Sunday, December 29, 2019

1 Christmas

December 29, 2019

John 1.1-18


+  I’ve been pretty open about this fact in my life.  I’m just not a big fan of  Christmas.

Others seem to start getting excited when the Christmas trees go up at Halloween.  Or the Christmas music starts being piped through the stores in October.

Not me.

Sparkling lights and songs about snowmen and all the rest do little for me.

It’s not that I hate the season.  I just feel a sort of robotic sense of nothingness about it all. I know.

I’m just more of an Easter person, I guess.

But, to be fair, I LOVE what our Church season of Christmas is all about.  I love the Nativity. I love preaching about the Incarnation, about God-made-flesh.

And so, I find myself during this season clinging to little bits and pieces to keep myself afloat until Christmas passes and we are into January.

Today’s Gospel is one of those lifesavers for me.  I love this Gospel reading because it is so different than many of the Gospel readings we get.  In fact, it is, by far, one of my favorite scriptures.

It’s a unique reading today.  Most of our Gospel readings are straight-forward narratives.  We get the story of Jesus doing this or that, or preaching this or that kind of sermon.

But today, in our Gospel reading, we get a hymn.  Or at least, a portion of a hymn.

We get a poem.

It is a beautiful poem really explaining the Word and what the Word is and does.

In Greek, the word for “Word” is “Logos.” But, “word” is maybe not the best way to translate “logos.” Another way to translate the word “logos” is to say “essence.”  It is the very essence of what it conveys.

In that sense, the “Word” of God brings us the very essence of God.  In the Logos of God, we find God.

But…what is John trying to tell us in his poem?  John is talking about Christ, of course.  In this passage, he is making clear to us that Christ is the Logos—the Word of God, the very essence of God.

When we hear the words of Jesus, we are not just hearing the words of some brilliant prophet or some very wise sage.  We are, in fact, hearing the words of God—words that contain the knowledge and essence of that God.  What came from his mouth, in a sense, came from the mouth of God on high.

It’s kind of heady stuff we’re dealing with here.  This concept of the Word—or Logos—of God is really the heart of all Christian theology.

In a sense, it conveys perfectly what we are celebrating in this Christmas season.  The God we experience at Christmas isn’t simply sitting on some throne in some far-off heavenly realm.

 God is not sitting back and letting creation work itself out.  What this passage shows us, more than anything, is that God is busy.  God is at work in our lives—in the world around us.  

God is moving.

God is doing something.

More than anything what this scripture is telling us is that God is reaching out to us.  And not just one or two times in our history.  God has always been reaching out to us.

From the first day of humankind to this moment—from the beginning—God is reaching out to us.

God is calling out to us.

God is talking with us and communicating with us.

And we experience this most clearly in the person of Jesus, who has come to us as this simple baby.  This baby, who will grow up to speak to us in human words, is the very Word of God.  This baby is the Wisdom and Essence of God.  This Word of God that we hear is Christ and Christ, as we learn in this passage, has always existed.

Even before Jesus came to us as this baby, Christ always was.  And Christ always will be.

The God we find and recognize in Jesus is moving toward us, even in moments when it seems like God is distance and non-existent. Here, in this Christmas season, in this Child we celebrate and worship, God’s presence is renewed.  God comes forward and becomes present among us in a way we could never possibly imagine.

There is wonderful antiphon that we can find in the Monastic Breviary used by the Order of the Holy Cross, an order of Episcopal monks.  The antiphon used for the Benedictus at Matins or Morning Prayer on Christmas morning is this wonderful verse of poetry:

While all things were in quiet silence, and that night was in the midst of her swift course,
your almighty Word, O Lord, leaped down out of your royal throne.”

There is something so wonderfully powerful about imagine of the Word “leaping” out of heaven and descending among us.

There is no apprehension in that act of leaping.

There is no holding back.

Rather there is almost an impatience on God’s part to be one with us.

God comes to us in our Gospel reading today not cloaked behind pillars of fire or thunderstorms or wind, as we found God in the Hebrew Bible.

Instead, God appears before us, as one of us.

God’s word, God’s wisdom, God’s Essence leaped down to us and became flesh just as we are flesh.  God’s voice is no longer a booming voice from the sky, demanding sacrifices as find in the Old Testament.  God instead speaks to us as one of us.  And this voice that speaks this Word of God is a familiar one.

We cannot only understand it, but we can embrace it and make it a part of our lives. It continues on in what Jesus still says to us today.  It continues on in the Spirit of Jesus that dwells within us and that speaks in us in our lives.

The Word is among us.  It has leaped down to us, here where we are, on this cold Sunday morning after Christmas.

This Word is spoken every time we carry out what Jesus calls us to do.

The Word leaps out of us when we reach out to those in need.

Whenever we are motivated by the misery around us—when we pray for those who need our prayers, when we reach out to those who need us in any small way we can—that is the Word speaking and leaping forward.

And more than that—that is the Word at work in the world.

So let the Word—that Knowledge and Essence of God—be in us and speak through us.

Let us all be open to that wonderful reality in our lives.

Let our voices be the voice of the Word and Wisdom of God.

Let our lives be loud and proud proclamation of that Word in the world around us.

God’s almighty Word has leaped down to us.

On this First Sunday after Christmas, let us truly rejoice.

Wednesday, December 25, 2019

Christmas Day


December 25, 2019

 + I’m a church geek.

You know how you know I’m a church geek?

Because one of my greatest pleasures in life is doing the Christmas morning Mass.

Yes, I know.

Christmas Eve is beautiful.

Really beautiful.

But Christmas morning.

I don’t know.

It’s just just…something special.

I think that is what Christmas Day is all about.

This sense of it all being just…a bit more holy and complete.

It’s become kind of a Christmas Day tradition for me to share this poems from the great Trappist monk and poet, Thomas Merton. I love it:

Make ready
for the Christ
whose smile,
like lightning
sets free
the Song
of everlasting
glory
that now sleeps
in your paper
flesh like
Dynamite.
Make ready
for the Christ
whose smile,
like lightning
sets free
the Song
of everlasting
glory…

For me, that captures perfectly this strange feeling I have experiencing this morning how I LOVE a Christmas Day mass

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
whose smile,
like lightning
sets free
the Song
of everlasting
glory

When we think long and hard about this day, when we ponder it and let it take hold in our lives, what we realized happened on that day when Jesus was born was not just some mythical story.  

It was not just the birth of a child under dire circumstances, in some distant, exotic land.  

What happened on that day was a joining together—a joining of us and God.

God met us half-way.

God came to us in our darkness, in our blindness, in our fear—and cast a light that destroyed that darkness, that blindness, that fear.

 God didn’t have to do what God did.  

God didn’t have to descend among us and be one of us.

But by doing so, God showed us a remarkable intimacy.

Another quote I share around Christmas on a regular basis is this one from the great Dominican theologian, Meister Ekhart:

“What good is it  if Mary gave birth to the Son of God [two thousand years ago]? I too must give birth to the Son of God in my time, here and now. We are all meant to be the mothers of God. God is always needing to be born.”

I love that quote and I think it’s very true.

That is what we too need to do in our lives.

We too need to give birth to Christ in our own time, here and now, in our own ways.

We need to bring this forgiving, loving, accepting, inclusive Christ to the world in which we live.

We need to be bearers of the Christ, just as Mary was, to those around us.

Right here.

Right now.

We need to be the people through whom God is born again and again in this world.

We need to bring God into reality in this world again and again.

Why?

Because God is a God of love.

Because we are loved by God.

Because we are accepted by God.

Because we are—each of us—important to God.

We are, each of us, very important to God.

Each of us.

And because we are, we must love others.

We must give birth to our God so others can know this amazing love as well.

Knowing this amazing love of God changes everything.

When we realize that God knows us as individuals.

That God loves us and accepts each of us for who we are, we are joyful.

We are hopeful of our future with that God.

And we want to share this love and this God with others.

That is what we are celebrating this morning.

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.

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.

This is why we are rushing toward our Savior who has come to visit us in what we once thought was our barrenness.

Let the hope we feel today as God our Savior, who comes to us in this Child,  draws close to us stay with us now and always.

Let the joy we feel tonight as God our Friend comes to us in love be the motivating force in how we live our lives throughout this coming year.

God is here.

God is in our midst today.

God is so near, our very bodies and souls are rejoicing.

And God loves us.

My mother’s favorite poet was the great Anglican poet Christina Rosetti.

We, in the Anglican tradition, get to hear from Rosetti quite often in this Christmas season.

She was able to sum up this whole season so perfectly and eloquently:

 Love came down at Christmas,
love, all lovely, love divine;
love was born at Christmas:
star and angels gave the sign.

That is what we are experiencing this day.

Love came down.

Love became flesh and blood.

Love became human.

And in the face of that realization, we are rejoicing today.

We are rejoicing in that love personified.

We are rejoicing in each other.  

We are rejoicing in the glorious beauty of this one holy moment in time.


Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Christmas Eve


December 24, 2019


+ Most of us, throughout our lives, find ourselves clinging to life’s little pleasures.

Occasionally, something fills us with such joy and happiness, that we find ourselves just wanting to savor that moment, cling to it, hope it will never end.

They don’t happen often.

And we can’t make those moments happen by own concentrated will, even if we try really hard.

Even more often, we don’t ask for those special moments.

They just happen when they’re meant to happen and sometimes they come upon us as a wonderful surprise.

Now, having said this, I’m going to admit something to you that will come as no surprise I’m sure.

I really am a church geek.

I love being in church.

I always have.

And the best times to be in church were 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 on this night.

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.

Well, maybe not tomorrow with a blizzard, but you know what I’m getting at…

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 I am looking forward to celebrating the Eucharist right here.

I also understand the tendency we all have of getting caught up in society’s celebration of Christmas.

It’s easy to find ourselves getting a bit hypnotized by the glitz and glamour we see about us.

I admit I enjoy some of those sparkly Christmas displays.

I understand how easy it is to fall to the temptations of what the world tells us is Christmas.

But what I think happens to most of us who enjoy those light and airy aspects of Christmas is that we often get so caught up in them, we start finding ourselves led astray into a kind of frivolousness about Christmas.

We find ourselves led off into a place where Christmas becomes fluffy and saccharine and cartoonish.

Christmas becomes a kind of billboard.

That, I think, is what we experience in the secular understanding of Christmas time.

The glitz and the glamour of the consumer-driven Christmas can be visually stunning.

It can capture our imagination with its blinking lights and its bright wrapping,

But ultimately it promises something that it can’t deliver.

It promises a joy and a happiness it really doesn’t have.

It has gloss.

It has glitter.

It has a soft, fuzzy glow.

But it doesn’t have real joy.

The Christmas we celebrate here tonight, in this church, up here in northeast Fargo, is a Christmas of real joy.

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 is not a frivolous one.

It is not a light, airy Christmas.

Yes, it has a baby.

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.

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.

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 changes us.

For people sitting 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 is sobering.

That is what Jesus does to 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 today, 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, is a joy that promises us something.

It is a teaser 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 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.

Tonight, is one of those moments in which true joy and gladness have come upon us.

That’s what makes this a holy time.

So, let us cling to this holy moment.

Let us savor it.

Let us hold it close.

Let us pray that it will not end.

And let this joy you feel tonight be the strength that holds you up when you need to be held.

Tonight, God has reached out to us.

God has touched us.

God has grasped our hands.

Our hands have been laid on God’s heart.

This is what Christmas is all about.

God is here, among us.

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.

And this joy that we are feeling is because the Light that has come to us will never, ever darken.









Sunday, December 15, 2019

3 Advent


(Gaudete Sunday)

Isaiah 35.1-10; James 5.7-10; Matthew 11.2-11


+ Today, of course, is special Sunday. (Every Sunday is a special Sunday)  Only twice in the Church year do we get to “go rose.”

Today is Gaudete Sunday.  Today we light our pink candle on the Advent wreath in honor of the Blessed Virgin Mary. And we wear these rose vestments because it’s an important day.   

Today, in the midst of the blue season of Advent, we get to rejoice—or rather rejoice a little louder than usual.

Gaudete means “Rejoice.”

We also get to “go rose” in Lent in Laetare Sunday. I love these Rose Sundays!

But for now, we are here, on this Sunday.   And it’s very appropriate that we are rejoicing on this Sunday.

As we draw closer and closer to Jesus’ birth, we find ourselves with that strange, wonderful emotion in our hearts—joy.  Real, living joy.  After all, we feel real joy when we think about the birth of Jesus, and all that that birth means to us.

It is a time to rejoice.  It is a time to be anxious (in a good way) and excited over the fact that, in just a few week’s time, we will be celebrating God coming to us.

Or, as St. James says in our Epistle reading this morning: “Be patient, therefore, beloved, until the coming of the Lord,” and then goes on to explain how farmers wait patiently for their precious crops.

We are like farmers waiting patiently for the seeds of our faith to grow and blossom.

“Strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near.”

Certainly, so far in the season of Advent, we have been doing just that.

We have been waiting.

We have been praying.

Two weeks ago in my sermon, I mentioned that when we pray that prayer, “Lord Jesus, come quickly” what we are praying for is that Jesus will actually come to us.

That has been our prayer and continues to be our prayer in Advent.

However…I hate to be this person.  On the surface, doesn’t all of this seem kind of…dare I say? Fluffy and precious? I mean, here we are on this Sunday, with our pink paraments, lighting a pink candle, praying a seemingly sweet and precious and overly simple prayer?

Appearances are important, after all.

On the surface, it seems we are not really embodying the spirit of what we experience in our Gospel reading for today.

There we find Jesus discussing St. John the Baptist.  There is nothing fluffy or frivolous about John the Baptist.  He seems to me kind of like a wild man, out there in the desert in his clothes made from animal hides (that man was no vegan!), shouting about the coming of the Kingdom.

If he was here this morning, at St. Stephen’s, my reaction would be: He is not going to like all these rose vestments.

So, when Jesus asks the crowds, “What did you go out in the wilderness to look at?”

Did they go out to see a reed shaken by the wind?  Or someone dressed in soft robes? Did they go out to see something soft and frivolous?  No, they went out to see a prophet.

So, are we, this morning, not living yp to our ideals as prophets by decking ourselves in these rose vestments?  Are we proving to our critics that we are just flash and no substance?

Awww, that’s what I love about Gaudete Sunday.

Let me tell you, appearances can be deceiving.

Here, at St. Stephen’s, we find something else on this Gaudete Sunday.  Yes, it may see all pink and rosy this morning.

But what we see is exactly what those crowds in our Gospel reading were looking for.

We, this morning, are a community of prophets.

We are proclaiming the coming of the Lord.

We do it in our ministries we do here.

We do in the witness we make in this world.

We do it in our welcoming and including of all people—no matter who they are—within these walls.

And sometimes doing that means that people will look down on us.

Sometimes people will look down on us for being welcoming, for being inclusive, for being this strange, unique place we are here.

Nope, we don’t get huge crowds of hundreds of people here that some of the bigger Lutheran and Roman Catholic congregations get.

Nope, we don’t have all the flash and band of those churches.

Nope, we don’t have bands playing pop hymns or screens overhead.

Nope, we’re not here for entertainment value.

Nor was John the Baptist in the wilderness.

People didn’t go out there to be entertained by the Baptist.

He didn’t customize what he said to suit the crowds.

But look what we do have!

We have Jesus in the Holy Eucharist!

We have real worship of a real, living God!

We have true Catholic worship and true evangelical preaching and substance.

But, I will repeat to you what Jesus asked the crowd: “What did you expect?”

After all, we are not reeds shaken by the wind.

Being prophets, proclaiming the way of the Lord, is hard. It’s hard, yes, being on the forefront, being different, being prophets.  

But it’s not impossible.

We are safe on this journey, because, I can tell you, we know that our pathway is safe.

Those images we find in our reading today from Isaiah speak loud and clear to where we have been and where we are going as we follow the path of Jesus.

“A highway shall be there,” we hear Isaiah say,
“And it shall be called the Holy Way…
It shall be for God’s people…
No traveler, not even fools, shall go astray.”

This path we walk is the right path for us. We have remained committed to our path and to our vocation as prophets, even when it all seems overwhelming.

Over and over again, we have found that our weak hands been strengthened and our feeble knees have been made firm. When our hearts have been fearful, you have it heard proclaimed within these walls, again and again,

“Be strong, do not fear!”

We know that our God will come with vengeance, with “terrible recompense.”

Our God, we know as prophets, will come and save us.

And our pathway will be made straight.

This is why we rejoice on this Gaudete Sunday.

Whenever we have doubted the path on which we talk, whenever we are tempted to stray from the road, our God who is coming to us nudges us forward toward the goal.

That is why we rejoice on this beautiful rose-colored Sunday!

So…rejoice today.

I say it,  Rejoice!

We are following the right path.

We doing the right thing.

We at Stephen’s are making a difference in people’s lives, and will continue to do so.

That is why we are out here in the wilderness, (or up here in Northeast Farg0) proclaiming God’s coming among us.

Let us continue forward.

Let us set our sights on our goals.

And let us move forward.

And let us know, as we journey, that “everlasting joy” will be on our heads.

We shall obtain joy and gladness in our lives.

And we will rejoice—we will REJOICE!—because sorrow and sighing shall flee away.