Sunday, December 31, 2017

1 Christmas

December 31, 2017

Galatians 3:23-25; 4:4-7; John 1:1-18

+ I don’t usually mix my two vocations here in the pulpit very often. For the most part, here at St. Stephen’s, I am a priest. I celebrate Mass with you. I preach (not always so profoundly maybe). I make my visitations. I talk with you.  I am available for you. I pray for all of you every single day in my daily prayers.

As you have heard me say many, many times: I love being a priest.  And I really do!

But…I am not just a priest of course. I am also, as you know, a poet. Meaning, poetry isn’t just a little hobby I do on the side. I have a Master’s Degree in it. I have published a couple books of poetry (my 13th book is being published in a few weeks). I have received a bit of praise for my poetry by people who know a few things about poetry.  Yes, I am even an Associate Poet Laureate for the state, something I take very seriously.

And the poet doesn’t always make his way into this pulpit. And I am very careful about not inflicting my poems on you. And, mind you, I am not going to do so today either.

But I am going to share with you one of my poetic influences. I have a few poets that have influenced me as few others have. There is a personal pantheon of poets I return to again and again in my life. The list if a short one—a fairly simple one.

In no particular order they are:

George Herbert, the great Anglican priest and poet;
the American poets Elizabeth Bishop,
Walt Whitman,
Marianne Moore,
William Carlos Williams;  
Rainer Maria Rilke, the great Austrian poet
and, of course, the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda.

But one poet I find myself always drawn to and coming back to and relating to on many levels is a fairly contemporary poet—a poet not a lot of people in the United States know about.

R.S. Thomas.

Thomas was a Welsh poet.  He was an Anglican priest who served at small, rural parishes in Wales. And although on the surface it might not seem like it, he was very much a maverick. A maverick priest And definitely a maverick poet. Which is another reason why I love him so dearly.

Thomas died in September of 2000 and in the years since, the full wealth of his poems have only begun to start being revealed. In fact, poems by him are still being discovered here and there.

Although his parishioners never really knew this about him because he never really let on it about, he was actually very unorthodox in his beliefs as a Christian and as a poet. Thomas struggled with some of the intricacies of orthodox Christian belief.

For example, he had problems with belief in Christ as a personal savior and with “convictions about the “afterlife.” But, strangely, he never let those doubts come into his sermons, according to his parishioners.

“I don’t know how many real poets have ever been orthodox,” he once said.

For Thomas, he was able to make sense of the intricacies of Christian belief and theology by maintaining that we need to look at it all from a poetic perspective. In fact, he once got in a bit of trouble for saying that he had difficulty believing in a supernatural Christ by saying “At times [Christ’s] divinity, in its unique sense, seems to me a product of mythopoetic imagination.”

There’s the word of the day for you for today: “mythopoetic.” It’s a great term, actually.

And certainly, for all of us who may have struggled with some of these spiritual issues in our own lives—and I know you have—and I have as well as you also know—you have heard me say the same thing over the years. We Anglican Episcopalians are not fundamentalists. The way to  maneuver and steer the sometimes complicated waters of our faith is sometimes by seeing it all with the eyes of a poet.

Because I, like Thomas, firmly believe that God is a poet. In fact, God is the Master Poet—the Uber-Poet, dare I say. And we, God’s creation, are the Poem. And it is all good.

If you don’t believe me on this, you need look no further than our Gospel reading for today.  I love this reading from the first chapter of John. It’s absolutely beautiful. But, I love it not only for its theological statement (which, for some might seem a bit “out there”).

I love it because, let’s face it, it’s poetry. It’s beautiful poetry. It is poetry, plain and simple. You don’t believe me? Then, listen again, closely.

In the beginning was the Word
and the Word was with God,
and the Word was God.
All things came into being through him,
and without him not one thing came into being.
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.

Or how about,

But to all who received him,
who believed in his name,
he gave power to become children of God,
who were born, not of blood
or of the will of the flesh
or of the will of man,
but of God.

Poetry!

As you’ve heard me say over and over again, if we stop looking at our scriptures and our faith from a poetic perspective, we miss the real beauty of our faith. Our faith becomes cut and dry—black and white. It becomes a burden. It gets drained of it subtlety and beauty and nuance.

Our faith is full of poetry. And if you ever forget that, you need to look no further than this scripture from the First Chapter of the Gospel of John.  

Of course, it’s also a great summary of Christian faith and theology.  And there are just layers and layers of thought and sentiment in this passage from John.

The beginning we experience today in our Gospel reading is a bit different than the beginning we read about in Genesis.  The beginning we encounter today even harkens back further than the creation of Adam and Eve.  It goes back to before those creation stories to what God was doing initially.

“In the beginning…” we hear at the beginning of St. John’s Gospel, just like at the beginning of Genesis.  And they are certainly the most appropriate words if ever there were any.  Especially on this New Year’s Eve.  As 2017 ends and 2018 begins, our thoughts turn to beginnings.

We think about that New Year and how important a new year is our lives.  It heralds for us a sense of joy—and fear—of the future.  All of a sudden we are faced with the future.  It lies there before us—a mystery.

Will this coming year bring us joy or will it bring us sadness?  Will it be a good year or a bad year?  And we step forward into the New Year without knowing what that year will hold for us.

But, the fact is, at the very beginning moment, we can’t do much more than just be here, right now.  We need to just experience this beginning.  And we can’t let that anxiety of the future take hold.  We just need to be here, right now, and take part fully in this new beginning.

That’s what beginnings are all about, I guess.  That one moment when we can say: “Right now! This is it! We are alive and we are here! Now!” And we all know that just as soon as we do, it’ll be past.

In our reading from John this morning, it’s also one of those moments.  In that moment, we get a glimpse of one of those “right now” moments.  It seems as though, for that moment, it’s all clear.  At least for John anyway.

We encounter, the “Word.”  Now, for many of us, raised as we were in a traditional Christian understanding of what the “Word” is, we might think it means the Bible. The Word of God is the Bible, we have heard said so many times.

But C.S. Lewis, our great Anglican treasure (and a poet himself), wrote in a letter in 1952:

It is Christ Himself, not the Bible, who is the true Word of God. 

Yes, the Bible contains the Word of God.  But Christ is the Word of God.  Christ is the Word of God incarnate in the flesh. Christ is the Voice of God spoken to us. And to take it a step further: Christ is the incarnate Poem of God.

This is an appropriate way to begin the Gospel of John and to begin our new year as well.  It is a great beginning. It sets the tone for us as followers of Jesus.  God was speaking in the Word there in the beginning.  And God is still speaking in the Word here, now, with us in our current beginning.  And in God, we experience a beginning that doesn’t seem to end.

In Christ, God’s Word comes forward and becomes present among us in a way we could never possibly imagine.  Christ as the Word of God says to us that God speaks to us in a very tangible way. Not as God spoke in the Hebrew Scriptures, cloaked behind pillars of fire or thunderstorms or wind or booming from a mountain top.

Instead, in Christ, God’s Voice speaks to us, with a voice like our own voice.   God’s word, God’s voice, God’s poem became flesh.  The Word spoken to us in this beginning moment, is a Word of Love.  The commandment this Word tells us of is a commandment to love. Love God and love one another as you love yourselves.

But let’s take it yet one more step further: It is not enough that we recognize Christ as God’s Word incarnate in this world. We too must be incarnations of God’s Word, as Jesus was. We too must speak with the voice of God, speaking again and again God’s love and acceptance to others We too must be God’s Poem here and now, in the flesh.  

We can do these because, as we heard in our reading from Galatians, we, through our baptism, have become adopted children of God.  And as loved children of God, we are able to cry out to God

“Abba! Father!"

Maybe the true message of the Word is that, in God’s Kingdom, that kingdom of which we are heirs, that beginning keeps on and on, without end.

In God’s Kingdom there is constant renewal.  In God’s Kingdom it is always like New Year’s Day—always fresh, always full of hope for a future that does not end or disappoint.

As we prepare to celebrate 2018, this is a great way to live this beginning moment.  In this beginning moment, let us think about beginnings and how important they are for us personally and for our spiritual lives.  With this encounter with God’s Word, we, like John, are also saying in this moment, this is holy.

This moment is special.  This moment is unique and beautiful, because God is reaching out to us and speaking to us in love. Unlike how we might feel at the New Year—full of both hope and apprehension—in this instance, in our grasping of it, it doesn’t wiggle away from it.  It doesn’t fall through our fingers like sand.  Or snow.  It stays with us.  

Always new.  

Always fresh.

Always being renewed.

We’re here.  Right now.

We’re alive!

The future is happening right now.

The Word of God has come to us and is still speaking through us.

We are the poem of God.

It’s incredible, really.  This moment is a glorious and holy one.  So, let us, in this holy moment, be joyful. Let us in this holy moment rejoice.  And let us, in this holy moment, in this holy beginning, look forward to what awaits us with courage and confidence.  Amen.



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