Saturday, April 19, 2014

We are Washed in Love


Sermon

Maundy Thursday – April 17, 2014

St. Paul’s Episcopal Church

John 13:1-17, 31b-35

 

 

The hour for Jesus to depart has come. In less than 30 minutes we will leave the church in darkness and silence. The altar and the sanctuary will be bare. The candles snuffed; the crosses covered in black; the music silenced.

 

Our minds will be stunned; our hearts numbed. With tears welling in saddened eyes, we will exit into the darkness of night – a night in which the light and life of our Lord Jesus has been extinguished.

 

In less than 30 minutes Jesus will depart.  Yet, in these all too brief, but incredibly important, few moments we, as Disciples of Christ, will have the opportunity to be with him in a most amazing way. A way that is perhaps more compelling, more fraught with emotion, more powerful than the stripping of the altar, the darkening of the church, the setting of the Altar of Repose, and our exit in grief and silence.

 

In just a few moments we will participate in the ritual of foot-washing, an act of humility, compassion, and love instituted by Jesus so many years ago in that crowded upper room in Bethany – the site of his last supper with the disciples. In just a few moments we will step back in time and enter that upper room. And now, as then, as feet are washed the humility and compassion of Jesus will leave us bewildered, yet deeply moved.

 

Without a doubt, the foot-washing is a challenging ritual. After all, who wants to come forward, take off their shoes, and expose perhaps the ugliest part of their body - those funny, sometimes cracked and dirty things called feet? Who wants to expose their ugly feet – who wants to sit on a stool and wash the feet of others?

 

Indeed, many churches eliminate the foot-washing from their Maundy Thursday service entirely. Other churches slip it in quietly and quickly – the altar party as the only participants while the congregation sits in silence listening to beautiful music. And in churches where the foot-washing ritual is practiced in its entirety many members of the congregation hang back, too embarrassed or conflicted to participate fully.

 

What in the world are we thinking by assigning this embarrassing, messy, and strange act such a prominent place in the midst of an otherwise traditional and compassionate liturgy?

 

Don’t feel as if you are an odd man out for having these, or similar, thoughts. These are questions that even the disciples had for Jesus. Simon Peter was incredulous when he said, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” Peter could not believe that Jesus would stoop to such a low level. Why would Jesus, their teacher, their rabbi, their Lord, perform a task not even required of most household slaves? Normally, guests who had walked long distances were provided with water and a cloth and expected to wash their own dirty and cracked feet.

 

Jesus, undeterred by Peter’s question, continued about his business. He wrapped a towel around his waist and got started with the foot-washing saying, “Unless I wash you, you will have no share with me.”

 

When Peter heard Jesus speak these words he knew that the simple and embarrassing act of foot-washing meant something far greater. Somehow Peter knew that Jesus’ washing of the disciples’ feet was central to the message of salvation that his Lord was teaching. All of a sudden the act of foot-washing took on an importance for Peter – an importance way beyond the simple act itself.

 

And, Peter wasn’t wrong. The foot-washing was in fact an essential key to these last lessons that Jesus was imparting to his disciples.

 

Jesus was telling his disciples that the foot-washing was so important, that without it one cannot "share" with him. The word “share” used here – the Greek meros – means to share with or be a partner with; it means in this context not only a fellowship with Jesus, but also a sharing in his heritage, his kingdom. Raymond Brown in the “Gospel According to John” observes that Jesus words are not "if you don’t allow yourself to be washed," but rather: "Unless I wash you." These words point to Jesus’ salvific action, as symbolized by the act of foot-washing.

 

Foot-washing, then, is much more than a moral example to be imitated, a guideline for better Christian living. By symbolizing the sacrifice of Jesus, it also acts as an invitation to be "washed" into love and fellowship with Jesus; into a share of his kingdom as we are cleansed of sin.

 

Michael Taylor in “The Different Gospel” writes, “Jesus tells Peter he will be lost if he does not accept this act. The foot-washing as a pre-cursor to the crucifixion-death of Jesus is not an evil to be rejected, a scandal that proves the unworthiness of the one who dies that way. It is God’s fullest act of love, and unless Peter and all believers embrace it and let it embrace them, there will be no sharing in Jesus’ inheritance.”

 

If Peter was to have a share with Jesus in his community and the eternal life then he must be washed by Jesus.  He must allow, without question, without incredulity – he must allow Jesus, graciously and lovingly, to wash his feet.

 

Now Jesus has Peter’s attention. Peter swings from one end of the spectrum to the other. He wants not only his feet washed – he wants his whole body washed by Jesus. Peter wants to be assured of full inclusion in whatever Jesus is offering – he wants it all. Peter eagerly responds, “Then, Lord, . . . not just my feet but my hands and my head as well!”

 

Jesus responds – “Peter you are missing the point” - “One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet.”

 

This is an enigmatic statement that has been food for many scholarly interpretations. Alan Culpepper in “The Gospel and Letters of John” writes that Jesus’ response can be interpreted as affirming that the “one who has been washed by Jesus’ death, which is to be interpreted as the foot-washing has no need of any further washings. R. H. Lightfoot in “St. John’s Gospel” concluded that “the feet-washing is probably best interpreted as having the same significance and efficacy as the Lord’s death.” In other words, Peter misses the point by thinking that the frequency and extent of physical washing would increase his “share” with Jesus. Jesus was undertaking the humiliating act of foot-washing to prophesy that he was to be humiliated in death. Peter’s questioning enables Jesus to explain the salvific necessity of his death in bringing humanity into relationship with himself, and into a share of his kingdom – all this by the cleansing of their sin brought about by the blood shed at Calvary and symbolized by the cleansing waters of foot-washing.

 

After Jesus had washed disciples’ feet, he put on his robe and returned to the supper table. Once again, he spoke to his disciples saying, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord – and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, has washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.”

 

Our marching orders from Jesus – always follow his example – always do unto others as he has done to us.

 

This then is the challenge that we face tonight as we prepare for the foot-washing. Are we able to move beyond the superficial embarrassment of exposing cracked and dirty feet and instead create a place deep within our hearts and minds that allows us to experience the humility and compassion of our Lord as he prepared for the ultimate act of humiliation, crucifixion upon the cross.

 

Are we able to intentionally share in this act of foot-washing with the members of our St. Paul’s community in a way that builds community that cannot be described in words – a community that is founded upon, is fed by, and grows out of humility, compassion and love – the same humility, compassion and love demonstrated by Jesus in that small upper room so many years ago.

 

Are we able to be washed by Jesus and to wash one another, thinking not of our feet, but of our hearts, our minds and our souls as they engage with the passion of Jesus and his death upon the cross?

 

Are we able to love one another as Jesus loved us?

 

There is indeed a great deal to pack into these precious last 30 minutes - Many words and actions to see and hear with the eyes and ears of our heart -Multiple complex teachings to comprehend if we are to truly grasp the glory­ of the resurrection and the significance of our lives as Christ’s disciples - Much to understand that is, in the end, incomprehensible.

 

As we wash each other’s feet, pray and break bread together, say our last words of thanksgiving and praise, the words from John’s gospel will linger as critically important lessons in our minds:

 

  • “Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.”
  • “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.”
  • “Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, not are messengers greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.”
  • “Where I am going, you cannot come.”
  • “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

Saturday, March 8, 2014

No Cross...No Faith...


FIRST SUNDAY IN LENT
March 9, 2014
One of my favorite people in today’s church world is Walter Brueggeman, a theologian, Old Testament scholar, professor, prolific author, and perhaps one of the religious world’s strongest advocates for the common good – the well-being of all humanity.

Brueggemann, as you probably know, is all about dethroning Pharaoh - the Empire, the powerful elite – those who have their being through greed and the desire for more; and empowering, through compassion and love, those at the bottom of the heap – the impoverished, the disenfranchised, the outcast.

Brueggemann summed up his theology when he said, “If Jesus is alive all sorts of power is loosed in the world that the Empire cannot control.”

 

In other words, Brueggeman is all about following Jesus.

 

With Brueggemann on my mind, and seeking a launching point for my sermon on this first Sunday of Lent, I conducted a Google search - “Brueggemann and salvation.”  Much to my surprise, the first thing I came across was not a website filled with Brueggemann quotations, but a blog written by Jim Gordan, a Baptist pastor and Scottish Baptist College director. Gordon’s blog discusses Brueggemann’s recently published collection of essays entitled

Disruptive Grace: Reflections on God, Scripture and the Church. It is quite powerful.  He writes, 

“The Body of Christ in the world is a subversive community daring to embody a Gospel of reconciliation. We are people gathered beneath the cross, but with our faces turned towards the dawn, and that displaced stone, discarded shroud and defeated grave, - these are the realities for the church - Realities by which we live, and by which we take on both the hell and the high water. And the last people who should be afraid of high water are baptized Christians, who through immersion declare the resurrection; and the last people to fear hell are those who have the nerve to call Jesus Lord, and in doing so hold their nerve in the face of whatever.

I have no idea where the church is now going - how and in what shape it will survive in such a messy, mashed up, and scintillatingly unpredictable world with its polarities and similarities, its paradoxes and possibilities. But wherever it is going - John 3.16 remains a defining statement of its destiny - it is a God-loved world, and the business of the church is to go on arguing that - by the way we live in faithfully following Jesus.” 

Gordon’s words are incredibly bold and powerful. They are words intended to stir up passion and purpose. They are excellent words with which to define the focus of our Lenten journey of prayer, reflection, and penance. A journey intended to bring us into deeper relationship to God as we follow Jesus on his journey to the cross.



A journey that is meant to move us as disciples of Christ beyond the cross and onto a path that emulates Jesus in his amazing journey of servanthood, compassion and love.

A journey that is launched in response to our call from God to bring the Light of Christ – his compassion and love - to a world filled with turmoil, violence, and despair.

Gordon’s words of inspiration and Brueggemann’s passion for the common good speak to the core message of today’s gospel story. Once called by God, we will be tested in our call. The test – will we follow Jesus or not?

Today’s message from Matthew is clear - the purpose of the Spirit leading Jesus into the wilderness was that he must be tested. Jesus’ journey into the wilderness, directly following his baptism; Jesus’ assured confidence in defying the Devil; Jesus’ selfless declaration of commitment to his call as God’s Beloved Son - The entire wilderness experience shows us what it means to be called by God – and Jesus showed us how to follow that call. He showed us the way.

Newly anointed by the Spirit as the Beloved Son of God and led by the Spirit into the stark and, most certainly, terrifying wilderness of the ancient desert, and there the Devil taunted a hungry, thirsty and tired Jesus saying–“ You are special, above all this, let me offer you a quick and glamorous way out of a dreadful and dreary situation.” Jesus was having none of it. He rebuked the Devil saying that his call was to “Worship the Lord God, and only him.”  



The Devil was persistent though wasn’t he? He didn’t give up. The Devil tempted Jesus not once, not twice, but three times. He lured Jesus with visions of comfort, power and glory. He continually encouraged him to take advantage of his status as the Beloved Son of God saying, “If you are the Son of God…”

“You are all powerful Jesus. Go ahead, seize the brass ring. Take the easy way out”

Jesus stood firm. Three times he rebuked the devil saying – “I live by God’s word – not yours.”

The devil offered Jesus the Kingdom without a cross. Jesus pushed the devil away in disgust. The message is clear -  the privilege of being God’s chosen people does not come without testing – without a cross. If we are truly to be a people gathered beneath the cross with our faces turned to the dawn, we must be absolutely clear about our intent to rebuke the devil. We must be absolutely clear about our commitment to listen to and follow Jesus.

Jesus’ mission involved the cross, and whether we like it or not, so does ours. This is what Gordon is referring to when he writes, “We are people gathered beneath the cross but with our faces turned towards the dawn and that displaced stone, discarded shroud and defeated grave, - these are the realities for the church, by which we live, and by which we take on both the hell and the high water. And the last people who should be afraid of high water are baptized Christians, who through immersion declare the resurrection; and the last people to fear hell are those who have the nerve to call Jesus Lord, and in doing so hold their nerve in the face of whatever.”

Gordon’s words underscore the reality that as baptized Christians we, like Jesus, are called by God and then led by the Spirit. And, like Jesus, we too will be led into the wilderness. We too will be tested. Indeed, most of us have undergone many tests and have experienced far more than one wilderness period in our lives.

I would bet that many of us, if not most of us, are being tested right now as we sit here in the pews of St. Paul’s savoring the grace of the community and beauty that surrounds us in the moment, but knowing that once we walk through the church doors and back into our lives, the challenges, the pain, the anxiety, and the suffering of our wilderness will still be there.

None of us are strangers to temptation. None of us are strangers to tragedy. None of us are strangers to suffering. None of us are strangers to the cross.

My friends, I pray that you will take time during the next forty days to be with Jesus on his journey through the wilderness as your struggle with you own wilderness journey.

I pray that you will listen to Jesus’ words as he journeys to Jerusalem and the cross – as he struggles with the Devil not only in the wilderness but in the cities, in the Temple, with his beloved disciples and at the hands of the Roman officials and guards.  

I pray that you will be with Jesus as he brings us closer to God - A God who continually amazes us with His compassion and love – His acceptance of us all – ALL OF US- as His beloved children.

I pray that we all will listen to and follow Jesus as we grow together as a body of Christ in a world filled with trouble, turmoil, and violence; and, “as we turn our faces turned towards the dawn and that displaced stone, discarded shroud and defeated grave.”

I pray that we will remember words spoken by Walter Brueggemann, “If Jesus is alive all sorts of power is loosed in the world that the Empire cannot control.”

I pray that we will listen to Jesus as he says to Peter and his disciples, “Follow me.”

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Sex Trafficking --- Still With Us


I am just back from a symposium on Sex Trafficking sponsored by the National Council of Jewish Women and the Jewish Women’s Foundation. Over 400 attendees heard first-hand the grim details of how children 18 years of age and under are sexually exploited in the U.S. Experts from law enforcement, social services, the Attorney General’s office and more presented over five hours of depressingly graphic material. Many kudos to these women for taking on such an enormous and important task.

Sadly, sex trafficking awareness activities are now nothing new. Those of us interested in ridding the nation of this heinous crime have been meeting, discussing, planning, and advocating for over six years. The end result – while state and federal laws have vastly improved and the public and private sectors are far more educated on this subject than ever before, statistics have not changed. Children continue to be lured, pimped, abused and dumped and/or killed on a daily basis. Pimps continue to pull in millions of dollars each year – sex trafficking in the U.S. is $32 billion dollar industry. Men, and women, seeking sexual gratification of all sorts continue to buy children for pleasure from a variety of resources. The media continues to glorify pimping and encourage the sexualization of all aspects of our culture.

What is wrong with this picture? What is frighteningly wrong is that we have failed to understand the root causes of this crime against children. Root causes that have resulted in a stunning violation of human rights and the institution of modern day slavery. What is wrong is that we are not holding accountable those who could truly address and, yes, even in the long run, prevent pimps and their buddies from having a hold on our society. What is wrong is that we are asking schools, law enforcement, the courts, social service organizations, and churches to “clean up” the mess, rather than asking parents and the media to prevent these children from exposure to extreme violence, abuse, neglect, indifference, and messages that blast through eyes and ears of fragile young hearts and minds puncturing the fragile veil of innocent childhood and encouraging behaviors that deny self-worth and well-being.

The good news is, of course, that so many people are trying to turn the tide of child sexual exploitation in America. The bad news – or, at least the ­­challenging news – is that we need to dig deeper, be braver, speak louder to those who have the power and the money to send a very different message to our children and their parents. A message that conveys the importance of being a family, caring for each other and ourselves, a message that condemns activities that lead to violence and loss of self and self-esteem, a message that leads us back to a place where that fragile veil of childhood innocence in honored, nurtured and protected.

The Rev. Clelia P. Garrity

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Listen and You Will Know

Sermon
St. Paul’s Church
Sunday, January 12
Isaiah 42: 1-9; Matthew 3:14-17


Perhaps the most compelling moment of my ordination to the diaconate was the moment that Chip Stokes paused in his sermon and asked me to stand up and face him. Totally surprised, I stood and took several steps forward in order to be closer and directly in front of the pulpit. I looked at him; he looked at me, and he said, 

“Clelia, God has led you on an extraordinary journey and now calls you into an extraordinary ministry of service...I know you...I know you well....I give thanks for this day and for God’s call to you...I think it has been a long time coming....I am thankful for the privilege of sharing with you in this call....You know about power and privilege and celebrity and the all the superficialities and artificial categories of value that mark the world in which we live....You have lived among them....
You have also recognized the needs of the world and dedicated yourself as a layperson and social worker to responding to those needs....Christ now calls you into deeper servanthood and deeper love....On behalf of God’s people, I now charge you to continue to grow in Christ’s love and service and to grow in your servant ministry as a deacon....Continue to break boundaries, to  journey to places of discomfort and pain, to journey to places which challenge your own comfort level and perhaps even threaten your own self-understanding...Go to those places...Go to those places because you are needed there...Go to those places because Christ is needed there...Let those who see you, see and experience Christ, through you and  in you...Let his words resound through your ministry, “I am among you as one who serves.”

The charge was forceful and clear; the impact of its content and the way in which it was delivered have been with me ever since. The charge was and is the outward manifestation of my inner commitment to be a servant of God. A servant through whom the light of God and the power of the Holy Spirit shine forth offering compassion, love, hope and joy to those whom I serve.

Today, the day on which we celebrate the Baptism of our Lord, scripture is filled with charges – 

In Isaiah we hear the charge, “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations…”  (Isa 42:1) 

This charge from God is spoken directly to his people when he says, “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights.” 

“My servant, my chosen, whom I uphold and in whom I delight.” Nothing unclear here about what God is saying to his chosen people, Israel.

After identifying who is being charged, the charge itself is given. God says, “I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations.” 

Paul D. Hanson in his Bible commentary on Isaiah 40-66 writes, “The spirit in the Old Testament is the power and wisdom of God with which those called to serve are endowed (Isa 11:2. Through the empowerment of God’s spirit, weak and ordinary human beings rise up to accomplish daunting tasks on behalf of God’s reign of justice

God’s charge to the Israelites is indeed a daunting one. Even more daunting -- the charge is accompanied by many mandates of what not to do. God is specific when he says, “He will not cry out or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice.” (Isa 42:2-3)

The servant is not allowed to carry out his task in anger, violence, or oppression of any kind. The Servant must serve with quiet and patient gentleness, confident that all whom he encounters will be drawn to God’s reign of justice not by human force but by the power that is embodied in compassion and righteousness. The Servant is called to live a life patterned on the nature of God. 

For Isaiah, God’s servants are the instruments through which the world comes to share the light of God’s salvation.

Today, we celebrate the Baptism of our Lord in the River Jordon by John the Baptist. In Matthew’s telling of this story we experience God speaking directly not to the Israelites but to Jesus. 

As Jesus emerged from the baptismal waters God’s charge echoed from heaven, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” (Matt 3:16-17) 

Through this brief but direct communication between God and Jesus the divine sonship of Jesus was established – Jesus received his charge from God the Father; a charge perhaps best defined by Jesus himself in the Gospel of John, "I came so that everyone would have life, and have it in its fullest" (John 10:10).

A charge that initiated Jesus’ three short years of ministry.  A charge that brought the gift of God’s salvation to the world.

When we are baptized, we too are identified as beloved children of God. When we are baptized we receive our charge from a priest or bishop who prays, “Heavenly Father, we thank you that by water and the Holy Spirit, you have bestowed upon this your servant the forgiveness of sin, and have raised them to the new life of grace. Sustain them, O Lord, in your Holy Spirit. Give them an inquiring mind and discerning heart, the courage to will and to persevere, a spirit to know and to love you, and the gift of joy and wonder in all your works.” (BCP p. 306)

At our baptism, we are charged as God’s servants; those whom He upholds; those whom he has chosen; those in whom he delights. At our baptism God puts His Spirit upon us and charges us with the task of bringing him delight as we strive for justice and peace among all people, and as we move through life respecting the dignity of every human being.

To put it quite simply, through our baptism God charges us to be an instrument through which the light of His salvation shines in the world.

This then is our charge – to be God’s servant, whom he has chosen, whom he upholds, and in whom He delights. 

My friends, I encourage you to read and reflect on today’s readings. Let these passages be a catalyst for reflection on the nature of your response to the charge which you have received from God.

Remember, God chose you as his servant because he delights in you, and he has charged you with bringing forth His Light to the world. 

How can you best carry forth that charge? How can you be a servant through whom the light of God and the power of the Holy Spirit shine forth offering compassion, love, hope and joy to those whom you serve?

Listen and you will know.  AMEN






Are We Prepared?

Sermon
St. Paul’s Church
Sunday, December 22
Matthew 1:18-25


Well, it’s almost here - Christmas Eve. The night that we, once again, await with eager anticipation. The night on which the baby Jesus, our Lord and Savior will, once again, find his way into that stable manger in Bethlehem - a newborn baby encircled by Heaven’s angels, local peasants, and barnyard animals. The night on which we, once again, have the opportunity to hear or to tell the story of perhaps the greatest miracle ever. And, yes the night on which we, once again, share in the delight of opening all those mysterious packages piled under the Christmas tree.

Advent, the season of expectant waiting and joyful anticipation, is almost over. The glorious day of our Lord’s birth will be here in just a few days. In just a brief 48 hours we will gather round the family creche and gaze fondly at the baby Jesus, the precious figurine that we have just placed ever so gently among all the other creche figurines. Mary, Joseph, shepherds, animals and whoever else we have stuffed into that little barnyard scene are all waiting, waiting with baited breath for the much anticipated arrival of the baby - the baby whom Joseph will name Jesus.

The next day, on Christmas morning, we will gather as a family at church and sing traditional hymns of wonder and praise at the birth of “the Little Lord Jesus.”

Hymns such as Hark! The Herald Angels Sing, O Come All Ye Faithful, What Child is This?, O Come, O Come, Emmanuel, Away in a Manger, and perhaps one of the most famous... Joy to The World.

Joy to the World, the Lord is Come!
Let earth receive her King...
Joy to the World, the Savior reigns
Let us our songs employ...
No more let sins and sorrows grow,
no thorns infest the ground...
He rules the world with truth and grace;
And makes the nations prove
The glories of His righteousness
And wonders of his love.

Later, after the festivities of church, once again gathered around our beautiful Christmas tree, we open presents, greet family and friends, and feast on a big turkey or roast beef dinner followed by afternoon walks, family football, and other guilt driven exercises to “work off” that last piece of pie topped with whipped cream. At the end of the day we will be exhausted. In exhaustion we will “plop” down in our favorite chair or on our favorite couch and, as the Christmas tree lights glow brightly in the dimmed living room, chances are we will marvel, once again, at the mystery and glory of Christ’s birth - His coming into the world; God made man, to be with us - among us. God incarnate - our Holy gift from God the Father. A promise of righteousness among all nations.

Stretched out in relaxation, we may remember the final words of another blessed hymn, Silent Night...”Silent night, Holy night. Son of God, love’s pure light. Radiant beams from thy holy face, with the dawn of redeeming grace, Jesus, Lord at thy birth. Jesus, Lord at thy birth.”

Pure light, radiant beams, redeeming grace....words that bring expectations of joy, happiness, peace, redeeming grace, righteousness - justice for all. In this Christmas moment we are focused on God’s gifts to us - His gifts of creation, righteousness, reconciliation, and salvation. 

Yes indeed, Christmas eve and Christmas day overflow with the joy of welcoming, yet once again, the Christ-child into our lives, and it is filled with the hope that his coming will assure our salvation, justice throughout the world, and the peace that passes all understanding.

As we sit in our living rooms, bleary-eyed with fatigue and over-flowing with the bounty that God has bestowed upon us we are pleased with life and optimistic about our future - a future filled with hope and joy.

But wait - is that all that rests in the creche and under the Christmas tree? Our Christmas gifts - boxes big and small tied up in colorful ribbon, and the figurines in the Creche - figurines that exemplify the miracle of God incarnate; God made man in this baby Jesus? Is that it? The receiving and enjoyment of gifts and a bounteous lifestyle? Or, is there more? Is there something else tucked away in that creche and under the tree that we have overlooked - overlooked, at least for the moment?

I believe that there is a great deal more under the tree and in the creche - a great deal more that cannot be seen, cannot be described, cannot be known before it occurs. I believe that under the tree and lying in the creche is the presence of God that shines out and into in each and every one of our lives. A presence that cries out to us, like a voice crying out in the wilderness. A voice that cannot be heard. A voice that is silent, but that we hear so very clearly when it calls out to us. 

Contemporary Christian writer, Frederick Buechner writes,
“Listen to your life. Listen to what happens to you, because it is through what happens to you that God speaks. It's in language that's not always easy to decipher, but it's there, powerfully, memorably, unforgettably.”
(Excerpt from Listening to Your Life : Daily Meditations with Frederick Buechner by Frederick Buechner)

In our Gospel reading today we have just experienced a perfect example of what happens when this silent voice unexpectedly calls out to us - the story of Joseph’s encounter with God through an angel that appears to him in a dream. Remember - God’s call comes to Joseph in his dream, and when Joseph wakes up he speaks not one word either of question or objection. He simply acts directly and immediately in obedient response to God’s instructions - instructions that send him in the exact opposite direction of where he had intended to go with his life. Joseph’s response is an example of the power of God’s call when it comes to us - if, we allow ourselves to hear it. God’s call can transform our decisions and our lives in a flash - if we are listening; if we have faith. 
In his obedient and unquestioning response to God, Joseph is a model of faithful discipleship. 
Joseph had made the decision to break off his betrothal to Mary after he learned that she was with child. Matthew tells us that Joseph made this decision because he was a “righteous” man. Joseph’s decision was based on teachings of Jewish Law. He was doing what was expected of any good and faithful Jew. 
Then unexpectedly - the angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and commanded him to do the exact opposite saying - “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.” What Joseph initially had understood as the righteous thing to do was challenged directly by the call of God. God instructed Joseph to act in direct disobedience to what he understood to be the demand of the law.
What to do? The law says one thing - God says another... This is the faith in action part of the story.
Joseph’s faith prevailed. Joseph was willing to risk becoming disobedient in the eyes of the world and the law. Joseph was willing to become an outcast to family and community. As God had commanded, he would marry Mary, and name his son, Jesus.
What would you have done? Not an easy question to answer, is it?
What happens to us when plans based on our concepts of righteousness and justice come up against messages that God sends us about His creative mercy? What happens to us when God’s silent voice intrudes on our comfortable Christmas evening afterglow and challenges our notion of law and righteousness or justice? What happens when God’s voice disrupts our carefully laid plans and decisions? What happens when God’s dream for us is in direct opposition to the dream that we have for ourselves? 
How do we know when God is speaking to us, and when the voice we hear is just the voice of our own ego needs? How deep is our Christmas Day faith? How far will our vows of discipleship lead us?
These are difficult questions - very difficult for any and all of us. But, I believe that these very difficult questions cannot be evaded. They are there - right there -in our lovingly arranged creche and in the beautiful gifts of abundance beneath the Christmas tree. Right there, in front of our eyes, Jesus; Immanuel; “God With Us.”
In his Augsburg Commentary Robert Smith writes, “This Jesus is a pure gift, holy surprise, a fresh act of God, a new genesis, a new creation. And it all comes about from the Holy Spirit. We live with an awareness that God’s power is among us and ready to lead us in ways that we can only imagine. Is that good news, or is the prospect a bit frightening? If we do not anticipate the Christmas event both with hope and with just a bit of anxious fear, then we are not sufficiently tuned to the implications of God’s presence among us.”
Are we prepared for the gift that shines out from under the Christmas Tree?  Are we prepared for Christ’s arrival in our lives? Are we prepared to respond to a call from God when it comes - even if that call mandates a major change in our lives? 
Are we prepared to receive the gift of God and to be a disciple of Christ? 
Are we prepared to allow Christ to rule our lives with truth and grace? Are we prepared to receive our King? Is our heart prepared to make room for him? 
Are we prepared prove the glories of his righteousness and the wonders of his love?

Are we prepared to be a Joseph?

Friday, December 13, 2013

An Advent Message For Deacons


Sermon
Chapel of St. Andrew

Deacon’s Retreat – Dec. 14, 2013 

Matthew 24:36-44

I am certain that we can all remember how as children we would continually wonder what we would be when we grew up…and, I am certain that we all had parents who shared their hopes and dreams of what kind of life might in store for us. I can remember thinking that being a nurse would be the most wonderful thing in the world. My mother, never shy about voicing her thoughts, firmly believed that I should be a movie star. My father assured both of us that, in the true Italian tradition, I would be a good wife and mother – end of story. No career for a daughter of his.

Surely you all have similar memories. We all wanted to “be” something – whether a housewife, a nurse, a movie star, or something else. In our determined little minds, we all had “when we grow up” plans for ourselves - big plans.

We were waiting…waiting to grow up; and, we were dreaming…dreaming of becoming somebody who personified the characteristics of people, or a person, that we admired. Once we grew up, we knew, we were certain…it would all fall into place.

And then of course, as always happens at one point or another, life intervened. In my case, my father died when I was 15. My mother, completely overwhelmed by grief, sent me away to boarding school. Our family income dropped significantly. The sure and secure world that I once knew no longer existed. I was no longer certain of anything. I forgot about nurses and movie stars and housewives. I was not happy and hopeful. I was scared and angry.

And then, something odd happened as I was sitting in chapel at boarding school one Sunday afternoon; something that transformed my life forever. The chapel was a beautiful old stone building.  Stained glass windows were everywhere. The late afternoon sunlight would stream into the nave in ultra soft hues of blue, red, and orange – divine light. The calming effect of this beautiful light, the solid presence of stone and wood surrounding me, and the hushed silence of over a hundred girls who had become my new family was something that I had come to cherish.

On this particular day during a long moment of silent prayer a sense of complete peace fell over me. Somewhere in my deepest being I knew that God was with me - was in me. I knew that I was no longer alone. I knew that I was loved and that I could move forward through my difficult times with assurance and courage.

I don’t want to give the impression that the months and years ahead were smooth sailing – or indeed are smooth sailing even now. I don’t know about you, but smooth sailing does not seem to be my norm. In fact, I have come to believe that smooth sailing is not what life is about – not at all. I believe that if we expect smooth sailing, in our anger and frustration over encountering rough seas, we will completely miss the presence of Christ into our lives. We will be so caught up in the present moment of turmoil that we will fail to see a future that will help us define both the character and meaning of our lives. We will be one of the ones that is “taken;” in other words, separated from God.

In Matthew’s gospel reading for the First Sunday in Advent, the disciples are no different that we were during our early years of wondering about the future and questioning the present. Earlier in Matthew 24 they had asked Jesus, “What will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” (24:3) The disciples are anxious to know the “who, what, when and where” of their future. They want assurances. I imagine they wanted to hear about smooth sailing; not rough seas.

Jesus responds, telling them bluntly, “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”

No assurances here. In fact quite the opposite as Jesus adds, “Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming…Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”

Implicit in this text is not only the uncertainty of when God is coming, but also the certainty that he is coming. The emphasis is on being prepared – prepared for the presence of God in our lives and all that His presence demands of us as stewards of His Creation.

Henry Gustafson says of this gospel reading, “Jesus calls us to take seriously our vow to love God, neighbor, and self. As responsible persons we will be called to account for what we have done – or not done. The meaning of our present acts will be discernible only at the end. The significance of planting seed, enriching the soil, or polluting it, will be known at the harvest. Thus our behavior has consequences, both now but also not yet.”

Our future in God’s Kingdom is now as we “keep awake,” preparing for His presence in our lives; a presence that can be felt at any moment in time.  A presence that promises not smooth sailing, but salvation from the rough seas of life.

I wonder if Stephen was fully “awake” when he was called to feed the hungry Hellenists in Acts 6. We are told by the author of Acts that as Stephen carried out his ministry he was filled with grace and power and that he spoke with wisdom and the Spirit. From this one brief but powerful sentence it would seem apparent that Stephen took seriously God’s presence in his life. Did he know that his “awakeness” would lead to his painful and humiliating death?

Ultimately, we assume that he knew the risks he was taking – after all persecution was all around him. And, we can be assured that he was fully awake when he was summoned to speak with the very angry Freedmen of the synagogue.

Stephen gave a brilliant defense, describing the history of God’s people, God’s intent for his people, and the power and sovereignty of God, and ending with the admonition, “You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears. You are forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do…You are the ones that received the law as ordained by angels, and yet you have not kept it.” (Acts 7:51, 53)

Stephen was most certainly awake as he defended his faith and ministered to the hungry and to the needy. As deacons in formation or deacons ordained in the Episcopal Church, are we awake? Are we prepared to speak with wisdom and the Spirit as we, like Stephen, carry out our special ministry of servanthood, serving all people, particularly the poor, the weak, the sick, and the lonely? Are we, nourished by the Holy Scriptures, prepared to model our life on them? Are we awake to the daily presence of God in our lives – a presence that demands, yes demands, that we make Christ and his redemptive love known, by our word and example, to those among whom we live, and work, and worship? Are we awake to the needs, concerns, and hopes of the world and prepared to alert our Bishop and our Church to these needs, concerns, and hopes?

Are we awake? Are we truly called by God and his Church to the life and work of a deacon? Are we prepared to be a Stephen?

This has been an important day of reflection and prayer during a season of reflection and prayer as we await, yet once again, the birth of the Christ Child – A day of reflection and prayer on our lives as deacons in God’s Church.

I can only speak for myself when I say that to be a deacon is hard work. It is not being a nurse, a movie star, or a housewife. It is not a 9 to 5 job, with weekends off. It is not, in most cases, a job that offers financial compensation. It is not a highly respected job in today’s world – most people, even in the Episcopal Church, do not know what a deacon does; nor do they necessarily care. It is not what I dreamed of doing “when I grow up.”

Those are the things that being a deacon are not. Like the mystics, I believe that what being a deacon is, is ultimately ineffable – there are no words to describe the call of servanthood from God. There are no words to define the diaconal work that needs to be done in this community, in this nation, in this world. So I will allow Thomas Merton to speak for me. Merton sums up the diaconal call quite eloquently:

 “…it is a response to a call from him who has no voice, and yet Who speaks in everything that is, and most of all, speaks in the depths of our being: for we ourselves are words of his…I myself am a word spoken by God,” said Merton.

In another work Merton went on to say, “For each one of us, there is only one thing necessary: to fulfill our own destiny, according to God's will, to be what God wants us to be.”

So my friends, it’s OK to dream about who you might be when you “grow up.” But, please remember while you dream to “Keep awake, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.”

Keep awake because we do not yet fully understand our own destiny, according to God’s will. 

Keep awake because God has called us to minister to his people in all the world… particularly the poor, the weak, the sick, and the lonely.

Keep awake, we are today’s Stephen – no easy task without hearing God speaking to us within the depth of our being.

Keep awake, “The meaning of our present acts will be discernible only at the end. The significance of planting seed, enriching the soil, or polluting it, will be known at the harvest. Thus our behavior has consequences, both now but also not yet.”   AMEN