Saturday, December 28, 2013

Christmas I: The Silence of Indwelling


This Christmas has been a very unusual one for me.  For the first time in almost 50 years I sat in the pew for Christmas.  Ever since I began music school in 1962, I have had a gig, a performance or a service to be a part of.  It was quite strange, therefore, to sit and watch the liturgy without having some sort of duty.  It was not necessarily comfortable, but it WAS informative. 

Advent and Christmas for clergy tends to be totally overwhelming.  It is why so few preach Christmas I because if you are far enough up the pecking order, you get to take
this Sunday off.  It isn’t just the extra service during the week of Christmas, it is all the time and stress of the season that makes one totally worn out by Christmas Eve.  The expectation and preparation for an exceptionally beautiful service, the pastoral care load usually doubles as we get closer to Christmas, or the winter solstice—I don’t know which is more operative--, the added personal or familial expectations for the season, harder weather situations and by Christmas Eve most clergy are ready to crash.  I belong to an online ring of other women pastors around the world and I noticed Tuesday that the chats on were characterized by anxiety, fatigue and very little peace, joy and love.

And yet…and yet…

Today we have the prologue of the Gospel of John for our Gospel lesson.  This Sunday is called First Sunday of Christmas and the readings are always the same:  In the beginning was the Word….  John’s story of the birth of Christ is rooted neither in Bethlehem, nor in the lineage of David.  John’s understanding of the birth of Christ is in Creation.  This is a poem—we don’t generally recognize the Prologue as such because it is usually transcribed and translated like prose in our Bibles.  But it is a hymn which John has adapted to tell the story of the beginnings of Christ.  It uses the known to tell the story of the indescribable. 

The Word which John describes is not a written word or even a spoken word, but an Idea that goes way beyond description.  He uses Word to denote Good News, the
Incarnate, that experience of the Holy that all religions claim.  John understood the experience of the Christ was the one that had been promised from all times.  He understood that the Holy One of Israel had made good his promise to be with humanity.  

This prologue also, like the opening sentences of any piece of literature, tells of John’s intentions in his Gospel.  He tells of the Light that came into the world.  He tells of how the John Baptist must decrease, how Jesus is not recognized by his own and how God has opened the promise of salvation to all.  But most of all, John touches on the mystery of the Incarnation--  "And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father's only son, full of grace and truth."

We have seen his glory.  And each year we are invited to celebrate and remember that we HAVE seen his glory, whether it is in the grand spectacular incense-ridden liturgy, or in the quiet gathering of those we love.  

This Advent was a bit of jumble because of the weather.  In upstate NY where I spent much of my career, snow was just part of the equation.  But the ice we had in mid-December is another matter altogether.  I am reminded of a piece that Fredrick Buechner wrote describing a huge snow storm that landed upon New York City.  It came so fast and furious that the snow removal could not keep up.  Cars parked on the streets became mere white lumps in the even landscape.  But what was so remarkable to Buechner was the silence of the city.  In the largest city on the planet, there was NO noise. And it was in that silence that the Prologue of John spoke so profoundly.  When we were iced in a few weeks ago, I noticed that same phenomenon.  There were no street noises in our neighborhood. No children playing, no trucks or cars plying the streets, no birds cheeping, or dogs barking.  Just Silence.

It is in that silence that we begin to understand the Prologue of John’s Gospel.  It is when we can quiet our hearts long enough; the poem begins to work on our souls.  The greatness of God’s acts begins to work in us.  The Word takes root in that quiet waiting.

Faith has nothing to do with ascribing to a series of beliefs.  Faith has to do with the relationship we have individually with the Holy—with the Word—that allows us to know the intimacy of goodness that God infuses in us in the Incarnation.  Then faith propels us into living together with one another in the harmony: "From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace."  The Word is enfleshed in Jesus and among us, so that we might live not for ourselves.  That is the grace of this season.

In my opinion, John understood the silence into which Christ was born.  It is the silence into which we are often invited by the weather, or circumstances of our lives.  But it is a silence which we often avoid with our TV’s, music, cell phones or whatever distraction we can conjure.  It takes courage to sit with that silence.  For the Christ to be known and incarnated within us, takes a bit of work. 
 It may take a snow day.  It may take a walk in the wilderness, a closed door, but
it will take an open heart.  It will take a willingness to set aside our anxieties, our worries, our have-to’s and oughts.  It will take a willingness to take this Prologue and sit with it in silence to know the glory of God, to know the real meaning of Christmas.

This seldom happens on the great feasts of the Church. It seldom happens in church at all.
Church is for worship--not the intimacy of the Word.  It seldom happens when we are ‘ready’ for it.  But it usually does happen when we bring our whole selves to that indwelling.  It comes when we are ready to put ourselves aside to receive the Holy.

It is interesting that back before the changes in
the mass, this one passage was read at the end of the service every day.  It was the passage that went with us always, but it had become so ubiquitous, it was like the noise of our daily lives. The Prologue had become part of the chatter in the liturgy and finally it was removed. That doesn't mean that it isn't important.  It is vastly important and necessary for us to understand who Christ is.

But it takes the silence of our hearts to hear the Word of God.  And while I don’t wish us bad weather, I would invite you to find a quiet day—a quiet hour where there is no radio, no MP3, no TV, or cell phone and let this passage root deeply in your being.  I would invite you to the healing silence of the Word dwelling among us.  It is there that you will find the peace of Christmas.  It is there that you will know the indwelling of Christ.  It is there that you will behold his glory.

The * pictures on this post are from the camera of Libby Hedrick.  Some were taken on our trip to Mexico in October and November.  I am thankful for her talent and her ability to touch the Holy with her lens.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Friday Five: Post Christmas F's

Welcome to the in between days, Christmas is done, and New Year is just around the corner.
In our house today begins Second Christmas – that “new tradition” for so many families who have started over. My boys spent Christmas with their Dad, and are travelling south to be with me over the weekend.
And on Christmas I cooked dinner for my beloved’s children this year, for the very first time! (Children= young adults they’re all in their 20s!)
It has been a time of mixing old and new; sticking to your guns and introducing new flexibilities.
So what have been your old and new? Your compromises and must haves?
Under the headings
Familywho does what? Who will tell the worst jokes? Or whose particular idiosyncrasy did you anticipate (or dread) the most?
Friends – those others, who are the essential part of your circle, not related, but without whom everything would be not quite the same; maybe you do not have family, and these are the people who are most important in your life?
Fun – your biggest laugh, the funniest thing that happened; or whatever it is that warmed your heart
Festivities – the things you do that make it Christmas for you
Foodyour favourite food; the family recipe handed from generation to generation… 

For us Christmas isn't over.  We are those who do not decorate until Advent 4 and take everything down on Epiphany.  We don't put up much anyway.  This year we got up the Christmas lights outside on Advent 3+ and only began to decorate the little ornament tree last week. I just put on the red ribbon on the wreath this morning.  Christmas trees have turned into kitty toys too many times of late that we don't bother to put them up anymore.

Family:  Either my brother or one of his kids host Christmas Dinner ever since my my mother
could not hold it.  This year it was on Christmas Eve at 2pm.  It was quite fun and made allowances for the fact that J and I had church services in the evening.  My family is made up of sailors or horse traders and that is where the conversations go.  We have an occasional interloper but that is the extent of the interests.  This year the TV was not on.  Everyone was home with news that the eldest niece is returning to TX after 25 years being away.  Good news.  Now only the youngest of the great nieces is out of state.  Sister-in-law is celebrating 5 years of sobriety and we all could rejoice with her.  It was one of the best Christmases that I can remember in recent years.

Friends: When I was in active ministry it was hard to go parties because they either came at a rehearsal times or I was too tired to do the party routine.  But this year I was able to attend a couple of parties that were just plain fun.  It was good to spend time with friends where we could gab and joke without some fear that someone would misunderstand or find it scandalous.  I am saddened that I am not able to be with the friends of the parish I attend this year because of an edict from the bishop, but I was invited by a few of them to dinner which did cut the loneliness.

Fun:   One one of those dinners friends invited J and I to a Cajun dinner at a local restaurant.
  They have members of their family who are high functioning but special.  The mother is a hoot.  The conversation was funny and friendly.  It was fairly alcoholic too which improved the humor considerably.   I don't think I have laughed so hard in while.  There was no one thing that stands out except a martini glass....but that is another post.

Festivities:  Christmas has lots of spiritual meaning for me.  I really count Christmas Eve as the beginning of my walk with Christ.  In 1968 I had just been baptized and I had been asked by one of the sisters at a local convent to play french horn at Midnight Mass.  It was during that service that I came to realize that my 'gig' had changed from a
job into an offering.  So Christmas Eve is a special event.  When I was active I always tried to make that service something special--a gift for those attending so that their remembrance of Christmas Eve would be similar to mine.  This was the first time in almost 50 years that I sat in the pew at a Christmas Eve service.  I attended a service that was sadly not up to the usual standards of that church.  The music was not well performed, the readings not well done, the sermon did not keep my interest.  I felt very sad when I came home.  J and I had agreed that after our trip to Mexico that we would not exchange gifts. I felt somewhat bereft.    But Christmas Day I got up late, began to cook a wonderful Christmas Dinner.  It was only the 2 of us but we had a free range hen to roast, dressing, Brussel sprouts and nice blackberry crumble.  The rest of the evening we sat curled up on the couch in front of the TV the most relaxed I have been for 6 months.  It was quiet, communal and wonderfully healing.

Food:  Traditionally in our family Christmas dinner was roast beef.  But with the growth of the family and the cost of a standing rib roast we seldom do that for the whole family anymore.  I think
we had rolled turkey breast this year.  J and I had a roasted chicken.  But I do love to make a roast of beef with Yorkshire Pudding.  I did notice that there are a few roasts left in the market this morning.  I think I am going back and get a small one and invite some friends.  Gotta have some Yorkshire Pudding for it to be Christmas.       

Sunday, December 22, 2013


"Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel," which means, "God is with us."

 In this passage from Isaiah God offers King Ahaz a sign of his presence.  Ahaz who has been acting contrary to the law of love in his kingdom, quotes Torah hoping that he shows that he IS obedient to God.  Then Isaiah proclaims the sign of God anyway.  “A young woman shall conceive and bear a son and they shall name him Emmanuel.”  In the Hebrew the word used is the word for young woman.  It is generally understood as the wife of Ahaz and the son born will be Hezekiah who will be a great reforming king.   

But during the second century before Christ, a translation of Hebrew Scripture into Greek translated ‘young woman’ into the word for virgin.  It was this version that Matthew used when he quoted Hebrew Scripture in his Gospel.  In fact, all four gospel writers use this Greek translation of Hebrew Scripture—it was the Old Testament for the early Greek speaking Christians.  It was only as the early church began to pull away from Judaism that the idea of a physical virgin became a theological necessity to Christianity.

The importance of this passage is NOT the virgin birth of Jesus.  It is the place of sign in the lives of the faithful.  What is a sign?  What are we to make of it?  How do signs
help us know of the presence of God?  I am not saying that the virgin birth did not take place—I am saying that perhaps we as church have put too much emphasis on the wrong syl-LA-ble.

King Ahaz did not want a sign from God because he didn’t want to have God messing with how he was governing Judah.  But God gave him a sign that it would be his son who would lead Judah and that Ahaz wasn’t long for this world.

Matthew, looking back on the story in Isaiah saw the sign of God as the sign of Jesus’.  It helped him recognize Jesus as the Messiah.  That is what signs do.  They help us to see the Divine in our rather mundane lives.  Signs of God are all about us.  And what is a symbol for some is totally missed by others.  For the ancients who did not have to compete with modern light pollution saw signs in the skies. It made them take note of their lives in relationship to the universe, in relationship to that which is beyond us, in relationship to the Holy.  Signs of God give us hope.

For Matthew, the sign was that a woman would give birth to a child who would be called “God with us.”  The idea of god-with-us was common speak for those in the first century Roman Empire where Caesar was the incarnate of Jupiter.  But Matthew knew
it wasn’t Jupiter who was directing things.  Matthew used the idiom of his day to show that God, the Holy One of Israel was still with the dispersed people of Israel and Judah.  He saw that it was the young child born to Mary that signed God’s presence to the world.  

Matthew was being quite radical and subversive.  He was claiming that this man, Jesus, whom the Romans had executed, was the one would whose memory would liberate the people. He was saying that Jesus was better than Caesar.  This son of Israel would be the one who would bring the downfall of those who oppressed others.  Jesus was a sign of newness, of hope, of holiness in the face of economic, spiritual and physical subjugation.

Signs of God’s presence have always been thus.  They have always been marks of something that has given humanity the power to overcome the difficulties that face them.  In my experience it has been the sacraments that have renewed me over and over—signs of God’s presence in my life.  Whether it has been in the water of Baptism, the bread and wine of Christ within me, the proclamation of God’s hope by a couple committing their lives to one another, the confirmation of one’s baptism before the community of faith, the embrace of ordination to proclaim Christ’s gospel, the confidence of forgiveness in absolution, or the recognition of God’s power in the oil of healing.  God makes God’s presence known. There are so many signs of God-with-us. 

I don’t worry about whether Mary was a Virgin or not. It isn’t that important. I do not need a supernatural conception to know that God uses the mundane and ordinary to sign for us that God is present to us at every moment.  This does not diminish my love for Mary who has had to carry for the Church the feminine aspects of the Divine for centuries when the Church was dominated by a type of patriarchy that was not of God. 

I do not have to look to the stars for guidance, I merely need to raise my eyes to my brother and sister sitting next to me in the pews to find the impetus to live a life worth of the calling of my Baptism.  It is the men, women and children that I meet in the mall that are the Emmanuels of my life.  It is the neighbor who doesn’t speak my language that provides me with a glimpse of the holy.  It is the one that I want to call a ‘jerk’ that reminds me that God-with-us is not always the ones that make me comfortable.  It is that Emmanuel that makes me stop and really see the sign of hope that God holds out to me and to the whole world.
All too often I just get tired of all the signs of God’s hope around me.  Like Ahaz I would like ‘not to put God to the test’, I would like NOT to know that that particular person who hurts me is precisely the person who is the sign of divine presence.  But in that sign is hope.  God has incredible faith in us to go beyond all that separates us to bring about healing, goodness, and community. 

The signs of God always proclaim that there is a way.  The signs of God are always a way through darkness.  The signs of God are always a way to know the presence of peace, embrace and wholeness.   

God does not fix us.  God doesn’t change us.  God does not point the way for us to go.  But there are always signs, always images of hope for us to follow.  The Virgin did conceive and did bear a son and we still call him God with us.  We still know his presence.  We still call him Emmanuel.  AMEN

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Hope: Advent in the midst of the Funk

Advent has become rather disjointed for me this year.  And I would suggest that it may be for all of us because of the weather and the closings of last week. And I also have a case of the Funky Februaries and it is only December--NO FAIR!   But today’s lessons bring me back to the season.  

First we hear one of those wonderful prophetic oracles from Isaiah that heralds newness, repair, return and rest.  It is a wonderful oracle and helps us focus on the hope that is held up to us in preparation to receive the Christ Child:

The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad,

    the desert shall rejoice and blossom;
like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly,
    and rejoice with joy and singing.
The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it,
    the majesty of Carmel and Sharon.
They shall see the glory of the LORD,
    the majesty of our God....

The First part of the book of Isaiah is a series of oracles in response to a time when the people have have been oppressed
by their own sinfulness.  Isaiah is most likely writing this in 7th century before Christ when the Kingdom of Israel (the northern portion of the Divided Kingdom) was being conquered by the Assyrians and the southern Kingdom of Judah was being threatened.  The whole faith of what we know as Judaism was being threatened with extinction.  The first 34 chapters are a series of oracles or visions of what is going to happen to the Promised Land because the people of God have failed to follow the Covenant between God and humanity, that is Mosaic Law.

Just before this passage, Isaiah in Chapter 34 says: 

For the LORD is enraged against all the nations, and furious against all their host, he has doomed them, has given them over for slaughter.
Their slain shall be cast out, and the stench of their corpses shall rise; the mountains shall flow with their blood.
All the host of heaven shall rot away, and the skies roll up like a scroll. All their host shall fall, as leaves fall from the vine, like leaves falling from the fig tree.
For my sword has drunk its fill in the heavens; behold, it descends for judgment upon Edom, upon the people I have doomed.

Pretty grisly stuff.  But then,  out of the blue, comes Chapter 35 which we have today.  There is no preparation for it.  There are no verses of change; no preparation for this song of hope and reparation.

  The notes in my study edition of the Bible tell me that this chapter was most likely written by 2nd Isaiah some 100 years later and was copied into this passage.  However, recent
scholars are not quite willing to say that.  By all rights this passage which is so comforting and so proclaiming of hope shouldn’t be in this part of the Book of Isaiah.  It sounds like Isaiah, but from an era much later.  What’s going on?

Such juxtapositions happen often in the prophets.  Most of the time we ignore them, but like in music, the silences are as important as the notes.  And this is one of those cases.   When things jump out at me in Scripture, I try to listen to them because they are often hold things that God wants me to see.  

For 34 chapters Isaiah has ranted and raved at the people of both Israel and Judah for their failure to follow the Law of Moses—not just the laws but the spirit of love and community that Mosaic Law engendered among the People of God.  And then out of the blue comes this Chapter 35 that is an oracle of hope.  It is out of character.  It doesn’t quite fit.  It doesn’t belong here.  And yet…and yet….

Faith engenders hope even in the midst of despair.  No matter how the law serves to give structure to our lives, the love relationship with God engenders hope.  We cannot claim to have a relationship with the Holy One of Israel and be hopeless.  I think that that is the reason that this chapter is the final oracle in this part of Isaiah.  It seems to belong to something else, but I would like to suggest that perhaps Chapter 35 is a call to go beyond the Law, go beyond the structures of our lives and step into the spiritual world.  Perhaps Chapter 35 is just one of those anomalies of life that says that hope is the outgrowth of those who are willing enough to really trust God’s love.

Hope is why we can surrender to the love of God.  Hope is the desire to know something
better than what we know—to be something better than we are.  In our relationship with God we come to trust in a future that says life can be better and we can be better even in the midst of gloom, ice, fatigue, depression, sickness, and perhaps disobedience.  When we allow ourselves to surrender to the God that is within us, we can not only be better, but our world can be a better place too.  Because that hope is based in love—the love that the Creator has in us and we have for the Creator.

While I was working on this sermon, a friend texted me that her supervisor was being especially irritating that day.  I suggested that she find some peace with in her herself and try to be exceptionally helpful to her boss.  She said she was trying to be accommodating.  I wrote back:  “Try loving, it may be scary but it will be redeeming.” That is the nature of love—in the face of ennui, in the face of anger, or irritation, or defeat—love redeems. 

Hope is rooted in our ability to love.  In my own life when anxiety overwhelms me or anger overcomes me, I find that I am also so tired of trying to hang on to those emotions that I lose focus on the love that is incarnated in Christ Jesus for me.  It isn’t because I am not loved.  It isn’t because I am not worthy.  It is because I have become afraid to love with the kind of
abandon that Christ has offered me in his life, death and resurrection.  Hope for us is to act with an expansive love that is willing to face the fears of life.  It is the willingness to open ourselves even in our fear or frustration or our anxiety to God's Oneness that creates in us the peace we long for—the holiness of balance and wholeness. 
And perhaps this is the message that Advent holds for us today.  In the midst of a cold winter, in the midst of anxiety, in the midst of all the things that tear at what it means to be God’s own, Advent conveys that God still holds out to us a kind of hope that
goes past the basic anticipation of waiting for Christmas.  Advent reaches out to us, and it says that despite what has happened, love conquers it.  And love is the only remedy.  No matter what kind of things that dog our lives, love is the only thing that will prepare us for the living of the Christ-life that we are baptized into.

The passage from the Epistle of James counsels patience—the patience of the farmer.  I am reminded of the elder nuns when I was a novice who counseled to never pray for patience because I would always get opportunities to practice it!!  But sometimes the words of Scripture don’t quite say the same in translation.  The word 'to wait for', in most Romance languages including Latin is the same word for anticipation and hope.  Now, I know that waiting for the bus is quite different from waiting for a beloved to come.  So when we read this passage the 'anticipation' that we are invited to is
more than for the cats at my feet when they hear the electric can opener or waiting for the bus.  It is both 'waiting for' and 'hoping in' while at the same time standing in the confidence that God is working out our joy in the meantime. 

I don’t know about you, the court decision early in the summer really took the wind out of my sails.  I came here to Ft. Worth to retire but also to help the diocese return to the community of the Episcopal Church. When we got the decision from the Supreme Court I figured out somebody out there had been praying for PATIENCE!  

But the kind of patience that James speaks is not just sitting with our hands folded in our laps.  Patience is the quiet dependence upon the love of God being worked out in the
un-anxious work of love.  It says that we are willing to live, to stand and to love, knowing that God is in charge.  I do not need to know what God’s purpose is.  I do not have to live into some Divine Plan.  I must just be faithful to the love that God gives birth in me to give to others.  

If there is anything that I have learned over the past 30 years of ordained ministry is that faith has nothing to do with doing things RIGHT.  It doesn’t mean that I don’t try to do things properly, but it means that my salvation – my 'rightness' with the Holy One is not
dependent upon anything I do. My continued desire to open myself to God’s love and letting it flow through me is enough.  I cannot claim that my vocation is holier than anyone else.  I cannot claim that I can do anything to better my life or anyone’s if I am not grounded in the love with which Christ first loved me.  And the hope that love creates in me allows me to stand in the anticipation that it is that love that makes this season, and all seasons.  It is that love that grows that this day celebrates.

In the Gospel reading, John, who is in prison asks Jesus if he the one that is promised.  And Jesus doesn’t answer directly.  He merely says  "Go and tell John what you hear and see: the
blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.”  The love of God are seen when such things happen:  When the souls are healed... When the children can play without fear, when the poor can receive the respect of the wealthy, when we can live in peace and loving, free from anxiety, THAT is when the kingdom comes.  It is then that we are living out what it means to be God's own.  

The message that Jesus sends back to John Baptist is the same one that we proclaim right here.  Can we proclaim that Gospel? Can this congregation claim that Gospel?  This is the question of Advent.  It is the question I have to ask myself and perhaps you need to ask of yourselves.  How can you love the people of Aledo?   Advent isn’t just waiting with hands neatly folded.  Advent is about loving.  Faith is about loving.  Hope is about loving. 

My hope for you is that you may dig down in your faith and brush off the love that is there
and allow that stump of Jesse’s love to grow.  Let the hope of this day remind you that sometimes our faith gets rusty with anxiety, or dashed dreams.  But the call of Advent refreshes us.  It is a season of hope that doesn’t seem to belong here.  It is a season that allows us to wait actively by loving.  It is a season that reminds us of the great hope God is and has in us to live out the life of God's love in new and totally new ways.  It is a season that says, ” So be it.”  AMEN