Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Sermon; Christmas Eve 2014; Luke 2:1-20

“Do not be afraid,” said the angel Gabriel to Zechariah at the Annunciation of John the Baptist when he was told God was doing something new.

“Do not be afraid,” said the angel Gabriel to Mary at the Annunciation of Jesus when she was told God would be with her.

“Do not be afraid,” said the angel Gabriel to the shepherds in the fields at the annunciation of Jesus' birth and letting them know that God was with them.

I have a friend.  He needs an angel.  “Do not be afraid.  God will be with you and your child is holy.”

He and I went to seminary together and we were described as twins by different mothers separated at birth.  While at a party one evening, my daughter thought it would be a particularly good time to ask his long-time girlfriend, “When are you two getting married?”  Three months after graduation, they were married.

A few weeks ago they announced that they were expecting their first baby.  He will be 45 next month.

He spent a whole day on his Facebook page saying, “Huzzah!  We're having a baby!  Oh no . . . we're having a baby.  Huzzah!  We're having a baby!  Oh no . . . we're having a baby.”

The man needs an angel to tell him, “Do not be afraid.”

For those of us who have had children, either literally or as part of a team, babies are scary things.  They change your life like nothing else.  Your purchasing focus changes.  Your willingness to eat pickled peanut butter ice cream increases.  When you think about accessorizing your wardrobe, diaper bags and burp rags rise to the top of the list.

Babies demand all our attention and, it seems, resources.  We are constantly buying diapers (or we pay for a diaper service because . . . really).  Food bills increase.  Water and electricity bills increase.  You need to not forget it somewhere because you aren't used to having to tote one around.  And please, PLEASE, for those of you who may have your first baby at some point in the future, don't ever put the baby on top of the car when you load your groceries.  Remember . . . baby first, then groceries.  And they aren't like cats – you can't leave them alone with a bowl of food for a few days.

Babies terrify us.  What if we drop it?  What if we misplace it?  What if we can't get it to stop crying?  What if it stops breathing?  What if, what if, what if?

Do not be afraid.  God will be with you.  God is with us.

But I think we are afraid.  I think we are afraid to ponder the implications of the almighty and eternal God humbling himself to the extreme, being born a helpless, dependent baby.  I think we are afraid to admit that this newly born God-child needs us and relies on us to survive just as much as our own children need us and rely on us.

I think we are afraid that we are more like the innkeepers of Bethlehem than we care to admit.  When writing about the birth of Jesus, St. Jerome said, “The entire human race had a place, and the Lord had none.”  We have room in our lives for jobs, hobbies, TV, movies and daily coffee runs, among other things, but how much room do we make for God?

We are the innkeepers of our lives, and we decide who and what can enter.  Joseph, Mary and Jesus are looking for a place to stay, do not be afraid to make room for them.

Do not be afraid – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people.

Besides the fact that babies terrify us, babies also bring us great joy.  Think about a baby's smile.  Or better yet, think about going to youtube and searching for 'laughing babies'.  You can't help but smile or laugh at the thought because it is a moment of pure joy.  Other times can also offer joy – their first halting steps, the first time they think something is funny, the faces they make, their first mirror and their first words.

And when we think about these things, think about our participation in them.  We stick out our tongues.  We make silly noises.  We make googly words.  We laugh, we smile and we flirt.  We help make those moments joyful.

Do not be afraid to see Jesus as an infant.  Do not be afraid to exhibit that much joy.

Do not be afraid.

Zechariah and Elizabeth eventually got over their fears and welcomed with great joy what God was doing in their life.

Mary overcame her fears and agreed to take an active role in the mission of God.

The shepherds overcame their fears and went to visit the newborn Messiah at the request of the angel.

My friend will eventually overcome his fears and, with joyful abandon, welcome his new son into this world and his life.

And what about you?  Are you afraid of God doing something new?  Are you afraid of God being with you?  Are you afraid of seeing God as dependent on you?  Are you afraid to let God in?

This is Christmas, when a holy child is born and an angelic host gives tidings of good news and great joy.

This is Christmas.  Do not be afraid.

Do not be afraid to ponder the implications of the eternal God allowing himself to be born in a manger.  Do not be afraid to think that God relies on you.  Do not be afraid to open up your life to Christ and give him a place to stay.  Do not be afraid to see God doing something new.  Do not be afraid to live with great joy.

This is Christmas when we receive the greatest gift God could give us.  This is Christmas when we celebrate with joy the good news of God with us.  This is Christmas.  Do not be afraid.

And more importantly, do not be afraid to re-gift what God has given you.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Sermon; Advent 4B; Luke 1:39-55 (oops)

So . . . I made a mistake and prepped a sermon for Advent 4C . . . of YEAR C . . . not for Advent 4 of Year B.  In the immortal words of Agent 86, “Missed it by THAT much.”

So while we heard the story of the Annunciation today, I'll be preaching on the story of the Visitation; the time when Mary runs off to see Elizabeth who is pregnant with John.  In that story we hear of the difficult situation both Mary and Elizabeth were in, and we also get the Magnificat, that great song of protest and equality that has as its roots the Song of Hannah from 1 Samuel.  But within that very difficult situation, we also get joy.

Have you ever been in a difficult situation where you thought you were all alone?  For whatever reason we are placed in a situation where we think we are the first people in the history of the world to ever be in that situation, and we are lonely and afraid.

Certain jobs may fit that description.  Some jobs, even though surrounded by people, can best be described as isolated and lonely.  When I lived in Spokane, my bishop was part of a group called The Octet.  It consisted of himself, the Roman Catholic and United Methodist bishops, I think an Orthodox bishop, a Jewish leader of equal rank and I can't remember who all else.  They never really talked theology, but gathered because those eight knew what it was like to be in that particular position.  They could vent and share and support.  And in that group there was joy in a common understanding.

Mary is in need of that understanding.  She is technically an unmarried woman who finds herself pregnant.  She's not supposed to be pregnant.  She's probably afraid of being ostracized by the community.  She might be afraid for her life since she had apparently committed a capital offense.  And I’m willing to bet that she is most certainly feeling alone.

Elizabeth is also pregnant.  She's not supposed to be pregnant, because she was “getting on in years.”  She has been ostracized by the community for being barren.  Childbirth is hard on women, so she might be afraid for her life.  Her husband has been rendered mute.  She may be afraid, and she is probably feeling alone.

When Mary is told of the situation by Gabriel, she immediately goes to visit Elizabeth.  In this visit there is understanding between the two women.  There is acceptance.  There is relief that they are not alone.  There is a shared experience and there is joy.

Mary, in the Eastern Church, is given the title Theotokos, or God-bearer.  She is carrying not only her son, but God's Son.  The Divine has become incarnate.  After this miraculous event is announced by Gabriel, she goes to visit Elizabeth, who also received news of her pregnancy through Gabriel (second-hand, actually, as Gabriel visited Zechariah).

Elizabeth's pregnancy is no-less miraculous.  And while she doesn't bear God incarnate, she does bear the last of the great prophets.  Her child will grow up to fulfill the words of Isaiah and will prepare the way of the Lord.  He will call attention to what is wrong with the system and get people to open their eyes to God doing a new thing.  He will be big news, and then fade away like Pete Best or John Curulewski.  He has one essential purpose in life – announce the coming of the Messiah.

Have you ever been in a particular place and time where everything and everyone was blanketed by the presence of God?  It doesn't happen all the time, but when it does it is a powerful moment.

The Visitation was one such moment.  Two women, one past child-bearing age and one just entering that phase of her life, both carrying an unexpected, unusual and holy child, come together to share the experience  And because of the power of this moment, because this holy moment extends right down into the DNA, the unborn John leaps for joy at the presence of the unborn Jesus.

We are faced with a variety of circumstances throughout our lives that may be difficult and/or unpleasant.  Or we find ourselves in situations of loneliness.  A priest becomes a bishop and is faced with a lonely and difficult job.  An old woman becomes pregnant and is uncertain of her immediate future.  A young, unmarried woman becomes pregnant and is scared enough to run away for three months.

We face difficult periods all the time – if life is a bowl of cherries, why am I in the pits?  And sometimes those difficult times can overwhelm us.  From school shootings to terrorist attacks, from one war to another, from addictions to cancer, sometimes life seems like a steamroller and we are the asphalt.

Talking about joy in those circumstances can be difficult.  If we aren't careful, we will fill the air with pious platitudes promising nothing more than pie in the sky by and by.

But I am convinced that, while important to recognize difficulties, pain and suffering, it is vitally important to look for the joy in life.  A bishop found joy in relationships with other people in similar positions.  Two women, one older and one younger, found understanding and joy in a shared experience.  An unborn baby destined for a difficult life and violent death found joy in the presence of the unborn Christ.

Life can be hard.  We need to look for unexpected moments of joy in our lives on a regular basis.  If we don't, if we only focus on the difficult, then we might just end up like me, focusing on the wrong things and muttering those immortal words of Agent 86: Missed it by THAT much.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Sermon; Advent 3B; John 1:6-8, 19-28

Keep awake.  Be alert.  Stay watchful.
The kingdom has come.  The kingdom is in our midst.  The kingdom has yet to come.

These are the themes of Advent – be awake, alert and watchful, the kingdom is upon us.

This is not news to us.  Every year we prepare for the coming of Christ.  Every year we change the hangings to blue.  Every year we process Mary and Joseph up the aisle.  Every year we celebrate the first coming of Christ as a baby born to Mary & Joseph in a stall.  Every year we acknowledge the kingdom that is come has yet to appear.  Every year we watch and wait.

Hopefully we treat Advent with the intentionality it deserves.  Hopefully we don't slip into a business-as-usual mindset.  Hopefully we aren't lulled to sleep by the routine of it all.  Hopefully we can keep awake and be alert to the coming of the kingdom.

A reason that Advent has this alert and watchful theme about it is that we can never be sure when and where the kingdom of God will manifest itself.  The reason we need to stay awake and not get lulled to sleep by the routine of it all is because, according to Jesus, the kingdom of God will come like a thief in the night.

Be awake, therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.

I want to go back to the second half of Matthew 25 for a minute.  That was the gospel selection three weeks ago, so you should all remember it, right?  Anyone?  Here's a hint:  sheep, goats . . .

Now that we're all on the same page, remember that Jesus was separating the people between those who were invited into the kingdom and those who had room reservations . . . elsewhere.  And if you've forgotten, the criteria for deciding on who went where was whether or not a person fed, clothed, welcomed and visited those whom Jesus called, “the least of these.”

There are a couple of implications within that story.  The first, and most important, is that we need to see those in in need not as problems to be fixed, annoyances to be ignored or sent elsewhere, but as people to be acknowledged and humans to be cared for and respected.  Jesus is articulating what it looks like when we respect the dignity of every human being (also proving that he was an Episcopalian).

Another implication in this story is the anonymous Jesus.  Like Henry V wandered anonymously among his troops before the Battle of Agincourt, or like Hebrews 13:2 when the author writes, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it,” we also must be aware of the king anonymously in our midst.  It's easy to treat with respect and dignity those whom you know their status.  It's quite another to treat a person as a king or queen when you believe them not to be.

As a side note, a similar situation happens to me and Joelene when people find out I'm a priest – or she's married to a priest – after uttering a few choice words.

So a question for us reading Matt. 25 is this: what if we treated everyone as if they were Jesus?

Stay awake.  Pay attention.  Be alert.

Enough of Matt. 25, let's go back to John.  Last weeks' gospel was taken from Mark and introduced us to John the Baptist.  In Advent we are preparing for the coming of the Messiah.  Last week we were given a passage that helped us do just that – a voice crying out in the wilderness, “Prepare the way of the Lord.”

Today we get yet another story of John the Baptist.  Why is this?  In the Advent cycle we move from the Grand Finale of the end days and yet-to-occur Second Coming on Advent 1 to his first coming in the form of a baby born to a young woman in a crowded town amid the animals and placed in a feeding trough on Christmas.  Why spend two weeks from two sources on John the Baptist?

I think it's to drive home the point that John is not Jesus.  In short, the early church had a John problem, so it worked very hard to turn him into a secondary character.  I’ll stop there, because I'm starting to get sidetracked.  But we have two weeks of John telling us to prepare for the one to come.

Both today and last week, John proclaims, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, 'Make straight the way of the Lord'.”  And today we get a confrontation between him and some religious authorities.

In that confrontation John says, “Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one coming after me.”

I think this is one of those deceptively easy verses that has a vitally important message for us.

For better or for worse, we as Christians are the dominating force in this country.  We are the religious majority.  We are the religious leaders.  And if we are not careful, we just may miss seeing Jesus standing among us.

How humans treat other humans is a big part of Scripture.  How humans treat other humans appears to be a major concern of God – see Matt. 25 and Hebrews 13:2.  In Matthew, Hebrews and today's gospel, we are reminded that the king is among us.  We need to remember that how we choose to treat others reflects how we choose to treat Christ.

The kingdom has come.  The kingdom is in our midst.  The kingdom has yet to come.
Stay awake.  Pay attention.  Be alert.  Among you stands one whom you do not know.

Amen.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Dreams

I have some fairly odd dreams.

This morning, just before the alarm went off, I was dreaming that some of my fellow football officials convinced me to officiate basketball.

They needed me because the local Catholic Basketball League needed officials who could celebrate Mass following each game.

Now there's a new twist on ecumenical relationships.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Basketball

Let's be clear:

I don't do basketball (well, unless we're talking about Gonzaga).
I don't like basketball.
I don't follow basketball.

But from what little I've seen, there is some serious weirdness going on this year in the NCAA.

New Jersey Institute of Technology, whose home court is basically a health club, beat Michigan.

Tonight, Incarnate Word beat Nebraska.

When the Tournament begins, I just might have to place a bet on those 16 seeds.

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Pandora's Box

This can't be good.

Officials in an Oklahoma high school football playoff game incorrectly administered a penalty, thereby negating a winning TD and causing that team to lose the game.

The situation has gone to court, and now a district court judge will be ruling on the case.

You can read all about it here.

Was the penalty administered incorrectly?  Definitely.

Did that change the outcome of the game?  Definitely.

But sometimes bad stuff happens that doesn't go your way and you need to deal with it.  Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, sometimes you get screwed.  Some days you're the hammer, some days you're the nail.

The point is, if this case is upheld it will give every person and every team a legal reason to cry, "Foul!" and, "That's not fair!" and run to a lawyer and the courts every time there is a real or perceived bad call that kept them from getting what they felt they deserved.

Don't get me wrong -- I'm not defending the crew here.  They made a terrible mistake.  There really is no excuse for a game official, let alone five of them, to not know the penalty enforcement on a relatively easy situation -- we aren't talking any of the really screwy stuff that can sometimes happen when that oblong, pointy ball starts bouncing around the field.  And I've read on a couple of forums that the crew has been disciplined by the powers that be and that there will be at least one, maybe two, officials who has/have chosen to retire from officiating, never to work another game again.

That is a terrible way to end a career and those five men will have to live with that mistake the rest of their lives.  And no court decision will ever allow them to get over it.

Sometimes life just sucks.  If the Oklahoma court upholds this appeal and decides to replay the game, or award the victory to the aggrieved team, I can guarantee you life will suck even more.

Especially for the men and women in stripes.

Sunday, December 07, 2014

Sermon; Advent 2B; Isaiah 40:1-11, Mark 1:1-8

“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” – Isaiah 40:3

“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you . . . the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, 'Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight'.” – Mark 1:2-3

The readings from both Isaiah and Mark have a sense of movement about them.  The passage from Isaiah is written to a people in exile.  The Babylonians have conquered Jerusalem and carted off the majority of the population.  In the midst and recent memory of that terrible event, God sends words of comfort to his people through Isaiah.

Remember, God says, you were once captives in another strange land a long time ago.  And I will deliver you through the wilderness just as I did to your ancestors.  Every mountain will be made low, every valley raised up and the uneven ground made level.

This is good news for the captives of Babylon.  Even though this captivity would last anywhere from 48 – 70 years (depending on your sources and math), it won't last forever and there is hope that God will once again lead the captives free.  The Jews are moving from freedom to captivity and back to freedom.

In Mark, we are introduced to John the Baptist.  He is depicted as the second coming of Elijah.  Exactly what Mark thought of him is debatable, but it is clear that Mark sees him as the last great prophet of God before the coming of the Messiah.

John arrives on the scene in advance of Jesus.  He comes to announce the coming of the Messiah.  He comes to announce to the people it's time to start paying attention.  He comes to get people to move from complacency to action.  He comes to open their eyes to seeing God do new things in a new way with new people.  There begins with John a movement from the way things have always been to the way things should be.

From captivity to freedom.  From the old ways of religious duty to a new way of God with us.  From repentance to forgiveness.  From water to the Holy Spirit.  Our readings today give us a sense of movement.  The season of Advent also gives us a sense of movement as we prepare to move toward Christmas.

This movement, though, can be self-centered.  WE are moving from captivity to freedom.  WE are moving to a new way of relating to God.  WE are moving toward Christmas.  This isn't necessarily a bad thing.  It's good for us to move to freedom.  It's good for us to find new ways to relate to God.  It's good to move toward Christmas.

But take a look at those passages again:  In the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord; Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.  Notice who is doing the moving; it's not us, per se, but God.  God is doing a new thing.  God is on the move.  And notice that we are the ones doing the preparing.

In Isaiah, the prophet tells the people that God is coming to release them from captivity and lead them to freedom.  In Mark, the prophet tells the people that the kingdom is at hand and God is in their midst.

What does all this mean for us?  It means we have a job to do.  Both prophets talk about preparing the way of the Lord.  Like when company comes to visit, God is coming and we all have a job to do to get ready.  We all have a job to do to prepare the way of the Lord.

The way of the Lord, though, isn't an actual road.  The way of the Lord is how God chooses to do business.  God's desire is to remove those man-made mountains, valleys and uneven ground so that the way to God and full humanity are made easier.

The way of the Lord is this: walk humbly, love mercy, seek justice, love your neighbor, care for the widow and orphan, feed the hungry, welcome the stranger, respect the dignity of every human being, worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness.

This is the way of the Lord and it is our job to help prepare it.  It is our job to hep ensure those kingdom values are reflected here on earth.  Can we help lower the mountains of injustice?  Can we fill in the valleys of hunger?  Can we level the ground made uneven by loss of dignity?  Can we proclaim the good news of God in Christ in a beautiful and holy way so as to be heard by others?

We obviously can't do it all, but we are making a good start.  We are helping to fill in those valleys of hunger by providing snack packs to the kids at Ft. Vannoy.  We are helping to create a level ground of dignity by providing clothing to them as well.  We are, in a small way, helping to prepare the way of the Lord.  This is good news.

The lessons today have a sense of movement about them.  While Advent is a time of expectant and hopeful waiting, Advent is also a time of moving.  It is a time of journeys.  It is a time of preparation.

This Advent, let us continue to prepare the way of the Lord in heart, mind and soul.

Amen.