Saturday, December 24, 2011

The desert, the stars, the manger, and the altar.

My Christmas Eve sermon for 2011

“If, as Herod, we fill our lives with things, and again with things; if we consider ourselves so unimportant that we must fill every moment of our lives with action, when will we have time to make the long slow journey across the desert as did the magi? Or sit and watch the stars as did the shepherds? Or brood over the coming of the child as did Mary? For each one of us there is a desert to travel, a star to discover, and a being within ourselves to bring to life.”

I found this quote on a notecard a month ago, and couldn’t find out who originally wrote it, but it has dominated my thoughts as Christmas approached this year. It both convicts me and inspires me because they key phrase is “When will we have time….?” And that is a question I ask myself every day. It seems like there’s never enough time to do all I must do; much less all I desire to do. But the feast of Christmas itself asks something more. When will we have time to do these holy things… it is almost like we’re being asked, “When will we have time to be a Christian?” Or to visit Jesus in the manger.

You have all made time to be part of that journey tonight. Some of you no doubt under duress; others seeking a feeling, or warmth, or music; and still others looking clearly for God. We are taking the time tonight to stop, breathe, and think and pray about big things—about God becoming man, about shepherds seeing angels, and magi journeying on faith. The Christmas story isn’t just about being a passive witness to events a long time again, it’s about remembering that Jesus is Emmanuel—God with us—now, and that we are not just witnesses but participants in God’s story. Our stories are inherently part of God’s story, and when we reflect, we can see those connections and better develop our role in God’s story, so that we find ourselves reflected more in the shepherds and the magi and Mary than in Herod. 

So what’s your desert to travel? What’s your star to discover? And what being is it that God is calling you to bring to life? 

I realize we didn’t read the text about the magi—which is from Matthew’s gospel rather than Luke’s—but I suspect you’re pretty familiar with it. The magi—wise men—follow a star across the desert from the East in search of God in a very unexpected place. They are looking for God outside their own country, outside their own religion. And when they get to Jerusalem, first they go to a semi-obvious place—they go to Herod’s palace. They don’t go to the Temple, interestingly, they go to the seat of temporal power. But then they go to Bethlehem, and find a baby and bring him their gifts and worship him. When we are in the desert looking for God, do we look in the obvious places or in the places that are less likely?  

We can find God in the obvious places—temples, churches, cathedrals—but we can also discover God in the unexpected places. The desert, the hospital bedside, the manger. The purpose of our time in the desert isn’t to rush across and get out as quickly as possible; the people of Israel spent 40 years during the exodus in the desert. It’s to get to the right place, the promised land, the promised child, even if that means you have a few detours along the way. Jesus is always there at the end of the journey, but first we may have to stop and ask for directions; and then we may have to listen for the dream that will tell us to go home another way, because Herod is dangerous, and always there. The journey across the desert doesn’t end in Bethlehem, either—it continues, back across the desert, home, where we tell what we have seen, and praise God for it. 

What star is God calling you to discover? Over Thanksgiving, my family and I went down to rural North Carolina to spend the week with my brother-in-law in a house they have just built in preparation for their retirement. The night before Thanksgiving, we filled the new Jacuzzi out on their deck, turned out the lights on the deck and relaxed staring into the heavens. Their house is so far in the middle of nowhere that you could actually see not just all the stars in the sky, but the line of the Milky Way standing out among them. A skyscape a lot closer to what the shepherds saw on a hill outside Bethlehem than what I’m used to seeing here.  

I’m not aware as a New Yorker of the absence of seeing the stars. There’s plenty of twinkling lights in the city. But to suddenly remember just how full the night sky is, was kind of profound. It made me remember how often we don’t realize what we’re missing. We’re focused on who we are, where we are, the way things are in our own little corner of the world, and we not only miss the bigger picture and forget how limited our own vision is, we forget to imagine the possibilities for how things could be. Sitting and watching the stars reminded me that being open to discovery is part of faith. If you’re not looking at the stars, maybe you won’t discover the angel. If you don’t remember that there are stars, maybe you’ll miss the star that is calling out to you.  

Mary gives birth to the Word of God. I’m never sure what “brooding” over the child means—when I was 9 months pregnant, I remember mainly just feeling huge and uncomfortable, and I’m not sure that’s brooding; and in the days after Nathan was born, I was overwhelmed and exhausted and desperate to learn how to feed him and care for him, and I don’t think that’s brooding either. But we do give birth to a word. We don’t literally give birth to Jesus, but the Words which we speak (whether they are actions, or words, or relationships; or whether they are lack of action, silence, and aloneness) are what enter the world on our behalf and take on life of their own. 

At a meeting this week, I met a woman who now works at another church who upon hearing I was from the Church of the Epiphany was delighted to tell me that this was the church her parents brought her to as a young child in the 1960s. She recounted a story from when she was about four years old of how she tripped going up the steps and fell and cut her face, and remembered a very kindly priest who comforted her, got her a band aid, and patched her up. She looked at me and finished the story by saying, “And I think that’s the reason I’m an Episcopalian today.” The word we speak may seem to us to “just” be a band aid; but the being it brings to life might be a Christian. All those little “words” we speak—a purchase, a vote, a “yes”, the taking of a hand—can bring to life justice, or peace, or reconciliation, or love…. Or not.  

Jesus Christ the Word came to bring all those things to birth: justice, peace, reconciliation, and love. Tonight I invite you into the desert, up to the stars, into the stable, and up to the altar to witness and participate in what can be. God has become human, for us, and it is now for us to bring that Word to the world. Justice, peace, reconciliation, love. Merry Christmas.

Monday, December 19, 2011

A Shepherd's Prayer

I wrote and performed this as the homily for Epiphany's Christmas Pageant on December 18, 2011
The angel said not to be afraid, but I'm terrified.  I keep thinking about my children, and what this will mean for them.  I've seen false messiahs, I've seen people get excited and hopeful and then their hopes are dashed in a bloodbath.  I don't want this to be like that, and if it's going to be like that then I want no part of it. 

But I never saw an angel for any of those other messiahs.  It was such a beautiful and clear night, and we were sitting around and talking about the stars, and what we saw in t hem. If they brought good fortune or bad, if there would be love and marriages and properity for our families this year.  And then it was just light and wings all of a sudden, and a loud noise that sounded like music and yet said words--"Fear not."  But we were afraid, and shaking and on our knees.  Except the sheep--the sheep weren't afraid.  They just acted like nothing was strange, like they see angels every day.  Maybe they do. And the angel said he brought the good news of hte savior, and sent uns into the town to go look for the baby, and the baby was there. 

I want to believe, and I want it to be different this time. And it's never been a baby before, with those other messiahs. there was something in that mother's face, too, that Miriam of Nazareth. When we told her what the angel said to us, she didn't seem surprised.  It was like she already knew.  Maybe she saw the angel, too.

This child is different. This child is the one. 

The angel said to go tell everyone what I've seen, but I'm not much of a talker.  I'm just a shepherd. I take care of sheep, and I've never aspired to anything else.  I don't teach in synagogues, I'm not a rabbi, I'm  not even a man. But I'm going to tell mysisters. And the other families who have sheep with us. And if we have a visitor stay with us from far away, I will tell them, too. Maybe they'll believe me.  I will try, and I will do what the angel said.

Glory to you God, for this gift.  if you have truly brought us messiah, I am living in the most important moment for our people in a thousand years.  If that baby can bring peace to all people, please give him the strength to do so. I will help, in whatever way I can. Because I am tired of war, and I am tired of being oppressed. And I am ready for a savior, who will keep my chidren safe. I am ready to follow, Lord, if you will show me the way. Amen. 

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Advent meditations on Elizabeth and Zechariah, part IV

The Benedictus, the Song of Zechariah, works on two levels: one is the big picture—the celebration that God has sent a savior for Israel. But it’s also just a parent’s prayer for their child and what God’s desire for him is. “You my child, shall be the prophet of the most high, for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins.”  

What is the hope in this… how do our children relate to the big picture? What are our expectations of them—our hopes for them? For Zechariah, he knows that John is a prophet, is sent to prepare the way, and to give knowledge of salvation. He gets a head start on most of us.  But he gets at why we want our children to do things and what we want to teach them. Zechariah knows that John’s upbringing will train him to prepare for Jesus. Growing up in the wilderness he will be humble and tough and unattached to social status or ego. John will always be pointing to someone else.  

How do I pray for Nathan, my son? He’s two… so it’s all potential. I have no idea how he will relate to the big picture. But some of what Zechariah sings about rings true for me—especially about prophecy. We named Nathan “Nathan” for a variety of reasons, but one was because to me, the biblical prophet Nathan is the hopeful example of a prophet who can speak the truth to power and be heard and effective. I find many of the Hebrew prophets frustrating because even though they say beautiful things, their messages of repentance and reform are never heeded. Their messages of restoration and future hope are what inspire. The prophet Nathan does both. He is artful and crafty and wise and so King David heeds him. I would love for Nathan to be a prophet like that because it’s so hopeful. The ministry of the prophet is not to prophesy doom, but to draw the people of God closer to God. Nathan the prophet does that by truth telling; John the Baptist does that by preaching repentance; who knows how Nathan Linman will do it.  

Question 4: What is our prayer for our children?

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Advent Meditations on Elizabeth and Zechariah, Part III

We are connected to the founders of Israel by the way Elizabeth and Zechariah’s story is a retelling of the story of Sarah and Abraham—the people who are beyond the years when they can have a child, when God intervenes through a divine messenger to make the impossible possible. Sarah’s laughter at the idea of bearing a child is transformed in this story into Zechariah’s honest confusion and questioning of the angel, but with more dire results. Zechariah is struck dumb for his lack of faith.  

This has always bothered me. Why doesn’t anything happen to Mary when she asks basically the same question as Zechariah? Why doesn’t anything happen to Sarah when she laughs? Why must Zechariah and only Zechariah suffer for lack of faith when he questions an angel—when all the prophets question their calling—Moses, Amos, Isaiah—they all object to what God is calling them to do. Zechariah doesn’t even object—he just asks how this could possibly be, given the reality of the situation.  

Here’s one possible explanation. It would be anachronistic to say that Zechariah was the 1% of Israel of his days, but he comes from a priestly family, and he is as “in” with the temple as you can be. He is—so far as the temple life goes—the mighty. He is also the lowly in the overall political life of their culture and time as Jews in Roman-occupied Israel, but he is also a man of power. Elizabeth has less power; still from a priestly family, still honored, no doubt, but her barrenness—for which she was responsible in the understanding of the day—pushes her down in daily humiliation as she is reminded of her barrenness every time she sees another woman with a child.  

So when Zechariah is silenced, it is left to Elizabeth to name their child. He has to lose his voice—for a season—so that the one who has been shamed and disgraced can find her voice. Elizabeth names John, not his father. The temple authorities don’t want to let her name John—but Zechariah is able to support her voice in writing, and the authorities accede to her wish.  

By the end of the story, they both are able to speak, and Zechariah’s voice is let loose in song. Which is a narrative example of the kind of change God is creating in Jesus, described in the Magnificat and the Benedictus, an incarnate hope for what God desires: that all should find their voice. It isn’t just about turning the world upside down and the poor now becoming the oppressors of the rich, God’s promise is about sitting at the table together as equals. God’s promise is that we should know when we need to speak up, and when we need to let others speak.

Question: Where in your life do you need to make yourself mute so that others can speak? And where do you need to claim your voice and speak up?

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Advent Meditations on Elizabeth and Zechariah, Part II

Now why do we not say “yes” when God gives us glimpses of alternate, more faithful futures? I know for myself that I’m afraid of what would happen if I did. Fear inhibits faith. Zechariah is terrified when the angel arrives. The way this is portrayed in the movie the Nativity Story is spectacular, if you’ve not seen it: Zechariah enters the holy of holies, the incense is ascending, and there’s just a breath of wind blowing the incense as the angel speaks. And those first words spoken by an angel in Luke’s gospel are, “Fear not.” But of course Zechariah is terrified anyway. As soon as someone tells you not to do something, we automatically do it.  

And fear is never far from the scene in this story—it permeates that first scene in the temple, and then surely Zechariah must have experienced fear when he could not speak; then when his tongue is finally loosed after John is named, “fear came over all their neighbors.” In the song of Zechariah, the goal of the promise of God to the children of Abraham is to “serve him without fear.” Freedom from fear is the promise of God, and it is our hope as people of faith that conquers our fear.   

The way that Zechariah faces his fear is peculiarly human. John is not conceived by the Holy Spirit a la Jesus. Zechariah and Elizabeth had to, um, do something to bring his conception about. In my experience, that’s a tough act for men to do when they’re afraid. And yet he does it—they do it—they have the hope and the willingness to say “This time it will be different.” That is a profoundly hopeful, and concrete act.

We have a good friend who walked with us along our fertility struggles. On her refrigerator to this day is a copy of the first ultrasound of my son Nathan as a blob inside me attached to the fridge with a magnet that says, “Never never never give up.” If we remain in fear, we never try. If we can let go of our fear, hope can dawn. 

Question 2: What are the fears we need to let go of in order to live in a place of joyful expectancy?

Monday, December 5, 2011

Advent Meditations on Elizabeth and Zechariah, Part I

This is from an Advent Quiet Day I co-led on December 3, and will be the first of a series of four brief blog posts reflecting on Luke 1:5-25, 57-80.  

I remember when I was a little girl growing up in a very protestant church wanting to be the Virgin Mary. Everyone did. She had the best costume at the pageant, she was the Mother of Jesus, she was presented as perfect in every way.

I do not remember ever wanting to be Elizabeth or Zechariah.  

So it came as a real surprise to me six years ago when I was reading the story of the Visitation between Mary and Elizabeth at a weekday Eucharist and it suddenly struck me that I identified much more with Elizabeth than with Mary. I was not a virginal teenager who found it miraculously easy to get pregnant. I was 30, an unhappily childless woman, who was married to a priest.  

If the story of Mary is the story of God’s presence and hope with youth and impetuosity and optimism and wide-eyed excitement, Elizabeth and Zechariah tell the story of God’s presence and hope among those of mature faith, skepticism, and who thought they were so far down a certain path that they didn’t realize they could change.  

And this is where the Gospel begins—in Luke at least. Elizabeth and Zechariah are where Advent begins. They are the preparation for the preparation, if you will… before Jesus comes John; before the annunciation to Mary comes the annunciation to Zechariah. Before the comparative privacy of Jesus’ birth in Luke (where there are shepherds, but no magi) there is the very public birth and welcoming of John the Baptist.  

So what does it mean that Advent, the season of waiting and expectancy, the season when hope is born anew in us, begins with Elizabeth and Zechariah? 

How often do we dismiss creative and interesting and faithful ideas because they are “impossible”? It’s one thing when you’re 23 to join the Peace Corps or something and dedicate your life to serving others for a season, but I know that I’m certainly at a point in my life where as much as I might aspire to spend a year or two in Tanzania or feel it would be worthwhile to become a military chaplain or any of the other life-altering dreams I might have, it’s very easy to dismiss them because of my other commitments: my husband, my parish, my child, my pension. Zechariah and Elizabeth are mature, responsible people making a huge change. It’s a positive one, in many obvious senses; as Elizabeth says, to finally bear a child takes away her disgrace at being barren. But it cuts through happy routines as well; I’m sure Zechariah was not able to serve in the temple while he was mute for 9 months; and the birth of John, and his upbringing in the wilderness, pull Elizabeth and Zechariah away from the center of established temple life and towards the fringe of the people of Israel. If the great praise of Mary is that she “said yes” to God; it is even more impressive that Elizabeth and Zechariah say “yes”, because they had more to lose. The call of God is not just for the young, or those who have time, or for those who don’t have anything else to do. God calls us in the midst of our “important” work and not just when it is convenient. 

Question: What new path might God be calling you to walk on that you thought it was too late for—or that seems too impractical?