Monday, December 30, 2019

Word and Word and Word

What is a word? A word is a sound, a speech sound or sounds, that communicate meaning, but can't be divided into little bits of meaningful sound. So for example: mercy. Mercy is a word, whereas mer & Cy are not. Today on the 1st Sunday of the Christmas season, as on Christmas Day, we hear how the Word became flesh and is the person Jesus. The message if we hear it is that Jesus who has been born for us, is the indivisible communication of divine meaning. The Word of God made clear.

What else did we hear about the word of God today? In our psalm we heard that God sends out this word to the creation, and it responds. We heard that this divine word, it moves swiftly. This sacred word can stand up against the cold, and this holy word, it moves as a wind. In the Hebrew, the word for wind is the same word for breath and energy and it is ruach. For us, ruach is the Holy Spirit. This word isn’t text on a page or utterances with no impact. The strange truth uttered this morning is that this word of God is active, from before the beginning began.

Psalm 147 is nearly at the end of the psalter and it is considered to be a part of the closing finale. Behind all its triumphant security is circumstantial evidence of crippling disorientation. This is the celebration of people who have been faced with utter failure, and self-made lostness. Yet what they learned over time and through community discernment is that gruesome reality is not the end of the story. This finale of a Psalm rises into sacred hope and ponders God’s paradoxical endless presence and eternal closeness. It is God who rebuilds who gathers who heals - everywhere. It is God who loves us and calls us by our names - always. It is God who advocate for us, and who lifts up the last and the least - every one of us.

In our translation, the 12th verse of the psalm ends by mentioning God's gracious favor. This is an unusual choice. Other translations choose faithful love or loving kindness or unfailing love orr steadfast love - not a silly sentiment but an active relational promise between God and humanity. The psalms in our prayer book are an unusual work of art. Translating is always a choice and the deciding factor for the prayer book psalms is their chant ability. Furthermore, due to complicated reasons I'll explain some other time, the numbering is a bit different so if you looked up this exact passage of this psalm in most Bible translations you would be looking for verse 11. Anyways, in the word that in our BCP Psalm is verse 12 is gracious favor and elsewhere faithful love: it is In Hebrew one word - hesed. And hesed is one of the 3 Hebrew words That tell the shape and meaning of what We trust are the core characteristics of God. These are mercy, compassion and steadfast love (which in Hebrew is 1 word). Our psalm today only uses one of those Hebrew words, however, the meaning of all 3 words is illustrated in its enchantments. In this vision the one God of the universe created humanity to be in lifegiving community with God and all creation that acts from these bedrock characteristics of God: compassion, mercy, steadfast love.

Then in the Gospel of John, the sacred storyteller opens up with his mind-twisting poetry: Word was God and is God and became flesh Dwelled among us - full of grace and truth. Part of what the sacred storyteller is saying is related to our Psalmic vision - that God's shape and intention is made clear in Christ, this meaning is what is made Human, and while we cannot separate the meaning from Godself, it is also in the same movement made profoundly vulnerable, so to forever transform the dialouge with God’s beloved people.

We have crossed to the other side of the Solstice and from now on this winter the light will grow. The wider world has crossed over from the Winter Wonderland season to the Diet-and-amend-your-ways season. But we here in the church are still in the sacred mystery of Christmas. We are holding dear to us the meaning and intention of all of the words we've spoken and sung through these Advent and Chrismas seasons. Striving to keep the 12 days of Christmas, which are after Christmas: which are right now, striving to keep these as sacred isn't just stubbornness or countercultural. It's letting the newborn word of God breathe in us to shape in us the sacred truth of Christmas, one that is much more than just sweet feelings. Christmas is dialogue between insider and outsider, God and humanity. Conversations that if we hear it make the way of steadfast love - hesed - clear - this child is this clarity. If the last six weeks of study, prayer, and worship didn’t stir in you activity of compassion or steadfast love or mercy, then these last 6 or so days, are a chance to more truly respond to the mystery of Christmas. How will this wonder change you And your conversations, for the better? 

Even now in this time of hatred and division and attacks and atrocities and numbness God's word - God’s meaning and expectation Is made clear, We have a promise to keep and therefore a part to play in this ultimate story. We are called to turn back to the beginning, to be redefined as a part of the sacred mystery of God’s incarnation. As Christmas continues, let us live into God's meaning and God's intention which is summed up in the Word made human: Jesus the Christ: who is mercy, who is loving-kindness, and who is compassion for you and for all. The text does not say that a feeling became flesh. John's gospel says that the Word of God became human. A distinct communication of profound meaning - The Word of God - Was and is this child in Mary’s arms.

December 29, 2019
Christ Church, Ridley Park, PA

Thursday, December 26, 2019

Hold On

As you peer into the cave this night what do you see? Why are you here? What does it mean? As you look into this scene tonight: this isn't a barn no modern stable. It is a gap in the rocks, a cave behind the home of a stranger. The village of Bethlehem is absurdly crowded. This directive from the empire ‘Go to your hometown be counted, but mostly taxed’, it's probably a blessing for this nowheresville; market stands empty; all the rooms rented; extra coins in pockets. Tonight we hear a sacred story we can sing by heart, even the unacquainted. Beyond the ink of the shape of the letters is a white space. It holds the parts of the story, parts the tradition imagines and the parts of the moment that were so every day they weren't worthy of being mentioned.

It's a blip of an ancient town and it is full to the brim. A woman is in the loud process of giving birth. Caring for a woman in labor has almost always been the duty of women. Rest assured, there were unacknowledged women there. And there were other onlookers I imagine. Curious people built for connection and empathy. They heard and they responded. The neighbors who said no when Joseph knocked, but now.... One of the most steadfast rules of righteousness among these people - is hospitality. And you didn't make room, and so in self-judging shame, You go out to find where they landed.

There in that cave, we discover lowlife shepherds Who made it here first. Stinky sheep and grungy people speaking about angels and peace and the redemption of all the world. It is almost morning and you're awake and you're here and you look into this cave - and you wonder: why? This world-changing night it's not glamorous nor cute. It is cold and dirty and guilty while at the same time It is full of love, glowing with redemption declaring a new way for life on Earth. Godly goodness and power is right here in the mess, in the only space it could find In our fractured selfish ways. Here we see that everyday matter can bear God, can welcome God, is one with God. And this child who has been born, this Jesus is born for us - our advocate. What is it he is advocating for? How is he for us?

For me, one of the most potent ways to illustrate the mystery of Christmas is to flip the image. To reverse who holds what. Over by our devotional candles, I have placed a print of an icon that usually resides in my office. The title of the icon is Holy Wisdom. Above fiery and watery chaos a young person emerges from the Sun a person who holds the Earth as we would hold a precious child, but also in a posture that is ready to act - a body in motion. We know it is Christ by the iconography of his halo. The print has grown dark over the years but if you were to look close you might see the scars on his hands. To me the mystery of Christmas means just this - it means both: Mary holding Christ in her hands, and just the same, Jesus holding us in his hands. In both our true brokenness is made clear by our inhospitality to all that God so dearly loves. In both our true possibilities and salvation are also made clear by the deep love and hope that the images together declare. Will we hold every bit of creation as tenderly as Mary holds Our Savior and as Christ holds the world?

If you come here tonight because of a tickle in the back of your mind that there is something more than isolation and anxiety, I'm glad you're here and Christ loves you and welcomes to you. If you come here tonight because someone said you had to, I'm glad you're here and God loves you and welcomes you. If you come here tonight not knowing exactly what we are up to, but it is a tradition that sparks joy in you, I'm glad you're here, and wonder what kind of love the spirit of God is stirring up in you. Whatever reason you are here tonight we welcome you as a beloved child of God.

It is dark, but the dawn of Christmas morning has already shone forth across the earth. Tonight we sit and stand and sing in a quite glorious cave with all who do so now, and in the past, and in the future. As we gather around the Christ child, we also see Jesus the adult who said such wonderful things and did such amazing things that people followed him. Tonight as we peer into the cave at a precious scene we should also be struck by its connection to the cave in which his crucified body will be placed. Tonight as we gather around a desperate woman and a dutiful man with the vulnerable newborn and outcast strangers, we should know that this infant is the One who rose from our death-dealing ways and loves us still. As you go out from this shadowy cave this Christmas night, may the way of Jesus Christ fill your path the light, may it slowly grow and reveal his precious new world in us. Merry Christmas!

December 24, 2019
Christmas Eve Later Service
Christ Church, Ridley Park, Pennsylvania

Monday, December 23, 2019

Too Cool to Be Joseph?

It was a beautiful fall day in Albuquerque. still warm enough to sit outside at lunchtime. my friend Molly and I had gotten together for our pretty much weekly lunch meetup. I was already well into Christmas planning mode - and I was complaining a bit. Mary was cast, Jesus was cast, I had talked one teen into being a fire angel in the Christmas Pageant. But finding a Joseph was like finding someone to scrub toilets. As it happens Molly’s son George was with us that day. I don't have any idea why he wasn't in school because he certainly wasn't sick. It is worth mentioning that George had volunteered to be Joseph twice in recent years. So I asked him why do you think other boys don't want to be Joseph in the pageant? 

He replied quickly: Because they didn't want to act like a caring parent, And they probably thought it was weird and icky to have to pretend that they were in love with Mary. They think they're too cool for any of that.' After a bite he continued, 'Which is dumb,  cause Joseph Is awesome. He's all right with not being the most important person. He was a good dad and had a hard task and the whole scary angel in a dream thing - Yeah he did what he was asked and he didn't complain. Joseph is awesome.' 

Our Gospel lesson today is full of weird and discomfort. We have a grown-up story that's only barely edited in translation. A grown up story that we annually invite young people to pantomime. It's also weird and uncomfortable because the reason for turning the moment of rescue comes from the appearance of an angel in a dream. The world in which Jesus was born into was one that expected the extraordinary other to be interfering in our lives connecting to our brains healing our bodies. There's nothing shocking to the ancient hearer about angels and directed dreams. But us today in our rational conventional norms? These things still happen, but in my circle, they are shared only with trusted friends And even then in hushed voices. 

It may surprise you but we don't have a well-developed official angelology, certainly not the Episcopal Church or most Protestant churches. Most of the common depictions are not what we read of in the Bible, many common beliefs are not and have never been Christian teaching - bells and wings for example. Angels in the Bible are carriers of messages so much so that they are the message. The oldest mentions of angels in the Hebrew Scriptures have almost no description at all We are left with an impression Of strange human like visitors. By the era of the last written texts, the description of angels in Ancient Judaism sounded more like Hindu gods with lots of terrifying wings and eyes, and they act rather like greek gods, and they have names and pronouns that are always masculine. No precious moments there.

I trust that God is the creator of all things that God has made a universe that has little bits I can comprehend and a whole lot more that I'll never be able to manage. For me, Angels are mysterious embodiments of God's communications Between what I can understand And the marvelous mysterious everything else. Today an angel appears in a dream, and to me, dreams are in a similar zone. Whatever happens to some people in that stage of dreaming sleep it can be a powerful space of revelation, and an encounter with the glorious and awe-some things that are going on all around us whether we acknowledge it or not. Joseph's story of The experience of an angelic message in a dream connects this scripture to the primordial epics of Jacob and Joseph.

However, much more important to our dwelling in the sacred story is his example. Joseph makes the courageous choice to step into a strange borderland of the revolutionary thing God is doing in the birth of Jesus. Joseph had every social and legal opportunity to wash his hands and walk away. But he didn't. From the point of view of established Christian doctrine it's easy to say of course he stuck around - because this is the birth of God. But in the moment when so much is still not completely clear to him or to Mary or to anyone else… Savior, messiah, liberator - sure these revelations are proclaimed - but the truth of their promise In Jesus the Christ - no one had the full picture for decades.

So let's be honest Joseph’s choice to follow the dream, to trust the angel, to stand by Mary absolutely led to a lifetime in which he was regularly besieged by murmurs both openly and behind his back. His reputation his standing had to have been diminished - because Joseph chose this strange public duty. Christmas is almost here - but lets take a minute to clear away the mess of saccharine trappings for a minute - What would you do in Josephs’s situation? Or if you were his friend? If it is far from the best ways to live, can you bring that deficit to prayer this week?

Bravery isn't always about running into the fire, sometimes it is the measure of our candid embrace with life as it comes to us. Bravery most often bears the everyday tasks of honesty and fidelity and humility. Joseph’s courage is fullfilling his duty and doing so with a mysterious precious promise to hold at the same time. Joseph is a background player, is barely a supporting role. we see him here then as a refugee heading to Egypt, then he's with Jesus and the whole family when Jesus is about 12, and then nothing is said of Joseph again. There are two millenia of traditions and guesses that have grown up around him, but the biblical texts almost seem to forget about Joseph. What my young friend George didn't exactly say but his young words and emotion did say Is that Joseph is an example of allowing oneself to be faithful to an unexpected duty of welcoming the stranger and to do so wholeheartedly, with no reward and almost invisibly. Joseph is awesome. Let’s be awesome - like Joseph was for Christ our Lord. Humility. Service. Fidelity. Compassion. A prime example of what we now call Christian discipleship. May we be just as brave today, tomorrow and for always.
Christ Church, Ridley Park, Pennsylvania
December 22, 2019