Sunday, January 25, 2015

Third Sunday after the Epiphany

Mark 1: 14-20

Good morning and grace and peace. Third Sunday after the Feast of the Epiphany already, last Sunday of January! And 32nd Day of the expanded season of Christmas—time to feed the partridge and water the pear tree!  After our brief excursion last Sunday into the first chapter of St. John’s Gospel we return now (and continuing for a few more weeks) to the first chapter of St. Mark—and today Mark’s account of the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry and the gathering of those who will be his first Disciples.

If we try to harmonize what we read in Mark two weeks ago and then what we read in St. John last Sunday we would seem to have at least a general sense of things.  We last caught a glimpse of Jesus in Luke’s gospel at the age of 13 or so visiting Jerusalem with Mary and Joseph and amazing the elders in the Temple.  From then on Jesus has apparently a private life in the quiet Galilean village of Nazareth.  Some have pictured him working as a carpenter or builder alongside Joseph. Some have pictured Joseph and Jesus together in a workshop at home—or perhaps they would walk a few miles to work on one of the many large construction projects in the new port city of Caesarea Maritima, which had been developed some years before by Herod the Great.  In any event Jesus must have been a bright student in the local synagogue--as he would demonstrate later in life in his extensive and deep teaching of the scriptures. 

But then Jesus learned that his kinsman, now known as John the Baptizer, had become the prophetic leader of a movement calling the Jewish people away from their accommodation with the political and social and cultural patterns of the occupying Romans and their collaborators--and what we might just in general call Mediterranean Hellenism. A culture that was in the main secular rather than religious, characterized by a focus on money and sex, violent entertainment, bread and circuses.  In a way that made the establishment deeply uncomfortable he is calling the Jewish people to repentance of their association with and collaboration with the forces of this occupying, alien culture—calling them to a renewed spirit of holiness, and obedience to the scriptures. So Jesus comes down to the Jordan, joins the crowd around John, is baptized—and of course as we read two weeks ago with the dramatic moment of the Holy Spirit descending like a dove, the voice at this anointing, “this is my beloved son.”   John tells us that in the next couple of days after the baptism John the Baptist introduced several of his followers to Jesus in these somewhat strange words, “Behold the Lamb of God,” and that when they heard this they then went to see him, and then told others about him. 

Mark tells us that soon after the baptism Jesus left the crowds around John for a while and went on a personal and solitary journey of reflection and prayer and discernment and what we might call vocational testing out in the wilderness—40 days of struggle with the temptations of the enemy and of clarifying and strengthening his resolve for the work ahead. 

After that interval Jesus heads back home to the Galilee, where as we read this morning he hears that John the Baptist has been arrested.  That news gets him into action, and he goes out and begins what is called his time of “Public Ministry.”  His first sermon is concise enough to fit into the 144 characters of a Twitter post: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”  Clearly building on the urgent message that Matthew tells us had been John the Baptist’s core announcement, “”Repent; for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”  Not a new message for Jesus, but continuing the trajectory, building on a foundation.  What we were waiting for, has come to pass.

 Jesus then travels around the villages of the area and seeks out some of those John the Baptist followers whom he had met at the Jordan and enlists them to join him.  That’s where we are in Mark today.  Their former leader imprisoned, some of John the Baptist’s ardent disciples are back home and at their work fishing in the Sea of Galilee, wondering what will come next, whether the soldiers are likely to come for them next . . . whether God was really at work in John . . . whether there really was some larger purpose and meaning to it all. 

So they had taken a great risk to go down to John, who said his ministry was to fulfill the prophetic vocation, “Prepare ye the way of the Lord.”  And now here Jesus reaches out to them with those memorable words from the King James: “come after me, and I will make you become fishers of men.”  As soon as they hear his call they know the answer to all their questions, the gears mesh, it all comes together, and from that moment at the seashore they follow him out into the wide world, in what we know will become the journey of their lives—and of our lives.  Andrew and Peter, James and John. 

I would say that what always strikes me about this moment in Mark is the clarity and the sharpness of this transition.  A sudden pivot.  A turn in a new direction. 180 degrees.  Whatever it was that Peter and Andrew had seen in Jesus a few months before at the Jordan.  Whatever it was that they made of what John the Baptist had said.   Something so powerful in the word that Mark uses here about their decision.  One of Mark’s distinctive and favorite adverbs, recurring again and again.  “Immediately.”     Immediately they left their nets.  Not even taking the time to finish cleaning them and put them back in the boats for later use.  They just let them drop where they are.  And the same for James and John.  I always picture their father Zebedee looking up with astonishment.  “Where are you going, boys?  We haven’t finished yet!” 

I’ve always been fascinated by stories about these kinds of sudden turns in the road.  A friend of mine back in the late 1970’s who had been living and working in Philadelphia.  Where he had lived his whole life.  He was at a holiday party with friends, when as sometimes happened back in the 1970’s he discovered that he had run out of cigarettes.  He excused himself, told his girlfriend that he was going out, put on his coat, and headed down to a store a couple of blocks away.  After making his purchase he didn’t feel so much like going back to the party, so he thought he’d take a walk.  He was mulling over his life I guess in some general way, I guess, but as he walked it got colder, so he got on a bus, and soon found himself at the bus station.  Where he got off the bus, walked into the station, went upstairs, and bought himself a ticket for Greyhound to California that was leaving in 20 minutes.  “I really hadn’t thought it out at all,” he told me.  “I just knew in that moment that it was what I needed to do.”

Anyway.  I haven’t had anything in my life quite in that pattern, I don’t think, but certainly moments of sudden insight and decision.  Falling in love, like that.  Susy is here, so I’ll blush.  I guess we all probably have stories like this.  Unexpected turns in the road.

 For St. Paul on the Road to Damascus there was a burst of light in the sky and a thundering supernatural voice.  For me, as many of you have heard the story, not quite so dramatic.  I recall a moment coming down the stairs of the Moffitt Undergraduate Library at Cal, in the winter of 1973, my junior year.  I had been thinking about things for a while, big questions.  Meaning of life kinds of things.  Reading, taking classes, long hours of conversation in Telegraph Avenue coffee houses.  Philosophy, politics, history, different kinds of religious and spiritual things.  Even slipping in over at St. Mark’s across Bancroft Way from the Harmon Gym on an occasional Sunday morning for Choral Morning Prayer and one of George Tittmann’s wild, scholarly, convoluted, poetic 35-minute sermons.  Obviously something was going on. I knew that, but I wasn’t really sure what.  Quietly working its way, from the outside in.  Then there was this one particular day when I was on the third floor of the library headed down, I was clearly in my own mind a skeptic and an agnostic, full of questions, despite and perhaps in some ways because of all the years of Sunday School and Acolyting and Youth Group and all the rest.  But somehow, and it is simply a mystery to me, by the time I hit the ground floor that afternoon I had heard Jesus say my name and I knew who he was, and I had said yes.  All without missing a step.  Don’t think I even slowed down. Immediately.   It wasn’t exactly “come after me and fish for people,” but in many ways I think now that maybe that’s what I had heard. 

In the gospels this happens in so many ways. It happens for all of us in so many different ways.  Not just one template, one pattern for the conversion of life into a relationship with Christ Jesus.  How in the midst of lives lived for ourselves we suddenly can hear as we never heard before, with the ears of the heart, and can be transformed by him, meeting him, and given new direction and new purpose.  Whatever “fishing by the sea” might mean for us today, and however we might hear the invitation to a life lived with Jesus. 

Just picturing ourselves there this morning, by the lake.  Tending our nets.  Minding our own business.  And then to hear his voice.  Opening our eyes and ears, and in the imagination of our minds and our hearts to see ourselves dropping those nets, and standing up, and walking with him from that day forward.  As if it all were all happening here and now, today.

Walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Second Sunday after the Epiphany

 John 1: 43-51

Good morning, grace and peace.  Second Sunday after the Feast of the Epiphany and so the 25th Day of Christmas, for those who are keeping count--on the way to the 40th Day, Candlemas, the Feast of the Presentation of our Lord in the Temple, the Purification of St. Mary the Virgin, and the day (I promise, Susy!) when I will finally start taking down our Christmas decorations and carrying them to the basement!

As I mentioned last week, our 3-year lectionary, in Year B now, will have our Sunday  gospel reading for most of these weeks in the first chapter of Mark’s gospel, as we began last Sunday, but with this one excursion from Mark to St. John.  Last week we had Mark’s account of the baptism of Jesus, and we’re in the same time frame here in the first chapter of John. In the time immediately following the baptism of Jesus.

Our passage this morning begins in the first chapter of John at verse 43 with the words, “The next day,” and it’s helpful I think as we hear this to look back just a bit, to see that this is the second half of the account in John of the calling of the first disciples.   In John’s gospel one day after the baptism John the Baptist is standing with several of his followers and Jesus walks by.  John remembers that moment in the river, as he with his own eyes saw the Spirit descending like a dove and abiding with Jesus, and he says to the two brothers, Andrew and Peter, “Behold, the Lamb of God.” 

They are moved by John’s testimony and go after Jesus to see what this means.  They ask him where he is going, and Jesus then invites them to join him.  “Come and see.”  And they follow.  That’s one of the readings we sometimes have actually for St. Andrew’s Day, so it seems especially familiar to us here.

In any event, then we come to verse 43, “the next day,” so days after the baptism as John tells it, and Jesus goes out again, and immediately runs into Phillip, who is from Bethsaida in the Galilee—near the home of Peter and Andrew, all of these little rural villages, Bethsaida, Capernaum, Nazareth just a stone’s throw from one another—and Jesus enlists him as well.  “Come follow me.”

And then Philip.  He seems to have heard something from John the Baptist also, or maybe from the disciples who had joined Jesus yesterday, because he immediately becomes an evangelist, going out and finding Nathanael, to say, “we have found the One promised in the scriptures, the one we’ve been waiting for.  Jesus, from Nazareth.” 

Which news catches Nathanael by surprise.   For these Galilean men Nazareth seems to have the reputation as the most backwater of their own backwater neighborhoods. 

They’ve come down to the big city, the sophisticated Judean region, near the metropolis of Jerusalem, and now here is this assertion that the One they’ve been waiting for here with John at the Jordan is a hometown guy,  a fellow Galilean, even from Nazareth.  Like going to New York, London,  Paris, to find out that the one you’ve been looking for is from McKees Rocks.  So Nathanael.  “Come on, Philip, get real.  What good can come from Nazareth?”

And then finally beginning in verse 47 the pivotal encounter between Jesus and Nathanael.  Philip introduces Jesus to Nathanael, and Jesus says, “Oh, I’ve had my eye on you, Nathanael.  I saw you yesterday, as a matter of fact, sitting under the tree.”  And Nathanael—I don’t know, I guess I’ve always heard a cynical, even a little rude and disrespectful tone in his reply.  Following on from the comment about Nazareth.  Rolling his eyes.  “You saw me yesterday?  Wow, that’s incredible, Jesus!  You must really be the Messiah, the Son of God.  We should go out and start planning your enthronement ceremony right away.”

But in any event, Jesus doesn’t react to that, but he comes right back at him.  Homes in.  “You’ll see more than this, Nathanael.  Just hang around for a while and see.” 

And then Jesus evokes the image of the dream of Jacob in the Old Testament, the 28th chapter of Genesis, the Father of the Twelve Tribes, the man who wrestled through the night with God.

You know, as a side note, in Luke 24 on the afternoon of Easter Day the risen Jesus meets up with a couple of his extended group of disciples on the road from Jerusalem to Emmaus.  They have a conversation about the events of that day, and the disciples really seem in the dark about what it all means.  And Jesus tells them that it all was foretold in advance in the scriptures.  In what we would call the Old Testament.  They’re still puzzled, so then in verse 27 Luke says, “beginning at Moses and all the prophets, he expounded unto them, in all the scriptures, the things concerning himself.”  A conversation I’m sure every Christian would love to overhear.  But we get hint of it here.

This is a pivotal moment in Jacob’s story.  He’s just played a strange trick on his father and managed to acquire for himself the special blessing of inheritance that had been intended for his brother Esau.  When Esau finds out he is enraged, and Jacob has to run for his life.  Without any sense of where he can go to find safety, Jacob is out on the road until nightfall.  And then that night, his dream.

Jacob left Beer-sheba, and went toward Haran.  And he came to a certain place, and stayed there that night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place to sleep.  And he dreamed [and here it is] that there was a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven; and behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it!  And behold, the Lord stood above it and said, “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your descendants; and your descendants shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and by you and your descendants shall all the families of the earth bless themselves.  Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done that of which I have spoken to you.” Then Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, “Surely the Lord is in this place; and I did not know it.”  And he was afraid, and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”

So, Jesus.  Hang around, Nathanael.  Walk along this road back toward our little country villages.   And see Jacob’s dream come to life and fulfillment, in what you see in me.   The joining of heaven and earth, the miracle of Christmas, the Manifestation of Epiphany.   

An unexpected place, not because it is so far away, but because it’s right here, just a campsite on the open road, nothing special.  But revealed there: open your eyes to see it,  the gate of heaven.  God acting to restore and renew all things, and each of us.  God revealing himself.  Not the way we expected, not at some expected hour or in some dramatic technicolor rain of lightning bolts pouring down from heaven, but right here with us in our real world.  Jacob’s dream leaping over centuries, anticipation and foreshadowing, to catch this glimpse of what God would do once and for all.  Christ, the ladder.   Word made flesh-- his life-giving body, the door, the House of God, the gate of heaven.

On the Roman Catholic Calendar these weeks after the Epiphany and the weeks after Trinity Sunday are called “Ordinary Time.”  Not a very poetic phrase, but one to pause with.  Because that’s where we are.  Ordinary people, ordinary places, ordinary time.  And right here, midwinter Highland Park, or in any place, in every place, when we are in the presence of Jesus, “the house of God, the gate of heaven.”  Which is what Christmas and Epiphany are all about, really. It is a miracle, and it can be a miracle for us. Invitations for each of us to follow Peter and Andrew, and Philip, and Nathanael, and to bring ourselves in heart and mind into his presence:  This, this is Christ the King, whom shepherds guard and angels sing.  Haste, haste, to bring him laud, the Babe, the son of Mary.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

First Sunday after the Epiphany

Mark 1: 1-11

Good morning and grace and peace, as we move along into the heart of winter, today the 18th Day of Christmas, the Sunday after the Feast of the Epiphany and regularly marked on our Church Calendar as the Feast of the Baptism of our Lord.  Thus the cover of our service leaflet.

In the three year cycle of our Sunday lectionary we move on in “Year B.”  Today and continuing for the next five weeks with one exception, when we read a passage from John next Sunday, we are going to be reading continuously the first 39 verses of the first chapter of Mark, today verses 1-13, which of course centers on the Baptism and its aftermath, the Temptation in the Wilderness.  On January 25 we’ll have Mark 1, verses 14-20, which includes the calling of the first disciples, on February 1, verses 21-28, the beginning of Jesus ministry and first miracle of healing and exorcism in the synagogue at Capernaum, and on February 8, verses 29-39, which includes more healings, including the mother of Simon Peter’s wife, and then the beginning of the wider ministry of Jesus and his disciples in the Galilee region. 

Mark is a straightforward, to the point, cut-to-the-chase kind of story-teller, and he gets a lot of important business done in just a few paragraphs.  He would be one of those preachers of 6-minute sermons that everybody is so fond of . . . .  But in any event, an opportunity over the next few weeks for some connected reflection on the opening of what is generally considered to be the earliest of the four gospels.  First impressions are always important, and I think it’s Mark’s intention here to say that if you were only to read the first chapter of the gospel you’d get pretty much the essence of what needs to be communicated.  Maybe even just the first sentence.  The title page.

The Wise Men from the East, as we met them last Sunday in the second chapter of Matthew, preside as patron saints of these weeks after the Feast of the Epiphany and the weeks after.  They follow the Star, as it appeared suddenly in the heavens as a sign of the birth of Israel’s promised king.  We hear in the background the words of Christmas Eve in the first chapter of John.  “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”  And whatever they were—Persians perhaps—the Wise Men are the first of our forerunners and spiritual ancestors, most of us.  “A light to enlighten the Gentiles,” as Simeon sang in his Nunc Dimittis in Luke’s gospel.  Or as Isaiah foretold, “Nations will stream to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawning.”  Or as in Ephesians, his coming to speak peace “to you who were far off, and to those who were near.”  A reminder that on the calendar of the Church Year in the Anglican world the Feast of the Epiphany has a subtitle, “The Manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles.”  The feast day of the year connected to the church’s great apostolic mission, as Matthew 28:  Go therefore and make disciples of all nations.”  The Bethlehem home the new Temple of God himself, who said through the Prophet, as we picture the Kings and kneeling to present their gifts, “my house shall be a house of prayer for all peoples.”  Epiphany.

Our reading this morning begins with what we might call the original title of the gospel.  The attribution to St. Mark comes from a later time.   What Mark himself named the book is here in Chapter 1, Verse 1:  “Here it begins: The Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”   

Folks who do marketing talk about the “matchbook” statement.   We can all write pages and speak for hours about work or business or whatever we have a passion about, but a challenge sometimes to put it briefly.  What’s you book about, St. Mark?   And he replies, if you’re just browsing in the Barnes and Noble, just passing by, if you’re only going to read and hear and know this much of what I have to share, read and hear and know this: “the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”

As on the Day of Epiphany we would watch the Magi head down from Jerusalem, led by the star to the home of Joseph and Mary in Bethlehem, we might hear in the background the question of the Christmas Carol as context for this gospel, “What child is this who laid to rest on Mary’s lap is sleeping?” 

The question to re-center us in this New Year, as we gather our Resolutions and priorities and values—our sense of who we are, what kind of people we want to be.  To begin with that question.  One last look into the manger.  What child is this?  Who is he, and most importantly, who is he to me?

Unlike Matthew and Luke, Mark doesn’t include in his gospel a genealogy to show the descent of Jesus in the line of King David.  He doesn’t spend paragraphs talking about the birth in Bethlehem, Angels and Shepherds and the Manger, the Presentation in the Temple, the Magi, the Flight into Egypt.  And he doesn’t follow John’s pattern of a long and theologically ornate discussion of Christology, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God . . . .  And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”  But Mark gets all he work done in shorthand pretty much in the title of his book,   The good news of Jesus, “Christ,” that is, the Messiah, heir to David’s throne, and “the Son of God.” 

And then the story of the baptism, reinforcing these two titles and claims made about Jesus.  The Old Testament reference to the prophetic messenger who would “prepare the way” for the Messiah of Israel by calling the people to repentance, to a renewal of the Covenant of relationship with God, and the figure then of John the Baptist, in full Old Testament prophet garb, to show that he was indeed that forerunner. 

And then Jesus in the river with John, and the heavens open, and the voice.  “Thou art my beloved Son.”  Again, what we’re leaning forward to hear now: the good news of Jesus the Anointed Messiah, the only begotten Son of the Father.  And then this thumbnail, abbreviated account of what we call the Temptation in the Wilderness.  We have the witness of the prophetic forerunner and of the Voice from Heaven, and then immediately also the witness of the Enemy, who knows and confirms the answer to the question—who is this?—and immediately launches his attack.

Who is this Jesus?  For the wide world?  For us?  Word made flesh.  Revealing, unveiling.  In the midst of darkness, light bursts forth.  In the dark sky, a bright star.

The story of the Baptism of Jesus by John in that Jordan River may recall for us our own baptism.  Whether we can remember that day or not.  Source of our identity, in relationship to him.  Place of our first death and our second birth, our new life.  We would appropriately recall the six key questions of the baptismal liturgy.  Since we’re talking about identity.  Who he is and who we are.  Echoing as we read these opening words of St. Mark, and through all of our lives.  What child is this?  Who is he for us?  For me?  From pages 302 and 303 of our Book of Common Prayer and inscribed in our hearts. 

Do you renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God?  I renounce them.

Do you renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God?  I renounce them. 

Do you renounce all sinful desires that draw you from the love of God?  I renounce them.

Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your Savior?  I do.

Do you put your whole trust in his grace and love?  I do.

Do you promise to follow and obey him as your Lord?  I do.

Walk in love, as Christ loved us, and gave himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Second Sunday after Christmas Day

Matthew 2: 13-23

Good morning, and grace and peace.  The Eleventh Day of Christmas . . . and my true love gave to me eleven pipers piping!  Which sounds like an appropriate gift indeed for us here, pipers for St. Andrew’s Day next November, and to go along with the twelve drummers drumming as they arrive tomorrow!   And a partridge in a pear tree!   We’re all set! 

As most of you know, I like to keep counting all the way through the rich 40 days of this season of Incarnation, subdivided as Christmastide and Epiphany, up to February 2, Candlemas, Feast of the Purification of St. Mary the Virgin, the Presentation of our Lord in the Temple--when we will be shifting gears and on our way into the three weeks of “Pre-Lent.,” Septuagesima, Sexagesima, and Quinquagesima.  When our focus will turn from the great theological language of Incarnation to begin to center on the Doctrine of Atonement.  Incarnation, about “who Jesus is,” and Atonement, about “what Jesus did.”  The Nature of Christ.  The Work of Christ.  Completely inseparable, of course: the unified message of the Gospel, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.

In any event, this Sunday it’s still very much Merry Christmas, though as we hear this morning St. Matthew carries us along some of the shadowy pathways through the story of the Birth of our Savior.

Years ago Ruth Cover of blessed memory told me a story—I’m not sure this was something that happened to her when she was teaching in our Church School back in the 1960’s or 70’s, or perhaps a story that she had been told by someone else.  But the story is an Advent or Christmas season Sunday School art project-- the second or third graders are given some drawing papers and crayons and asked to create a picture of their favorite scene from the Christmas Story.  The results perhaps fairly predictable.   Lots of Shepherds and Angels, Holy Family in the stable, the animals, the Baby in the Manger, the Three Kings, the Bethlehem Star.  But then one boy at the end of the table has spent his time working energetically, and when the teacher looks over his shoulder she sees something that looks like a Fighter Jet shooting across a blue sky, with giant flames exploding out of the engines.  “Didn’t you hear the assignment, Johnny?”  The teacher asks.  “Yes, he says.”  “But this isn’t part of the Christmas story.”  “Sure it is.  The flight into Egypt!  – and look, in the cockpit, that’s Pontius, the Pilot.”

In any event, part of the story that often doesn’t make it to the Pageant.  We remember how Matthew brings us to this point.  Matthew’s Christmas doesn’t contradict anything we remember from Luke, but there are lots of things he remembers that Luke didn’t tell us about.  At the beginning of Chapter 2 Matthew introduces us to these Wise Men from the East, who have seen a new star in the sky, which they interpret as meaning that a new king has been born to rule in Israel.  They come to Jerusalem, and make official inquiries that lead to old King Herod hearing of their arrival, and after some worried consultation they are sent along to Bethlehem, King David’s city and the place where the Prophet has said the long hoped-for Messiah would be born.  Herod is clearly worried that this might be a hint that there is some rebellion percolating, a challenge to his authority and the legitimacy of his dynasty, and so he asks the Wise Men to return to Jerusalem and to let him know what they have found.   

Of course the Wise Men do come to Bethlehem, guided by the Star--which is now moving along before them--rejoicing “exceedingly with great joy” when they finally find Jesus and Mary and Joseph. And after the presenting their three symbolic gifts, gold, frankincense, and myrrh,  they are, we are told, warned in a dream not to return to Jerusalem, and so they head home a different way.

That’s how we get to this morning’s readings.  The Wise Men have slipped away, but Joseph, just like his Old Testament namesake at the end of the Book of Genesis, the one with the Technicolor sportcoat, is a man who dreams meaningful dreams.  God speaks to our Joseph in a dream, and just as Joseph in Genesis brings Israel his father and all his brothers and their families down to Egypt as a place of refuge and safety in the time of famine, so now as the guardian and protector of Jesus and Mary his Mother this Joseph is given an urgent warning, and is called as well to Egypt as a place of refuge, narrowly escaping the murderous rage of Herod, who has realized that the Wise Men have slipped away and who then decides to nip any potential problem of a birth in the royal line of David by ordering the Slaughter of the Innocents.  Something we are told from other historical sources was entirely in keeping with his ruthless exercise of power.  Another part of the story missing from most Sunday School Pageants.  That horrifying cry of the Mothers of Bethlehem echoing through the centuries.  And it’s not until some considerable time later, perhaps even several years of living as refugees, when King Herod dies, that Joseph finally believes it safe to take the child and his mother and to return not to Bethlehem, where Herod’s son was now in charge, but back to Nazareth, Mary’s hometown, where Joseph apparently had been working some time ago as a carpenter or in the construction trade, to make their home there.

Matthew’s Christmas always feels a little uncomfortable leaning up against the story as Luke tells it.  Luke’s Shepherds and Angels and the midnight birth, the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes and settled in a manger bed—it all seems timeless, in a kind of homey, domestic bubble, warm, romantic, sentimental, almost other-worldly, a story we might read our children before they go to sleep.  But Matthew’s Christmas not a bedtime story.  Not if you don’t want some squirming, and some uncomfortable dreams.  No visions of sugarplums, but darkness and danger, a fearful escape to a foreign land, the brutal clatter of swords, death and destruction and the weeping of mothers bereft of their little ones. 

Hear Matthew’s story, and you’re grateful Christmas comes but once a year.  That would be enough and more than enough, and as painful as reading through the litany of terrors and atrocities in the morning paper.  ISIS and the Ukraine.  Story this week that estimates nearly 4,000 children killed in the civil war in Syria.  On display, the worst the world has to offer.  The absolute worst.  Our world unvarnished.  Brokenness, betrayal, cruelty, sin and death.  Sin and death.  I mean, it’s the holiday season, after all, and time for a break from all that. But Matthew keeps the spotlight right there.

In the 2006 movie Superman Returns there is a scene at the beginning.  Superman has returned to Metropolis after many years on some kind of unspecified task far away, I can’t remember the details.  A sabbatical.  And he discovers that in his absence things seem to have changed.  At one time he was cheered as a hero, but now he seems to be regarded more as a problem, a disruption.  He wants to be involved, but he is turned away again and again by people who feel like they no longer need the kind of help he can offer.  Even his old flame Lois Lane has moved on.  A new job, a new boyfriend.  And she has this amazing conversation with the Man of Steel.  “You seem to think it’s your job to save the world,” she tells him.  “But the fact of the matter is, the world doesn’t need a savior, and neither do I.”

The fact of the matter is, we don’t need a savior.  Well—if you’ve seen the movie, you’ll know that Lois has spoken a bit too soon.  Lex Luthor and his evil gang are even as Lois is speaking at work to bring on chaos and destruction, with a full dose of Kryptonite, and things are about to go very bad indeed. 

But I recall that scene this morning just to say that if there’s one thing Matthew never will let us say at Christmas, is that we don’t need a savior.  This world of ours.  You and I.  Matthew doesn’t forget and doesn’t let us forget that this is a world that needs saving.  That you and I are people who need to be saved.  From the darkness around us, from the evil that has taken up residence in us.

Without Jesus, it’s all Herod, all the time.  Deadly Kryptonite.  In the wide world.  In our hearts.  Not some exotic beast, but as real as the newspaper, and in fact a snapshot.  A “selfie.”  The message to call us to the Table this Second Christmas Sunday, and a reminder as we are sent out into the world.  As the angel.  “You shall call his name Jesus,” which means savior. Savior.  And what that means as we assess who we are, our life situation, here at the beginning of a new year.  What Christmas is, and to remember just what is at stake here.  Really and seriously.  Very high stakes for us, if we are tempted to cover that over with a bit of holiday gift wrap.   Call him Savior, the angel says.  Because without him we are doomed.  

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

First Sunday after Christmas Day

Sermon by the Rev'd Dr. Philip Wainwright, Priest Associate of St. Andrew's Church
Luke 2: 22-40

Simeon and Anna are not usually thought of as part of the Christmas story, but I think when you look at Luke’s gospel, you’d have to say that Luke thinks they are, and I’m going to take the author’s word for it! Let’s look and see how Luke uses them to complete his explanation of the significance of the Christmas story.

In Luke 2 v 20, the Shepherds go back from Bethlehem to their flocks praising God, but Luke goes on to describe how Mary and Joseph did all the things that any Jewish parents would have done for any Jewish first-born boy. In v 21 he tells us that Jesus was circumcised when He was 8 days old, and this would have been done in Bethlehem. If the traditional dating is correct, the wise men did not arrive in Bethlehem till 12 days after Jesus was born, so Mary and Joseph were still in Bethlehem then, and in fact they had to stay there, because the law required a forty day quarantine before Mary could go out in public. According to Leviticus 12, which is the ‘Law of Moses’ referred to in the first verse of our reading from Luke this morning, a new mother was considered unclean, because of the blood involved in child-birth, for forty days after giving birth. This was not because childbirth was considered a sin, but because blood was so sacred, so connected with life itself, that any shedding of it, even in a natural and God-given event like childbirth, was a consequence of sin that needed to be atoned for. That childbirth would be attended by pain and suffering instead of being a gentle and easy thing was the first thing God said to Eve after her disobedience. So Mary’s first public appearance after the birth of Jesus would be for the ceremony of purification that ended that forty day period. Incidentally, all this was to the people of the time quite well-known and normal, so the unknown Bethlehem innkeeper deserves some appreciation; when he realised he had a woman about to give birth on his hands, he knew first that it was going to be a mess and second that it meant she was stuck on his property for forty days, 74 days if she had a girl, so even the offer of the stable at the back of the inn was very generous!

But eventually the new family set out for Jerusalem, which was on their way back to their home in Nazareth, for the formal end of the quarantine, which meant a sacrifice. The prescribed sacrifice was that of a lamb and a turtle-dove, although if the family was too poor to afford a lamb, the Old Testament said they could sacrifice two doves instead, and in v 24 Luke (without mentioning that it’s the option for the poor) tells us that that’s what Mary and Joseph did. So we know that Mary was not exaggerating when she said, after the angel had told her that the baby she was going to bear would be the Messiah, that God had blessed her despite her ‘humble estate’.

You’ll notice that Luke talks about the time coming for their purification, rather than her purification. This is puzzling, because the Old Testament doesn’t say that the husband or the baby needed the purifying sacrifice. It was only the mother’s blood that was shed. I think Luke is reminding the reader of the broader meaning of sacrifice, in which all human beings are sinners in need of the reconciliation with God that the sacrifices symbolised. Mary needed purification because of the blood of childbirth, but both she and Joseph needed purification in a deeper sense because they were sinful human beings, and it’s as well to remember that this is Jesus’s first contact with the rôle of sacrifice in restoring mankind to God, for which He was eventually to give His own blood.

The purification was not the only ceremony that was required in the case of Jesus. When Luke says in v 22 they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord he is talking about the fact that for the first-born male, the Old Testament had a special provision, described in Exodus 13, just after the Jews had escaped from slavery in Egypt. The quote in v 23 is from that passage in Exodus. You’ll remember that their escape was made possible by the death of the first-born of every family in Egypt that didn’t have the blood of the lamb painted on the doorpost; the Jews had painted that blood, and so the angel of death ‘passed over’ them. But, God said as He led them towards the Red Sea and freedom, your first-born are also Mine: all first-born male animals you will sacrifice to me, and your first-born sons you must either give me or redeem by substituting something else in their place. The first-born was significant because it made possible the continuation of the family, and was given to God at least partly to express their faith that the family was in God’s hands, and was part of the plan God had made for the salvation of the human race. The first-born was chosen for the sake of the whole family, just as the people of Israel were God’s chosen people for the sake of the whole of humanity. All Israel is holy to the Lord, the first fruits of his harvest, says the prophet Jeremiah. Five shekels of silver was the amount to be given to redeem a first-born son. Luke doesn’t mention the payment, perhaps because he thinks it wasn’t really necessary in Jesus’s case, since He was the Lord’s in such a unique way. Luke didn’t want anything to obscure the importance of the moment when the one destined to shed His own blood for the sins of the whole world was first brought into the sacrificial system. But Mary and Joseph did not yet have this understanding, and doubtless paid the silver to redeem their first-born. A symbol of what is to come, and an amazing moment in itself: the Redeemer of the world, Himself redeemed according to the law!

Christ’s redeeming work is also fore-shadowed by the words of Simeon and Anna at these ceremonies, and Luke tells us about each of them in turn. In v 25 he tells us that Simeon was looking for ‘the consolation of Israel.’ This was a standard phrase for the coming of the Messiah, and it’s clear that the promised Messiah was much on Simeon’s heart. Even two thousand years ago there were many Jews who had grown tired of waiting for the Messiah; he had been prophesied 800 years earlier, but had still not come. Simeon was one of those who still eagerly expected God’s promise to be kept, and v 26 says that God had promised him that he would see the Messiah with his own eyes before he died. So Simeon, guided by the spirit, went into the Temple, and was sitting there when Mary and Joseph came in carrying the baby.

At that point, v 28 tells us, Simeon immediately recognized Who this baby was. He took the baby in his arms and began to thank God that he, Simeon, had indeed seen the promised Messiah. His words are recorded in v 29: Lord, now I can go in peace, as you promised. I’ve seen with my own eyes the salvation which you have prepared. This is often taken as a reference to Simeon’s death: now I can die content. But that’s only because of v 26, It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. The language is also that of a duty done; Lord, you’re setting me free. I’ve been on watch all this time, now I’m free to go. It could as easily mean that Simeon was free to live in peace as to die in peace, and what’s important to Simeon is that peace has arrived, peace with God, peace with man, peace with life.

Simeon has more to say. Verse 34, This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed. The word translated ‘rising’ is the word usually translated as ‘resurrection’—it occurs 42 times in the New Testament, and refers to resurrection from the dead in all but one of the other passages. There seems nothing else that it can mean here than this child is set for the fall and resurrection of many; ‘fall’ in that He will call all mankind to repent for the forgiveness of sin, and ‘resurrection’ in that He will bring about victory over death, the consequences of sin, for all those who believe in Him. Simeon is seeing in the distance the results of the Messiah’s coming in these words. He sees also the hatred of Jesus that will be the reaction of some of those who hear about Him: He is a sign that will be opposed. Prophetic words, that are fulfilled on the morning of Good Friday when the crowds are chanting ‘crucify Him, crucify Him,’ and which continue to be fulfilled to this day whenever people dismiss the gospel as impossible or irrelevant.

Finally, Anna: she comes into the picture in v 36, where she is described as an elderly prophetess. We need to put that description in perspective: the Jews of that day believed that prophecy had ceased with Malachi, the last of the Old Testament prophets. They didn’t believe that God had sent any more prophets since. So it is either Luke himself, or more probably the earliest Christians, who recognised Anna as a prophet. A Christian prophet is one who speaks publicly the truth in God’s word about Jesus Christ. Mary and Zechariah and Simeon had all spoken the truth about Jesus in words drawn almost verbatim from the Old Testament, but Anna is the first to do so publicly. Verse 38 tells us that she came into the Temple at the very moment that Simeon was speaking, and she too gave thanks to God, as Simeon had; but she did more: she  began to… speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem. Anna was the first Christian preacher, the first evangelist, and one of the great heroes of the Christian faith.

Luke was a careful writer. It is no accident that in beginning his book about Jesus and His followers with the story of Jesus’s birth, he includes all the major themes that will recur throughout the book: not only Who Jesus is, but how men and women are to take the truth about Who He is into the world. It is the completion of the Christmas story, because it makes clear why Christmas is worth celebrating: it is truly the saviour of the world who was born in that stable. Let those with faith in Him not only worship Him, but make sure the whole world knows He came to offer eternal life and peace to the whole world.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Christmas Eve

Hark! the Glad sound, the Savior comes, the Savior promised long; let every heart prepare a throne, and every voice a song.

Good evening, and grace and peace, all of us with his song in our hearts, all the hymns and carols and joyful anthems, with choirs of angels,  in the Name of our Newborn King Jesus, who lives and reigns with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and  ever.   Amen.

A word of welcome in this holy night.  Old friends and new friends always, travelers, visitors, kids home from school for the winter break.  I know as I stand at the back of the church and listen to the musical prelude each year at this service how I am struck again and again by the sense of what a high privilege and a gift it is, truly, that in all the places on God’s earth that we could be tonight, he has seen fit to bring us here.  Good old St. Andrew’s.  Just to take that in. 

That’s what Rick says when he sees Ilsa at the Café Americaine in Casablanca.  “All the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, and she walks into mine.”  Of course we know that there are no accidents, no coincidences. 

It is destiny, that we would be here tonight. I really do belief that: the Baby in the Manger, God from God, light from light, very God from Very God-- his intention for us from the beginning of time.  For some reason, for his own reasons, and they are hard to figure out sometimes, he wants us here.  Perhaps because there’s something he knows we need, a word he knows we need to hear or to speak or to pray or to sing that could happen in that particular and necessary way in no other place but tonight at St. Andrew’s.  Wondering what it might be tonight.  What unexpected gift he has hidden under the tree, with our name written on it. 

Perhaps something that will be shared with us.  Perhaps something we’ve been called here to share with someone else.  A word, a smile, a kindness of some sort, a Christmas greeting.  Who knows what difference that might make?  Or perhaps the reason will remain a mystery, as there is so much mystery in this night.

In the wide world things seeming out of sorts, off-kilter.  Headlines elbowing each other off the front page and messing with the Christmas shopping circulars—from Pakistan to North Korea to the streets of our own cities and neighborhoods.  Sometimes just needing to put the newspaper down, to change the channel on the radio. 

But to say again, in the midst of all this, and in the midst of everything that is going on in our own lives.  Not newspaper headlines, but for us, on the front page.  Family, those we love.  What’s going on in our own thoughts, in our hearts.  The up’s and down’s, victories and defeats. 

This particular year, he wanted us here tonight.   

We would come tonight not simply to acknowledge and celebrate his birth, long ago and far away.  Baby Jesus, the son of Mary, born in the days of Herod the king.  But as St. John reminds us, behind the Christmas Card scene there is a lot more going on.   This baby’s cry, ringing in the dark streets of Bethlehem, marks the pivot of cosmic history.  Our lives and our world.

The victory of God in Christ, the Dayspring from on high, a new heaven and a new earth. 

May seem a little hard to get our head around that, late at night, by candle light.  But this is the real story.  Not a sentimental fairy tale, long ago and far away.  But something real, happening.   God intervening.  Word made flesh, to dwell with us.  His birth, and our salvation.  Forgiveness, healing, mercy, and blessing.  Full of grace and truth.  

We walk past the crèche, and under the great Rood Beam, that massive cross, and the inscription, “And I if I be lifted up from the earth will draw all men unto me.”   The old world passes away. 

So simply to say that the take-away about Christmas isn’t Christmas, but what happens after Christmas.  The story that unfolds along the road from Bethlehem to Jerusalem, and the story that continues to unfold across the centuries, to this night in Highland Park.  Incorporating all our lives.  The generous, costly giving of God’s free and precious gift of himself.  To us and for us. 

 If we watch as bystanders, the day will pass and the New Year will come and life will go back to being what it was before.  But if we allow him to meet us here and to make us a part of his story, nothing will ever be the same again. 

It is his grace and love that can make a difference, here in this world, for us.

May there be for all of us in this Christmas the compassionate heart of Jesus himself, his love, and a tenderness of our hearts, a gentle spirit, kindness, peace.  We would trust in him.  Open our eyes and ears and minds and hearts as he approaches, as he is born.  Christmas beginning this night, one Christian at a time, until in Christ it will be all Christmas, all the time.  Blessings to you, and with much love.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Fourth Advent

It is a simple but I think also poetically and symbolically suggestive observation that the word Bethlehem, the little town of our Savior’s birth, is drawn from two Hebrew words, for “house” and “bread."

I’m not sure if that’s because in some deep background of antiquity this was a village of bakers. I guess names and titles don’t always come about in such obvious and literal ways. But the echoing is nonetheless interesting and meaningful I think, in a devotional way.  A holy resonance.

We never have one thing at a time.  Words, images, meanings jumble together.  And the journey of Mary and Joseph through these early winter days and nights from Nazareth to Joseph’s ancestral home connects us even now on the Fourth Sunday of Advent to that gathering as the Promised Child of Bethlehem would one day take the loaf in his hands and say,  “this is my Body, given for you.”

Picture for a moment, the manger itself a kind of Holy Table, where, in our hearts and minds, the wood of the Cross becomes real for us, where he has given himself for us and for many for the forgiveness of sins.  The Lord’s Supper.

The Manger his Throne. King of Kings and Lord of Lords.  His Mercy Seat. The royal platform of his abundant generosity and healing and blessing.

It is my hope and prayer that through this Advent and as we fly along into Christmas this week, each of you, all of us, may know and experience his mercy, his abundant generosity, his healing,  his blessing.  As the carol says, “Good Christian men rejoice, with heart and soul and voice: Christ was born for this.  Christ was born for this.”

The reading from Second Samuel builds a long line of connection from the story of King David to the story of his son King Solomon. As we hear this passage this morning we of course know already that Solomon built a great Temple on the holy hill of Zion. But we know as well that the true home of the Lord of heaven and earth is in the hearts of his people, where he is and will be enthroned forever. 

And in the womb of Mary is the Word made flesh.  The Lord, in his holy Temple.   Let all the earth fall quiet before him.  As we notice with the beautiful Annunciation panel in the Clara Miller Burd Nativity Window, in the South Transept.  Just to pause with her in our minds and hearts on this Fourth Advent Sunday.  Hail Mary, full of grace. The Lord is with you.  Blessed among women.  Blessed the fruit of thy womb.

Many streams, flowing together this morning, contributing to a deeper river of meaning.  The beginning of the story, and it’s end.  Last Sunday the whole story unfolded right up the center aisle of St. Andrew’s Church. With thanks once again to the kids, who know this story by heart.  The Angel Gabriel. Mary and Joseph, angels and shepherds, the Baby in the Manger. The Star. The Wise Men from the East, at the end of their long journey. 

It’s hard to think of a story that we’ve heard more often. A child is born in Bethlehem. The town that is called “House of Bread.”  The house we enter each time we come forward to Holy Communion with him.  The story long ago and far away. And yet it is certainly true as well that every time we hear it, when we tell it to our kids and when they tell it back to us, it is fresh and new. And it is like hearing it all again for the first time.  Happy Advent.  Merry Christmas.

May he indeed be born again into our lives, may he find his home in our hearts.   To know the Bread of Heaven born for us: and may we be fed and nourished and sustained by him and in him today and always.