Sunday, January 23, 2011

Third after the Epiphany, 2011

Year A Isaiah 9: 1-4; Matthew 4: 12-23

Grace and peace to you this morning. I find myself reflecting on my sermon today with an awareness of context. Many years ago when I had been only a short time in parish ministry I was looking for a priest to supply for me on a vacation Sunday and a friend gave me a piece of advice. “Don’t invite anybody too good,” he said. “You want your people to be glad to see you when you come back.”

And I guess just lately I haven’t been paying much attention to that advice. Certainly last Sunday, at morning services with my friend the Rev. Lucia Lloyd, who is such a fine preacher, and her really wonderful sermon with us on the story of John the Baptist and the conversation that lead to calling of the first disciples of Jesus, with that great reflection on the art and practice of improvisational comedy. I received an e-mail from a friend who said, “it’s about time somebody quoted Stephen Colbert in a sermon around here.” I'm not sure if the problem there is my social and political orientation, or if it just has to do with the fact that we don't have cable. But in any event, it's always good and important to hear a diversity of voices and from a diversity of perspectives and experiences.

And then last Sunday afternoon at Evensong Bishop Sean Rowe from Erie joined us to preach what I thought was really another great sermon on the passage from Isaiah 43, focusing on the words of God spoken through the prophet: “Behold, I am about to do a new thing.” Interesting to me and inspiring actually to hear this young man, the youngest bishop of our Episcopal Church, in a time when the generation of church leaders before him, pretty much my generation, has led the wider church into a long period of struggle, conflict, deconstruction, and decline. Exciting to hear him talking with such energy and enthusiasm about how the gospel comes fresh in a new generation, alive with possibility, creativity, energy, passion.

Actually in many ways I thought both Lucia’s and Bishop Sean’s sermons converged thematically, working together in a very powerful way. It was a privilege to hear them, and to be inspired by them about a hopeful future for Christian life and mission and ministry. I suppose every generation in one way or another makes a mess of things, and I suppose every new generation rises up with a spiritual gift and vocation to move ahead through that mess. Because there is still so much good and important work to do.

It was great to hear those sermons. And then to say, just as a matter of anticipation and foretaste, that Carol will be our preacher next Sunday, as she has been so very generous to share her time with us this month while I’ve been trying to sort out how to keep things moving while Deacon Chess is away on her leave. And Carol is one of my favorite preachers too. Always great and full of insight and pastoral experience and wisdom. So the preaching bar is set pretty high this morning in terms of context, and I more or less did it to myself by extending all these invitations.

In any event, perhaps I would do best just by keeping it simple and reminding us again something of what we heard last Sunday. As certainly both of those sermons could have been based as easily on this morning’s readings. First from Isaiah—the God who tells the Prophet as we heard last Sunday at Evensong in Chapter 43, “Behold, I am doing a new thing.” And now here this morning in Chapter 9: “In former times he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he will make glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations. The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light: those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined.” From judgment and punishment, from exile and estrangement, from loss and despair, from darkness-- to light. To light. God in a new and powerful way lifting the burden of oppression, and the night gives way to a new dawn of restoration and renewal, forgiveness, healing, reconciliation. A way forward, a new beginning. The promise of a hopeful future.

And then Matthew quotes this same passage as he tells of the beginning of the public ministry of Jesus after the arrest of John the Baptist. The words of Jesus ring out across the landscape to announce the good news that God’s kingdom is now drawing near. Disciples are gathered. Momentum builds. And again, there is fulfillment of hope, there is healing, there is new life.

Matthew is saying: what we have yearned for from ancient days, what we have known in a kind of symbolic way in the stories of the past, of the deliverance from Pharaoh, of the return from exile, now that is all becoming real for us in the person of Jesus. We are not left behind, to remain on the sidelines. Like Peter and Andrew and James and John, we are invited to be a part of it, to be ourselves in and through Christ the instruments of God’s new work.

Sometimes I do think about the mess that we’ve made and the mistakes and the problems and all the ways we could have done better, in the church and in the world. To some extent I’m thinking about my own generation, this particular time and place. But it could roll on about as well in the context of pretty much every generation, I suppose. Things fall apart. It would be sometimes easy and sometimes it is easy to be depressed or cynical. But that’s not the end of the story. It really isn’t.

The Steelers didn’t pack it in last weekend at halftime against the Ravens. They knew they still had 30 minutes to play, and that there were all kinds of possibilities out there for new and different things to happen. (At the end of the game last Saturday I did think to myself—“Now THERE is a sermon illustration!”)

And that’s the word we are in fact finding before us Sunday after Sunday through this season after the Epiphany, this “bridge time” between Christmas and Lent and Holy Week, as we stand up from the time of awe and wonder at the manger and turn our attention to what comes next on that hill outside the city walls of Jerusalem. Because the meaning of that Manger and the meaning of that Cross is always going to be that God isn’t finished with us, he doesn’t walk away. The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light! The story seemed over. Signed, sealed, delivered. But it turned out, there was more to come. There is more to come.

And as Lucia said last Sunday morning, as Bishop Sean said last Sunday afternoon, what a great and exciting and inspiring and fun invitation this is. For the disciples, as they meet Jesus for the first time. For us as we meet him, for the first time and every time, every day of our lives. To know Jesus and to make him known. Jesus lifted up in our hearts and in our lives. To enter into his gates with thanksgiving, to come into his courts with praise. In Word and Sacrament. In prayer, in beautiful music, in deep silence, and as we come into his presence in the service of those in need, or as we speak and act as agents of God’s truth, justice, mercy, and compassion in this broken world of ours. What a great and exciting and fun and inspiring invitation this is. That wonderful invitation to exploration and improvisation, when Jesus answered the disciples’ question, “Come and see!”

And as Bishop Rowe said in reflection on Isaiah, sometimes people in the Church, all of us, in our parishes, in our dioceses, in wider contexts, and in our personal life stories look back, to the Golden Age, the “good old days.” But when it comes to what God can do, there isn’t any moment better than this moment, and there isn’t and never has been any better time than this time, to be right here, you and me and all of us together, in this time and in this place, with this bunch of people. It’s still mostly mystery to me, but it is a great and wonderful mystery, to think that he has hand-selected us, called us, brought us here, each one of us, to be a part of it. And here we are!

Making the way glorious, light shining for those who walked in darkness, and forgiveness and healing. Something fresh and new.

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

Monday, January 17, 2011

Second after the Epiphany, 2010: Guest Preacher

The Rev. Lucia Lloyd is Rector of St. Stephen's Church, Heathsville, Virginia--a congregation formed by continuing Episcopalians when the clergy and a majority of the members of their former parish made the decision to leave the Episcopal Church. Lucia is a native of our area and grew up as a member of the Fox Chapel Presbyterian Church. She has joined us for worship (and as a preacher) several times when returning to Pittsburgh to visit family. She generously shared this sermon with us yesterday.

Lucia Lloyd’s sermon
January 16, 2011 Epiphany 2, Year A
John 1:29-42
St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, Pittsburgh PA

I love watching improv comedy for the simple reason that it’s fun. Improv comedy has no script, no monologue that is memorized ahead of time. A comedy troupe gets ideas from the audience and from each other as the performance is happening, and the funniest parts are the parts that just pop into their heads! Oddly enough, right underneath the laugher, there is also a level of terror. After all, being on stage and not knowing any of your lines is the sort of thing people have nightmares about. Being exposed to public ridicule is one of the deepest human fears, and something normal people work very hard to avoid.
But ironically, I think that the element of fear increases rather than decreases the level of fun. There is something exciting about people who face our worst fears and overcome them. It’s why people like to watch Olympic ski jumpers, or acrobats, or race car drivers. It is why we were so touched the first time we saw Susan Boyle sing. It is why we get so attached to James Bond.
Another paradox about improve comedy is that the people who are really good at that kind of split-second humor have invested a lot of time in working on their skills. Like the skiers, the acrobats, and the people who want to get to Carnegie Hall, it’s practice, practice, practice. Ironically, spontaneity takes preparation.
The foundational skill in preparing for improv comedy is learning to say “yes and.” In a commencement speech at Knox College, Stephen Colbert describes it: “When I was starting out in Chicago, doing improvisational theatre with Second City and other places, there was really only one rule I was taught about improv. That was, “yes-and.” In this case, “yes-and” is a verb. To “yes-and.” I yes-and, you yes-and, he, she or it yes-ands. And yes-anding means that when you go onstage to improvise a scene with no script, you have no idea what’s going to happen, maybe with someone you’ve never met before. To build a scene, you have to accept. To build anything onstage, you have to accept what the other improviser initiates on stage. They say you’re doctors—you’re doctors. And then, you add to that: We’re doctors and we’re trapped in an ice cave. That’s the “-and.” And then hopefully they “yes-and” you back. You have to keep your eyes open when you do this. You have to be aware of what the other performer is offering you, so that you can agree and add to it. And through these agreements, you can improvise a scene or a one-act play. And because, by following each other’s lead, neither of you are really in control. It’s more of a mutual discovery than a solo adventure. What happens in a scene is often as much a surprise to you as it is to the audience.”
Colbert tells the graduates, “Well, you are about to start the greatest improvisation of all. With no script. No idea what’s going to happen, often with people and places you have never seen before. And you are not in control. So say “yes.” And if you’re lucky, you’ll find people who will say “yes” back. Now will saying “yes” get you in trouble at times? Will saying “yes” lead you to doing some foolish things? Yes it will. But don’t be afraid to be a fool. Young people who pretend to be wise to the ways of the world are mostly just cynics. Cynicism masquerades as wisdom, but it is the farthest thing from it. Because cynics don’t learn anything. Because cynicism is a self-imposed blindness, a rejection of the world because we are afraid it will hurt us or disappoint us. Cynics always say no. But saying “yes” begins things. Saying “yes” is how things grow. Saying “yes” leads to knowledge. So for as long as you have the strength to, say “yes.””
Colbert is right, of course, and not just for graduates, but for all of us. We can say no to what we are given, or complain that it should have been different, or reject it because it wasn’t what we expected. There are all sorts of ways of saying no. An insult is one way to say no. Severing a relationship says no. Killing someone becomes the most extreme form of saying no. Saying no feels like having control, but in reality it crushes possibilities for a better future.
Saying yes involves accepting the situation you have, whether or not it is a situation you would have chosen, and adding something that enables you to move forward with it, together with others. St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Heathsville has lived the “yes and” approach to life. Four years ago, their rector and a majority of their congregation left The Episcopal Church and joined the Church of Nigeria. Despite that, 33 Episcopalians decided that they were going to continue to worship God as Episcopalians. The breakaway group claimed that the church property now belonged to them, and said they would not allow any more Episcopal worship services in the church building. The Episcopalians were left with no church building, no priest, no prayer books, no address, nothing but God and each other. So they said, “yes, this is the situation we’re in, and we’re going to improvise a parish from what we’ve got.” And they did! The local Methodist Church improvised with them to let the Episcopalians worship in their building, and other Episcopal Churches donated hymnals, prayer books, and all sorts of supplies. A retired priest came in to serve as an interim rector. They rented a dilapidated house and fixed it up to use as office space, meeting space, and space for weekly dinners. Later they expanded it so they could begin to use it as an improvised worship space. They improvised new outreach to the local community, including delivering water to people in the area whose wells had run dry or become contaminated, and who had no clean drinking water. They improvised a new parish attitude in which “we’ve always done it this way” receded and “let’s start” emerged. Most important of all, they improvised a new form of faith, in which trusting God through an uncertain future, when it would have been so much easier to give up and go home, provided opportunities for new growth, new hope, new creativity, new joy. I joined them on this journey as their priest two years ago; we improvise together as we go along. New people from our local area have continued to come join this congregation and improvise along with us. We have found new meaning in the scriptures too. We identify with stories of the wilderness, stories of displacement, and stories of hope in adversity. We identify with scriptural narratives in which people improvise because what God gives them is not what they expected. The scriptural narratives that are improv with God turn out to be almost all of them. There are some actors who say no to God. They want to stay in control. Jonah says no. Pharaoh says no. The rich young ruler says no. Judas says no. Pilate says no.
But there are other actors who say “yes and.” John the Baptist does not know in advance exactly who he is preparing for. But when Jesus appears, John says yes, and “here is the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” The two disciples say yes to Jesus and they follow him. Jesus responds with that beautiful question, “what are you looking for?” They accept the question, and they move the conversation forward by asking him a question, “rabbi, where are you staying?” to start a relationship. Jesus responds with a “yes and”: “come and see. Andrew accepts Jesus’ teaching with a yes, and he goes to tell his brother Simon Peter “we have found the Messiah.”
The gospel of John is a carefully shaped series of encounters with Jesus, and the various ways people respond to Jesus. Some say “yes but” and “but” negates the “yes.” Some say no. Some say yes!
God is different from an improv actor because God is not limited by time: God sees the big picture, the future as well as the past and the present, and God cares for and guides them all. But from our human perspective, God has a lot in common with an improv actor too, because God keeps tossing us the unexpected. When we go with the “yes and” is when miracles often happen, as God gets creative with us.
The reason that “yes and” is so important is that in an improv troupe, the yes ands build the scene and create the humor. One “no” can kill the whole scene. The real danger in improv isn’t having people laugh at you: having people laugh at you is actually the purpose of the whole thing. They’re laughing with you. It’s fun. The real danger in improv is that you’ll be so afraid of making a mistake that you will make the biggest mistake of all: you won’t make anything, and you’ll prevent everyone else from making anything too.
Stephen Colbert tells us “You are not in control. So say “yes.” And if you’re lucky, you’ll find people who will say “yes” back.”
In our worship this morning, we know that there is something even better: God will say “yes” back.
The Bible is a comedy in the original meaning of the word: a story with a happy ending. When humanity answers Jesus with the complete no in the crucifixion, Jesus accepts that. In the crucifixion Jesus says “yes.” The resurrection is Jesus’ “and.” Jesus invites us into that resurrection life with him. It is scary to respond to that invitation with “yes and.” It is also exciting. And even fun!

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Burial Office
Ann Elizabeth Morton Brown
October 25, 1936 – December 20, 2010

Friends, again grace and peace to you, on this winter morning, from God our Father, and from the Lord Jesus Christ. I thank you for coming to share in this time of worship and memory, as we give thanks for Ann’s life, as we offer our prayers in worship, and as we would offer our deepest thoughts and words of encouragement and condolence and friendship. Remembering Ann, who was daughter, sister and sister-in-law, aunt for her niece and nephews, mother and grandmother, wife, colleague, friend, and neighbor.

And of course there are so many rich memories. We’ve heard some wonderful stories this morning, and I know there are more to be told later, and with many moments that will remain with us and in our hearts always. Whether in the neighborhood, up on Winterton, with so many good friends over so many years. It was really fun that even with all that was going on with her medical condition this past summer Ann was able to participate in the Fourth of July parade.

And in her work. I was telling Amelia and David the other day that I don’t think I had a single conversation with Ann over the 17 years that I’ve known her that didn’t include something about her work. She was so passionately committed to it, and it meant so much to her that her work was truly a contribution that in this vitally important field of cancer research would truly make a difference in people’s lives. And she always spoke of her friends and colleagues with such respect and such affection.

And she was so proud of David, and she loved Amelia, and she loved truly being grandmother for Ada and Breyton. And of course Don. A half century of married life, with all the twists and turns, day by day and year in and year out, sharing in his life as he shared in hers. And she loved coming down here, sometimes with Don and sometimes by herself, for Sunday morning services, and always at the 11 o’clock, because she loved the music so much. So, indeed, a great many memories.

As I was preparing for this service this morning I went back to take a look at the sermon I preached at our service here for Don in the late spring of 2009. That was such a hard time, as he and they were working so hard together to get a handle on her illness—and then to have him suddenly fall ill. And as he was caring for her, then she also needed to care for him. What struck me at that time was how much Ann and Don both had met that challenge, and here I’m quoting myself, with “grace and gentle love, with dignity, care for one another, with compassion. And with courage. The word that comes to mind to me. Courage.”

And I would say truly here this morning that all those meaningful words come alive for me again as I think about Ann as she continued over the year and a half since Don’s death. Love, dignity, care, compassion, and courage. Those all continue to seem the right words to use. Even in the very last days, moving from home to hospital and then to hospice: love, dignity, care, compassion, courage. I could see that in her, and I could see that so vividly in so many ways in those who cared for her and who watched with her.

It was of course a privilege of mine to pray with her when I would visit, and during her times in the hospital with blessings and as she was anointed just a short time before her death. It certainly was an honor and a gift to know her as her pastor and friend and Highland Park neighbor, and I am very thankful for that.

“In my Father’s house are many mansions. If it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you, and if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and bring you to myself, that where I am, you may be also.”

As we would come together in this holy place of prayer, with memories and thanksgivings and tributes all encompassing this time of our lives that we have shared with Ann, my prayer would be also that in a simple way this word from our Lord Jesus Christ would rest in our hearts and bless us with a sense also, each one of us, of hope and encouragement. Our time, our lives, our strengths and our weaknesses, our accomplishments, our failures, things done and things left undone, who we are, who we may become, all that rests in his hands. We are his people and sheep of his pasture.

And “neither death nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, or any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” May that all be good news for us as we go out into the rest of our lives today. As we visit with one another. As we return to our homes. That we will today and in a way as Ann’s final gift to us have a sense of this generous love.

And as we would stand now and turn in the Blue Hymnal to Hymn 671 and sing together, Amazing Grace.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

First Sunday after the Feast of the Epiphany: The Baptism of Our Lord Jesus Christ

In the lectionary of the old Prayer Book and the traditional Anglican calendar the Sundays after the Epiphany were divided into two parts, with the first four weeks between this First Sunday after the Epiphany and the Feast of the Presentation having the character of a continuation of themes centered on the Doctrine and mystery of Incarnation, and then as the weeks would roll on after the Feast of the Presentation there would be a shift, sometimes informally called “Pre-Lent.”

(Perhaps you’ll remember the traditional names of those Sundays: Septuagesima, Sexagesima, and Quinquagesima: counting down 70, 60, and 50 days before Easter.)

A thematic move across the pages of the calendar from a focus on the Person of Christ to a focus on the Work of Christ. Or as we would say, from the Doctrine of the Incarnation to the Doctrine of the Atonement. From the Manger to the Cross.

In any event, in the older Prayer Books the gospel readings of the first part of this season “after the Epiphany” began with the story of the Boy Jesus in the Temple. As you may remember, he slips away from his parents and seems to slip into a couple of graduate seminars going on in the Temple’s educational wing, where he mightily impresses the senior faculty. And when Mary and Joseph finally catch up to him and begin a parental reprimand, he tells them, “Know ye not that I must be about my Father’s business?”

Then the Second Sunday was the Baptism of our Lord in the Jordan by John the Baptist, which we have now shifted to the First Sunday after the Epiphany, our reading this morning. Then on the Third Sunday came the lovely story from St. John of Jesus at the Wedding Feast of Cana, and the miracle of the changing of water into wine. Then on the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany, the story of the Transfiguration (which we now have on the last Sunday after Epiphany, the Sunday before Ash Wednesday). Then again, after that Sunday the season began its Pre-Lenten turn, with parables and stories related to the Kingdom of Heaven and the Coming of the Son of Man, all the way up to Ash Wednesday.

But those first Four Sundays after the Epiphany, with their focus on Incarnation, God's self-revelation in the Person of Jesus Christ, is where we are now, even though the calendar doesn’t have quite the same shape, and we don’t get the same pattern of stories.

(Why that is I’m not exactly sure—since they didn’t consult with me when they put together the Prayer Book lectionary back in the early 1970’s nor in more recent years with the design of the Revised Common Lectionary.)

It seems to me as I look over the coming weeks in the Revised Common Lectionary, at least in this Year A of the three-year cycle, that the designers of the lectionary want to us engage in this season in perhaps a more substantial way in what we might call the Teaching Ministry of Jesus, and there is certainly something good about that. Though I hope it doesn’t have the effect of moving us entirely from the mystery of the Stable at Midnight and the sacramental depth and power of the Incarnation itself. Because in these few weeks the fading echoes of the Angelic Chorus would still be part of our background, inviting us to reflect in deeper and deeper ways on what we have seen, to join Mary, and to “ponder” them in our hearts.

So: returning again and again to the words of scripture that were and are for us the heart of the Incarnation. From the Ninth Chapter of Isaiah: “for unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given, and the government shall be upon his shoulder; and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counselor, The Mighty God, The Everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace.” From the Second Chapter of Paul to the Philippians: “Have this mind among yourselves which is yours in Christ Jesus, who though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.”

A reminder for us that nothing that follows the story of the Bethlehem Stable can have any real or lasting substance without this. A reminder for us that Christmas doesn’t end when the Angels disappear into the cold night sky over Bethlehem, or when the Wise Men pack up and head back to their mysterious homes. We may put the trees out for recycling and pack the ornaments and decorations back into their boxes for another year. But he is still here. And nothing is going to be the same ever again. Certainly anyway the four stories in the old Epiphany pattern made that of first importance. Moments of catching a glimpse, all of them moments of continuing transfiguration.

To see Christmas Eve again from this perspective, standing with the crowds at the Baptism of Jesus in the Jordan. And “what child is this who laid to rest on Mary’s lap is sleeping?” Who is he? What is this strange story all about?

And so the conversation in John 14 between Philip and Jesus. When Philip says, “Lord, show us the Father, and we shall be satisfied,” and when Jesus replies, “Have I been with you so long, and yet you do not know me, Philip? He who has seen me has seen the Father."

Merry Christmas! The Eastern Churches call this the "Theophany," this moment of a vision of the fullness of God in the Holy Trinity. Jesus comes up out of the River, and the Heavens are opened, and the Spirit of God descends in the form of a Dove, and rests upon him, and the Father's Divine Voice is heard: This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.

I’m told that in the devotional writings of early Celtic Christianity there is an image of what are called “thin places.” Sometimes around important shrines or religious sites, perhaps beautiful churches like old St. Andrew’s. But often places personal to each individual: a particular park bench, a quiet place in the country, perhaps a corner in our own homes, where we might sense that the boundary between earth and heaven is narrow, even porous. Where with the ear of our hearts we continue to hear the Angels singing. For contemplatives and mystics this place may be even simply a state of mind, reflection, prayer, where what seems often in our day to day lives a gap so wide that no bridge could ever cross it narrows almost to invisibility. Where this world seems to be lifted up, or perhaps better, where the divine presence seems to come close, to reach down to us, to surround and embrace.

A sacramental sense of deep communion, as the rock solid material of all this wide world and we ourselves become like the water in the font, the bread and wine on the altar: outward and visible signs of the inward, invisible grace of his presence. Where the months march along one after another, but where it is always Christmas. And where we are transformed in him, refreshed, restored, healed, forgiven. Where the substance of our lives in the presence of Jesus becomes like the water in those great cisterns at the Wedding Feast in Cana. Miraculously now all at once overflowing with new wine.

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

Bruce Robison

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Second Sunday after Christmas Day

January 2, 2011
Matthew 2: 13-15, 19-23

Grace and peace to all, as we open the new Calendar Year this morning, and certainly with prayers that 2011 will be a year of many blessings in all our lives, in our Church and city and nation and world. And on the Ninth Day of Christmas, my True Love game to me, Nine Ladies Dancing, which certainly sounds fun and a good start for this new year!

The Gospel lesson for the Second Sunday after Christmas Day isn’t quite as festive as that. I remember Ruth Cover told me some years ago a story about a Sunday School teacher who asked the students in her class to draw a picture of some part of the Christmas story. She got from one child Mary and Joseph and the Baby in the Manger, from another Shepherds and Angels, and from another the Three Wise Men. Then little Bobby showed her his. A jet airplane, streaking through the skies. “I thought I asked you to draw a part of the Christmas story,” said the teacher. “This is,” said Bobby. “It’s the ‘Flight into Egypt. And can you see, up there in the cockpit: That’s Pontius, the Pilot.”

In any event, a smile. This past week on Wednesday we observed the Feast of the Holy Innocents, which is the story-within-a-story that we skip over in this morning’s reading about the Holy Family. But all of it goes together, and it is the part of the story we might be most tempted to skip over in deference to what I guess we call “holiday spirit.”

Herod discovers that he has been betrayed by the Wise Men, and in his raging and his fear he lashes out at his unknown enemy, this mysterious Child of Destiny rumored to have been born in Bethlehem—the one who will restore David’s line, thereby displacing his own. And like so many tyrants, rulers, overlords, oppressors, he decides to nip the threat in the bud. Eliminate the child and at the same time send a message loud and clear to any who would want to stir up ideas like this in the future. And so, he orders the Slaughter of the Innocents.

Joseph has a premonition, a warning in a dream, and he gathers Mary and the Child and what few possessions they have with them and flees Bethlehem to go into hiding in the displaced persons camps of Egypt. Where they can live anonymously. Then years pass, old Herod dies. The Bethlehem Incident fades from memory. Joseph and Mary decide they can slip back into their own hometown of Nazareth, in that remote backwater area of the Galilee, and resume their lives.

And so, again. Not a festive holiday story. But we are reminded in this Second Sunday of Christmastide, that it is our real world he was born into on Christmas Eve. The same world with this morning’s headlines of Pakistan and Ivory Coast and Somalia and Sudan. A world where a Massacre of the Innocents happens somewhere or other more often than we care to think—and where how many families have scurried off into a fearful night to escape the tyrant’s knock at the door?

The Good News of Christmas is that Jesus wasn’t born in Santa’s Village. He came here, to us, and to this real world of ours, and shared in it fully. A life story that began in poverty and fear and violence, and that ended at the Cross. A hard story, because the redeeming of human beings in all our brokenness was no easy business. It had to be that way for him, because we are who we are. Major surgery for a major illness.

And so, on this Second Sunday of Christmastide, we would take a breath—at just how much it cost. And with prayers that as we set out into a New Year that understanding, as we might catch even a glimpse of it, would give us a deeper sense of the value of the gift we have received—and calling us into a deeper joy and appreciation of his costly grace and livegiving, lifesaving mercy, and the blessing that he is for us.

That said, as we gather at the table on this first Sunday of the year, and to go out then into the world of our lives with the remembrance of his great gift of love for us in our hearts, his sacrificial gift, I would offer simply as a word of blessing and encouragement for us all in 2011 these lines from Paul at the beginning of Ephesians:

I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe.

Christmas blessings, and Happiest of New Years--