Sunday, December 25, 2011
Isaiah 52.7-10; John 1.1-14
+ I don’t know about you, but do you notice how this morning seems just a bit different? It feels just a bit more holy than usual, more joyful, more…glorious. I think that is what Christmas Day is all about. This sense of it all being just…a bit more holy and complete.
Yesterday, my dear friend, the poet, Marjorie Buettner shared this poem by the great Trappist monk and poet, Thomas Merton:
for the Christ
that now sleeps
in your paper
For some reason, I have been clinging to that poem since yesterday. It has rung in my mind again and again.
for the Christ
For me, that captures perfectly this strange feeling I have experiencing this morning I was sharing last night at Christmas Eve Mass about how I LOVE a Christmas Day mass. I haven’t done one in several years and I have never done one here at St. Stephen’s.
But I love the Christmas Day mass in the same way I love the Christmas Eve service. Today, things do seem just a bit different. Things seem a little more beautiful.
And now—this morning— Christmas is here. This morning, we celebrate the Light. And we celebrate the Word. We celebrate the Light that has come to us in our collective and personal darkness. We celebrate the Light that has come to us in our despair and our fear, in our sadness and in our frustration.
And we celebrate this Word that has been spoken to us—this Word of hope. This Word that God is among us.
We celebrate this “Christ
And as we experience Light and Word and Song—as we experience God in our midst—it does, no doubt seem most of us are feeling two emotions—the two emotions Christmas is all about—hope and joy.
Hope--in our belief that what has come to us—Christ—God made flesh—is here among us
And Joy—at the realization of that reality.
As we come forward this morning to meet with joy and hope this mystery that we remember and commemorate and make ours today, we too should find ourselves feeling these emotions at our very core. This hope and joy we are experiencing this morning comes up from our very centers. We will never fully understand how or why Jesus—God made flesh—has come to us as this little child in a stable in the Middle East, as this glorious Light, as this Word, but it has happened and, because it happened, we are a different people.
Our lives are different because of what happened that evening. This baby has taken away, by his very life and eventual death, everything we feared and dreaded. When we look at it from that perspective, suddenly we find our emotions heightened. We find that our joy is a joy like few other joys we’ve had. We find that our hope is more tangible—more real—than anything we have ever hoped in before. And that is what we are celebrating this morning.
Our true hope and true joy is not in brightly colored lights and a pile of presents until a decorated tree. Our true hope and joy is not found in the malls or the stores. Our true hope and joy does not come to us with things that will, a week from now, be a fading memory.
Our hope and joy is in that Baby who, as he comes to us, causes us to leap up with joy at his very presence. Our hope and joy is in that almighty and incredible God who would come to us, not on some celestial cloud with a sword in his hand and armies of angels flying about him. Our hope and joy is in a God who comes to us in this innocent child, born to a humble teenager in a dusty third world land. Our hope and joy is in a God who comes with a face like our face and flesh like our flesh—a God who is born, like we are born—of a human mother—and who dies like we all must die. Our hope and joy is in a God who comes and accepts us and loves us for who we are and what we are—a God who understands what it means to live this sometimes frightening uncertain life we live. But who, by that very birth, makes all births unique and holy and who, by that death, takes away the fear of death for all of us. Our hope and joy is in a God who smiles at us and when this God does, we find music being set free within us.
This is the real reason why we are joyful and hopeful on this beautiful morning. This is why we are feeling within us a strange sense of longing and fulfillment. This is why we are rushing toward our Savior who has come to visit us in what we once thought was our barrenness, our Savior who has, as we heard today in our reading from Isaiah, “bared his holy arm.”
Let the hope we feel this morning as Jesus our Savior draws close to us stay with us now and always. Let the joy we feel this morning as Jesus our Friend comes to us in love be the motivating force in how we live our lives throughout this coming year.
Jesus is here. He is in our midst this morning, as he always is. We hear his voice speaking to us in the scriptures And we feel him and sense him the bread and wine of the Eucharist that we are about the share on this altar. He is here as the Light that shines in the darkness of our lives. And he is here in the Word which he speaks to us.
But we are also more aware of him because of what we celebrating this morning. He is here in the form of an innocent, defenseless child. He is here as one of us, with a face like our face and flesh like our flesh. In him, God has visited us and is present with us. And we, in turn, are able to carry Jesus within us and share this incredible Presence with others by our very lives. Jesus is so near this morning that our very bodies and souls are rejoicing.
So, let us greet him this morning with all that we have within us. Let us greet him with songs. Let us greet him with thanksgiving. Let us greet him with all that you have within you. And let us all welcome him into the shelter of our hearts. And when we do, we will realize that “all the ends of the world shall see the salvation of our God.”
Saturday, December 24, 2011
+ I am almost embarrassed to say this. For those of you who know me, I am a consummate rebel. If everyone else likes something, I don’t (even if I really do). All of my life I have done this. I have said to myself: “I am not going to conform to what the world expects.”
And, for the most part, I can say that I have been fairly successful in doing just that in my life. And let me tell you: life is not easy for the consummate rebel.
Certainly, that’s how I’ve been about Christmas in the past. While everyone else runs around with Christmas cheer brimming over, and happy smiles on their faces, there’s me, grumpy and dour, forcing myself to buy Christmas presents at the very last minute.
But…I must be getting older or something. It hasn’t been that way this year. I almost hate to admit this, but I actually really enjoyed the secular Christmas season this year.
I have forced myself out of my rebellious state of mind and have just gone with it all. I forced myself to give one party after another at the rectory. I decorated. I bought presents. I served cider and egg nog and Christmas cookies. And, I also almost hate to admit this as well: but I made Christmas tree ornaments today.
This past week, our Senior Gin Templeton told me about Sputnik Christmas Ornaments from the late 1950s I was fascinated by it and, dare I say, obsessed for a while about these Sputnik Christmas ornaments from the 1950s. And of course, any of you who have been to the rectory and seen how I have decorated it in a very retro late 1950s/early 1960s style, I LOVE all that retro/ atomic/1950s kitsch. So, there I was today, sticking toothpicks into Styrofoam balls and painting them metallic gray.
But for me, the real joy of this season is not found in any of that. Despite all my previous curmudgeonly behavior regarding Christmas, I have always loved the theological and spiritual aspects of Christmas. And, by far, my greatest pleasure during Advent and Christmas is being in church. Ok. I’m a priest. What do you expect? Of course, I’m going to love being in church.
And the best time to be in church is always Christmas Eve, and Christmas morning.
One of life’s pleasures for me has always been Christmas Eve. And more specifically a Christmas Eve Mass. Some of my most pleasant memories are of this night and the liturgies I’ve attended over the years.
Another of life’s small pleasures is Christmas morning. I especially enjoy going to church on Christmas morning. The world seems to pristine, so new.
And one of my greatest pleasures as a priest, is to celebrate the Eucharist with you on this evening that is, in its purest sense, holy. And tomorrow morning, because it’s Sunday, I am looking forward to celebrating the Eucharist again here on Christmas morning.
The Christmas we celebrate here tonight, in this church, is a Christmas of real joy. I think we are all feeling it this evening. Something is just different on Christmas Eve. We can’t quite pin it down. We can’t quite define it. But we know it’s different tonight. We are feeling joy tonight.
But it is a joy of great seriousness as well. It is a joy that humbles us and quiets us. It is a joy filled with a Light that makes all the glittery, splashy images around us pale in comparison.
The Christmas we celebrate here tonight is not a frivolous one. It is not a light, airy Christmas. Yes, it has a baby. ‘ Yes, it has shepherds Yes, it has angels and a bright shining star. But these are not bubblegum images.
A birth of a baby in that time and in that place was a scary and uncertain event. They did not have the medical treatment we have now. hepherds were actually seen as kind of rowdy, roughnecks. Angels were not chubby little cherubs rolling about in mad abandon in some cloud-filled other-place. They were terrifying creatures—messengers of a God of Might and Wonder. And stars were often seen as omens—as something that could either bring great hope or great terror to the world. Often signs like stars in the sky were seen as omens of war and disaster.
But for us, it is not so. The event we celebrate tonight is THE event in which God breaks through to us. And whenever God beaks through, it is not some gentle nudge. It is an event that jars us, provokes us and, ultimately, changes us.
The prophet Isaiah shares in our reading from the Hebrew scriptures this evening:
“The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness—
on them a light has shined.”
For people walking in deep darkness, that glaring Light that breaks through into their lives is not the most pleasant thing in the world. It is blinding and painful. And what it exposes, sometimes, is sobering. Some of us who live in the dark do not want what to be exposed because we are so used to the dark.
Last Sunday, on the Fourth Sunday of Advent, we prayed together:
Purify our conscience, Almighty God, by your daily visitation, that your Son Jesus Christ, at his coming, may find in us a mansion prepared for himself
Tonight, this whole evening is about him coming to us and making his home in us. Now, a home, as we all know, is the heart of our lives. It is where we find our sustenance. It is a place we find our comfort. Without a home, we are aimless. So, to be a home—a mansion at that—for Jesus means that he doesn’t just come for a visit.
We’re not just hosting him tonight for a Christmas party. It means, he comes to stay—to live with us. In us. That is what Jesus does during this Christmas season. He comes to us and stays with us. He dwells with us and in us. And we become the dwelling places of Christ to those around us.
That is what we are commemorating tonight. We are commemorating a “break through” from God—an experience with God that leaves us different people than we were before that encounter. What we experience is a Christmas that promises us something tangible. It promises us, and delivers, a real joy. The joy we feel tonight, the joy we feel at this Child’s birth, as the appearance of these angels, of that bright star, of that Light that breaks through into the darkness of our lives, at the fact that this Child comes to us and finds his home in us is a joy that promises us something. It is a teaser, as well, of what awaits us. It is a glimpse into the life we will have one day. It is a perfect joy that promises a perfect life.
But just because it is a joyful event, does not mean that it isn’t a serious event. What we celebrate is serious. It is an event that causes us to rise up in a joyful happiness, while, at the same time, driving us to our knees in humble adoration. It is an event that should cause us not just to return home to our brightly wrapped presents, but it should also send us out into the world to make it, in some small way, a reflection of this life-changing joy that has come into our lives. It should drive to be a true dwelling of Christ.
Tonight is one of those moments in which true joy and gladness have come upon us. God has broken through to us. Christ has come to us and is dwelling within each of us, no matter who we might be.
So, let us cling to this moment. Let make ourselves a true dwelling place for Christ so that others may know, through us, that love, that joy, that all-embracing acceptance that Christ shows us. Let us remember that Christ dwells in us always. We are his home. He will not be leaving us when we take the Christmas tree down and put away the decorations. And let this joy you feel tonight at that realization be the strength that holds us up when we need to be held.
Tonight, God has touched us. God has grasped our hands. Our hands have been laid on God’s heart. This feeling we are feeling right now is the true joy that descends upon us when we realize God has come to us in our collective darkness as a Light that will never darken.
So let us, like those shepherds, leave here this evening, with joy in our hearts, with Christ dwelling within us, And let us, like them, “glorify and praise God” for all that we have heard and seen…
Sunday, December 11, 2011
December 11, 2011
Isaiah 61.1-4, 8-11;1 Thes. 5.16-24
+ Some of you might remember November 28, 1966. Well, it was on that evening, at the posh Plaza Hotel in New York City, that author Truman Capote hosted the legendary (and infamous) masked black and white ball, which has been called “the party of the century.” Capote hosted this party to celebrate the end of many several, hard years working on his biggest and most popular book, In Cold Blood. Well, not that I can ever compare myself to Truman Capote, but in these past two weeks I have hosted two parties, and before this season is over, I will have hosted three more.
There’s a reason I am doing this year. As most of you know, this past year was a horrible year for me, following my father’ death. And the last thing in the world I wanted to do last year was go to a party much less host one. Also, as you’ve heard me say many times, I am not actually not a big fan of the modern, secular Christmas season.
In fact, I really don’t like it at all. If I wasn’t priest and a Christian, I would be a true curmudgeonly Scrooge. But this year I decided to break out of the mourning hold. I thought I would overcome my frustration with the season and just go with it for a while. So, parties, parties, parties.
What I’ve discovered is that I have felt myself truly emerge from that mourning cocoon to a large extent. And one of the added pluses for me is hearing people say to me, “I love your parties! You are so hospitable. You really do go all out for your guests.” And I guess do. And I love doing it. Because doing it makes me happy.
And so I can say, on this Third Sunday in Advent, that I am feeling a sense of joy that I certainly was not feeling last year. Joy at being able to emerge fromt hat awful dark cloud of mourning and sadness and to celebrate the future. And I think it is especially appropriate today.
Today is Gaudete Sunday. Traditionally, on Gaudete Sunday, we light the pink candle on the Advent wreath. This pink candle is a sign to us that the shift has happened. Now there are more candles lit than are unlit on the wreath. The light has won out and the darkness, we are realizing, is not an eternal darkens.
Gaudete means “rejoice” and that’s exactly what we should be doing on this Sunday. We should rejoice in the light that is winning out. We should rejoice in the fact that darkness has no lasting power over us.
This Sunday sets a tone different than the one we’ve had so-far in Advent. We find that word—rejoice—ringing out throughout our scriptural readings today. It is the theme of the day. It is the emotion that permeates everything we hear in the Liturgy of the Word on this Sunday.
In our reading from the Hebrew Bible, in Isaiah, we hear
I will greatly rejoice in the Lord,
my whole being shall exult in my God;
In our Epistle, we find even Paul—who seems a bit, shall we say, dour at times— rejoicing. “Rejoice always,” he writes to the church at Thessalonika
This emotion of joy is something we oftentimes take for granted. Let’s face it, joy doesn’t happen often enough in our lives. It is a rare occurrence for the most part. And maybe it should be. It is certainly not something we want to take for granted. When joy comes to us, we want to let it flow through us. We want it to guide us and overwhelm us. But we often don’t think about how essential joy is to us. Joy is essential to all of us as Christians. It is one of those marks that make us who we are as Christians.
But, as we all know, there are moments. There are moments when we cannot muster joy. No matter how many parties we might plan or host or go to, no matter how much we try to break the hold the hard, difficult things of life have placed on us, it is hard sometimes to feel joy. Cultivating joy in the midst of overwhelming sorrow or pain or loneliness or depression can seems overwhelming and impossible. That’s why joy really is a discipline.
When things like sorrow or pain or loneliness or depression descend upon—and they descend upon us all—we need, in those moments, to realize that joy might not be with us in that moment, but joy always returns. We need to search deep within us for that joy that we have as Christians. And when we search for it, we can find it.
That joy often comes when we put our pains into perspective. That joy comes when we recognize that these dark moments that happen in our lives are not eternal. They will not last forever.
That, I think, is where we sometimes fail. When we are in the midst of those negative emotions in our lives, we often feel as though they will never end. We often feel as though we will always be lonely, we always be sad, we will always mourn.
When my father died, I had a sinking realization very soon afterward, that life would never be the same again—and I despaired over that. I couldn’t imagine what life would be like from that time on. But, with time, I saw that life might be changed but it is not destroyed.
As Christians, we can’t allow ourselves to be boxed in by despair. As Christians, we are forced, again and again, to look at the larger picture. We are forced to see that joy is always there, just beyond our grasp, awaiting us.
Joy is there when we realize that in the midst of our darkness, there is always light just beyond our reach. And when it comes back into our lives, it truly is wonderful… It’s not always something one is able to identify in a person. Joy doesn’t mean walking around smiling all the time. It doesn’t mean that we have force ourselves to be happy at all times in the face of every bad thing. If we do that, we become nothing more than a programmed robot or a trained puppy.
True joy come bubbling up from within us. It is a true grace—it is a gift we are given that we simply don’t ask for. It comes from a deep place and it permeates our whole being, no matter what else is going on in our lives or in the world around us. It is a joy that comes from deep within our very essence—from that place of our true selves.
Advent is, essentially, a penitential season. It is a time for us to recognize that we are slugging through the muck of our lives—a muck we are at least, in part, responsible for. But Advent is also a time for us to be able to rejoice even in the midst of that muck. It is a time for us realize that we will not be in that muck for ever. The muck doesn’t win out. The joy we carry deep within us wins out.
So, as we gather together this morning, and as we leave here this morning, let us remember the joy we feel at seeing this pink candle lit. We have made it this far. The tide has shifted. The light is winning out. The dawn is about to break upon our long dark night.
As you ponder this, as you meditate on this, as you take this with you in your hearts, pay special attention to the emotion this causes within you. Embrace that welling up of joy from deep within. And let it proclaim on your lips the words you, along the prophet Isaiah, long to say:
I will greatly rejoice in the Lord,
my whole being shall exult in my God;
Sunday, December 4, 2011
December 4, 2011
Isaiah 40.1-11; Mark 1.1-8
+ I realized the other day that, although I have referenced many films and movies in my years here at St. Stephen’s, I have never mentioned one film in particular, The Rapture.
The Rapture is a strange, independent film I saw in the early 1990s. The film tells the story of Sharon, a young Los Angeles telephone operator. She is played by Mimi Rogers, the ex-wife of Tom Cruise. Now Sharon lives a somewhat immoral disolute life. She’s involved with a man who is involved in various sundry acts. However, while at work one day, she comes into contact with a group of people who tell her that they believe, through a ahsraed dream, the Rapture is imminent—the Rapture being the return of Christ.
Although she scoffs initially, she eventually comes to accept this belief herself and actually a born-again Christian. She begins a new, very pious lifestyle, eventually marrying a man named Randy (who is played by David Dukovny, in his pre- X-Files days) and together they have a daughter. However, her husband Randy is shot and killed by a dsiguntled ex-employee, and a result, she begins to question the goodness of God. Somehow, she becomes convinved that she must wait in the desert for the coming of the Rapture, but shile there she loses patience. At her daughter's urging, she decides to hasten her and her daughter's ascendance to heaven, so she kills her daughter, but finds that she is unable to take her own life because she’s afraid she'll be condemned for committing suicide. She turns against God and becomes angry at God, resufing to believe that God is anyway good for not retutning, for allowing her to kill her own daughter, for not doing what she believes God should be doing. She confesses to what she had done to a police officer who had been watching her and she is arrested and imprisoned.
“Just say you love God,” the girl beg, so she can join her husband and daughter in Heaven.
But Sharon cannot.
“You know what this means?” the girl asks, as the light fades and the darkness encourches on Sharon.
And Sharon, fully aware of what she is doing, says, “Yes” as she is swallowed up in darkness.
(Sorry that I gave away the ending of the movie). Make sure you go out and rent this happy little film for this holiday season.
But the film actually haunted me in many ways, because it was one of those films that actually addresses in a straightforward way what we talk about in this Season of the Advent. The coming of the Lord. For us, we too are awaiting Christ’s presence in our lives. We longing for Christ to come to us. We know it will happen. We may realize it might not happen necessarily (for us anyway) in some final Rapture, but, in one way or the other, it will happen, as in the day on which we die.
But, as you hear me say, again and again here at St. Stephen’s, Christ’s coming among us, that we celebrate especially during the Christmas season, happens for us in a very intimate way every time we gather here. We experience, in a very unique and wonderful way, the Presence of Christ whenever we gather together at this altar and share these common and very simple and vital gifts of bread and wine.
No matter what you believe about how Jesus is present to us in the Eucharist, he is present. He does come to us and is present with us here. He does come to us here and we do feel him present—in the bread, in the wine, in our scripture readings, in the presence of those who gather with us and who kneel beside us at the rail.
Now, as you know, I make no secret of my belief in the Real Presence of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament. I truly believe that Jesus is present here in a unique and beautiful way in the bread and the wine we share with each other. I also believe that Jesus is uniquely present even in the reserved sacrament we place here in the ambry.
There is a reason we keep the sanctuary light lit before the aumbry. It reminds us that Jesus is present here in a special way. I love driving past St. Stephen’s at night and seeing the deep red glow of the sanctuary light shining through the windows. It is a very visible and meaningful reminder to me that Jesus is present here in a very real way.
I’m not a big stickler on explaining how Jesus is present in the bread and wine. All I know for certain is that each Sunday, when we gather here, we witness a mystery. We, together, participate in something that we might not understand and we might not fully appreciate. But it is, as we all realize, important and wonderful and beautiful.
In what we do here at the altar, we experience Jesus. We see Jesus, we feel Jesus, we taste Jesus. In a sense, what we do here is fulfillment of what the prophet Isaiah foresaw:
“He will feed his flock like a shepherds;
he with gather the lambs in his arms,
and carry them in his bosom,
and gently lead the mother sheep.”
So, in a very real way, the anxious waiting we are doing during this season of Advent is like the anxious waiting we should do when coming to this altar. It’s all about anticipation. It is all about our deepest hopes and desires being realized. And they are realized—in Christ. And because they are realized in Christ, we find them realized whenever we encounter Christ.
In our Gospel reading for today, we find John the Baptist appearing the wilderness. He, of course, is the person the prophet Isaiah speaks of in our reading from the Hebrew Scriptures.
“Prepare the way of the Lord,” both Isaiah proclaims.
“Make his paths straight.”
To a large extent, that is what we are called to do in this Advent season and throughout all our lives in Christ. We are called to prepare the way of the Lord. We are called to prepare. We do this by living our lives with a certain integrity. We do this by being aware that God is always present with us, always loving us, always accepting us. And we do this by realizing that, at any moment, we will be called to live out that life of love and acceptance to others. We realize that, in our lives as followers of Jesus, we have been transformed.
By the very fact that we were baptized, we have been transformed. When we rose out of those waters—and in a few moments when Madisyn is baptized and rises out of those waters—we were transformed and born anew.
Whenever we meet Christ, we emerge transformed. We are not the same people were before our baptisms and, each week when we encounter Jesus in the Eucharist and in each other, we realize that we are not the same people we were before Communion. We are a people challenged to then go out and share our Baptismal lives and this Communion with others in whatever way we can. What we are longing for in this season is not something vague and distant.
It is not something so mysterious that we can’t fathom it. Rather, what we long for is, truly, fulfillment. It is the fulfillment of all that seems to be missing in us. It is the fulfillment of our anxieties and our frustrations and our depressions and our hopelessness.
In the Eucharist, in this bread and wine, in this aumbry, in this unique and real Presence of Jesus that we experience here, we find truly that God’s glory is not out there somewhere—in some distant heaven.
Rather, God in Jesus, has come to us and remains among us in a very real and tangible way. In this Eucharist and in our lives as followers of Jesus, God’s glory truly does dwell with us. In God’s Presence among us, we realize, if we truly open ourselves to this experience, that our frustrations, our depressions, all of our spiritual and psychological pains have been healed and our longings have been realized. We don’t need to look anywhere else than right here.
Yes, there might be a Rapture one day. Yes, there that Day might be amazing and powerful with trumpets sounding and cars falling from jail cells. And yes, even when it happens, there will be people saying that they cannot heed the invitation to join in that glorious day. But for us, as followers of Jesus, for us reborn in the waters of the baptism and prepared in a special way for the coming of Christ into our midst, whatever might happen on that day will only be a fulfillment of what we have bee doing along, here at this altar.
What we do here then at the altar is important. It is vital to our understanding of ourselves as Christians. It is a wonderful and glorious mystery that we shouldn’t try to pin down and analyze too deeply. We should rather accept it and delight in it and let it fill us and fulfill us.
In these days of Advent, as we prepare to remember Jesus’ first coming among us, our time at the altar should take on special meaning and precedence for us.We should give true and deep thanks for the opportunity to have Jesus come to us in such a unique and wonderful way. And as we come to the altar, with our joy bubbling up from within us, with our anxieties and fears and depressions soothed by the healing balm of this bread and wine, of the healing Presence of our God, we too are able to proclaim, the prophet Isaiah, with honesty and truth,
The glory of the Lord has truly been revealed to us…Here is our God!