Friday, December 25, 2015

Know Where You Are: Merry Christmas!

Old surplices and cotta’s make good angel costumes.  They can have burn holes and stains from years of use, they can have wax from candles dripping and or purple splotches from wine splashed. They can be yellowed with time or pink with mistaken washing, and yet they will still make excellent angel costumes.  Such common costuming of angels is honestly not Biblical,   but the light garment, tinsel halo and wings are hard to cast aside.  We can add biblical swords and even simulated fire, but we have to stay away from the kind of alien like costume that demands the first line the angels always sing, BE NOT AFRAID.

Holly was clever, inquisitive and outgoing.     That year she was so excited.  It was the first year she got to be an angel.  The wings and halos and fairy fluff of dreams.  Secondly, she was excited because she had managed to grab the most yellow old cottas.  Frankly I think this one was a laundry mistake.  It shone, it glowed lemon, much more than it shrank back in tones of aged parchment.  Holly rushed up to me and announced how she had secured the golden one, and it was the very best.

As we prepared for the pageant, I reminded every pageant critter that when they were ready in their costumes,they were to come and find me to receive their bell.  ‘Merry Christmas Holly!’ and I placed the bell over her head. I was giving out bells and finding shepherd headwear with frantic haste, like some of you may have experienced in the last few days.  This proud golden angel, asked me one question.  ‘Ms Jane, why do you give us bells?’  I was barely listening, busy and harried with preparations.  I offered a snarky and silly answer, ‘so I know where to find you.’  She nodded her head and she backed out of the pageant critter crowd. A few moments later she cleared her throat and said loudly,  ‘Alright everybody.’  At which point I lifted my head and listened to hear what she might declare. ‘Ms. Jane wants us to wear the bell so she knows where to find us!  So don’t lose your bell!’

If you dressed someone up in cardboard illustrations of a smart phone text message screen, you might come close to the definition of an angel. It is active living messaging.  Not just words on a screen or in the air,   but a shape and a light and a strange encounter with living communication.  We don’t really have an angelology in the Episcopal church. Important councils and creeds make no statements about angels.  If you turn to the small print Historical Documents section of the prayerbook you will not find the word anywhere.  Nor will you find it in the Catechism.  We sing of them, we name them in scripture, we dress children up as them,      but we have never seemed moved as a church to say anything definitive about them.  Which may be wise and suit you just fine.  Maybe strange goings on and incomprehensible things are         exactly the sort of thing you sincerely doubt, or would rather not think about.  Or maybe angels tickle that sense that there is more     than the objective observable universe, but have no words for it, so you just don’t try.  Or maybe you have never sensed anything mysterious and magical and spiritual, or maybe you simply hope that there really is more.

Augustine of Hippo instructs us that 'Angel' is the name of their duty and calling,    but it is not what they are. According to scripture their chores include praising God, watching God’s people,   and being instruments of judgement. However, primarily, they are mysterious heralds of God's desire.  A different order of being, and what they are according to Augustine, is more like shapes of God’s spirit. The angels are manifestations of God’s dreams, intention and energy.  So strange and other are they that it is difficult to say anything definitive at all.  Yet at two of the largest festivals of the church, there they are.  Standing at the Empty Tomb, and appearing to Mary, and to Joseph,and lowly shepherds near Bethlehem.

Angels are a powerful symbol for all the dimensions of God’s universe about which we have no real idea. The venerable Rowan Williams invites us to consider angels more seriously. He says ‘anything that puts our human destiny a bit more into perspective is not a waste of time.’ He continues, ‘the world we experience is complicated and in many ways seems dark and dangerous. These angels are a shorthand description of everything that is around the corner from our perception; everything that is beyond our understanding of the universe - including the universal song of praise that surrounds us always’. (Slightly paraphrased.  From Tokens of Faith)

You may have heard that sweet and trivial notion that every time a bell rings an angel gets its wings.  I wish that it were that easy. That we could multiply the messages of peace and goodwill, that we could increase the living words of justice, that we could make a festival of jubilee just by the ringing of bells.   We are surrounded by things we do not understand, but this dream of God isn’t so manipulate-able.  The actions of tyrants and the confusions of friends and family, these crush such fantasies. 

Yet, just around the corner from our limited senses, we are surrounded by choruses of Gods spirited communication, we are surrounded with living words that glow with God’s dream of peace. Peace from terrors and release from fears.  The truth that real peace comes     not from earthly things and governmental power nor spending sprees.  Peace comes through God in human heart and voice, comes through this boy, this child.  A living word, made flesh, not only a shape of word and spirit but truly made of everyday skin and bones and cries and muck.  Peace comes not by distance from every day and mysterious things, but through it.

We live in a universe that is vast and amazing and terrifying and we have only begun to comprehend it.  Where are we?  How does God know where we are?  Where we are is proclaimed in thought and word and deed, it is shown in the light of what our Christian practice is.  This is a song that is sung never alone, always surrounded by the communion of saints, always accompanied by the angel choruses that sing Comfort, Bravery and Peace.  We are called to sing with them, to glow with them, to be a living message of the gift realized in the life of Jesus the Christ.

Ms. Jane, why do you give us bells?  I give out bells so that you know where you are.  You are at the stable, you are one of the cast of millions, you are in second hand costumes and you are with a hopeful chorus singing the story of God’s people. Jesus is born, embodied holy Word of God throughout all ages.  Healing, justice, food for the hungry and shelter for the lost.  Where are we?  We are summoned to the cradle, and sent out again.  A message that stays with the messenger, is no message at all.

Do Not Be Afraid! The world is dark and dangerous, yet Do Not Become Your Fears!  Enter the mystery of the angelic throng, be astonished and be a living message of the Christmas wonder.  For I am bringing you Good News of great joy for all people!  To you is born this day in the city of David a savior, the Messiah, the Lord!  Merry Christmas!

St. Paul's Episcopal Church
Walla Walla, Washington
5.30pm Christmas Eve Liturgy
Christmas Lessons (form uno)

I did earnestly intend to record this, and it was good.  However the crucial step in recording, press record, didn't occur.  Blessings, see ya next time!

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Weight of the World: Mary and Harry

The girl with the weight of the world in her hands, and the boy who lived.  Plenty of authors and preachers have outlined the parallels between Harry Potter and Jesus, which are fairly unavoidable.  Yet sometimes I think there is a lot more of Mary in Harry’s story, and certainly a whole lot of Moses.  He is just a boy, that Harry Potter.  With fractured glasses and pants many sizes too large.  He has no worldly power, no glory that might cause eyes might turn to him.  Hidden amongst us muggle-types, we with no knowledge of magical things, Harry has hints and inklings of his vocation.  Yet nothing in his life as he knows it has prepared him for the journey that he is called to.  The Chosen One, darling and amazing and burdened with a possibly heartbreaking fate.

Mary she is just a girl.  She is covered in shawls and scarves of legend and longing, covered in roses, in beads of prayers and in saccharine silliness to numb our discomfort.  What young person's life can possibly prepare him or her for the journey Gabriel announces?  She is just a girl.  A girl with the weight of the world in her hands.  Luke is telling us that in the birth of Jesus, we are part of a new Exodus.  The Magnificat, this song that Mary sings, it is a lyric that echoes the song of Hannah, the opening musical number in the Davidic epic.  And Hannah's song is rich with the tones and topics of the song of Miriam, a celebration of freedom, a thrilling voice ascending from the terrors that lurk behind them in Egypt,  and a pause before journeying into the unknown silent night that lays ahead.

I am having a harder and harder time believing that there isn’t a terrible magical spell running amok in the world.  In the novels, when something goes wrong in our world,  That we just cannot reasonably explain, it is actually due to the misdoings of the magical realm.  Now some data suggests that things here in our world are getting better.  I read the whole article yesterday.  The math seems accurate, the stories congruent.  Yet still, I scoff.  Because in the newsfeed I sense something beyond everyday wrong.  Every time another disaster scrolls across up my screen, every time the news seems gut wrenchingly terrible beyond reason, I wonder if there are giants on the loose, or if dark spells are being cast, and I wonder if the fictional world isnt’ such a fiction after all.

He has come to the aid of his servant Israel,     
            remembering his mercy,
 just as he promised to our ancestors,
        to Abraham and to Abraham’s descendants forever.

The song that Mary sings is not about some future age.  The salvation that is dawning at Christmas is already active.  The title of Savior is evidence of a human need that is deep and broad and heartbreaking.  It names a fearful desperation  that is greater than what our own resources can bear.  In Jesus the work of God as savior is made flesh, in the birth of Christ God transforms my childish confusion, in the incarnation of God compassion dissolves my cruel imaginings.  And as we await Christmas day, Mary sings to me courageously, sings that the gift of God's peace has always been being born.

Mary was young.  Anthropologists tell us that in Biblical times for women, first marriage was in their early teens.  Maybe you have to be young at heart to dare this.  The tradition tends to gild the wholehearted young Mary in clean skin and blue scarves. But I never see her that way.  I see the girl who embraces vulnerability, who will face shame and possible peril for this gift she bares.  The Greek orthodox title for Mary is Theotokos.  God bearer.  Glorious but also weighted.  A precious son, a wiggly boy, a compassionate adult, a systematic victim,  and yes a resurrected Lord.  What will be the scale to weigh the gift she will bear?

If I were God and considering my incarnation, I might start by asking experienced mothers.  Which makes me wonder if other women were asked.  What if more mature women heard this invitation     and were frozen by disasterizing; stopped by seeing the tragedy that could lay ahead?  What if we have to possess the brave dreaminess so natural to our young friends to trust like this?  Does it take the faith of a young person to believe the half-giant who says you are a wizard?  What if we have to cast aside all mature defensiveness to sing Mary’s song? 

What kept her safe may have been that Mary seems to go unnoticed, just another veiled and shamed woman in occupied territory.  If she were of more notice to the powers that be, this scandalous occasion would have brought more scrutiny, and perhaps retribution.  She whose body is home for the great and holy Creator of the universe,  she is awe inspiring, but she demands questions. Would we say yes?      How do we care for desperate people in difficult circumstances?  What is happening in her, what is be happening in us is regime change.  Are we ready to sing a song of liberation and mercy for all people?

If we take up her song, we cannot just name the promises of God,instead we have to dare greatly and enter into them. The good news that Christ is a gift for us, he wants us to sing her song, wants us to embrace his whole life in the center of our being.  He wants for us to discover the gift of vulnerability which shines bright enough to transform the evils we cannot comprehend. 

In a closet beneath the stairs is a boy, who has been counted for nothing.  A boy who is the stranger, the unusual neighbor, who is in every way an ‘other‘ who arrives at our door.  Like us he is confused and lonely, and what matters is not his will, but his bold trust, what matters is not our power, but God's.  

The girl with the weight of the world in her hands dared to trust in the holy unbelievable.   She bears for us the God made flesh, Christ our Lord, Savior, Redeemer, friend.  She also bears us to him, presents us to someone and something who has been with us all along, inviting us to sing this song, waiting to hear us answer yes.  In Jesus the work of God as savior is made flesh, in the birth of Christ God transforms my childish confusion, in the incarnation of God compassion dissolves my cruel imaginings.  And as we await Christmas day, Mary sings to us courageously, sings that the gift of God's peace is ready to be born in us.   

St. Paul's Episcopal Church
Walla Walla, Washington, USA
December 20, 2015
Advent 4C RCL

There is no doubt that Patty Griffin's song Mary, and the Indigo Girls song The Girl with the Weight of the World in Her Hands are all over this sermon and spontaneously quoted. And it is also properly tagged with the 'probably has buffy at it's heart' category.  DFTBA!