Reading with Mary

Fra Angelico’s The Annunciation

the fourth Sunday of Advent
December 20, 2020

2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16
Psalm 89:1-4, 19-26
Romans 16:25-27
Luke 1:26-38

Click here for these readings.

            We come this morning, in the eleventh hour before Christmas, on this the fourth Sunday of Advent, to one of the greatest moments in the history of our faith: the Annunciation. Now, I know I say this a lot. I think, over the past few months, we’ve come to many different “best parts” of the Bible. Jesus’ sermon on the mount, the beatitudes, the garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus prays for the cup to be taken from him – but not my will, he says to God, but yours. There’s the crucifixion and the Resurrection, the 23rd Psalm and the giving of the Ten Commandments and, you know, the whole creation story, too. All of it is magnificent, and it is a joy to spend our days hearing these magnificent stories again and again, pondering them and considering them, together or alone in the quiet of our rooms, while talking together or deep in our heart of hearts.

            And today, this very morning, we have another: the Annunciation, the moment of Incarnation, the request of God – not the demand, not the inevitability, not the violent act, but the request of God to a young woman named Mary and her “yes” that met God in hope and joy. And, of course, the Incarnation, the birth of Jesus Christ, our Savior, that came from this meeting.

            Just like the crucifixion, just like the resurrection, and just like so many different parts of Jesus’ life and ministry, this short story in the book of St. Luke has been read, considered, pondered over, and contemplated by the Church for two thousand years. And in the art of those who chose to draw or paint this scene, there’s something really beautiful that so often happens. When Gabriel comes into Mary’s room to say, perhaps, with a loud, booming voice, to give a message and a request maybe to the sound of trumpets and great fanfare, to announce God’s pleasure and joy and hope for humanity, the angel always finds Mary doing one thing: reading. Whether she has her book open on a table and is sitting back regally, looking over it with calm eyes, or, she’s got her nose stuck in the book, hiding away in its joys, Mary is always reading in paintings of the Annunciation. Isn’t that interesting?

            Now, for us book lovers, this is a great joy. It reminds us of experiences that we’ve always had with literature or study, that God’s word can come to us in the thick of a book. We book lovers talk about our books like they’re treasures, and that’s because they are. I knew a man, a teacher of mine, who grew up in a country where books were outlawed, and when he first saw a library the man almost fainted. Our book club here at St. James meets eagerly each month to tell out what we’ve had our noses in, swapping favorites and suggesting books new and old, because books fill us so much with life and joy. And we Christians are often called the People of the Book, because we have at the center of our religious life, a very thick and beautiful Book. We’ve all had experiences of God in books, in some way or another.

            But there is something more than just a love of literature in Mary’s reading. For reading isn’t a sure-fire way to hearing the word of God. We don’t summon God when we open up a book. God is sometimes there, and sometimes God isn’t. Sometimes, when we turn to our favorite books, places where we were once filled with the Spirit up to our noses, we look down instead on plain, dead words.

            Or, sometimes, when we read, our eyes just kinda glance over the words. We get the gist of them, but we don’t really drink them in. Maybe we’re tired, maybe we’ve read the words just a few too many times, and maybe our hearts are just not there right now. There are even times, for myself, and I know it’s true for others, when reading Morning Prayer is really just reading it. I get through the prayers without actually praying them. Sure, my eyes scan the page, my mouth reads the great words handed down to us from generations past, but I don’t really pray them.

            And we can do a lot without much thought. I can drive around Coquille without much thought about where to turn, and get there safely. I can fix breakfast for myself and Helene and the girls before I’ve ever really woken up. We can pray, whether we’ve got a book in front of us or we’re praying our heart, without much depth and connection to God. We can go through the motions, pray the same prayers, skim the surface of our hearts without really getting down to what our hearts and souls truly wish to say. Often, it’s a bit too easy for us to go through the motions, to get things over with without actually thinking about them, to just kinda putter along.

            We are called on as Christians, however, to a different sort of attention. And we see this attention in Mary at the Annunciation. For Gabriel comes to her while she’s reading, with fanfare and joy and trumpets and announces, “Hail Mary! Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” And Mary goes, huh, let me think about this for a while. Let me ponder this. Let me turn it over in my heart and consider it. Maybe she’s taken aback with the fanfare, maybe she’s confused, maybe she sees something that she’s always seen and known and needs a moment to put things together. But, whatever the case, her response isn’t to jump up and do something, but to sit with what she has heard, to ponder it it in her heart, to be patient and see.

            And here’s another part of all this: neither Gabriel nor God chides her for this. Mary sits in thought and Gabriel doesn’t say, “Hey, you laze-a-bed! Get up and answer me!” Gabriel explains, directs, joins her in her thoughts, and explains a bit more of what he’s about.

            And when Mary says, yet again, hold on angel, go back a bit, there’s something I don’t understand about all this; then, again, Gabriel explains more, tells more, enters into her thoughtfulness and patience and talks to her.

            The other day I tried a new cookie recipe, something I had never baked before, and so I went slowly through the recipe, measuring each ingredient carefully, following each direction to a T. This past week, I sat down with Gwendolyn and one of her easy-reader books. We went through it word by word, sounding out the ones she couldn’t read, walking her through the sentences step by step. This month we decorated our house and the Christmas tree, and we took each decoration out of their boxes with delicacy and care, knowing and remembering the stories of how we got them, or found them, or who gave them to us; then telling the children each story, laughing over some, crying a little over others, but telling the stories, each story, because each story is important, each story must be told.

            Our lives don’t always allow us to move slowly. Sometimes there are emergencies, sometimes we have a long list of things we’ve got to get done. Sometimes people need us. And yet all the world was rushing to fulfillment, the great promises of God were climbing to a crescendo, everything that had been prepared from before time was about to come true, and Mary stopped, paused, considered. She gave one of the most important moments in all the world the care and attention that it deserved. And in this she showed us how we should pray, read, bake, live, love.

            Thank you, gracious Lord, for all that you give us. May we receive these gifts as Mary received your angel from heaven.

The Longest Night

On the evening of Gaudate Sunday, the 3rd Sunday of Advent, three of the South Coast Convocation priests gathered together to film a “Longest Night” service. This service, also often called “Blue Christmas” to written to bring together those feelings of grief and loss that can accompany (or, at times, override) our feelings of joy during the holiday season. The best description of this service, however, comes from the bidding prayer that begins the liturgy:

Welcome to this “Longest Night” service. The name comes from the
season– during this season in December, we experience the shortest day
and the longest night of the year. But the name also applies to the feeling
that a number of us have about this season. It is the “long dark night of the
soul,” the “winter of our discontent.” It is a time when the memories of past
experiences and the pain of present experiences can become
overwhelming. In this service, we will have some music which is
appropriate to the season, recognizing that this is not necessarily a season
of joy. We will invite you to meditate on the pain and anguish you bring,
and to offer your pain to the Christ child. And we trust that you will find
hope and comfort in knowing that you are not alone.

Please join us in praying for those who have suffered loss, either this year or in years past, and especially for those who are coming to this holiday season with fresh wounds and recent losses. Please, also, pray for us all in these times, that we may grieve well and open our hearts to the presence of God in dark times.

Here is the link to the service:

Click here for the bulletin: Longest Night Service 2020

Gaudate! Joy! Pink Candles!

the 3rd Sunday of Advent
Gaudate Sunday
December 13th, 2020

Today’s Readings are:
Isaiah 61:-14, 8-11
Psalm 126
1 Thessalonians 5:16-24
John 1:6-8, 19-28

If you don’t have a Bible handy, click here for these readings.

            There is no anticipation like the anticipation of a child waiting for Christmas. This past week we bought a Christmas tree. We went out to the little lot near Farr’s hardware store in Coos Bay, strapped it to the roof of the car. The kids sang the whole way home. And I gotta say, so did I. Then we unloaded the thing, dragged it in – more singing, though now dancing. We cleaned up the den, reorganized some furniture, all while talking about Christmases of the past, of when Helene and I were children, about Santa Claus and leaving him cookies, or the time Dad flew us to NJ from Eugene on Christmas Eve to arrive at the crack of dawn on Christmas morning. Then the tree went up and the boxes of ornaments came out, and the girls were bouncing off the walls with joy and anticipation. Mmm, I poured everyone a cup of egg nog and we put up lights and turned on the music and sung along. I put out the trains that I’ve had since childhood – these big G-gauge things – and then turned out all the lights except those on the tree. Christmas is almost here! It’s almost here, and the girls were wild with expectation.

            Advent is about preparation, expectation, and anticipation. Sometimes that preparation is soft and gentle and quiet, like sitting in front of the oven and watching the cookies slowly bake, or sipping some ho cocoa at the end of the day when the evening light is blue and the sky is orange and pink. But other times it’s a pretty energy-packed anticipation: like wrapping gifts that you wish you could just give right now because the gift is so great; or thinking about Christmas dinner which somehow is just yummier than any other night, even if it’s the same faire, because it’s Christmas.

            During Advent, we’re all just waiting, but I don’t think there’s really just one thing that people are waiting for. Is it Christmas Eve, with the candle light and singing Silent Night? Is it waking up Christmas morning? Is it giving that person you love so dearly that gift and watching them open it and the light in the eyes showing you their joy? Or is it, as I heard some folks talk about it this past week, the joy of serving at our food bank, handing people a bag full of groceries and a ham, no strings attached, just because we love our neighbors and want to give them some of our heart? What are we waiting for? What are we anticipating? Well, really, all of it. All of it tied together and individually, all of Christmas, wrapped up in a bun, from the first Sunday of Advent to the twelfth day of Christmas on January 5th. The whole kitten kabootle.

            You know, Mary was waiting, too. Mary was waiting for Christmas, though she didn’t call it Christmas. She probably called it something like “that time” or “when he comes”, like we do when we’re waiting for a birth. And, yes, she was waiting for something very specific – the actual birth – but she and Joseph were probably waiting for much more. Like any parent, they were waiting for all those joys and struggles of parenthood – of teaching their child their traditions, how to love like God loves us, how to be a neighbor and how to live to those in need. Things were going to change, they knew it, but they didn’t know how – not exactly. Something new was on the horizon and, like all parents, they were joyful even though they didn’t really know exactly what it all would look like.

            And there’s more. Mary and Joseph knew that this wouldn’t just be their beloved child; he would also be the savior, the promised one of Israel, the Messiah, the one who everyone was waiting for. John the Baptist went out into the wilderness, crying out for all to make straight the path, calling those around him to repentance of sin, because of just this same expectation. He was the person to point to this newness. He was the morning star, shining in the heavens, announcing the coming of the Sun and the bright day after the long night. But did he know what it would look like? Probably not. He was the morning star, but he was still in the dark. Dawn was coming, but what would it be like on the new day? What would the coming of the Messiah look like? What would he be like? Should I kneel down before him or throw my arms around him?

            What is this newness that we’re waiting for on Christmas? Well, in a way, it isn’t new at all. Each year we bring out the same ornaments, the same decorations. Each year we drink egg nog or hot cocoa and put up lights, sing the same songs, and do the same kinda things. This year will be a little different with COVID, but those traditions are still there. They don’t go away.

            But even still, something new is coming on Christmas. For during Advent and Christmas we don’t just remember those times when the Hebrew people were waiting for the Messiah back 2,000 years ago, or the birth of Jesus and Mary going, “Fwew, alright, now the fun begins.” Church is not just about remembering things but about living them. We prepare during Advent and celebrate during Christmas because that expectation and that newness is happening in our hearts as well. We are being born with Jesus Christ on Christmas; we are being reborn in Jesus Christ in our lives.

            Reborn. You know, some times the heart grows kinda musty, doesn’t it? It gets hard, maybe, or brittle, like a cookie you just didn’t bake right. It gets tired, or lonely, or loses its way. Too often, it sins, and we don’t know how to fix things, or even if they could be fixed at all. Our hearts can, far too often, be like that beloved ornament you find at the bottom of a box, all broken to pieces. The sight of it pierces your heart because you know that, if you hadn’t forgotten about it, maybe it wouldn’t be broken, but would be on the tree with all the others. Our hearts are like that sometimes. Our relationship with God is like that sometimes.

            And so we turn to God and say, “Fix it, please, God. Fix this heart that’s broken. I can’t even see where the pieces fix anymore.” And God says, “With pleasure. And I shall make it new like you’ve never imagined! And it will not just be an ornament among many but will be the star at the top!”

            God fixes things. God makes all things new. And we don’t just remember this, but practice it, live it, each and every time we turn to God. We live it when we turn to our neighbor and apologize for a wrong done. We do it ritually each week when we confess our sins. And we do it when we receive any of the sacraments, and especially the most Blessed Sacrament in the Eucharist. And we do it now, in Advent, awaiting Christmas day, that day that is an image of all of God’s renewal and rescue. For a baby wasn’t just born in Bethlehem two thousand years ago. We were reborn. We were given new life. We were rescued and our hearts mended so that all that we’ve ever longed for or hoped for could come true. That little baby in Mary’s arms is life, and Life everlasting.

            And, for now, we wait, while God bends down over our hearts and fixes them. We wait anxiously by his side, wondering if it could really be true that our heart can be mended. It was so broken. We were so lost. But even now, even now God is turning to us and saying, “See, beloved? You are whole again. Let us wipe away those tears. All is new once more.”

In the Wilderness

the Second Sunday of Advent
December 6th, 2020

Today’s readings are:
Isaiah 40:1-11
Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13
2 Peter 3:8-15a
Mark 1:1-8

If you don’t have a Bible handy, click here for these readings.

            John the Baptist cries out in the wilderness – and normally , we priests need to explain a bit about what this means. What’s the wilderness? Why is it important that he’s crying out there? All this. But I think that you all might get a little of what he’s talking about. 2020 has kinda been the year of the wilderness. A lot of things that were once familiar look kinda different. Things that we long to do – like go see our family, take part in celebrations, enjoy a night out at dinner – we can’t do them. Or, at the very least we can’t do them as we usually could.

            And even though we’re celebrating the Eucharist this morning, church looks pretty different. I’m wearing a mask, we’re not singing hymns but just humming along with the organ, and we won’t be receiving the Blessed Sacrament at the altar rails. And that’s hard. It’s hard not seeing someone you love and throwing your arms around them. It’s hard not sitting down with a nice cup of joe and talking about life together. And I’m sure it’s very hard for those at home right now who cannot join us because, well, even this small of a gathering is too much of a risk. It’s important and even necessary that we do these things, but even still, it’s pretty hard.

            Now, the wilderness shows up pretty often in the Bible. We get it here, with John the Baptist, out in the wilderness eating wild honey and wearing camel skin. Jesus, if you recall, once he’s baptized, goes out into the wilderness and is tempted by the devil. And the Hebrew people, when they are led by Moses out of slavery in Egypt, don’t arrive safe and sound a few days later in the Promised Land; they out in the wilderness for years. Forty years, in fact.

            But the wilderness isn’t just some place you don’t want to be. It’s not something you just have to deal with. The wilderness isn’t something you just grit your teeth over and wonder when it’ll all be finished. In the Bible, the wilderness is a place of transformation. It’s a place to re-examine what we thought we already knew and to go maybe go through some pretty troubling experiences but growing from them, learning from them – and, importantly growing closer to God through them. We learn who we are in the wilderness. We learn what it is to be the people of God in the wilderness.

            I had a wilderness experience early last year. We were on our way to Coos Bay, me, Helene, and the kids, when suddenly we heard a helicopter above us. And what was weird, it was following us, all along highway 42. Weird. But then we realized, wait a sec, this isn’t a helicopter, it’s a flat tire. So we pulled over, got out the car manual, dug in the back trunk, because where in the world do you put a spare tire in a hatch-back? (the answer: under the car)

            I’ve changed a few tires before, so it wasn’t all that hard. It took only a few minutes, but changing a tire when there are trucks whizzing by is kinda harrowing work. But, you know, in that time (which was only about twenty minutes), no less than three cars stopped to offer us some help. Two young guys stopped and literally bounced joyfully out of their car to see if we needed help, and another man, after seeing that I had everything under control, decided to share the gospel with me instead.

            But out in that wilderness I learned two things: that I did, in fact, know how to change a tire; and two, and much more importantly, people in this community want to help each other. And I have to say, in an election year, that is a really, really good thing to remember.

            What can we learn in our wilderness? What is God trying to teach us as we wander through restrictions and spikes in cases and the sadness of the loss of life? Well, in a way, some of the same things that God is always trying to teach us: the importance and love of community, and the presence of God in that love and community. The grace of giving and living for one another, not for ourselves. And that very important lesson that we must think and live and act not from a sense of scarcity but from abundance.

            And that is all, of course, rather general. But I will ask you this question: what is God, specifically, hoping that you will see and learn and come to know in this time in the wilderness?

What part inside yourself is God trying to illuminate, be it to show you some more of God’s grace or to work out some knot within you? What part of yourself, and what part of your community, is God directing you towards, lovingly working in you the sight to see, the care to tend, and the joy to nurture?

            Now, it’s generally pretty bad form to answer a question you ask someone, so forgive me, but I think one thing that God is teaching us is the same thing I learned on the side of the highway 42. No, not how to change a tire, but community, and the love and need for community. We can do a lot, but we can’t do it alone. We need one another, and that goes for our church and local community as much as it does for our national community. It’s too easy to be divided. It’s time to do the hard work of living together – of really living together.

            And for right now, there’s just only so much of that that we can do. We’re still restricted to small gatherings. I’ll be distributing the sacrament today in little baggies and handing them to you with lemon tongs. We can’t hug each other during the peace like we want to.

            But, again, we must think not from scarcity but from abundance. God has given us so much. This church been able to worship in-person since the summer, and Morning Prayer is a great, beautiful, and soulful service. We have the internet to stream to all those of our loved ones who can’t be with us in the building. And we have our faith and the devotion that we’ve built up through worshipping together for years upon years. God is saying to us now, as God is always saying, do not forget the love that I have poured out, and will pour out, and even now at this very moment, AM pouring out upon your hearts and your communities.

            And this – this is a great thing. It’s a great thing to learn, and it’s a great thing to remember, and it’s a great thing to live within, that we are beloved and always are beloved of the Lord our God. We still have a bit of wilderness to get though with COVID, but God is present even in the wilderness – or perhaps you could say especially in that wilderness, guiding us, loving us, living to us. And God’s love is overflowing the borders of the world and calling us to live and to speak and to be one thing: love.

Happy New Year!

the First Sunday of Advent
November 29th, 2020

Today’s readings are:
Isaiah 64:1-9
Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18
1 Corinthians 1:3-9
Mark 13:24-37

If you don’t have a Bible handy, click here for these readings.

Happy New Year! It may be November still, and you might still be sleeping off your turkey dinners from last Thursday, but it is Advent nevertheless! Outside, our culture might be winding down 2020, but for us Christians in the Church, we’re all about “put the old year behind us” and “welcome the new year ahead of us.” It’s purple time, Advent time, the time for preparing and expectations.

            Now, our modern culture is also preparing and expecting, but in a very different way. For our culture, “preparing” about energy, busyness, rushing about getting this ready. Holiday decorations have been out for more than a month, and most holiday movies I can remember are about rushing around. Busy busy busy.

            The image I have, actually, is of my pet hamster that I had as a kid. The hamster had a litter of hamster pups, and I remember looking into her cage as she was trying to keep them all in her little nest. There were several pups, and one of them, now and again, would pop out of the nest and go scrambling to the other side of the cage. The mother would suddenly leap up and go to gather it back to the nest, but while she did, another pup would, pop!, hop out and go rushing around the cage. The mother would deposit the first pup back in the nest, then go after this other pup. But as she did, another pup would fling itself out and go rushing about. Back and forth and back and forth the mother would go, and there was no end to it. That’s kinda how December works for our culture: we’re so busy preparing that we run ourselves exhausted. By Christmas, all we want to do is sleep and not think about how, by January (if not December 26th!), we should probably have all our decorations down already.

            But we Christians, we’re called on to prepare differently. And we may look around at all this frantic energy and think, well, let’s just do the opposite. Let’s be quiet, easy, gentle. Let’s not put up lights or sing and let’s be all dour and kinda blah. Let us wait patiently, like a well-trained dog with a biscuit on its nose, waiting for its master to give the command so we can flip it into our mouths and eat.

            But Advent isn’t about obedience – not like a trained dog anyway. Advent is about preparedness, about holy preparedness. It’s about preparing our hearts, minds, spirits, and communities for the presence of the Lord.

            You see, we’re living in a story. The Christian life is about a story. It’s about the story of God in our hearts, and it’s about the story of God in the Church, the world, and in history. And we Christians don’t read this story like a picture book, where we sit with it for a while and, when we’re done, say, ahh, yes, that was very nice, wasn’t it, and put it back up on the shelf. We live that story. We become a part of it. And one of the ways we live it is through the Church Year.

            Each year we live through the life of Jesus Christ in Christmas and Epiphany, Lent and Easter. We live through the birth of the Church on Pentecost and the whole movement of the Holy Spirit among us during the long season of Ordinary Time. And living through them, we experience the presence of God in all the different ways that God is among us, from the joys of Christmas to the grief of Good Friday and into the sudden and overwhelming joy of Easter. And living God’s story like this works God’s presence deeper and deeper into our hearts, until we become that story, until we eat, breath, speak, and love that story as who we are.

            And today this morning, we begin that story again. We begin before Christmas, way back in the time of Isaiah and the Psalmist, where the promises of God’s presence seemed so far off. We walk with Isaiah who is so ready for God: O that you would tear open the heavens and come down!” I’m ready, Lord! Let’s get on with it, he says.

            Then there’s the Psalmist, who is also waiting, though with a little less frustration but all the same yearning. The Psalmist is like a kid who just can’t wait until Christmas morning but who waits, diligently counting down the days one by one, who looks out at all the lights going up and the decorations all around the house and who prays with his insides bursting, “Oh, let time go faster, God! I can’t wait!” “Restore us, O God of hosts” he sings. “Show us the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved!”

            And then there’s Jesus himself, who says, “Keep awake!” Keep awake, my children, for the Lord is nigh!

            Or look to our Advent hymns. O Come O Come Emmanuel is about deep, deep longing for something good beyond our wildest dreams. We are captive, we sing, and we mourn in lonely exile here – until the Son of God appear.

            This isn’t the hyper energy of our culture, nor is it the kind of easy patience that doesn’t really do anything but wait with a quiet smile. We’re not just sitting here moaning, asking God from the back of the car, “Are we there yet?” There is an activity in all this, but it is directed, thoughtful, hopeful, earnest activity. Think of those times you stayed up late, until the kids were asleep, wrapping their gifts, your heart high because you know that, when they’re opened, they’ll bring such delight. Or think of those times at our food bank, when folks come in who are just hungry, but you hand them not just a bag of groceries but good cheer and hope as well. I think of the time in our church service, right after the confession but before the absolution, that time of silence where our hearts are heavy with our sin but we know, because we know God, that we are forgiven and repaired to the Lord. Think of, after a long, tired trip, you see that first sight of home, and your heart rises in your chest and your mind thinks of all the comforts that will soon surround you and the deep slumber that you’ll find in your own bed.

            For the tone of our waiting and expectation isn’t the command “Do it now!”, nor is it tinged with doubt, but it is this: “Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel SHALL come to thee.” “We shall be saved!” Stay awake, not because Jesus might come back but because he WILL come back – and, as I said in my sermon last week, he’s already here among us.

            We are entering now into a purple time. Sure, it’s raining more often, sunset happens at something like 4:00 here in Oregon, and even at noon the sun is pretty low on the horizon. It’s a dark time, but not a bad-dark time, but a dark time of reflection, of thoughtful and quiet reflection. It’s a time to crack open the Bible beside a single lamp and read those parts that fill us with hope. It’s a time to light a candle before dinner and turn off all the lights, then sing a hymn of expectation and hope with your family. It’s a time for a long walk in the morning before the sun gets up, not just to keep healthy and give the dog some exercise, but also to see the stars twinkling in expectation of the coming dawn. For those are our hearts as well, twinkling at the expectation of our Lord upon us.

            Christmas is on the horizon. Restore us O Lord God of hosts; show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.