Christmas 2, Year B, 2015

Happy Second Sunday of Christmas!

We still have two days left in the Christmas season and today we turn our attention to the other nativity story. We have spent plenty of time with baby Jesus, angels and shepherds the last few weeks. That nativity story, the one with which we are so familiar, is from the Gospel of Luke.

Today’s story of the nativity is Matthew’s version of Jesus’ birth. And it is very different. While Luke’s story of the nativity is appropriate for, say, ABC Family channel, Matthew’s version is more of an HBO situation.

In Matthew’s version, angels don’t appear to any shepherds. Instead, three Zoroastrian priests, wise men who study the stars, have observed a strange star they have never seen before. They somehow figure out that this means that the child who will be King of the Jews has been born and so they travel to Jerusalem to find him.

When King Herod and the rest of Jerusalem hears of their inquiries, their reaction is not to throw open their arms to welcome this holy infant. Instead, they are thrown into fear.

And isn’t that a painfully honest human reaction?

King Herod likes being in charge. The people of Jerusalem like stability. They’ve had enough conflict. The last thing they need is a new king jockeying for power. A new king is not necessarily good news.

These wise men will not be dissuaded, though. Even though Herod tries to gain their trust so he can find and eliminate this threat to his power, the wise men outsmart him and go visit Jesus anyway. But when they visit him they bring three very strange gifts.

First, they give Jesus gold, which symbolizes his kingship. They recognize his authority, even if the world doesn’t.

Second, they give him frankincense, which symbolizes his divinity. These wise men, who aren’t even from the Jewish tradition, recognize that the Christ child is of God.

Finally, they give Jesus myrrh. Myrrh was traditionally used in the burial of the body. This third gift is almost a foreshadowing of how Christ will be received into the world. Instead of a joyful birth narrative, here we have three strangers both worshiping and grieving God born into the world.

And immediately following this passage, we get the horrible story of the slaughter of the innocents. Herod, hoping to eliminate the threat in his kingdom, orders all children younger than two years old murdered.

Jesus is born into a vile, vile world. A world in which thousands of children are sacrificed for no reason other than one man’s quest for power.

We recognize this world, because it is not that different from our own. We are too familiar with the way murder and killing destroys families and communities. We have experienced it in our own town and watched protests around the world. We have mourned Hannah Graham, Alexis Murphy and Robin and Mani Aldridge. We have mourned with black communities and with police officers. We have watched in horror as Boko Haram and ISIS have terrorized our brothers and sisters to the east.

We live in an adult world filled with violence and pain. We need a God that can handle complexity, handle our sin, and see the good in us despite all the evidence to the contrary. We need a God that can handle those in power, whose goodness can overpower the evil of the corrupt.

And so Matthew gives us his nativity story. A story that reminds us that God knew exactly what he was doing. He was sending his Son to be born in a world filled with corruption and violence. But God didn’t fight corruption and violence with political power or more violence. Instead, he chose an ordinary faithful girl from a faithful family. He chose an ordinary faithful fiancé, who would do the right thing even when his first instinct was to back away.

And together Mary and Joseph managed to birth the Son of God into the world. And protect and raise the child with all the strength and wisdom he would need to do his terribly difficult job.

Even in the midst of a vile and corrupt world, with God’s help ordinary people managed to birth light into the world.

No matter how overwhelming our world may seem, with God’s help we too can bring light into the darkness.

My sister, Marianne, spent part of a summer in Sierra Leone doing teacher training a few years ago. She made some good friends there and keeps in touch with them through Facebook and email. I have been so struck by friends of hers like Samuel Sesay, who sent his family to the US so they would be safe, but stayed behind to help serve his community. He tells stories of so many faithful Chrsitians facing the darkness of this terrifying disease, but remaining home so they can deliver supplies, help enforce quarantines, and lead worship services for communities in real crisis. Christians like Samuel are bringing light into darkness. Hope into what must feel like a hopeless situation.

What’s wonderful to me is how many of you are the faithful people of our generation, birthing light into the world every day. Bringing Jesus with you as you parent, grandparent and foster parent. Bringing light with you as you care for an aging spouse. Bringing light with you as you interact with patients, clients and students. Bringing light with you as you pray for peace and fight for justice.

Bringing light into the world is hard work. But it lightens our load when we remember that it is not our job to generate the light. We are not mice on a wheel trying hard to create enough energy for God to show up.

God is already here, waiting to bring love and light into our lives.

No matter how dark it might appear to you, God is here, ready to share his light with you.

Thanks be to God.

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Epiphany 5, Year A, 2011

Listen to the sermon here.

When I was little my family spent a lot of time with good friends of ours—the von Hendys.  The von Hendys also had two children, Vanessa and Stephan.  Vanessa was just a year or two younger than me and Stephan was just a year or two younger than my sister, Marianne.  At the time, I was a huge, huge fan of Solid Gold.  For those of you who were too tasteful—or young–to watch such things, Solid Gold was a TV series that aired on Saturday nights from 1980 until 1988. I don’t think I was actually allowed to watch it that often, but when I did I was totally entranced.  The premise was pretty simple:  extremely sexy dancers danced to whatever Top 40 songs were popular at the time.  They wore extremely high heels and often wore gold lamé.  They were awesome.

My favorite game to play with the von Hendys was a much more tasteful version of that show.  Basically Vanessa and I, as the older siblings, would make Marianne and Stephan hold a flashlight on us while we danced around to Starship songs.  You should have seen our artistic interpretations of We Build This City.  Our dance involved a lot of leaping back and forth across the room, but in a very elegant way, of course.  Eventually Marianne and Stephan would get bored of shining lights on their elders and wander off to do something more interesting and the game would end.  I was always a little sad when they wised up that their turn in the spotlight was never going to come, because I loved being in the spotlight.

And its no wonder I loved being in the spotlight—our culture is built around spotlights! Movie sets!  The flashbulbs of paparazzi!  You tube videos! Culture teaches us that the ultimate success is to be famous and to be caught in the glare of those lights.  I’ll confess that a remnant of my love of the spotlight is that I still love celebrity culture.  I love reading gossip columns and seeing movies and I watch the Golden Globes and Oscars every year.  This celebrity culture is so prevalent on television, on line and on newsstands we can begin to think that light was developed just to shine on these people!  And we’re left with the hope that maybe, one day, the spotlight will shine upon us.

Our Gospel reading today challenges our whole understanding of our relationship to light.  After all, this passage was written thousands of years ago, before neon signs, before flashbulbs, before marquees.  After the sun set, light was a rare and remarkable commodity.  People might have light from a fire, or some kind of lamp or candle, but that light was treasured and used sparingly. Light broke through the darkness with subtle illumination, inviting rather than commanding attention.

Our reading today is part of what is called the Sermon on the Mount.  In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus calls his disciples, travels around, gets famous and soon hundreds of people are following him, hoping to get healed.  He sneaks away to a mountain with his disciples and starts to talk.  And talk.  And talk.  The Sermon on the Mount starts with the Beatitudes, which Fr. Paul read to us last week, but the rest of the sermon goes on for three more chapters of the Gospel of Matthew.  In fact, we will be reading bits from the Sermon on the Mount Sunday mornings until Lent begins!  The sermon is a framework that the author of the Gospel uses to collect all the famous sayings of Jesus in one place.  By the time Jesus is done in Matthew’s version of the story, the crowds have found him again, so he goes from speaking to just his disciples to hundreds of followers.

Our passage today about salt and light comes pretty early in the Sermon, right after the Beatitudes.  Jesus uses the imagery of light to describe how his followers should interact with the world.   They are, we are, to be the light of the world.  We are to be beacons on a hill. We are to let our light shine in the darkness so that others will know about our good works and give glory to God.

Note here that Jesus does not say, “You are in the spotlight of the world.  When the light shines on you, you seem really, really fabulous.”  There is a huge difference between being in the spotlight, and being a source of light.

When we’re in the spotlight, we are drawing attention to ourselves.  We are showing how beautiful or graceful or talented we are.  We are seeking to be admired.  Now, some celebrities who are stuck in the spotlight whether they like it or not have gotten clever and have been able to use the spotlight that is constantly on them to point out injustices of the world.  Think of George Clooney’s work in the Sudan, or  the Pitt-Jolie’s work in New Orleans.  But even that kind of good work is not the same thing as being the light of the world.

Jesus is not talking about us being in the spotlight.  Jesus is talking about us generating the light.  We become the source of illumination, not the object of it.

And we do not become a source of illumination because of our beauty, or our amazing Starship dance moves.  We become a source of illumination because we follow God and do good works.  A life of following God leads to the kind of illumination Jesus wants us to have.  And that illumination always points toward God.

God calls all of us to bear his light into the world.  To learn how, we can seek role models.  To find role models, we don’t follow the spot light. People who light up and point us toward God are not the same people who seek the spotlight.  In fact, those who bear God’s light are often the quietest in the room.  They would rather listen than speak.  They would rather serve than lead.  They have deep lives of prayer.  They listen with patience and empathy.  They are slow to anger and quick to forgive.  When you are with them, you sense the presence of something holy. It’s also entirely possible that you walk by these lights every day and do not notice them.  All the other bright lights of our culture make it hard to see the slow, long burning light of God.

I and the other 3000 students at University of Richmond walked by one of these lights every day.  The year before I graduated from college, one of the postal workers that served the University of Richmond retired.  Normally, this would not be a big deal.  To a group of self-absorbed students; postal workers were pretty interchangeable.  So long as your mail showed up in your mailbox, there was no reason to pay much attention to who put it there.

However, this particular postal worker had an incredible story that came in out in local papers that made us realize we students were entitled idiots who were so absorbed in our own spotlights we did not even notice the true light among us.

Thomas Cannon was a postal worker who had a 7th grade education.  He never made more than $30,000 a year.  In his later years, he took care of his ailing wife.  So far, this is a fairly common story.  What made Thomas Cannon unique is that over the course of his life, he donated more than $150,000 to charity.  This was not a man with a large savings account.  He lived a bare bones existence and put any extra money towards donations to others that needed the money.  He read the Richmond Times-Dispatch with a prayerful eye.  When he came across a story of someone in need or someone who had been courageous, he would send the author of the article a check and ask him or her to pass it along to the subject of the article.

This is a man who lived out God’s light.  Remember last week, when Fr. Paul talked about the foolishness of Christ?  Thomas Cannon was a giant fool for God.  He lived the upside down life of the Beatitudes—giving away money instead of hoarding it, thinking of others instead of himself, helping instead of hurting.

Even when the word got out about his actions, and the spotlight started to shine on him, he made it very clear that he did not want any buildings named after him or permanent memorials—he just hoped his actions would inspire others to give.

Thomas Cannon was letting his light shine.

As we mature in our faith, God’s light in us will shine brighter and brighter.  Our path will not look exactly like Thomas Cannon’s.  Each of our lights will shine in its own way.  What we have in common is that we will become beacons in the dark—inviting others into a life that is filled with the true light of God.

Thanks be to God.

Christmas I, Year A, 2010

Listen to the sermon here.

Merry Christmas!

The last week or so we have been immersed in Matthew and Luke’s Christmas stories. We have heard the Angel Gabriel’s soothing words to Joseph.  We have journeyed with Mary and Joseph as they made the long journey to Bethlehem. We have seen children act out the famous scenes of shepherds and kings visiting the baby Jesus.

All week we’ve been soaking in the details of the birth of Jesus. We’ve experienced the exhaustion of Joseph and Mary as they attempted to find a place to sleep.  We’ve smelled the hay and the animals.  We’ve felt the chill of the night air as the shepherds were confronted with angels.  We’ve celebrated as the little baby was born.

Today, John’s Gospel widens the angle of our gaze.  We move from the details of Jesus’ birth to a cosmic understanding of who Jesus is and what he means for us.

John reminds us Jesus was not just a baby, but was the Word, co-eternal with God.  As long as God has existed—which is forever—the Word has existed.  John begins his Gospel with the words “In the beginning.”  These words evoke the very beginning of the Genesis, where we get the amazing imagery of a Creator God calling creation into being through the words he speaks.  The words were not simply language, but had the power to enact all of creation:  the ground under our feet, the pine trees we hang with garland, the moon, the stars, the solar systems beyond our imagination.

John makes the argument that Jesus is that Word and creation was called into being through him.  Jesus was there from the very beginning. Not as a human being, not as an infant, but as the Word, as God.   When we see Jesus, we see God.

In the incarnation, the worlds of the eternal and the temporal slam together.  The creator becomes the created, bringing all the light of the Holy with him.

Christmas lights pierce the darkness of winter with their tiny dots of light, turning a time of year that can be cold and dark and forbidding into something magical. These little lights remind us of the great light that pierced our darkness millennia ago.

Life can sometimes feel as dark as a late December day.  There is so much suffering, injustice and death in Creation and the way we have abused the Creation and each other.  When we are going through such suffering, we can feel utterly, hopelessly alone.

But, we’re not alone.  The Word entered that darkness.  He entered our dark world and immediately began shedding his light. He spent his life pursuing and loving people—especially those going through dark times.  He brought healing and new life with him wherever he went.

The Word that called Creation into being, also entered that same Creation in order to redeem it and make it holy.  Suddenly, everyday human experiences: birth, death, friendship, dinner become touched by God.  Bread and wine are no longer just food and drink, but at the Communion table hold the very presence of the divine.

Christ coming into our world transformed the world.  Now, our ordinary lives are infused with holiness and meaning.  In our dark days, we experience the light of Christ through our prayers, through the love of fellow Christians.  When we experience that light, we too become light bearers, Christ bearers into the darkness.

And so, this Christmas season, we celebrate.  We lift our voices in song, we dress up our children in costumes and watch them re-enact the ordinary, extraordinary birth of Christ.  We listen to brass and tympani clang out the good news that Christ has come.  The whole of God has entered our world as a tiny baby and transformed our lives for ever.

Thanks be to God.

First Sunday after Christmas, Year C, 2006

Do you ever have those years during which you have more sympathy for the Grinch than for Santa Claus? 

Usually I am chomping at the bit to decorate for Christmas and only allow myself to be unleashed on the ornaments and greenery the day after Thanksgiving.  So, that Friday is usually a frenzy of pine, tinsel and Christmas Carols.  This year it just never happened, and then, as many of you know, on December 10th, one of Matt’s dearest friends died.  A week later, nine Virginia Episcopal parishes decided to split from the Episcopal Church USA.  Bah, Humbug.

For me, Advent and Christmas were officially over.  No more waiting for God to show up.  No celebrating the birth of the baby Jesus.  Nope.  I was done.  All I wanted was for the New Year to roll around.

Well, a funny thing happened.  Despite my protestations, Christmas was not canceled.  The radio still played carols, Emmanuel was decorated in gorgeous greenery and candles.  My sister came into town Christmas Eve and fully expected the ritual opening of stockings Christmas morning.  And, there were one or two church services Christmas Eve, as well.

I might not have been ready for Christmas, but Christmas came anyway.

Advent is historically a time to prepare oneself for Christ’s coming, to become open to the possibility of Christ’s victorious return in the world, but what happens when you don’t prepare yourself?  What happens when meditation is replaced by grief over the death of a friend, or when expectant prayer is replaced by the fear of your child being called back to Iraq or getting a devastating diagnosis?  What happens when our denomination is in turmoil?  What happens when we are just not ready to trust God?  What happens when we are not ready to pray with Isaiah,

Hallelujah!
How good it is to sing praises to our God! *
how pleasant it is to honor him with praise!”

What if your prayer is more along the lines of, “I’m not really impressed with your performance this week, Creator of the Universe.”

The short answer is, “God shows up anyway.”

In our reading from the Gospel of John this morning, we are told the story of Christ’s coming in a cosmic, panoramic setting.  Christ is described as the pre-existing Word, who has been with God since the beginning of everything-before time, before creation.  This Word is intimately involved in the creation of all things and is, in fact, God.

John wants to make it perfectly clear that Jesus was not just a special man, Jesus was the very fullness of God, come to earth.

Two of the images John presents are important as we think about our readiness to welcome Christ into the world.  These are the images of the Word living among us and the Word being light.

The word that is translated as “living” in the NRSV is also translated as “dwelling” in other translations, but in the Greek it has a very concrete meaning:  to pitch one’s tent.  So, in all this fantastically abstract and glorious language, we have the image of the Word coming and pitching his tent among humans.

This is not what we expect from John’s previous language.  We expect the Word to come float around, mysterious and omnipotent, perhaps lighting things on fire at will or making people levitate. 

Instead we get an image of a God both so humbled that he needs a tent, and so committed to the prospect of being with humans that he is willing to do the work of pitching a tent.  He does not expect palaces and royal treatment. This God is in for an authentic experience of being human.  This God expects to sweat, to get dirty, to love, and to grieve.  This God wants to feel all the things we feel.

And yes, this Word had John the Baptist to prepare a way for him, to help people repent and prepare themselves, but not everyone was ready.  Many people had never heard of John the Baptist, and no one was ready for the idea of God coming in human form.  Still, Christ came, whether the world was ready for him or not.

He pitched his tent in the darkness with us, but while he fully experienced the darkness of our lives, he also redeemed our dark lives.

For the Word not only came to enter the darkness, he also came to shed light.  John writes, “What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”  Christ came not only to suffer, but to redeem suffering.  He came not only to be human, but to sanctify what it means to be a human.

Christ transformed the human experience by living as a human fully connected to God.  He lived this way, not to be a role model, but to break the barriers between human and God so that we might be able to live so deeply connected.  Christ also invites us to eternal life with God and gives us glimpses of what that will be like as he heals the sick, and disposes with demons as easily as we take out the garbage.  This Word, this human God illumines our darkness and tells us we will not always have to live this way.  There will be a time without sickness, without divisions, without war, without death.

And Christ does all of this without polling us about our readiness. 

The point of Advent and Christmas is not to pass some mysterious test so we can experience God the rest of the year.  We celebrate these seasons of repentance and re-discovery of the stories we know so well, so we can remember who Christ is, what God is like.  We light Advent candles and watch children re-enact the Nativity because the good news of God’s coming to earth is too big for us to hold in our minds and these forms of worship remind us of the story.

But we do not have to fully comprehend that glorious reality in order to experience it.  When we are grieving, or fearful, or feeling lost, Christ does not wait for us to be ready, Christ comes and pitches a tent alongside us, giving us comfort or courage or simply reminding us that the reality of this world is temporary and better things await us.  Christ shines lights into our dark corners and brings us peace and hope.  And Christ does all this, whether we’re ready or not.