Sunday, December 22, 2019

God is with us: A Homily for Blue Christmas

St. Thomas Episcopal, Year A 
12-22-19 Texts: Isaiah 7:10-16, Matthew 1:18-25 

Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: 
“Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” 
which means, “God is with us.” When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife,but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus. 
O come, O Bright and Morning Star, and bring us comfort from afar! Dispel the shadows of the night and turn our darkness into light. 
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel. 
In the name of God, who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen. 

“God is with us. 
After “Do not be afraid” those are probably some of the best and kindest words spoken in the Gospels. And yet...they can also feel like a hollow promise, especially when we are feeling cut off from God, isolated and alone.   
Our gospel reading doesn’t speak directly to these feelings. But if we consider the situation presented, we can rightly get a glimpse of what was happening for the Holy family of Joseph and Mary.  
“Before they were engaged...Mary is pregnant by the Holy Spirit.”  
Not by Joseph. Such a situation was troublesome for Mary, a young woman, who is carrying a child she’s been told will save her people who are living under oppressed and corrupt circumstances. That’s a lot to take in...and having to tell this to your beloved with whom you haven’t had sexual relations. “Joseph...I’m pregnant by the Holy Spirit.”  
Imagine Joseph in this situation. He loves Mary. She has promised to be his wife. But she’s pregnant. And he’s not the father. This is scandalous. He is aware of the danger he will be putting Mary in if he exposes her. This is an honor/shame society they’re living in, and not only will this bring shame upon her and will mean that Mary can be ostracized for this betrayal, put out from her community. And with no knowledge of who is the father, her child would be permanently cut off. Such a life would likely have led to them being beggars and her child may have failed to thrive.   
It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to understand the sense of loss, feeling broken and the fear that is hanging like a cloud over both of them 
Can Mary trust Joseph to believe her?  
As for Joseph...can he think his way to a resolution of this seemingly impossible situation?  
Can he love her enough to let her go quietly so that she isn’t killed by the cruelty of the culture? 
Enter the angel into Joseph’s dream. We hear the words, “Do not be afraid” and the promise that this child is “God is with us.” Through his own doubt, and sense of feeling isolated and having to solve what he thinks of as a problem...Joseph is reassured that he is not carrying a burden; he’s being entrusted to keep Mary and this child safe.  He follows through...and we learn in later verses in this Gospel that he keeps listening to the visitors in his dreams and hurries his young family off to Egypt to escape persecution. They are a strange and foreign land...seeking shelter from a rageful and jealous King Herod. 
And it is into this troublesome, uncertain, and filled-with-worry world in which Jesus is born.   
“God is with us” does not come into safety and security with soft-focus Hallmark lighting.  
“God is with us” in the time when things feel the most off-kilter and out-of-balance.  
“God is with us” and meets us where we are in whatever state of mind or condition that is...and remains with us through the highs and lows of life. This is the Christian hope which comes to us at Christmas time. 
The visual reminder of this promise is in the Advent candles that we’ll be lighting in a few moments. As we look into those flames dancing on the end of the wick, I invite us all to see the promise of light penetrating through the clouds of our conscious minds. This light shines into our hearts the eternal reminder that God is with and always.  

Sunday, December 8, 2019

Possibilities and Transformation

Sermon 2 Advent, Year A
Isaiah 11:1-10; Ps.72; Romans 15:4-13; Matt 3:1-12

(10am: May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be always acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.)

If I were to pick two words that I see as themes of our readings this morning they would be “potential” and “transformation.” 
There is such potential arising from the stump of Jesse…a shoot…a small twig…sprouting up out of dead wood. A light shines upon the shoot…a spirit of wisdom and insight and counsel is present. And then—imagine this? --wolves and lambs, calves and lions, cows and bears are all living together in peace on God’s holy mountain. In our translation, there is a little boy who leads this menagerie. The Hebrew—in some translations—is that the boy will herd them, which might make more sense given this unusual grouping of animals. 
There is even potential harmony in Paul’s letter to the Romans as Jews welcome Gentiles into the fold and the two are grafted together into the love of Christ.
And then there is John the Baptizer calling out in the wilderness: 
“Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight!” 
He’s like a trumpet sounding a blast to alert the populace: a new thing is coming! Come! Repent…which is to say turn over a new leaf in your life… get baptized in the River Jordan and be transformed! 
When the Pharisees and the Sadducees show up…(speaking of odd pairings?!)…John blasts them with some tough love…and yet he tells them to “bear fruit worthy of repentance.” There is still the potential for them…these keepers of the old…to become part of the new. For John, this is a demand that these two groups let go of their fixations on how one is to worship God and transform their “right way to do things” into the task of doing “the right thing” of God’s work: feeding, healing and caring for one another.
There is so much potential in all of these readings, so much promise. So much opportunity to hit the reset button and live differently and be renewed. 
And yet…these visions are not fully realized. The peaceable kingdom of Isaiah forecasts an amazing future…in this case a future for a post-war people of Israel. But it is only a vision.
The fledgling Jewish Christian communities of the early church will undergo many breaks and accusations of who can be a real follower of The Way.
And while the prophet Isaiah paints such a hopeful and shiny portrait of tranquility in the future, John is prophesying something wild and definitely disruptive. His is the potential of upending the current world order, one in which the religious authorities of the Temple, the Sadducees, and the keepers of the Law, the Pharisees, are considered “a brood of vipers.” And we all know snakes pose a threat in the Biblical story. John is predicting the arrival of someone wilder, woolier, more radical than himself who will bring a fire of baptism of the Holy Spirit. And that Spirit is going to burn away all the rot. Just wait and see!
In many ways, our biblical theme of seeing a future of what could be, what might be, what ought to be shouldn’t feel that foreign to us. Humanity always seems to be on the cusp of turning a corner and overcoming the things that ail us. We always seem to have great potential…but are full greatness lies just ahead of us. In this country, we have mass production of food and yet we have children who are hungry.  More women are in the professional work force with a third of all lawyers now being women and yet wage inequality between the sexes still exists. We support our troops, and yet too many veterans end up in homeless shelters. We promise racial equality…yet the systems remain in place that undercut that pledge. Oh, yes: The kingdom of heaven is near…and yet it has not arrived. 
Is there hope for ushering in a new heaven and new earth? 
Because there is a shoot…a twig…growing out of the old stump of Jesse.  New life is coming and is possible. It begins with following the call of John the Baptizer for us…each of us…to enter into a time in the wilderness and do the work of inner transformation. A time to reconsider priorities, and remember the mission of God, so that we can go about the task of healing, caring, and freeing our community to receive God’s gift of abundant and unconditional love that God so wants to bestow upon us. When we become reformed and reshaped…our transformation manifests in the spaces we inhabit. A prime example? Right here.
Just in the few months I’ve been with you I am seeing this image of this shoot as a perfect metaphor for St. Monica and St. James. 
This parish family has certainly known challenges over the past decade. Two congregations have become one body in Christ. Pruning has had to happen with the sale of the rectory. And the construction and refurbishing of the physical space has led to some periods that might have felt a little bit like venturing out into the wilderness. And yet something such as the installation of an elevator points to the potential of full access for all people to our newly painted worship space. 
At the town hall meeting two weeks ago, Father William noted some of the changes in our parish hall and the office area downstairs. The remodeling has such potential to bring in new life into this space and make this building a place of meeting God both in the quiet of worship and in active community engagement. 
All these grace-filled possibilities, all this God-given potential…lies ahead of us. Something new can happen…if we dare to dream it into reality. And it all begins with us tending to ourselves, welcoming in what is new, and allowing for the transformation to happen. 
We’re not there yet. But the possibilities lie before us.
May this Advent be a time for us to strive for our greater potential through our own transformation both in our hearts and in our house of worship. And let us do this so we can prepare the way for those who are seeking Christ in our community.