Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Preach One: Christmas Day

Preached at St. Andrew's Episcopal Cathedral, Jackson, MS.

Isaiah 9:2-7; Psalm 96; Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1-20

The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen...

And that's where Luke leaves us on Christmas night, although of course we cannot be certain whether the shepherds found their fields and flocks again by morning light instead of starlight.  It came upon a midnight clear, wrote the Rev. Edmund Sears, imagining that glorious song of old ringing out when the night was darkest and the cold at its most deep.

They went with haste, the story goes, perhaps with echoes of angels and glorias still sounding when they arrived and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in a manger.  How many minutes old was he?  Hours, at the most?

Good news...great joy...a Savior...the Messiah... The shepherds made known what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed.  But even if their account of angels took a while to tell; even if some among them asked if they could hold the baby; even if they tried to sing him some of the heavenly song they had heard; they would not have stayed long, mindful of Mary's weariness.  And so, Luke writes, they returned, glorifying and praising God.

Watching them go, Mary and Joseph surely slipped into such a fitful sleep as a baby and a barnful of animals would allow.  When they awoke...well, we only have the story of Christmas night.  What happened on Christmas day?

The night, I suspect, though holy, had been anything but silent with cows lowing and sheep bleating and Mary laboring and midwives instructing and at long last a baby crying.  When Christmas day dawned, it might have been quiet for the first time since they settled in the night before, exhausted already, and sore, from their journey just ended.

Did they wonder, still somewhere between waking and sleeping, whether it had all been just a dream?  The angels, the singing, the shepherds, the swaddling clothes?  And then the baby stirred and sighed, and the morning sun shone through the stable door, and Mary and Joseph saw that it had not been a dream but wonderfully and amazingly real.  Reaching for Jesus, they held love in their arms, even if they only understood it at the time to be the love of a parent for a child.

And yet, those midnight glorias in harmony with Mary's own magnificat proclaimed this child was not just beloved but Love, not just God-given but very God of very God.  By his birth those things of which Mary sang were already coming to light, the mighty being cast down, the lowly being lifted up, the hungry being filled with good things...

It is Christmas day, no longer night, for those who lived in a land of deep darkness - on them light has shined.  The light of Jesus Christ would reveal once and for all the love of God, and would show us how to live in that love.  Howard Thurman reflected on that way of living, that way of loving, in the words offered as our final blessing this morning:

When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace to all,
To make music in the heart.

It is Christmas day, when the work of Christmas begins.  Perhaps, though, we who are weary, we who are sore, we who have had long days or nights, whether from work or study or sorrow or sickness or grief or loneliness or lovelessness or lifelessness...perhaps, like Mary and Joseph in the quiet of Christmas day, we would do well to pause first.  To find, for the first time in a long while, some silence.  To take love in our arms, even if we only understand it at the time to be love for a person or a memory or a story or a song.  For the one Mary and Joseph hold today is the one who would one day hold us all in his own outstretched arms, with love, for love, as Love, that we might be with Love for ever.  Amen.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Preach One: Advent 4C

Preached at St. Andrew's Episcopal Cathedral.

Micah 5:2-5a; Psalm 80:1-7; Hebrews 10:5-10; Luke 1:39-55

If you came to our house, you could stay in our guest room...well, our guest room/sewing room/home office/library/storage closet/place where old exercise equipment goes to gather dust.  There is a fine line between cozy and cluttered, and I'm afraid we crossed it long ago.  But there is a bed in there, with warm blankets and assorted pillows, and a little table topped with a lamp and a stack of favorite books.  There are empty hangers in the closet, and a chair for your suitcase - just let me move some old magazines out of the way, and a half-knitte afghan, and...oh, that's where the computer cable for the old camera went...

We do clean up the guest room when we are expecting visitors, although I gave up trying to clean it out  a long time ago.  We wash the sheets, make the bed, and put out clean towels for our guests, hoping that they won't mind sharing the room with its now permanent residents like books and balls of yarn, boxes and rolls of wrapping paper, files and piles of things that need to be filed.  If you come to visit, we'll get the room ready, as ready as we can.  We'll prepare.

Some people have guest rooms at the ready all the time, so that all that's necessary is a little dusting and fluffing of pillows.  Others of us have to work at little harder to make room.  I wonder if Elizabeth had a guest room at all, a place to put young Mary after greeting her so effusively, after blessing her heart and her baby.  After all, Elizabeth was expecting, too, and perhaps she had already begun turning her guest room into a nursery.  Her womb could scarcely contain her baby as he leapt for joy within her; he would one day need a room the size of a wilderness, so loud would be his voice and so large his message of a kingdom yet to come.

Elizabeth wouldn't have had much notice of Mary's arrival, and no mention is made of whether Joseph came, too.  They would have been hot and hungry and tired from traveling - it was about eighty miles or so from Nazareth to Elizabeth - so that even if the law did not demand hospitality, anyone would have been inclined to show it, hurrying to fetch water and bake bread and fold back the blankets on the bed.

We, on the other hand, have had three week's notice and a day to get ready for the one who is coming, the guest who is now almost here.  I don't mean a mother-n-law or a child home from college or a long distance relation from afar off - I'm afraid I can't help you prepare for that in the space of this sermon today, although if you need to make room and would like to store some things in our guest room/sewing room/home office... Christmas is two days away, and we've all been preparing room, right?  We've been making beds and tidying up, baking and decorating, putting out clean towels and going grocery shopping.  We're ready for any number of guests.  So, where will Christ stay?

Through all the season of Advent, prophets and predictions have foretold his coming, have called us to repent, to prepare the way of the Lord.  Even as the volume of our commercial culture turns up and we are invited to hurry and consume, Advent urges us to hush, to make room, to quietly unclutter ourselves of those things that would crowd Jesus out, that would distract us from him, our guest, that would make us less hospitable when he comes, when Emmanuel, God-with-us, is with us.  There are two more days.  Are we ready?

Mostly.  Maybe?  Probably not.  For looking around us and looking within us we cannot help but see the clutter that is still there in our world, in our nation, in our communities, in our homes, and in our hearts.  Things are a mess, and try as we might we're just not going to be able to clean it all up by Christmas, all the strained relationships, all the sins of pride and fear, all the neglect of forgiveness and faith, all the cracks caused by violence and divisiveness and doubt, all the piled up distractions and addictions and dust... Repent, we have been urged, prepare, make a way, and we want to, but where will we put all the mess we've made?  Even if we do make room, can it ever be fit for God?

For God, who once knelt knee-deep in mud and clay to shape us into being?  For God, who once wandered in the hot, weary wilderness for forty years rather than leave a people behind?  For God, who, though all-powerful, chose to become all-vulnerable, who chose a peasant and not a princess as a mother, who inspired her to sing about turning the world upside-down, who was born not in a mansion filled with perfectly-prepared rooms but a dusty manger filled with hay?  For God, who loved sinners and ate with tax collectors and touched lepers and invited outcasts to be his friends?  For God, who chose to go as we do, earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust, in order to prepare a room for us, to make us guests in heaven as God has been on earth?

Over and over and over again, in this great story of salvation, God has visited us not in our readiness but in our unreadiness, not in our perfection but precisely in the midst of our mess and chaos, our grief and pain, our fear and wavering faith, and God has loved us there.  And God has stayed there, though the pillows aren't fluffed and the bed isn't made and the star atop the tree is askew and all our sins are showing.

If our spiritual housekeeping has been less than perfect this Advent, we do not need to add regret or despair to the piles strewn across our guest room floors.  Goodness knows they're cluttered enough.  Christmas will come, and Christ will be born, whether we are ready or not, and in such a way as God has always been at work in this world, it'll be a mess.  If we let him, he will help us with our housework, with the hard work of sorting through those sins and fears, those doubts and griefs, the hard work of forgiving and trusting and being generous, of being reconciled, of showing compassion.  And then he'll ask us to help him with the housework he has come to do, in guest rooms and hospital rooms, in boardrooms and classrooms, in waiting rooms and meeting rooms and worship rooms and wherever there is yet room for love to scatter the proud in the thoughts of their hearts, to bring down the powerful from their thrones, to lift up the lowly, to fill the hungry with good things.

It won't all happen in the next two days, or this year, or next, or the year after that.  Our guest rooms aren't always ready, and our hearts are easily re-cluttered.  And so Christ comes not just at Christmas but makes instead a daily visitation, witnessing every mess we make, inviting us to make a mess with him, slowing but surely transforming us and all the whole world to be not just a guest room but a dwelling place, a home, for God.

O come, o come Emmanuel, God-with-us, and make us ready to be with you.  Amen.

Thursday, November 08, 2012

Preach One: All Saints Sunday B

Preached at St. Andrew's Episcopal Cathedral in Jackson, MS.

Isaiah 25:6-9; Psalm 24; Revelation 21:1-6a; John 11:32-44

Anticipating our annual observance of All Saints Sunday, you surely stayed up late (after all, you had an extra hour!) last night polishing your golden halo, yes?  No?  You brought your crown of glory, right?  You have a miracle prepared to share with everyone?  You remembered, didn't you, to wear a pious expression this morning, and to dress in stained glass or the gilded jewel tones of an icon?  Didn't you?

Because it's All Saints Sunday, and we are all of us saints of God, and I mean... Well, we don't look much like it, I'm afraid.  We look nice, sure, but...saintly??

The answer, of course, is yes.  We are all of us saints of God, and I mean... Before anyone ever lifted Andrew of Mary or Peter up on their pedestals, we were all called saints, in Greek hagios, meaning holy, set apart.  Over and again in our Christian scriptures, the whole church, all of the followers of Jesus Christ, all of us are called saints.  But when we stand beside the giants of our faith, whose halos through the centuries have not dimmed and whose names have not been forgotten...Andrew, Mary, Peter; Francis, Julian, Joan...we feel conspicuously underdressed.

Still, we are all of us made in the image of God, and I mean... God is, after all, holy and set apart.  Maybe that's how the stained glass saints do it, reflecting in their lives all the holiness, all the purity and grace and goodness of God.  God, who will destroy the shroud that is cast over all peoples, who will swallow up death for ever.  God, who will make a new heaven and a new earth, who is making all things new.  God, who is extraordinary.  So many of the saints on our calendar of holy women and holy men are remembered for the extraordinary things they said and did.

But we are all of us made in the image of God, and I mean... God is far more than simply extraordinary, far more than just set apart.  If the prophet Isaiah is to be believed, God who made the heavens and the earth, who destroys death and creates life, God in whom is our salvation...the same God is in the kitchen preparing a feast for us, Isaiah writes, a feast of rich food filled with marrow.  God is straining well-aged wines for us.  There's grease on God's apron, a smudge of flour on God's face, as God moves between the cutting board, the sink, the stove, the table, the most familiar places we know.  God is profoundly ordinary, set not just apart but among us, so near as to wipe away tears from our eyes.  Maybe there's something to our sainthood after all, then, if we can be remembered for being ordinary.

Did you notice, though, that this morning's readings, appointed for All Saints Day, have little to do with any saints at all, ordinary or extraordinary.  Mary and Martha are named, but the twelve disciples aren't mentioned, and we don't hear a single word from Paul.  In fact, in all three readings, in Isaiah and Revelation and John, all we see and hear the faithful do is suffer disgrace, mourn, cry, hurt, die.  Mary is weeping as she falls at Jesus' feet.  Martha almost sounds bitter, even though she has just proclaimed her belief that Jesus is the Christ.  Others look on in doubt and disgust, for surely the one who opened the eyes of blind Bartimaeus could have kept poor Lazarus from dying.  None of them understand that they are the ones who cannot yet see.  None of them know that they are the ones who have not yet come alive.

How ordinary, how common this story is.  Not, perhaps, in its particulars, although I daresay most of us have grieved the loss of a loved one.  How ordinary, how common it is to weep.  To hurt.  To feel helpless.  To be bitter.  To be angry.  To doubt.  To despair.  To die.  With our nation, we looked on in horror this week as Hurricane Sandy wrecked coastlines, communities, cities and souls.  We wept, heartbroken, for the losses we have witnessed from so far away, here where the weather has been safe and sunny and unseasonably warm, here where the storm, though many hundreds of miles distant, nonetheless surfaced familiar wreckage and loss and grief of our own.

But we have witnessed something else familiar.  Photographs of Red Cross shelters.  Daring rooftop rescues by first responders.  Tallies of donations of money and food and supplies.  Convoys of power trucks.  Stories of helping hands lent to neighbors who lost everything.  Volunteers sifting through debris to help salvage what they can.  Medical professionals healing what hurts they can.  Strangers offering electricity to charge cell phones, or showers to wash clean, or shovels to dig out, or coffee just to have a cup of hot, steaming coffee.

Saints, right?  All of them, saints of God.  Too solid for stained glass, too fragile to be carved in stone, these saints in the face of death and destruction are alive, made of beating hearts and helping hands...and the possibility of coming undone at any moment, of feeling insufficient to the task of cleaning up the mess, of healing what is hurt, of working in the kitchen, of wiping every tear.

So it is that sainthood must be about something other than what we are capable of doing, for if sanctification relied on human effort alone, our calendar of holy women and men would be empty, and All Saints Day just wishful thinking.  This morning's readings have very little to do with saints at all because they have everything to do with God, with how God is at work in the world in the most extraordinary and the most ordinary ways, calling us to come alive, unbinding us and letting us go from the strips of fear and hesitation that cover us.  In this morning's readings it is God who acts every time, making all things new, making life where death has been, making hope where despair has been, making courage where fear has been, making faith where doubt has been.

Lazarus, come out, Jesus cried, but he may as well have been talking to anyone else who has ever been bound and buried by whatever it is that wrecks our lives, disasters that are sometimes natural and sometimes of our own making.  Lazarus, come out!  

Jennifer, come out...

We are all of us dead sometimes, and I mean... Jesus is calling me, calling you, too.  Come out... We can stay in the tomb, or, like Lazarus, we can stumble forward, transformed even if still tripping over our sorrow, weary but waking to new life.

I saw a new heaven and a new earth, says the writer of Revelation.  A new life, where death would be no more.  There are last things in that vision, glimpses of what will be at the end of the ages.  But the God who will act then is the same God who acted in the beginning, the Alpha and the Omega.  The God who will make a home among mortals and dwell among us has already done so in Jesus Christ, and through him God has put away death that we might have life, and through him God has taught us how to live.  How, like Martha, to prepare a feast.  How, like Mary, to wipe away tears.

Sainthood isn't about what we are capable of, or how extraordinary we are, or how ordinary for that matter.  It isn't about how we die.  Sainthood is about how we come alive when we are called, and then it is about how we live.  Like the Velveteen Rabbit becoming real bit by bit and not all at once, so does sainthood grow in us as we are daily transformed from death to life by God's action in us, unbinding us, letting us go.  Frederick Buechner explains, "The forgiven person starts to become a forgiving person, the healed person a healing person, the loved person a loving person.  God does most of it," Buechner explains, until one day life becomes eternal.

Leave your halos at home, if you've got one.  Put your crown of glory away.  God does not expect a miracle.  Though our calendar only lists so many holy women and holy men, saints are as common as they come.  What is extraordinary about them is that when Jesus calls - and he will, he does - they come alive.  And if we remember them at all, it isn't, for most of them (or for most of us) as a figure in a church window or a candle-lit icon.  We remember them as the person who mucked out our flooded homes.  The one who drove us to the doctor when we were sick.  The stranger who welcomed us when we were new to the church.  The friend who brought us lunch on a busy day.  The teacher who made sure we understood.  The godparent willing to bring us up in the Christian faith and life.  We remember them as Andrew and Mary and Martha and Lazarus, who came alive so long ago, and as James and Noah who will be baptized today.

We are all of us saints of God, and I mean, God helping to be one, too.  Amen.

Artwork: Photographs of relief efforts following Hurricane Sandy.  Photo #1 shows volunteers who went door-to-door before Sandy hit warning residents to take precautions.  Photo #2 shows volunteers and United States Army National Guard members preparing MRE's to deliver in neighborhoods damaged by the storm.  Photo #3 is a volunteer with the Grand Central Partnership mucking out a flooded building.  Photo #4 shows a Red Cross volunteer helping young shelter residents enjoy Halloween.  Photo #5 shows NY Marathon runners preparing to volunteer on Staten Island.  Photo #6  shows Grand Central Partnership volunteers unloading donations of food and supplies.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Preach One: On the feast day of Saint Mary the Virgin

Preached in the chapel at St. Andrew's Episcopal Cathedral at the noonday service.

Isaiah 61:10-11; Psalm 34:1-9; Galatians 4:4-7; Luke 1:46-55

One of the first things I was told when I moved to Mississippi was that I should never speak badly of a person to someone else, because there's a pretty good chance they're kin to each other.  I've found this is only a slight exaggeration - the classic six degrees of separation are reduced to only one or two degrees in this state, and the classic concept of kin is expanded here to include all sorts of people, whether or not they figure into your family tree.

Wherever we come from, there's no better way to put someone on the defensive than to speak badly of their family.  And there's no better way to put someone on the offensive than to speak badly of their mother.

In her time, perhaps people had some choice words about Mary.  I wonder if Jesus ever had to rise to her defense when some kid on the playground pressed him about her tendency to see angels, and whether or not Joseph was his real dad.  In Jewish society it would have been easy to speak badly of Mary, who should have been tossed into the street at best and stoned to death at worst for turning up pregnant before she turned up married.

In our time, though, it is impossible to speak badly of her, whose faith and obedience and courage are compelling still.  We wonder with Mary at the appearance of that angel.  We marvel with her at the invitation God offered.  We breathlessly await her yes.  We joyfully sing her song, my soul magnifies the Lord...

We don't know whether Mary ever lost her temper, even just a little, when Jesus and his brothers and sisters ran through the house and toppled her favorite cooking pot.  We don't know whether she ever told them a little white lie about just how many vegetables were cooked into the stew.  We don't know whether she ever doubted God's goodness when she said goodbye to her son.

But we wouldn't speak badly of her if she did.  She's somebody's mother, after all.  And because in this life of faith we are all of us kin, she's our mother, too, for we are the living body of Christ.  We bear into the world the same life that she did, a life devoted to mercy and strength and lifting up the lowly and filling the hungry with good things.

On this, Mary's feast day, may our souls magnify the Lord.  May our spirits rejoice in God our Savior.  Amen.

Artwork: "Magnificat," by Virginia Wieringa

Thursday, April 05, 2012

Preach One: Maundy Thursday

From time to time I feel I must explain, gentle readers, that I did in fact pass 5th grade grammar.  My homilies, as they are posted here, would not appear to support this claim...they are written, of course, to be read aloud, and so I use what grammar and punctuation I need to serve as cues for when I will stand in the pulpit and preach... This particular homily is especially filled with grammatical indulgences...if you are an English major, please be kind...

Exodus 2:1-14; Psalm 116:1, 10-17; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26; John 13:1-17, 31b-35

"That's the effect of living backwards," the Queen said kindly.  "It always makes one a little giddy at first -"

"Living backwards!" Alice interrupted in astonishment.  "I've never heard of such a thing!"

"- but there's one great advantage," the Queen finished, "in that one's memory works both ways."

"I'm sure [my memory] only works one way," Alice remarked.  "I can't remember things before they happen."

"It's a poor sort of memory that only works backwards," the Queen remarked.

And then Alice ventured to ask, "What sort of things do you remember best?"

What sort of things do you remember best?  How might the people of Israel answered as they gathered around the table once again, not in Wonderland but in the Promised Land, marking the beginning of months, the day of remembrance, the Passover of the Lord.  What sort of things do you remember best?

They had seen and heard and experienced so much out there, in the wilderness, on their journey.  Do you remember, someone might have said as they all took their places around the table, when Moses went up the storm- and fire-clad mountain and returned with God's commandments?  Do you remember, another might have said, pouring the wine in each cup, when we were so hungry, and manna covered the ground like snow?  Do you remember when we were so thirsty, and water flowed from a rock?  Do you remember... And memory by memory, story by story, they return to that time, or that time returns to them - memory works both ways - and God is saving not their ancestors only but they themselves and all who would gather to remember between and before and after.

Do you remember?  We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, they say around that table as their great thanksgiving begins.  And the Lord our God took us out from there with a strong hand and with an outstretched arm... They will say with the psalmist, I love the Lord, because he has heard the voice of my supplication, because he has inclined his ear to me...I will lift up the cup of salvation...I will offer you the sacrifice of thanksgiving...

What sort of things do you remember best?  How might his disciples and friends have answered as they gathered around the table for what only Jesus knew would be a last supper, a day of remembrance, in anticipation of his Passover?  What sort of things do you remember best?

They had seen and heard and experienced so much out there with Jesus, on the streets, in the hills, on the sea, in the Temple, on the margins.  Do you remember, one of them might have said as they all took their places around the table, when Jesus went up on the storm- and fire-clad mountain and we also saw Moses and Elijah?  Do you remember, another might have said, lighting the candles one by one, all the times he touched blind eyes and deaf ears and commanded them to be open?  Do you remember when he came to us walking on the water and calmed our storms?  Do you remember...

Dinner tables are often filled with memories and stories...of people no longer present, of recipes handed down, of all that has been seen and heard and experienced in a day or a year or a lifetime.  Meals, muses the Rev. Dr. Janet Hunt, are meeting-places of origins and hopes, of vulnerability and identity, and rarely is it only the body that is served and fed at the table, but the mind and spirit also.

So it was around the table with Jesus that night, the night that seems to us as dark and ominous as the night blood was smeared on lintels and doorposts and a lamb was consumed hurriedly and the Lord passed over to fiercely and decidedly save.  That night with Jesus - this night, this table, this meal - seems to us dark and ominous because we remember what the disciples did not yet know, we remember what will happen tomorrow - memory works both ways.  But around the table in the Upper Room, it seemed just like any other meal, filled with memories and stories, recipes and friends, and all that they had seen and heard and experienced.  Until Jesus asked them, asked us, to remember something new.

On the night before he died for us, this is my body, he said.  This cup is the new covenant in my blood.  With these words Jesus took and blessed and broke open the story of salvation, the memory of God's love for God's people, by offering himself as the Passover lamb.  Do this in remembrance of me, he commanded.

John's account of that night contains a different memory, a different meal, a different story.  On the night before he died for us, our Lord Jesus Christ...washed his friends' feet.  What did he remember gst, I wonder, as he held their feet in his hands, as he washed and dried them tenderly, wiping away the grime and dust of the roads they had traveled together...what sort of things did he remember best?  Did he think about when he called each one?  Did he remember conversations they had and questions they asked?  Did he recall their individual doubts and fears and faith?  What sort of things did he remember best?

It seems quite clear from John's account what was foremost in Jesus' thoughts, in his troubled heart and spirit, that night...this night: Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.  It is what he remembered best, and it is what he wanted them - what he wanted us - to remember best, too.  All the miracles, all the signs, all the healing, all the parables, all the teaching, all the preaching, all the walking along dusty roads and across stormy seas, it all came down to love.

But not love that was about sentimentality, any more than remembering was about nostalgia.  This was love that was active and participatory, love that was fearless and wide open, love that poured itself out, love that nourished and strengthened, love that served, love that fiercely and decidedly and over and over and over again saved.  Jesus remembered the commandments given by God, and had once summarized them saying, You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.  But that night...this night...Jesus wanted us to remember something new: love one another.

Our love was to be the same kind as his.  By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another, just as I have loved you.  I have set you an example.  Everything I have done has been an example.  Tonight has been an example.  Remember...

But of course they wouldn't.  We wouldn't.  We don't.  It's so easy to forget our origins and hopes, our vulnerability and identity, what our hands and feet are made for.  We get busy.  We get distracted.  We are easily tempted.  It's so easy to forget.  We grumble in the wilderness.  We want something for ourselves.  We are fearful of giving too much away, of pouring out too much.  We deny.  We betray.  We fall asleep.  We run away.  And not just eventually, but immediately.  Remember?  Judas got up from that very table, his feet still damp, bread crumbs falling from his lap.  They all ran away from the garden.  Peter, who wished Jesus to wash not only his feet but his hands and his head, would say three times before daybreak that he did not know who Jesus was.

And so Jesus showed them, knowing that they would forget, knowing that we would forget... Jesus showed us all around that table not only how to love but how to remember as well.  Familiar things were chosen to remind us of all the good things God has done for us, all the times God has saved, all the ways God has loved.  Bread.  Wine.  Water.  A table.  A towel.  Bare feet.  Outstretched hands.  They are symbols, sacraments, signs, memories of a story not that was but that is, for God still loves and saves, God is loving and saving now, and God will love and save again.  Year after year, the people of Israel return to their Passover table to remember and give thanks.  Week after week, we return to ours to remember and give thanks, so that day after day we can be the hands and feet and heart and soul and mind and strength of Christ's love on the dusty streets and stormy seas of life.  I have set you an example...do this in remembrance of me...

If I, like Alice, may venture to ask, what sort of things will you remember best this night...that night...the night before he died for us?  Perhaps it has made us a little giddy, all these stories so filled with living and loving, moving backwards and forwards in the story of our faith - memory works both ways.  What sort of things will you remember best?  The taste of the bread?  The smell of the wine?  The warmth of the water?  The touch of a towel?  The tenderness of someone else's hands, or of your own?  The sight of a bare, darkened church?  The silence of forgetting?  Let us remember best what Christ did...having loved his own who were in the world, he loved us to the end.  Amen.

Artwork: "The Last Supper," by Mica Joiner; "Bread and Wine," by Glynis; "Footwashing," by Fr. Bob Gilroy.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Preach One: Lent 4B

Numbers 21:4-9; Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22; Ephesians 2:1-10; John 3:14-21

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.  Ahh, John 3:16.  Do you remember a time when you didn't know these words more or less by heart?  They are so familiar even Episcopalians can quote them, chapter and verse. For God so loved the world...

It has been called the gospel in miniature, summarizing in one sentence the good news of God in Christ.  "John 3:16 has been the standard bearer in explaining the Christian message," claimed CNN's online Belief Blog in reporting about a Texas gas station that offered $15 off for customers who could recite the well-known scripture.  For God so loved the world that he gave...a giant discount on an oil change?!?  John 3:16 is everywhere.  We've heard it preached from pulpits, learned about it in sunday School, seen it waved on posters and painted in eye-black at sporting events, watched it scroll across the sign outside the bank.  For God so loved the world that he gave...

The words weren't at all familiar to Nicodemus when Jesus spoke them to him.  A prominent leader among the Pharisees, Nicodemus came to Jesus under cover of darkness in hopes of being enlightened.  He groped blindly, though, at Jesus' insistence that he must be born again, born from above, born of the Spirit.  How can these things be, Nicodemus asked.  But Jesus went on about earthly things and heavenly things, about ascending and descending, about belief and understanding, before finally saying something that Nicodemus recognized, something he had heard before, something that made sense.

John 3:...14.  Let's recite it together: Jesus said to Nicodemus... You don't know that one?  It's not as familiar to us as the words that come two short verses later.  Jesus said to Nicodemus, "Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness...," and Nicodemus would have nodded, knowing to which story from their shared faith Jesus was referring.  We don't read it often ourselves, although perhaps, like me, you remember with a little shudder pictures of it from your children's bible.  Snakes slithering all over the ground, Moses holding high a serpent made of bronze, people sick with snake venom gazing up at it in hope...

In the book of Numbers, the Hebrew people are still making their way through the wilderness, now far from Egypt but also far from the Promised Land.  Why have you brought us out here to die, they asked, and not for the first time.  The wilderness didn't bring out the best in them.  Over and again they are certain they are dying, when over and again God has given them life - freedom from slaver, escape at the Red Sea, manna from heaven, water from a rock, a covenant at Sinai, a snake set upon a pole.  Whether their misfortunes have been perceived or real, a natural consequence of wilderness wandering or the result of unfaithfulness, God has over and again forgiven and rescued them, and not simply by a pronouncement of love and mercy but by saving actions that also invited action on the part of the people.  God parted the waters, but the people had to choose to walk across.  God provided manna, but the people had to gather it.  God offered water, but the people had to cup their hands to drink.  God promised to be faithful to them, but the people would also have to work at faithfulness and health and making the journey.  God would always love them, always save them, always make them alive.  Whether they...whether we...choose to live, choose to act, choose to see, choose to love...that's another whole story...

...Or perhaps the same one, or isn't the whole of scripture a story about learning to see just how God so loved the world?  In John's gospel, the word "world" tends to refer to those who are opposed to the good news of God in Christ, who prefer darkness to light, which only makes the love story all the more poignant and powerful.  From in the beginning, God has loved the world and everything and everyone in it, calling it good, giving it life.  In your infinite love you made us for yourself, we read in one of our Eucharistic prayers.  God made us.  God called us into covenant.  God set a bow in the clouds.  God freed us from oppression.  God spoke to us through prophets.  God returned us from exile.  God gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes...

Nicodemus has faded into the background by the time Jesus gets to these words, the ones we know as John 3:16.  We don't see Nicodemus again until he is tenderly taking Jesus down from the cross on which Jesus had been raised up to death, and laying Jesus deep within a tomb from which he would be raised up to life.  I wonder if, on that darkest day, with the Light of the World in his hands, Nicodemus harbored a hope none of the others had.  I wonder if Nicodemus remembered how Jesus had said, "Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life."

I wonder if, because Nicodemus knew the story of Moses and the serpents so well, because he knew so well the great arc of the story of salvation...I wonder if the cover of darkness under which Nicodemus first came to see Jesus fluttered and he saw a glimmer of light.  The light of the first day of creation.  The light of Easter's dawn.  The light that shines in the darkness, that no darkness has ever overcome.  The light of the world that God so loved.  Maybe Nicodemus, who at first, like the Hebrew people in the wilderness, like us, appreciated the signs and wonders but not the work of being saved... Maybe Nicodemus was the first to look upon Jesus and see what salvation looks like - a life lived in faith, a life offered in love, a life acted out and given for those whom God loves, which is to say, the world, which is to say, for everything and everyone, even for those who seem to prefer the darkness.  Maybe Nicodemus was the first to look at Jesus and see the one who has always been at the center of the love story, from in the beginning to the end of the age, the one whose very name means, "God Saves."

By grace you have been saved, we read in the letter to the Ephesians, in the tradition of another leader among the Pharisees, Paul.  You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived, following the course of this world.  So it has been ever since the garden first became a wilderness, since we first knew we had a choice of courses to follow, since we first tried to hide ourselves from God, to cover ourselves with darkness.

And so, for a second time in salvation history, first in the garden and finally in the wilderness of our sin, God came looking for us.  God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which God loved us even when we were dead through our sins, made us alive together with Christ, and raised us up with him.  This is how God so loves us, how God so loves the world, even as we remain in the dark, blinded by our own impatience or anger or prejudice or fear or addiction or shame or pride or...let us confess our sins against God and our neighbor.  Even there, even in our darkness, even when we were dead, God so loves us as to make us alive, to make us alive together with Christ, who taught us how to live and how to love and how to save and how to act as, to be, the hands and feet and heartbeats of God's amazing grace and healing in this world.  For God so loved the world...

We are still making our way through the wilderness of Lent, far from Ash Wednesday but also far from Easter Morning.  Our sins are not far from us, though, nor are the ways we try to hide our sins from others, from ourselves, and from God.  We have been carefully uncovering them on our Lenten journeys, and while we do not hear the word repent in our readings this morning, we are invited to turn (which is what the word repent means)...to turn from the darkness toward the light that is the life of all people and to see in him what salvation looks like.  It looks like compassion.  It looks like non-judgment.  It looks like mercy.  It looks like kindness.  It looks like grace.  It looks like living in the wilderness and not dying there, like shining in the darkness and not succumbing to it, like loving the world so.  We are invited to turn and see, and seeing to believe, and believing to love the world as God does, to show the immeasurable riches of God's grace in kindness.

Then will the gospel in miniature become the gospel at large in this world, written not just on billboards or bumper stickers but emblazoned across our lives, our choices, and our actions, not just telling but showing the world that God loves it so.  Amen.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Preach One: Epiphany 1B

Genesis 1:1-5; Psalm 29; Acts 19:1-7; Mark 1:4-11

"Oh, ketchup!"

I don't know why that's what we would shout, my dad and me.  Sometimes we called out other condiments, "Oh, mayonnaise! Oh, mustard!", as we crested another wave with splashes and giggles.

Dad must have started carrying me out beyond the breakers when I was very small, and he didn't stop until long after I was old enough to remember riding out to sea on his side, my arms encircling his neck, his arms holding me up and out of the way of the rise and fall of saltwater and foam.

I remember the thrill of feeling waves crash around my feet as we moved farther from shore.  I remember the lightness of floating together over the rolling rounded tops of waves in what seemed like the middle of the ocean to me.  I remember the relief of shouting out silly words every time we made it over, somehow aware that even though my dad was a grown-up and his feet could touch the bottom, and even though the waves weren't really as big as mountains, the water was powerful and could be unpredictable.

I remember the feeling of fear as every once in a while a wave was going to break just before it reached us, and we would have to go under instead of over, and we would hold our breath and duck our heads, and for a moment that seemed forever there was no sight or sound but only water and my dad.  And I remember the security of knowing I was always safe, because dad was always there and he would never let go.

Is there anything in the world more essential to our lives than water?  Our bodies are made up of mostly water, every cell a tiny sea in which our essence floats.  Thirst threatens our lives long before starvation does.  Rain nourishes the soil that supports the plants at the bottom of the food chain in which we are at the top, dependent on everything below us for life.

Is there anything in the world more destructive to our lives than water?  Surely we are especially sensitive to that here in Mississippi, where just south of us on the coast waves have more than once rushed ashore unchecked, pulling people from their homes and even homes from their foundations out to sea.  Just north of us in the Delta too much rain has often flooded fields full of crops, uprooting or rotting or ruining a season's investment of seed and labor.  But it doesn't have to take a flood for water to be destructive - it is said that even the strongest swimmer can drown in even the shallowest water.

It is no wonder, then, that some of scripture's most dramatic and familiar stories take place around or in water.  In the beginning...  The very first sentence of the very first story on the very first page is about the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.  Noah and his menagerie would spend months at sea as forty days and nights of rain made the waters rise and cover all the earth. Moses and his people would walk safely through the waves of the Red Sea - oh ketchup! - before those waters came crashing down on Pharaoh's army.

Jesus would go down with John into the Jordan River to be baptized, the story at the heart of the first Sunday after the Epiphany.  He would ride - and sometimes walk - through fierce storms on the Sea of Galilee, stilling the water with a word, saving his friend Peter from sinking in foolishness and waves - oh mustard!

Water, for us, means refreshment and relief and nourishment and life, and it means risk and danger and drama and death.  Too much water, or not enough, can hurt us.  Our way of baptizing errs on the side of not enough as we sprinkle just a hint of water over a person's head and wipe it immediately away before it causes any discomfort or drowning, or, heaven forbid, threatens to damage any clothing.  It is not at all like the baptismal story we hear in Mark's gospel - Jesus is still waist deep and dripping all over in the waters of his baptism when the heavens tear open and a voice tells him, you are my beloved.

Listen, though, to what we say as we pray over the water we will use so sparingly in our baptismal liturgy: We thank you, Father, for the water of Baptism.  In it we are buried with Christ in his death.  By it we share in his resurrection.  Though it we are reborn by the Holy Spirit.  The image of the waters of baptism are not just about waters of life, but waters of death.  In baptism we claim that we die with Christ so that we might live with him.  Baptism is about going all the way under before it is every about coming up out of the water.

Please understand that I love our liturgy, and that baptism is my sacrament to participate in as a priest.  But while it is possible to drown in two inches of water, I don't think anyone every went under, let alone drowned, in one of our baptismal fonts.

I wonder if that is why it is so hard for us - for anyone, even if they are baptized by immersion - to truly die to sin, to die to self, to die to the fears and anxieties that wash over us in waves.  We never go deep enough with Christ.  We are so afraid of losing control, of losing our lives, that we never go to the place where there is no sight or sound or security except for Jesus, his arms wrapped around us, never letting us go.

And so we sprinkle a few drops of water, a sweet little sacrament in which we oooh and aaah over the lace on the gown more than we do over the significance of the death and resurrection that have just taken place at the font.  All of our sacraments seem somehow miniature - a drop of water, a wafer of bread, a sip of wine... My liturgics professor in seminary said the occasion of God's grace at work in us is so significant that the symbols we use in worship should be as well.  Use enough water to drown in, he said.  Serve as much bread and wind to feed a multitude, with leftovers.  This is the nature of God's grace.

Baptism, for Jesus, was the moment at which he knew precisely who and whose he was.  You are my beloved.  It was the moment after which all moments were lived in and for God, in and for the good news that God loves, that God saves, that only God can quench our thirst for meaning, that only God can pull us from the waves of sin and doubt and fear that threaten our becoming who we were created to be.

What impact has baptism had on our lives?  Most of us in the Episcopal Church don't remember the moment of our baptism.  But we renew the promises made on our behalf over and again on feast days like today.  We remember the promises Christ made to us, that if we will die to ourselves and be buried with him we will also rise with him.  Far from being a sweet and safe sacrament, baptism is full of risk and danger and drama, as is a life truly lived not for ourselves but for the gospel.  What impact has baptism had on our lives?

We cannot help but wade out into a world in which wave after wave of obligation, need, fear, envy, temptation, sin, and grief threaten to sweep us off our feet and carry us out to sea.  By our baptism, though, we come to know precisely who and whose we are, beloved children of God, sealed by the power of the Holy Spirit, and marked as Christ's own for ever.  By our baptism we come to know that if we are willing to trust him, Christ will carry us and never let go, even when for a moment the waves overpower us.  By our baptism we come to know that we can cling to him and boldly confess, "Oh, Jesus!  Oh, Christ!  Oh, Savior!  Oh, Lord!"  Amen.

Artwork: Various photographs; "Baptism," by Eliz Kim; "Stormy Blue Waves," by Trine Meyer Vogsland.