Tuesday, December 24, 2013
A young woman reflects back on her life and ponders the course it has taken. She is the first born child to a young father and an even younger mother, both still teenagers. More children are born into this small family, but she remains the only daughter. Eventually the parent’s divorce and the mother’s health declines. Fragile to begin with, the mother falls into a deep depression, one that would last the rest of her life.
The daughter, the primary character of this story, works to hold the family together. She tends to her younger siblings and her mother. She works her way through college and finds a job. Eventually the brothers are raised and the mother is settled safely in place where she cannot harm herself. The woman marries and begins a family of her own. It is hard work to overcome the scars of her difficult childhood and learn to love, to trust, and to be a healthy person. As a mother, a wife, and a working woman, she applies extra effort to understand the challenges she faced, seeking counseling to deepen her self-awareness and other-awareness. Every day felt heavy, weighted with worry that she would not be able to care for herself, her children, and her marriage, let alone her career.
She is the new woman – told by society that she can have it all – but with no role models to show her the way, she has to make it up as she goes along. Whenever she feels untethered she looks for anchors to help her forge a grounded path. Of the many avenues she takes, her faith formation is the most vital. Over time, as she intentionally lives a life of faith, she comes to recognize a light shining into the darkness of her life. This light is hope. This light is God. This light is the prince of peace. This light is Emanuel. This light is love. This light is the Christ child literally being born in and through her as God’s pure love.
The struggles of her life, the darkness that has, for decades, defined who she is, has birthed in her new insight into her life. She remembers distinctly the first time in her life that she felt the peace of Christ resonating in her. She was driving her car and came to recognize just how profoundly different she felt. Yes, all of the circumstances of her life were exactly the same – none of the challenges had disappeared. But she felt different. She was at peace. Every muscle and bone in her body felt this sense of peace. Instead of holding on tight inside of her, as if that tight grip was the very act that would literally hold her together, she found that she was knit together with peace and love. Her shoulders relaxed, her breath was deep and steady, her mind was clear, she was at peace.
This is a story of a seemingly small, yet very existential manifestation of God’s presence in our lives, of God working in and through us. God doesn’t work like a magician changing the circumstances of our lives – God honors the importance of freewill in our lives and in all of creation. Sometimes this freewill manifests as chaos. In biology we learn that a certain amount of chaos is crucial to the survival of creation. Without chaos, without the unsteady change that chaos evokes, creation and all created beings, would stagnate and die. Chaos is generative. It’s a paradox that chaos brings new life, creation.
And so, the darkness of our lives is not necessarily a bad thing. Challenging yes, but out of the darkness new life is born. Darkness is where creation begins, new life emerges. The light of Christ comes into us. The light of Christ, God’s pure love, works from the inside out. Spiritual transformation is interior work that becomes exterior action.
On this most holy of nights we celebrate the reality that God is with us. In the mystery that is God, God has chosen to dwell in and within all creation, and most particularly in human life. This is our Christian story, of God active in the world through the birth of Jesus. It is story that reminds us that how we live our lives, as people of faith, is an invitation to participate in the revelation of God in the world. This is particularly so when we choose to live with compassion, kindness, gentleness, and love toward all.
The birth, life, death, and resurrection of Christ assure us that God is present in every aspect of our lives. God is present at our birth. God is present in our lives. God is present and caring in our suffering. God is with the dying. And God is working through the pain and brokenness of this world to bring forth new life.
When the world is dark, God searches for a way to fill us with light, to work on us from the inside out, so that the light of our lives reveals the light of the world. Darkness is the womb that gives birth to hope, for Emmanuel is with us, the Christ child is born anew this night.
In this Christmas season may you know God’s abiding presence in your life. God’s presence may be only a tiny glimmer of light, and yet, it will give birth to a renewed sense of hope. And from that sense of hope will come peace, love, and joy. May these be the core of your identity, like a burning flame reflecting out into the world may you be a God-given ray of hope, peace, love, and joy. My your light be the light of Christ, healing the broken places of this world. May the flame of God’s presence sustain you all the days of your life.
Saturday, December 14, 2013
The feast day of Santa Lucia was Friday, December 13. Her story is remarkable. It is also typical of what happens to prophetic voices throughout history. Lucy lived in Sicily in the third century. She was a rich, young Christian of Greek ancestry. Raised in a pious family, she vowed her life to Christ. Her father died when she was young. Her mother arranged a marriage for her. For three years Lucy managed to keep the marriage on hold, preferring instead to devote herself to her faith. Legend has it that to change her mother‘s mind about her faith, Lucy prayed at the tomb of Saint Agatha, and her mother‘s long illness was cured. Her mother agreed to end the engagement and allowed Lucy to devote her life to God.
Lucy’s rejected pagan bridegroom denounced Lucy as a Christian to the governor of Sicily. The governor sentenced her to forced prostitution, but when guards went to fetch her, they could not move her even when they hitched her to a team of oxen. The governor ordered her killed instead. After torture that included having her eyes torn out, she was surrounded by bundles of wood which were set afire; the fire went out. She prophesied against her persecutors, and was executed by being stabbed in the throat with a dagger.
Legend says her eyesight was restored before her death. [i]
Although it is not exactly clear how the tradition moved from Italy to Sweden, the country has a long tradition with Saint Lucia. The first recorded appearance of a white-clad Lucia in Sweden was in a country house in 1764. The custom did not become universally popular in Swedish society until the 1900s, when schools and local associations began promoting it. Stockholm proclaimed its first Lucia in 1927. The custom whereby Lucia serves coffee and saffron buns dates back to the 1880s, although the buns were around long before that.[ii]
Lucy, and her mother, like a number of Christian saints, gave all their wealth to the poor, not out of guilt, but out of gratitude.
We have spent a number of weeks reflecting on the ways in which we at Christ Church are profoundly blessed. We are blessed with a fine congregation of gifted members and we have an amazing sense of mission as a Community-Centered Church. As a Community-Centered Church we share our building with many, many people. As a Community-Centered Church we are active in ministry and mission work in the Dearborn area and in the world at large. As a Community-Centered Church our mission and our ministry flow in and out of the church building. We share, with gratitude, the blessings we have been given by the grace of God.
Striving to live as God calls us brings with it inherent challenges. Like Lucy, this effort to live as God calls, can result in judgment and persecution. We see signs of this all around us and down through the ages, living a prophetic life is risky.
The prophet Isaiah knew very well that the prophetic life was risky. Actually the book of Isaiah was written over the course of about 240 years, possibly even over 540 years. It was authored by at least three different people who have become known as Isaiah. Portions of Isaiah are also found in 2 Kings chapters 18-20, which help to date it. There are two different identifiable periods in Isaiah. The first takes place at the end of a war in the year 740 BCE and the second takes place at the end of a war in the year 555 BCE. We know this because of references made to kings and battles within the text. [iii] Regardless of its history, the message of Isaiah is one of God’s judgment and God’s salvation. In Isaiah, you don’t have one without the other. [iv]
So, what does God’s judgment and God’s salvation look like?
Isaiah tells us in the text from our reading today that God’s judgment occurs whenever there is something that separates human beings from that which God desires. Therefore God’s judgment is not about a judge who pronounces edicts on broken laws, per se. God’s judgment is solely about relationship. And in relationship, with God and others, we find our salvation. To live in right relationship with God and others we are to look first at our own actions and words and consider, how am I living as God desires? How am I loving God, loving others, and loving self, as God desires? Of course as Episcopalians we have a clue into what God desires when we remember our baptismal covenant: respect the dignity of every human being, see in others the face of Christ, strive to live as the hands and heart of Christ in the world, continue to grow in faith.
As a Christian community we live this kind of an active faith when we focus our energy on our mission and our ministries. Jesus affirms this as our call and our primary task. In our reading this morning from Matthew Jesus responds to John the Baptist’s question, are you the Messiah, with this: tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive sight, the deaf hear, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed. And the Letter from James reminds us that we are to live an active faith – put our faith into action – live lives focused on our mission and ministries.
We have clear evidence here, by the vibrancy of our mission and ministries, that we are living active lives of faith. But nonetheless we still have work to do. The questions for us this morning are specific: Where are the places - in our individual lives and in our congregational life as a Community Centered Church - where our eyes remain blind and we fail to hear where God is calling us? Another way to frame this is: How are we sitting in the judgment seat, - ‘cuz you know we are – each one of us has a default button called “judgment “- and it takes us off course and derails us. Stifled in the judgment seat, how are we failing to do our part to bring forth the kingdom of God? How are failing to live with gratitude and generosity in how we share our gifts, but also in how we treat one another? In verse nine of the Letter of James we are reminded that: “the Judge is standing at the doors!” (v. 9). In other words, if you do not want to be judged by the Judge, you had best leave judgment to God. We are to not judge one another but rather we are to bear each others faults and failings with patience. St. Ignatius of Loyola said, "We are to pray as if everything depends on God and work as if everything depends on us." But that notion must be framed through the lens of our baptismal covenant wherein the work we do is anchored in respect and dignity.
God is the judge, scripture tells us, but Isaiah reminds us that likewise God has our back, and God will continue to prepare the path before us. Surely that is God’s salvation – preparing the path, God sends forth help, that we may live as God desires.
Let us seek the messenger, Emmanuel, and follow.
Saturday, December 07, 2013
The other day my daughter sent me a text message asking for help finding jokes that would be appropriate for a company Christmas party. I posted her request for help on my Facebook page and instantly I had a dozen jokes.
Here are a couple of them:
Q. If everyone in America had a pink car, what would we have? A. A pink carnation
What do you call a snowman in June? A puddle
What does a snowman eat for breakfast? Snowflakes
Which reindeer is the cleanest? Comet
Today is the second Sunday in the season of Advent. Advent is distinctive for us – evidenced by the simplicity of the worship space, the beautiful but simple glass chalices and patens, the color blue, the Advent wreath which replaces the Paschal Candle, and just a hint of the greenery that will come with Christmas. Advent is a time when we focus less on the instantaneous nature of the world around, instant gratification, instant information and news, instant food, many many things are available to us in an instant. Advent invites us to slow down and be more intentional, anticipate the coming of Christ, and ponder how God’s love in Christ may become manifest in us in the year ahead.
Think back over this past year. A year ago we had just commissioned the delegation to go to Liberia and learn more about the school project. Now, a year later, the first two floors of the school building are almost completed. One year and God’s grace has been good, much has been accomplished, lives have been changed. A year is a long time, but it also goes by quickly. Now a new year is here and with it another invitation to ponder what God is doing.
Advent marks, for Christians, the beginning of our church year – evident in large part by the changing of the Gospel. We have moved from a year of reflecting on the Gospel of Luke into a year when we will reflect primarily on the Gospel of Matthew. Like the other three Gospels, Matthew offers us a particular view, a lens, through which we come to know who Jesus is and how we are to live our lives as Jesus teaches us. The author of the Gospel of Matthew takes great care to show how Jesus is the fulfillment of the law of Moses – the ten commandments and the 603 commandments that come from those original ten. Jesus, as the fulfillment of the law, enables the community of Matthew to know Jesus as the messiah, Emmanuel, God with us.
Advent is a time set aside by the church to invite us to consider the full significance of what God is doing in and through the life of Jesus, and in and through our lives. Advent reminds us that we exist, not for the fulfillment of our lives, but for the glory of God. [i]
Now, what does that mean, to exist for the glory of God?
The reading in Isaiah points us to consider how living with hope and in harmony reveals the glory of God. This God-infused hope looks larger and more obviously divine than anything humans can do on our own. Seriously, none of us anticipated that two floors of the school would be built in less than a year. Surely that is a sign of God intervening in this project, using us for the glory of God. Paradoxically, when we live for the glory of God we live fulfilling lives.
Human beings, acting as the heart and hands of Christ, reveal the divine in action. Divine action manifests as hope and harmony. The wolf and lamb lying together in our world mean that the rights of the poor, the marginalized, the disenfranchised; all the many “isms” of the world and of society will find new life through acts of justice – moral, ethical, and economic justice. Surely, partnering with a church in Liberia to build a school is an act of hope seeking to bring forth justice and harmony.
Isaiah describes the effort to manifest hope, justice, and harmony metaphorically as residing on the “holy mountain of God.” Here all will be filled with the knowledge of God. The peace of God will include human beings, animals, and the land.[ii] The people are to live in hope, to trust God, to live as if harmony is here now. The School project in Liberia, Blessings in a Backpack, the many groups that use this church and the many people who walk through our doors every day, the many lives that are transformed because of Christ Church, are possible because we are willing to live in hope, live as if harmony is here now, and give our lives over to the glory of God.
Paul, in the Letter to the Romans, states that hope is like trust – when we live with hope we live with trust that God has our back at all times.
If the church is to have a future, we must be hopeful. St. Paul’s sense of hope is not pie-in-the-sky optimism nor a cheery denial of reality. Hope is the undaunted force that comes from the Holy Spirit getting into our spirit and drawing us away from fear and worry and despair toward God’s steadfast love for the world and for us.[iii]
Isaiah, Paul, the Roman church, and the community of Matthew all understood that God’s desire that we live with hope and in harmony does not mean that we will live without anxiety. Life is filled with unpredictability. Life is filled with change and transition and chaos.
We are heading into a time of transition as we prepare to say good-bye to Jan the end of January and Bob the end of April. Losing two valuable staff members in the same year will be challenging. The Vestry has been discussing this transition for about six months. We have had dialogue with the Property Commission and staff. The Vestry has been thoughtful and considered and measured in its decision making process. And yet, the Vestry has embraced this time of transition with creativity and an open spirit. Today members of the Vestry will share with you the process we undertook and the decision we have reached. You all should be very proud of and grateful for the work of your Vestry. They are highly gifted individuals. We are truly blessed by their leadership. Their work deserves your trust! As they always have, the Vestry will work with me, to guide us through this transition with grace. The process will not be reconciled instantly, it will take some time to bring in new staff, train them, come to know them, and work through the kinks of transition. Building relationship always takes time. Let us proceed with a sense of hope and trust. May we work together with a spirit of harmony.
Remember, a certain amount of chaos and disorder is part of creation. This chaos and lack of order resides in all biological systems and serves to prevent creation from becoming stagnant. It is chaotic but it is also creative and necessary for healthy systems to survive. Let us embrace this time of transition with hope and trust that God is leading us toward the fulfillment of our mission as a Community-Centered church. Let us give thanks for Jan and Bob and celebrate well their time with us. Let us wait expectantly for the new staff, yet to come, and the gifts they will bring. Gifts which will surely help us continue to manifest the glory of God in our ministries and mission.