Thursday, December 8, 2011

Inviting Jesus In:
Meditations for a Holy Advent

As a bonus this week, here are meditations from a Quiet Evening I had the privilege of leading at Church of the Messiah (Gonzales, TX) last night.


Inviting Jesus In:
Meditations for a Holy Advent


So, you’ve made it to a quiet evening.  And you may be wondering why you’ve come or what will come of it.  I’m with you.  Let me share the beginning of a letter I wrote to my parish two weeks ago, as I was getting ready to share tonight with you:

This week, I am preparing meditations for an Advent Quiet Evening at my father’s church.  This seems strange to me on several levels.  First, to be asked to lead such an evening by a parent - someone who knows me at a depth beyond all pretending - is deeply humbling.  There’s no sense of my having inadvertently fooled anyone into believing a false impression about the person they’ve invited.  Second, and more obviously, a Quiet Evening in Advent is, for most of us, an oxymoron with which we might not know what to do. 

For most of us, in practice, Advent serves as the de facto series of warm-up parties before the Big Day.  Folks gather in these days of early dusk for port wine and popcorn balls.  We scurry about in busyness between our popcorn parties, looking for presents for one another.  There’s very little quiet suggested by the season.  In fact, when the notion of quiet does finally come up – if it does at all – it’s usually proposed as an escape from the season: “I can’t wait until this is over and the season is gone.”  What a tragedy.

Maybe you’re here to avoid the tragedy.  Or simply to name it.  Maybe you just need a safe place.  Times of holy silence can be good for all of these things.  

But maybe you don’t trust yourself to know what to do with silence.  Suppose you and I don’t do this thing right.  A couple of words might be in order by way of simple instruction for the time of silence we’re about to share:

First, remember (above all else) that you can’t mess it up.  Holy silence is not your job to perform; it’s God’s gift to you.  It’s God’s desire to hold you in the midst of so much noise.

Second, if you don’t spend much time in silence - or haven’t in a while - it’s not just possible that tonight will feel weird for you, it’s almost guaranteed.  Being quiet together in community, we’ll have to remind ourselves not to speak the automatic and polite words we use so often to our fellow brothers and sisters.  This is meant to be a gift, too.  The gift of enjoying one another without the pressure to perform.  This will feel strange, but good, I hope.  

The second weirdness belongs to the time when you’ve finally settled down in silence, just you and God, and then, in that moment, any one of a thousand other things breaks the peace you want to enter.  Grocery lists, Christmas dinner menus, family phone calls you forgot to return, they’ll want to come into the silence.  My experience says that it’s best not to fight them, but to name them, acknowledge them, and slowly work back to your focus - to God, where the goal is to be still.  

Some folks find it helpful to focus on some aspect of the present moment: like their breathing; pay attention to your posture; your surroundings.  Be present to the present.  Be planted in the moment.  Additionally, other folks find that a holy word helps to call them back when they find themselves distracted.  Some people will tell you to put your watches away.  I actually find it helpful to keep mine out (or at least to keep it handy), and to note the time when I decide to be present to God and to also note the time when I get distracted.  How long did I make it?  I did this on an eighteen minute walk the other day and never made it more than two-and-a-half minutes.  It was a busy day.  Each time, I would smile at my weakness, thank God for the two-and-a-half minutes, reset my intention, and begin again.

You may want to keep paper and pen handy.  If a thought - either distracting OR holy - keeps re-entering the picture, give the thought its peace by writing it down.  It will be there for you when you are through.

Last thing: a word about the evening.  Throughout the evening we’ll gather here for three times of meditation.  Three images, really, to order the silence.  I’ll share the first meditation after we’ve all had a chance to get up and stretch; we’ll begin the silence.  Between the meditations, you are free to stay in this space or equally to wander off.  Your cue and call to return, to gather here for meditation or prayer, will be the bell.  

That’s it.  Silence is simple.  Be well and be present, to God and yourself.  Mother Teresa once said that “God is the friend of silence.”  We seek friendship with silence because we long for friendship with God.  Be friends with this time.

Now get up - get any last words, noises, squawks, out of you.  Stretch.  Turn off your phone. Loosen your body.  And we’ll begin in a moment.


Mediation I: The Light of the World

The first image I want to share with you comes from the book of Revelation: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock.”  That’s the old King James.  The more contemporary language puts it this way: “Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking;” and then, “if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me.”

This verse inspired the painting, called “The Light of the World” by William Holman Hunt, in the 19th century.

This painting is my picture of Advent.  Advent means coming.  Christ will come again, we’re told.  The first and second comings of Christ.  Like a thief in the night.  And I’ve often wondered what kind of self-respecting Savior would come like a thief, late at night.

But then, in the painting, we see the thorns on his head and remember that self-respect wasn’t something our Lord got especially hung up on.

In the painting, there is Christ, knocking on the door, presumably of your heart.  And he’s patient.  And maybe because I think of this painting at Advent, I imagine that it’s cold outside.  The many layers of clothing Jesus wears in the painting make me think that’s the case.  It feels like a painting for short days and long nights and dark skies and potatoes and stew and all of the things that make this time of year eerily cozy and uniquely compelling.  The season of haunting Christmas melodies and the company of carolers.

But there are no carolers in this painting.  They’ve all gone home.  It’s that hour some call the witching hour, and only Christ is out there.  

Behold I stand at the door and knock, and I notice the door, how there’s no knob, how it can only be opened from the inside.  And I notice the vines, overgrown on the door.  And I wonder about the vines that adorn the door.  At the very least, they say that the door might need a push to open.  That it hasn’t been opened in a while.  That it’s stiff.  But maybe the vines are more than descriptive - maybe they do more than tell a story of inactivity.  Maybe they’re active; maybe they hold the door shut.  
And few of us are completely boarded and shut up - like a shop in a town that waits for a hurricane - few of us are that barren, that deserted.  But most of us have closed off places.  Hidden gardens.  Locked-off chambers, and the vines that grow on the doors of these parts of ourselves are like wounds - or protectors, guardians of wounds, of deep hurts and quiet shames.  These places aren’t pretty, and in fact, we like it that way, because the more disheveled these parts of us look, the more likely any visitor is to move on.  To assume it’s been abandoned.  That there is no one home.  But it’s not abandoned.  We’re still in there.  And while the pain of the loneliness isn’t as bad as we imagine the pain of the touch might be, it’s close.  The vines that protect us protect us in prisons.

As if in answer to a prayer we don’t really mean, he comes full of mercy and knocks on the door.

He knocks on the door.  And the look in his eyes reveals a mutual loneliness.  While I am alone, locked in my room with myself and my fears, he is likewise alone.  Wandering the night, coming again, and knocking on doors, my door, with a face that says he’s realistic about his prospects.
Strangely, undeniably, I am the reason he is alone.  Can there be such a thing as a union of loneliness?  His is a voluntary loneliness meant to end my loneliness, because he’s knocking on my door.  Here is almost an echo of the cross on which he hung and yelled from Golgotha, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  Alone to end all loneliness.  To lift the world up to God, to restore my soul, to invite us to love, to fill us with joy, and to make his own joy complete.  So he knocks.

In the letter to the Ephesians, Paul describes the image this way: Christ “himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility.”  

The wall is torn down.  Yet for love, he wanders and knocks.  

This begins are first time of quiet reflection.  Some optional questions for this time of reflection (you can pick them up in the back):


Questions for Mediation I: The Light of the World

“Behold, I stand at the door and knock.”  Revelation 3:20  

i. What do you notice about William Hunt’s painting that tells you something either about God or yourself?
ii. After the resurrection, Mary “mistakes” Jesus for the gardener outside the tomb.  What hope does the image of Jesus as gardener suggest to you as you consider the symbolic vines in Hunts painting and your own life?
iii. What does the inside of your dwelling look like?  (This isn’t a metaphor question so much as an invitation to artists.  Draw the “other side” of Hunt’s work.)


Mediation II: Mary and the New Exodus

Our first image for this evening was of Jesus knocking at the door of your heart.  A symbol picture both of Christ’s first coming and also of his second.  The second image moves us more obviously toward the season of Christmas: the Christ child’s birth and the hay and the manger; good news and glad tidings. The second image is the story of Mary.

From Luke’s gospel:

And [the angel] came to her and said, ‘Greetings, favoured one! The Lord is with you.’ But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.’ Mary said to the angel, ‘How can this be, since I am a virgin?’ The angel said to her, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.’  Then Mary said, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’ Then the angel departed from her.

Mary says “yes” to the Spirit.  Not just the “yes” of agreement with a fact; the “yes” of invitation in one’s heart and soul and body.  Mary becomes a picture of the door opened to God from the inside.  She conceives the child by the Holy Spirit.  The Holy Spirit comes upon her.  And from the book of Acts we remember that the Spirit comes like fire.

Think back to our first image, Jesus knocking at the door, and remember that Jesus also comes to us with the lantern, the promise of fire.

Now, the mixing of images like this - Pentecost and fire and Holy Spirit and Mary and the angel - may seem strange to us, but it was not strange at all to the early mothers and fathers of the church.  Holy imagination came easily to them.  They heard the promise to Mary, that she would conceive a child by the Holy Spirit, and they not only thought forward to Pentecost and to fire, they also thought backward, to another holy fire: Moses and the burning bush.  

The burning bush: the presence of God; holy ground; and the bush burned but it was not consumed.  In the view of the early church, Mary, also, held the presence of God - the Spirit came upon her, that image of fire - and yet she was not consumed.  She beheld and held the holy, as a child in her ams, and lived.  Mary as the burning bush.

And we think back to that first bush and Moses, and the message he received: freedom for God’s people.  And Mary receives in her body the promise of a second exodus: freedom for God’s people.

This second image threatens the suspense of the first image, I think.  Where the first image centered around my response to a lonely Christ - leaving us to imagine that it would be possible to simply stand in the silence and leave the door shut - this image reminds us that Christ is not everywhere lonely, that throughout the ages, the saints have said “yes,” like Mary - most especially Mary.  And that, because Mary said “yes,” God’s presence is already lit in God’s people; the fire is burning and spreading and lighting hearts with Good News and the glory, the power, of God.

Mary said “yes,” and the Spirit of God came upon her.  And she bore a son, even Christ.  And Christ’s promised gift as he left to his disciples, to his friends, was to pour out the Spirit that came on Mary on them - the Spirit, like fire.  To light them, to fill them, to empower them to live lives whose light would be beacons of power and hope to the powerless and the hopeless.  Because she said “yes.”  

And so the early church called Mary the burning bush - because she held the holy and was not consumed - and they called the Church the new Mary.  The one in whom the fullness of Christ is pleased to dwell.  Because the Spirit that came on her now lives in us, too.

And so, with hearts on fire, we sing the song: “Christ has died.  Christ is risen.  Christ will come again.”

Questions for Mediation II: Mary and the New Exodus

“Mary said, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’” Luke 1:38

i. How does putting the stories of the burning bush and Pentecost alongside the story of Mary shape or change the way you think about Christmas? 

ii. When have you said “yes” to God and felt the power of the Holy Spirit?
iii. In Galatians, Paul says that “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.”  Which of these fruit most resonates with you and your life situation just now?  In which would you most like the Spirit to grow?



Mediation III:  And I in Him

So far, we have explored two images of invitation: the first of inviting Jesus into our hearts, as he knocks at the door; the second of Mary’s inviting the Spirit to come upon and overshadow her: it’s the Christmas story of Jesus.  The third image is an image that either destroys or completes the first two images, depending how you come at it.

It is an image that suggests that even as I invite Jesus in, even as it is fully true that he takes up a dwelling in me - maybe because it is fully true that he takes up a dwelling in me - I learn that I am the one who finds a new home - a new home in him.  I am brought outside of myself and made full friends with God.  And not just with God, but with all of God’s friends.

This is the image, the action, of Holy Communion.  In Holy Communion, the presence of God enters me in a special way.  When I put out my hands to receive the bread, drink the wine, I open the door.  In Holy Communion, you give your best “yes” to the Spirit, like Mary.  The Spirit indwells you.  But in nearly every version of our Eucharistic prayer, you also live in the Spirit.  You find a new home in the provision and presence of God.

So, for example, in the first prayer of the Rite I liturgy, we pray that we would be “filled with thy grace and heavenly benediction, and made one body with him, that he may dwell in us, and we in him.”  

And again in the second prayer of Rite I: “and also that we and all thy whole church may be made one body with him, that he may dwell in us, and we in him; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord.”

In Rite II, both prayers A and B, the language is different, but the point is the same: “Sanctify us,” we pray - that is, give us your Spirit, like Mary - “...that we may faithfully receive this holy Sacrament and serve you in unity, constancy, and peace; and at the last day bring us with all your saints into the joy of your eternal kingdom.”

And we in him.  An eternal kingdom.  A new home.
The promise of a new home is Good News.  It’s also hard news, because we have learned to feel at home in our homes, even, as we explored in the first image, when they’re painful.  A new home is a threat, but an invigorating threat like cold air on a long day’s walk; one that engages you for a journey.

To invite Jesus in is to be invited in turn to step out on a journey of which I am not in control.  And a part of me sighs with relief.  I am tired of trying to be in control.

The liturgy models this mystery: I receive Communion and then I am sent - to place and people I do not understand.  He comes in me, and I go out in the power of God’s Spirit.  He comes in, I go out.  To love and serve the Lord.  To learn the fullness of God’s majesty in the company of the sick and broken and loved by God.  And in life and death, too.  He comes in, we go out.  Are extinguished.  Dust to dust.  Asked to trust God’s word for each one of us: “Behold, I go to prepare a new place, a new home, for you.”  Like Mary again - new life and new birth.  A new home.  And this home is the mystery of the infinite depth and breadth of love in the life of the triune God.

And truthfully, I suspected this all along.  Even at the beginning, that if I opened the door, I would follow him out of it.  I would not resist this Jesus.  He would dwell in us; and we in him.  This is the uncomfortable peace of Advent.  This is the peace of his coming.

Finally, then, as we land on peace, I want to close with two hymns that you may already know.  

From William Alexander Percy:

They cast their nets in Galilee just off the hills of brown;
such happy, simple fisherfolk before the Lord came down.

Contented, peaceful fishermen, before they ever knew
the peace of God that filled their hearts brimful and broke them too.

Young John who trimmed the flapping sail, homeless, in Patmos died.
Peter, who hauled the teeming net, headdown was crucified.

The peace of God it is not peace, but strife closed in the sod,
Yet let us pray for just one thing--the marvelous peace of God.

And from that great poet WH Auden (my favorite of all time, I think):

He is the Way. Follow Him through the Land of Unlikeness; You will see rare beasts, and have unique adventures.
He is the Truth. Seek Him in the Kingdom of Anxiety; You will come to a great city that has expected your return for years.
He is the Life. Love Him in the World of the Flesh; And at your marriage all its occasions shall dance for joy.

May the peace of the indwelling and unsettling Christ be yours tonight and always.  Amen.


Questions for Mediation III:  And I in Him

“...and also that we and all thy whole church may be made one body with him, that he may dwell in us, and we in him; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord.” From the BCP 

i. When in your life have you walked out the door?  What was it like? 
ii.  If God intends to send you out to love and serve the Lord, what does the part of you that knows passion and zeal hope that God calls you out and into?  

iii.  In another hymn: “There’s a wideness in God’s mercy like the wideness of the sea”; if we dwell in the God whose mercy is ocean-depth, what parts of God’s being do you most long to explore?

Speak tenderly to Jerusalem...and me.

[A sermon for Advent II, Dec 4, 2011]

"Comfort, O comfort my people," says your God.  "Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord's hand double for all her sins."

These words reveal a people burdened and weighed down.  

Whether in fact or *only* the collective imagination of the people hardly matters.  When you believe you are damned, you are damned.  When you have given up hope, hope, like fresh fruit, can literally rot on the table in front of your eyes before you notice it. 

Such is the despair of the people called Israel in our reading from Isaiah.

"Comfort, O comfort my people," says your God.  "Speak tenderly to Jerusalem." 

You can recognize a burdened state in your own life retroactively, I think, when you look back at those times in which the words of another felt the most tender.  Like they heard you.  Tender words because the other person saw your hurting - he or she really saw you - you were not invisible in your suffering.

Speak tenderly to Jerusalem. 

When Israel receives the comfort of God, comfort means that God sees the suffering of the people.  The first pain remains, for a short time, anyway.  The second pain of being alone in one's suffering is removed.

When have you heard a tender voice?  What are the regularly tender voices in your life?

It takes patience to speak tenderly.  God is patient.  In fact, Peter says in the epistle this morning that, exactly when things seem slowest, take the longest, the patience of God is revealed because the Lord does not want any to perish.  Therefore, says St Peter, "...regard the patience of our Lord as salvation."
Comfort my people, says your God.

And even though the reading that begin with comfort continues with language that we, on the other side of Christ's coming, recognize as pointing to Christ - even though we hear the words about preparing the way of the Lord in the wilderness and we think of John the Baptist and Jesus - even though we hear these words from the other side of God's comfort, we find that we still have a need for tender words.  Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, says the Lord.  And, we would add, "speak tenderly to me."  Let me be visible, too.  Speak comfort to my Church, says your God.

Now, there's a recurring Charlie Brown bit that makes clear, I think, what tender words don't mean, at least in our setting.  Charlie Brown, dreaming out loud to Peppermint Patty that he longs for a woman who will kiss him on the forehead and whisper in his ear the words, "Poor, sweet baby."  Peppermint Patty is not impressed and walks away.  A few scenes later, it's Snoopy who whispers in soothing tones to Charlie Brown and kisses him on the forehead; Charlie Brown isn't amused - or comforted, for that matter.

Not the words of empty, self-serving pity, but words of comfort, true hope.  Words that name with honesty and compassion the burdens that we carry.  Words that carry the power of, and potential for, forgiveness.
Because when you believe you are damned, you are damned.  When you have given up hope, hope, like fresh fruit, can literally rot on the table in front of your eyes before you notice it.

A priest friend asked me once, "Jonathan, what do your folks bring with them to church?"  "What do you mean?" I asked, before adding,  "Coffee, sometimes, but they drink it in the back."  "No, that's not what I mean; what are they carrying, inside?"  "Lots of things," I said.  "Do you find that they carry their fair share of guilt?"  "Yeah," I said, "more than their share."  "Me too," he said.  "I hardly ever work to make people feel guilty because most of them are already guilty by the time I say, 'Good morning.'  It's built in.  No, I think the people have guilt down already.  What they need is God's comfort.  I try to speak comfort."

It's hard to speak comfort.  Not just, but especially for preachers, it's hard to speak comfort.  And not just because everybody else goes around trying to light guilt rockets under other people's behinds - especially in churches.  Blame is just reflected guilt. 

It's hard to speak comfort.  Hard to keep our composure when God looks each of us in the eye and, knowing all that we've done and all that we've failed to do - all that we are and all that we've failed to be - speaks tenderly to us.

"Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord's hand double for all her sins."

Her guilt is washed away.

I think that the yearning for these words is partly why so many of us, especially in previous generations (though I'm not giving up on this one), have found such comfort in the sacramental rite called the reconciliation of a penitent, known popularly as confession.

To have my sins made visible is to know that God sees my guilt.  To know in my head and my heart that I'm not fooling him.  Not that I CAN fool him, but sometimes I can fool myself into thinking I can fool him, if you know what I mean.  To unbury the guilts that I carry and lay them bare and to hear, even then, the comfort of God is a blessing beyond describing.  Many who experience it describe a literal unlocking in their bodies as they realize, only afterwards, how they had bodily carried their burdens in ways that deformed and crippled their souls.

"Cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid."

And so John the Baptist appears to prepare the way of the Lord, and his call is repentance.  Comfort them, says the Lord.  Make them able to believe my love for them when I say that I am coming to dwell with them.  Make them able to believe my love for them when I say that I delight in them.

There's a church outside of Houston with a simple mission statement: "to be a place of sanctuary."  I thought to myself when I saw it: "Now that's a great mission for a dying church."  No language about outreach, no mission imperatives, no grand ideals for the community's impact on other people.  It sounded static.  Old-fashioned.  Passive.  So I looked the church up.  Three-fifty on Sunday, not counting an evening service packed full with youth.  I was wrong.  Nothing static about it.  A vibrant community serving others and giving of themselves in the world.  But principally centered around the idea that their mission is to be a sanctuary - understood here as a people in whom the fullness of God is pleased to dwell; a place and people of comfort, safe from guilt, rich in forgiveness and mercy and peace.

Thats the Gospel, by the way: that while we were warring with God, one another, and our selves, Christ Jesus came among us and died for us. 

Sanctuary.  Treaty.  Everlasting peace.  An end to the war.  Peace with God, one another, and even our selves. 

The Lord God "is speaking peace," says the psalmist, "to his faithful people and to those who turn their hearts to him."  All of the readings today speak of peace, God's gift for God's people, and repentance is the pen-knife that opens the gift. 

"Comfort, O comfort my people," says your God.

The gift is for you.  Because when you believe you are damned, you are damned; but if you seek - when you seek - the forgiveness of God, you will find him more than ready with tender words.  And the fruit called hope still fresh on the table.

Come to the table.  Hope is for you. 


Tuesday, December 6, 2011

An Evening of Christmas Music

Please help us spread the word about this remarkable event at St Christopher's.  It's 2 most exciting features are:  1) the ecumenical gathering of churches for praise and singing as we prepare for the celebration of Christmas, and 2) the love offering, which enables Duke Div School seminarians to experience a field education placement in South Sudan. 

Can you imagine the perspective for ministry that such a placement would make possible??  And what a gift for ministry to the people of South Sudan.  If you can't make the event, but would like to make a donation, email me or send a check payable to St Christopher's by the Sea Episcopal Church (memo: "FIELD ED SUDAN") to PO BOX 386, Portland, TX  78374.

Thanks for you help, and hope you can join us!

Sunday, November 27, 2011

A Sharp Elbow to the Ribs
(a sermon for Advent I)

{Sermon preached Advent 1, November 27, 2011, St Christopher's by-the-Sea}

It’s become popular in recent years to complain about how very, very early the various retail stores – presumably fueled by their godless worship and pursuit of the almighty dollar – have begun decorating their stores for Christmas.  “But it’s not even Thanksgiving!” we say, with indignity.  We roll our eyes at the hedonism of our age.

And then, every year, we come to this Sunday, the one just after Thanksgiving, and in our turkey-drunk stupor we act totally surprised, “What??  You mean it is Advent already?  Why didn’t anybody say something?  Nobody told ME!  You mean it happened again?”

Yes.  Yes.  And yes.  It’s Advent already.  It happened again.  And a part of me laughs: even godless consumer capitalism saw it coming – even godless consumer capitalism tried to warn us – the very rocks were crying out.  Three months ago, while we were still buying swimsuits!  We mocked Noah as he built the boat and warned us about the flood.  Too much??

Now, I realize there’s a danger in making Black Friday sound semi-pious; I get that in no way does the consumer culture capture the true spirit of the season - it needs the church’s help for that - but it DID try to tell us: Sleeper, awake!  4 AM special!  Christmas is coming.
In any case, here we are again, the Sunday after Thanksgiving, the first Sunday of Advent, one more time allegedly surprised by the impending coming of our Lord.

Happy Advent.

By the way, no one else is surprised.  But we are.  The people who proclaim each week, “Christ will come again.”  God’s sense of humor: his church.

Christ will come again.  The promise of Advent.  The promise of the whole Christian life: not that we will go up, says NT Wright, but that Christ will come down, make all things right, restore the whole earth; that heavenly city, the glorious New Jerusalem.

Or, if you prefer the imagery from Isaiah this morning, that God “would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at [God’s] presence.”

Christ will come again.

Ready or not, here he comes.

Good news on this front, by the way.  Did you know that because Christmas falls on a Sunday this year, this is the single longest Advent you’ll ever get?  We may not have remembered; this Sunday may have surprised us, but there’s still time to prepare.  Advent is the season of preparation, and in Advent, as in life, you’ll never have more time to prepare for his coming than you have today.

In Advent, we prepare for Christ’s coming.

Now, if we allow ourselves a moment’s honesty, the fact that we are surprised by Advent every year suggests that preparing for Christ’s coming is not something that comes naturally to us.  This could be for any number of reasons:

Maybe we take his coming for granted.  Like we’re entitled to glory, the goodness of God.  Or, on the other end of things, maybe we’re in denial with respect to God’s glory.  We know too much about ourselves to believe that any good could come to Nazareth - or to us.  Maybe, somewhere along the spectrum between entitlement and guilt, it’s not that we don’t know it’s coming, but we’re disappointed when it does.  Call us the skeptics, but we’ve seen Christmases come and go and things can be good for a season but it’s a pretty big hole that we start from and by January 2nd everybody’s more or less as ordinary as when they started; we quickly forget whatever good came for a season.  Entitlement.  Guilt.  Disappointments of the past.  All of these things can make it hard to prepare.

And I don’t know about you, but when I feel guilt or disappointment coming, some days I’m tempted to just stay in bed.  Sleep it through.  Self-medicate.  Disconnect.

If you know what I’m talking about, if you've been there in that feeling, then you hear, maybe, the power of Jesus’ words when he says to friends this morning, “Keep awake.”

Keep awake. 

(Quick story: Sometimes it’s too late to keep awake.  I remember my own first communion - six years old on Christmas Eve.  I took my Advent first communion class, preparing for Christmas.  But that was back when midnight masses were still the norm and midnight hit me hard that night and I don’t remember much except an elbow in my side at the altar rail, just in time, as Dad put the host in my hands.  Some of us need the kind, strong words of encouragement - stay awake; and others of us need the sharp elbow.  Christ is coming!)

The arrival of change, the prospect of new creation, leaves even the most mature among us closing our eyes like small children, wishing the fears, our failures, and the future away. 

“Therefore, keep awake,” Jesus says.  “For you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly.”

So Christ is coming.  Our job is to prepare, and we have time to prepare. 

The only other point I want to make this morning is that to prepare for his coming is to commit to the hope that only God can bring.

To prepare for Christ is to prepare for hope of the God-can-bring kind.  How does one do that?  What does it look like to prepare for the coming of God? 

I wonder if you’ve noticed that the entire Christian year is present every time we celebrate the Eucharist.  Every season present to the liturgy.  Here’s what I mean by that... that on Christmas, the shepherds hear the angels’ song: “Glory to God in the highest, and peace to God’s people on earth.”  And at every Sunday’s Eucharist we sing the angels’ song: we sing the Gloria. 

Epiphany is the season in which God shows us more clearly who God is, most especially in Christ - that action roughly corresponds to the part of the service in which we read from Holy Scripture.  God telling the story again, so that we might know God more nearly.

Lent might be that time in the service wherein we commit ourselves to prayer for ourselves and the world, most especially the confession of our sins.  But also talking us all the way to Holy Week, as we gather around the table at the Last Supper: “this is my body, broken for you.”  And then, through Good Friday - on the cross, we learn the words that only the cross makes possible when, in the three-day mystery, we call God our Father.

Easter comes just a moment later: “Alleluia!  Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us!"  That glorious A-word of the Christian faith.  Alleluia!  "Therefore let us keep the feast!” 

Pentecost might come at a couple of times - when we call on the Holy Spirit to bless the bread and wine and us, but also, and maybe most principally at the end of the service - the dismissal, which becomes a kind of paraphrase of the Great Commission: “Go in peace to love and serve that Lord!”, whereby we take on our calling to proclaim the Good News in word and deed by the power of the Holy Spirit. 

But where does all that leave Advent?  Just before Christmas - the Gloria.  I think that makes Advent the short prayer we say before all else, the collect of purity (join me as you find the words familiar): Almighty God, to You all hearts are open, all desires known, and from You no secrets are hid: Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of Your Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love You, and worthily magnify Your holy Name; through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Advent, this season in which we ask God to help us prepare for the rest of what comes; to open our hearts; to cleanse them by the inspiration of God’s Spirit; so that - and this is the best part - we may perfectly love God and - listen to this - worthily magnify God’s holy Name.  Worthily magnify.  That's the dead give away that this prayer is for Advent.  Do those words sound familiar?  Mary to her cousin Elizabeth, both of them pregnant, Mary preparing for the coming of Jesus, Mary says this: My soul doth magnify the Lord : and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.

Mary’s calling, made our own, in Advent.  Magnify the Lord.  This is what we pray for in Advent - to be opened, cleansed, inspired by the Spirit, that we might know the “yes” of Mary to the angel; that we might make room for Mary's yes - magnifying the Lord, rejoicing in God, our Savior.  The angel who said to Mary that God sees you, loves you, would like to live in and with you, in order that the world might be saved through God’s Son.

And if that sounds vague to you - if you’re left wondering what that means for you and the next four weeks ahead, preparing this Advent, and if you’re thinking you don’t have any clear steps yet, and all that you know for sure is you’re going to pay more attention to Mary and her “yes” this time around - you’re more than good for the rest of the season, I think.

Happy Advent.


Monday, November 21, 2011

A Short Invitation on Consecration Sunday

Late Monday night, I got back from CREDO (thank you for your prayers, and your card; it made my day) a clergy wellness workshop put on by the larger church.  A lot of good learning, sharing, challenging, growing, and one simple thing that is no less important: a lot of traveling.  Five flights in all.  Corpus Christi to Houston to Atlanta to Asheville.  That was on the way out.  Asheville to Houston to Corpus Christi coming back.  Lots of travel.  And not just the flying.  During the Health and Wellness portion of the week, we were given complimentary pedometers in order to count our steps each day.  The goal is 10,000 steps.  One Rector texted her associate, who had stayed back at home: “They gave us pedometers,” she said, “and I got one for you.  Oh yeah, and I’m learning to assert my authority.  You’re in for it now.  Look out!”  

Plane flights and counted steps, lots of travel.

St Christopher’s, of course, is the patron saint of travelers.  The legend holding that Christopher encountered Christ in his day job helping travelers cross a hazardous river.  Oddly, though, it isn’t St Christopher that I think of when I strap in on the runway and say a quick prayer.  Instead, I think of St Francis.  

Why St Francis?  Truthfully, I’ve remembered St Francis so many times as I’ve boarded airplanes and said a quick prayer to God that I sometimes have to remind myself why.  St Francis - because the story goes that as he was planting flowers in the monastic courtyard one day, a visitor approached him and asked him what he would do if he knew that God would take his life in the next ten minutes.  What would he do - St Francis - knowing that these minutes were his last?  St Francis looked up from his work, thoughtful, and said, “I suppose I would finish planting this next row of flowers.”

I know, I know - lots of things more likely to bring about death in this life than airplanes, but maybe because of the vulnerability of sitting in row 14 of that thin metal tube flying through the air, I think of St Francis.

What if you knew that these were your last ten minutes?
What kind of work gives you peace of the St Francis kind?  

When you sort out your life into piles - the chores, the delights, the thanksgivings, the regrets - when you think about the distractions and detours and destinations of your life - what are the matters that matter to you, and how do break the pull of the orbit of the mundane and live into the things that matter, daily?

At the end of your mortal life, if this was it, what are the matters that matter to you?

The reading from Zephaniah this morning reminds us that there are lots of matters that don’t matter; mortality can help us identify them.  And we need help from time to time letting go of them.  Thus the phrase, “You can’t take it with you.”  As resurrection people, however, we know that there are also some things you can take with you; they just aren’t the usually things folks tend to hold on to.  Love, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, generosity, forgiveness, self-control, joy.  The character, the disposition, of the People of God.  These things are not lost in the economy of God's Kingdom.

Today is Consecration Sunday, the day that we collect our pledge cards for 2012 and, as a parish family, ask God to bless them.  Our theme these past few weeks has been ‘Growing Generous Hearts’.  Our guiding verse has been from Proverbs 11: “One gives freely, yet grows all the richer.”  Along the way, we have observed that giving opens us up as people to the movement of God in our lives.  We have also observed that generosity itself is a gift of God: we can give because God has given us everything, even his Son.  To say that we open ourselves to the Spirit in giving and that God is a giving God is to say that generosity is part of the image of God planted in each one of us.  It’s what we were made for.  

It’s a matter that matters.

This morning we’ll be rearranging some things in our worship to give each of us time to reflect and respond.  There will be no confession, no creed, this morning.  In a moment, the lay reader will lead us in some reflective prayers to open a short time of quiet.  This is a chance to respond, to fill out your pledge card, if you haven’t already.  You have a pledge card in your bulletin.  A

If I were to brave some unsolicited counsel, it would be this: Relax.  Take time to breathe.  Reflect on where God has been moving in your spiritual life.  Where are your blessings?  Reflect also on what you hope God might be hoping for you.  How is he calling you now?  

Lastly, if you’re visiting St Christopher’s this morning - and just lucked out to meet us on Stewardship Sunday (and the day the A/C is out) - or if you’re not ready to call St Christopher’s home in the form of a pledge - feel no pressure.  Don’t fill out a card.  But take the time to reflect.  It’s a gift meant for you.  A gift born of the conviction that God has made each of us in his image, and that the image of God is generous, giving, kind.  We believe in the call of a generous God because he feeds us here.  The call if for all of us.  The time is for you.

Of Saints and Holy Laughter

Funeral homily preached at the Burial Office of Evelyn Lawrence, November 11, 2011.

I remember an Easter Vigil service at which the bishop was visiting this church in North Carolina.  It was his custom to mention the clergy by name and to thank them for their ministry.  This could not help but sound route at times: Thank you, Father Soandso; Bless you, Mother Soandso.  But when he came to one rector, the usual politeness gave way to a much, much richer moment.  Instinctively, the people knew that polite words would not be enough for this priest.  The bishop sensed it, too.  He smiled broadly.  “And Timothy,” he said, “What shall we say of Saint Timothy?”  The people erupted with the laughter that happens when truth has been spoken.

That image and that instinct have been recurring in my soul the past few days.  Though Evelyn would be the first to roll her eyes at her being called a saint, the people know better.  Evelyn Lawrence had the quality of cloth soaked in holy oil.  Not on account of any perfection, but precisely because she knew her flaws; the humility with which she shared them.  Not on account of her having it all put together, but precisely because she knew and lived into her deep, abiding need of God.

What shall we say of Saint Evelyn?

Now, her grandchildren tell me Evelyn wasn’t always this way.  That’s not a dig on Miss Evelyn, either.  It’s a point the family wanted very clearly to make: that the St Christopher’s family because the place where, for the last thirty years of her life, Evelyn found room to live the life of faith.  Not just words on her lips, but in deeds, in her life.  

Even two days ago, when we spoke, Jennifer and Natalie wondered out loud if the St Christopher’s family knew the full extent to which Evelyn loved, valued, and was grateful for the holy friends this place provided.  My response was that that was quite a thing to suggest, because Evelyn was so beloved of our parish family.  Her pew cushion was revered by all of us, even in her absence.  Jennifer and Natalie nodded, but stood by their assertion.  I believe it.  So those of this parish, please hear it again: Evelyn loved you with a gratitude and love that ran all the way down.

Evelyn’s family remember her adventurous spirit and courage.  Her adopting a child even as another was leaving the home.  Her immigration from her home in Jamaica, first to the east coast, then to Portland.  In these things, Evelyn displayed determination and direction.  Indeed, her candor and determination conveyed a strength and made her easily readable to others.  If you didn’t like what Evelyn had to say, you at least knew she believed it was the most loving thing that could be said.  And if you knew her long enough, you learned to trust that.

My own time with Evelyn is marked in my mind by two things: that she never let me leave without making me promise to “kiss that dear sweet child of yours.”  And that as often as I asked her how she was doing, her answer was always: “I am thankful.”  

I am thankful.  Thankful for the family she had; thankful for the things she enjoyed; thankful for the change to have enjoyed the things she could no longer enjoy.

Today we are thankful that Evelyn enjoys the nearer presence of our Lord; that hers is the company of saints and angels in heavenly realms, and that the resurrection morning broken open by Christ, what we called that first, uncertain Easter in dark predawn hours, now belongs to her as fullness of light.  She is found, this morning, completely in Christ’s story.  Her joy and our Lord’s are made complete.  

We are thankful.

The image of Evelyn’s entering the presence of the Risen Lord makes me smile a little bit, because the story of Evelyn’s entering the presence of this church is so widely known.  She had just relocated to Portland.  As one raised in the Anglican tradition, she came to this church, but was understandably suspect of how she would be received as a Jamaican woman in deep South Texas.  She snuck out early for three weeks, attending service, but leaving before the final prayers.  A while later, as she told it, she was at a doctor’s office when the doctor abruptly called out the his wife: “It’s her!  This is Evelyn, the woman who keeps running from church.”  

Dr. Long catching the one who always snuck out early.  Evelyn, afraid she wouldn’t be accepted.  She laughed at how wonderfully wrong she turned out to be.  St Christopher’s became her home, where she lifted up her song to the Lord, and where she knew and loved many friends.

I smile at her story because there are so many who wonder if they can be accepted by God.  Will there be room for me?  Is the kindness there real - and for me?  Be not afraid!  Evelyn - relax!  He’s got you.  And to you, also, he’s got you.  There is plenty of room for God’s People.  Plenty of room in the People of God for saints like Evelyn and us:

"Jesus said unto her, I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: And whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die. Believest thou this?  She saith unto him, Yea, Lord: I believe that thou art the Christ, the Son of God, which should come into the world."

And she laughed with the angels, Miss Evelyn did, the laughter that happens when truth has been spoken.


The Shepherd and the Lamb:
Two Images for Christ the King Sunday

Sermon preached on Sunday, November 20, St Christopher's by-the-Sea

This past Monday, November 14, the church celebrated the feast day of Samuel Seabury, the first American bishop of the Episcopal Church.  Seabury was elected by the American church in...anybody know?  1783 and sent, later that year, to London to be consecrated bishop.  The Church there refused to consecrate him because part of the vows required of bishops in the Church of England included an oath of allegiance to the King.  In 1783 that was still something of a sore spot, as you can imagine.  Even though Seabury was a loyalist at the time of the American Revolution, he found himself unable to take the oath.  After being refused in England, he sailed on to Scotland, where a worthy occasion to stick it to King George was warmly welcomed by the people.  Seabury was consecrated in Aberdeen on November 14, 1784.

We Americans have never felt quite at home with kings.  Mixed emotions, clear allegiances, and an indomitable spirit of independence that springs from the day that declaration was first signed. 

Today is Christ the King Sunday.  This morning I want to ask the question: “What does it mean to call Christ King?” - even for Americans.

Now, someone might say, "no problem, Jonathan, no worries.  Christ isn’t a king like King George or even Hussein.  This is different."  Maybe so.  That, to me, only highlights the question more clearly: how ARE we thinking about Christ’s kingship?  Of his kingdom?  Is it poetic license?  Pretty words that no one really means to take literally or all that seriously?  That seems too harsh.  Is it a kind of spiritual metaphor, the kingship of Jesus?  That is, do we at the same time call Christ our King and insist that that kingdom not touch our politics on the ground?  And on what grounds do we do that?  

One of you told me that Smokey made the simple but poignant point on All Saints’ Sunday that to walk with the Spirit is to be out of step with the world.  That’s the area we’re exploring this morning - the land between kingdoms.

No agenda at this point, just unfolding the question: “What does it mean to call Christ your King?"  

Because Americans, as we know, have never felt quite at home around kings.

Specifically, this morning I want to suggest that our Scripture lessons focus our attention on two things that Christ’s being King means for us.  And the two things that Christ’s being King means for us are lifted up in two images: that of shepherd and that of lamb.  The first image, shepherd, speaks to the question: “Is God able?”  The second question, lamb, speaks to the question: “How will this be?”

We’ll start with shepherd.  In the reading from Ezekiel, God presents himself as the shepherd of God’s people.  And of course this is the image that Jesus takes for himself most especially in John’s gospel when he says, “I am the good shepherd.”  It’s a comforting image; read most recently in this space at the Burial Office for Evelyn Lawrence - and read frequently at funerals: God as the one who finds good pasture for God’s people; God as the one who seeks and cares for God’s sheep, especially the lost and strayed and weak; God as the one who brings sheep - er, people - from all countries together - hints here of the new Jerusalem, that glorious heavenly city of Revelation, wherein every people from every tribe and tongue and nation are gathered as one people in praise.  Hints, therefore, that American, British, or even Texan might not be the most important thing someone can say about a person if God means to make a people out of all these disparate people: behold, a new Kingdom.

Lots of comfort in the image of God as shepherd, as provider.  It’s meant to bring us comfort.  But not only comfort.  That God will take care of God’s Kingdom is a promise to those who need care and a warning to those who don’t trust God to do it.  Indeed, much of the work that we’re told God will do for God’s people is undoing the damage of those who have failed to trust the provision of God.  See, for example, our reading from Ezekiel: "Because you pushed with flank and shoulder, and butted at all the weak animals with your horns until you scattered them far and wide, I will save my flock, and they shall no longer be ravaged."

And this is important to name, I think: that even (or especially) for people who desire to trust God, there are lots of tempting reasons to doubt God’s provision.  Lots of anxieties, worries, burdens that we carry: what about my church and its long-term wellbeing?  Yes, my local church, but are those whispers about the decline of Christianity true?  What about our children and the future of the faith?  What about the moral direction of our country?  (And here, depending on your leaning, you could point with equal sincerity in either direction.)  What about my life - my retirement “number” (if you've seen the commercial, my financial pressure, and always, always, my persistently present fear of loneliness?  

These are true worries.  At its (dubious) best, worry can be a way of expressing compassion and concern; but worry can also become a deep chasm of doubt.  Doubt that God is capable and determined to shepherd God’s people, and/or you.  Like when the disciples panic when they find Jesus asleep in the boat.  Maybe we better do it ourselves, you know, without him, if we have to.

Of course, failing to trust God is not something we necessarily set out to do.  Sometimes it just happens.  We just forget.  I remember the confirmation class that was asked on its final exam who was the head of the Episcopal Church in America:

the Pope
the Archbishop of Canterbury
the Presiding Bishop
the local bishop
the local priest
either the biggest giver or the longest tenured member

The answer was g, but more important, g stood for Jesus.  

Jesus is the head of even the Episcopal Church.  He’s in charge.  The upside of remembering this simple truth is tremendous.  When we remember that God will deliver what God has promised, we are able to say the prayer Bishop Frey taught me: “Lord, it’s your church, I’m going to bed.”

[Those of you who know Bishop Frey know that his prayer was not license for irresponsibility or sloth.  But he preached and preaches the Living God who has acted, is acting, and will continue to act for God’s People.]

The God who delivered Israel from slavery and broke death’s back and the tomb’s hard rock, acting now for God’s People, acting now for you: Christ as shepherd, provider, and King.  “Fear not, little flock, it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the Kingdom.”

Christ the King is our Shepherd, the leader we follow, whose arm is strong, whose voice calls your name.

The second image of Christ the King is the lamb.  And where the shepherd image means to remind us that Christ is able, the lamb is God’s answer for how this will be.  

We turn to our gospel where the king will come to his throne and set all things right.  ("All things" - that wonderful chorus throughout our readings this morning.)  And he’ll start by surprising people with invitations to the kingdom on account of the way they treated the sick and the naked and hungry and thirsty and the prisoners.  Because, in his words, “in so much as you did if for one of the least of these members of my family, you did it to me.”  And this would be tempting to read as hyperbole, the king simply wanting to get the thrust of his point across, but we who hear these words as Christians cannot help but think that Christ DID come naked, and, on the cross, we found him thirsty, that he was killed as a prisoner.  It’s not JUST that Christ cares for the least of these (though he certainly does that); by the world’s standards, he came as one, too.

Jesus as the lamb who on the cross was slain for us.  The powers of the world - the old kingdoms - defeated by the one who would not accept their power; instead, exposing them for the charades of fear that they are.  

But to take the gospel’s connection seriously, we must back up and slow down a bit and linger in the words “he was killed as a prisoner.”  He didn’t just care for the least; he poured himself out as the least.

Death-row inmate Mumia Abu-Jamal has asked, 
“Isn’t it odd that Christendom - that huge body of humankind that claims spiritual descent from the Jewish carpenter of Nazareth - claims to pray to and adore a being who was a prisoner of Roman power, an inmate of the empire’s death row?  That the one it considers the personification of the Creator of the Universe was tortured, humiliated, beaten, and crucified on a barren scrap of land on the imperial periphery, at Golgotha, the place of the skull?  That the majority of its adherents strenuously support the state’s execution of thousands of imprisoned citizens?  That the overwhelming majority of its judges, prosecutors, and lawyers - those who condemn, prosecute and sell out the condemned - claim to be followers of the fettered, spat-upon, naked God?”

Christ comes as Shepherd and as lamb.  The strength of God revealed in the weakness of the cross.  The provision of God found in the blood that pours from his side.  

What does all this mean for us?  What's the take-home, preacher?

At the very least, this should make us look twice for God in places and people we don’t think he’d think twice about.  In God-forsaken places and people.  At the very least, we should look twice for God there.  If Christ the crucified lamb is King, we know God IS there.  

And at more than the very least, we might wonder what it would mean to risk ourselves being least - to risk rejection at the hands of the world with which Smokey said we’d be out of step - what would it mean to risk being least by the standards of the world?  And how would this risk open me to see and understand the new standard - the vibrant, forgiving, merciful life - of the Kingdom with which my world is necessarily out of step?  

I don’t know the answer to that last one for sure.  But I believe this is what it means to call Christ my King.


2020-21 Annual License Renewal Letter

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