Monday, December 31, 2012

God appears and God is Light

Christmas 1
Dec. 30, 2012
Isaiah 61:10-62:3
Psalm 147
Galatians 3:23-25; 4:4-7
John 1:1-18

Years ago, when Tim was the rector of the Syracuse Urban Cluster, we worked closely with the minister of a Pentecostal Holiness congregation. We shared services, festivities and community events. We marched through the neighborhood, praying in front of crack houses and anointing with oil any who came up to “Father Hall” or “Minister Ellis,” as our friend was called, to be saved.

Not long before he started his congregation, Minister Ellis was a jazz musician, a studio and session musician, and the grandson of folksinger Libba Cotton. What drew him and his congregation to the Episcopal Church, we wondered? After not too many sermons we understood: it was the Gospel of John, with its deep poetry, its stark contrasts between darkness and light, between those who hear Jesus’ voice and follow him and those who stray. The Gospel of John is not easy to understand, but if you live a life of ups and downs, of tragedies and near-misses, the Gospel of John is easy to feel.

Soon after we moved back here a year ago, Tim ran into Larry Ellis, a joyful reunion with many promises of getting back together. Sadly, not long after that, Larry Ellis died, unexpectedly, putting to rest a glorious voice and a magnificent soul. His music rose from the depths of his experience to the heights of glory, confident that no matter what came to pass, he belonged to Jesus, the rock of his salvation.

A theology based on the Gospel of John revels in contrasts: darkness-light; knowledge-ignorance; blindness-sight. Taken to an extreme, it defends an “us against the world” understanding of Christian community. It can feed notions like the “clash of civilizations,” leading to the demonization of “others” who just don’t get it, others who reject our world view.

It is all too easy to stay on the surface when we read the Gospel of John, and revel in its dualisms of good and evil, dark and light. But to do so can distort the Jesus about whom John is talking in this Gospel, a Jesus who brings a light to enlighten everyone – everyone – into the world.

In 1803, the English poet William Blake wrote a poem which ended,
God appears and God is light
To those poor souls who dwell in Night;
But does a Human Form display
To those who dwell in realms of Day
God comes in a form we understand. If we live in gloom or trouble, God first appears to us as light. But if we already have had a glimpse of that light, God comes to us as one of us, embodying our hopes for righteousness and justice, love and freedom, giving us something tangible to hold on to and model our lives upon.

The Gospel of John reminds us that God has been calling us into being since the beginning of time. The light still shines and there is no darkness – no depth of human evil, no ignorance or fear or violence or death – that can block it out. If you listen closely, you can hear the angels – and Larry Ellis – sing.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

All we have is a child, and everything in the world looks like a promise

Christmas 2012

Christmas is a confused jumble of stories, sources, traditions, customs. We pull together what is “Christmas” to us from a variety of places. At the 4 pm service we read the accounts of the birth of Jesus from both the Matthew AND the Luke gospels. Those two evangelists tell different stories about Joseph, Mary and the Babe in the manger; Mark and John tell us nothing at all about how Jesus got here, but they both allude to Jesus’ mother and brothers and sisters.

We also include in “Christmas” dozens of customs from all over – a mélange of Charles Dickens and medieval carols and Coca Cola ads. The piano accompaniment to “the Charlie Brown Christmas” means the holiday to us as much as Handel’s “Messiah.” “The Miracle on 34th Street” captures the essence of the season as much as any number of elegant musical settings by Benjamin Britten and Ralph Vaughn Williams. This season is a sentimental time, and a hopeful time, as we approach the turning of the year and all of the promise that the birth of a new child brings.

But back to the Bible: even with all these different strands of stories about the birth of Jesus, the Gospels all include some mention of dark things. Even the blessed Wise Men, when they come to honor the Baby Jesus, inadvertently play a role in terrible destructive things. Herod, powerful and yet weak, so fearful of this child, this king-to-be, uses the Magi’s hopeful seeking for his own wicked ends. He uses his military might to kill all the baby boys just in search of the one who escapes his grasp. The Holy Family flies to safety, just in time.
Christmas has always included this poignant mix. Charles Dickens wrote his “Christmas Carol” against the backdrop of the deprivations and hardships of industrial England, contrasting the bounty and warmth and cheer with loneliness and hunger.

Christmas is, in a way, a kind of crystal ball: what we see in it, what we experience, is influenced by what we bring to the encounter. There is an old saying, that if all you have is a hammer, then everything in the world looks like a nail. The terrible events of the past couple of weeks have reminded us that if all you have is a gun, then everything in the world is a target.

But tonight, all we have is a child, and to us, everything in the world looks like a promise: a promise of hope, of love, of grace, of forgiveness, of starting over, of seeing the world in the way this child sees it. And since this child is God, that means seeing this world in the way God sees it.

One of the things that our Christian tradition enables us to do during this season, is to hold together all of these things: the promise and the pain, the abundance and the loss. We can miss someone so much during these days that it hurts, and yet at the same time be overjoyed with gladness at the things around us. 

Sunday, December 23, 2012

We are all meant to be mothers of God

Advent 4-C
Dec. 23, 2012
Micah 5:2-5a
Canticle 15: The Magnificat 
Hebrews 10:5-10
Luke 1:39-55

People of faith are viewed by many people in this society as kind of kooky. People of faith are just not realistic. Even the “I’m spiritual but not religious” types are seen this way by the hard-headed realists. We are sometimes dismissed as “Religious do-gooders,” airy-fairy types. Just how much of a difference can our meager efforts make in this world where the problems are immense and the solutions nearly unimaginable?

Mary and Elizabeth must be seen as the ultimate kooky “people of faith.” What could be less realistic than the words Mary sings when she meets up with her cousin, Elizabeth? Casting mighty from their seats of power? She, a pregnant, poor, unmarried girl? Filling the hungry with good things? Her cousin Elizabeth is elderly, and is now pregnant for the first time in her life. These are just ordinary people, not miracle workers; how much more delusional can they be?

These two women, and the two baby boys they carry in their wombs, come to us today in the line of prophets. Mary and Elizabeth came from people who read their Bibles carefully. They lived on the fringes of society, where they could see the things that were wrong, where they could see how poor and powerless people were treated. They knew their Bibles well enough to know that God promised that the world would be a better place. They stood in a long ling of prophets who listened carefully to God, and who looked carefully at the world around them, and said, Wait a minute here. There are things going on in this world that are not what God intends. When Mary and Elizabeth listened for God, they heard the great and powerful swooshing sounds of angels’ wings, the Holy Spirit coming upon them, overshadowing and empowering them to see the world as God sees it, and to speak and to act.

And all the world is grateful that these two kooky women, these people of faith, and hope, these attentive listeners to God, said yes.

Meister Eckhart, a popular and mystical teacher of the Middle Ages, said this about Mary: “We are all meant to be mothers of God.” To be mothers of God in the sense of being a kooky person of faith like she was. To be a person who listens closely for the swoosh of those mighty Holy Spirit wings, and who looks closely at the world around her. We are all meant to be mothers of God when we say yes to the promises God has in store for us. Mary and Elizabeth certainly saw lots of darkness and violence in the world around them – December 2012 has no corner on that! – but in spite of that, Mary and Elizabeth said yes to the goodness God put here when God created this world. We are meant to be mothers of God when we open ourselves to be changed by God, even if we only take one step at a time, not exactly sure that what God would have us do is reasonable, or socially acceptable, but we do it nonetheless. To be a mother of God is to be willing to be a kooky person of faith.

There is something curious about this Magnificat song that Mary sings. It is in the words of a young woman, talking about the promises God has made for the world, but it is spoken from the point of view of something that has already happened. God has already overthrown the mighty and given the hungry enough to eat. God has already pulled the downtrodden up and sent away the rich people, who were not willing to participate in this way that God would have the world work.

This kooky person of faith seems to think that all those things have already happened, and that the birth of the son she carries is part of this ongoing process of healing the world, of bringing it back to the world God created it to be.

What a kooky imagination this Mary has, to listen to the swooshing, swooping powerful wings of the Holy Spirit, and to begin to see the world as God sees it – to take it on faith, as it were, and to begin to live her life, now, in the real world here and now, believing it to be true.

“We are all meant to be mothers of God.” Kooky. Hopeful. Knowing that the world could be, and is, a better place, and saying yes to God, when God shows us how this could be so.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Sharing our coats, sharing our hearts

Advent 3 C
December 16, 2012
Zephaniah 3:14-20
Canticle 9: Isaiah 12:2-6
Philippians 4:4-7
Luke 3:1-6

How hard it is today to sing “rejoice!”, as our first three lessons from the prophets Zephaniah and Isaiah, and from St. Paul’s letter to the people in Philippi, exhort us. Everyone’s hearts, since the horrific news came out on Friday morning, have been torn and tortured, our minds filled with terrible things, and our feelings angry and agitated:

What then should we do? What then should we do? Gun control? Better treatment of people with mental health? Turn our elementary schools into locked-down fortresses?

What then should we do? What then should we do? Hug our children more tightly? Praise the heroic acts of gym teachers and librarians and school psychologists? Weep? Mourn? Shout? Stay home and pull the covers over our heads? All of the above?

And is any of this an appropriate conversation to have in church?

Churches in Newtown, CT
Even though I was born in Syracuse, my mother’s family has New England roots, and several years ago she came upon a quote from the diary of one of our 19th century Peabody relatives, who had gone to hear Henry Ward Beecher – one of the great American preachers. “Politics and the pulpit don’t mix well together,” was my ancestor’s now famous (in our household at least) line in response to Beecher’s visit to his New Hampshire town. 

That remark may have signaled one of the first cracks in the non-separation of church and state in America. There was a time when politics and the pulpit were joined, when everyone who came to church understood church as so much a part of American society and American culture and the American way of life that preachers could and did combine the two. Everything fit together, reinforced each other. Maybe some of us here think we remember that time of happy union – happy for Protestants with New England roots, anyway. We are probably remembering its distant echo in the church-going 1950s – when churches like this were planted, grew and flourished in an expanding, prosperous and peaceful America.

But not only for Mr. Peabody but for many other Americans as well, what happened in church became disconnected with the travails and challenges of daily life. A survey of the current church-going habits of Americans revealed that right now 20 percent of us – fully one-fifth of all Americans – have no religious preference. Many of these people believe in God, have an active prayer life, even went to church in their younger years, but now, on Sunday morning, when we get in our cars and come here, they say, no, thanks. I’ll stay at home. I’ll go to Starbucks. I’ll go to the gym. I’ll do yoga. I’ll spend time with my children, and hug them tight, because, after all, you never know.

I think this is what the people who flocked around John the Baptist were talking about. The religious establishment of their time – the Temple and their leaders who were in the thrall to the Roman Empire – and of course the politics and economics of their day were, from their point of view, morally bankrupt. John the Baptist made sense to people for whom nothing worked. Prophets like John used to speak to the reality of real people – prophets like Isaiah and Zephaniah, and that whole host of characters we read during Advent – prophets who promise that God’s creation of abundance and mercy and peace will be restored. In the lives of the people gathering around John the Baptist, their religious leaders are paying no attention to those prophets, and so are paying no attention to the daily needs of these people, no attention to the challenges and demands of their lives. What then shall WE do, they say to John the Baptist. What then shall we do? For these people at the bottom of the social ladder, it all made sense: share your warm coats. Don’t cheat. Don’t steal. It’s pretty basic. The Good News from God is pretty basic.

There are a lot of reasons why people don’t come to church, why the membership of this parish has declined in recent years. Some of those reasons have nothing to do with us: the population has shifted. Corporations who were massive employers have left the area. Sexual abuse, loss of trust, bitter fights over who is in and who is out – all of that and more are prevalent in the big society, and there are echoes of that here. Some people are just bored with the church of the 1950s, or ‘60s, or ‘70s – as lovely and attractive as we think we are -- and want nothing to do with it anymore.

Look again at the appeal of John the Baptist to the people around him. He was direct. He spoke to their reality. He did not mince words. He paid attention to them. He offered real hope that spoke to their real longings.

What do we offer today, on this Third Sunday of Advent? What do we say to our friends and neighbors who are hurting and yearning for hope? To whom are we opening our hearts, and our doors? 

It is time we took our light out from under the bushel. This is a safe, a meaningful, an important place to talk about the things that matter to us. This is a place where we share our coats and share our hearts, where we know, and where we are not shy to say, that in the face of the horror that drove that young man to kill all those innocent children, God is with us, God is with us, God is with us.

Find the Prayers of the People from today's service, along with links to the authors of some of the prayers, at our Forming Disciples blog.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Tender Mercies

Advent 2-C                 Dec. 9, 2012
Malachi 3:1
Luke 1: 1:68-79
Philippians 1:3-11
Luke 3:1-6

We live in a time obsessed with the particular. TV news shows are on a lot at our house. Pundits, bloggers, reporters, editors, historians, analysts, you name it. At any time on any channel, frequency or URL, you can find a comment, an opinion, a fact about someone or something important, middling important or just plain gossipy. If it walks, talks, flies or misbehaves, we will soon know about it.

We think of this obsession with taking the pulse of the body politic as something modern, but look here: the Gospel of Luke is very concerned to place John the Baptist in his particular social and historical context. John the Baptist was not wandering around the Jordanian wilderness at any time; it was in the 15th year of the reign of the Emperor Tiberias, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee. Nor are we living in just any time: it’s the 4th year of the presidency of Barack Obama, the 2nd year of the Governorship of Andrew Cuomo, Joanie Mahoney is County Executive and Gladstone Adams is the bishop. The way Luke is telling this story of John the Baptist, place – and who rules that place – is crucially important. It was in THIS place at THIS time that the Word of God came to -- not just anybody, but to John son of Zechariah.

To the first readers of Luke’s Gospel, these little phrases would mean a lot. “The Word of God” comes to prophets in the Hebrew tradition. All the prophets identify the rulers whose reigns their prophecies will unseat. Remember Isaiah, to whom the word of God came “in the year that King Uzziah died.” Baruch, a scribe for the prophet Jeremiah, writes from the context of the terrible exile in Babylon. Malachi was written at the end of the exile, when Cyrus was King of Persia. Prophets come from particular times and places, and the word of God speaks to them and through them in those particularities.

Luke shows us a different picture of John the Baptist than we get in the Gospels of Matthew or Mark. There is no description of his attire, no eating of locusts and wild honey. He doesn’t even baptize Jesus in this Gospel – he has challenged Herod so much that he lands in prison before Jesus gets to the Jordan River.
But Luke is very careful to place John in history. In place of the psalm today, we read the passage from the first chapter of Luke that follows the announcement of the birth of John. This is the song of Zechariah, an elderly righteous man, “living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord.” As he serves in the temple, an angel comes to him:

“I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news.”

Gabriel announces the birth of John:

“ … he will be great in the sight of the Lord … He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”

Zechariah was made speechless by this prophecy, and not until baby John is born does he speak, revealing some of what Gabriel had told him. This is not any child, Zechariah says; this child will be the prophet of the Most High, preparing the way of the Lord, letting the people know that God’s salvation will come, that sins will be forgiven, that by God’s tender mercies the dawn from on high will break upon us. This child, Zechariah says, will be the one to announce the Good News.

But even though this child is a New Prophet, he does not proclaim NEW news. This Good News is Old News, Zechariah says, reciting in his song all the mighty deeds of God, saving the people from their enemies and showing mercy.

That is what all this particularity is about, placing John here, in this family, under these rulers, and not just anywhere. He’s not just any righteous man: the same Word of the Lord comes to him that came to the prophets of old – the Good News he brings is the same Old Good News of the covenant made with Abraham. Those rulers might be very current in their fashions and their weaponry and their empires and their Roman names, but they are the same enemies from whom God has always rescued his people. Those representatives of the shadow of death might be unique and particular, but the words John speaks, of the dawn from on high, the light in the darkness and the tender mercy of God, are the old words, the old prophecies, the old promises of God’s love.

The wilderness itself is old and familiar, reminding the people of Israel of the very place where God first called them “My people.” Out of that old place John calls the people together again, calls them back, as the angel Gabriel promised his father he would: even the disobedient ones will come to the wisdom of the righteous. John will make them ready.

This is the Old Good News, a prophecy of restoration. John quotes the prophet Isaiah, writing about how the people of Israel will be able to return from exile to Jerusalem: the Lord will lead the way, on a path straight and smooth, only now, it’s not only to Jerusalem. It’s not only to one particular people or one particular place and time. It’s for all flesh – all of us in our particular time and our particular place – this time all of us will see just what God has in store.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Prophecy and apocalypse: trust in the future

Advent 1 C
Dec. 2, 2012
Jeremiah 33:14-16; Ps. 25
1 Thessalonians 3:9-13
Luke 21:25-36

There are people in this world who like to hoard secrets. Someone I used to know drove me nuts, because he had a way of telling you something and leaving out the back story – the most crucial parts. It’s like he would tell me things in a way that implied I was “in the know” but I really didn't quite know what was going on. I always felt I was coming in in the middle of the story, but left outside of the secret.

There is a certain aspect of that to today’s readings, all about the apocalypse, the end time. Is everything really falling apart? When is this supposed to happen? I've said here before that there is quite a lot of popular fascination with the End Times, in a way that makes “apocalypse” equal “destruction.” But if we look at the meaning of the word in Greek, and how it was used in the New Testament – especially in the Mother Lode of all apocalyptic literature, the Revelation of St. John the Divine – the word “apocalypse” means taking the cover off that which has been hidden. It means discerning something’s deeper meaning, deeper purpose. It’s not about keeping secrets but about opening everything up. It’s not about figuring out some arcane puzzle – we don’t have to be theological detectives like Tom Hanks’ character in The DaVinci Code. When people of faith write “apocalypse” they are trying to make sense of the world – trying to discern the patterns of God’s work in the world around – they are trying to understand the meaning of what is going on, especially when what’s going on might be frightening or dangerous.

The partner of apocalypse is often “prophecy” – a word which also needs some unpacking. As a biblical scholar reminded me,

… prophecy is not a fortuneteller's prediction, but a projection forward, a warning of what may come if we don't change direction …

When a prophet speaks, as Jesus is speaking in this passage from the Gospel of Luke, or when the writer of the letter to the Thessalonians talks about “the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints,” or when Jeremiah declares that the day of the Lord will be a day of righteousness and justice, that prophecy is not a secretive portent of bad things to come, but

… a vision of hope and trust in God's ability to save the world from whatever mess we've made of it. The truth of prophecy does not lie in whether it came true the way a weather prediction comes true; it lies in the deeper insight it gives into our existence and God's way of working in the world.[1]

Good prophecy spurs us to action, just like “good apocalypse” helps us understand what is going on. Global warming might indeed be apocalyptic even in the disaster-movie sense, but an environmentalist who is a good prophet tells us the terrible facts, along with the hope that there might indeed be something we can do to mitigate the disaster we might otherwise be heading for.

These apocalyptic readings in the Bible remind us also that we are not alone – we are not solitary Christians. More than any other writings, we read here about what God has in store for everyone, for the whole of creation. They were written thousands of years ago, in particular times and places, among particular people facing particular challenges, but they resonate deeply across time. 

People of all times, who are facing terrible circumstances, can find their story and their experience in these words. But always, always, tempting as it can be to find a blueprint in these long-ago writings, we have to approach them with humility. Our interpretation can be only that: “There are always signs in the heavens and distress among nations, and we are always wondering how the story of this world will end.”[2] Being o-so-certain that this in the Bible really means that, or that gives the people or groups we don’t like the same condemnation as has been given to the long-ago enemies of the writer  -- that kind of triumphalism we must guard against. It’s like my former friend and his “secret” knowledge; his was not the final interpretation of what was going on. If you ever feel you are getting it “right” and everyone around you is “wrong,” re-reading our psalm today – Psalm 25 – can help you put yourself in a better perspective.

Prophecy and apocalypse are not about secrets; they are about trust in the future. They are about humans taking a hard, discerning look at what is going on around them, and placing what is going on in the context of how God would have it go on. 

We do not know how the world will end, but we do know that God does not want it to end. All the prophets want us to pay attention, to know that who we are, as a community and as individuals, matters, and that what we do matters. Reading these funny, ancient books reminds us, if nothing else does, that we are part of the whole stream of human history, and of the history of creation before human history. The truth of that creation – the meaning of our own lives -- is always being revealed, the cover of secrets is always being blown off, and we are always drawing closer to that glorious end time when we – all of us -- will be embraced by God.

[1] Janine A Goodwin,
[2] Ibid.