Sunday, December 25, 2016

Christmas Morning

Christmas Morning  Luke 2: 1-20
Good morning and grace and peace to you.  

The sun comes up and the shepherds have made their visit and then returned to their flocks.  The village and home that seemed so calm and serene just a few hours before, with soft echoes of “silent night, holy night,” now waking up and beginning all the bustle of another work day.   People out in the street, workers heading out into the fields.  Washing, cleaning, cooking, feeding the animals.  Another day.   I imagine Joseph’s Bethlehem family must be fussing about the new born baby now, the women gathering around to tend to him and to assist his mother as she recovers from her delivery.  And there’s a lot of food to prepare—the first Christmas Dinner!  In those days I guess they probably didn’t hand out cigars, but I’m sure Joseph and some of the men will be laughing together, clapping on the shoulders.  Congratulations!  A son!

For me, this is where my favorite Bible verse comes in Luke’s telling of the story of the birth of Jesus. After the long night.  The exhausting last leg of the journey from Mary’s hometown in Nazareth to Joseph’s home in Bethlehem, the late arrival, settling in not in the place where guests would usually be received, but in the place where the animals are brought in for the night.  Then labor and delivery.   I hope Joseph was able to be at least a little helpful .  Boil some water, collect some clean sheets.   Perhaps a doula from the neighborhood was able to be found at that hour to help, or maybe some of the women in the extended family.  Luke doesn’t tell us.   In any event, the child is born.  Swaddled in a blanket.  Set in the straw of the manger.  And then the shepherds, and their story about the choirs of angels.  What an amazing, exhausting, overwhelming night!

And then Mary.  As morning comes, the new day dawns.  Trying to get a little rest after all that.  You ladies who have given birth even in less challenging environments can testify to what this first morning would be like for her.  We must imagine all in her thoughts then,  her memories.  The encounter with Gabriel back at her home in Nazareth, his angelic presence, the divine message of her election, the sudden movement of her heart in faith and love as she gave the word.  Fiat.  Let it be.  And then her visit to her cousin Elizabeth in the hill country.  The stirring of Elizabeth’s child, leaping in her womb!  Elizabeth’s words, full of the Holy Spirit.   “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.”

So, Luke 2:19: But Mary kept all these things, pondering them in her heart.

It is a lot to think about, a lot to ponder.  For Mary, and for us.  To remember the story again and again.  To let it roll around in our minds and our hearts also.

As I say to the kids every year after our Children’s Pageant, this is the most familiar story in the world.  We know it by heart.  And yet every year, at every telling of the story, when we really listen, when we open our eyes and ears and minds and hearts, it becomes fresh and new and meaningful for us in ways that we have never imagined before.   Christ is born.  Emmanuel.  God with us.  Mercy and forgiveness and a new life.  Starting now.  We can spend a lifetime reflecting on that, and only scratch the surface.  It changes everything!  365 days a year can’t contain what Christmas has to say to us. 

Again, blessings and peace and joy this morning, in the day ahead.  In the week of Christmas, in the New Year.   As the hymn says, “ponder anew, what the Almighty can do, who with his love doth befriend thee.”  Merry Christmas. 

Christmas Eve Midnight

Hebrews 1: 1-12

Good evening, friends  . . .  and it is my prayer that this is a good evening for you.  That it is, and will be, a good Christmas.  That the grace, mercy, peace, forgiveness, generous love of the Holy Child of Bethlehem is felt in your heart and in every corner of your life as his free gift. 

To bring comfort in times of pain and distress and loss, to encourage our best efforts at whatever station we find ourselves, to allow a space of contentment and courage and hope to open in us and to be communicated in the world by word and deed.  As the prayer goes, “that we may show forth thy praise:  not only with our lips, but in our lives.”  

Christ in our midst; Christ born, Christ continuing to be present with us.  Word of the Father, now in Flesh appearing.    And as we recall and celebrate the story of our Savior’s birth and the mystery of Incarnation we would see in it all a sign of hope for us both for this life and for the world to come, and life everlasting.  

It’s a tough world out there.  Devastating wars.  Syria.  Iraq.  Yemen.  Afghanistan.   Berlin.  From Aleppo to Ankara.  Political discontent at home and abroad.  Nations divided.   Tensions in concerns of race and class and culture.  Wars and rumors of war.  Hatred.  Fear.  Turbulance and terror and anxiety and a lack of trust.  With all that, you can’t’ help but wonder what this is all about tonight.  A disconnect.  Candles and evergreens.  Shepherds and a manger and a new born baby.  Why would this make any difference?

As I turned to the readings from Scripture appointed for us to read together this night I found myself drawn to this complicated word from the Letter to the Hebrews—and thank you, George, for reading it for us so well.  Not an easy reading.

For unto which of the angels said he at any time, Thou art my Son, this day have I begotten thee?  And again, I will be to him a Father, and he shall be to me a Son? 

And again, when he bringeth in the first-begotten into the world, he saith, And let all the angels of God worship him. And of the angels he saith, Who maketh his angels spirits, and his ministers a flame of fire. 
But unto the Son he saith, Thy throne, O God, is for ever and ever . . . .

Our Sunday morning Bible Study group has been reading the Letter to the Hebrews this fall, and they will remember that there’s  a lot about angels in the first few chapters.  So appropriate for us on Christmas Eve, as the Shepherds look into the sky to see the whole shimmering angelic choir.   The wonderful ornament for every Christmas tree.  In the first century people were fascinated and drawn to the idea of angels as beings that would communicate spiritual experience and power.  In Luke’s Gospel  the story of the Birth of the Savior begins when the Angel Gabriel appears to Mary.   And also for us.  In recent years we’ve heard a new kind of vocabulary, as people talk about being “spiritual but not religious,” and maybe there’s an angelic connection there.  To be drawn, in spite of many doubts and a culture of secular skepticism, to the transcendental, the mysterious, the mystical.  There was a time not many years back when there were more books about angels on the shelf in the religion section of the Barnes and Noble than about any other single topic, and we would remember films and television shows.  There was an interesting note in a Gallup Poll a decade or so ago, where more Americans answered yes to the question, “do you believe in angels?” than answered yes to the question, “do you believe in God?”

The Apostle as we have heard his words tonight—he believes in angels, and he knows that there are or at least can be for us spiritual moments and experiences of transcendental grace and power, miracles and blessings, glimpses of the eternal.  But again and again he also is eager to remind us that what we observe this night-- this quiet night in tiny Bethlehem of Judea, the blessed mother, the holy child--this is about much more than angels.  For unto which of the angels said he at any time, Thou art my son?   More than angels, more than spiritual feelings.  More than ritual and symbol and ceremony  and mystical visions.  Don’t be distracted by the soft magic of candlelight, we would hear in that message.  Sweet as it all is to us in so many ways.  This is all just prelude:  types  and prefigurings, foreshadowing and preparation.  What was hidden in God from the first hour of creation, now is revealed for us not in mysterious shadow, but  in brilliant light. High Definition.   A child is born, a son is given.   The Dayspring from on high has dawned upon usThou art my Son, he says.  Thy throne, O God, is for ever and ever.

To say that the point of this Christmas story is not about a temporary reprieve, to lift our mood for a few hours during dark hours and days and seasons with a dose of pleasant unreality, but to open our hearts and minds and eyes and ears and lives now and from now on to what is the new and true reality of his life and his authority.  A sustaining reality.  And we are invited tonight to make a choice, to choose to partake of that reality.  To take a breath, to make that choice.

The dark night giving way to the bright morning.  Lord of our lives, Lord of all creation, the one who lifts us to a new life and citizenship, in his eternal kingdom.  Ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven.   It’s all about Jesus.  Put all the other characters in the Nativity Scene aside.  It’s who he is, and who he is to us, that matters this evening.  Not simply the sweet baby in the stained glass window or on the cover of the Hallmark card, but God-Man victorious at the Cross, the living eternal Son of the Father, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God.

That’s what this is all about tonight.  How we come into the presence of our King.  How we give ourselves to the authority of his Word.  Turning our lives to his holiness and righteousness.  Opening our minds and hearts and consenting to his action to prepare us for the new life that he has in mind for us.  Which is what our worship at the manger is all about.   Making and renewing the essential commitment of our lives.  Take my life and let it be consecrated Lord, to thee.  Take my moments and my days, let them flow in ceaseless praise.

If we leave the manger this evening the same people we were when we arrived, then Christmas hasn’t happened, no matter what the calendar says.  But if we look into the face of the Child and see the One who from this night forward is our King, our Savior and Lord, then it will be Christmas not just this one Night, but from now on: ever more and ever more.

Let all the angels of God worship him.  As Paul says in Philippians 2: that at the Name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth; and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Again, blessings this Christmas Eve, friends, in this season ahead, and always.  Mercy, grace, forgiveness, peace, and joy—the word for us from heaven above.   Where meek souls will receive him still, the dear Christ enters in.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Fourth Advent Sunday

Fourth Advent is always the Sunday for our St. Andrew's Children's Pageant at the 11 a.m. service --

But here's my sermon from the 9 a.m., on Romans 1: 1-7:

Good morning and grace and peace on this Fourth Advent Sunday, the Sunday before Christmas Day.     As we noted a few weeks ago, Advent marks the beginning of a new year in the Church Calendar and a time of preparation and reflection about the character and quality of our Christian lives in the “in between time” between Christmas and Good Friday and Easter Sunday and the Day of Judgment when Christ shall come again to claim his people and to bring us into the fullness of his glorious Kingdom—a kingdom which we even now in this time are allowed to share in as a kind of anticipation and foreshadowing.  In this world that is passing away, as St. Paul says, but not “of” this world.  In our hearts and minds and lives, in our families and in our congregational life seeking to live “already” what is the “not yet” of the New Jerusalem.

I’ve found it helpful this year in my personal reflections and in my sermon preparation to see the four New Testament Epistle Lessons appointed for these Advent Sundays as clues or guides we might say to the living of an Advent life. 

The first week we had the reading from Romans 13 where Paul talked about the kind of conversion of life that comes in our Christian commitment.  In the power of the Cross and the Empty Tomb there is grace and mercy and forgiveness, opening our eyes and changing our hearts.  No longer treating God’s Law as a kind of authoritarian rule book, but instead being transformed so that we yearn for the grace and power to walk in a new way with Jesus.  Paul uses the image of a change of clothes.  “Let us cast off the works of darkness,” all the sinful thoughts, feelings, behaviors that separate us from God, “Let us cast off the works of darkness,” he says, and let us “put on the armor of light.”  Conversion, repentance, transformation.  Themes for week one of Advent.

The second week we had the reading from Romans 15, where Paul talked about how as we now have turned from darkness and are girded and protected by the light, we are to be encouraged and strengthened by God’s Word.  That Scripture would be for us not some obscure and distant foreign text, but instead something that is living and life-giving, that will fill us with hope and will call us into harmony and worship in fellowship with other Christians.  How as we put our roots down in the Word of God our hearts are opened in warm and generous hospitality and friendship, joy and peace.

Last week we left St. Paul and Romans for a moment and had a reading from St. James, in the fifth chapter.  Building on the foundation of the first two Sundays, here we read James share with his congregation very much a word about Advent, about  living in the “already but not yet” world we live in.  James wrote to a congregation in the midst of social and political turmoil, harsh persecution, and high anxiety.  Perhaps to get the full force of it we would think of these words not so much in our more settled context but how they would be heard today by Christians in Egypt after the cathedral bombing last week, by Christians in Syria or Iraq, with the knowledge that the soldiers of ISIS might knock on the door at any time.  In the midst of all that, James writes, “Be patient, therefore, brethren, until the coming of the Lord.”  When a farmer has planted his field with seed he might stand back and look over the scene and actually not be able to see anything.  Just an empty field.  But his heart is content, because he knows that deep in the soil the seed is germinating and taking root.  You can’t see anything yet, but the crop is growing, the harvest will come.  So like the farmer, James says, be an Advent people, be a patient people.   Let anxiety go, and be filled instead with peace and joy and, again, the contentment that comes from sure knowledge of the good that God has in mind for those who come to him in Jesus’s name.  Be patient, brethren, until the coming of the Lord.”

Finally this morning we’re back in Romans, in the opening chapter, St. Paul writing the first words of his introduction  to a group of mature Christians whom he has not met, but whom he is hoping soon to visit and to live with and to share with in his apostolic and pastoral ministry.  I love the way Paul talks about his life and ministry here .  That he is a servant of Jesus, called to be an apostle, to serve the gospel, the good news, which was revealed in Scriptures and now has been revealed in its fullness in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.  It is through Jesus, Paul says, that “we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all nations . . . .”  This last Sunday of Advent might leave us with a word to reflect on about purpose, vocation, mission.  The “why” of the work of the first three Sundays.  What’s the point of following Jesus?  What are we supposed to accomplish?  That through our conversion of life, our repentance and our faith, that through the love and joy of our fellowship as it is rooted in God’s word, that through the amazing witness of the contentment and patience that we can find in ourselves as we are rooted in the deep soil ourselves of God’s grace and mercy, so God will then use us to call and gather others.  This might come in a very intentional way as we would speak or write or witness our faith, as we share with our children, our husbands and wives, our neighbors and co-workers, or perhaps as we are sent out into some wider venue of mission.  Or it might come simply that as we live Advent-shaped lives, the light of Christ will itself so shine from us that it will be less that we go out, but that others are drawn to hear the word for themselves, preaching sometimes with our lips but always with our lives, an invitation to what Paul here calls “the obedience of faith for the sake of his Name.”  On the Fourth Advent Sunday we perhaps pause over that prayer that we often say after communion, “and now, Father, send us out to do the work that you have prepared for us to do, to love and serve you as faithful witnesses.”

So the pageant is happening at the 11 this morning, and the whole story begins to be told once again.  May it be all a season and a new year of blessing and peace.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Third Advent Sunday

December 11, 2016  Third Advent  James 5: 7-10

Good morning.  A little liturgical history to start with.  The season of Advent evolved  as a mirror image of the season of Lent.  Originally a parallel six weeks in length, and the fourth Sunday in both observed as a pause for refreshment in the fast, with purple or black vestments and paraments temporarily replaced with a soft rose color.  In Lent the Fourth Sunday, “Laetare Sunday,”  in Advent, “Gaudete.”  The names of these days taken from the first word of the Latin text of the Choir Introit appointed for the day.  Both words are generally translated in English as “rejoice,”   Though the have slightly different nuances.  Laetare is a bit more inward in connotation, while Gaudete has a sense of outward expressiveness.    By the time of the reforms of the calendar at the Council of Trent in the middle 16th century Advent had been abbreviated, now four weeks, and Gaudete Sunday observed on the Third Sunday.  The Choral Introit, “Gaudete in Domino semper; iterum dico, Gaudete.”  From Philippians 4, as St. Paul wrote to that little church:  “Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I will say, Rejoice.  Let your gentleness be known to everyone.  The Lord is near.”   (Our Choir’s Introit this morning, in English rather than Latin.) 

I would pray with all this that we would each one of us hear the mid-Advent message and word of encouragement and refreshment in those words and in the quiet and lovely symbol of the Rose Candle.   Maybe thinking of it not so much as for one particular day on the calendar but even more as a Biblical word about the character of Christian life that we would be encouraged to explore and cultivate 24/7/365, in the sense that we are all our lives in the midst of an Advent, the in-between time, as we wait for the full realization for the victory that Christ as won.   That our lives and our relationship individually and as a congregational family, in our families and schools and where we work, everywhere, that this word of Gaudete would settle in as we wait for his coming.  So that the world would say, these Christians, how gentle they are, how good, how kind, how generous, how full of joy.  These Christians, how they love one another.  Rejoice in the Lord always.  And again I will say, rejoice.  The Lord is near.

As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, I’m following the Epistle Lessons appointed for Advent in our lectionary A this year (and if you would be interested in having the series to take home with you for daily reflection, there are still copies in the narthex and over in Brooks Hall).  On this Third Advent Sunday morning  we turn to the Letter of St. James in the 5th chapter , and the Brother of our Lord and leader of the early Christian community in Jerusalem speaks pastorally to his congregation of the character of Spirit that makes the joy symbolized by our Gaudete Rose Candle a possibility.  The beginning of our selection this morning, verse seven, is the heart of it.  Short and sweet:  Be patient, until the coming of the Lord.  That’s James’s main pastoral message first to his congregation, as they lived in confusing, uncertain, tumultuous times—and then the Advent message for us this week, for the times we live in.   Be patient.  A word to an impatient people in an impatient world.  A patient spirit is the fruit of a life rooted in Christ Jesus and the condition that allows Christian relationships to grow.  Again: families, communities, congregations. 

Allowing ourselves to be impatient, to give way to anxiety, can be so destructive—as I think we can see evidence of this all around us.  The headlines in the morning paper and the sad mess of so many lives and families and communities and churches.  Perhaps even a sense of anxious urgency can be a tool of the Enemy, to work real spiritual harm, along with so much emotional and material and physical harm.  As a farmer plants seed into the earth and then waits carefully and confidently as beneath the soil the germination begins and the first growth of the new plant, so James says, “take a breath.”  Restfully, confidently.  There may not be much to see when you look at the newly planted field, but there is so much more going on under the surface.  To be patient until the coming of the Lord.  The full harvest is beginning, coming along just as it is supposed to,  but slowly and silently.  To the naked eye the world may show no evidence of what Christ has done.  The works of darkness continue, human brokenness and sin and strife--in our homes and families and our cities and nations.  Even tragically in the life of our Church and perhaps most of all in the people we look at when we look into the mirror in the morning.  But be patient, says James: be patient, and trust in the Lord, who has begun a good work, a perfect work, and will bring it to completion.  Establish your hearts in hope, trust him and trust this process of transformation, trust in what he has promised, what he has demonstrated for us in the victory of his Cross.

Patience is a difficult thing.  Especially rare in our culture, with our mentality of the race to the finish line.  Buy now, pay later.   We want what we want, and we want it yesterday!   Some have said we in this time suffer from a kind of collective Attention Deficit Disorder.  Reflected so often in our marriages and family life, in our sense of vocation and career, in the crazy way the misuse of drugs and alcohol and money and sex cascades all around us.  A world of secret potions and magic wands and politicians and salesmen and religious leaders on every side promising the moon.   Buy now, pay later.  The latest diet book on the supermarket magazine rack: “30 days to a new you.”  So often we push ourselves, we push our kids, we push each other.  Sometimes just a nudge, but other times with violence of words and actions.  Because we can’t wait to have what we think we need to have—we can’t wait to get to where we think we need to be.

But Advent is about this patient waiting.  About re-centering.  Calling us back from the edge, calling us away from the storm of busyness:  about discovering, exploring, finding the deep contentment of a patient life.  Waiting for Christmas each year is a little part of it.  An annual discipline, just to see if we still have it in us.  Waiting for Jesus to be known and to make a difference in our lives and in our world.  Waiting for Jesus to come again, in power and great glory.  Leaning forward with anticipation, but with a heart that is content, a spirit that rests in confidence. 

Advent  isn’t just about four weeks in December.  It is instead a re-set button for the whole year, for how we understand ourselves, how we live.   It is about the character of our life in Christ.  About who we really can become as we turn to him in faith, join ourselves to him, place ourselves in his hands. 

Again, may this holy season of Advent and especially this Gaudete Sunday be a source of enrichment, a time of deep and patient contentment, of grace, of joy, and of peace.  “Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I will say, Rejoice.  Let your gentleness be known to everyone.  The Lord is near.”  

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

Monday, December 5, 2016

Second Advent Sunday

Matthew 3: 1-12
The Rev. Daniel J. Isadore