Category Archives: Church Seasons & Holy Days

Christmas Eve Sermon (9pm)

The holy occasion we celebrate tonight has several names:Christmas, from the words Christ plus Mass, or Eucharist. The Feast of the Nativity, from the Latin word nativitas, birth. And the Feast of the Incarnation – from the word Incarnate: to make flesh, to take on a body. That’s my favorite way to name this day, because it says why it matters. It’s not just a birth; it’s not just an occasion for worship; but a world-changing theological event: God became human. 

The Carn- in incarnate is the same word as in chili con carne: Meat. The Feast of the Incarnation: When the God who was before Creation, who encompasses and knows all that is, when that God became meat – in a newborn baby boy, the child of poor and ordinary parents – born in such awkward and inconvenient circumstances that his first cradle is an animal’s feeding trough. 

The poet Amit Majmudar has a wonderful poem called Incarnation that invites us to imagine divinity taking human form in concrete anatomical detail:

“Inheart yourself, immensity. Immarrow, 

Embone, enrib yourself… Enmeat 

Yourself so we can rise onto our feet 

And meet…”

A Lenten hymn from the Orthodox tradition says, “The Unapproachable became human, approachable by all, walking among us, and hearing from all, Alleluia.”

Immensity, eternity, mystery and grace, robed in flesh – the Transcendent and Immortal become finite and tangible. Hail the incarnate Deity! It’s a rich and wonderful paradox to ponder. But … why does it matter? 

Western Christianity has put a lot of emphasis on the cross, on Jesus’ willingness to die to show us the depth of God’s love, as the great redemptive moment in the Christian story. But the Eastern churches, the Orthodox, in wisdom, see the Incarnation, Crucifixion and Resurrection all as deeply interconnected. In her book Light upon Light, Sarah Arthur writes, “For Eastern churches, the Incarnation itself is what saves us; the Cross and Resurrection are merely part of a larger whole. When a holy God touched a corrupt humanity, God’s goodness reversed our corruption, restored us to holiness. We were like a basket of rotten apples coming into contact with one good apple: not only did the good apple retain its essential goodness, but it also reversed the decay of all the rest.” (13)

If thinking of humanity as a basket of rotten apples doesn’t sit well with you, some Orthodox theologians say that even if humankind hadn’t fallen so far from God’s dream for us – even if we hadn’t been mired in violence and need – God would STILL have become human, come to live among us – out of love. 

Just to be closer to us. Just to show us how much we matter to the heart of the Divine. Just to remind us that we are made in God’s image, beloved children, always and forever.  The poet Gerard Manley Hopkins says, “I am all at once what Christ is, since he was what I am, And this jack, joke, poor potsherd, patch, matchwood,… Is immortal diamond.” 

One good apple restoring the whole rotten basket… the opposite of what we expect, what we’ve learned from our produce bins. The opposite, too, of so many toxic and fearful theologies, that seek to purify and punish their way to holiness. 

What if we took seriously the idea that holiness is contagious? That divine grace is robust, not fragile? That in this birth on this long-ago night, something was accomplished, something begun, that changed reality – even if the ripples of that great change are still playing out 2000 years later? How would we live if we believed that good is contagious? That love wins? Has already won?

Let me tell you a story. Some of you remember the time of Apartheid, in South Africa. I remember hearing about it as a child and teen. Apartheid was a brutal system of racial segregation, involving minority rule by white South Africans – those of European descent – and sharply limited opportunities for work, freedom of movement, and political participation for black South Africans, those whose ancestors were native to the land. 

A system so unjust cannot last forever. In the 1980s, other nations were increasingly pressuring the South African government to end apartheid, and a growing resistance movement within the country as well. There were bigger and bigger protests – some of them led by the Anglican bishop of Johannesburg, a small, lively man with a ready smile named Desmond Tutu. Tutu was the first black African to hold that role in our sister church in South Africa – likewise the role of Archbishop of Capetown, which he held beginning in 1986.  

The anti-apartheid protests were not welcomed by the government. Police used tear gas, water cannons, and bullets to disperse protesters. Many angry young men were killed in clashes with security forces; Tutu preached at some of their funerals, gathering crowds of thousands. 

In August of 1989, in the face of harsh repression of protests, Tutu announced that he’d hold a church service instead – an Ecumenical Defiance Service, held at St. George’s Cathedral in Cape Town. Thousands of South Africans came to sing and pray for justice and freedom – and hundreds of police came too, surrounding the cathedral in a show of military intimidation.

When Archbishop Tutu began to preach, military police entered the cathedral, lining the walls, rifles in hand. I can’t even imagine that – speaking God’s words of hope and liberation, while looking out at armed men full of hate and fear. But Tutu knew that love wins. That holiness and goodness are contagious. At one point in his sermon, he came down from the pulpit and addressed the police directly.

He said, “You are very powerful, but you are not Gods and I serve a God who cannot be mocked. So, since you have already lost” – he tells the men holding big guns – “Since you have already lost, I invite you come and join the winning side. Come join the winning side.” Immediately, the congregation erupted into song and dance.

Tutu was arrested, after church. But he was right about the winning side. By 1992, Apartheid had ended. In 1994, Nelson Mandela was elected president in an election for all South Africans. 

The Feast of the Incarnation: When the God who was before Creation, who encompasses and knows all that is, when that God became flesh in a newborn baby boy. Why does it matter? Because Eternity, Immensity, Mystery, loves us enough to come and meet us – come be meat with us. Incarnate. Because it shows us that we are immortal diamond, and boundlessly beloved. Because it means that even in the face of terrible events and human cruelty, even when things seem most bitter and broken, we can face it with courage, with hope. Because Love wins. Love has already won. 

 

 

Some sources… 

The story about Tutu (with added details from other research): 

https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3898

Hopkins’ poem:

https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/44397/that-nature-is-a-heraclitean-fire-and-of-the-comfort-of-the-resurrection 

Orthodox Lenten prayer quoted from here: 

https://blogs.ancientfaith.com/orthodoxbridge/taking-the-incarnation-seriously/

Majmudar’s poem and Arthur’s description of Eastern teaching about the Incarnation both come from Arthur’s book Light upon Light: A Literary Guide to Prayer for Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany (Paraclete Press, 2014). 

Sermon, Dec. 16

This morning I’d like to introduce you to Luke. Our Sunday Scripture readings come to us from a cycle of readings shared by many churches, called the Revised Common Lectionary or RCL. It’s a three-year cycle, and each year we mostly use one of the Gospels, the four books of the Bible that tell the story of Jesus’ life, teachings, death, and resurrection. Year A is Matthew, Year B is Mark, and Year C, which we’re three weeks into, is Luke.  (John doesn’t get his own year but we get bits of John throughout the cycle.) 

The Gospels are fascinating in their differences and similarities. Back in seminary, one professor had us read just the first verse of each Gospel – to show that you can get a pretty good sense of their different voices from even that small a sample. Similarly, some of you saw a wonderful proposal from a friend that I shared on Facebook: that churches should have four different Christmas pageants based on what each of the four Gospels say (or don’t say) about the birth of Jesus.

So here’s a quick overview of each Gospel’s voice – and what their Christmas pageant would look like. Mark, the earliest written Gospel, tells you what he’s going to tell you: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” (Mark 1:1.) Then Mark dives right into John’s preaching at the Jordan. Mark’s Christmas pageant: dead silence, then a ragged man jumping out shouting REPENT! 

Matthew is deeply interested in how Jesus fulfills Jewish history and prophesy. His Gospel begins, “An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham.” A Matthew-based pageant would have to start with a historical lecture on every person named in Jesus’ genealogy. John’s gospel begins with theological poetry, beautiful and paradoxical, and pretty much goes on that way: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” John’s Christmas pageant would involve children running around in the dark with glow sticks…

And then we have our friend Luke. Here are the first four verses of Luke’s Gospel: “Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed.” (Luke 1:1-4) 

Doesn’t that give you a strong sense of personality, right out of the gate?Someone wordy, maybe a little fussy and a little self-important, but also lovable? Luke casts himself as a historian, the one who’s going to actually offer a coherent, clear account of all these important events. Theophilus may have been a real person, but I find it more likely that the name – which means “God-lover” – is kind of a stand-in for anyone seeking God. Perhaps Luke has Gentiles, non-Jews, especially in mind – note that Luke explains Jewish customs, like John’s father Zechariah taking his turn serving in the Temple. 

Unlike the other gospels, Luke has a sequel – the book of Acts, written by the same author, which tells the story of the first Christians after Jesus’ death, resurrection and ascension. From clues in the text, we can tell that Luke was educated and probably a city-dweller – but he also cared deeply for the poor, the sick, and those at the margins, including women. (Somebody a lot like many St Dunstan’s folks, in other words.) There’s even a semi-serious theory that the author we know as Luke may have been a woman. 

The Gospel of Luke was written in the late first century, but used older sources, including the gospel of Mark, the earliest of the four Gospels; the Q source, a lost document containing sayings and teachings of Jesus, which Luke and Matthew both used; and what scholars call the “L Source” – which basically means the stuff in Luke that’s not found anywhere else. That includes basically all of the first two chapters of Luke. So Luke’s Christmas pageant would include most of the usual stuff – except the three Kings or wise men; they’re in Matthew. 

Each of the four Gospels has a distinctive voice and particular themes or hallmarks that emerge, as they tell the story of Jesus. One of Luke’s hallmarks is his interest in the intersection of the cosmic and the concrete. The fulfillment of the great prophetic promises in a particular time and place, in the lives of real, ordinary people. Each of the first three chapters of his Gospel begins with anchoring events in history: Luke 1 begins, “In the days of King Herod of Judea…” Luke 2, the beloved Christmas Gospel, names Emperor Augustus and Quirinius, governor of Syria. And Luke 3 starts with another list of officials. This is the opposite of “Once upon a time” or “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.” Luke wants us to know that these were real events that happened at a particular time, in a particular place. 

But the events, to be sure, transcend human history. Alongside his historical bent, Luke is deeply immersed in the Hebrew Scriptures and their promises and prophesies. He’s looking for those big themes of restoration and redemption, liberation and peace, to come to fruition in the concrete here and now. 

Another hallmark of Luke’s account is that the Gospel shows up at the margins, the edges instead of the center. The good news of God’s love gets proclaimed and manifest among the least, last, and lowly. Luke shows us divine grace among the poor, the sick, the powerless and scorned. He expects God to be at work there – both for the good of those at the margins, and also for the greater good of the whole. For Luke, the Gospel, the good news of God’s saving love, is preached to those at the fringes of society – and FROM those fringes, as well. 

The cosmic in the concrete; and the Gospel at the margins. Let’s look at how those hallmarks show up in today’s texts. In today’s liturgy we receive an interrupted chunk of Luke’s text, focused on the figure of John the Baptist. Our Gospel story covers John’s birth, and we read/chanted the Benedictus, Zechariah’s prophetic song of joy for his son. The text concludes, “The child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day he appeared publicly to Israel.” 

Then we cut away to the story of Jesus’ birth and childhood, in Luke chapter 2 – then cut back to find John thirty years older and still hanging out in the wilderness. He’s begun to fulfill the mission laid out for him since before his conception, to be the Messenger, the Voice, the Forerunner. As the angel told his father in the temple, promising his birth: “He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God, and make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”  And as Zechariah sang to his infant son, “You, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;  for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways.” 

 

In these texts, do we see the cosmic erupting into the concrete? Absolutely. The concrete jumps off the page in that list of names of public officials: “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.”

In her sermon on this text, Megan Castellan wrote, “For Luke’s early hearers, hearing that list… would have felt like reading the CNN headline crawl for us:  a similar sort of constant bad news, and constant disappointment in the state of things.  Recall that these weren’t popular leaders: Herod was known to be paranoid… and prone to narcissistic rages.  Pilate was fond of violent crackdowns on the local populace. The temple leaders were fine, maybe, but you couldn’t expect much from them.  There was a reason people felt hopeless…  [And] it’s in this specifically hopeless situation that God comes, and says ‘prepare the way.’  Not once upon a time… but into this definite place, populated with these specific broken people, and their problems.”

Luke balances these concrete historical details with rich metaphoric texts that draw on the poetic language of the prophets – specifically the book of Isaiah. Zechariah’s song to his newborn son draws on Isaiah chapter 60, which we sing in Epiphany: “Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has dawned upon you! For behold, darkness covers the land, deep gloom enshrouds the peoples; but over you the Lord will rise!” For Zechariah, for Luke, the birth of this baby – and of another baby, his cousin – inaugurate the age when these great, ancient promises will be fulfilled. 

And when we turn the corner to John’s adulthood, Luke quotes Isaiah chapter 40. Matthew and Mark both use the same Isaiah text to describe John: “The voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord.’” But Luke extends the quotation: Every valley shall be exalted, the lofty hills brought low; and all flesh shall see God’s redemption! God’s redemption for all people – beginning here, and now, with this ragged man standing beside a muddy river, telling a motley crowd of the desperate and the curious that God is about to do a new thing. 

What about Luke’s other hallmark, the Gospel at the margins? There’s much more of that ahead in Luke; our best example here is in the figure of John himself. Look back at that list of names: Tiberius, Pilate, Herod, Annas and Caiaphas – important people, powerful people – but the word of God comes to John, in the wilderness. 

Remember: John comes from a respectable family, probably middle-class by the standards of the time. Zechariah, his father, was part of the hereditary priesthood of the great Temple, established during King David’s reign. And John’s mother was of Aaron’s lineage – Aaron, the brother of Moses, the very first priest of Israel’s God, who served in the tabernacle in the wilderness after God’s people escaped from bondage in Egypt. 

When John’s parents were given the divine message that their son would be a prophet of God’s salvation, they might well have assumed that he would fulfill that vocation within the religious hierarchy, as a priest, like his daddy. I wonder what they thought when instead of fulfilling his birthright by going to seminary and getting ordained and wearing fancy vestments, John, their only child, spends all his time in the rocky Judean desert, wears a camelskin tunic, and eats whatever he can find – wild honey and grasshoppers. I’m sure they treasured his faithfulness to God’s call – but they were probably perplexed and possibly dismayed by the way he lived it out.

John started his life in the center, and chose the margins – walked right out of the machinery, like so many following a holy call, over the millennia. He knows – even as a child, it seems – that the message deep in his bones cannot be spoken from the Temple. His words are wilderness words. The Gospel of the margins. 

When I’m writing a sermon, I try to have some kind of a “So what”. Something that has a chance of reaching this text, this room, this fifteen minutes. What’s the “so what” here, Miranda? Well, we’ll be hearing texts from Luke’s Gospel for a while, nearly a year – and some from Acts as well, in Easter season. So we can remember and notice these hallmarks of Luke’s account, his understanding of what this Jesus thing is all about: the cosmic in the concrete; the Gospel at the margins. It’s worthwhile and rewarding to come to a deeper understanding of the different voices of our four Gospels, and how, together, they give us a rich, complex picture of Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God. 

It’s worthwhile and rewarding – but it’s not the point. Or at least, it’s a means, not an end. The goal of church is not to make informed readers of Scripture. The goal of church is to make Christians. People who, in the words of one of our Advent prayers, hold the great hope that God’s kingdom of mercy, justice, and love, made known to us through Jesus Christ, shall come on earth; who seek the signs of its dawning, and orient our work and our lives towards that perfect Day. 

The cosmic in the concrete; the Gospel at the margins – Luke makes these things the hallmarks of his Gospel because this is how he has come to understand God. They’re not just things to look for in Luke; they’re things to look for in life. Where are God’s promises coming to fruition today? Where are restoration and redemption, liberation and peace, being born, even among the broken and the hopeless? Where is the Gospel being spoken at the margins today? Who standing far outside the halls of power, speaking God’s hope, God’s love, God’s call to new life? Where is dawn breaking? Even here? Even now? 

Credit to Scott Gunn for the Gospel-specific Christmas pageant idea. 

Megan Castellan’s sermon may be read in full here:

https://redshoesfunnyshirt.com/2018/12/10/whos-who-in-the-ancient-world/

Sermon, Dec. 9

I’m going to explain the shape of the church’s year, and I need a couple of helpers. … See? The church’s seasons make a circle. This circle represents one calendar year. But there are bigger circles too, of course – seasons that come around in our lives, and in the life of the world. Some wise folk say that time is not a circle but a spiral: we move through similar times and seasons, but we’re different each time, because there’s greater movement too; our lives, individually or as a species, are not static, flat. We change; we are different at 50 than we were at 30; we are different in 2018 than we were in 1018. And yet we’re probably less different than we think we are. There are always echoes and resonances; past, present, and future intertwine and tangle. 

For a lot of us, church is probably one of the main places in our lives where we spend time with, you know, old stuff. Stories and symbols and images that are 1000, 2000, 3000 years old. Showing up here is, among other things, a vote that the old stuff still matters somehow, still speaks, still holds truth. (Believe me: There are many people who find this a very odd point of view!)

Fundamentally, of course, we’re here because we believe, or want to believe, that Jesus is the Son of God, and that the things he said and did tell the truth about God’s love for humanity. But there are Christians who spend a lot less time with all this old stuff – for whom ancient texts and traditions are much less central to their worship and practice. 

It’s one of the hallmarks of the kind of Christian we are, we Anglicans, shared with the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches: we take seriously what we have received from our forebears in faith, all the way back.  We expect the ancient to come alive in the present and guide us into the future. Why? Well – I think often of a study I read a couple of years ago showing that families that tell and re-tell stories of past struggle, survival, and success are more resilient in the face of difficult times in the present. Our ancestors’ perseverance encourages and strengthens us. That’s certainly one of the things we do, as a church family. 

But I believe that the way our sacred past works in us is more than psychological; it’s mystical as well. Sometimes the past simply sings within us, among us.  Sometimes the saints and holy ones stir up in us their courage, compassion, eloquence, endurance, humility, fury. If we believe – or want to believe – that more exists than we can see, measure, or prove, then all the “old stuff” we tend and treasure, our scriptures, songs, habits and symbols, are not just antiques but talismans, objects of power that might suddenly turn out to glow in the presence of evil, or to unlock a hidden door that advances our quest. 

One of the ways we carry the past into the present and future is by naming and celebrating holy days. When we set aside a holy day, we’re saying: This is worth remembering. This is worth passing down. This week, this second week of December, is rich in holy days. Let’s look at them together. 

The first one isn’t ours: Chanukkah, a Jewish festival observed from December 3 through 10, this year. But in a quirk of the lectionary, one of our texts today points towards Channukah: Baruch. The book of Baruch is part of the Apocrypha, books written later than most of the Old Testament, not long before Jesus’ time. They have sort of a “secondary Scripture” status for many Christians, but there’s lots of good stuff in there. Baruch was the assistant of the prophet Jeremiah, who lived in Jerusalem in the sixth century before Christ, at the time of the Babylonian conquest. The book of Baruch claims to be the words of Baruch, writing words of rebuke and encouragement to Jews in exile in Babylon. But the book of Baruch actually dates from several centuries later. It’s possible that fragments of older texts were used; but writing texts that borrow and expand the voice of older Scripture texts was common in the centuries just before Jesus’ time, and the book of Baruch fits that pattern. 

Some scholars think that Baruch was actually written around the time of the Maccabean revolt – a military revolt against foreign rule which was also a forceful movement against the encroachment of Greek culture in Judea, and for the return to the old ways of the Jewish people, both cultural and religious. Judas Maccabeus and his guerrilla forces fought back the armies of the Seleucid Empire, ritually cleansed the Great Temple and re-established traditional Jewish worship there. The festival of Chanukkah celebrates the re-dedication of the Temple. (The story about the oil came along later.) The message that Baruch might have had for Jews in exile in the 6th century before Christ, would have felt urgent and relevant for Jews in Judea in the second century before Christ: 

Repent! Forsake other gods! Pray for mercy! If you had walked in the way of God, says Baruch, you would be living in peace for ever. Learn where there is wisdom, where there is strength; where there is length of days, and life, and peace. 

This nameless second-century author turns to the past to find inspiration for what the present demands, writes this beautiful prophetic poetry that speaks to the people and the times, and attributes it to the long-dead Baruch. Who am I to call it a lie? Prophesy is a mystery, and time is full of tangles and echoes. Sometimes the past sings in us. 

The second feast this week isn’t exactly ours, though maybe it’s becoming more so: the feast of the Virgen de Guadalupe. Five hundred years ago, just as King Henry VIII was beginning to think about a church independent from Rome, a native Mexican farmer named Juan Deigo was working in a field outside Mexico City, a place called Tepeyac Hill, when he saw a vision of a beautiful young woman who poke to him in his native language, told him that she was the mother of the true God, and asked him to build a church there in her honor. The bishop was skeptical, but the Virgin kept appearing to Juan. Finally, thanks to miracles like the appearance of roses on Tepeyac Hill, Juan Diego’s vision was accepted as a true theophany, an encounter with the divine. Many native Mexicans became Christian because of Maria de Guadalupe – who was THEIR Mary, not a Spanish import, but God’s Mother come to them on their own soil. Over the centuries she has become a powerful symbol of Mexican faith, unity, and freedom. 

Do I believe it? I wouldn’t presume to disbelieve. I put no boundaries on the One called to wrap God in flesh. And why shouldn’t a poor, small-town, brown-skinned person like Mary choose to transcend fifteen hundred years of history to share the grace of her presence with a poor, small-town, brown-skinned person like Juan Diego? Time is flexible, in the domain of faith, of the Divine. The past can manifest in the present, and shape and bless the future. If you’d like to honor the Virgin today, take a rose and place it at her feet sometime during our worship. We have some prayer cards there as well. 

The third feast day this week is ours, though it always sneaks up on me: the feast day of St. Nicholas, a few days ago on the 6th. My strongest association with Nicholas is the cookies my mother used to make, every December. Their base was a wedge of sturdy, not-very-sweet gingerbread; the frosting of Nicholas’ read cope and mitre were colored with beet juice, because my little brother was sensitive to red dye. I loved them, as a child, but I remember friends trying them and being… nonplused. My mother’s Nicholases were more of a grownup cookie – and that fits, because Nicholas is kind of a grownup saint. 

Nicholas was a bishop, in what is now part of Turkey, back in the third century – seventeen hundred years ago. He’s remembered in many stories that are, like my mother’s cookies, nourishing but not particularly sweet. In one story, three boys on a journey stop at an inn. The innkeeper robs them, kills them, chops them up, and puts them in a pickle barrel. Nicholas, stopping by the inn, discerns the boys’ plight and resurrects them. 

In another story, Nicholas, walking the streets of his city by night, hears parents grieving: they are so poor they cannot afford to help their daughter marry, and she is doomed to a life of prostitution. Nicholas tosses a bag of gold coins down the smoke hole in the roof of their humble home – the ancient origin of the presents-down-the-chimney myth. And then there’s the story of the time Nicholas attended the Council of Nicaea, the great 3rd-century gathering of church leaders to hammer out what the church actually believed. There was a great debate with a man named Arius and his followers, who thought that Jesus was not fully one with God, not fully divine. It is said that Nicholas was so impatient with Arius’ heretical views that he slapped him – and was sent to Bishop Jail as a result. 

Dead children, vulnerable women, slapping heretics – No wonder we collectively opted for Santa Claus, instead of this cranky bishop whose life and deeds were a little too gritty. But which do we really need – a supernaturally-jolly elf who engages in invasive surveillance and  behavior control, and who replicates the dynamics of capitalism by bringing the best gifts to the most affluent kids? Or a saint, a man of God, who walked the poorest streets of his city, listening to the people’s cries of anguish? Who strove to help women in poverty, children touched by violence; and who stood up fiercely for his convictions? The pile of gifts we’re sending to families served by Middleton Outreach Ministry this year shows that the spirit of Nicholas is at work among us already. May that fierce and compassionate saint continue to inspire our generosity and our courage. 

Time is messy for church folks. Out there the calendar marches onward, linear and one-directional: 2018 will soon give way to 2019, and 2020 after that. A revolt from 2300 years ago – a saint who served his city 1700 years ago – a mother who lived and died 2000 years ago, only to show up on a new continent 500 years ago – it’s all distant past, long dead and dusty. But here, time circles and doubles back. There are echoes, resonances, and sometimes resurrections. What has happened, what is happening, what will happen, tangle and overlap. 

Which brings us to the Magnificat. Mary’s bold song of praise, rightly beloved by generations of Christians: My soul proclaims the greatness of God! My spirit rejoices in God my savior! For You have shown the strength of your arm, you have scattered the proud in their conceit. You have cast down the mighty from their thrones, and have lifted up the lowly. Later we’ll sing Rory Cooney’s song based on this text, the Canticle of the Turning, which many of us have come to love in the years we’ve been singing it. In the song, the poet has made God’s actions into future events. That makes sense – since we still wait to see these things finally, fully completed.

But in the Scripture text, Mary doesn’t speak of the future. She uses the present perfect tense: God has filled, has pulled down, has sent away. The tense indicates completion, something already brought to fulfillment.   

Mary wasn’t naive – nor was Luke, who offers us her words. They lived in times more violent, more broken, than ours. These faith-ancestors of ours were under no illusions that God had already fixed the world, once and for all. Yet Luke’s Mary has the audacity to say: God has acted. God’s future is present. Barbara Brown Taylor, writing about the Magnificat, says, “Prophets almost never get their verb tenses straight, because part of their gift is being able to see the world as God sees it – not divided into things that are already over and things that have not happened yet, but as an eternally unfolding mystery that surprises everyone.” (in Home By Another Road) 

What will happen is, somehow, happening now; has, somehow, already happened. Mary sings of a world in which God’s justice already reigns, in which Love has already, finally, won. That’s not the world I see, when I look around. And yet it doesn’t feel to me that Mary is wrong. It feels instead like time folding in on itself, future fulfillment overflowing the past, flooding the present. Time isn’t a line; time isn’t a circle; time is a glorious, complex, mysterious spiraling knot, in which a 2000-year old song strengthens us for the work of this moment, in which saints of old march and pray and struggle and give and sing beside us and within us. 

We spend our days uneasily suspended between God’s promises made and God’s promises kept; in this puzzling difficult unsatisfying in-between time, after the first coming at Bethlehem, before the second coming in glory. That’s the energy behind the most fundamental prayer of Advent, the thing we say again and again and again in these weeks, the prayer that folds time: past, the promised babe, future, the King coming in glory, and now, the urgent holy present; the prayer that gives voice to our yearning and our hope, our disappointment and our faith:  Come, Lord Jesus. O come, o come, Emmanuel, God with us. Come. 

Sermon, Dec. 2

Advent is a season in the church’s year – the season of preparing for Christmas, the feast of the Incarnation. But Advent is more than a season. Advent is also a practice. A practice is something you do because you want to become what the practice will make you. Someone who’s good at soccer, or piano, or hula hooping, or mindfulness. If you want to get better at something, you practice regularly.

The Church practices Advent for four Sundays every year. And we invite people to practice it at home, too, for about a month, lighting the candles, saying the prayers. We dwell with the songs and prayers and readings that are full of hope and warning, intertwined. That point towards ending, loss, and renewal. 

A practice is something you do because you want to become what the practice will make you. What does the practice of Advent make us? I think Advent is supposed to make us people who are not shattered by the idea that everything will change. People who expect God to be at work even in terrifying times. Jesus says, When you see terrible things happening, things that make it feel like the world is about to end, stand up straight. Lift up your head. Keep your eyes peeled for redemption – God’s purposes erupting into human reality. 

Because even among the flames – even among the ashes – there is purpose. There is grace. 

Jeremiah, the source of one of our readings today, lived in the last days of Jerusalem, before it was torn down and burned by the invading armies of Babylon, about six hundred years before Jesus’ birth. God called Jeremiah as a prophet, to speak God’s words to the leaders and people of Jerusalem and Judea. Jeremiah told them, You have turned from the ways of holiness and justice, to which God called your ancestors.  You are neither worshiping God, nor treating each other right. Instead, there is injustice, cruelty, and corruption. The wealthy have taken their own neighbors as slaves, because of their poverty; and when the Law of God commanded them to set them free, they released them – then turned around and brought them again into subjection as slaves. (Jeremiah 34)

Jeremiah says, In the past, when you followed God’s ways, you were strong. Now, with corrupt leaders and suffering people, you are weak. Your doom is at the threshold. 

Jeremiah’s prophetic warnings were true – and unwelcome. The powerful and comfortable did not want to hear it.  Jeremiah was beaten and imprisoned. He was thrown into an underground cistern, a water storage chamber, to starve to death – but someone rescued him. At one point, God told Jeremiah: Look, maybe if you write all My prophesies on a scroll, and take that to the King, and he sees it all in black and white, he will pay attention and repent. So Jeremiah’s helper Baruch wrote it all down on a scroll, and took it to the officials of the King’s court. They read the scroll and said, This is terrible! We must take this to the King! And they took it to the king, and read it to him. And as they read it, every time they finished reading part of the scroll, the king cut it off with his knife, and burned it. 

But Jeremiah was right. Jerusalem was destroyed. Many people died. Others were taken into exile, to live as outsiders in Babylon. They learned, there, that even though the Temple they thought was God’s house was in ruins, even though they were far from their homeland, God was still with them. 

Eventually they were sent home; Jerusalem was rebuilt; the great Temple was grander than ever. And six hundred years after Jeremiah’s time, Jesus looks out on Jerusalem – Jerusalem, the city that murders the prophets whom God sends with warnings! – Jesus looks at Jerusalem and says, The armies are coming. Again. The great Temple will be reduced to rubble. Again. People will die. People will be enslaved. The most vulnerable – women, children, the poor, the elderly – will bear the worst of it, as they always do. 

Jesus sees with God’s eyes, but you didn’t have to be God to see trouble coming for Jerusalem in those days. Corrupt leaders and deepening inequality meant that unrest, rebellion and violence were in the wind. But the warnings were once again unwelcome, and unheard. Forty years after Jesus died and rose from the dead, a revolt against Roman rule led to a brutal war. Jerusalem was destroyed – again. 

We’re not much better now at listening to the warnings of the prophets of our age – be they saints or scientists, activists or administrators. 

Back in August, my family traveled to Chico, California, as part of my sabbatical. We spent a couple of days there with our friend James and his community. Chico is in northern California. While we were there, the sky was dull and smoky frothe Redding fire, seventy miles away. We Midwesterners are used to tornado watches, but Chico was under fire watch – a “red flag” warning. It was fascinating and terrifying to read the rules for avoiding fire in those dry and windy conditions – for example: don’t pull your car over on the edge of the road, because dry grasses could touch the hot parts on the underside of your car and ignite. 

The risk of fire in northern California is well known. There have been forest fires as long as there have been forests, but climate change due to human activity has increased the intensity and damage of fires, as seasonal rainfall becomes increasingly irregular. Scientists and activists have been sounding that alarm for years. This summer and fall, the forests near Chico were extremely dry. The big electrical utility in the region knew its poorly maintained power lines could add to fire risk. The town of Paradise, in the hills above Chico, has few roads out of town, following narrow ridges down the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains – a situation town leaders recognized as risky. 

There were plenty of warnings at every level – nation, state, city. But it’s hard to change course in a situation so big and so complex. People are bad at risk assessment – we often overreact to small risks, and underreact to big ones. And it’s usually true that the people with the most power are also the people most insulated from risk, and most reluctant to invest in change.

Elsewhere in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus says, “When you see the south wind blowing, you say, ‘There will be scorching heat’; and it happens. You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?” 

On the morning of November 8, the worst happened. The Camp Fire was probably started by a power line fault. Extreme dry weather fueled a fire so fast and intense that the tops of trees didn’t even have time to burn. Over 10,000 households lost their homes, in the towns of Paradise, Magalia, and Concow, not far from Chico. Many died. They’re still counting. We’ve watched, and donated, and prayed, as refugees from the fire camped out in the parking lot of the Chico Walmart, where the Hassett family stopped in August to buy an extra water bottle.

The prophets of Scripture – including Jesus – speak about the Big Ending, the time when Christ will return and God will replace everything tattered and broken in this world with the living, joyful wholeness intended from the beginning of Time. 

But they speak, too, of the smaller endings of human life and human history – the ones that only *feel* like the end of the world. Jerusalem torn down, Paradise burned to the ground…  the earth keeps turning on its axis, but many lives are ended, and many others changed forever. The counsel offered by Jesus and the prophets works for those situations too. Jesus says: Pay attention, don’t get distracted or numb. Be ready. Don’t get too invested, too comfortable, in the way things are. And try not be shaken; God is with you. Jeremiah says: Turn back towards justice. Do what you know is right. It’s never too late. It always matters. Our friend Tobit – remember Tobit? – living in cruel and chaotic times, says: Keep praying; give to those in need; take care of those entrusted to you. And don’t lose your capacity for compassion; keep caring, so you’ll keep helping. 

The poet and playwright Berthold Brecht, a 20th-century prophet, wrote: “In the dark times, will there also be singing?  Yes, there will also be singing. About the dark times.”

We sing one of my favorite Advent hymns this morning: “Can it be that from our endings, new beginnings you create? Life from death, and from our rendings, Realms of wholeness generate? Take our fears then, Lord, and turn them into hopes for life anew; Fading light and dying season sing their Glorias to you.” 

A practice is something you do because you want to become what the practice will make you. What does the practice of Advent make us? This season of dwelling with songs and prayers and readings full of hope and warning, that point towards ending, loss, and renewal?

Advent makes us people who are not shattered by the idea that everything will change. People who expect God to be at work even in terrifying times. Because even among the flames – even among the ashes – there is purpose. There is grace. 

There are opportunities to be like Jeff Evans.

Jeff lives in the tiny mountain town of Concow, California, outside Paradise. His property backs up on a reservoir. He can catch a 6-pound bass in his own backyard. Amazing. About a year ago he moved his elderly parents to live with him. His 91-year-old father Chuck chops wood and cleans the gutters. Chuck says Jeff told him he could move there and retire and not do anything – “That was a crock!”

Early on the morning of November 8, Jeff and Chuck stepped outside and saw flames in the distance, smoke filling the sky. They quickly learned that the one road out of their neighborhood was already blocked. They were trapped. They didn’t have a boat to take refuge on the reservoir. So they spent hours frantically defending the house: cutting firebreaks, putting out spot fires. 

It worked. Their house was saved – leaving Jeff and his parents alone, for days and weeks. Those who had fled weren’t allowed to come back to the ashes of their homes. And so Jeff became the caretaker of Concow. Specifically, of Concow’s animals.

Many people didn’t have time to take pets and livestock, or had to flee in vehicles without room for animal family members. In the days following the fire, Jeff collected eight dogs, in addition to his own three. They crowd his kitchen, tails wagging, or curled up together sleeping. They’ve all managed to get along – Jeff thinks they get it. He posts their pictures on Facebook and the owners contact him, weeping with joy to know their pet is safe. He’s been putting food out for cats in the neighborhood, too. And then there are the pigs, the ducks, the chickens, and the goats. One day a group of donkeys wandered into Jeff’s yard. He gave them some peppermint candies and they decided he was their friend and stuck around.

Jeff borrows food and fuel from undamaged houses to keep his menagerie fed, keeping careful track so he can repay later if the people ever return. Firefighters and recovery workers bring him supplies, too, from abandoned homes. Among the ashes, beyond the end of the world, Jeff takes care of the creatures, keeping them safe until their owners can reclaim them when the chaos is past. 

Utility workers have warned Jeff that it will be weeks until electricity is restored to his property – maybe not before Christmas. Jeff’s not worried about it. He says the dark isn’t so bad, up here in the mountains. You can see the stars.

More about Jeff Evans: 

https://ktla.com/2018/11/18/man-in-camp-fire-evacuation-zone-keeps-busy-by-caring-for-animals/

Sermon, Nov. 18

Folks, we are two Sunday out from Advent, closing in on the end of one year and the birth of a new one, by the Church’s reckoning, and we’re talking about the end of the world. Not nuclear or environmental catastrophe, those mundane human disasters, but the honest-to-God End Times, when all the structures in which we have come to trust will be thrown down, not a stone left upon stone. When humanity will be terrified and confounded by wars and rumors of wars, by messianic pronouncements, by nation rising up against nation, earthquakes, famines – and all of that is just the beginning of the birthpangs, the early contractions before labor REALLY gets underway. 

Let me pause here for a vocabulary check. You might say that Jesus is talking about the apocalypse. A word that we use to mean the sudden and catastrophic end of the current age – maybe the end of everything. “Apocalypse” comes from the Greek for “to uncover or reveal.” In its original sense it referred to teachings or writings that do what Jesus is doing here:  reveal the signs of the coming end of things. As for the end itself, Biblical scholars would call that the Eschaton: the final, fulfilling event in the divine plan. I’m not going to tell you that you’re using the word apocalypse wrong, because we’ve used it that way for so long that its meaning has shifted. But I am going to use the church’s word for the end of everything, Eschaton, to remind us that we’re talking about God’s fulfillment of history – and that we’re not talking about, say, zombies. 

We don’t know a lot about the Eschaton. The texts are complicated and unclear. But our Scriptures and our tradition tell us it’s going to happen. How do we think about that, as Christians? As Episcopalians? 

When we get into the End Times, my mind always goes to a couple of literary characters. One comes from the work of James Thurber, the great mid-20th-century humorist. In an essay in his book “My Life and Hard Times,” he recalls a colorful character from his youth in Columbus, Ohio: The Get-Ready Man. Thurber writes, ‘The Get-Ready Man was a lank unkempt elderly gentleman with wild eyes and a deep voice who used to go about shouting at people through a megaphone to prepare for the end of the world, “GET READY! GET READ-Y!” he would bellow, “THE WORLLLD IS COMING TO AN END!”’ His startling exhortations added a certain note to many civic occasions. 

On the other hand, a New Yorker cartoon some years back showed a similarly wild-eyed, gaunt, unkempt elderly man on a street corner, holding up a sign that read, “It’s just going to go on and on…”

I like to think of those gentlemen as marking out two schools of thought about the end of the world: Get Ready,  versus On and On. 

This is a significant division within contemporary Christianity. Some Christians are deeply concerned and interested in end times, spend a lot of time with Scripture texts that predict or describe, made the Left Behind series into bestsellers, and even promote policies that they believe will help bring on the Eschaton. Get ready!!

Then there are the On and On Christians, including most Episcopalians. Our chosen bestsellers are more likely to be written by Barbara Kingsolver or Bob Woodward. We worry about nuclear and environmental disaster, for sure, but the Eschaton per se is not really on our radar. We acknowledge the Eschaton and the Second Coming of Christ as teachings of the church, but don’t give it a lot of thought. I mean, it’s a weird thing to believe – that Jesus is going to float down from the sky someday and replace everything tattered and broken in this world with the living, joyful wholeness that God intended for us.  

The earliest Christians, our ancestors in faith, were mostly in the Get Ready camp. They expected that Jesus would return ANY MINUTE NOW, to usher in God’s new world. They waited and watched, expectant, impatient. Some even quit their jobs and refused to marry.

Their expectation was based on things Jesus had said – in texts like today’s Gospel, in which Jesus’ small-town-born disciples are impressed with the size of the Great Temple in Jerusalem, and Jesus says, Don’t get too attached. On the brink of the Last Supper, arrest, and death, Jesus tells his friends that big, terrifying changes are in the wind. 

As I read the text, with 2000 years’ hindsight, I think that Jesus is talking about two different things at once: the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple about forty years later, a genuinely apocalyptic event for Jews and Christians of that time. Jesus predicts that the Temple will be destroyed, as it was; that his followers will be persecuted, as they were; that there will be bitter conflict over the Gospel, as indeed there was and is; that the Gospel must be proclaimed to all nations, as indeed it has been.

But later in the same chapter, he also describes a more cosmic final ending (and beginning) that has yet to occur: “The sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken… They will see “the Son of Man coming in clouds” with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from… the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.”

In a couple of weeks we’ll hear Luke’s Jesus prophesying with similar words: “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars… People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world.Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”

The emotional tone of these texts, I find, is interestingly ambiguous. There is fear, certainly – even terror. In Mark 13, Jesus tells his friends, “Woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing infants in those days! Pray that it may not be in winter. For in those days there will be suffering, such as has not been from the beginning of the creation… until now, no, and never will be.”

These apocalyptic prophesies stir up dread, of course. But there are also hints of a kind of fierce, bitter hope.  The world as it was had not been kind to the people who became the first Christians. They had reason to find comfort in the vision of a world turned upside down, a Great Day in which God’s might would sweep over the powers and principalities of this world, leaving rubble and ashes. 

It’s fitting that the lectionary pairs Jesus’ apocalyptic words with the song of Hannah, many centuries older. Hannah was one of two wives of a good and loving man, Elkanah. Hannah had no children, while the second wife, Penninah, had many sons and daughters. And Penninah used to mock Hannah cruelly. Hannah prays fervently to God and God gives her a son, Samuel, Israel’s great prophet and kingmaker. When she dedicates Samuel to God’s service, she sings this song – so like the familiar Magnficiat, the Song of Mary, but different too, mostly because Hannah is angrier than Mary. 

Hannah sings, “My heart exults in the LORD; my strength is exalted in my God. My mouth derides my enemies, because I rejoice in my victory. Talk no more so very proudly, let not arrogance come from your mouth… The barren has borne seven, but she who has many children is forlorn.”

In context, Hannah’s anger reflects her rival’s cruelty. But I hear a resonance with the combined fear and exaltation in some Christian apocalyptic texts: God’s New Day is coming, and those who made the current age a living hell for many are going to get theirs. And I hear, too, a resonance with the voices of friends and acquaintances today, who look at our brutal society, our polarized politics, our wounded environment, and say, only half kidding: Burn it all down. Even though I’m doing fine, even though my house is warm and my kids are healthy: It’s all too broken to fix. Burn it down and start fresh. 

Episcopalians tend, by history, theology, and social status, to be On and On type Christians. We build stone churches and establish endowments. We plan for the long term. But here as a dark season grows darker, as the old year decays and the new year stirs towards birth, I think there are gifts for us in the Get Ready. I find that each year, Advent’s rich brew of hope and trepidation gets more real to me. 

Beloveds, we live in an amazing time. The number of people around the globe living in extreme poverty declined sharply between 2000 and 2015. In roughly the same years, the percentage of Americans who believe that LGBTQ+ people should be able to get married rose from 35% to 62%. And I am always mindful that I could not have served this  church as a priest anytime earlier than 1976. There is so much possibility in the world, and so much to love. There are so many moments when I just pause and breathe and think, This is good. Thank you. 

But there are moments, too, when I’m so hungry for the fulfillment of these ancient prophecies. Because things are so broken. Close to 200 dead in Paradise, California, after a wildfire made worse by global climate change. A black security guard apprehends a gunman and is himself shot dead by police. My friend Dave, the priest in Baraboo, had to find words for a letter to his congregation about high school boys doing the Nazi salute in a prom photo.  

How long, O Lord? Until this world’s long labor finally births God’s new reality? Get ready! 

As we lean towards Advent, as we lean into the darkness of this season, I find that what’s most whole and most true for me is to live in the On and On with some of that spirit of Get Ready. Doing what little I can to leave things better than I found them; while trusting – hoping – fearing that God may upset the whole apple-cart at any time, and replace it with something better. 

First-century Christians thought they were living at the end of time – expecting the Eschaton to break through at any moment. It’s easy to look back and think they were wrong, 

but they weren’t, really – because what was important is the way their Get Ready mindset, their confidence in God’s transcendent purposes working inexorably towards fulfillment even through our struggle and confusion, made them live in their present as people of God’s future. 

I look to those ancestors in faith to teach us how to live in the On and On inflected by the urgent, angry hope of Get Ready: Recognize that everything is provisional. Hold lightly the ways of this age – even the things that are working pretty well for us. Expect loss. Expect grace. Expect change. Jesus says, Keep your eyes open! Stay awake! 

Get ready!

Sermon, May 27

It’s Trinity Sunday. Again. Seems like just twelve months ago that I was last trying to find something to preach about the Trinity. Trinity Sunday is the only feast day of the church that’s devoted to a doctrine, rather than a holy person or story. I know there are preachers who really enjoy preaching about doctrine. I find it a little dry and chewy, myself. Like an overly-healthy energy bar. 

As I stared at a blank document on my laptop earlier this week, it dawned on me that part of the challenge is that I’m just not very interested in the Trinity. Don’t get me wrong: I love God! I love knowing God as Source, Redeemer, and Spirit!But I don’t for a moment believe that our theological formulations, even at their most elaborate and nuanced, are actually describing the nature of the Divine. The mystery is too big, and our language far too small. 

But it’s clear that the Trinity – this teaching, this doctrine, this way of mapping the interior of God – has been tremendously important to our ancestors in faith. I learned last year that the annual observance of a Sunday devoted to the Trinity may go back to Dunstan’s time – might even have been part of his effort to get the English people thinking rightly about God. And the doctrine of the Trinity mattered a whole heck of a lot to many people, during the first thousand years of our faith. So I spent some time with some of those ancient voices this week. And, you know, I got interested. 

Let’s go back to the early 4th century. The big heresies of the previous couple of centuries had largely focused on Jesus: Was he really God, or just a human granted special divine wisdom and power by God? Was he really human, or just sort of a human suit that God put on in order to get our attention? And so on. 

As the Church settled on understanding Jesus as both fully human and fully divine, the next problem emerged: If Jesus is God, alongside God the Father, Creator and Source, then what do we do with that, as a faith committed to monotheism, belief in one God? Because that sure sounds like two gods. And that’s even before we get to this weird undefined Holy Spirit business. 

One solution to this quandary is called Arianism. Arius was born in North Africa, around the year 250. We don’t have many of Arius’ own writings – because they were purged after his teachings were declared heretical. But his ideas weren’t that crazy – nor were they unique to him. For example, Arius was influenced by the writings of Origen, an important early theologian of the previous generation.  Both were interested in how Jesus Christ, as the Word or Logos of God, related to God the Creator. Many of Origen’s ideas are at odds with the official theology of Christianity that took form through the great church councils of the fourth century. But Origen was early enough to be looked back on fondly as an Early Church Father who was still figuring it all out, while Arius became the Great Heretic of the 4th century. 

The core of Arianism is simply this: Jesus is the Son of God. Wait – doesn’t that sound familiar? Sure! We teach that too. For Arians, that meant that there was a time when there was no Jesus yet. Arius remarked in a letter to an ally, “We are persecuted because we say that the Son has a beginning but that God is without beginning.” Jesus – as the Word, the Logos of God – was God’s first and best creation. Arius wrote, “[Jesus] has subsisted before time and before ages as perfect as God, only begotten and unchangeable.” (Quoted in Wikipedia, “Arianism”). Everything else was created through the Son – that should sound familiar; it’s in the Nicene Creed: “By whom all things were made.” It followed, for Arians, that Jesus – though infinitely perfect and holy – was also in some sense secondary, subordinate to God the Father, Creator of Heaven and Earth. 

Now, listen: The Bible does not offer a coherent, complete theology of the Trinity. That’s why there was room for these great debates. And it is not hard to assemble texts from both the Old and New Testaments that sound like they support Arius’ view – starting with Genesis 1. What’s more, Arius’ ideas made intuitive sense to a lot of people – including a lot of leaders. We’re talking about a great, powerful Monarch who has a Son who acts as his agent and emissary. Sure, that sounds right! It’s a lot more logical than the weird philosophical abstractions of Basil and Gregory and Athanasius. (More on them in a moment.) 

By the early third century, Arian Christianity was spreading. I read a little about Wulfila – which means, Little Wolf – who was a missionary to the Goths, a group of Germanic tribes. As part of his missionary work, he even developed a Gothic alphabet so that he could translate the Bible into their language – although he skipped the book of Kings, as he feared all those battles and intrigues would only encourage their worst habits. 

To the extent that I’d thought about Arians at all, I’d only ever really imagined them assembled in a big hall, arguing theology with Trinitarian Christians. It had never occurred to me to think about Arian Christians out there making disciples of all nations, with conviction and joy. We have Wulfila’s statement of faith – listen: “I, Ulfila, bishop and confessor, have always so believed, and in this, the one true faith, I make the journey to my Lord: I believe in one God the Father, the only unbegotten and invisible; and in his only-begotten son, our Lord and God, the designer and maker of all creation, having none other like him; and in one Holy Spirit, the illuminating and sanctifying power.” (Wikipedia, “Ulfilas.”)

It doesn’t sound that strange, does it? But the ways in which it’s different from the theological core of Christianity as we have inherited it are fundamental, if subtle. And that was very obvious to church leaders at the time. They were concerned that Arian teachings might endanger people’s salvation, since they would not understand Jesus’ divinity correctly. Facing pressure and unrest, the Emperor Constantine called together all the bishops of the ancient world to hash it all out, so he can have both more stability in his empire – and fewer bishops NAGGING him. 

The First Ecumenical Council gathered at Nicaea, a city in present-day Turkey, in the year 325. While other matters were on the docket, like the date of Easter, the question of how Jesus is part of God was the big issue. Arius argued for his position, using Scripture, reason, and rhetoric. And he lost. He was declared a heretic, and his works were consigned to fire. 

The Nicene Creed, the ancient statement of the church’s faith that we recite together every Sunday, came out of this gathering. It contains the early Church’s official, universal theology about the Holy Trinity – which does not leave room for Arianism. The Creed affirms that Jesus did not have a beginning:  “We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father…” That odd phrase “eternally begotten” is key here. It means that Jesus is in some mysterious sense God’s son, “begotten, not made”. BUT unlike a human son, Jesus has also always existed. So, eternally begotten. The Creed also makes it plain that Jesus, though a Son, is not subordinate to God the Father and Creator. “God from God, light from light, true god from true god, … of one Being with the Father.”

“Being” is capitalized in our Creed because it’s an important word and concept -the English translation of the Greek word ousia, part of the theological vocabulary that emerged at this time. Ousia referred to the essential God-ness of God, the divine Being, shared by all three Persons of the Trinity – in contrast to hypostasis, meaning that which makes each Person distinct – Father, Son, Spirit; Source, Word, and Breath. 

The fourth-century theologian Gregory of Nyssa wrote that though each of these Persons have their particular attributes, their hypostases, they are at the same time so united in their shared divinity, their ousia, that there’s no space between them. In fact, he says, you can’t actually contemplate one them without bringing the others along, because they’re so interconnected. He writes, “Anyone who mentions only the Spirit also embraces… the one of whom he is the Spirit. And since the Spirit is of Christ (Rom 8.9) and from God (1 Cor 2.12)…, then just as anyone who catches hold of one end of a chain pulls also on the other end, so one who draws the Spirit (Ps 118.131) as the prophet says, also draws through him the Son and the Father…. In no way is it possible to conceive of a severance or division, such that the Son should be thought of apart from the Father or the Spirit be disjoined from the Son.” He concludes that the distinctions, the hypostases, among the Persons of the Trinity can never sunder the ousia, the continuity of their shared divinity; while at the same time that fundamental commonality will never dissolve or subsume the distinguishing notes of the hypostases. (Epistle to Peter)

Gregory’s brother Basil wrestled with Trinitarian theology as well, and he says something I think is really interesting: If you’re talking about the Trinity and you count to three, you’re doing it wrong. Listen – Basil writes, “The Unapproachable One is beyond numbers, wisest sirs … Count if you must, but do not malign the truth. Either honor Him Who cannot be described with your silence, or number holy things in accord with true religion. There is one God and Father, one Only-Begotten Son, and one Holy Spirit. We declare each Person to be unique, and if we must use numbers, we will not let a stupid arithmetic lead us astray to the idea of many gods…” If we count, we do not add, increasing from one to many. We do not say, “one, two, three,” or “first, second, and third.”… [In the case of the Father and Son,] as unique Persons, they are one and one; as sharing a common nature, both are one.”   (On the Holy Spirit) 

To put Basil’s point another way:  When we are talking about the different Persons of the Trinity, we are speaking of distinctiveness and, more, of uniqueness – such uniqueness that each is its own category unto itself. So the proper way to count the Trinity is not, one, two, three, but One, One, One… makes One.

This is strange, abstract stuff – like I said, you can see why Arianism was a little more intuitive! But I find I’m attracted to it. The Creed and the Church’s formal doctrinal language about the Trinity can make it feel rigid and dry. But Gregory and Basil and other contemporary theologians were very, very aware that they were fumbling to put words to profound mystery. Gregory writes, “Both the communion [the ousia] and the distinction [the hypostases]… are beyond a certain point ineffable and inconceivable…”

So spending some time with the history of the Church’s understanding of the Trinity helped me get interested. But I still can’t take it as seriously as they did – 

Because I simply don’t believe that God would consign people to eternal flame for not thinking about God’s complexity in the exact right way. That said: Being in community, belonging to something larger than ourselves, sometimes calls us to take something seriously that we otherwise might shrug off as unimportant.

Today we are beginning an experiment in taking Trinitarian theology seriously. And it’s going to be uncomfortable. But only a little bit. To explain, I have to hop back to history for a moment – and it may help if you open your worship booklets to the Nicene Creed, on page 4. 

The third section of the Nicene Creed begins, We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the Giver of Life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son. At least, that’s how we all learned it. That last phrase, “And the Son,” is called the Filioque clause. (Filioque is, And the Son, in Latin.) This section of the Creed was added at a second great Council in the year 381 – but this phrase, the Filioque, was added later still, and only in the Western church – the Orthodox churches of the East kept the earlier wording and theology, and keep it still. This became a big dispute in the 7th century. I’m hoping Leonora, our resident Byzantine theologian, will tell us all about it sometime. The dispute had lots of layers – about the Filioque itself, which seems to make the Holy Spirit the “lowest-ranking” part of the Trinity; and also about the authority of the Pope and the legitimacy of the Church altering the fundamental doctrinal formulations of earlier councils. 

Fast-Forward to the late 20th and early 21st century. Driven by a desire to return to the earlier form of the Church’s theological teaching and to strengthen ties between Orthodox and Western Christians, the Episcopal Church joins other Western churches in saying, You know, we don’t need the Filioque. It’s not important to us, doctrinally; the earlier Creeds were foundational; we should drop this phrase. We haven’t updated our prayer book since our Church made that decision, so most everybody is still using the Filioque. But our Church authorized a Filioque-free version of the Creed in 2000. And this season we’re going to try it out.

I’ve been saying the Filioque for 43 years, give or take. Some of you have been saying it for much longer. It’s going to take us a while just to get used to the different rhythm of the text – before we can even begin to ask ourselves what the new/old wording might mean to us. I suggest that when we say it together, we observe a rest, a pause, where the Filioque used to be – to help us notice its absence as we get used to the change, and so that those of us who inevitably forget or haven’t noticed the change aren’t left behind as the rest of us march onwards into the next line. 

Let’s just read that much together, from “We believe” through “… the Prophets”:

We’ll trip over it, friends. I’m absolutely certain that I will. But … these aren’t just words. They are a statement of the Church’s faith, passed down through the centuries, and shared with churches around the world. This version… is more so. More faithful to our ancestors and our kin. And it elevates and honors the Holy Spirit. So I’m inviting you to join me in the minor discomfort of taking our theology seriously enough to change our words. 

Let’s stand and proclaim the Nicene Creed together, this statement of the faith in which we make our journey to our God. 

 

Some sources…. 

Basil and bad Trinity math: 

https://afkimel.wordpress.com/2012/12/02/st-basil-and-the-stupid-arithmetic-of-the-trinity/

Gregory of Nyssa:

https://afkimel.wordpress.com/2018/05/01/st-gregory-of-nyssa-perichoretic-trinity-2/

Aelfric’s homily on the Trinity at Rogationtide, used as a reading today, was found here:

https://aclerkofoxford.blogspot.co.uk/2013/05/lfric-on-sun.html?m=1

Sermon, May 20

HAND OUT PROPS: Fire: tinsel pompoms.  Wind: People blowing – same as in the Ezek story. Water: Blue ribbon sticks. Doves: paper doves. 

Today we celebrate the gift of the Holy Spirit to the early Church! People had known and experienced God’s Spirit at work for a long time before Jesus came. In the beginning of Creation, God’s Spirit moved across the waters of chaos. We just heard the story of Ezekiel’s vision of the Dry Bones – when a holy Wind, the breath of God, turned skeletons into living people – as a sign of how God’s Spirit would revive the people of Israel in a time of hopelessness and despair. The Hebrew Bible also speaks often of Lady Wisdom, as an aspect of God – her name is Hokmah in Hebrew, Sophia in Greek – she welcomes those who seek her and leads them in right pathways. The story of Pentecost is the story of how God’s Spirit of life and wisdom and promise came to the first Christians – when they were fearful and uncertain, missing Jesus, wondering how to go on without him – and gave them confidence and joy to undertake their mission. 

Though Pentecost was an important beginning for Christians, Pentecost existed before Christianity. Our Acts lesson begins, “When the day of Pentecost had come…” That makes it sound like there was already such thing as Pentecost – because there was! Jesus and most of his first followers were members of the Jewish people and had been formed by the Jewish faith. Pentecost is the Greek name for a Jewish religious festival, called Shavuot in Hebrew. Shavuot falls seven weeks or 50 days after Passover – Shavuot means Weeks, Pentecost means Fifty. On Shavuot, Jews celebrate the gift of the Torah, when God called the Jewish people into covenant and told them how to live as a people of holiness, mercy, and justice. It is a feast of chosenness and covenant – almost like a wedding, but between people and God. Some Jews observe Shavuot by staying up all night reading Torah together. Shavuot is also celebrated by decorating with spring flowers and eating dairy products. There’s a beautiful layering of meaning here: the first Christians, who were also Jews celebrating Shavuot, felt their new covenant relationship with God confirmed through the Divine Spirit on this holy day. But I wish early Christians had come up with their own name for this new feast, instead of borrowing the name from Judaism! 

The Holy Spirit can be pretty mysterious, so Christians have named her and described her through symbols.  In the Pentecost story, Jesus’ friends and followers say that the Holy Spirit felt like fire! Where is the fire? …. Fire is still one of the symbols we use for the Holy Spirit. The Spirit can make people feel like they’re burning up with excitement or joy! Sometimes the Spirit’s fire is frightening, too – sometimes she works in us to burn away parts of our souls that are keeping us from being our true and holy selves. Thank you, Fire! 

The Church struggled for three hundred years with how to understand the mystery of one God whom we know in three ways – God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit – and finally they just said, It’s a mystery, and we’re going to call it the Trinity – Three in One, three faces of one loving God. 

Different types of churches talk more about different aspects of God. Some churches are heavy on Jesus; some are big on the Spirit. In Episcopal churches, we tend to talk a lot about God the Creator and Source, whom Jesus names as Father, and about Jesus Christ. But we don’t know quite what to make of the Holy Spirit. We invite the Holy Spirit to show up every time we perform a sacrament – Holy Communion, baptism, confirmation – but we don’t talk much about how she might feed us or guide us or help us in our daily lives, outside of church. And that’s too bad, because she bears many gifts. 

Another symbol Christians have used to describe the Spirit is water. Where’s my water?…. The Spirit can clean people who feel dirty inside, and refresh people who feel thirsty inside – that’s how she’s like water. The waters of baptism remind us that the one being baptized is also washed in the grace of God’s spirit! Thank you, Water! 

You’ve probably noticed that sometimes I call the Holy Spirit, “she.” I don’t really think the Holy Spirit is a girl. But there are a couple of reasons that I, and others, sometimes use feminine language for the Holy Spirit. For one thing, our Scriptures and prayers usually talk about God saying “he” and “him,” as if God were a man. But we know that God is really bigger than male or female. So using “she” for the Spirit can help us remember that men and women are equally made in God’s image. Also, both of the Bible’s original languages, Hebrew and Greek, have words that are male or female – like Spanish or German.  And in Hebrew and Greek, many of the Spirit’s names are feminine – Ruah, wind; neshama, breath; hokmah and sophia, wisdom; pneuma, wind or spirit. The Spirit has always had many names, and taken many forms. So you can call the Spirit whatever you like – but do call upon her! 

Wind is both a name and a symbol for the Spirit. Let me hear the sound of the wind again!…. The Spirit is like wind because you can’t see the wind itself, but you can see what it’s doing. The wind can be refreshing; it can also sweep away the old, and bring the new! In Hebrew and Greek, wind and breath are the same word – so the Spirit is also God’s breath, that enters lifeless things and gives life to all creation. Thank you, Wind! 

Letters and sermons written by the first Christians, tell us many ways they experienced the Spirit – and Christians have been experiencing the Spirit in the same ways, ever since. Here are some ways God’s people have found that the Spirit can help us. The Spirit helps us know what to say, when we’re speaking for God! The Spirit helps us pray and cry out to God, when we’re in trouble. The Spirit gives us each gifts and skills for the common good – all activated by the same Spirit, who allots to each one just as she chooses.  The Spirit binds us together into one body, one household of faith, across our differences – we are all one through God’s Spirit. The Spirit working in a human heart, or a human community, can bring love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

The gifts we invoke for every person we baptize are gifts of the Spirit, named in Scripture: an inquiring and discerning heart, the courage to will and to persevere; a spirit to know and to love God; and the gift of joy and wonder in all God’s works. Aren’t all of these blessings well worth receiving? 

We have one more symbol of the Spirit to share – the dove!… The Gospels tell us that God’s spirit came down upon Jesus like a dove when he was baptized. Doves are associated with purity and gentleness, and with the promise of new life – because in the Flood story, a dove brought news of dry land and growing plants to Noah on the ark. Water, wind, and fire can all be powerful and fierce, and so can the Holy Spirit; but often the Spirit is gentle as a dove –bringing us gifts of clarity, wisdom, peace, and power.

All of this sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? It makes me want the Holy Spirit to be in my life, every day. Here’s a big word for us all: Invocation. It means to call on something. It’s not like magic, in some of your books – we can’t control or manipulate God with our words or our actions. But the Spirit likes to be invited.  We have to make room for her instead of trying to handle it all on our own. We have to open a door to let her come in and help us. So the Church has always taught God’s people to call on the Spirit… to invoke the Spirit.  No magic words, it’s easy: Come, Holy Spirit!

But if you like magic words, there’s a wonderful word that early Christians used: Maranatha!

It’s in Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke, and it means, Come, Lord! Maranatha! 

Come, Holy Spirit! Maranatha!

Bless your church and your people; work within us and among us; heal us, connect us, encourage and empower and guide us, today and always. Amen! 

Sermon, Christmas Day

The Rev. Tom McAlpine was our preacher on Christmas Day. 

Our first lesson and, in particular, the couplet “The Lord has bared his holy arm / before the eyes of all the nations” got my attention as I prepared this homily. I’d invite you to join me in rummaging around in it for a bit.

That first lesson comes from that part of Isaiah which initially addressed the Judean exiles in Babylon. Despite appearances, Yahweh, Israel’s God, has not forgotten them, and is not powerless in the face of Babylon’s many gods. Yahweh is about to display his power, bring the exiles home, bring joy to Jerusalem. ““The Lord has bared his holy arm / before the eyes of all the nations.”

So the first part of the lesson. If we tried to imagine what that might look like, we might turn to the psalm we used, Psalm 98: images of royal majesty and power, complete with “His right hand and his holy arm / have gotten him victory.” Images like this occur frequently in our Christmas carols. “Joy to the World,” with which we’ll be closing this Mass, is almost a paraphrase of Psalm 98!

But the second part of our lesson goes in a very different direction: it speaks of many being astonished and startled by the sorry appearance of Yahweh’s servant, a servant who will nevertheless finally “be exalted and lifted up.” There’s such a change in tone that we often treat the two parts separately. We read the first part at Christmas and the second part during Holy Week. But the book puts the two parts together. If we’d read one verse further, we would have encountered “Who has believed what we have heard? / And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?” “The LORD has bared his holy arm before the eyes of all the nations;” “to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?” That suggests some sort of identity between that holy arm and the servant. The book doesn’t explain; it just juxtaposes the two parts as a profound riddle.

It’s not until the birth that we’re celebrating today that we’re in a position to recognize the meaning of the riddle: the Lord’s “holy arm” manifest in this baby. It’s an astonishing and counter-intuitive deployment of divine power.

We get a different expression of that counter-intuitive deployment in today’s Gospel. The evangelist starts with the logos, the personified reason that undergirds all creation, which our English translations render as “the word.”

3 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4 in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. (Jn. 1:3-5 NRS)

It’s hard to imagine a status more majestic. But then—from the perspective of the Hellenized world in which the evangelist is writing—he blows it:

And the Word became flesh and lived among us,

Flesh—for the Greeks—that dubious, limited, and vulnerable dimension of life from which the more optimistic philosophies and sects promised release. “And the word became flesh.” Of all the deployments of divine power we might have expected…

Christmas is traditionally a celebration. That’s good—but unless we’re careful it can sidetrack us from the astonishment it should elicit. What oppressed Jews had been fervently praying for was something like twelve legions of angels that would send the Roman legions…somewhere else. What they got was a baby.

There are hints—sometimes big hints—throughout the Old Testament that Yahweh has odd ideas about how divine power is properly deployed. At Christmas these odd ideas move to center stage.

Another example, not unrelated to the Christmas story. If we go back nine months to the Annunciation, the conversation between the angel and Mary doesn’t end until Mary says:

“Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”  (Lk. 1:38 NRS)

What’s remarkable about that is that in the Greco-Roman world into which Jesus was born there are countless stories of gods impregnating human women, many of them of Zeus, head of the pantheon. Zeus doesn’t look for consent—the idea wouldn’t occur to him. Gabriel, Yahweh’s messenger, understands that the conversation isn’t over until Mary’s “let it be with me according to your word.”

Greco-Roman culture and our culture usually assume that the point of power is to enhance our security, decrease our vulnerability—maximize our pleasure. Jesus’ Father assumes that the point of power is service to the other, even when that degrades security and increases vulnerability. Depending on what slice of our lives we’re contemplating, we sometimes hear this as good news, sometimes as not-so-good news.

Christmas is about Jesus’ birth. It’s also—as I’ve been noticing—about his Father’s odd ideas about what to do with the arm of the Lord, how to properly deploy divine power. And that’s important, I think, because unless we recognize that “my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways” also applies to the use of divine power, we’ll complicate our attempts to understand God’s uses of power, and also make some dangerous assumptions about the uses of human power that please God.

We sing “What child is this?” Great song. Great question. Perhaps it might prompt an additional question: “What God is this who thinks that the best possible response to the human condition is to send this Child?”

Sermon, Advent IV

Hal Edmonson was our guest preacher on Sunday, Dec. 24, for our Advent IV liturgy. 

I remember someone saying to me before I went to college that the point of higher education was to be confronted with your ignorance. I guess for a lot of folks, that’s books they’ve never read, or experiences and background that they couldn’t possibly wrap their heads around. For me, though, I think that first epiphany that I’d missed something came in the college chapel during my Freshman year. There was a weekly Taizé service there for students, and I remember, the week before Thanksgiving, someone saying that they were really excited that Advent started on Sunday. And there was brief second where I thought through the Calendar in my head, and then was like “No, December doesn’t start until Tuesday!”

See, I wasn’t really raised in the church, and there’s things you miss that way. But we did have an Advent Calendar, and the way it was always explained to me was that it was just about the waiting for Christmas. And to that end, we had these cardboard things, with little joyful winter scenes, or tiny pieces of chocolate, or little wooden tchotchkes in them. But for reasons of, I suppose, convenience, they always just were labeled 1-24. The idea that it was just December, up until Christmas, was totally logical. It’s actually only about one year in six that our Advent Calendars actually, y’know, mark Advent.

There’s a comment to be made there about our liturgical seasons being paved over by our broader culture, and it rather makes itself. But really, I think it goes a little deeper than that: we like countdowns. It’s why we watch the same movies on Christmas, with the same overwrought plotlines, and love it, even though we know that in the end, with a swell of music, everything will turn out great. I think we look at Advent the same way. It is, we’re told, a time of expectant waiting, almost suspenseful. It’a always darkest before the dawn, and we can gaze upon the dreary, the downcast, and the downright apocalyptic, because we know the light is coming. We can savor it because we know exactly how, and when, it all ends.

And it seems like that’s what we’re getting to on this last Sunday of Advent; Finally, the Good Part! We hear the promise from Gabriel of this child, the heir to the throne of David, whose kingdom will have no end, and we can go galavanting, all joyful and triumphant, to Bethlehem.

Except, not quite.

Because first, we have this interlude, between Mary and Elizabeth when Mary says of the annunciation: “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my Savior…From this day, all generations will call me blessed, for the Almighty has done great things for me.” she is quoted as saying to Elizabeth. But then? “He has shown the strength of his arm, he has scattered the proud in their conceit; he has cast down the mighty from their thrones and has lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty”.

It’s stirring stuff. The Magnificat is part of the monastic office for a reason, has been rendered in icon after icon, stained glass window after stained glass window. If you were to look for a good summary of what all this is about, this would be a good candidate. But in context, its a little odd, no? Isn’t she getting a little ahead of herself? Who was cast down from any throne? Indeed, the Empire Mary lived under was just as sprawling and cruel as it had been before this angel showed up out of nowhere; Were there fewer hungry that day, was their hunger for justice or bread, the slightest bit sated? And what of this exaltation? The take on this story that we get in Matthew’s Gospel tells us that Joseph’s first instinct was to divorce her; Some exaltation, that.

It’s tempting, maybe, to think that it’s just a bit of sentimentality, a beautiful bit of poetry. But I think there’s something much, much, more there. I think we come to this reading at the end of Advent because with these words, Mary deeply challenges our desire for a neat, orderly progression of things. Mary doesn’t say that God will cast the mighty down from their thrones, she says that God has already done it with this act of incarnation. She doesn’t say that that the rich will be sent away empty, she says that they already have been. She’s past prophecy and waiting—it’s already as real as it’s going to get, even if almost nobody else, besides Elizabeth, realizes it. It’s like, here we are, all amped up to go into Bethlehem for the big moment, only to be told that the real moment, the real drama, was all over with, done and dusted long ago when nobody else was watching. Almost like it’s not the birth, but the incalculable, illogical boldness of incarnation itself, that ought to command our attention for a moment.

And that matters. I’m all about beholding things, and seeing things, and building things. That’s what we do as the Church. It’s that belief in putting that vision into practice, a vision not unlike the Magnificat, of inverting the ‘order of things’. This can be a blueprint, if we want it to be, that’s on us to build.

But we get into trouble when we mistake the moment of things becoming visible for the moment when it becomes real. Scripture gives us these words before any guiding star takes to the sky, before anyone else, wise or not, gets wind of it. This wasn’t just poetic hope, I don’t think. Something was already afoot.

A few months ago I had the pleasure of hearing the Rev. Fleming Rutledge, one of the first women ordained to the priesthood in this Church, speak about Advent. It was fascinating in so many respects, but what stood out was her emphasis on the idea of Advent as a season of apocalypse in the fullest sense of the term: an unveiling of the continued action of God in the world, the future that is being glimpsed before our eyes. But it’s not easy. And she made this point—oddly enough—with a military metaphor. I’m not often wild about likening any part of the Gospel to violence, but roll with it for just a moment: She liked Advent, and the Incarnation it brings, not to the light sweeping away darkness, but rather to it being parachuted in behind enemy lines. She compared it, in fact, to the last months of the Second World War: that even though the violence far from over, and much struggle lay ahead, after D-Day victory was assured, the pieces moving into position. Darkness and evil are the theme because that’s what surrounds us, and they won’t surrender without a fight. But they will not have the last word. That much is already settled. The question is, how do we participate in what has already been set in motion?

So much of what we’re called to do is to make things visible. Justice isn’t an additional bonus to the Church, its inseparable, because we are supposed to make visible a kingdom founded on that justice. To be mirrors of a love divine that is so rarely seen or spoken. In a sense, this birth, the resurrection and all the miracles in between are that, and so is what happens on this altar behind me every Sunday. I don’t know about you, but it seems like lately, its harder and harder to see some of these things. Those with thrones seem more ensconced on them than ever, the rich more filled, the hungry empty. And yet, we all know people who work out of sight, who never seem to tire from thankless, necessary work. Who keep running into one burning building after another, chasing one seemingly lost cause after another.

But you can’t make visible what’s not already there to begin with. Mary’s words don’t tell us what’s coming, they tell us that through God’s entry into the world, even unnoticed, has already changed everything. That seems like wishful thinking at best, a cruel joke at worst, but it’s neither. See, to take on power, you have to see its weakness, and stop respecting it. In order to raise those on the margins, you have to already see them as beloved and exalted. To feed those who hunger for bread, and for justice, you have to ignore all that makes you question if they are worthy of those things. In other words, you have to see things as God sees them. The courage to do the real work of the Church, in a weird sort of way, requires you to know that it is, in the fullness of time, already done in the eyes of what really matters. And with the incarnation, as Mary alone seems to know, it is.

So, we don’t get our neat, Advent Calendar ending, because this isn’t an ending. Or a beginning, even. Incarnation means that we now live with one foot in kairos, in the divine time that doesn’t quite match up with our own. While we countdown, the Magnificat reminds us of that Advent is circular, linking all the comings of Christ—in His Flesh, of Mary’s, in our hearts, on this altar and again—into one. And that’s good, because there’s a connectedness to it, a link between the hope that is so far way, and that is already here, unseen. The kingdom and the Christ are near to us even now; in our waiting; in our longing; and in our rejoicing.

Sermon, Christmas Eve

I’m going to tell you a story that happened a long time ago. It’s a story about a time when God’s people were struggling, persecuted and poor. It’s a story about how God never abandoned them, even when things seemed darkest and most hopeless. A story about someone called to set the people free, to give them new hope, new life. His name was Gideon. (We’ll come back around to that other story in a little while!)

Gideon lived a little over three thousand years ago, long before Jesus, long before the Roman Empire, even before King David. God had called this little tribe of people, called Israel, to follow God’s ways and be God’s people. But in Gideon’s time things were not going well.

Gideon’s story is in the Book of Judges, in the Bible. Judges has a pretty clear view of Israel’s history: God called the people Israel to a way of life founded on justice, mercy, and worship of God. But again and again, the people fell away; that way of life seemed too hard, or they figured they could do better by *not* being just and merciful. But when they turned from God, they got weaker. They weren’t looking out for each other, weren’t building up their common good and their shared strength. And so they were attacked by neighboring tribes and nations, again and again. And then they’d cry out to God, and God would help them, and they’d promise to do better this time… This time we’ll REALLY be the people God calls us to be! No, this time we REALLY mean it!…

Well. Those are the kinds of times when Gideon lived. When Gideon was a young man, a neighboring tribe, the Midianites, was attacking Israel. Things were bad. The Midianites had driven the Israelites out of their towns; they were living in caves in the mountains. The Midianites would destroy the fields, kill or steal all the livestock, and bring their own flocks to devour all the pasture land. So Israel was starving. And they cried out to God for help.

One day Gideon is beating out wheat, separating the grain from the chaff. He’s doing it inside his father’s wine press, to hide from the Midianites. And an angel appears to him, and says, “The Lord is with you, O mighty warrior!”

And Gideon says, “But, sir, if God is with us, why has all this bad stuff happened to us? Where are the miracles and mighty deeds that we hear in our holy stories? Why doesn’t God deliver us today, like God delivered our ancestors from Egypt? It seems like God has cast us off, and given us into the hands of Midian!”

But God didn’t strike Gideon down; apparently God wanted someone strong-minded and a little bit argumentative. The angel said, “Go in this might of yours and deliver Israel from Midian; I hereby commission you.”

Gideon says, “Sir, how can I deliver Israel? My clan is the weakest clan of my tribe, and I am the least in my family.” And the Angel of the Lord says, “Because God is with you, you will drive out the Midianites.”

Because God is with you. 

Well, that sounds good; but Gideon is not someone to be convinced by pretty words. He tells the angel, Stay here; I will bring you an offering, and you can give me a sign that you actually have holy power. Gideon hurries to prepare some meat and bread. When he brings them out, the angel says, “Put them on that rock.” And then the angel touches the food with the tip of its staff – and fire leaps up and consumes the food.

Okay, pretty convincing. But Gideon wants proof that this is actually God, and that God can actually do what God says, before he raises an army and attacks the Midianites, which could just leave everybody dead.

He starts to gather an army, calling together all the fighting men and boys of Israel. At the same time, Gideon asks God for a little more proof. He says, “In order to see whether you will actually deliver Israel by my hand, I am going to lay a fleece of wool on the threshing-floor. In the morning, if there is dew on the fleece but the ground is dry, I will know you will free Israel from the power of Midian.” And it was so; when Gideon arose in the morning, the ground was dry, but the fleece was so wet he could squeeze a bowlful of water out of it. All right! God is with Gideon! It’s time for battle! Well… maybe. Gideon is not so easily convinced. Gideon says to God, “Okay, let’s try this once more, the other way around: make the ground wet, and the fleece dry.”  And in the morning, it was so.

So finally Gideon is convinced that God is with him, and that God has the power to shape reality, to do improbable things – like defeating Midian. Because even with all Israel’s warriors, thirty-two thousand troops, the Midianites still outnumber them.

But Gideon’s willing to give it a try. He gathers his troops, near the Midianite camp, ready for attack. Maybe they have a chance, with God’s help.  But then God says to Gideon, “You have too many soldiers. If you defeat the Midianites with all these soldiers, Israel will take the credit away from me, and say, ‘We delivered ourselves.’ Speak to your troops and say, Whoever is fearful and trembling, GO HOME.”

So Gideon does that. And twenty-two thousand men … go home. Leaving Gideon with ten thousand soldiers who are itching for a fight.

Okay. Now there are a LOT more Midianites, but this is how God wants it. Fine.

But then God says to Gideon, “You STILL have too many men. Take your army down to that pool of water over there for a drink. Some of them will cup up the water in their hands, and some will kneel down and lap the water like dogs. The ones who cup the water in their hands – send them all home.”

So the men go to drink. And how many of them lap the water like dogs? Three hundred. And God says to Gideon, “With these three hundred men I will deliver you, and give the Midianites into your hands. Send the rest home.”

And Gideon does. But before they go: he takes all their water jars and their trumpets. So here’s Gideon, with three hundred men, and a bunch of jars and trumpets, looking out at the Midianite camp, with its soldiers as thick as sand on the seashore. And that night God speaks to Gideon and says, “Attack the camp. It’s time.” And he wakes his tiny army and says,  “Get up. God has given Midian into our hands.” He gives them all trumpets and jars – with torches hidden inside the jars.

They sneak into the camp under cover of darkness, and at Gideon’s signal, they all BLOW their trumpets, and SMASH their jars so the torches shine out, and they shout, “For the Lord and for Gideon!”

And the Midianites panic! They wake up to this horrible noise, and light, and fire, and shouting! Some of them start to run and others see them running and they run too, and pretty soon the whole Midianite army, tens of thousands of men, are fleeing towards home. And they’re fighting each other in the dark, in the confusion, and killing each other, without Gideon’s men even drawing their swords.

So Gideon and his three hundred crazy fearless men drove out the great army of Midian, freed their land from the invaders, with some trumpets and some torches and the power of God. Because God was with them.

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light…. For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian. 

This reading from the book of the prophet Isaiah is always used at Christmas, because of the image of light dawning in darkness, and because of Isaiah’s prophetic words about a Savior who will come to God’s people, a child who will be born to us, for us, who will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, and Prince of Peace. Christians have long understood this text as pointing towards Jesus.

Isaiah lived about halfway between Gideon and Jesus; his words harken back to his people’s history, and lean forward into their hopes for the future.

This phrase, “As on the day of Midian” – tt’s a passing allusion to a long-ago battle – one of countless battles told in the Old Testament. And its protagonist, Gideon, didn’t make the cut for most children’s story bibles. Who remembers Gideon? But I really like story of Gideon and the defeat at Midian. And I think there’s something very timely about it.

This story is timely for us as Americans in 2017. I find Gideon really relatable. He’s skeptical, and kind of pessimistic. He hears God’s promises and looks at the world around him and says, God, I’m not sure we can get there from here. He says, God, you’re an idealist, and I’m a realist. But he enters a dialogue with God. He’s not totally cynical; there’s hope lurking under there. When God says, Things can be better, Gideon doesn’t laugh in God’s face and walk away. Gideon says, Tell me more.

So this conversation begins, and continues, all the way through the first business with the sacrifice, through the moments just before the attack, when Gideon sneaks into the Midianite camp, just to see what they’re up against, and hears one of the Midianite soldiers telling a friend that he had dreamed their army was defeated by Israel. Gideon believes: The impossible is possible. Let’s do this.

Gideon begins the story wearing skepticism as a kind of armor to protect the tenderness of hope, and of his anguish at his people’s misery. And he ends up committing himself to God’s purposes. He reaches a point where he wants what God wants, and he gives himself over to it, using his strength and his connections and his ingenuity to help bring about God’s deliverance for his people. Even to the point of risking his life.

And all of that makes Gideon a holy figure worth remembering, in these weary and jaded times. In our discouragement and our skepticism.

And I think the story of Midian is timely for Christmas. Because it’s about how something small can accomplish something big. Gideon marched on Midian with an army of 300 men. A laughably tiny force. Yet by God’s power, combined with human imagination and courage, they were successful. The power of God to do what seems impossible in human terms is what Isaiah has in mind, when he says that the burden of oppression will be cast off as on the day of Midian. It’s not just that a battle was won – but that a battle was won by the power of God. And that’s the Christmas story, the Incarnation: a tiny tiny baby, a newborn infant, poor, cold, and helpless, nevertheless – changes things.

Attacking an entire camp of enemy warriors with three hundred men is ridiculous, but confronting the entire regime of evil and greed and injustice and suffering in the world with one newborn baby – that’s even more absurd.

But that’s the kind of God, God is. That’s the heart of God, made known to us in the face of the child in the manger. Not a God of overwhelming force, to bend humanity to God’s will, but a God of hope and possibility and invitation.

Our God is a God who calls us to take heart, take courage, to lay down our skepticism and weariness and commit ourselves to God’s purposes, God’s agenda of liberation, justice, mercy, and love. To believe that better is possible, and that we can help, because God is with us.  And our God is a God who changes the world with the power of small, ordinary, beautiful, powerful things: The light of a candle, the sound of a trumpet. A few words of love. An infant’s first cry.

Amen.