blessed. Sometimes people take these Beatitudes one at a time, but really, taken together, they are Jesus’ outline of the spirituality of the Christian life.

The Beatitudes start with “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” Who are the poor? They are those who have little or nothing left to lose. The more that people and organizations have things that they might lose, the more afraid they become of risking those things for the sake of the Kingdom of God. But it is the Kingdom of God that gives life, not the things that we might have lost or still could lose.

And yet, many of those things that we might lose are good, are created by God and give us joy. It hurts to lose them. The second beatitude is “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” Sometimes the things we give up or lose are things, or status or parts of relationships that we like. And adjusting to that is a type of mourning. Sometimes we mourn for people who have meant much to us. In our own community, we have lost people, long-time members—and we grieve. Losing a spouse or a child or another close loved one hurts immensely, and it continues to hurt for a long time. The comfort that God gives does not take that hurt away, or explain away our sorrow. God comforts us by traveling the road with us, healing our hurts and giving mercy.

When Jesus says “Blessed are the meek,” we need to understand something about that word. Meek has taken on a meaning in the past century that is misleading. We are inclined to think of meek as meaning primarily passive and submissive, but the word in this passage does not mean that—it means gentle, courteous and humble. One doesn’t inherit the earth by being timid or weak; rather it is by the strength of being humble, listening and giving credit to the dignity of others. The humble person neither trumpets their advanced status in the Kingdom, nor resents what they have given up for the sake of God’s Kingdom. Being meek does not mean that you don’t speak out when you see wrong or injustice. It’s only the meek and humble who can authentically hunger and thirst for justice (which is the same word as righteousness). Those who, in the core of their being, hunger and thirst for righteousness are fed, not by seeing it completed in this world, but by humbly receiving sustenance and life in God’s Kingdom so that they may continue to look for, and find the possibility of a little more justice in this world.

And as we struggle to find just a little bit of justice or righteousness in the church or in the world, we would become embittered and lost, were it not for God’s mercy to us, guiding us into the path of being merciful human beings. For who can be just or righteous in this world? It is certainly not those who are always convinced of their own rightness. It is in dwelling in that mercy that we can approach pureness in our heart and mind, perhaps getting a glimpse of what God has in store.

Notice here, that we have gone through all of this before we get to peacemaking. Making peace is not something you achieve by splitting the difference, or agreeing to not talk about disagreeable things. Making peace where there has been real contention takes the most profound of risks, courage, humility and strength. The children of God who are the peacemakers must be living day by day in God’s kingdom for anything like peace to make sense.

Jesus is totally in the real world. Notice that the next step in the beatitudes, indeed the consequence of making peace, is being persecuted for righteousness sake. Don’t expect living as a Christian and as a peacemaker to make your life peaceful and easy. For instance, it never occurred to me that the President of the United States would ever make an order that caused long-time residents of this country and whose permanent visas were in order to be detained and refused re-entry into the country as happened this weekend. That order embodies fear and anger and uses power to gain satisfaction for that anger by scapegoating people like the U.S. Army translator who was detained and threatened with return to Iraq. At times like this, when Christians speak out for the dignity of people there is a real risk of suffering for it.  The peace and love of Jesus Christ can be profoundly disruptive, particularly for those who think they have this religion thing under control.

So that summarizes Jesus’ outline of the Christian spiritual life.

Jesus teaches us and the crowds the way of life. But what he teaches is not important because it is new or different. It is important because he lived it and shared God’s mercy and compassion.  It is a mistake to talk about the Sermon on the Mount as representing “New Testament teaching” as if it were different from the “Old Testament.”  His life and teaching are consistently a commentary on the scriptures of Israel.  Hear again our Old Testament lesson for today: “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

Over the next three weeks, the Sermon on the Mount will illustrate how Jesus’ humble walk with God interprets the scriptures of Israel. God blesses those who accompany him on that walk, rejoicing in God’s Kingdom, finding God’s peace, purifying their hearts, receiving and giving God’s mercy and comfort.  May all of our spirits become poor enough and empty enough to inherit the reign of God.

 

Come and see

A sermon for the second Sunday after Epiphany, January 15, 2017

St. James Episcopal Church, Lincoln, California

“They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day.”

st-andrew-iconWhen I became the director of the library at the General Theological Seminary, my wife Paula gave me a special gift. She commissioned an icon of St. Andrew to be painted (or as the Orthodox more properly state it, written) for me.  On a luminous red background with a gold border and nimbus around his head, it shows a man with scruffy hair and beard holding one hand up in blessing and in the other, holding a scroll—identifying him as a preacher of the word. There is a caption written in Greek on the red background, “ho hagios Andreas Protokletos.”

That caption refers to our Gospel story this morning. It means “Holy Andrew, the first-called.” St. Andrew is important to me—largely because we share a name, I identify with him.  So, what does this mean, “the first-called?”

This story is very early in the Gospel of John, in the first chapter, immediately following the Prologue and the introduction of John the Baptist. John is at the Jordan baptizing people for repentance. Andrew was a follower of John, working with him, learning from him. John says, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” And Andrew and one other disciple followed Jesus. And when he turns and talks to them they ask, “Teacher, where are you staying?” They are asking to listen to the teacher, and his response is immediate, “Come and see.”  We don’t know who the other disciple was, but Andrew was the first of the Twelve Apostles. He spent the day listening to Jesus and went and found his brother, Peter: “We have found the Messiah!” After this point, Peter is chief among the disciples, the most important leader of the church and Andrew pretty much fades into the background. But Andrew was the first one to be called.

Think about that for a minute. We human beings like to put things in order of priority; the most important or the most powerful first. We can only focus on a few things, often only one thing at a time, so we focus on the biggest, the most important and then, wanting attention, we seek to become the most prominent or the most powerful. But our focus and wants have nothing to do with reality as God gives it to us.  The First Called was an obscure disciple and not a hero or a leader—not the biggest or the best, nor any other superlative, not even the least or the worst. Andrew heard John: “Behold the Lamb of God.” And he responded by following—and in interacting with Jesus he was called: “Come and see.” His call did not come out of the blue, it came in the context of a life of searching. The call of God never comes without the context of a life—of human possibilities and needs.  We see here that this obscure Apostle is also deeply important in the development of the church—how can you tell the story of Christianity without St. Peter? Yet Andrew knew that Jesus was the Messiah from sitting in his presence and listening—even before any of the rest of the story unfolded.

We are all called to know God and to witness to God in the context of our own lives. Like St. Andrew, the most significant things in our lives are not the big achievements or awards, but our simple witness to the truth of God and our simple living of Christ’s love. “He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, ‘You are Simon, son of John. You are to be called Cephas’ (which is translated Peter, or Rock).”

Tomorrow we celebrate the life of a saint of our church, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In his “drum major sermon,” Dr. King acknowledged that he had received many accolades in his life. But he also said that upon his death, what he most wanted was for people to remember the following:

“Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice; say that I was a drum major for peace; I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter.”

 

King makes it clear, that he means that it was not any of the attention or awards that he received, that were of any significance, but the ways in which his life was of service to others. We are also called to use our gifts, individually and as a congregation to serve the good of others.

Since Fr. Bill Rontani retired, St. James has been in a period of transition. This interim time is not a time of drift or emptiness. It is an opportunity to reflect on God’s call to us—to “Come and See” Jesus and discern the direction where God may be inviting us to travel. As God’s disciples, we live realistically in the real world. We live in hope, but not in delusions. We know the love of God as we have experienced it, not as we imagine it might happen at other places that get the attention or success.

An important part of this time of discernment is today. After our final hymn, we will gather for an exercise that has the label “Appreciative Inquiry,” after the method in which I have been training to be a certified Interim Minister.  The most important part of Appreciative Inquiry is that every person’s story will be heard.  No matter how retiring or insignificant a person may think of himself or herself, every person has a story and that story is a vital part of who St. James Church is. I invite each of you to come and hear and tell one other person’s story.  There is a simple, concise and un-embarrassing structure of how we will do this. The goal is to have people who know each other the least interview one another, and to introduce their new partner to a small group. I assure you, the depth of insight from this exercise will enhance the life of this congregation, and the most important statements will come from surprising sources. After this week and next week, the information from our experience will be used by the Parish Profile committee to help draft the document that will guide St. James’ search for a new priest. That priest is not some sort of savior or solution to all problems, the priest will hold you accountable to your vision of who you really are as a congregation, and will assist you in your life as disciples of the true Messiah.

As St. Paul said in today’s epistle:

“To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, together with all those who in every place call of the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours: Grace to you and peace. I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God has been given you in Christ Jesus, for in every way you have been enriched in him…”

 

“Come and see.”

The darkness did not overcome it

A sermon for Christmas Day, December 25, 2016

St. James Episcopal Church, Lincoln, California

“The Light Shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

Each time that I am the celebrant at the Eucharist, after the service I say the beginning of the prologue of the Gospel of John, which is our Gospel lesson today. I say it as a prayer of thanksgiving, and I end with those words: The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.

The Gospel today is the Christmas story, as John tells it—and Christmas is the essence of Christianity. Whether the story we read is the baby in the manger, with shepherds running out of the hills to see him, or later on when the astrologers from the East come asking at the palace of Herod, because they want to give gifts to the infant king. (oops–not such a good idea, see Matthew 2:16-18–), or as we say it today, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us”—God is in this world with us, born of a human woman. God’s choice was not to do this in the most secure or powerful place, like the palace of the Roman Emperor, or even of the King of Judea, but rather in the most precarious of circumstances.

Oil Lamp with Ancient Inscription in Background

Oil Lamp with Ancient Inscription in Background

The image of the light shining in the darkness would have been understood in antiquity as a lamp—a little dish with oil in it, and a wick—with a flame like a candle. In those times, a room at night would be black with overwhelming darkness, but one small light would push the darkness back—indeed with your eyes accustomed to the dark, you could see everything in the room. The tiny light would overcome the huge darkness. Just as the baby—born in poverty and vulnerability—brings salvation into the world.

Soon, people will start to throw away their trees. Christmas is over as soon as the presents are opened. Nobody, except for a few Episcopalians, pays any attention to the twelve days. But our celebration is not of a day, or a season, or of trees or of gifts. The Gospel puts it, where? “In the beginning”—that is to say, in the beginning before anything at all was created, the Word was there with God, and it is the life of that Word that is the light that shines in that little baby in Bethlehem and continues to shine and overcome the darkness of the cross in his Resurrection.

This light, then, shines in the darkness. It does not need to be the great white lights on Broadway, nor the TV lights in a football stadium that outdo the sun during the broadcast of a game, nor the sun itself or even a star. Our faith is in that small, quiet light, the light that tells of the life of the Word, of Jesus.

Christians sometimes get confused. Sometimes they think, oh, if we can do so much with this little light, how much more could we accomplish if we had more and bigger lights, and lots and lots of power? And maybe then we could get EVERYBODY to celebrate Christmas our way, then everybody would be much better Christians. Of course you need a lot of power for all those lights, so maybe you should deal with the people who have the power and forget about those guys in the stable.

 

Our hope, as Christians, is not in the big lights and the big productions, but in that one small and humble light. That hope is not wishful thinking, but the sure and certain triumph of the love of God. Though we might live a life of vulnerability along with Christ, and we might lose one thing or another that we might like to have, the reality that is the love of God will never fail. The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father… And from his fullness have we all received all the gifts of God and lives filled with confident hope.

 

Merry Christmas.