Sunday, December 29, 2013

Shared Joy, Shared Mercy



The Rev. Amy Hodges Morehous
Christmas 1, Year A
December 29, 2013

This morning, I'm going to ask you to think back to the anticipation you once had on Christmas morning. When you were a child, how hard was it to go to sleep the night before, hoping there was something wonderful waiting for you the next morning?
My earliest childhood memories of Christmas are happy and warm. Some holidays my family could have a hard time with - Thanksgiving for instance. Thanksgiving, for some reason, always led to huge family conflict. However, usually by Christmas, everyone had made up, and we were looking forward to a happy day. My parents saved up to make birthdays and Christmas special for my sister and for me. We rarely got toys any other time, so in the weeks before Christmas we would be in a fever of anticipation.
My sister and I had our own rooms at one end of the house, and my parents' bedroom was at the other end. Early one Christmas morning - very early, probably 4 or 5 a.m. - my sister came and climbed in bed with me. We whispered excitedly about what would be waiting for us behind the living room door. Then, we came up with an ingenious plan, one we were sure no one else had ever had. We tiptoed to the living room, and saw to our delight that there were presents in the floor, just waiting to be played with.
Surely our parents wouldn't notice if we picked up the boxes and looked at what was inside, right? We went and inspected everything carefully, picking things up, and oohing and ahhing. After several minutes of inspecting everything, we thought, well, they probably won't notice if we just opened a few things. We didn't unwrap any of the wrapped gifts...but perhaps some of the unwrapped toy boxes may have just sprung open, mysteriously. And we played with them. And it was outstanding.
After about an hour or two of playing, we put everything back in the boxes, and did our best to make it look as if it hadn’t been opened. I mean, it's not that hard to fool parents, right? We put all the toys back in their boxes, put everything back where it had been, tiptoed back out of the room, and went back to bed.
The next morning, I think it maybe took less than a minute for my parents to figure out what had happened. My sister and I thought they would be furious with us. And they were angry. But what they really were...was sad. They'd saved up for 6 months, looking forward to sharing that joy and surprise with us...to share that particular wonder of a child of Christmas morning...and my sister and I had kept that all to ourselves.
We didn't set out to damage my parents' Christmas that year...we just didn't understand how much joy we stole that morning until it was too late. My sister and I gave them tearfully heartfelt apologies. We felt lower than dirt - maybe lower than dirt on dirt. My parents forgave us. And I don’t think they ever mentioned it again. We even got to keep the same gifts - my parents didn't even take them away from us, which I still think is another kind of a Christmas miracle. But that year, we missed out on sharing that joy together. We didn't understand that until we kept it all to ourselves.
Christmas is a celebration of a life-altering gift - the gift of God's Son, Jesus, sent to walk among us and be one with us. "God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, 'Abba! Father!' So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God."
This past week, we celebrated the great gift of the Incarnation. Now, here we are on Dec. 29th. By now, we've gotten into the post-Christmas letdown. We've had not enough family togetherness. Or we've had far too much. We didn't get the gift we wanted. Or we got exactly the gift we wanted, but it hasn’t measured up the way we thought it would. Five days after Christmas, we wonder if our lives have changed all that much after all.
Christmas is the great feast of the Incarnation, the time we celebrate the gift of the Word made flesh, to celebrate the child who came to earth to be vulnerable just as we are, a child who would grow to know fear and hurt just as we do. Frederick Beuchner reminds us that this is the amazing and perplexing nature of the Gospel - that the Father of all mercies came to earth to put himself at our mercy.
Christmas is the time we celebrate that amazing, improbable gift. What are we doing to share our joy and our wonder in that gift with one another? With our families? With those we work with? With those who have no joy of their own? What are we doing to share that joy and wonder with God, the God who gifted us with the Son, the God who made us, the God who sends us out into the world as his children?
All week I’ve been wondering…. If we aren’t sharing our joy and gratitude, are we as God’s children doing the same thing my sister and I did so many years ago? Are we forgetting that the whole point of God's gifts of joy and wonder and grace is that they are for sharing with God, and with one another?
Why do people come to church on Christmas Eve, and on Easter Day, when they may not come any other time? I think they’re looking for a place to share that joy. They don't want to celebrate it alone. They seek out that joy. They are hungry for it, because we are all hungry for it.
I think it can be easy for us as Christians to be tempted to keep that joy all to ourselves. To pull it out of the box one or two days of the year, and then pack it away again with the decorations. As if it were something that we have to keep contained. Something we must keep from spilling over into the other compartments of our lives.
What keeps us from sharing joy? From sharing wonder? From sharing what God is doing in our lives? Is it our own fear? Our own vulnerability? What are we afraid of? Are we afraid we'll somehow do it wrong? Do we not mention Jesus, because it might leave us open to being hurt? Even though we are here to proclaim transformation of ourselves and of the world, do we hesitate to talk about how we ourselves are being transformed by God working in our lives because we’re afraid we’ll look foolish?
It may sound like foolishness to say, "From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ." If so, it is holy foolishness. And to such holy foolishness are we each called.
Joy is not diminished by being shared, but is multiplied. Mercy shared is mercy multiplied. So today I challenge you to be bold and holy fools, and to share God's joy. To share God's grace. To share the mercy of Jesus Christ. To share with someone the story of how God is working in your life this Christmas. Don't wrap it back up, and tuck it away with the tree ornaments, because there is someone across the street who might need it. Someone in your neighborhood who hasn't any. You might even be deeply in need of hearing it yourself.
The true Light, which enlightens everyone, has come into the world. Who do you know who is in need of the Light? The Word has become 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. You know someone today who is need of grace and truth. How will you meet that someone where they are, and share that with them...today?
This Christmas season, I wish you great joy. Joy, and grace, and mercy and peace of such abundance that your one life cannot contain it. As you have received grace, even grace upon grace, go forth from here, and share that grace and peace, let it spill out into the life of someone who needs it.
God has poured upon each of us the new light of the incarnate Word: May this light, enkindled in our hearts, shine forth in our lives, until it spills out to illuminate the world around us.

Amen.

Thursday, December 26, 2013


Christmas Eve, December 24, 2013 Episcopal Church of the Ascension
Why the shepherds and why the sheep? The Reverend Dr. Howard J. Hess

I. Introduction. While growing up in the northeast, every Christmas my family would make our annual pilgrimage to New York City. The highlight of this pilgrimage was to attend the Radio City Music Hall Christmas Show. The finale was always the same: a slow, moving procession across the wide stage led by Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus. The shepherds followed with sheep in tow. Next came the Three Kings with their exotic camels. As a child, I never asked myself the questions why are the shepherds featured in Luke’s Christmas story, and why are the three kings found in Matthew? Through the eyes of a child, both shepherds and kings were essential characters in the Christmas story. After all, they had been a part of every Christmas pageant I’d ever seen. As an adult, I have come to understand that deeper meanings could be found behind the Christmas narrative. The Kings foreshadowed Jesus’ identity as the King of Kings, whose claim for a crown had terrified Herod. The shepherds were a different story. They were ordinary people whose primary role was caregiving and protecting their sheep from danger. The shepherds were actually a sign that Jesus was to become the Good Shepherd and the Lamb of God. Come with me to look at the story behind Luke’s version of Christmas Eve.

II. Few of us in the 21st century have ever met ~ let alone been ~ a shepherd. But in many parts of the world, shepherds do the very same things now that they did in the time of Jesus. They care for their sheep, standing between them and all manner of danger, particularly in the night and during storms. We see this in the 23rd Psalm where the Lord our shepherd leads us beside still water, makes us to lie down in green pastures, and walks with us through the valley of death. In the early days of Israel, shepherds were held in very high esteem. Think about Abraham, the Father of the Nation, who was a shepherd; Moses, the lawgiver, was a shepherd, as was David before he became a king. But over time, the shepherd’s role became diminished. By the time of Jesus’ birth, shepherds had little opportunity to observe religious practices or to bathe, and they slept outside in the open, cool Judean hills with little shelter. Yet it was the shepherds, low as they were on the proverbial social scale, who received the first announcement of Jesus’ birth. Why the shepherds?

The Greek word for shepherd is used 17 times in the New Testament. It can be used literally, such as in tonight’s gospel, or figuratively. For example, in John Jesus referred to himself as the Good Shepherd who knows his sheep by name and will lay down his life for his sheep. Perhaps Luke chose to emphasize the shepherds in his birth narrative because Jesus himself was to become a shepherd. Yet there is more. After the Resurrection Jesus had an encounter with Peter. It is told in John 21 that three times Jesus asked Peter, “Do you love me?” And three times Peter responded, “Yes, Lord I love you.” Listen now – each of the three exchanges ended with Jesus instructing Peter to “Feed my lambs; tend my sheep; feed my sheep.” There is a beautiful transition here: shepherds witnessing Jesus’ birth; Jesus becoming the Good Shepherd himself; and then Jesus passing the role of shepherd on to Peter and to all his other followers, including the Christ followers here this evening.

III. A Shepherd’s Story. Let me share a modern-day story that clarifies what it means to be a shepherd. It is appropriately entitled “A Shepherd’s Story” (Small Church Leadership Network) and has been adapted for length.

There was once a shepherd who cared deeply for his flock. His flock was not big nor was he renowned. People did not come from afar to study his methods of raising sheep. But he loved and cared for his sheep as carefully and tenderly as a father loves and cares for his children. Each morning, he arose early, and before he ate he would make sure that his flock was cared for. Sometimes on a hot summer day when the dust would churn up under the feet of the flock, it would be unpleasant to walk behind the sheep as they went to pasture, for the dirt would choke his throat and the air would become stifling with the smell of sweaty sheep. In the heat of the day, he would lead them to a cool stream where his sheep would satisfy their thirst.

There was one little lamb especially dear to him because she was forever giving him problems and needed so much help from him. She was so weak he had to carry her wherever he went. He had to give her special nourishment for often she was too weak to eat. Whenever there was a lamb missing at the end of the day, he could always count on it being her. If there were a lamb caught in a thicket, it would be her. Maybe it was because she was the smallest . . . maybe it was because she always came running to him when she was afraid . . . he had a special and tender love for her.

One fateful day, however, this all changed. A man from the city came to visit, dressed in the latest fashions and driving a big beautiful car. The man told the shepherd that his way of shepherding was old fashioned and no longer effective, and that if he desired to succeed he would have to do things very differently. And so the shepherd began to read about how to succeed in raising sheep. He read The One-Minute Shepherd and learned to be more efficient. He studied Shepherding for Dummies in order to become more effective; and he went to seminars led by successful shepherds who had large flocks. Soon, when he gathered with other shepherds, he had a sense of joy that his flock was the largest in the valley.

To achieve the growth of his flock, he no longer went with the sheep to the pastures. He hired others. The sheep no longer knew his voice. Each day he was given a report about how many sheep were lost. But as long as the births and purchases were greater than the number lost, he felt satisfied. One day, however, he came to a stark realization. He was sitting in the large chair at his large desk in his large office when he suddenly thought of his special little lamb and wondered how she was doing. He called one of the hired men who replied to his inquiry. “Her, why she was killed by a mountain lion over a year ago. She wandered off, a bad storm came up, and no one wanted to go and look for her in the wind and rain.” When he heard what had happened, sadness filled his heart. He realized that he was a CEO of a very successful wool and sheep business, but, however, the one thing he had loved the most was being a shepherd who cared for his sheep and knew each one by name. Now with a heart broken by the emptiness of regret and forgotten dreams, he realized that he was no longer a shepherd.

IV. Conclusion. Why the shepherds and why the sheep? Perhaps we need to remind ourselves tonight about how easy it can be to become caught up in the definitions of success offered by this world in contrast to the alternative offered to us by Jesus Christ. Perhaps it is too easy to forget that Jesus has taught us that we, his followers, are both the sheep and the shepherds. We need one another to rely upon ~ both to care and to be cared for. Perhaps our original question “Why did the shepherds and the sheep receive the first announcement of Jesus’ birth?” can now be answered more fully. The shepherds and the sheep are not window dressing, not cute parts of the show at Radio City. The shepherds and the sheep were there on Christmas Eve to foretell and foreshadow the whole Gospel story. The shepherds were there as a sign of who the newborn Jesus was to become. The sheep were part of the story because the Good Shepherd loves the sheep and they go where he goes. The Good Shepherd and the sheep cannot be separated.

The responsibility and blessings of caring and being cared for within the body of Christ are at the very heart of who we are as Christians. We are called by Jesus the Good Shepherd to be his sheep ~ to accept his care, teachings, and protection. And, like Peter, we are also called by Jesus to become good shepherds to one another and to our neighbors.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Joseph and Ahaz, Different Understandings of Righteousness


 The Rev. Robert P. Travis
Advent 4th Sunday Sermon – 8:00am and 10:30am Church of the Ascension, Knoxville TN
RCL Advent 4 Year A 12/22/2013
 Scripture text: Isaiah 7:10-16, Psalm 80:1-7,16-18, Romans 1:1-7, Matthew 1:18-25


Sermon Text:
So my son Jack is three years old,
almost four,
so he's at the age when he's starting to ask some
really good questions.
Just the other day he asked me,
"Daddy, does God kill all the bad guys?"
Since I'm not a universalist,
I could say with great certainty,
Yes, God kills all the bad guys forever.”

He said, "so I don't need to be scared right?"
I said, "right Jack, you don't need to be scared,
because God is bigger and stronger
than all the bad guys."



The next question caught me off guard,
"But can the bad guys kill us?"
Whoa, that one kind of slowed me down for a second,
but I said, honestly,
"Yes, Jack, the bad guys can kill us,
But if they do, we get to be with Jesus forever,
so they really don't win,
and then God kills them forever."
Since you all know I believe strongly in peace,
I see it as my responsibility,
to teach my son about peace.
So when he then said,
"I'm not scared of bad guys killing me,
because I could just kick them,
or fill them with holes" (that's three speak for shoot them).
I said, "no, we don't do that,
because Jesus didn't kick the men who were killing him,
or fill them with holes."
Of course, I know, that teaching my son to turn the other cheek,
puts him in danger,
so I do so with a measure of trepidation,
but as his father,
I feel I have to teach him from the heart,
from the depths of what I believe.
What father wouldn't do the same?



Today, as we approach the celebration of the birth of Jesus,
we get to consider two important fathers in the story of God's people,
Joseph and Ahaz.
The important thing about these two men,
is that they had a very different understanding of righteousness.



Now notice that Joseph and Mary were engaged,
but before they lived together she was found to be with child.
Now the scripture says she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit,
but if I were the man engaged to Mary,
I can tell you even if she told me it was from the Holy Spirit,
I would have thought it was another man's child.
For any man, today or back then, this would be scandalous.
For a man in Joseph's time, the law allowed for him
to have the woman publicly humiliated and killed by stoning.



Now look closely at the scripture,
turn to it in your bulletin if you will.
Because here is where we learn a great deal
of the little we know
about the man who was Jesus' earthly father.
It says, and I've looked at the greek as well this week,
just to double check,
"Joseph, being a righteous man,
and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace,
planned to dismiss her quietly."
Being described as righteous,
means that even though Joseph was a carpenter,
he knew the law,
he might not have been able
to mince words with the pharisees,
but he knew both the letter and the spirit of the law of God and man,
and followed them with his actions.
That is what the Greek word
translated as righteous means here.
So Joseph knew that while the law prescribed public humiliation and stoning for Mary,
it also allowed for a more gentle option,
that of going back to the girl's parents and saying quietly,
I cannot marry this woman because of what she's done.
That would have meant that Mary
would have to raise the child alone, or at least
with her parents help, as long as they were alive.
But it would have been a very hard life,
for Mary and the baby.



Joseph, knowing the spirit of the Law,
and being therefore a man after God's heart,
chose to do the more loving action,
even though he was probably
afraid of the consequences for Mary,
and broken-hearted that he had to do it.

Now look at the next sentence.
"But just when he had resolved to do this,"
that means he had made up his mind,
and if he was anything like me,
with monumental decisions it take a while
for me to make up my mind,
he probably made up his mind right before going to bed.
So he probably said something like,
that is what I am going to do tomorrow.
That very night, "an Angel of the Lord
appeared to him in a dream”
and said, "Joseph, son of David,
do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife,"
That first part of the Angel's message is significant,
because the Angel is reminding Joseph of who he is,
It may have been many generations ago,
but Joseph is reminded that he is descended from David,
and that means he could be part of the messianic prophecy,
that the child will be called a son of David.
And then the Angel says, do not be afraid.
That is what angels always say,
and yet when we come in contact with God,
it is natural for us to be afraid,
because we are not God,
or angels for that matter,
and we are so much weaker than both,
but it is important not to act in fear.
And it's also important because the angel is correctly interpreting Joseph's own emotions
that he was afraid to make Mary his wife,
because of this scandalous situation.
So let's leave Joseph there for a moment and look back,
a few hundred years earlier,
to Ahaz.
Now Ahaz was a king of Judah,
and we know from the book of 2 Kings,
that he was not a good man,
that is, he was not a man after the heart of the one true God,
but he was a religious man.
We know from that book that he liked to worship so much,
that he copied the altar in Damascus,
that was an altar to another God,
and replaced God's altar in the temple,
with that Altar,
so he did worship God, lots of Gods for that matter,
and he loved religion
so much that he even liked to do
a particularly nasty practice that other religions
at that time did,
but our God forbade
called "making your children pass through
the fire of Molech."
That was basically burning your own children
with fire to see if
the God wanted them for sacrifice.
So Ahaz was not a good man,
but he was a religious man,
and he was King of Judah,
descended from David,
and ruling God's people in Jerusalem.
So it was not that unusual for him to expect,
that God would speak to him directly,
as God had done so often in the past.
But look at what happens when God does speak to him.



The Lord says, "Ask a sign of the Lord your God;
let it be as deep as Sheol or high as heaven."
In other words, much like God said to Solomon,
remember that?
'ask for whatever you want!'
But Ahaz, thinks that he is a righteous man,
after all, he doesn't just worship one God,
he worships whatever Gods seem right to him,
he's the king, and he knows what's right!

So he says, knowing full well that one of the commandments
is Thou shalt not put the Lord your God to the test.
Remember that scripture?
Jesus used it correctly when he was tempted in the desert.
Ahab says "I will not ask,
and I will not put the Lord to the test."

He probably thinks he's passed a big test,
but what he has really done is refused a gift from God,
so he gets the word through Isaiah, God's prophet,
that God's going to give him a sign anyway,
and it is not the sign that Ahaz would have wanted,
"a virgin will bear a son who will know how to refuse the evil and choose the good"
by the time he is weaned,
this, of course, is the man of God's right hand,
the son of God who will be Immanuel, or God with us.
But before that happens, "the land before whose two kings
you are in dread will be deserted."
In other words, the deepest fear of Ahaz's heart,
that he will lose the kingdom
and God's people will be dragged into exile,
will happen.
But incidentally, it doesn't happen to Ahaz, but to his son
the good King Hezekiah.

So we see, that Ahaz's arrogance, was just a cover up,
a mask covering his fear.
And because of his pride,
his fears would come true.
Ahaz thought that he was righteous,
but his righteousness was not seeking God's heart,
and the spirit of the Law,
of loving God and neighbor,
but simply following the letter of the law
in whatever way seemed right to him at the time.
So Ahaz became the example,
of the father who was not worthy of God's blessing,
by his own choice,
even though he was king of God's people.



But let's not dwell there, let's go back to Joseph,
a much more humble man,
but one who also was given the opportunity
to receive God's blessing.
Joseph is reminded by the Angel,
of the prophecy that was given to Ahaz,
and so Joseph knows that the decision he has made,
righteous though it may seem,
is not what God wants.

So when he wakes up from sleeping,
he changes his mind,
and does what "the angel of the Lord commanded him;
he took [Mary] as his wife,"
(he takes the courageous route,
knowing what scandal he will have to bear)
but had no marital relations with her until she had born a son.
Let's be as clear as possible here, that this child
could not have been Joseph's biological child.
And Joseph named the child Jesus,
not because that was the name in the prophecy,
but because the Angel made it clear that Jesus
was to be the child's name.



So in order to become the father
that God needed Joseph to be,
to be the earthly father of Jesus,
Joseph had to give up his own understanding of righteousness,
and accept a righteousness that was deeper,
and more loving than even the best he could imagine.



Thomas Keating, one of my spiritual fathers, writes,
Joseph "had to surrender his personal vision
in order to become Vision itself." (Awakenings, pg. 102)
That kind of surrender is necessary for every father,
and indeed, for every mother,
and actually for every person who wants to follow Christ.
The transformation that God is asking from us,
is to surrender even our very ideas of what is right,
for the vision that God has for us.

Because his vision for us is more right
than we can even imagine,
and what he has in store for us
is better than we can imagine.
So as we approach the celebration
of the birth of Jesus.
Let us all allow the vision of God for our lives,
to be born in our hearts.

And when he offers us a gift, a blessing, or a task
let us seek diligently His perfect will
and do exactly what he commands us to do.



Amen