Monday, December 29, 2014

"Sharing God's Love"
December 25, 2014
By Bob Wadley

Well, here we are, Christmas Day!  Merry Christmas.  Have you ever wondered,  “How do we know Jesus was born on December 25?”  Well, actually, we don't.  Around the middle of the 4th century, the Bishop of Jerusalem asked the Bishop of Rome to determine the actual date of Christ's birth.  He wrote back that it was December 25, knowing that was an arbitrary date.  But his picking that date wasn't arbitrary, it was deliberate.  For centuries before Christ was born, the month of December had been a time of pagan festivals.  He thought that if people would celebrate Christ's birth at the same time, it would cause people to become more engaged in spiritual things and draw them away from their revelry.  It was a nice thought, but as we know, it has only been partially successful.  For many, Christmas is still like a pagan festival, not a celebration of the most important moment in all of history.

So many of the things we associate with Christmas come from long ago.  The Romans used candles in their celebrations, the Norsemen called their tribute to Odin and Thor “Yule,” the Druids thought mistletoe was sacred and a symbol of peace.  Whenever an enemy passed under the mistletoe, you had to embrace him which would, supposedly, lead to reconciliation.  St. Francis popularized the manger scene, Martin Luther introduced the Christmas tree, and, of course, from Holland we get St. Nicholas who would leave presents for the good children and switches for the parents of bad children.  Christmas cards, first printed in London in 1846, all showed merry drinking scenes.  So, while the Bishop of Rome had good intentions, over the years Christmas has become cluttered with a whole lot of unrelated pagan elements and now you are urged to begin your Christmas shopping before Halloween.  

Enough of history.  I trust that everyone had a wonderful Christmas Eve.  I know that if you were here last night, you heard some beautifully sung familiar carols and were enveloped in a feeling of warmth and love.  Christmas always seems to magnify our emotions and the love we feel for each other. It certainly is a time that strengthens the bonds we share and being separated from loved ones, for whatever reason, is always more difficult at Christmas than at any other time of the year.  And for many people, maybe especially little children, Christmas is the climax to a huge build-up, a period of waiting.  But for us, Christmas is the beginning.  This is the day that God chose to share our life, to be born, grow up, and finally die, as a human, as one of us.  This is the day God came to live on this planet He created which we call Earth.  What could be more special, more spectacular than that?

But, should we ask, “why would God choose to do this?”  In Psalm 40, we read that God stooped to us and heard our cry.  What would cause an all-powerful God to want to inhabit the limited finite body of a human?  The answer is a love so great it is beyond our understanding, an act of grace we could never deserve, but have been blessed by God to receive.  So, we celebrate.  We celebrate the birth of our Savior, Jesus, and we celebrate God's love which all of us, but especially those of us here today, have come to know.  

Our Savior.  In Luke 2:11, we read “To you this day is born a Savior.”  A Savior to save us from what?  Saved is a synonym for rescued.  What dangerous or threatening condition do we need to be rescued from?  One answer is the consequences of our separation from God.  But, perhaps another way of thinking asks,  “What has our Savior come to save us for?”  What would God have us do?  Perhaps he would have us share that indescribable love He has for us.  There are so many out there who need to know they are loved.  Have you ever thought about the fact that Joseph and Mary, having traveled to an unfamiliar town for the census, were at that point homeless?  How would we have treated them?  Would we have loved them?  I hope so.  I believe those here today would have.  I know many I have worked with here at Ascension certainly would have. 

 I can personally testify to that love.  We all have stories, stories of good times and tough times, of times of joy and times of sorrow, of blessings received and challenges to overcome.  I have shared my story with many of you, how I arrived here nearly 15 years ago a broken man.  By God's grace, working through the Rev. Ladson Mills, Charles Fels, Randy Nichols and others I was hired to be your Parish Administrator.  Over these 15 years I have come to know and love many of you.  There have been Sunday mornings I have sat here watching as people I love come to the rail and tears have come to my eyes as I reflected on how much they have come to mean to me.  Of course, if I am sitting with Cathy, we are in the front pew which goes against all my Baptist upbringing.  But, I have to admit, it is the best place to feel intimacy with those I love as they receive the gift of the body and blood of Christ.

And now, my tenure as an employee of Church of the Ascension is ending.  This past Sunday I was honored and roasted, both with love.  I was overwhelmed by your generosity, but also by the love of my brothers in the Brotherhood of St. Andrew, even as they told stories about me.  I just want you to know, those stories weren't true.  Well, maybe some of them were.  But, the message was one of love and of how blessed I have been to receive God's grace.

I thought our Gospel and Epistle readings this morning were from Luke and Titus, rather than John and Hebrews.  However, all of them talk about grace.  In Titus we read that the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all.  As I said earlier, that grace is the manifestation of God's love, a love so all encompassing that we can't fully comprehend it, yet for us here today, a love we have come to take for granted.  Does the young African suffering from ebola feel God's love?  Does the homeless person living beneath a bridge know God's grace?  Do they share the love and companionship of family and friends on Christmas Day?  We are so blessed and, although I can't speak for God, I'm fairly certain he would want us to share that blessedness with others.  

For some of us, that seems to be really easy.  For others, such as an old introverted curmudgeon like me, I need constant reminding.   Which is why we are here, why we come here each week to worship God, to thank Him for His love, His grace, and to be reminded that it isn't ours to store away.  It is given to us to share with others.  So, once again, Merry Christmas, and in the immortal words of Tiny Tim, “God bless us, everyone!”    

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Christmas Eve, Year A; December 24, 2015          Episcopal Church of the Ascension The Power of The Incarnation                                 The Reverend Dr. Howard J. Hess

I. Introduction. It is the best of times; it is the worst of times. So opens the introduction to Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities. As the story unfolds, it becomes clear that Sydney Carton, one of the main characters of the novel, has hatched a clever plot to switch places with a condemned friend in 18th century revolutionary Paris. The city is in turmoil and by doing so he seals his own death. Carton asserted: “It is a far, far better thing than I have ever done before.” And as the story makes clear, this sacrifice is quite surprising because Carton was a self-absorbed, profligate man. What is it that allows Carton or any of us to transcend our own instinctive self-interest in order to make true sacrifices for others? Dickens’ answer, as evident in so many of his stories, including A Christmas Carol, is having an encounter with love that results in a willingness to set self aside long enough to experience the life-altering qualities of transformation, reconciliation, and peace. In experiences of love and reconciliation, I believe we move closest to the heart of Jesus Christ, the Jesus Christ of the Incarnation.
II. Reconciliation: It was the best of times; it was the worst of times. More than 2000 years ago, God sent his Son to become one of us at a time of darkness in our world.  There was constant strife between political powers; seething ethnic and religious divisions; slavery throughout the known world; and oppression against those who were vulnerable. The world into which Jesus was born knew very little peace and was desperately in need of reconciliation – reconciliation with God and between human beings. This was the world that God chose to enter as a healer, teacher, and peacemaker. We refer to the coming of Jesus Christ into this world as the Incarnation. In the Christian faith, the Incarnation is the union of divinity with humanity in Jesus Christ. And let it be known that Christianity is the only religion in the world where God actually became one with human beings. The Incarnation, including all of the complex circumstances surrounding Christ’s birth, was not a random event of history. Rather, the Incarnation was an intentional act of God to provide us with a bridge to God’s self. The Incarnation broke right through the darkness and allowed the worst to become the best of times.
It has been long emphasized by Christian theologians that Christ became one of us so that we could become one with God. Jesus Christ became the light who would ultimately defeat every form of darkness. Another way to say this is that, through his teaching and by his example Jesus demonstrated that we too, could become reconciled to God and with one another through living out of deep love. And when that love prevails, the result is peace – for individuals, for families, for communities, and countries, and for the world.
III. You see, the Incarnation is the first chapter of the Christ story. The night of the Incarnation was a night of promise and hope. The elements of the story convey the intent of the Incarnation. Christ came into a challenging world, born into a very primitive setting, and immediately was visited by a group of rather clueless shepherds who had encountered angels in the middle of the night. The theme of humility is instrumental in the birth of Christ. But then there were also the angels, the host of angels singing “Glory to God in the highest heaven and on earth peace among people of good will.” Just like everything else in the birth story, the angels’ words were quite intentional. The angels were singing from a script and the key word was peace.
The story of the Incarnation is also an unfolding story of new life – new life for us now, Christmas Eve 2014. We, too, live in a time of darkness. There continues to be constant strife between political powers; seething ethnic and religious division; slavery throughout the known world; and oppression against those who are vulnerable. Our world is desperately in need of reconciliation. But do not despair about this world. Here, tonight, Christ is born. Again it is the worst of times, yet paradoxically it is the best of times. Against all odds, peace can prevail through the love that Christ has given us and taught us to give to one another.
Oh my, how complicated it can be to experience peace in our world! Recently the Rev. Timothy Keller, pastor of Redeemer Church in New York City, was asked mid-sermon to address racial tensions, grand jury decisions, and the murder of police. Keller tried to take the clergy-quick exit. He answered that he didn’t preach on political events from the pulpit. Unsatisfied, the man asked the same question a second time. This is how Keller responded: “Let me tell you what I think the Gospel does to people in power, to people with resources: it humbles them. It tells them to listen to the people [who are] without. But here is what the Gospel says to people who do not have resources and might be tempted to be bitter and angry: it tells them to forgive.” The man said thank you and sat down. You see, through the Gospel love can replace hate, and peace can prevail over antagonism.
IV. Conclusion. Incarnation makes it possible for us to see through Christ all of the bridges that connect us with God and connect us with one another. These bridges guide us beyond ourselves. On them we learn that the very core of our Christian faith is love and suspended judgment. When we are reconciled with God, who sent his son to be one with us, then there is no limit to the love that we can experience and share with others. For example, I can very often become attached to my own perceptions and prescriptions. Out of those views I can develop judgments that may create distance between me and others. But when I am able to stop my own mental processing long enough to pray, to listen to God, to listen to my family, and to listen to many of you, my ideas and my feelings are often transformed and softened. The Incarnate Christ gives me a more loving and peaceful heart. I believe this is how the process of reconciliation takes place – over and over again.
I urge you to think of this Christmas Eve as an opportunity to seek a closer relationship with Christ and then to commit to reconciliation with at least one person with whom you have had an estranged or tense relationship. This could be someone in our families, our workplaces, or even our church. Such reconciliation will come out of our humility and our Christ-like love, not from our expertise or superior wisdom. I would ask all of us to commit to bringing peace into our reactions towards others, to seek charitable responses, and to listen carefully, both to the voice of God and to the voices of one another. Participation in the Incarnation requires us to be open to the Spirit of God and to actively seek reconciliation with one another. I invite us to emulate the humility and vulnerability of a small infant who left a place of perfection to enter a world experiencing the worst of times. The birth of this infant, Jesus, brought humankind the promise of the best of times in the joy and hope of reconciliation with our Creator and with one another. We are called to be a people of peace and witness to the presence of the light in the darkness. Amen.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Comfort, O Comfort My People

The Rev. Amy Hodges Morehous
Advent II, Year B
December 7, 2014

Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the LORD's hand double for all her sins.   (Isaiah 40:1-2)

Comfort my people, says your God. Comfort. It has been a hard few weeks, I think. Hard news close to home this week, with the school bus crash, and three lives lost too soon. We all want to live in a world where children are safe always, a world where they can grow into the promise they represent. If we've even glanced at the news, we've seen the social and civil unrest across the country these past two weeks. People across our country are hurt, and angry, and questioning. And those are all on top of the individual burdens we already carry - the worries about our children or our parents or our jobs or our money, the family stuff we all wade through at Thanksgiving, the many stages of grief in which we all live. While most of us here are not a people who have been victimized and exiled from our homeland for a generation like the Israelites had been, I think we all understand a deep need for comfort, and a yearning for promises to be fulfilled.

Advent begins for us with Isaiah. In Advent One we hear, "O that you would tear open the heavens and come down." Today, Advent Two tells us: "In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God." Next week for Advent Three we'll hear: "The Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the oppressed; to bind up the brokenhearted; to repair the ruined cities."

Advent is a season of expectant waiting, yes. A season of promise. Of promise fulfilled, and promise yet to come. It reminds us to look to a time when "Mercy and truth have met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other. Truth shall spring up from the earth, and righteousness shall look down from heaven."

A time of God's promises. Promises brought by the prophets and fulfilled in the incarnation of Christ. Promises fulfilled in the arrival of a tiny child, born into a world such as this, a world full of division and strife and poverty and grief and violence. A child who would know all of those intimately. A child who reminds us that God's promises are trustworthy, and they are not contingent on our worthiness, or our strength, but instead on our weakness. God's promises are God's promises, and God will always - always - show up.

Today, we're asked to participate in those promises together. To give that tiny child space to grow in our hearts. To give Jesus Christ room in our lives, room that we haven't filled up with cheap grace, or worry or cynicism or irony or despair.

John the Baptizer speaks to us each Advent of reconciliation - of repentance and forgiveness and returning to God. When we repent - when we forgive - when we let go of the individual sin and grief and despair we carry around - we make space for hope. We make space for more of Christ, and less of us. Repentance is a joy and a blessing - not a grief or a burden. Repentance is the setting down of burdens.

Second Peter asks us today: If God's promises are true then "what sort of people ought you to be in leading lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God?" If God's promises are trustworthy, if we're not supposed to carry our own load alone, if we are truly forgiven for all that we lay down at Jesus' feet, then what sort of people are we freed from sin to be?

By ourselves, we don't know how to heal all the problems that exist in our world or our country or even our own hearts. But our faith is not in ourselves; it's in God's promises. Our faith is not in our own strength, but in God's. We are the participants in God's promises, here and now, in God's forgiveness here and now. We are the people being asked to participate in the Advent promise. You are being asked to be part of God's hope and healing and reconciliation now - today. God loves the people of this world so much, so deeply, and so unshakably that he sent a living promise to walk among us, to live with us, to carry the burdens that we were not meant to bear alone.

Jesus Christ is about reconciliation. About reconciling people to one another, and to God. We're not anticipating the coming of someone who's going to give us presents according to who's been naughty and who's been nice.

We're anticipating the coming of someone who will carry the burden of our past, of our choices, of our inadequacies - the coming of someone who wants us to be free of cynicism and worry and anger and fear so that we may participate in reconciling work with him even now.

I know that we all feel inadequate to address the deep divisions that exist in this world - in this country. Even in our city, in our own families. But I believe they will all be reconciled in Christ one day. I believe that God's promises are true, and that is a hard-lived belief, one that has held me through difficult times, one that has helped me to put down those hard times and turn to face the next day with hope. I believe that God's promises are true, because I have seen them in my life. Where has God shown up for you? Because that's what we have to share with one another - the story of how God has been present in our lives, has kept promises, has brought healing to brokenness. We tell the stories of our lives and how God has worked in them because in doing so, they become part of the living Gospel. Do you believe that if you tell your story, if you put it all down, if you trust it all to Christ, do you believe he will carry it for you?

I believe that God calls us to live into that promise of hope. God calls me to participate in that reconciliation, in that waiting - not reluctantly, but gratefully, with great joy. How do we do that? We tell our story. We listen. We pray. We ask questions. We repent of those things that drag us down. We give up fear, and practice hope. We learn to live in community with one another, even when that is terribly hard. We remain alert to the world around us. All the world, especially those in need.

It's the second Sunday of Advent. As Bishop Porter Taylor eloquently wrote this week: "Mary and Joseph have already left their home. They are in the wilderness guided by a small light and the hope in their hearts" and the promise of God's protection and love. Now is the time for us to journey, too - to repent of relying on our own strength, to lay down our weary loads, and to make space for the coming of Christ. It is time for us to step forward into the work of this world - reconciling, and healing, and praying, and listening and, yes, comforting.

A voice cries out: 'In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.'  (Isaiah 40:3-5)