Category Archives: Church Seasons & Holy Days

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.

Sermon, Dec. 3

Note: The beginning of this sermon is based on the Godly Play story, The Circle of the Church Year. 

What do you know about time? What are some of the times in your life? Like bedtime, work time, play time… We know all about time because we live inside it. But what is time, really?….

Some people say time is a line. Here, this rope can help us think about time being a line. Here is the beginning. It is the newest part. It is just being born. Now, look…. Take this beginning and walk over there with it, OK?  Slowly. Look, time is passing. The beginning that was new is getting older. I wonder how long time goes on? Does it go on forever? Can there ever be an ending? … Look – it ended. There’s the end. The beginning that was so new, is old now. – and the ending is new. We have a beginning that is like an ending, and an ending that is like a beginning.

Do you know what the Church did? They took the ending that was like a beginning, and the beginning that was like an ending, and they tied them together. They made time into a circle. So that we would always remember that for every ending there is a beginning, and for every beginning there is an ending.

Let’s look at it a different way. Instead of the rope, let’s use this cloth. These colors show us the circle of the church year. This blue is the beginning. It is the color of Advent, the season that begins today. Today is the Church’s New Year’s Day! Happy New Year!

After blue Advent comes white Christmas –  then green Epiphany –  then purple Lent – then white Easter – then red Pentecost – careful, it’s hot! – then the long green season of summer and fall, the great green growing season. There is the beginning – and there is the end. But they aren’t a line. They are a circle. So let’s fasten the end to the beginning.

Now let’s think some more about endings and beginnings. Think for a moment about some of the beginnings you have experienced. Times when you have started something new. Think about the things you feel, when there’s a new beginning. Happy? Excited? Hopeful? Determined? Afraid? Eager?

Now think for a moment about endings. Times when something has come to an end. When something is over. Think about the things you feel, when there’s an ending. Sad? Quiet? Full of memories? Relieved? Peaceful? …

Today we begin the season of Advent. Advent is a season that is about beginnings, and endings.  It is the beginning of a new church year.

And it is about getting ready for a Great Beginning: the Great Beginning of Jesus being born. The beginning of a new relationship between human beings and God, through Jesus’ life and the things he showed us and taught us.

But Advent is also about endings. Even though it’s the beginning of the year in the church, we feel and see that it’s the end of the year in the world. It’s getting colder. It’s getting darker. All the living things out there are dying or going to sleep or flying away. It feels like an ending. That’s why we light one more candle every Sunday of Advent – to help us count the four Sundays, but also because at this season it gets darker and darker, week by week. The days are getting shorter and shorter.

And Advent is about another ending, a big ending. Jesus taught his friends was that he would come back someday. He’s talking about that in our Gospel lesson today – he’s telling them,  After I die, and rise from the dead, and go to be with God, I will come again – someday. And when I come again, all God’s children will be gathered together, the living and the dead, and there won’t be any suffering anymore. And the world will be changed, too – the world that groans as it waits for God’s redemption. Maybe it will be like a garden, like the garden at the very beginning, where everybody has everything they need, and the fierce animals are friends with the gentle animals, and nobody hurts or kills anybody else. Maybe it will be like a city where there is a home for everybody, where there is plenty to eat and never any war, where people sing together day and night, and where God tenderly wipes away the tears of our grief and weariness. We don’t know what it will be like, but Jesus and the church teach us that that time is coming.

And it’s a little bit scary, to think of everything changing and ending. But it’s hopeful, too. It’s another ending that’s also a beginning, isn’t it? And God’s people have yearned for it, for so long, since long before Jesus’ birth. The book of the prophet Isaiah gives us these words: Oh, that you would tear open the heavens and come down! Say that with me: Oh! That you would tear open the heavens and come down! 

Psalm 80 gives us these words: Stir up your strength, O God, and come to help us! Say that with me: Stir up your strength, O God, and come to help us! And the songs and prayers of Advent say, Come, Lord Jesus! Say that with me: Come, Lord Jesus! 

We don’t know when that time will come. People have been waiting for it and wondering about it for a long time.  That’s part of what Jesus is talking about in today’s lesson. He’s saying: You won’t know when it’s coming. It’s a mystery. So be ready, always. Live so that you’re always prepared to meet God and walk into that new beginning that is also an ending.

We don’t think about it a lot, that ending-beginning, most of the time. We try to live our lives well, and love each other, and love God, and take care of the world. Most of the time we don’t think much about it at all, because it’s such a big mystery and it’s probably still a long, long way away.

But in Advent the church thinks about it. About that ending/beginning that will come someday. We get ready for the story about Jesus coming as the baby in the stable, the story that has already happened, and we also share the story about Jesus coming again and the whole world changing, the story that hasn’t happened yet.

Those stories are all mixed together in Advent, in the Scriptures and hymns and prayers of the season. Beginnings and endings all tangled up together. And all the feelings we have about beginnings and endings might be tangled up together too: happiness and sadness, excitement and fear, hope and remembering, gratitude and urgency. That’s Advent.

You can hear that in the songs we sing today. The song we gather with is a joyful song: People, look East! And sing today: Love the Lord is on the way! And we’ll sing another familiar Advent hymn that sounds very cheerful: Come, thou long-expected Jesus, born to set thy people free, from all fears and sins release us, let us fund our rest in thee!

But we’ll also sing a song that feels solemn and urgent: Signs of endings all around us, darkness, death, and winter days, shroud our lives with fear and sadness, numbing mouths that long to praise… Later the song says, Give us hope and faith and gladness! Show us what there yet can be! It’s a song of yearning, a song of struggling to hold hope.

And then we have some songs that I think invite us to slow down, to pay attention to how it feels to wait and wonder: O come, O come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel… Lullaby, lullaby, wait till tomorrow… Come now, O Prince of Peace, make us one body; come now, O Lord of life, reconcile all peoples.

And there’s one more – we sang it just now, at the Gospel proclamation. It is a song that was made by people who were suffering, and that story that hasn’t happened yet, about Jesus coming back and the whole world changing, gave them hope that their suffering wouldn’t last forever. It’s partly happy and hopeful, and partly sad and serious – just like Advent. It goes like this – sing it with me: “My Lord, what a morning, My Lord, what a morning, My Lord, what a morning, when the stars begin to fall.”

Welcome to Advent.

Sermon, June 11

Today churches around the world – Anglican and Episcopal, Orthodox, Catholic, and others – celebrate the feast day dedicated to the Holy Trinity. To celebrating and – often – attempting some explanation of our Christian doctrine that God is One but also Three: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The setting-aside of the Sunday after Pentecost to honor the Trinity goes back at least a thousand years. If you Google it, the simple historical explanation that everyone’s church websites have is that the observance of Trinity Sunday was instituted by Archbishop Thomas Becket of Canterbury in the 12th century. That seemed both too tidy and incomplete, so I tried to dig a little deeper online and found this sentence in a book review in a 1954 religion journal: “Much is made of the alleged origin of the feast of Trinity Sunday at Canterbury under Thomas Becket. Actually, the office… had been followed in the English monasteries (and doubtless elsewhere) from the time of St. Dunstan.”

Our hymnal is full of hymns to the Trinity that poetically explore the mystery of God in three persons. We’ll sing several of them today. The fact is, the Trinity is really a better subject for poetry than for exposition. It’s notoriously hard to explain clearly. Every year amongst my clergy acquaintances on Facebook, there’s a round of finger-shaking: “Make sure you don’t commit heresy!” I can’t get too worked up about it, myself. Both heresy and doctrine are creations of the Church, a human institution. And the words we use – Trinity, Father, Son, Holy Spirit – they’re just words. The doctrine of the Trinity is an effort to capture the mystery of God in human language and concepts. To eff the ineffable, if you will.

But that’s not to say I think the truth behind the words is unimportant. I think it’s very important – so important that we should be mindful of how the words we use can obscure the truth we’re trying to name. What do Christians mean when we name God as a Trinity? Christians have come to understand God as One, and yet also Three.

And the Three are not interchangeable but have distinct personhoods: God, the Creator of Heaven and Earth, the Ground of all being, the One who holds all time, all space, in the palm of their hand…. God at God’s biggest, beyond all knowledge and all thought.

God, the Incarnate, the Immanent. The movement of Divine thought into substance, who was with God in the beginning, by whom all things were made. Emmanuel, God-With-Us, who comes into the immediacy and mess of human life, walks with us, eats with us, shares the experience of being embodied, limited, breakable. Is broken. But not ended, because although one of us he is also still God.

God, the Spirit, breath, wind, flame, wisdom, whisper, shout. The still small voice. The presence gentle as a dove. The Wind that moved over the face of the waters, when as yet there was nothing but that primordial sea. The Holy Spirit: how we name the Divine When it stirs something within or among us, Inspiring, converting, healing, transforming, making possible.

Creator, Incarnate One, Divine Breath. Father, Son, Spirit. Two of our Scriptures today use that set of names, what’s called the Trinitarian formula: The Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. A huge part of the conflict between early Christianity and Judaism was the notion that Jesus was somehow also God, which challenged Judaism’s deep belief in only one God. Early Christians had to wrestle with their language, to make room in monotheism for a God who is somehow, mysteriously, more than One. By the 50s or 60s, when Paul wrote the second letter to the Corinthians, early church leaders had worked out this way of naming God as Three in One. (The Gospel of Matthew was likely written down a couple of decades later. It’s hard to know whether Jesus actually spoke the Trinitarian formula himself, or whether Matthew gives him those words that had become central to Christian baptism and teaching by the time Matthew is writing.)

Father, Son, and Holy Spirit… The terms Father and Son come to us directly from Jesus. Interestingly, Father was not a dominant metaphor for God in the Old Testament. God is named as a Father a few times, but God is much more often a husband, sometimes a mother, sometimes a master. It’s Jesus who gives Father language to Christianity, by naming God as his Father and teaching his followers to do the same. There’s a sticky translation issue here – Jesus used an Aramaic word for Father, Abba. That was a familiar word, not a formal word – You’d actually call your father “Abba,” Whereas to call your father “Father” sounds odd to most of us. But we don’t have a good equivalent to “Abba” in American English. “Daddy” is a little too childish, “Dad” maybe a little too informal, though it may be our best option. In any event, the term “Father” in our cultural context carries some sense of formality and distance, and that’s a pity, because that wasn’t Jesus’ intention in giving us this way to name God. He wants us to think of ourselves as children of a loving father – a loving daddy? – who cares for each of us, is always ready to hear our concerns and share our celebrations, always waiting for us to wander home.

The Father; the Son. That’s straightforward enough; the Gospels name Jesus as the Son of God – though not in the way of Greek mythology, for example, that led to many half-gods wandering around the earth. Jesus is God’s Son is a less literal, and a more eternal and fundamental, way. The first chapter of the Gospel of John picks up the threads of the Creation story, as John tries to describe who and what Jesus is:  “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God… And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son.” Gazing into the mystery that John’s Gospel poetry evokes, it becomes clear that the Sonship and the Fatherhood that we name in the Trinity are only the best effort humanity and divinity could make together, at a certain moment in our shared story, to describe what’s going on inside of God.

And then there’s the Holy Spirit, which has the benefit of seeming elusive and confusing right up front, unlike Father and Son, which sound misleadingly concrete. The Spirit is announced and named by Jesus, but Pentecost is not the Spirit’s first appearance; there are times in the Old Testament too when the Spirit of God is named as an agent or an aspect of God.

That’s the question, really – always has been. What are these different things that we name with these clumsy terms, Father, Son, Holy Spirit? Are they manifestations, avatars? Are they different colorful masks worn by one God? That would be much simpler than what Christians came to understand, and have struggled to believe ever since: This isn’t just one God wearing different costumes. These are three distinct Persons within One God. If you’d like a glimpse at the historical struggle to define and defend that paradox, read the Athanasian Creed sometime; it’s on page 864 in the Book of Common Prayer.

Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The truth behind the words matters: the truth that relationship is at the core of everything. That Divinity is community. That the heart of God is not a oneness sufficient to itself, but a plurality dancing with itself. So we, created in God’s image, are made for diversity, for relationship, for belonging. That is a truth that matters deeply right now. Always does, really.

The truth behind the words is powerful, paradoxical, and gracious. The words themselves… have their limitations. Human concepts come with human baggage. Few serious theologians would assert that God is actually male, but our language has led us to imagine God as an old guy with a beard, for millennia. Using the language of a patriarchal society to name God has served to reinforce patriarchy, for a long, long time. In addition to those big-picture issues, naming God as Father is really hard for some people because of their family history. We are simple animals, really; if the father we have known in real life was unloving or even abusive, then when we hear God named as Father, we cannot help having our experiences contaminate God.

I can’t see abandoning the Trinitarian formula, Father, Son, and Holy Spirt, because it’s so deeply rooted in Scripture and tradition. But when we recognize that those terms were just one attempt to wrap human language around divine mystery, it frees us up to try other formulas, other language. You’ll sometimes hear Trinitarian formulas that focus on how humans have experienced those three Persons. Maker, Redeemer, Sustainer. The One who creates, the One who befriends, the One who inspires. The anti-heresy brigade frets about modalism: the heresy that the Trinity is after all only one God acting in three different ways, as one human being might cook dinner, do the laundry, and feed the dog. What I like about those formulas, Maker, Redeemer, Sustainer, and others, is that they remind us of the kinds of things God does. They remind me to give thanks for, and look for, God’s ongoing presence and action in the world. So maybe we could all just promise not to commit the modalist heresy and to remember that there are three Persons in the Trinity? Okay?

Just the other day, my son Griffin and I were talking about pronouns. We both have friends who prefer the use of the non-gendered pronoun “they”, and we’re working to get used to that, because we respect our friends. And it dawned on us both that if you met God at the GSAFE banquet, where your name tag says both your name and your preferred pronouns, God’s name tag would say “they/theirs.” Because God is gender non-binary – not a boy or a girl – and God is plural. I’m trying that on, using “they” as my God-pronoun. It breaks open my thinking a little, makes me notice and wonder, and that’s a good thing.

The Trinity is beautiful, and holy, and true, and we really don’t understand it at all. But we celebrate it, with gratitude – the mystery and the truth of community in the heart of God, who is our Source, our Grace, our Love, our Table, our Food, our Host, our Light, our Tree, our Treasure, Our Life, our Truth, our Way. Amen.

The quotation about Dunstan came from this article:

Review: Algemene Geschiedenis der Nederlanden Deel VI, De Tachtigjarige Oorlog 1609-1648.  Reviewed Work: Algemene Geschiedenis der Nederlanden Deel VI, De Tachtigjarige Oorlog 1609-1648. Review by: G. N. Clark, The English Historical Review Vol. 69, No. 271 (Apr., 1954), pp. 318-320

Sermon, May 21

smallDunstanClassbookAre you ready for a tour? A tour of the life of St. Dunstan, our patron saint.

It begins at the back of the church, with this stone from Glastonbury Abbey. Glastonbury is a city in the west of England. An abbey is a church that is also a place where monks or nuns live – people who have devoted themselves to religious life and live in a community focused on prayer, study, and shared work.  This stone from the ruins of Glastonbury was a gift to our church by Archbishop Michael Ramsey, the leader of our sister church, the Church of England. He visited Madison and St. Dunstan’s in 1975.

Dunstan was born around the year 909 – more than a thousand years ago! He grew up near Glastonbury and had his first religious training there. At that time the church was in disrepair, because it had been attacked in Viking raids. He dreamed of rebuilding and expanding the church. Later, as an adult, King Edmund made Dunstan Abbot of Glastonbury. In that capacity he raised funds to restore and expand the church and make it more of a center for worship, study, and faithful living. I hope he will watch over us and bless us as we discuss a capital campaign!

God, thank you for Dunstan’s work of building up your church. As we remember your saints, help us to be one too! 

Our next stop is actually in my pocket: two pennies. What do you see?  Do they look the same, or different? … When Dunstan was a child, coins in Britain weren’t all the same.  They might be made of different metals, and be different sizes, and have different images stamped on them. Imagine how hard it would be to buy and sell things, if there were all kinds of different coins around!

Dunstan is remembered for founding many churches and monasteries, but he wasn’t just interested in churches. He believed that healthy churches helped contributed to a healthy, peaceful, fair society. And he spent a lot of his life working with the king – and then the next king, and the next king – to help English society be more healthy, peaceful, and fair.

He pushed for things like a fair justice system, with the same kind of trial for rich and poor, and for the Angles and the Danes, the two groups of people who were living together at that time; a fair system of business that doesn’t allow the wealthy to cheat people; more opportunities for education for ordinary people; for local leaders who weren’t just there to make money for themselves and for whoever put them in power, but who cared about the welfare of their people; and finally, coins that were the same all over the kingdom – because that made it possible for people to buy and sell, fairly and easily, and also because it helped make everyone feel like they were part of the same kingdom, all in this together.

Dunstan lived a long time and served under many kings, some of whom shared his hopes for England, and some who didn’t. But he always did what he could to pursue those hopes for his people.

God, thank you for Dunstan’s work of building up his nation. As we remember your saints, help us to be one too! 

Our next stop is up here at the front of the church.  Dunstan loved music and art and craft, and held them as central parts of the life of the person and community of faith. In Dunstan’s time, all books were handwritten – they didn’t yet have machines to print many copies of a book. Imagine if every book was in somebody else’s handwriting! Some would be easy to read, and some wouldn’t be! Dunstan is especially remembered for bringing to England and establishing a clear, readable and consistent form of handwriting for the books that were being made in England in his time.

At the end of his life, when he retired, he went back to Glastonbury, worked with metal and played his harp. Our church, this church, has always had people who love to make things; I think that’s one of the ways we really are St. Dunstan’s Church!

One of the things Dunstan did as a metalworker was make bells.

He is the patron saint of bell-makers! Would you like to ring this bell? …

God, thank you for Dunstan’s love of beauty, craft, and creativity.  As we remember your saints, help us to be one too! 

Here’s the final stop on our tour: this icon of Dunstan, Archbishop, Monk, and Saint.  What do you see in this picture?… Do you think it’s like the other icons here, or different? …

Artists have made icons of St. Dunstan that look more like these other icons. But a few years ago when I was looking for one, I found this picture instead.

It’s from something called the Glastonbury Classbook, a book from Dunstan’s time – actually sometimes called the Classbook of St. Dunstan. It contained sermons, prayers, and other religious texts, and a few drawings – including this one, which may be a self-portrait by Dunstan. He might have drawn this picture himself – not this one, but the one that this is a photograph of.

Do you see the tiny words over the monk? They say, in Latin, “I ask, merciful Christ, that you protect me, Dunstan; do not permit great storms to swallow me up.”

The Bodleian Library, who holds the Glastonbury Classbook, makes high-quality images of its pages available, so I had this made for us, to be our image of blessed Dunstan. These other pictures put the saint at the center. But in his picture of himself, Dunstan put Jesus at the center.

God, thank you for Dunstan’s life of faithful and loving service to you and your son Jesus Christ. As we remember your saints, help us to be one too!

 

Sermon, April 23

The Rev. Thomas McAlpine preached on Sunday, April 23. The lessons are here. 

Alleluia. Christ is risen. The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia.

Today’s Gospel sets before us a rich feast; here we’ll only be able to sample a little of it.

The first thing we might notice is that the Evangelist describes a scene that’s heavy with fear. The doors are locked “for fear of the Jews.” Fear permeated all of what we call Holy Week: the Jewish leadership fearful of things getting out of hand, Pilate fearful of how it will look if he lets Jesus go, the disciples fleeing in fear at Jesus’ arrest…

And this lethal stew of fears is one of our obvious connections with the text. Today there is plenty to be afraid of, and plenty more that various voices are trying to make us afraid of. But in contrast to the emcee in Cabaret, the Church’s invitation is not to leave the troubles and fears outside, but to bring them in—and see what Jesus might do with them.

And in the Gospel Jesus appears. Not a ghost or a resuscitated carcass, his body is…unique. He eats, invites his friends to touch him, goes through locked doors, and often isn’t recognized at first glance. N. T. Wright makes the intriguing suggestion that this body isn’t less physical but more. Jesus walks through locked doors with the same naturalness that we walk through the mists.

There are hints in this first encounter of a new creation: he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit…” As in creation God breathed into our nostrils the breath of life, so here Jesus breaths the beginning of a new creation.

New creation: In the world that Scripture portrays there are two Big Bangs. The first at the beginning of creation: “Let there be light.” The second: that Easter morning.

But it doesn’t stop with new creation. Here’s where it’s important to let each Gospel writer tell their own story. Our Church Year follows Luke’s chronology: the Holy Spirit’s given on Pentecost, 50 days after Easter, & at that point the disciples engage in mission. In John’s chronology, it’s Easter that morning and Pentecost that evening. This Jesus wastes no time: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”

By the end of that encounter it looks like Jesus has done pretty much all he needs to do, and there’s no reason to think that he’ll show up again. And this creates a problem, because Thomas, one of the Twelve, was absent, and unwilling to accept the others’ testimony: “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

So there’s a whole week in which the other disciples are all “Alleluia” and Thomas is holding out for some evidence. And no one has reason to think that this difference is going to be resolved anytime soon.

So it looks to me as though there are two sorts of miracles in today’s Gospel: Jesus’ appearances and the Twelve still being together at the end of that week. It would have been so easy for Thomas to have been excluded. In the midst of that lethal stew of fears it would have been even easier. And everyone would have been the poorer: Thomas, not encountering the risen Jesus, the others not learning from Thomas’ striking confession “My Lord and my God!”

So here’s our other obvious connection with the text, for pretty much in every age there are issues that threaten to divide Christians. We all—in Paul’s language—“see through a glass, darkly,” and nevertheless find it quite easy to communicate—usually nonverbally—if you think or feel that you don’t belong here. The fears in our environment make that even easier.

Well—it’s hard to think of an issue more basic than whether Jesus is alive or still in the tomb. Yet there Thomas is with the other disciples at the end of the week.

I wish the Evangelist had spelled out how that happened. But I think the Evangelist has given us some clues. Here are three; you may see others.

·         Just a few days ago Jesus had washed the disciples’ feet and said “So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.” My sister’s or brother’s feet matter more than my dignity, my perceptions. So perhaps that had something to do with the disciples’ being together at the end of the week.

·         Later Jesus had said “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” Love is easy and natural when we’re in agreement on the important stuff… So perhaps the disciples actually heard some of what Jesus was saying and so stayed together.

·         And later Jesus had said “You did not choose me but I chose you.” The disciples aren’t together because they chose to be together but because what they have in common is that Jesus chose them. (What if that’s true today? Take a look around the sanctuary. What if we’re together because the fundamental thing we have in common is that Jesus chose us?) So, perhaps they’re still together at the end of the week because it’s sunk in that being together is not a matter of their choice.

Whatever the combination of reasons, a week later they’re together, and Jesus again appears. Jesus gives Thomas what he needs; Thomas’ confession is a gift to that and subsequent generations.

One of the questions these stories of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances deal with is how Jesus may be encountered by the readers, by us. So Luke’s story of the road to Emmaus presents a sort of mini-Eucharist, with Jesus explaining the Word, and then breaking bread at the Table. Word and Table. So John here suggests that encountering the risen Jesus has something to do with staying together—Thomas and all.

One final thing to notice: that last verse in our reading. It uses the plural, and so the KJV: “that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through his name.” And the story we’ve just heard may suggest what believing together might mean in the midst of disagreements: washing each other’s feet, loving each other, recognizing that we are together because what we finally have in common is that Jesus has called us.

Palm Sunday homily

The Church holds up this story as uniquely important. This death, and what follows, are our core story, The Story. But its power, its uniqueness, comes from who Jesus was, from his first followers’ experience of God present in Jesus in a way unlike any other person in history. That as the author of the letter to the Philippians says, in Jesus, God set aside infinity to join us in mortality.

The death itself – and the events that lead up to it – were far from unique. Indeed, there’s much in this story that’s too familiar. There are no monsters in this story. Only ordinary people, driven by ordinary motives, ordinary fears, ordinary resentments.

Start with the leaders. Leaders bear a special responsibility for what happens on their watch. So surely we can point fingers at the leaders in this story, and say, There. There are the monsters. The chief priests, the scribes, the elders – they are the institutional and moral leadership of first-century Judaism. They are the leaders and teachers of the faith. They knew it was wrong to kill an innocent man; how did they let this happen? Well – Jesus was not actually innocent. I know there’s a lot of talk about Jesus as an innocent victim, but he’d basically done the stuff they said he did. Stirred up the people. Spoken dismissively about Sabbath-keeping and other practices. Busted stuff up in the Temple. And worst of all, blasphemed, by claiming a uniquely close relationship with God – a fundamental challenge to the core of Jewish faith, that there is only one God. They’re genuinely afraid that Jesus is sparking a popular movement that will dilute or even destroy the faith they’ve sustained for so many centuries. And these religious leaders weren’t only responsible for the faith, but also for the wellbeing of the people. They are legitimately afraid that the unrest swirling around Jesus will turn into a rebellion that will inevitably lead to a violent crackdown by the forces of Rome, the great empire occupying and ruling Judea. The high priest Caiaphas says, It’s better for one man to die than to have the whole nation destroyed. He’s not wrong – although that doesn’t make it right.

What about Pilate, the Roman governor of the province? There’s some scholarly speculation that Pilate must have been out of favor in Rome to have been sent to Judea, a miserable, impoverished backwater full of religious zealots. Why would a governor representing the greatest empire in the world, backed with all the superior military force of Rome, bend in the face of a scrappy crowd of Judeans? Because he feared a riot – that his soldiers would have to put down, violently, which might spark other riots, and would definitely mean having to write some awkward letters to Rome. Pilate is a man with great power, true, but he’s also part of a system, and others have power over him. Pilate’s interest is in stability and peace, even if it’s an unjust peace, a cruel peace. Can we call him a monster?

What about the soldiers and officers? There are two different groups in this narrative. First, there’s the armed group that comes to arrest Jesus, probably a mix of Temple guards and some irregulars. Jesus shows a kind of wry compassion for them – they are, after all, his people. It’s the Roman soldiers later, the soldiers of the governor, who are truly cruel, hurting and mocking Jesus. And yet as much as we’d like to find monsters there – there are seventy years of social science research, sparked by the desire to understand the Holocaust, that has shown again and again and again that it is all too easy to get a group of human beings to start thinking of another group of human beings as less than human. We hate each other so easily. To call these Roman soldiers monsters is to deny our innate capacity to dehumanize and destroy.

What about the bystanders, the crowds in the story? One minute they’re so excited to see Jesus, shouting Hosanna! and waving palms; the next minute they’re shouting that he should be crucified! Well – those events were actually several days apart, and they weren’t the same crowd, even though in our liturgy today we treat them as if they were, as we take on their voices. The crowd greeting Jesus at the city gate was full of those who had heard about this man and hoped he would bring about a new era of freedom and prosperity. The crowd before Pilate was probably the kind of crowd that gathers for executions and bloody accidents. But let’s be honest: I’m sure there were many people who were part of both crowds. Because it’s not that hard for us to turn on someone, especially someone who disappoints us. Who turns out not to be the savior we’d hoped for. We see that dynamic most clearly in Judas, whom I can’t help but pity. He wanted change – big, immediate, transformative change. And when Jesus’ agenda turned out to be slower and subtler, he turned against him – and then turned again, and was overcome by deadly remorse.

And then there are the disciples, Jesus’ friends and followers. If it were only up to me, this is the voice I’d have us read together in the story. It’s tradition in many Episcopal churches for the congregation to be the voice of the crowd that shouts out, “Crucify him!” And that’s important to some of you, so I have left that custom be; but if I were to locate contemporary Episcopalians in this story, it would be as the disciples. The disciples, who follow him – but only so far. Who believe in him – but often really don’t understand him. Who love him, truly – but not as much as he needs them to. Who are right there with him, ready for action, while they’re all seated around the table together, with a good meal and a glass of wine inside them, but when it comes to taking to the streets – well, a lot of us have to think twice. We have jobs and families and reputations to protect. This discipleship thing can get to be more than we anticipated, real quick.

There are no monsters in this story. And yet the story reminds us, every year, how quickly and easily resentment and reluctance, complacency and fear, can make us part of something monstrous.

Homily, January 15

This sermon accompanies the lessons for the Feast of the Epiphany, to correspond with our Epiphany Pageant, offered on this date. 

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, an empire feared for its power.

For a lot of people my age and younger, the word Empire may bring to mind images of Darth Vader and the ominous sameness of the Storm Troopers, in their white armor. But of course Star Wars has always been an allegory. George Lucas’ imagined Empire is the science-fiction version of something that’s been a feature of human politics for five thousand years or more.

An empire is a group of nations or people ruled over by an emperor or other powerful ruler and government. An empire begins when the king in one nation decides that they have the power to take over their next-door neighbor, and succeeds in doing so, and thinks, “Well, that went pretty well; now we have more territory, and we have control of more people, and we make them give us stuff; let’s keep going.”

By definition, many of those nations and peoples who are part of an empire are not willing participants. Even if their leaders decide that cooperating with the empire is in their best interest – like King Herod, who ruled Judea under the authority of the Roman empire – the people feel the rub of outside rule.

Therefore also, by definition, empires rule by force. Military, political, economic, cultural. In the great span of human history, there have been more and less humane empires; there have been good outcomes of empire – the Romans built roads and water systems everywhere they went. But empire always means dominion and subjugation. It always means that the person with authority over you is more interested in your cooperation than in your wellbeing.

Empires are always insecure. Always anxious. Their forces are always stretched; their presence and power is always resented. And so empires have tendency to use excessive force. To make an example of those that challenge their power, in hopes of intimidating and discouraging any other would-be resisters. The Empire in Star Wars built a Death Star, a weapon that could literally destroy a planet in an instant. The Empire in Matthew’s Gospel sends soldiers to murder the baby boys of a whole village, lest one of them spark a popular movement that would upset the apple cart of Herod’s cozy relationship with the Roman occupying forces. (A quick aside with some good news: that particular massacre probably never really happened… but empires do terrible things, to protect their power, whether that particular terrible thing is history or myth.)

Empire is a political form. But it’s also a mindset. A mindset of uniformity and control. A mindset that fears difference and dissent, seeing them as threats to its power. A mindset that fears the freedom of people or ideas. A mindset that demands submission, and acceptance of its norms and truths. And that responds with violence – verbal or physical – to any perceived threat.

We love stories about rebels thwarting the brutal power of empire. Whether it’s Luke Skywalker and Jyn Erso, Paul Revere and George Washington, Jesus and Paul, Martin Luther King Jr. leading that march across the Pettus Bridge towards a line of policemen ready to beat back their dreams, or the ragtag bunch of misfits in detention in the Breakfast Club, pushing back against the divide-and-conquer regime of a public high school and a sadistic assistant principal.

We root for the little guys, the scrappy underdogs. We root for the freedom of people and ideas. We root for dissent and difference… at least, in our stories. At least, when the empire in question is a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.

In the latest Star Wars movie, Rogue One, the characters face a great moral choice in the face of an empire’s dominating power: whether to keep your head down and just try to survive, or to risk, and even to sacrifice, yourself in the hope of destabilizing the oppressive power of empire.

In the Gospels, and in the first centuries of Christianity taking root under Roman rule, Jesus and those who followed his Way faced a great moral choice: whether to keep your head down and just try to survive, or to risk, and even to sacrifice, yourself in the hope of destabilizing the oppressive power of empire.

What will we do when we hear the tramping boots of Herod’s soldiers? What will we do when the mindset of empire demands our compliance?

Christmas Day Sermon

Preached by the Rev. Thomas McAlpine. 

“Be not afraid” the angel of the Lord tells the shepherds. “Be not afraid,” for by all accounts the appearance of the angel of the Lord and the glory of the Lord “around them” would fill anyone with fear. “Be not afraid” also speaks to us as hearers, for after the first two readings and the psalm, so full of joy and good news, our Gospel reading opened “In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus…” and we fear that the party’s over before it started. We’re back—we fear—to the real world of governments, bureaucracies, taxes. (Those of us looking at our year-end financial situation with an eye on April 15 are participating in a not entirely welcome way in the Christmas story!) But no: God’s plan continues, and it turns out that God has used Caesar’s decree to place Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem—to make good on that promise through the prophet Micah. “In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus…” but that year is soon remembered not as the twenty-somethingeth year of Augustus’ reign, but as the first year of our Lord Jesus the Messiah. Back then the smart money would have been on Augustus rather than on that Jewish couple and their yet unborn child en route from Nazareth to Bethlehem. We may periodically fear that God’s promises are too weak to survive what we’re taught to call “the real world.” At such moments we can remember and be strengthened by the beginning of this Gospel.

Luke doesn’t tell us much about what Mary and Joseph made of all of this. But if they had their share of normal human hopes, fears, and doubts, then it was probably all a bit much. It was enough to deal with Mary’s premarital pregnancy. Would they have even tried to explain it to any of their neighbors? Then there was Caesar’s decree, so they’d be traveling in Mary’s ninth month. They arrive in Bethlehem and of course all the inns are full. The imperial census takers and their assistants need to stay somewhere, of course! So Mary gives birth in a barn. I suspect that she and Joseph looked at each other at multiple points and wondered if they were both delusional. That’s one of the reasons, I suspect, that God sent the shepherds to the barn. No, Mary and Joseph, you’re not delusional. You’re both tired from the journey, Mary beyond exhausted from giving birth, you’re in a barn, and God is more than well-pleased with your faithfulness. We sometimes look at our circumstances to determine whether God’s well-pleased with us. We need to remember tonight’s Gospel: they’re tired from the journey, who knows when they’d last bathed, any motel would be a step up, and God’s pleased enough to have sent out the whole heavenly host to celebrate.

We’re gathered here because of what happened some 2,000 years ago. It happened once—and forever changed our world. But the patterns in the story: these reflect the God we serve and the world we live in, and there’s more than a little to learn.

One more example, this time with the shepherds. Did you notice the seemingly extraneous phrases Luke throws into his story? “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.” Luke could have left that last bit out and we would never have missed it. Or at the end: “And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.” Luke wants us to notice, I think, how the life of faith works. It’s not a spectator sport. The shepherds are given the news—and they have to act on it. When they act, they see—as promised—and are in a position to glorify and praise God. Many times it’s like that with us. God’s word comes to us. We’re not sure what to make of it. It calls on us to act. The action may sound odd: Look for a babe wrapped in cloths and lying in a feed bin! Love your enemies! But if we do it, we discover reason to glorify and praise God—to rejoice.

So rejoice. This day is more than a match for the Roman Empire, for any empire. Whatever our circumstances we are not alone, and God will mobilize the entire heavenly host if needed. As with the shepherds—as with Mary and Joseph—the faith we’re called to is not a spectator sport. Hear the word, act on it, and you set yourself and the world on a trajectory that ends in joy. The most merry of Christmases to you.