Waiting with Simeon

Simeon with Jesus, Andrey Shishkin

Presentation of Jesus at the Temple
2 February 2019

Today’s readings are:
Malachi 3:1-4
Psalm 84
Hebrews 2:14-18
Luke 2:22-40

Click here to access these readings.

            An author friend of mine used to say, “The best part of the story is the one that isn’t told. That’s the part that’s full of possibilities.” And what part of the story of Simeon, whose story we hear just a sliver of this morning – what part of his story do we not hear about?

            The years – the years of waiting. There is a weight to this story that is so very beautiful. Simeon probably waited a very long time for the coming of the Messiah, and he was probably very old. He may have, like Anna, whose story we also hear this morning, he may have come each and every day to the Temple to wait and to see. The Holy Spirit had promised him that he would not see death before the coming of the Messiah. And when he sees Jesus, when he finally sees what he’s been waiting for so long, Luke tells us that he wraps the young boy in his arms and speaks an echo of Jesus’ words on the cross: “It is finished. Now at last may I go into peace.”

            There is a quiet, gentle relief in Simeon’s words that, at least to me, say quite a bit about how he waited. The years were probably long. They may not have been as gentle and as gracious as those moments when all the waiting ended. Luke tells us that Simeon was a righteous and devout man, but we know from the saints (especially saints like Mother Theresa) and our own lives, that even the most devout of us face real darkness.

            And even if Simeon was devout all the way through, even if he waited with patience and with fortitude, even still the years wear down on a person’s heart. The Holy Spirit rested upon him, and he was told that he would not see death until he had seen the Messiah. And maybe he was excited by this, moved with a fire and a joy that he had never before known. But the years wear things down. They’re like wind and rain and the great storms of the sea that turn even stones smooth. Simeon wouldn’t need doubt to wear zeal down; life does that already.

            What sort of life, what kind of waiting, would have led Simeon to be type of person who, when all that waiting, all those long years, were finally over, not to rush up to Jesus and pick him up, toss him in the air, and parade him around the Temple with shouts of joy and happiness beyond anything imaginable? There’s a great short-story by Ray Bradbury where astronauts come to a planet where Christ and come as well and just ascended, and these Earthlings, who are so jaded and tired, look on as these aliens rush around, shouting in exaltation, trying to tell them of the utter joy they have come to know in Christ but can’t. They grab the astronauts and babble, then rush away laughing. Why doesn’t Simeon act like that? Why does he simple kneel down, wrap Jesus in his arms, and say, “Now you have set me free?”

            Back in college, I studied abroad in Japan. I had been learning Japanese since high school, and I had taken every language class the college offered. I had watched movies and listened to Japanese music and had prepared and prepared and prepared. And yet, when I finally got there, to this land that I had studied and loved and dreamed about for years, the first thing I did was simply look. I walked around neighborhoods, just looking, just drinking it all in, all the things that I had seen on a flat screen or the page of a book; and not the famous temples of Kyoto or the artwork or the geisha or the samurai; but the normal, everyday streets, the wooden houses with tiled rooves, the people going about their business. I just watched, and looked, and wandered, and loved.

            Or, almost five years ago now, Helene and I went to the hospital for Gwendolyn to be born. Now, Helene and I had dated for ten years, and we had been married for around five. We had thought about having kids, considered, discerned, and wondered. Then, we had waited nine months of mounting anticipation. We bought clothes and toys and blankets. We had a baby shower and got things we didn’t even know existed. Then we bought a crib, and put it together, and set it in our room, a bed for someone who was not even born yet. And each day our joy and anticipation rose, until one day, the evening of May 13th, we rushed to the hospital. Then it was more waiting, until on the following day, at something like 11:27 in the morning, our first daughter was born.

            And those first few moments were exciting, and we’ve got a picture of me holding Gwen, all wrapped up in blankets, with joy (and a bit of exhaustion) on my face. But then that night, that first night of her life, I couldn’t sleep. I just wanted to look at her. I wanted to hold her, actually, but I was too scared that I’d break her she was so delicate. And so I just watched her sleep. She’d catch her breath suddenly, and so would I. She’d wiggle a little, make those tiny little baby noises, and I just watched.

            What will it be like when we meet Jesus? After all the hard, long years, after all the grief and sorrow, after all the joy and excitement, after all the darkness and the doubt, what will it be like for Jesus to be, finally, standing right in front of us. What will it do to us? What will it do to all that grief and sorrow, that joy and excitement, all that darkness and doubt? What will it do to our wayward life and our tired soul to stand before Jesus Christ and see, finally, God face to face?

 

Discipleship and Hooks

the Third Sunday after Epiphany
26 January 2020

Today’s readings are:
Isaiah 9:1-4
Psalm 27:1, 5-13
1 Corinthians 1:10-18
Matthew 4:12-23

Click here to access these readings.

        I remember hearing today’s gospel reading back when I was in Sunday School as a kid. The call of the disciples, and especially the call of Simon Peter. Here they are casting nets into the sea, for they were fisherman. And Jesus calls out to them, “Come with me, and I’ll make you fish for people.” And, for some reason, the activity we did in Sunday School was to cut out Jesus holding a fishing pole, color him in, and then, at the other end of the line, put one of the disciples, his mouth open, waiting for the hook like a fish in water.

        Even as a kid I thought this was kinda silly, and, hey, maybe that was the point. But I remember thinking, “wouldn’t that hurt?” Is Jesus going to put a hook in my mouth, or, to follow the text a bit more, throw a net around me and drag me in? It all seemed kinda strange to me. What in the world is Jesus talking about, and do I have to bite on a hook in order to hear it?

        Well, one of the things that Jesus is talking about here is discipleship. We use this word pretty often in the Church. We’re disciples of Christ. And this word – disciple – it means a lot more than just follower. It means student, and not just any student, but a good one.

        Now, I’ve been a bad student before. I know what that’s like. Now, for some of you this might not be the case, but in school I hated learning math. Doing figures was awful. Adding two numbers up, multiplying them, figuring out which part of the equation to do first, everything, from addition all the way up to calculus, I just hated it. And whenever I could (I’m sorry to have to admit this) I cheated. I looked in the back of the book and just wrote down the numbers, or I put the problems into a calculator. And when I had to show my work, I slogged through it, tired and irritated.

        And why? I mean, I was decent at math. I could do it, but it took so much time, and I’d much rather spend that time reading, or playing outside, or doing anything else but adding up numbers. I did the work, but I hated every, single minute of it.

        This is not the sort of “student” we’re supposed to be. This is not the sort of “disciple” we’re to be of Jesus Christ. And I don’t mean just that we shouldn’t drag our feet through our prayers or look up the answers in the back of the book (just in case you were wondering, there aren’t answers to the odd questions in the back of the Bible. There are just maps, usually, which are probably better than answers). What I mean is that following Jesus is more like studying your favorite subjects, whether that’s actually math or something like English or history or science. Or, if you’re more of a training person, it’s like training for sports. And here is where that hook comes in.

        Christian discipleship can be hard, but it’s quite a lot more than being beaten down until we do what we’re told. There’s a hook to it, and by hook, I don’t mean the fishing hook but like a narrative hook. At the beginning of every good book or good movie, there’s always something called a hook, something that catches your interest and leads you deeper. In a movie like the first Star Wars, it’s the tiny little space ship being blasted by this huge, seemingly endless behemoth. We as an audience (if we’re into science fiction) say, “Oh man, look at that! How are these little guys gonna get away from this massive ship? What are they gonna do? Wow, I want to watch this and find out!”

        Or think of my sermon. I didn’t start by saying, “Discipleship comes from Latin and borrowed into Old English, meaning follower.” I told you a story that I thought was funny (Did you notice I do that with all my sermons? I hope you enjoy them). We even start our Sunday services with a hook (in the form of a song and a procession) to pull us in and set the stage for how we’ll be praying that morning).

And most stories and most preachers use hooks like this because we humans need to be jostled about sometimes, woken up, but not like an alarm clock buzzing and ringing and making all sorts of noise until you sleepily throw your hand out and knock it the clock or phone off the dresser and turn over to go back to sleep. No, these hooks pull us into the story with a story, they pull us into the tale with something, some fascinating or interesting or healing or hopeful something that we’ll find somewhere in the tale. For Star Wars it’s the battle against good and evil, and the temptation to leave good for evil, that’s at the heart of the story. For the liturgy, we begin with music not because it’s fun to sing but to lighten our hearts and turn us more fully to God’s presence. The hook pulls us deeper, from a world without to a world within.

And sometimes that hook can really be a wake-up call. There’s an icon on the shelf in the education room back there – it’s the one I got from Sewanee upon graduation. And it shows Jesus grabbing two people (they’re Adam and Eve) and dragging them out of coffins. The point is that sometimes God has to grab us by the wrists and drag us out of our stupor and sin so that we can see the light. Sometimes the hook can hurt, but it always pulls us deeper into the life of Jesus Christ – if we follow it.

Part of the life of discipleship is to look for these hooks. Part of the life of a Christian is to train ourselves to see God, to hear his call to us, and to put down our things and follow him. And we train for this through prayer, through studying God’s word to us in Scripture, through living a life founded in the teachings of Jesus Christ and of the Church, especially the Sacraments, and especially those two most beautiful Sacraments, Baptism and the Eucharist.

But we also train as disciples through hearing God in the things we love. I was called to God through the natural world and through literature, and I’ve come to understand that my hearing God’s call in Lord of the Rings and Beowulf was not so surprising after all (these books are inundated with God’s Hope). I’ve heard some of you talk about gardening, football or basketball, running on the beach, or spending time with your family as responding to God’s call to you. For in all these things, God is calling to us to go deeper, to love more fully, and to hope with a more open heart, and you will find God filling you more and more with your light.

God’s call to us, however, is still a hook, and while God can call us through the things we love, sometimes God calls us through things that trouble us or frighten us. We are called to love our neighbor as ourselves, and that neighbor include those who keep to themselves and watch the house for us while we’re gone as well as the neighbor who wanders around at night and might just be up to something. That love that we’re called to is to find God’s presence with them and to seek (and often to help our neighbor seek) God in their lives. What that looks like depends on the person and the situation, but the call is always present, always present, to love others as Jesus Christ loved us. And Jesus loved us with hands that healed and with hands that were nailed to the cross. Loving is not always easy, but it’s what we Christians do.

We Christians are living in the Light of God. Through our Baptisms, and through our dedication to the Life that was and is in Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit himself, God above all things, we are living in a Light that is healing, and joyful, and hopeful. Spend some time today during our Sabbath in the presence of that Light. And spend some time, as we prepare for the great 40 days of Lent, in considering how you can bring that Light more fully into your life and into the life of others, so that God’s call may be more fully known and more fully heard and more fully lived in this world so dark and lonely.

The Waters of Baptism, the Love of Jesus

The first Sunday of Epiphany
The Baptism of our Lord
12 January 2020

The readings for today are:
Isaiah 42:1-9
Psalm 29
Acts 10:34-43
Matthew 3:13-17

Click here to access these readings.

        The other day, I was talking to my Evangelical friend about Baptism. Which is kinda appropriate: today we celebrate the Baptism of our Lord, as we read this morning in the gospel of Matthew. But when my friend and I started getting into our discussion, we realized that we both had some pretty different ways of thinking of Baptism. He thought, as many or most Evangelicals do, that baptism is a symbol of something that’s already happened. It doesn’t have any internal meaning, but it’s a way of seeing something that is already taking place, of God coming and dwelling within a person who has made a commitment to Jesus Christ.

        For me, and for most liturgical traditions, something really does go on in baptism. We’re changed in some way, we’re brought closer to God and given a new relationship to him through Jesus Christ in the waters of baptism. Baptism is, after all, one of the two great sacraments along with the Eucharist. And sacraments are gifts from God, special acts of grace that draw us closer to the life of the Trinity.

        And so we disagreed, pretty fundamentally. I dunno, what do you all think?

 

Here, Father Tim listened and responded to people in the congregation.

 

        There are, I think, three ways out of this sort of situation. First, we can say that “everybody’s different” and go our separate ways. And that’s just fine if you’re trying to decide whether you like apples or oranges, or if you are wondering what kind of cheese to put on your hamburger, but we’re not dealing with simple choices. We’re talking about our relationship with God, and that’s a bit more serious and important to end with a shrug and a “let’s just agree to be disagree.”

        Another way you could solve the disagreement is to force agreement. I could say to my friend, and to all Evangelicals: you’re wrong. You’ve got baptism all wrong, you’re schismatics, you’re heretics. But that sort of thing breaks the Church, which is the Body of Christ.

        So what should my friend and I do? Or, to put it more broadly, what do we do with any sort of disagreement in the Church? There are quite a lot of issues in the Church these days that risk to rupture the Body, and there are a number of issues right here in our Episcopal Church, and even our diocese, that push people apart.

Back last summer, the bishop search committee did a few surveys to see what people in the diocese wanted in their new bishop. Remember this? And we gave a bunch of options: spiritual leader, teacher, prophet, activist, liturgist, administrator – stuff like that. And we asked people: choose three of these that you want to see in your next bishop, and choose three that you most certainly DO NOT want to see in your next bishop. And you know what? Some of the things that were in the “definitely want” column were also in the “definitely don’t want” column. Some of us vehemently want something that others vehemently DON’T want. And you know what, we’re not all that different from the rest of the Episcopal church, or, really, the whole Church as a whole.

So what binds us together? How do we live with our differences but still live in deep relationships with one another? My friend, the Evangelical, answered these questions when he answered one of mine about baptism: if baptism is only a symbol for you, with no real inner meaning, why do you do it? And he said, simply: Jesus.

I’m not going to get into Evangelical theology, because I’d probably misrepresent it, but even though baptism for many of them is just a symbol, even though their theology sounds strange to me and doesn’t get it just right, even still, they encounter Jesus in baptism. And I get that, I get that. For Jesus is at the heart of the sacraments for those in the small-c catholic tradition. Jesus is present in the Eucharist – “This is my Body” “This is my Blood” he told us. Jesus is present in the sacrament of Healing, Jesus, who spent his ministry going to the sick and the suffering. Jesus is present in Reconciliation, for it is not to the priest who we confess, but to Jesus; and it is not the priest who absolves us, but the priest speaking the words of Jesus pronounces his mercy and love to the penitent. And in baptism, when we are submerged in water, we are brought into Jesus’ life and his death upon the cross. Jesus is the foundation and life of it all.

And that’s where we agree. We could argue over details – is it the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, or whether we should baptize babies. And those are important details. They teach us how God is with us in this world and how to respect God’s gift to us in Creation and in the Holy Spirit. And I think there are real answers to those details, and I’ll continue to preach the Real Presence and I’ll continue to baptize babies, but at the end of the day, what all this is built on, what truly and wholly matters, is that we are standing on a sure foundation, and that foundation, Jesus Christ himself, the second person of the Trinity, is unshakable.

Today we celebrate baptism, and in baptism we celebrate the community that we were brought into when we were baptized. My mom just found my own baptismal record, and it seems I was baptized in a Lutheran church in New Jersey. Helene was baptized as a child in a Roman Catholic church. Gwendolyn was baptized at All Saints in Sewanee on the same day that our presiding bishop was blessed into his position. Fiona was baptized here, so was Cooper.

Where were you baptized? Whose hands poured water over your head and said, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit?” Were you a little child dressed in white? Or were you an adult, and do you remember being thrust into the dark waters? Whatever the case, at the center of all that was Jesus Christ, for the center of our lives as Christians, and the center of the universe itself, is Jesus Christ.

But what does that mean? What does it mean to have Jesus Christ as the center of your life and of the universe? Well, stay tuned for the next, oh, fifty years, and maybe I’ll be able to speak somewhat to that great and beautiful mystery. But I can say this if you don’t want to stick around that long: on the night in which he was betrayed, on the night that he instituted the blessed sacrament, the Eucharist itself, Jesus gave to his disciples a new commandment: that you should love one another. As he has loved us, so shall we love one another. Then he went to the cross for those he loved.

Be a Blessing

the Second Sunday after Christmas
5 January 2020

Today’s readings are:
Jeremiah 31:7-14
Psalm 84
Ephesians 1:3-6, 15-19a
Luke 2:41-52

Click here to access these readings.

        When you travel abroad, you learn how many things you take for granted (and seriously, no joke, when I was writing this sermon last week, I had just written this sentence when, boom, the power went out. Things like that make you start thinking, you know?). Anyway, when you’re abroad, you realize that things you usually count on to be there – you know, things like food that looks familiar, or signs that you can read, or beds. While in Japan, I realized that there were a lot of things that I did, and always had done, that the Japanese just didn’t do. And one of these was saying “God bless you” after someone sneezed.

        The Japanese, you see, don’t have a tradition of saying anything after a sneeze. And this felt really strange to me. I’d be sitting in the teacher’s office, and someone would sneeze. Then, nothing. I’d look up, worrying about whether someone would say anything, but people just, you know, kept on working. It just felt weird. And when I asked some of the Japanese teachers who could speak English, they scratched their heads and asked, “Why do you say anything at all?” And all I could say was, “I dunno. It’s just what you do”, which is pretty unhelpful.

        When I became an Episcopalian, I had some similar experiences. Episcopalians, as you know, have certain ways of doing things, and we like doing things these ways, and we get uncomfortable when someone tells us to do things differently. We kneel, as able, at certain parts of the liturgy, we cross ourselves during certain prayers or parts of prayers, and we’d rather read a prayer than make one up on the spot. And we like doing these things or praying in these ways. We get, I think, quite a bit out of kneeling and crossing ourselves and reading such beautifully written prayers. We find depth in these things, and learning about them, and loving them. And, while I hope that we can learn to pray in the spirit and such, loving our tradition is a good thing. Because we see God there, and, often, we feel God so personally in the things we do.

        One of the traditions we hold, and that some of us hold dear, is that around Epiphany, we bless our houses. It used to be that a priest would make his visit to people’s houses around this time, you know, to ring in the new year, to bring the love of Christmas into the home, and, often, to bless the house and the family together, where they live. I am happy to come and bless your house if you wish, but nowadays, usually what we do is take blessed chalk home and, together as a family, bless the house (I’ll talk about this in a little bit).

        But, like my Japanese co-workers might ask, why do you bless houses? Or, to ask a bit further, why do we bless things at all? What are we doing when we bless things?

        Now, I could answer these questions with the history of blessing homes on Epiphany. Or, I could answer it with a theological discussion on what it means to bless things, or how, why, and when Jesus blessed those people and things before him. But, instead, I want to tell you a few stories about blessing things. It’s my hope that, while you might not be able to write a nice essay about blessings, that I can instead deepen your sense of the gift that God has given us in being able to bless things.

        Our chapel at seminary was called The Chapel of the Apostles. It was a weird building, but I liked it. There were great, huge windows that lined the walls, and the back of the church, behind the altar, was one big window, and it looked out into the Tennessee forest. Everything had a strange, almost art deco design to it, and this included the baptismal font. This thing was huge, maybe four feet around and a foot deep, and they’d fill it up to the brim. It was right in the middle of the foyer, so that when you walked in, there it was, full of life-giving water. Seeing it each morning, and each noon at our daily Eucharist, and in the evening if I caught a chance between studying and the family to go to evening prayer, was like having God standing there, with his hand out, welcoming me into his home.

        And this font was so huge, they refilled it (literally) with a hose every few weeks. The sacristans would do this in the mornings, before anyone came in, and they’d snag the first priest who walked in the doors to bless it. This was beautiful. Some days, you’d walk into the chapel in the morning, all sleepy and tired from late nights in the library, and there, before you, would be a little ring of students and a priest, praying over the water. To either side of the door were other students, their heads bowed in prayer, and you’d step aside yourself and join them. There are few better ways to start your day than to pray when someone is blessing the waters of baptism.

        Here is another story. Back before I went to seminary, Helene and I worshiped at the Church of the Resurrection in south Eugene. It was (and is) a great community of really dedicated Christians, and they do amazing work there. Helene and I did not often attend the Sunday services; we went to Mass on Saturday night, what the priest Father Brent called “Saturday evening high Mass.” Brent chanted the whole service, we used lots of incense and the sanctus bells. It was really beautiful.

        But I think one of the best parts of the service was afterwards. Helene and I were on the altar guild, so we often cleaned up. Father Brent insisted on using loafs of bread, and that’s cool, though there was often a lot left over. And while Helene and I love bread, it’s hard to eat a whole half-loaf reverently. We often asked if anyone could help us, but when word got around to the kids that there was more Eucharist, they’d charge into the sacristy (which was tiny) and all call out for more bread. Nor was it just any bread: it was blessed bread, consecrated to be the Body of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. And here was this trampling rush of kids and a dozen or so outstretched hands, all saying, “Can I have some more! More! Please, let me have some more!”

        Now, I’m sure that those kids were thinking quite a bit about their stomachs and not their spirits. Saturday evening high Mass was just before dinner, so they were probably hungry. But I’ve seen hungry kids rushing to the dinner table, and while there is often joy, it was not the same sort of joy as those kids standing at the door of the sacristy. They knew that something was different about that bread. They couldn’t explain it (who could?), but there was something different about it. Perhaps it was the ritual of the Eucharistic prayer that gave them the hint. Perhaps it was the reverence that people brought to the altar rails and that they, themselves, also experienced. And perhaps it was the love they felt when they took those little bits of bread and ate them, together, with the rest of the church, the rest of their church family. Perhaps that joy came a bit from knowing God in that bread and knowing that the love of God filled them just like bread filled their tummies.

        I could tell you many more stories about blessings. I could tell you stories about being at the hospital, here in Coquille or down in Sewanee or during my chaplaincy in Florida. I could tell you about personal blessings, like spring mornings as a kid in New Jersey, or the first time I saw Saturn through a telescope and how much awe I felt at God’s world, or the Sacrament of Confession, and when Jesus took all my sins on his back to carry them for me. I could tell you many more stories, and, I think, so could you.

        During the liturgy, it is the priest’s responsibility and privilege (if the bishop isn’t here) to bless the people. We do this after the post-communion prayer, and it often is, “and the blessing of God Almighty, Father Son and Holy Spirit, be with you all and remain with you, always.” But just because I’m the priest and so I get to bless you all doesn’t mean that you yourselves, as Christians, can’t bless stuff. You can. And your blessing doesn’t count less because you aren’t wearing a collar. It counts just the same amount.

            I can’t remember who said this, it was one of the Church fathers, I believe, but: we should be blessing things all the time. We should be speaking the Name and Love and Hope of God over all things we encounter. For what is a blessing other than allowing the Life of God, the breath of the Holy Spirit and the loving arms of Jesus Christ, to reach further into the world? Bless all things to the glory of the Lord, and be a blessing to others, so that the world may be brought ever more fully into the light of God in Jesus Christ.

God’s Name

the First Sunday after Christmas
26 December 2019

Today’s readings are:
Isaiah 61:10-62:3
Psalm 147
Galatians 3:23-25; 4:4-7
John 1:1-18

Click here to access these readings.

        Back when I was interviewing for the job as your priest, someone on the BAC (I think it was Pete, maybe John) asked me, “Do you prefer to be called ‘father’ or ‘reverend’?” This is something that people talked about at seminary quite a bit. Everyone had a preference, and everyone had a different reason why. Jesus said not to call anyone ‘father’ but your Father in Heaven, but ‘reverend’ comes from ‘reverence’, and none of us for sure didn’t want anyone to reverence us.

        The women in seminary had an even more difficult choice: few of them wanted to be called ‘mother’, but not all of them liked ‘reverend.’ Some of them decided not to have a title at all and to just go with their first names, while others wanted to root themselves in tradition. One woman I knew, who graduated a year after me, asks people to call her “Father Jane.” Everyone’s different.

        And so when Pete or John asked me this question, with all the BAC around, I had these discussions running around my head. I personally prefer ‘father’ because of it’s traditional, but I knew there were folks out there who would balk at the title. And so I did what I usually did as a teacher when a student asked me a difficult question: I reflected. “What do you want to call me?” I asked. I was eventually pressed into making a choice, but I used the question, as I’ll use it now, as a teaching moment. It’s very nice to know what I want to be called, and very important, I think, but I think it’s also important to know what you want to call me. It tells me what you see a priest as and what you need in a priest.

        What you call someone says a lot about what you need and who you are. I remember, once, a student emailed me to tell me that he was dropping my class. Normally, students would address me as ‘Tim’ or ‘Mr. Hannon’, and if they were asking for a favor, they’d even try ‘Dr. Hannon’, even though I told them I didn’t have a PhD. But this student, thinking, perhaps, that he was dropping the class, so why bother, addressed me as “Tim-o”. And the email that he wrote, and the reasons he gave for dropping my class, continued this rather relaxed, up-front, and disrespectful air. Helene and I, on the other hand, try our best to have Gwendolyn address you all with ‘mister’ or ‘misses’ in front of your names, not only because we want her to show you respect, but because using these titles helps Gwendolyn respect other people (at least we hope

so!).

        Now, St. Paul does something very interesting with titles in our letter to the Galatians. But before we get to the Bible, I want to ask you all a question: how do you address God? Now this might change depending on how you’re praying. At least that’s how I work. If I need something, or if I want something (which are pretty different, even though we sometimes forget that they are), I make sure I’m very polite. “Oh, dear God, loving and giving Lord, God who does wonders and loves those who are in trouble, please hear my prayer.” I lay it on thick, for sometimes I forget that God isn’t like us humans who, now and again, need a bit of buttering up. And if it’s thanksgivings, I’m usually a bit shorter. “Thanks God” or “Thank you Jesus.” The more I need, the more long-winded I get, and this says more about me than about God. I wonder if you’re similar.

        But jokes aside, how do you address God? Or, in your heart of hearts, how do you think of God? Who is God to you? Is God someone you feel you have to placate, who you have to persuade, you need to cajole, or maybe even someone you have to bribe? If you only do this for me, God, I’ll make sure to pray every day, or donate more to church, or something similar?  Is God someone you have to address like a lawyer addressing a court, choosing your words carefully and making sure that you ask exactly what you want, lest God misunderstand you or trick you and give you something you really don’t want or that you just can’t handle?

        In the light of day, on a nice morning here in church, maybe not, but when things get dark, many of us feel that God is a lot like a lawyer or a judge or, even, a jailer. We can say that God is a god of love, but in the back of our heads we often wonder if that love is a hard love. When we pray, and those prayers aren’t answered, we can wonder that, maybe, we prayed wrong, or that we’re not good enough for that prayer to be answered, or that because of our sin God is mad at us and won’t listen, even if we pray from the depths of our hearts. And if you have never felt this way, then you are blessed; but know that there are many who we serve who do experience God this way. They feel beaten up by a god who seems to care more about perfection than grace.

        And this is why it is so amazing that the way St. Paul talks about addressing God is to use the word “Abba.”  Now, ‘abba’ means something a bit more familiar than “Father” but also a bit more formal than “Daddy”; something like “Dad”, but more like “my dad” or “my father.” And Paul writes this not only because he wants his readers, and you yourself, to understand something very important about God, but because he wants you to know something very important about you yourself and yourselves. You are children of God. You’re not slaves, not servants, not defendants in a court or anything like that, but children. You are beloved children.

        Now, this doesn’t mean that God will be a doting parent, or that, because you’re children of God, God’ll overlook things like you wreaking his car or something. As C.S. Lewis wrote, God isn’t a tired old grandfather who just likes to sit back and watching kids have fun, or who will buy his grandkids candy behind their parents back. No, God is a father, a parent, and so there are some chores to do, and when we do wrong we need to seek reconciliation.

        When we say that we are children of God, we mean that we share the same relationship with God that the Son has, that Jesus had and has even now. And while that relationship didn’t mean that Jesus would have an easy life, it did mean that there would be a light that is instilled in us that is as deep as Creation. That Life that Jesus had while healing, while preaching, while teaching, while going around all throughout the land and being with the people; and that Life that, even when it was crucified, could raise again; and that Life that was so mighty and so beautiful and so True that it pulled up each and every one of us  towards heaven with it, and not just you and me but the whole of Creation; that Life lives within us now. That Hope, that Life, that eternal Life that Jesus had and has, that is something for us all, not as something given into our hands like a present on Christmas but something born inside of us, a relationship of love that can outlast the stars themselves.

        And now I will ask you the same question I asked Tuesday night because I really want you to think about it: what will you do with this Life? You have been given a gift, and you are now a Child of God Almighty, the creator of heaven and earth. You have a life within you that has defied empires and that has calmed the mightiest storms of doubt and grief. You have the same heart that St. Francis did when he preached to the birds, and you have the same heart that St. Thomas had when he gave his life to study. And you have the same heart that has caused countless generations of Christians to live good, honest, quiet lives of love, of hope, and of grace. You have that life, for Jesus Christ has been born within your heart this Christmas, and at your baptism, and every time you join in the Eucharist, and every single time you turn, again, from sin and hatred to the loving light of God. How will you live, knowing that you are a Son or Daughter of God, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ?