Monday, December 24, 2012

A Stable Lamp is Lighted

"The people who walked in darkness
        have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness--
        on them light has shined. 

Those words from the prophet Isaiah haunt me this Christmas, because it seems like darkness is prevalent in our world right now. Whether the world is ending because of the Mayan Apocalypse or the Fiscal Cliff, or we are just plain grieving for news from Newtown to Syria to the shores of Staten Island and Breezy Point, there are a lot of people walking in deep darkness who need light. 

The prophecy points to the fact that the birth of Christ isn’t for people who are already joyful—the shepherds were probably not having a great time on a cold night trying to keep warm with their sheep trying to make ends meet in a system that put them on the bottom of the socio-economic ladder. I’m sure Mary and Joseph weren’t overjoyed when she went into labor while they were holed up in a barn. Christmas is for the people walking in darkness, who know they need and are ready for a Savior. Christmas is for the people of Israel—and by Israel, I don’t mean the Jewish people, but the literal meaning of the Hebrew word, “Israel,” the ones who are wrestling with God. The patriarch Jacob receives the name Israel after he spends an entire night wrestling with an angel and demands a blessing from it in the morning. The blessing takes the form of this new name, Israel, “the one who wrestles with God.”

So any one of us who this season is wrestling with God is Israel: if we are wrestling with God because of the darkness and violence of the world, the brokenness of our relationships, the reality of death, our skepticism about God’s very existence, in all those questions and frustrations where we want to grab God by the throat and pin God to the earth and say, “Why?”, we are Israel. And the birth of Immanuel, another Hebrew word that means God-with-us, is the birth of the realization that if we are wrestling with God, then God is very, very close to us. You can’t wrestle with something that is far away. So the Advent hymn with the refrain, “O Come, O Come Immanuel, and ransom captive Israel” becomes, “O come, O come, God-with us, and redeem those of us who are captive to our struggles with God.” Remind those of us who are struggling that blessing does come in the morning, and that our struggle is not endless, is not all that there is, but that struggle is a part of a faithful life. Rejoice that God is with us, in the darkness as well as in the light. 

There’s a little known Christmas hymn that testifies to this light in the midst of darkness with a text by the American poet and translator Richard Wilbur (if you read Moliere in high school or college, you probably read Wilbur’ translations) and a tune by David Hurd, who teaches Church Music here in the City at General Seminary. The text begins, 

A stable lamp is lighted whose glow shall wake the sky,
The stars shall bend their voices, and every stone shall cry.
And every stone shall cry, and straw like gold shall shine
A barn shall harbor heaven, a stall become a shrine.

Jesus is the lamp inside the stable whose arrival is at once cosmic—the stars and stones crying out in celebration—and so very ordinary. It is the incarnation—the taking of divine stuff and bringing it to us in human, ordinary form—that transforms straw into gold, a barn into heaven, a stall into a shrine, and us into fellow heirs with Christ. Sounds like Christmas. But the gift of this hymn is that it isn’t just a Christmas hymn. It’s a gospel hymn. A full gospel hymn. Because the birth of the Christ-child tonight is good news, but it isn’t just good news on it its own—it’s good news because of what that child is going to do as he grows up. There is no Christmas without Good Friday; and there is no Good Friday without Easter. So this Christmas Carol continues with a verse about Palm Sunday, and then this one about Good Friday:

Yet he shall be forsaken, and yielded up to die;
The sky shall groan and darken, and every stone shall cry,
And every stone shall cry, for stony hearts of men:
God’s blood upon the spearhead, God’s love refused again.

The mother who tonight celebrates the birth of her baby 33 years later will have her heart pierced with grief watching him die on a cross. The shepherds who tonight go to see the child in Bethlehem might be some of the very same people who cry out “Crucify him” among the crowd in Jerusalem. The stones that cried out in joy at Jesus’ birth weep at his death, at the hearts of stone the prophet Ezekiel promised would turn to hearts of flesh when bound by the covenant of God. Joy and tears, virtue and sin, blessing and curse, faithfulness and abandonment are mingled here, as in all things. As in all of us. 

But just as in the Christmas story Herod does not have the last word, in the Gospel story, death and darkness do not have the last word. Mary will watch Jesus die—but she will also see him raised. The crowd will demand the crucifixion, but many of those hearts will be turned back to flesh upon news of the resurrection, and the spread of the Gospel by the first generation of Christians. So Wilbur’s text concludes with an Easter/Christmas blend.  

But now, as at the ending, the low is lifted high;
The stars shall bend their voices, and every stone shall cry,
And every stone shall cry, in praises of the child.
By whose descent among us, the worlds are reconciled. 

Every stone shall cry. Jesus’ birth and life and death and resurrection mean so much that even the stones cry out in praises of this child. It is so good that we are here to add our voices to the stones and the stars and the choirs of angels, and to remember that Jesus came to reconcile us one to another, and all of us to God.

At the Easter Vigil we begin in darkness and candlelight and end in the glorious splendor of every light in this church. Tonight we begin in light and will end in darkness and candlelight. Hold on to that candle tonight. That fragile, flickering flame is like this baby in the manger. As we will sing at Easter, “The light of Christ!” “Thanks be to God!” May the light of Christ illumine your way home, and may it burn in your heart tonight, tomorrow, and all year. Merry Christmas. Amen.

"A Stable Lamp is lighted" in an odd video, but the only one I could find on Youtube... but you get the idea of the music, if not a picture of what the organist/singer looks like!

Sunday, December 23, 2012

The Gift of the Gospel Story

My sermon from our Christmas Pageant on December 23, 2012

Why do we do this? Why do we tell this story—why do we act it out, and get all dressed up, and wrangle the kids into line? It can’t just be because it’s cute (though it is!).  

We do this because we want every one of our children to know the Gospel as their fundamental story. And we adults probably need reminding, too. Every role in this story is a role we will play. We will be Mary—God will give us a word that we are called to birth into the world. We will be Joseph, and be faced with challenges and sacrifices in order to be true to our faith. We will be the shepherds, witnesses and evangelists to the wonder of God. We will be the Magi, people with gifts to offer to God, and who will bow down and worship our Lord. We will be sheep… creatures who flock together for safety, and who need a shepherd to guide us. We will be angels—messengers of God, who bring Good News to people who need it. We will be Herod—we will be threatened by God and battle between protecting our own interests and being open to God’s interests. And we will be Jesus, in a way. We bearers of the name of Christ are called to be healers, to be teachers, to be Christ’s hands and heart and feet in the world. 

The Gospel is not a story that is all sunshine and rainbows and glitter—we only get hints of it today, but evil is here. Mary and Joseph experience the exclusion of refugees who find that there is no room for them, balanced by the compassion and faith that God will make room, and that even a barn can be a holy place, even a manger can be a cradle and a throne. And perhaps most poignantly this season, Herod is in this story. The Magi return home by another road not because they want to see the sights but because they want to protect Jesus, the fragile and vulnerable child, from his murderous rage—a rage that will find its expression in the slaughter of the innocents a few verses later in the Gospel.  

But with all the darkness in the story—which of course, continues on to Calvary and the empty tomb—it is a story of light. A story that says that God’s love for us is greater than our own sin and that ultimately, at death life is changed, and not ended. We don’t do Easter pageants in this country. But the more I think about it, the more I think that maybe we should. We do Christmas Pageants, and we act out the passion gospel on Palm Sunday, but we never act out the Easter story—and we should. We need to hear the resurrection narratives as much as the other two. Because these stories together frame our faith in a way that we are putting in a box, tying up with a ribbon and giving to our children this year and every year as the greatest gift under the tree.  

And we need them to open that box and take this story out and live it because the world will tell them—and us—a different story. And as we learned again two Fridays ago in Newtown, our children need to have the gift of the Gospel story at such a young age, because the world’s story is reaching them younger and younger. The world will tell them to fear their neighbors rather than love them; the world will tell them to hold on to their own space rather than sharing their barn with a stranger; the world will tell them that listening to angels and following stars is for the foolish and not for the wise. The world will tell them that Herod is the most powerful person in the story; and we are here to say no to that. Herod is not the most powerful person in this story. Jesus is. And Jesus wields his power not through worldly domination, or wealth, or violence, or threat, but through love, vulnerability, compassion, and self-sacrifice.

And today 25 kids here learned that a little deeper. And we all remembered it after a few weeks of getting hammered by the world’s story. So it’s a good day. Good work. Now we n eed to put on our own angel wings, and go out into the world and proclaim the good news from the mountaintops. Jesus is born. God is with us. Hallelujah! Amen.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Reflections on incarnation and vulnerability

I am so grateful right now as my husband, 3 year old son, and I put up our Christmas tree. I am grateful that all three of us are here to do this, and so conscious that there are 26 families in Connecticut for whom these days are full of unremitting grief instead of joy.  And beyond those 26 families, so many more who are grieving friends, neighbors and loved ones, and a nation and world who are holding their own children and teachers a little closer this season while we participate in the rituals of public mourning.  

We are so vulnerable, we human beings.  A disturbed man with a gun brings us to our knees.  Acts of heroism by educators bring us to tears. Whether at a school, or a mall, or a temple, or on a NYC street, our daily lives open us to the fears, illness, and anger of others.  To step outside our own homes is to commit an act of trust in our neighbors and our society. There is no perfect safety, no hermetically sealed gated community where we are immune from violence and mayhem--and for too many people, even our own homes are places of violence and mayhem. 

As my family puts up this Christmas tree, and I am reminded of the birth of Jesus, I am struck by the incredible gift of Jesus the baby into this world. God gives Jesus to us, to be vulnerable with us to love, grief, suffering, and death.  And Jesus experiences all of these.  The senseless violence that we have just witnessed in Connecticut has a parallel on a cross outside Jerusalem, where a son was murdered while his mother looked on, helpless. 

Do we add to the mayhem, or do we act to mediate it? May we be people who act with wisdom and compassion, cognizant of evil but not defined by it.  On the grand scale, may we make wise laws and have policies that address the many illnesses of our societies.  In the intimacies of our own lives, may we be gentle with our neighbors, kind to strangers, and helpful to those in distress. 

And may we keep stepping outside our doors and having faith in our neighbors.  As a Christian, I would say that we should do this in the footsteps of Jesus, who commanded us to love our neighbors, even the ones who are unloveable, and even when it leaves us open to being harm.  But regardless of your religious beliefs, I am sure that it is compelling to greet our neighbors with love to interrupt--wherever possible--the violence and mayhem that exists in our world.  

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The Godspell Sermon

“Prepare ye the way of the Lord! Prepare ye the way of the Lord!!!!”  

So begins the main part of Godspell, with John the Baptist singing the good news from Isaiah. In the recent production on Broadway, which I got to see with our Youth Group, he then extended his hand and water poured out from above into his hand as if from heaven and into a pool that was hidden onstage. The rest of the characters began to dance ecstatically in and through the water, singing and enjoying baptism in a way that we don’t even touch in the Episcopal Church. The characters understood that their sins were being washed away and they responded with all the passionate, almost hyper energy of the young people they were. 

Now that sounds like a different kind of preparation for the Lord than we’re used to thinking about in advent. Common Advent themes are quiet and introspection; repentance and focus on sin; patient waiting… not ecstatic dancing and joy. 

So what does it mean to “prepare the way of the Lord”? Are we supposed to be on our knees in silence? Or are we supposed to be partying and dancing? 

The Isaiah passage that Luke is quoting in reference to John the Baptist is itself a meditation based upon the ancient practice of preparing the road for a royal visit. Take the way NYC shuts down when the President visits, and multiply it into a massive works program that starts months in advance: the king or emperor is going to be travelling on this road, so we need engineers, and we need to fill in the ruts, smooth it out, and do a lot of hard labor to prepare it for the honor of receiving the royal feet. 

And who is to do that work? Us. This is not the Pelagian heresy of earning our own salvation through our works: it is only through God’s grace, and not our works, that we inherit salvation. Who else will prepare the way if not us? Is that not the mantle that John the Baptist took up—unworthy though he was—until he was faced with Jesus himself desiring baptism. When we commit fully to preparing the way for the Lord, sometimes the Lord shows up and then shows us the way. And that commitment includes both the penitence and introspection that we usually associate with Advent and the ecstatic optimism and joy that the kids in Godspell were expressing.  

And I want to consider one way into that today—prayer. If you think of all the kinds of prayer that there are, most of us are very very good at one of them: petition. Please God do this… Please God, give me this…. Please God, make such and such happen. And that’s fine—we should ask God for things. “Ask and it shall be granted unto you,” and all that. We aren’t pestering or bothering God with our requests. But do we only ask God to do things for us, or do we hear that God is asking us to do things for God? To turn a John F. Kennedy quote around a little bit: 

Ask not what your Lord can do for you. Ask what you can do for your Lord.  

Prayer is a dialogue both ways—it’s not just us talking to God, it’s about us listening to God. What is God asking you to do because Jesus is coming? What needs to be done? Think of all the preparations that go into getting your house ready when you’re having a baby. Jesus’ arrival—whether in Bethlehem or at his second coming is like that. And who else will do it if not you—if not us. God is longing for us to prepare the way of the Lord… which rut can you fill in? Which length of road can you survey and plan for and build? That’s what I hear in the Gospel today. Luke is challenging us to be like John the Baptist; to cry out and prepare space for Jesus in our world, in our city, in our lives, in our hearts, in our families.

On my way home from bringing communion to a parishioner on Thursday afternoon, my iPod played another song from Godspell. It’s one that Jesus sings—a ballad called “Beautiful City.” I’d already worked on most of this sermon, and hearing the song I realized that it encapsulated much of what I wanted to say: the optimism of “we can build a beautiful city” (or a way in the wilderness). “We might not reach the ending/but we can start/brick by brick/heart by heart.” Building is how we turn our lives around—when we are at the end of our rope, we pick up a brick and start to build, and things take shape and build ourselves up with it. Because the hope of the song is to build not a city of angels but a city of man. It’s also appallingly gendered—they thought they were so avant garde in the 1970s, and now we hear it and think how dated it is. But that’s part of what this waiting in Advent is about: Jesus is a man; God comes not in angelic form, but in human form. God participates in the building of the city of man though Jesus the man. And through us.

Here's a link to Hunter Parrish singing "Beautiful City" from Godspell.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

A heart lighter than a feather

My sermon for Advent I, 2012

Remember the ancient Egyptian myth that after death, the deceased’s heart was weighed against a feather? We probably all saw it in high school World Civilization textbooks. The god Anubis presided over the ceremony where the Egyptians believed that all the deeds a person did in their life were contained in their heart, and that every bad deed made the heart heavier, so when the person died and their soul went to Osiris, Anubis weighed the heart against the feather of Maat, the goddess of truth and justice. If your heart was heavier than the feather of truth and justice, the heart was destroyed. If your heart was lighter than the feather, your soul got to spend eternity in paradise with Osiris.  

Now hear today’s Gospel: “Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly, like a trap”  

What weighs down your heart? Now, we are not ancient Egyptians, and have a very different theology than they did. The gift of Christianity is that when your heart is weighed down by sin, Jesus offers forgiveness and grace—the lightening and release of the heart from the gravity of sin.  

But the writers of the Gospel most certainly knew this myth… Egyptian religions and Christianity intersected repeatedly—just look at pictures of ancient Egyptian statues of Isis and her son Horus and compare it to Mary and the infant Jesus—so perhaps it was in their minds today. The message here is, don’t let your hearts be so weighed down by the worries of this world that when the Kingdom of God comes near, you are unprepared or miss it. We are telling this story today because the church knows that this is a season and time when our hearts can be weighed down. When we are burdened by anxieties about work and family, money, relationships, the trials of the world—when injustice and untruth depress us and make us so much heavier than that feather. When we are so engaged by the things of this world that we forget to attend to the Kingdom of God. 

And into that heaviness, later today and every Sunday, I sing, “Lift up your hearts,” And you will all respond, “We lift them up to the Lord.” That’s probably not the part of the service that you usually find inspiring. It’s just the rote words we repeat in the service. But think about it—week after week, we affirm that we will life our hearts up to God. 

So how? How in a world of suffering and pain and injustice and anxiety can we find the strength to lift up our hearts week after week? 

Hear the prayer from 1 Thessalonians today: “may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you. And may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.” God strengthens our hearts—God helps us to lift them up—God makes us increase in love for one another and for all… for all… not just those in our community, but love all. Each loving relationship snips one of the strings of anxiety that weighs us down and allows us to edge ever upwards towards the divine. 

Look around you in this church. Look at those faces. Those are people who love you. Those are people who will help you when you ask for it; those are people who will pray for your when you need it; those are people who will rejoice with you when you have good news. Those are people who, when your heart feels like it will burst in sadness, will be there with a hug and a good word. And those are people for whom you must care, in that web of affection and accountability that stems from our shared faith in Jesus, and our common meal each week of bread and wine.  

We’re going to be praying for Elizabeth’s heart today in our baptismal liturgy. “Open her heart to your grace and truth,” her family will say as they lead us in prayer. And finally, in my favorite prayer from this service, after she is baptized, I will pray, “Give her an inquiring and discerning heart, the courage to will and to persevere, a spirit to know and to love you, and the gift of joy and wonder in all your works.” An inquiring and discerning heart. A heart that is open to receiving God’s grace and truth and to offering it back out into the world. What better prayer could their be for a baby—or for any of us who have been baptized. If we have an inquiring and discerning heart, a heart that is open to grace and truth, it will definitely be lighter than a feather.