Sunday, January 27, 2013

Third Sunday after the Epiphany

 Nehemiah 8: 1-3,5-6, 8-10; Luke 4:14-21

Good morning and grace and peace through this chilly Midwinter, the 34th day of Christmas, and continuing in this season of Epiphany to celebrate the Advent and Incarnation and Revelation of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  The weeks have passed along quickly, but I think still in the background we can catch the echo of our Head Chorister Maighread Southard-Wray as her lovely voiced filled this place so wonderfully last month at Lessons and Carols:

Once in Royal David’s city stood a lowly cattle shed, where a mother laid her baby in a manger for his bed . . . .  He came down from earth to heaven, who is God and Lord of all, and his shelter was a stable, and his cradle was a stall. 

Echoing the first chapter of St. Matthew: All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: ‘Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel’ (which means, God with us).

Over and over again through these weeks, this is our song, our message, we might even say the framework and foundation of our strategic plan and our mission statement as Christian people over twenty centuries, including each one of us, and as a congregation and community: God with us

God with us in Jesus, born in the Stable and dying on the Cross. God with us and for us.  A fact of history that is real and true, and at the same time something with a meaning so vast, so deep, that no history book could ever begin to describe it. 

And in the midst of this great festival of the Incarnation, Advent and Christmas and Epiphany, the Light shining in the darkness, revealing and embodying the Good News written in the deepest heart of the first hour of creation and standing fresh and new in the last hour of this age.  The perfect expression of the Father, the Word made flesh.  God with us. 

Word of the Father, now in flesh appearing. 

God from God, light from light, very God from very God. 

And his shelter was a stable, and his cradle was a stall.

It’s interesting to me as I think about my own life and a reflection on the readings appointed for this Third Epiphany Sunday how I actually spend a great deal of time these days reading the Bible.  I don't know if that's a surprise to you or not.  Maybe people think that's what clergy do . . . .  

 Devotionally, as I follow along the pattern of the daily office, the psalms and lessons each day, and then of course also in the pattern of the Sunday lectionary, in the context of sermon preparation and working these days with the Wednesday Bible Study.  Some friends of mine in Florida have been working on an online project to read the Bible together in a year, and  I've been following along with that also, which has really been fun.  I think in earlier years I often spent more time reading books and articles “about the Bible” than I did reading the Bible itself.  Histories, critical interpretations, theological studies.  Which I think was and is and can be good and helpful in many ways.  But less so now for me, I find.  Still some of that, of course, but less.  More, turning back to the scriptures themselves.  My experience.  Don’t know how that is for you.

In any event: to hear this reading from Nehemiah.  How it must have felt for those returning exiles, after all the long years of life in refugee camps and at hard labor in far off lands, cut off from every root of connection and identity, sustained only by distant memories and the deepest longings of their hearts.  Now my feet are standing within your gates, O Jerusalem.  Talk about a great reading for Epiphany.  And the great priest Ezra from above on the Water Gate not far from the ruins of the Temple, and as the ancient walls have only begun to be reconstructed, opens the sacred scriptures and begins to read.  And the Word of God sounds across the Holy City now for the first time in 70 years, and there is a sweet, sweet spirit that fills them up with each syllable, and in the presence of the holiness of the Word they prostrate themselves in streets and alleyways and across the Temple Square, weeping--weeping in the sorrow of all they have lost, weeping in the joy of renewed life and hope, weeping in repentance, weeping in the experience of God’s gracious goodness and mercy.  After all these decades in exile it seems many no longer even understand Biblical Hebrew, and so translators are stationed in the crowd.  But I’m not sure that even makes any difference.  It’s not so much the words, perhaps, as it is the sense of the presence in their midst of the Author himself.

A foreshadowing of Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, as the Word of the Father comes alive.  God with us. The Holy Scriptures laid carefully in the manger of the hearts of his faithful people.

It always seemed interesting to me and perhaps a little odd when I first thought about it that in the ordering of the new English Book of Common Prayer back in 1549 Thomas Cranmer set that wonderful prayer about the Bible for the Second Sunday in Advent:  Blessed Lord, who hast caused all Holy Scriptures to be written for our learning; grant that we may in such wise hear them; read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that by patience and comfort of thy holy Word we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which thou hast given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ. 

But really not odd, as I've thought about it more over the years. A perfect insight, to see and understand the expression of the Author.  The 1979 Book continues to use the collect but has it now at Proper 28, towards the end of the season after Pentecost, where I think it loses just a little bit of its impact as a prayer and reflection about Advent and Incarnation.  How is Christ born into our world and into our lives?  He has spoken through the prophets.  Taste and see.  Read it for yourself.  

Jesus in his first great sermon in Luke, as we have heard this morning.  Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.  Not simply to say that the Word has come true, but to say that it is now alive, enfleshed, embodied.  Let the heights of heaven adore him; angel hosts, his praises sing; powers, dominions fall before him, and extol our God and King.

Word of the Father, now in flesh appearing.

All kinds of wonderful things going on around St. Andrew’s these days, but I have to say that I am so especially encouraged by the three small Bible Studies, Wednesday and Friday and Sunday mornings, and it would be so good to see each of them grow and for there to be even more.  I've been wondering about doing something online maybe through one of the Facebook Applications or in our website, for folks who can’t attend one of the groups.  And as always looking forward to the shared reflections we have as we follow the lectionary and share the Lenten Mediation Booklet again this year.

On Ash Wednesday in the Invitation on p 265 of the Prayer Book, as I’ll read to you at the beginning of that service in just a few weeks,  I invite you therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.

But of course we don’t have to wait until Lent to turn our attention to his Word and to open our eyes and ears and minds and hearts to his presence.  It’s always Christmas Eve.  The child always ready to be born for us.  The old story of St. Augustine, who so loved the great life he was leading as a famous academic and scholar and man-about town, and who it seemed for so much of his younger life was in flight from the presence of God despite all the prayers of his mother.  Until he experienced this miraculous vision, seeing the Scriptures and hearing the voice, tolle, lege.  Latin for pick it up, read it.  And it changed everything for him.  And that wonderful line and prayer in Augustine’s Confessions, with your word you pierced my heart, and I loved you.

A Sunday in the weeks of Epiphany season to teach our hearts to sing a love song.  Using a vocabulary more common to old-fashioned English Evangelicals our good friend Phil Wainwright says that he’s a “Bible Man.”  And that’s a pretty great thing to be, whether or not you’re an old-fashioned English Evangelical.  We speak and know his Real Presence in the Bread of Life and the Cup of Salvation.  And we would speak and know his real presence in every word and story, and commandment and prophecy, every poem and proverb and psalm of praise.  His Word, for us.  Giving himself for us.

To say, in the words of the Psalm:  Thy Word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path. 

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

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Second Sunday after the Epiphany

Isaiah 62: 1-5; I Corinthians 12: 1-11; John 2: 1-11

Good morning, on this wintry Sunday morning, and grace and peace.  About maybe two-thirds of the way or so along the road between Advent Sunday and Ash Wednesday.  

The 27th Day of Christmas, and my true love gave to me . . . .  

Except for a few of us deep traditionalists holding out ‘til Candlemas mostly the trees are out the door and the Christmas decorations beginning to be put away in our attics and basements.  I know lots of folks on our block took advantage of that warm spell to take care of outdoor lights.  

Then Shrove Tuesday Pancake Dinner planning . . . .  Bruce Barnhill, eagerly collecting our Lenten Meditations for this year’s booklet; Pete, charting out music for Holy Week and Easter.  Even colleges on the old semester system are pretty much getting back in gear, and I know around our house anyway with the daughter up in Massachusetts we’re already beginning to make travel plans for spring break, which is going to be here before we know it.

With all that, though, and easy as it is sometimes to skip over the present and live in the future, we wouldn’t run ahead of ourselves, but simply to enjoy and I would almost say luxuriate in the richness of the readings and themes appointed for these Sunday mornings in these weeks after the Feast of the Epiphany.  Gathering together and exploring and lifting up all the deep tones and colors of Advent and Christmas, to rest in embrace in the arms of the Incarnation.  

Almost romantic imagery, perhaps appropriate for the day when the Wedding Feast at Cana is appointed in the Gospel.  On even a cold winter Sunday to bask in the warmth and new light of a new morning for the whole world.  The Dayspring from on High has dawned upon us,  celebrating as the Angel told us, “You shall call his name Emmanuel,” which means God with us.  God with us.

Saints before the altar bending, watching long in hope and fear, suddenly the Lord, descending, in his temple shall appear: come and worship, come and worship, worship Christ the newborn King.

Christmas distant in the rearview mirror.  Yet all around us, behind and before.  Always Christmas.  God with us.

And as we welcome him we begin to shine also with a reflection of his glory.  So Isaiah, the nations shall see your vindication, and all the kings your glory; and you shall be called by a new name that the mouth of the Lord will give.  You shall be a crown of beauty—that is so wonderful, gorgeous poetic language—you shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the Lord, and a royal diadem in the hand of your God.

No longer bereft and forsaken, but filled, in abundance and even over-flowing with this richness of his favor, which is known among us in this very familiar passage from St. Paul in First Corinthians.  Gifts overflowing in such amazing abundant diversity.  Glorious diversity.  

Jinny Fiske and George Knight and Laurel Roberts and Lily Buchanan and Thatcher Montgomery  and Mary Gast and Al Mann--Maeve Denshaw and Joan Morris and Dean Byrom and . . . and . . . and . . . .  Well, I could go all day on that one.  Just look around.  Gifts in abundance.  You shall be called 'My Delight is In Her,' for the Lord delights in you.  Wonderful.  The Lord delights in you.

Transformation, renewal, conversion, healing.  Old stone water jars re-purposed.  A wedding celebration in this tiny backwater Galilean village, now suddenly a foretaste and anticipation of the Banquet of Heaven, the Wedding Feast of the King.  New Wine.  

The Irish mystics talked about “thin places,” where the membrane separating the kingdom of this world and the kingdom of God allows a glimpse beyond to the fullness of his glory. Heaven and earth have kissed each other.  And it is all Christmas, all the time for us, as we would place our lives into his keeping.

I always love what Mary says to the servants here.  So simple. Do whatever he tells you.  Or perhaps not so simple.  Even terrifying sometimes, as any conversion will always be.  Signing a blank check.  Take my life and let it be consecrated, Lord, to thee.  Take my will and make it thine, it shall be no longer mine. Always, only, all for thee.  

 But the door swings open to a new universe of meaning, as we ourselves become the stone jars now filled in such abundance.  To turn to him and to follow him, Lord and Savior.  The road from the manger to the Cross, and then beyond. 

For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government will be upon his shoulder, and his name will be called wonderful, counselor, mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. 

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined.  Thou has multiplied the nation, though has increased its joy.

Emmanuel.  God with us.  And welcome, this winter morning.  If someone tells you Christmas is over, don't you believe them.  Not for a minute.  Come and worship, come and worship, worship Christ the newborn king.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

First Sunday after the Epiphany

The Baptism of our Lord Jesus Christ
Isaiah 43: 1-7; Luke 3: 15-17, 21-22
Baptism of Drew Steven Marinov

Grace and peace on this great day, with a special word of affection for the Marinov and Filipek families on this most appropriate Sunday morning, the First Sunday after the Epiphany, as we remember the Baptism of our Lord by John the Baptist in the Jordan River.

I did see a humorous item that one of my friends posted up on Facebook this week.  A traditional picture of Jesus and John standing in the Jordan.  Jesus says, “Wait, are you going to dunk me?”  And John replies, “if you wanted to be sprinkled you should have gone to John the Methodist.”

In any event, we celebrate the baptism of Drew Steven Marinov.  Much joy in the family, and choirs of angels singing I know in heaven.  Tony and Becky, just a little over a year since your wedding right here, and how wonderful to be here this morning.  Drew is so much a blessing in your lives—and I know even more, what a gift and blessing it is and will be for him to have such a great mom and dad, grandparents, uncles and aunts, cousins, and of course this church family, as we watched and prayed with you all during those wonderful gestational months, and now as we all of us have joined with you in promising to support and encourage Drew in all the journey of his Christian life.  As he is a blessing for us, so we are all called to bless him.

The lesson we’ve heard read at the beginning of this service seems to me to be just perfect for this day, both as we reflect on the story of the Baptism of Jesus and as we celebrate Drew’s baptism, because what they are about, both readings, at their very heart, is the faithfulness of God.  His tender love, his care, his good purpose, his blessing, his promise.

We know the story that is the backdrop for the reading from this part of Isaiah.  Defeat and smouldering ruins and exile.  Life in refugee camps and on the run.  Homeless, stateless.  Pulled up by the roots.  Everything of value and meaning stripped away.  Foundational beliefs and sense of identity overturned.  Everything a disaster.  No hope left. 

And into the darkness and emptiness, this word, and promise, of God’s faithfulness and love.  Comfort ye, comfort ye my people:  Do not fear, for I have redeemed you.  I have called you by name.  You are mine.  I will be with you.  Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you.

And then to begin to see these words and promises come true.  What an experience that is, to know who you are and whose you are, and to begin to see new life emerge where there was only death and destruction.  Fresh growth.  What God says through the word of his Prophet: it’s time to come home.  It’s time to come home.

Bishop McConnell at a meeting this week told us about his favorite collect, and it certainly is one of my favorites too.  The concluding prayer in the order of the Solemn Collects of the Good Friday liturgy, and included in the services of ordination as well.  It begins, “O God of unchangeable power and eternal light: Look favorably on your whole Church, that wonderful and sacred mystery.”  And then a little further on these wonderful words: “Let the whole world see and know that things which were cast down are being raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new, and that all things are being brought to their perfection by him through whom all things were made, your Son Jesus Christ.”

Just to pause for a moment at this baptismal font, as we are invited to renew in our own hearts and minds what it is to know the power of God’s love in our Lord Jesus Christ to break down barriers, to overcome adversities, to bring light into the darkest corner of the world and new life even when we had given up all hope.  Even as we had fully known the brokenness of our own sin, the power of evil.   In the world around us, and deep within us.  If we've ever known ourselves what it means to be in exile, then this word for us.

God’s faithfulness.  God’s faithfulness:  which is deep down the one absolutely essential message for us to hear of Advent and Christmas and Epiphany.  God with us, Emmanuel.  The Dayspring from on high.  The reality of the life, death, and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the invitation in response to know him and to follow him as Lord and Savior.

To give light to them that sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace.

We of course don’t know this morning how Drew’s life will unfold over the days and years and decades to come, any more than we know for sure anything about the unfolding of our own lives, no matter how much we plan and prepare. 

We pray for him, and for his family, for every gift and blessing.  But if he is like the rest of us, with all joy and accomplishment, the usual mixed bag, in some proportion, brokenness, pain, disappointment, loss.  Just the stuff of human life in this world.  Exile.  Who hasn’t known something of that?

But what we know as well, and for us to say this morning,  is that as Drew is taken from our arms and placed in the arms of Jesus, there is this beautiful new life formed which is true at every hour of every day.  That there is Christmas.  Things that were cast down being raised up, things that had grown old being made new.  Christ in us, doing more than we could ever ask for or imagine.

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

Sunday, January 6, 2013

The Epiphany

Isaiah 60: 1-6; Ephesians 3: 1-12; Matthew 2: 1-12

Good morning, and grace and peace to you, and to wish you a Happy New Year on this 13th Day of Christmas.  Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.   With thanks to Isaiah for that Christmas anthem. The more familiar carol runs out of gifts at the 12th day, and most of us by this time are perhaps ready to get the trees out to the curb and at least to begin to put away the other decorations of Christmas.  Cally Birds, French Hens, Turtle Doves, Lords-a-leaping, pipers piping, maids-a-milking, the Partridge in a Pear Tree.  Time to do a little housecleaning after all the festivities of the season.

The great pedagogical and doxological sweep of the Church Calendar, that is, as the Calendar can shape our teaching and our worship,  has each year two broad narrative themes, two centers of theological focus, under the headings of Incarnation and Atonement.  Through Advent and Christmas and then this season that flows on after the Feast of the Epiphany we would have always before us the majestic opening sentences of St. John’s gospel: 

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  The same was in the beginning with God.  All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made.  In him was life; and the life was the light of men. . . .  And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.

We may pack up the holiday decorations, but these words of scripture are the one bright shining Christmas ornament and celebration of Incarnation that will continue to brighten our winter not just of course for these few weeks but in a way that is real and true and enduring all year long and all our lives long.  To say that in the reality of our Christian lives, it’s always Christmas.

There is perhaps something sort-of metaphysically spiritual about some of the language we use in this season, but for all its nostalgic and sentimental embellishments there remains something hard and real about what we’re talking about.  A hard night of contractions and the pain of labor and delivery, and certainly without the modern amenities.  The dirt floor of the backroom stable cave.  Blood sweat and tears, birth and afterbirth, cries in the night.  Something real we’re talking about.  But not just any baby.  Incarnation.  He is here now, intervening.  God made manifest in our flesh.  And the consequences of this reality is what every word of scripture and every reality of our lives will be concerned with ever after.  Who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary, and was made man.

There is always a “what” and a “why.”  The “what” of all this is Incarnation, and the “Why” is Atonement, the work of Christ, as it is inscribed over our Rood Beam here, from John 12: And I if I be lifted up from the Earth will draw all men unto me.  The forgiveness of sin, the great reassembly and new creation, making possible the reconciliation of God and Man.  On the calendar we once again will begin the thematic transition from Incarnation to Atonement during the February pre-lenten Sundays of Septuagesima, Sexagesima, and Quinquagesima, the three Sundays before Ash Wednesday, and then on through Lent and Holy Week and Easter and Pentecost.  That he came, and why he came.  The two great concerns.  But before we get too far ahead of ourselves.  In the midst of it all, Epiphany!

Epiphany, and the familiar story from the second chapter of St. Matthew.  Something of an effort to see carefully what the scripture is saying, and to separate out at least for a moment all the Christmas Card and Children’s Pageant imagery that has accrued over time.  We don’t know exactly when this incident takes place.  Matthew wants to give us some ballpark historic referent, anyway.  Sometime after the birth, and while Mary and Joseph are still in Bethlehem.  Days later, weeks or months, perhaps even years.  We don’t know exactly when Jesus was born, but it seems pretty certain that Herod died as we would now calculate it in 4 B.C.  The birth of Jesus usually given between 6 and 4 B.C.  Jesus is described not as an infant, in any event, but as a child, and the family is no longer in a stable, but in a house.  

Lots of elements in the story to puzzle over.  These mysterious Magi—we don’t know exactly what to make of them.  From the East, a general reference that could sweep from Syria to Persia.  Perhaps priests of one of the ancient astrological religions of the region.  Thus the reference to the Star, the sign in the sky above.  I’ve heard all kinds of speculation about this.  A supernova, or a comet, in a region of the heavens that these astrologers somehow associated with the Jewish people?  Or perhaps a spiritual apparition, zooming across the night like Tinkerbell in a Disney cartoon.  And then Herod, always alert to the potential of insurrection, ironically he is the one to turn to the Holy Scriptures to confirm King David’s hometown as the birthplace of the Messiah—and sending the Magi on then to see what and whom they might find there, as we anticipate in that of course the secret plot that would lead shortly to the massacre of the Holy Innocents. 

But then the climax of this odd story, this amazing moment, a kind of stained glass moment, the scriptures having pointed the way, as the mystic direction of the Star leads the Magi directly to the front door of the home of the Holy Family, and as they are overwhelmed with joy the door swings open, and there, before them, the Child Jesus, and his Mother.  They know him right away.  They just know.  And they kneel and do him homage, as in the presence of royalty  or of someone of sacred and divine character, and from their treasure chests these three gifts: gold, symbolizing worldly treasure, frankincense, used in the worship of the ancient temple, and myrrh, the spice used by ancient Egyptians in the embalming of kings.  Somehow anticipating, shadowing forth, the Cross and the Tomb and the Victory over the powers of Death.  Countless sermons and libraries of books and poems have journeyed into the levels and rich textures of meaning of these three gifts.

And then mysteriously again the Magi hear or see something in a dream that prompts them not to return to Jerusalem, as Herod had requested, but to slip away quickly and quietly, by another road.  We are aware that this story is unfolding with purpose and direction.  In this tiny village.  A backwater, a place on the margins, there is the guiding force of a supernatural destiny.  So much more going on than meets the eye.

There is so much to notice here.  Epiphany.  And as we tell the story year after year with all the poetic embellishments.  But to hold on to the points Matthew himself points to as he tells us about this incident.  To say about the birth of Jesus, that it is the fulfillment of God’s promise to Israel, in the words of the prophets and all the scripture, that God himself will return to receive the Kingship of Israel.  Yet with significance for the whole world, the whole universe.  

In this context, to remember the traditional theme of the Epiphany and the Sundays after the Epiphany, how the One born in the obscurity of the Bethlehem stable is revealed to all nations and peoples as Lord and Savior. 

So St. Paul in the reading from Ephesians this morning, to bring to the Gentiles the news of the boundless riches of Christ, and to make everyone see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God, who created all things . . . .  As the scriptures themselves foretold.  Good News for Israel.  Good News for us.  Nations will stream to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawning.  ChristmasIt is a birth that disturbs the powers and principalities of the old order—Herod the king, in his raging.  And they should be disturbed.  My thoughts are not your thoughts, says the Lord, nor are my ways your ways.  For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts. The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.  The dawning of the Dayspring from on high.  And it ends in worship, and these gifts. 

What can I give him, poor as I am?  If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb; if I were a wise man, I would do my part; yet what I can, I give him, give my heart.  I suppose the words of the bumper sticker have Matthew’s larger concern just about right: Wise Men still seek him

As St. Paul writes in Second Corinthians, God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself.  Which is the Christmas message Matthew would have the Star shine on all of us in this season.  Incarnation and Atonement, and never able to disentangle one from the other.  The word Epiphany is about light shining into a dark place, to reveal, to bring illumination, so that what was unseen now is seen.

Born in the obscurity of the Bethlehem stable.  Revealed to all nations and peoples as Lord and Savior.

The Magi seek to know what God is doing, they trust the Star as it prompts them to begin their journey, and they trust the word and promise of scripture, and in the end they find and are found by the one who is both true King and true Savior.  The word that we would hear this morning is all invitation, that we would make their story our story as well.  

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Eve of the Epiphany: Twelfth Night

Once again, Isaiah says, "There shall be the Scion of Jesse, the one raised up to govern the Gentiles; on him the Gentiles shall set their hope."  Romans 15