Sunday, December 26, 2010

The Word Became Flesh ~ OMG!

The Rev. Robert P. Travis
Christmas 1 - Year A RCL
Episcopal Church of the Ascension
December 26, 2010 8 and 10:30am
Isaiah 61:10-62:3 and John 1:1-18

Sermon Text:
“And the word became flesh and lived among us.”

My daughters like to cuddle,
in case you don't know them,
they are 6 and 4 and ¾.
Annalise, is 4 and ¾ and she will tell you that.
She has liked cuddling ever since she was a baby.
I remember when my dad held her
in her early months of life.
As a newborn she laid her head down on his shoulder,
and he said, “Aw, she cuddles!”

She has a bed full of cuddle toys,
but Annalise has been known to say
that she needed a special cuddle toy
or else she could not go to sleep.
So it struck me as a pure expression of love,
this week, when Annalise told me this about God.

She said, “God is a great big cuddle toy
who all the children of the world can cuddle at once.
He cuddles with us every night,
even though we can't see him.”

She said that to me with the confidence
of a biblical truth.
She knows it to be true,
and as one who really loves cuddling, it is an important truth about her experience of God.

That seems to go well with the Christmas story
we know so well, with the simple Christmas story
we heard so recently,
and today we have a very different understanding
of the birth of Jesus Christ.
The interesting thing, about having
the first Sunday  after Christmas
the very next day,
Is that we get to see  how   paradoxical
the gospel writers were
in their understanding
of  the birth of Jesus.
A paradox,
is   when two true statements
coexist, though they don’t
agree with one another.
They seem opposed to each other,
but they are both true.

John presents us not   with a little
cuddly  baby,  as he introduces
the good news about Jesus,
but with the Word of God,
The Logos   become flesh.

The Logos was understood  as a concept,
both to Jews and pagans.
Many believed that the world,
the whole universe in fact,
was spoken into existence,
and that Word, Logos in Greek,
was what caused all creation.

We know this most clearly
from the beginning of the Bible,
where it is passed down to us,
that “In the beginning, God said,
‘let there be light,’ and there was  light.”
The whole creation is a series of statements.
One translator simply translated
the Hebrew as,
In the beginning  God said, ‘Light!’”
That does a better job of conveying that Logos idea.
The Logos, The Word of God was  ‘Light!’
The Word of God was behind every work  of creation,
every Word of Creation.

So when John writes, “In the beginning was the Word,”
He wants us to remember the   Genesis account.
You could just as easily understand,
the Big Bang that ways as well.
In the beginning, God said “Bang!”
And the Big Bang Happened.
The Word spoken  by God, is the Word of God.
So when the evangelist says
the Word was with God,
that goes without saying.
When he says, the Word was God,
that’s good news.

Behind all that creation, light,
darkeness, galaxies,
the earth,
the ocean,
tiny  living things,
behind all this is life,
and that life started as light,
and that light was a Word,
and that Word is part of God’s own self.

Here’s the paradox,
that cuddly baby,
that Cuddle toy  my daughter  and children
everywhere love,
was that  very  Word,
the creative  force behind everything,
became the very flesh  he created.

How can both of  those things  be true
at the same time?
God often shows us,
that either/or is not sufficient,
With God it is often both/and.
Jesus Christ is both a cuddly baby,
and the cosmic reality behind  all  life
in the universe.
I think that should give us all pause,
That  is  what Isaiah’s talking about,
“my whole being shall exult in my God;”
Not just a little warm feeling
that we get from seeing an adorable  baby,
but a great big Whoa!
From your head, to your heart,
to your toes,
to the depth of your soul and Spirit.

This would be the right time to say,
“Oh, My God!”
a phrase used way too vainly these days,
but that Oh, My God! is  what
exultation really means.

Why does  Isaiah say that,
beyond pure awe?

He writes, “my whole being shall exult
in my God;
for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation,  a   bridegroom decks  himself,
and  as a bride  adorns herself with her jewels.”

This is prophecy,
Isaiah had not met Jesus,
he is writing hundreds of Years before
that birth in Bethlehem,
but he sees what God is doing,
he feels clothed  with the garments of salvation.

That  same Word from the very beginning,
the Word light,
the Word Life,
was  also the Word,
Man, and the word Woman.

And  as  if  it was not enough,
because of our own neglect,
our  squandering  the right way,
and then forgetting what we really are,
that Word, actually
became   one     of  US.
To bring us  back, to what we were  made  to be.
That  is why Isaiah  exults,
that is why  we say,
Oh my God!
This  Sunday after the incarnation.

Because of  his  coming into the   world,
condescending from being greater  
than the whole universe,
to become a  single human being,
he gives us the power  to become
Children of God.
Isaiah  prophecied,
we will be a crown of beauty  
in the hand of the Lord,
a daughter and  son of the King.

So yes,
as Children of God,
as my own child realized,
even though we don’t see Him,
he cuddles us  every night.
But we know that,
only because  God the only Son,
the Word who spoke the everything into being,
became fleshed  and lived  among us,
because he made God known to us,
in the flesh,
And while in the flesh,  
he showed us Love,
strong   love,
scandalous Love,
Love that cuddles us,
no matter how prickly we have been to Him.
This is one of the great paradoxes.

And Christmas  is a season to  reflect on that.
What does that make you  think about yourself?

Our Brotherhood sent this reflection out
that helped me,
(by Br. Kevin Hackett),
a priest with the Society of St. John the Evangelist,
an Episcopal religious order says:

When the Eucharist is celebrated at the Monastery,
the Bread and the Cup are sometimes presented
to the congregation from the altar as the presider says,
"Behold what you are."  
Which is to say, look closely,
this is who and what you really and truly are,
the Body of Christ, made up of grains of wheat ground so fine that it would be impossible to separate them now.
"Behold what you are."  
To which we respond, "May we become what we receive."  
May we indeed.”

Fr. Howard and Brett preached
on Christmas eve,
that the incarnation is about how we are Christ to one another,
in community.
As we share in the flesh of Jesus,
fed by his presence in the Eucharist,
reassured of his presence in the world,
may we become  what we  are  always
made to be, what we were spoken into being.
As if we never lost that awareness.
“May we become willing to embrace the other,
to serve the other,
to wash the other's feet,
to suffer with the other,
to suffer in place of the other.  
That's what the Body of Christ in the incarnate Lord Jesus did.  That's what the Body of Christ
[The Word made flesh]
incarnate in us is still called to do.”

Monday, December 20, 2010

God Is With Us

The Rev. Amy Morehous
Advent 4, Year A
Church of the Ascension
December 19, 2010

Restore us, O Lord God of hosts;
show us the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.

Haul out the holly
Put up the tree before my spirit falls again
Fill up the stocking
I may be rushing things but deck the halls again now

For I've grown a little leaner, grown a little colder
Grown a little sadder, grown a little older
And I need a little angel sitting on my shoulder
Need a little Christmas now

For we need a little music, need a little laughter,
need a little singing ringing through the rafter
and we need a little snappy, happy ever after
We need a little Christmas now!

Most of us have probably heard this song - probably sung in a snappy, peppy tempo, with lots of accompanying strings and jingle bells, and a breathless chorus of voices. I have to confess that I’m normally a terrible Episcopalian. I love Christmas carols, and I sing them in my car usually from Thanksgiving, until Christmas. But I have to confess that this one is not one of my favorites. It seems a little desperate to me - a little rushed, a little manic. But, this hasn’t been our year for Christmas carols. To be perfectly honest, over the past several weeks hearing the words “happy”, “jolly” and “merry” have made me want to kick someone in the shins. (You’ll be happy to know I’ve restrained myself.)

It has been easy for me, this year, to put off Christmas, and live into the mysterious waiting that is Advent. To sit in the dark, and look for the light to come. Because there have been times in my grief these past few weeks when the valley has been so dark, I was not sure I would see the light again. But I know, as the Psalmist says, that we walk through the valley of the shadow of death. We walk through it - we don’t linger there forever. But on the dark days, the dark of that shadow can be very powerful indeed.

I’ve thought for weeks about what God would have me say to you today, on this last Sunday in Advent, the day when we look forward to God’s great promise, given to us by the prophet Isaiah. A young woman is with child, and shall bear a son, and will name him Emmanuel. “God is with us.” God is with us.

It is a mystery to us, this gift of presence. Not presents - wrapped in beautiful paper with shiny bows. Presence. God is with us. God who comes to live among us as a tiny and frail child. That mystery draws us here every year at this time, when we celebrate it without fully understanding it. But we don’t have to understand the mystery to experience it, to live into its promise.

I would like to offer you a full and complete understanding of many things this morning, but one of the things I have lived into this whole year is knowing how much I don’t fully understand. I can neither understand nor explain why our son died six weeks ago. I don’t understand why our nephew died in May at the age of two and a half, after living most of his brief, sweet life with a devastatingly progressive terminal illness. I frequently don’t understand why grief comes to the lives of people I care about. I only know that it does. Griefs come into each of our lives because we are human. Because we live in a world in which hard things happen to people every day.

“This is life’s nature: that lives and hearts get broken - those of people we love, those of people we’ll never meet.” Anne Lamott says that “the world sometimes feels like the waiting room of the emergency ward, and that we who are more or less OK for now need to take the tenderest care of the more wounded people in waiting room, until the healer comes. You sit with people,” she said, “(and) you bring them juice and graham crackers.”

Many of you have brought me juice and graham crackers when I needed it, and I thank you. And you will keep doing it, because I can tell you that I will need it for a long while. And someday in the future, we will sit together, you and I, and I will bring you juice and graham crackers when you need them. Someone gave me a terrific piece of advice last weekend, at the memorial service for our son. They said, “Be patient with God.” Together, today, we are all here being patient with God in our own way, waiting until the healer comes, because the healer is promised to us by a God who loves us all, even in the midst of our grief, and our anger, and our hard times.

Henri Nouwen said that “waiting is essential to the spiritual life.” This is terrible news for me, because I hate waiting. But he continues on to say that “waiting as a disciple of Jesus is not an empty waiting. It is a waiting with a promise in our hearts that makes already present what we are waiting for. ...We are always waiting, but it is a waiting in the conviction that we have already seen God’s footsteps.”

Sometimes in the midst of all our waiting, in the middle of hard times or great grief, it’s easy to wonder if God is present at all in the midst of it. After all, God’s footsteps can be hard to see in the dark. But, one thing I have come to believe above all is that our pain matters to the One who made us. God did not promise to make my life pain-free, to give me a charmed life where nothing terrible ever happens. He didn’t even promise to take all the pain and suffering away when those hard things happen. I have days where I sure wish he would. But God did promise to be present with me in the midst of it, to fill that pain and sorrow with his presence so that I might bear it. He has blessed me with friends and family, so that I am not bearing up under the weight of my grief alone. He sent the Comforter, the Holy Spirit, to be with each of us - in sorrow and in joy. And he sends his own son among us - a tiny boy, born of a young woman, cradled in a manger. Emmanuel. God is with us.

We are here together, today, on this fourth Sunday in Advent because we yearn toward that presence in our lives. Toward that moment when God breaks into our lives, the light in our darkness. Toward transformation. Peter Gomes says that “the promise of nothing less than transformation. That is why we can never get enough of George Bailey and Ebenezer Scrooge at this time of year. Even as they were, we too can be changed. What we yearn for is what Saint Paul once called the peace which passes understanding, a peace, first inward and then outward, which this world can neither give nor take away.”

Most of us, as we are caught in our own pain, and our own lives, have a hard time letting go, and opening ourselves to that radical inbreaking of God. I know I wrestle with that every day. We all have an idea of where we thought our lives would be today, that “snappy happy ever after” of the song. Our reality frequently doesn’t match those expectations. I can say with all honesty that I anticipated a completely different Christmas this year than the one I will have. I can hang on to those old expectations, which were very sweet indeed. Or I can embrace the Christmas my family and I will actually have, in all its imperfection, its ups and its downs, its tears and its laughter. I can hold on to the fantasy of my expectations, or I can live into the place where Christ meets me - the place where I actually am.

Where are you, today? Are you weighed down by the thoughts of the Christmas that won’t be? Are you wrestling with a reality that doesn’t meet your expectations? With disappointments? With grief? Most of us are, if we’re honest. One of the gifts of Advent is time - time to work toward letting go - even a little, of all of our “should be’s”. “I should be giving my children more. I should be more successful. I should be sharing this with someone I love. I should be happier. I should....I should...I should.”

Here we are together, all of us, in the midst of our messy and imperfect lives. The promise of the incarnated Christ is that he comes into each of our lives just the way they are - despite darkness, and insecurity, and difficulty. Today, I ask you to join with me as we cast off some of our “shoulds” and embrace the messy and the imperfect, with all of our hurts, and all of our joys . God will be there, as we do. Emmanuel. God is with us.

Together, we walk through the dark of Advent, knowing that the light is promised to us. To each of us. The light is promised to us, not because we believe, but because we belong. Sometimes the wild improbability of God’s love for us is too difficult for the wan intellectual exercise we think of as belief - particularly when we are walking in the dark. Even on the days when we cannot see the light of God’s presence, when we cannot even hope for it for ourselves, it will be there. Others around us will carry that hope for us, when we cannot, will sing the words of it, when we’ve lost the tune.

This is the last Sunday of Advent. We have spent the last few weeks waiting, listening, watching as people in darkness who yearn for a sign of the light. And the Light of the World is on the horizon now: his name is Jesus, for he will save people from their sins. I wish for myself, for my family, and for all of us a transformative Christmas, when the light of Christ seeps into all the dark places in our lives. Emmanuel. God IS with us.


Monday, December 6, 2010

Advent 2, Year A December 5, 2010
Twists and Turns The Reverend Dr. Howard J. Hess

I. Introduction: The season of Advent twists and turns. These twists and turns produce a certain tension in our spiritual lives. At one moment in time we are moved by the wonder and great mystery of Advent, while at other times we are beset by distractions, disruptions, and delays. Which is it going to be – the disturbances or the divine presence of God in the Incarnation? The lectionary designers seem to be communicating the same kind of tension in the readings selected for today. For example, Isaiah wrote: “A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse, and a branch will grow out of his roots . . . The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.” This is the warm, loving picture we see on many of our Christmas cards – scenes of stillness and peacefulness frozen in place.

Yet at the same time we have today’s Gospel reading from Matthew. John the Baptist is making his annual advent voice heard: “Repent!” says this wild and wooly man . . . for the kingdom of Heaven is near.” He calls the Pharisees and Sadducees who are coming for baptism a “brood of vipers” and describes Jesus as a Messiah of judgment. He warns harshly that “Jesus’ winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary but the chaff will burn with unquenchable fire.” As one of the participants in our Wednesday Women’s Bible Study (which meets at 10:45 in room 101 and welcomes new members) said this week: “I sure hope I’m not one of the chaff that is thrown into the unquenchable fire.” I share her sentiment!

II. What then are we to do with this tension in our lives and in our worship? As I have struggled to answer that question for myself this week, I will share what I have come to understand about this tension. First, I would say that to a lesser or greater degree, this tension is always going to be an element of our spiritual experience in this life. We are all works in process; we are redeemed through Christ, but not yet perfected. Secondly, although we know that this tension between peace and challenge will continue throughout our lives, it is often at the point of that tension where the Holy Spirit can do the Spirit’s best work in us, helping our faith to grow stronger and stronger over time.

III. First the tension. We are a people saved by grace, but we also are a people who live in a world where “stuff happens.” Although we aspire to transcend “the stuff” there are instances where we struggle. At times our tensions come from sadness and grief, the loss of a marriage, the loss of a job, the death of someone we love very much, or giving up of some of our treasured life dreams. Many of us in this sanctuary have or are facing the reality of living lives that aren’t like those in the Christmas card pictures. As is typically the case, for many of our brothers and sisters, grief is very powerful during Advent.

For others, our tensions result from much more mundane events. We begin our busy days with optimism and end them with frustration. It’s like my experience in the past week of having my car brakes go out twice and also ending almost every day not having completed what I had hoped or had promised to do. Each of us this morning can insert our own particular experiences of tension during the past week.

IV. In the midst of our tensions, however, Isaiah points us to a peaceful promise. Some have viewed that promise primarily as a prediction about the future. But others see the promise of peace as timeless. For example, Margaret Wenig, a Jewish author writes:

You see, to Jews, Isaiah’s promise of redemption speaks not only of the advent of the messiah at the end of time, but also of our recurring experience of redemption through time. We believe that Isaiah’s promise has already been fulfilled time and again whenever our people have been felled and new shoots have miraculously appeared.

V. This recurring experience of redemption, I believe, is possible for us when we understand the dynamic nature of our spiritual lives. We each have a core center of spiritual gravity. In this core center we are unified with Christ through the Holy Spirit. Remember the central truth of the Incarnation: “Christ become one of us so that we could become more like him.” This core is supported by connections. First, we are supported by our connection with God, a God who is willing to help us grow, examine ourselves more fully, and keep us anchored in faith. Several of the fruits of this spiritual core are gentleness, forgiveness, humility, and patience. It’s through our spiritual core that we can see ourselves more clearly, love others more fully, and heal from the pains we have suffered. Second, we are supported by our connections with each other as brothers and sisters in Christ. Although we do so imperfectly, we pray for one another, listen to one another, encourage one another, advise one another, and love one another through God’s grace.

At times, however, we can be pulled away from the core, the center of spiritual gravity, into an energy field of distractions. When these distractions become compelling and demanding, we may be pulled away from our spiritual power source. I believe that there is a constant process of spiritual recalibration going on in all of us. Some forces are working to pull us out into the force field of distraction, while other forces are bringing us back to the core.

VI. Conclusion. It is very important not to be frightened by this process of twisting and turning. We see particularly in Advent that our spiritual journeys have peaks and valleys and that the movement between them creates a tension within us. Joy McDonald Coltvert writes in Currents in Theology and Mission (2007) that today’s lectionary readings may provide us with “an opportunity to not force everything to fit together, but just [to] allow the tensions.”

We are blessed here because God has given us this community within which to live out our twists and our turns together. It’s my prayer that we seek to be increasingly open about the realities of our spiritual journeys with one another, to love each other actively, to pray for each other fervently, and to walk humbly with God and with one another as we do so. Amen.