Alive with the Light of God

Christmas Eve, 11:00
24 December 2019

This evening’s readings are:
Isaiah 9:2-7
Psalm 96
Titus 2:11-14
Luke 2:1-20

Click here to access these readings.

            So, this is something of a night owl sermon, but I’m assuming that if you’re here for the 11:00 Mass on Christmas Eve, you’re something of a night owl. If you’re a morning person, then cool, just wait a bit, I’m going to get to some morning stuff soon, but for a moment, I want to preach about how wonderful it is to go to church late at night.

            I’m a new priest, so I haven’t done many late-night Christmas services. As a child, my family went to the evening service at our local church just up the hill from where we lived. This was in New Jersey, and the church was in the New England style: white walls and tall, tall windows. Outside, everything was dark and sleepy, and this only made the light inside shine the brighter. There were greens and red banners and ribbons all over the place, people were sleepy but awake and strangely energized with that joy of Christmas. We’d sing Christmas carols, listen to the sermon, then leave into the frosty air and drive home to sleep and await Christmas morning.

            But there is something even more different about going to church in the dead of the night. Again, if you’re a night owl, this certainly isn’t the dead of the night (that’s like, what, 3:00?), but by this time, we’ve finished with the work of the day, put away the plates and left-overs from dinner, tucked in the kids, and finally settled down in a favorite chair, maybe cracked open a book. But to go out at this late hour, to put on a coat instead of pajamas, and to come to church to sing and to praise God with our fellow Christians – there’s a grace to this, a special grace and joy. On nights like this, I personally can really feel that God has made the whole Creation new in Jesus Christ. Late nights like this are like fresh snow on the ground, or a pristine starry sky, or that first breath of spring on the air, the golden light of dawn or the blue, twilit evening.

            Christmas Eve is about moving from Advent to Christmas, from the time of waiting, of expectation, of promised joy and light, to the fulfillment of that light, the answer to the promise, to the presence of Jesus Christ. And here, especially at this late service, is when we experience this turn, this turn from “how long, O Lord, how long” to “I am here.” And we know this turn, don’t we? We know those times when we have waited, patiently or impatiently, upon the Lord. We know the Lord’s call on us to wait and to expect, for God does not come at our beck and call as if, when we snapped our fingers, God comes running. But we also know the coming and the presence of God, when God swoops into our lives and fills us, fills us to the brim and then more, so that our cup runneth over and we know that God is good and holy and alive.

            And it is at this service, deep into the night, when we experience that turn, when we gather together and see Jesus coming and experience him here. It’s like driving before dawn (I wonder if you’ve experienced this, too). I’ve been going up to Eugene and Salem a lot recently for meetings, and each time I have to leave super early. And it’s usually pitch black, my eyes are droopy, and I’m alone on the roads heading east on 42. And the whole time I’m wondering, when will it be light so I can wake up? When will dawn come? And I look to the sky, through the trees or around the mountainsides, but it is still dark. Dawn never comes when I wanted it. But then – and usually it is when I least expect it – I turn a corner and my eyes suddenly see the smallest bit of blue peaking through the branches, blue almost at the edge of sight. And I know: it is morning, and light begins to bathe the river valley and everything is glistening and new and beautiful.

            We know this turn, I think, this turn from darkness to light, from despair to hope, from sin to life. We know it in our own hearts, for Christ has come to us like the dawn over the mountains, like birdsong on a cool spring morning. Some of us know the exact day and hour, for others, God has been a presence that we have only slowly come to understand and see and know; but whatever the case, we know that new light and we know its freshness.

            And Christmas is that specific day, that most blessed and holy day, right next to Easter itself, when we celebrate not only our own relationship with God in Jesus Christ but the birth of that light into the whole of Creation, made ready for all, for humanity and beyond. For when God came to us here in this world, he did not come just for a few or some folks here and others here, but for everything, in order to make the whole Creation new. Our Salvation is part of something, part of something great and mighty, a work of God that reaches to the end of time and back. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that all might come within the reach of his heavenly grace.

            And we Christians, we Christians who celebrate here the birth of our Savior, and we Christians all around the world, we are part of that good work of God. For we Christians are called on not only to be saved but to be the light of God in the darkness. Our salvation is not ours alone, something that we can keep to and for ourselves. We can’t stick our salvation in a lock-box under our bed or in a safe-deposit box at the bank. Our salvation is not some nice heirloom that we’ve received from our grandmother that we pout on the mantlepiece so that no one (and especially no one with dirty hands) can fiddle with it, and our salvation is not a piece of jewelry that we wear on our fingers.

            Our salvation is a flaming torch, and it is a great fire and a great light that is not to be kept secret but is to light the way in the darkness. Have you ever met anyone for whom this is true? I know I have. By the loving grace of God I have met many people in my life who are alive with the burning light of God. For some of them, it’s their eyes and their faces: I feel hope just in looking at them; for others, it’s their calm presence that speaks love without even parting the lips. I see that flame in our presiding bishop, Michael Curry, as he dances around the church when he preaches; I’ve seen it in the dedication of a teacher I knew in Japan, who I knew (and was helped by) for two whole years before, on my last day before returning home, he mousily told me that he was a Christian.

            But however it shines, that light is a healing light. It is a light of love and of hope and of Life, for it is the light of Jesus Christ, born this day two thousand years ago. It is the light of God Almighty, who created the heavens and the earth and who guides all things to fulfillness and completion. It is the light of Jesus, who is also God, born in a dingy old manger. It is the light of all that is good and all that is beautiful, because it is the light of God, and it will continue to burn until the end of this age and beyond.

Love is Born

Christmas Eve, 8:00
24 December 2019

This evening’s readings are:
Isaiah 9:2-7
Psalm 96
Titus 2:11-14
Luke 2:1-20

Click here to access these readings.

There is a book at our house that is read each and every day. We think about it in the wee hours of the morning and, often, its words are our last as we lay our head to sleep. No, it is not the Bible; it is not the Book of Common Prayers or our hymnal. It’s this: What’s that sound, baby Daisy?

Now, if you have children, or you had children, or you spent even a tiny little bit of time around children, you’ll know that they love doing things (and especially reading certain books) again and again and again. And I’m like, great, awesome, let’s read these great children’s books that have really beautiful pictures and deeply engrossing stories – but no, we read What’s that sound, baby Daisy again and again and again. And I’m like, really? This again? My kids love this book so much that once Fiona couldn’t even wait until she reached me on the chair but had to throw it across the room at me. And it might not look like it, but this book hurts!

But that’s kids, right? Kids like doing things over and over again. I’ve heard people say it’s because they love routine and things that are set; the world is so confusing for them; they go to sleep here in their car seat and when they wake up, they’re somewhere else! I’ve heard it’s soothing for them to do things each day the same way.

And I think that’s probably true, but I think it’s also something else, and that’s that kids kinda love differently than we adults do. We’ve all got things we’ve learned to like and to not like. For instance, I deeply dislike pickles, and if you ever want to hear the Great Saga of Pickle Day, let me know, but make sure Helene’s not in the room, because I think she’s done hearing about it (seriously, it’s a real thing). And kids have things they don’t like, too, but for them, their hearts are open in wonder, because everything is new for them. The other day, I was telling Gwendolyn what a “one horse open sleigh” was and she was mystified that there was a time where we didn’t have cars. We’re amazed when a new Star Wars movie comes out, or when we find a new planet out in the galaxy that might have life on it, or that it’s finally time for the stores to carry egg nog again. But kids are amazed and filled with the deepest of wonder when you turn down a different street on the way to town (“wow, I’ve never been here before!”) or you open up a rarely-used cupboard, even if it’s empty, and they’re all like, “Wow, the wall opens!” For kids, everything is new, and so much of it is wonderful and magical and unreal. And that’s because they’re new, and their love is open and free.

        And I say all this not to just say something nice about kids but also to say something very important about God. This evening, Christmas Eve, the good old night before Christmas, we gather together to celebrate the Incarnation, that time when God came to us as a human, as Jesus Christ, God in the flesh. And when we think about Jesus, and Jesus’ presence in the world, often we think of him as an adult; you know, with that nice beard, the robes, standing with people around him teaching or healing or giving hope where even the word itself was forgotten. Or else we think of him with the Cross, either carrying it step by brutal step, or hanging on it, breathing his last. These images of Jesus, they touch us, they touch us deep in the heart, or in the mind, or in the gut. We carry these images with us as we live the Christian life, for they call us to live as Christ lived, as God lived, and that is to heal those who are sick, to give comfort to the lonely and the sorrowful, to feed the hungry, whether their hunger is of the stomach or of the mind or of the heart, and to place our hope not in earthly things but in heavenly things. Jesus, as an adult, taught us how to live.

        But Jesus was not just an adult; Jesus was also a baby. Jesus didn’t beam down from heaven as a fully formed individual. Jesus wasn’t carved out of stone, like Michelangelo carved his statue of David, perfect in every proportion down to the tiny little pinky finger. Jesus was born. Jesus was an infant and a toddler, he was a little kid and a teenager and a young man. Jesus, who we believe was fully God, also was fully human, and day by day grew up, just like we have.

        And as a child, Jesus must have had that same wonder at the world as I just described. Or, to put it better, we have that wonder because God’s love of the world is child-like. Not ‘childish’, mind you, but ‘child-like.’ The difference is important. We all know the childishness of kids, and all of us, I’m sure, still have a few bits of childishness in us as adults, too. Childishness is taking things for granted. It’s living as if everyone’s job is to comfort and care for us. We act this way as children because we do need all that care and attention, and we haven’t lived long enough to gain a healthy respect for the world around us and not take things for granted. But as adults, this childishness makes us proud, or haughty, or careless. In such childness we forget about others around us, and we put ourselves on a pedestal as an idol. And much of the work of the Holy Spirit, it seems, is knocking that idol over and turning our eyes, again and again, to the loving light of God. Childishness is pretty dangerous.

        Being child-like, however, that’s different. I think our presiding bishop Michael Curry. If you’ve ever seen him preach, he’s always jumping around and waving his arms, and I wonder that he hasn’t knocked candles over and set fire to his alb yet. And his face: you can see the love of God written all over his face, as if his heart was a beacon, drawing everyone around him to the presence of God. But I’ve also seen that child-like-ness here at St. James, in the love of this church and all it has meant to you, even if you don’t know how to put it into words; I see it in your love of a hymn, in your readiness, seemingly without a thought, to welcome people in off the streets no matter how tired or wet or smelly or confused they are, and to work tirelessly to help them. And I’ve had the distinct joy to be with you at the altar as you meet Jesus Christ in the holy sacrament, and I’ve knelt with you as we’ve all confessed our sins with a ready heart. This openness to God, this openness to the hurt and the hope of the people around you, and this love of the beauty of the natural world, the liturgy, and the life of one another, this is a child-like openness. And we adults, who so often forget in our own times of grief and resentment, need to be reminded often, but especially on Christmas, that God was child-like as a baby in the manger and, so too, is God child-like in heaven, in his earnest and eternal love for us.

        And that is the Gospel. That’s that “good news”, which is really what the word “Gospel” means: that the foundation of the world, that the one who created everything that is in this world, from the tiniest little single-celled organism up to the planets, stars, and galaxies, all that is founded firmly on one thing: Love. And I don’t mean the love that we celebrate on Valentine’s Day, though that love is (or should be!) founded on that love. I mean this: those moments in your life, and hopefully there are many, those moments when we see that what really matters isn’t the darkness that is all around us, the hatred that people sling at one another like it’s their job, the anxiety and the sorrow, when we see that it’s not those things that are most important, but when we see, even just for a single moment, maybe just in the fleeting glance of a single person, that there is life in the world, and that that Life won’t let us fade away without a fight, that Life itself is not just a vague energy but a Person, and that that Person wants, more than anything in the world, for you and all of us and all this Creation to be whole and healthy and joyful and that, one day, we will be! That’s the love I mean.

        Tomorrow is Christmas Day. We all have different ways of celebrating. Mine involves egg nog, bacon, and my family. Yours might look different. The day after that is the 26th of December. The one after that is the 27th, then on into the new year. And I want to ask you this: we Christians believe that God loved us so deeply that he became a child and lived a human life, even to being nailed up on a cross and killed. Our God did that for us so that he could open up the real meaning of Love and Life to us wayward people. How will you live differently? For we have been given a light, a great torch to bear into the darkness of this world. How will you bear that light to those who do not know hope? How will you bring that light to those locked in the shackles of grief, of hatred, of despair? For on this night, and on each and every day, in each and every moment hereafter, the Christ child may be born inside your heart, so that you too may be a flame to dispel any darkness.

Simple Goodness and Saint Joseph

the fourth Sunday of Advent
22 December 2019

Today’s readings are:
Isaiah 7:10-16
Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18
Romans 1:1-7
Matthew 1:18-25

Click here to access these readings.

        We don’t talk all that much about Joseph. And that’s a pity. One might suspect that there’s not all that much to say. I remember, as a kid, learning about Jesus’ parents, though we mostly talked about Mary. Then, once, when I was visiting a Roman Catholic Church with Helene (I think it was St. Mary’s in Eugene), I remember seeing a statue of Joseph. And I thought, “Oh, how nice. You get a statue, too.” Joseph is kinda “that other guy” when it comes to the holy family. Mary is the “ever blessed Virgin Mary”, a major saint of the Church, who the angel Gabriel visited, who bore Jesus Christ. And Jesus, well, Jesus is the Son of God, fully human and fully God. And Joseph is, well, he’s Joseph.

        Now, I want to spend some time this morning talking about Joseph, but I’m pretty wary in doing so. And it’s not because Joseph is a difficult character (he’s not) or because there’s really not much to say about him and that, to make a whole sermon, I’ll have to pad this thing with tons of little stories that aren’t important. I’m wary of talking about Joseph, because I don’t want to make him into anything but simply Joseph.

        When we talk about people, and especially when we write sermons about people, we tend to tout them up. And sometimes that’s a good thing. I’ve given and heard many sermons about Jesus, of course, but also people like Mary, Paul, Peter, Francis, and Benedict. I’ve even heard a sermon on the angels, which was pretty cool. And I think we’ve all probably read biographies of great people. And these sermons and biographies try to get deep into these people’s lives and hearts. They try to explain what it was about these people the drew others to them. They reflect on their wise sayings, their great acts, their humility and virtue, their hope and charity and faith. And, if they’re good sermons and biographies, there’s something in there about how we, too, can learn from these great people and lead virtuous lives as well.

        And that’s just fine for people like Jesus or Mary or Peter, but when we do the same for folks like Joseph, I think we misunderstand what is important about common goodness. That’s not to say that Joseph wasn’t a good man. He’s important to Matthew as a link between Jesus and King David, and Matthew tells this really touching story in our gospel this morning about how Joseph struggled in how to best respond to Mary’s pregnancy. Joseph could easily have embarrassed Mary, ruined her name, and dragged her through court, but instead he respects her, tries to figure out the best way to save her honor, and respects her person even after they are married. But, really, what he does comes down to listening to the angel and caring about Mary as a human being – and that might be a miracle in itself, especially with how other characters in the Bible (like King David himself) treat women. Joseph doesn’t move mountains, lead great crowds of people. He’s just Joseph. That’s all.

        And again, that’s fine. The thing is, it’s alright if common things stay common. It’s alright if simple things remain simple. There is a deep, deep goodness to these sorts of things. We human beings, and especially we Americans, so often try to over complicate things. We have so much time to sit around and wonder about the ins and outs of things that we miss the goodness, the simple, honest goodness that is staring at us straight in the face. Have you ever been out in the summer heat and enjoyed – and I mean, really, really enjoyed – a tall glass of nothing else but water? Or after a long trip simply just hugged and held your loved one? My one cousin, Sean, whether he hadn’t seen you in months or saw you for lunch just yesterday, he’d hug you as if you were the most important thing in the world. Those sorts of simple things make all the difference.

I’ve told some of you about this, but once in seminary, for Good Friday, a few of us thought we would try fasting during the day. Now, while I think fasting is a good spiritual exercise, this was not a good experience for me. I got irritable, frustrated, angry, resentful; man, I was ugly, and grew only more ugly as the day went on. But that first taste of food when the sun went down, that first bite – and it was bread, just normal bread – was pure heaven. It reminds me of an author I’m reading who often writes about food; someone once wrote about her, “She has eaten about 54,000 meals in her life, and you can tell from her writing that she savored every single one.” What gracious praise of a person.

What was Joseph to Jesus? What wisdom or knowledge could he impart to a young man who was born of the Holy Spirit? How do you raise God’s Son? What was Joseph to Jesus? Well, frankly, he was probably, and quite simply, a good man. And when I say “simply” I don’t mean that he was probably just a normal, average Joe, or that he just showed up and did what he could. No, I mean that he was simply, and oh so deeply, a good, good man. He didn’t make a big splash. He didn’t make a huge impact on the early Church like Mary did. His virtue, what Matthew calls “righteousness” was probably, quite simply, in being a simple, good man.

Now, sometimes we Christians are call to great acts. In times of trouble, we are called to be more than we ever thought we could imagine ourselves to be. Throughout the ages, Christians have been called, and been called often, to carry their cross into some difficult terrain, giving their life and their spirit, and sometimes even their very lives, for the sake of Jesus Christ. And in Christ, we are all called to share in the inheritance of God’s Son, to be God’s Daughters and Sons ourselves. It is a great thing we are all called to, for in the waters of Baptism we do not find an easy, ho hum kinda life, but a life lived with Jesus Christ at the center, Jesus Christ who lived and served and died for everyone.

But most of us aren’t called to be what you might call “center-stage Christians.” We won’t be Michael Curry touring around doing revivals; we won’t be Thomas Aquinas writing tome after tome of theology that will serve as the foundation of thought for centuries to come; and many of us won’t die for our faith, die so that others may more deeply and more freely believe. We will be good people like Joseph. We will change people’s lives and bring them the healing, fulfilling love of Jesus Christ, not by some great a mighty work or sacrifice, but by simple, good, and honest living. And that itself is the miracle.

Because miracles don’t just happen on the large scale; they happen on the small, too. Miracles don’t need to feed the 5,000 with a few fish and loaves of bread; miracles can also feed just one person. For a miracle is God entering into the world, in whatever way God enters, to heal when healing seems impossible, to lift up the lonely and the sorrowful when all they see is darkness, to love even the unlovable because everyone, everyone, deserves to be loved. As a parent, I am gifted with miracles every day, for my little girls love me with a full and open heart. And as a parent, I know that my love to my daughters will be miracles that follow them for the rest of their lives. And from some things I hear from students I teach or taught, I know that I have been the presence of God in their lives simply by teaching them good rhetoric, or that it’s okay to love good, honest, simple things like books.

And what about you? I don’t have the market cornered on miracles and the presence of God just because I’m the priest. Where are the miracles in your own life? Where have you been a miracle to others? They may be hidden, hidden in the hearts of those you meet, planted there by you living a life to Jesus Christ. They may be hidden in your own heart as well, but just because they are small and hidden doesn’t mean that they’re not miracles. For small things are at the heart of our faith, for God Almighty, the creator of heaven and earth, became a small, tiny child, was born of a young woman, on a dark night in a manger, and that tiny child was the one who would save us all and make the whole Creation new.

Repentance and Love

The above is a detail of John the Baptist by El Greco.

the Second Sunday of Advent
8 December 2019

Today’s readings were:
Isaiah 11:1-10
Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19
Romans 15:4-13
Matthew 3:1-12

Click here to access these readings.

        This morning we get the story of John the Baptist. Not the whole story – we don’t hear about his later career and how he was killed – but a part of the story. And unlike most people in the Bible, we get a description of how he dressed and what he ate, each of which links him to promises of the Old Testament and a very ascetic way of life. We also get a taste of his preaching style, which is fiery and stirring and seems to begin with an insult. I mean, if a sermon begins with “you brood of vipers!”, you kinda know what sort of sermon it’s gonna be like. John is passionate, forceful, and in-your-face about the state of the world and the lives of the people around him. “Repent!” he calls out, and he means it, and he demands people listen.

        Now, I don’t know about you, but all the yelling and anger and frustration kinda turns me off. When I hear people scream and yell angrily about something, I tend to turn the other way. And I think that’s true for most Episcopalians. We don’t have and usually don’t want fiery sermons. If I got up here and said to you all, “You brood of vipers! Repent!”, you’d probably wonder what’s going on with me. Episcopal and Anglican preaching tends to be meditative, thoughtful, and read from a page on a pulpit or music stand. And that’s cool, that the point. Episcopal preaching isn’t supposed to get you all fired up; it’s supposed to work God more deeply into your hearts and then lead you to the sacraments and the sacramental life outside the church doors. We Episcopalians are a bit more quiet about our preaching.

        Which, like I said, is fine, but if we tune John out, if we ignore him because we don’t like that kind of loud preaching and pushy character, we lose something really important in our tradition and we miss a really important message. Now, when I was growing up, each time I heard the word “repent!” I had a very specific image. And that image was of a guy standing on the street corner with a sign around his neck yelling and screaming out the end of the world. And I saw this image when I went to college. Someone came to campus, stood in front of the student center, and proceeded to harass the students with words like ‘repent’, ‘sin’, ‘hell’, and ‘hatred.’ Two guys came to Sewanee, too, when I was in seminary, and they did the same thing. And the things that these guys said to the students, and especially to the female students, were truly horrible. I can’t imagine the damage and pain that these men inflicted on those students, and, at the time, I wanted nothing to do with words like ‘repent’ and ‘sin.’

        And I still want nothing to do with such words – as those men meant them, that is. Such anger and such hatred are foreign to God. It’s not our jobs as Christians to break people and expect God to clean up the pieces. We do wrong, however, in ridding ourselves of the words themselves, because they mean quite a bit less, and quite a bit more, than when used by angry people to shout down those who aren’t like them.

        But what is sin other than a swear word to throw at people? What is ‘repent’ other than a demand that you scream out without actually looking at the person you scream at? Well, let me tell you a story. While I was teaching abroad in Japan, I fell into a bit of depression. It happens with everyone who travels. It’s called homesickness. And the awful thing about being home sick is that it finds its way into every part of your life. Things depress you and you don’t know why. You get happy and often over-happy when you see things that even hint of home; once I became ecstatic when I found a bag of peanut butter M&Ms being sold at a convenience store. But, really, it’s about depression and having nothing to settle your sense of self on.

        I was home sick a lot of my time in Japan, but this one time was the worst. My family dog, who we had had since I was a kid, had died, and I wasn’t there to be with him. I had no where to put my grief. I would go for walks, travel to the city and see sights, or even spend time with friends, but nothing worked. I couldn’t find a way out of my grief. But all this time there was this odd nagging feeling. It was like someone was yanking me to look at something, and that something was my bookshelf. But reading books and being depressed don’t go well with one another, and so I ignored that yank. And it kept pulling, every morning, every afternoon after I got back from work. At last I just got tired of it and said, “Fine, what!?” I pulled off the first book I saw, which was one by C.S. Lewis, and, miracle of miracles, it was exactly the book I needed.

        I won’t get into how the book helped me in my grief. If you want to hear me rattle on and on about C.S. Lewis, grief, and my dog, ask me after the service. But what I do want to talk about is that yanking feeling. You see, the word “repent” in Greek is metanoea, which means “to turn away, to change one’s heart.” But often, repentance really means a turning to something. You see, God is always with us. That’s what Jesus’ traditional name, Emmanuel, means: God is with you. God is with us in our joy, our hope, and our love, but also in our grief, our sorrow, even our depression. And in these latter moments, God is always calling to us to turn to him, to turn away from the darkness of despair and turn to the light of Jesus Christ. Sometimes God is a voice in our heart or a feeling of being yanked, literally being pulled and turned towards something. At other times, God is a word from a friend or family member or even (this is true) a word from an enemy. And God’s word to us is always, “Turn to me.” Turn to Life, turn to Love, turn to Hope. Turn to God, whose face is Jesus Christ, whose breath is the Holy Spirit.

        In our world, in our community, and in our very lives, we do have to be very serious about sin. Sin – being turned away from God and demanding that the darkness is more real than the light – sin is a very real and present danger. Now, there was no sin in my home sickness, and there was no real sin in my despair. Despair is something we suffer, and Jesus Christ came to help us out of that despair and enter into true and open healing. We sin, instead, when we use our frustration, or confusion, or our anger against others, when we forget that God is love and that that love is calling inside each and every person we meet. And this is reflected in our baptismal promises, where we promise to renounce all sinful desires that draw us away from the love of God and, instead, promise to turn to Jesus Christ.

        It is often good, however, to define something with its opposite, and so I’ll end by doing this for the word “sin.” I just told you a story about two men who came to Sewanee and said some rather horrible things to the students there. They stood on the street corner and yelled at anyone they saw. I wasn’t there myself, and I only heard about it later. I can’t imagine how those students, especially the female students, felt when they heard those things. But here is the grace, and here is the turning. Those students, who were the target of all that hatred and anger, those students who had every right to be insulted and angry themselves, turned away from that anger. They approached these men, and they spoke to them in love. They denied the accusations that were made against them and their ways of life. They defended themselves gracefully, and defended those who did not feel they had a voice. They did not use violence, or hatred, or resentment, and showed themselves, instead, to be strong, hopeful, and full of compassion even in the face of those who hate and slander them.

        And I am proud of those students. They may not have changed the minds of those two men, but they did something else. I think they gave their fellow students hope. They showed them, and us seminarians and the professors and the administration as well, that the way of Jesus, what presiding Bishop Michael Curry calls the Way of Love, is possible. It gave me, at least, hope and sight that love is not some weak, pliable thing, but that it has strength and goodness, for it stands on something firmer and deeper than any sin, and that is Jesus Christ. This, to me, is an example of true turning, true repentance, for it is a turning away from anger and hatred and a turning to life that never, never ends.

St. Matthew and Renewal

the first Day of Advent
December 1st, 2019

Today’s readings are:
Isaiah 2:1-5
Psalm 122
Romans 13:11-14
Matthew 24:36-44

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        Happy New Year! Well, for the Church anyway. In the secular world, we’ve still got a whole ‘nother month before the end of 2019, but for the Church, our new year begins right now, the first week of Advent. And so, in celebration, we’ve pulled out all the purple vestments and hangings, put up the Advent wreath and candles, and gathered together some readings about the end of days (nice and happy).

        As I said in a sermon a week or two ago, the readings at the tail end of Ordinary time and at the beginning of Advent are all about endings. As we end one year and begin another, we reflect on all the deaths we face in life: from the little deaths of having to share that last piece of pie with your sister to our own deaths as we breathe our last – and even to that last great death of the world, when Jesus will come again and make the whole Creation new. But, this morning, I don’t want to talk about what is ending or what will end but what is beginning, and that is the excitingly named Year A of the lectionary (it’s actually cooler than the name implies).

        So a bit of info up front: the readings we have here in church are part of what’s called a lectionary. In our tradition, the priest or pastor doesn’t choose what we’ll read each week. Instead, scholars from many different parts of the Church came together and designed what’s called a lectionary, or a plan of readings. This lectionary pulls from how the Bible has been read traditionally to help us hear God’s Word to us in Scripture most fully. The lectionary is designed to work the Bible into our lives like a baker kneads dough, pulling us further and further into a life lived in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit.

        This lectionary is on a three-year cycle, each of which focuses on one of the first three gospels. In the first year (or year A) we read through Matthew, then in Year B we read Mark, then Luke, then back to Matthew again. John gets sprinkled around through each of them. If you noticed, all last year (which was Year C), our gospel readings were from Luke. Now they’re from Matthew, and they will be until next Advent, when we’ll start reading from Mark. And the idea, again, is that we as a community of the faithful, as a church, read through as much of the Bible together, in worship.

        So, one of the really cool things about reading the Bible this way is that you come to a great understanding of each gospel writer. Now, we Christians believe that the Bible is the Word of God, given to us through grace and love. And that grace and that love was given to us through a person, each of whom was a human being like the rest of us. Each gospel was written by a particular person who cared about different things, who thought differently, and who thought different things were important. They were all of them, each of them, deeply invested in the love of God in Jesus Christ, and they wanted to communicate that love to others around them, but they didn’t do it in the same way.

        And so, before we dive into a new gospel, it’s important to pause for a moment and think about whose gospel account we’re reading. Because the gospel according to Matthew is a bit different than the gospel according to Luke. Luke is a pretty formal guy. His Greek is pretty complicated. He cares about the great movements of history. His gospel, and the book of Acts, which he also wrote, is highly structured. And this all makes sense: Luke is supposed to have been a physician, a doctor. He’s a very educated man writing in a very educated sort of way.

        Now, Matthew is both different and similar. There’s an intensity to Matthew that is always apparent to me. It’s not like the rush of Mark, whose favorite phrase is “Then immediately after that!”, nor the slow, deliberate intensity of John, who really seems like a baker to me as he works methodically and slowly and lovingly through some really deep theology. Matthew’s intensity comes from a love of his tradition, of his community, and of Jesus Christ, but also a realization that something new has happened in Jesus, something so new and so beautiful that it can barely be contained in words.

        You see, Matthew’s gospel is often called the “Jewish” gospel. And that’s not because Matthew was Jewish where Luke and Mark weren’t, but because Matthew must have spent a lot of time in prayer about the past. Some of his most used phrases are things like “as it said in Scripture” and “to fulfill the promises of Scripture.” Or, to put it another way, Matthew focused in on a very important thing that Jesus said: “Do not suppose that I have come to abolish the Law and the prophets; I did not come to abolish but to complete.” And that “completeness” is one of the specific themes for Matthew.

        It is, also, one of the themes of the Christian life, and it’s an important one to consider, well, really at all times, but especially at beginnings and especially at endings. Now, when we Christians talk about “completeness” and how Jesus came to complete the law, we mean that Jesus did what Gwendolyn’s godmother did when I tried to cook dinner for her family once. I’m a decent cook, but man, I messed up this dinner. And the worst part was that I was making them dinner as thanks for letting us stay with them. I was trying to make a rue, and it just kept falling apart. Then, swoop, in comes Isabella with a whisk and wisdom from her mother on how to cook well. And the dinner, which risked failing miserably and turning into delivery pizza, turned out well. Isabella helped me complete something that was barely edible.

        This is kinda how Jesus comes into our lives, but while Isabella came to help me with my awful dinner, Jesus comes to help us with our wayward and confused lives. That said, Jesus didn’t come, and Jesus doesn’t come, to some slip-shod world and a messy life, shove us out of the way, and do it himself. Jesus doesn’t look at us and at the Church and say, listen, all this, all this, it’s…it’s just…it’s no, just stop and let me do it. Jesus looks at us, us broken and wayward people, and he says, I can work with this. For we are broken, not ruined; we are lost, not beyond hope. And Jesus comes right into our lives, right into those things that we think are most ruined and furthest beyond hope, and he breathes new life into them and makes them whole. And, importantly, this completeness is not complete in us alone, but is then brought into the whole community, so that Jesus may heal more and more fully those who are lost and think themselves beyond hope.

And this is what healing is. This is what “new” really means. It doesn’t mean a new phone because the old one is out of date or a new jacket because the old one is ripped a little. “New” for Christians really means “renewed” or “made whole beyond all hope.” And for Matthew, as well as for the other gospel writers and authors of the letters, this renewal isn’t just for some but is for everyone and all things. Heaven, then, isn’t just a place where we can be with those who have died, which sounds good enough; it’s even better than that. Heaven, residing with God for all eternity, is where all things are made new, renewed, brought into completeness beyond all hope.

There’s a great short story by J.R.R. Tolkien about this, and sorry if I’m giving away the plot. The story is of a painter who wants nothing more than to paint a great tree to a fine detail. But he is too busy to ever do much painting, and he dies before he can barely begin it. He finds, however, when he comes to the afterlife, that his tree is completed; and not only that but that God has made it into a real tree, set within a real forest, for God has made it alive. All this man had ever wanted to create was just a painting, and what God did for him was to give his painting life. And seeing that tree, seeing it alive and thriving by God’s own hand, it helped turn that man into a real man himself.

Just so, God works on our own hopes and our own dreams, and even we ourselves, so that they – so that you – are living trees. So, as we come into this time of Advent, have hope. All that you do, all that you love and cherish in the depths of your heart and through the Spirit, will be made new in Christ. Truly we have nothing to fear; God is with us, and God is with us always.