on the sixth day of Christmas (December 30, 2017), my True Love gave to me the gift of hope

Note: These prayers, one for each day of the twelve-day Christmas season, in which my True Love is God, follow the pattern of that well-known 18th century English carol with a number of the days illumined by the observances of the Church calendar.

O gracious God, on this day, repeating an annual cycle – one day’s step from the end of a calendar year and one day’s step from the next – the world equally annually (alway?) seems enshrouded in winter’s gray of indifference and intolerance, inequality and iniquity.

Yet You, O gracious God, pour Your Self into the flesh of a baby of lowest earthly estate born to an unwed mother, laid in a feeding trough for animals,(1) and, hounded by authorities seeking his death, made to be a refugee.(2)

This, Your stupendous story pregnant with expectation, this Your stupefying mystery impregnable to all opposition, bears…is the light of hope that You and Your will, Your Word of Love incarnate(3) conquer all.

Amen.

 

Footnotes:
(1) See Luke 2.1-7
(2) See Matthew 2.13
(3) John 1.14

on the third day of Christmas (December 27, 2017, St. John, Apostle and Evangelist), my True Love gave to me the gift of steadfastness

Note: These prayers, one for each day of the twelve-day Christmas season, in which my True Love is God, follow the pattern of that well-known 18th century English carol with a number of the days illumined by the observances of the Church calendar.

O gracious God, Your Son Jesus spake that his most-loved disciple, John, would remain until he came again.(1) So, it hath been and is that through his work as an evangelist, his word standing the test of time o’er two millennia and spanning the world-round, John hath remained a stalwart witness of the good news of Jesus ‘til that hour of his return.

By Your Spirit, may I, in my day and time, as long as You grant me breath and strength, continue to be a steadfast witness of the gospel. Amen.

 

Footnote:
(1) See John 21.20-24

on the second day of Christmas (December 26, 2017, St. Stephen, Deacon and Martyr), my True Love gave to me the gift of sacrifice

Note: These prayers, one for each day of the twelve-day Christmas season, in which my True Love is God, follow the pattern of that well-known 18th century English carol with a number of the days illumined by the observances of the Church calendar.

O gracious God, Your servant Stephen, called by the first apostles to the ministry of service, proving himself imbued with Spirit-wisdom, went forth to proclaim the good news of Your Son Jesus; for the sake of which he, sharing the fate of Your Son, was slain.(1)

By Your Spirit, may I, emboldened by Stephen’s witness, holding fast to the soul of sacrifice, make no treaty with the temptations – seek no solace in the siren-songs – of comfort and convenience.

Yea, may I alway incline the ear of my heart to Your Apostle’s word: “In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus…I solemnly urge you: proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching.”(2)

Amen.

 

Footnotes:
(1) See Acts 6.1-7.60
(2) 2 Timothy 4.1a, 2

on the first day of Christmas (December 25, 2017, Christmas Day), my True Love gave to me the gift of the blessed babe born in the Bethlehem manger

Note: These prayers, one for each day of the twelve-day Christmas season, in which my True Love is God, follow the pattern of that well-known 18th century English carol with a number of the days illumined by the observances of the Church calendar.

O gracious God, I thank You for the gift of Your Son, Jesus; Your Love enfleshed in our mortal frame to be Emmanuel, “God with us” and to reveal to us who You are and who, from the dawn of creation, You have meant us to be by making us in Your image.

By the daily nurturance of Your Spirit, may the Christ Child be born again in the womb of my soul that I may grow, day by day, I pray, into the fullness of His likeness.

Amen.

first come, first served?

a sermon, based on Luke 2.1-14, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, at the late-night service on Christmas Eve, December 24, 2017

She gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

Detail of The Adoration of the Shepherds (Adorazione dei pastori) (1609), Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610)

Joseph and Mary, responding to the census decree of Emperor Augustus, journeyed from Nazareth, standing exhausted on the doorstep of a Bethlehem inn. It was full. Others had arrived ahead of them. First come, first served. But the innkeeper wasn’t heartless. He sent them to the stable. It was better than nothing. And that night Mary gave birth.

Tonight, I wonder about that innkeeper in the years that followed that night. In the years after Jesus began his public ministry. In the years when he made a name for himself, preaching, teaching, healing; some calling him “Rabbi”, others “Messiah”. I wonder if innkeeper ever wondered: “I wish I had had room in the inn.”

Tonight, I wonder about us, we who stand at the doors of our lives as innkeepers, choosing what and who we let in and keep out. The food we eat and don’t. The places we go and don’t. The people we meet and with whom we associate and don’t. The thoughts we contemplate, the feelings we embrace and don’t. The memories we entertain and don’t. The words we say, the deeds we do and don’t.

And, like Augustus, we’re emperors of the domain of our lives. Daily, we take a census. We count. Time, energy, money. Blessings and troubles. Appointments and commitments. Our days; calculating how much we can accomplish and, perhaps at times, contemplating how many we have left.

We’re innkeepers, the doors of our lives swinging both ways, letting in, keeping out and census-takers, always counting.

Tonight, I wonder if what we value, thus, allow into our lives, reflects who we are? Is there a match between what we embrace and what we embody? Harmony between what we believe and how we behave?

Ideally, yes. Yet we know sometimes it just ain’t so! Sometimes, we choose wrongly and count poorly. But in the pressured, split-second timing of daily living, we must deal with whatever or whoever comes first. Sometimes the most urgent thing is not the most important thing. Sometimes what separates the two is only a slight difference in the shade of significance. Whatever the case, though we want to make room for what matters, we must deal what’s at hand; what comes up now and next; like innkeepers following the rule of first come, first served.

Tonight, we celebrate the birth of Jesus. He is the meaning of Christmas. And that meaning is peace: “Peace on earth and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled.”(1) Christmas proclaims the reunion of earth and heaven, the reconciliation of what is, that is, the way we are and what is meant to be, that is, the way God created us. Peace born not only in Jesus, but also in us that every part of our lives is reunited, reconciled. That our choices of what and who we let into our lives and, yes, what and who we keep out, match who we are. That there is clarity and consistency in what we think and feel, intend and do. That we can live ever-attentive to what matters and no longer first come, first served.

 

Illustration: Detail of The Adoration of the Shepherds (Adorazione dei pastori) (1609), Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610)

Footnote:
(1) From the hymn, Hark, the herald angels sing; Words by Charles Wesley (1707-1788)

“Greetings, favored one!”

a sermon, based on Luke 1.26-38, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 4th Sunday of Advent, December 24, 2017

Reading again and reflecting anew on this story, commonly called the Annunciation, I think about our life’s stories, and I see in Mary a model for us of how to face the many sorts of announcements that come to us. Each of the following announcements, I either have experienced or, through nearly forty years of pastoral ministry, I have heard from the lips of others about their lives…

An executor of an estate announces that you are the beneficiary of the generous bequest of a loved one. An IRS agent announces you are the subject of an audit…

An employer announces that you have been promoted with increased responsibility and recompense or you have been transferred or discharged…

A partner or spouse arrives home announcing a new job opportunity requiring a reconfiguration of family finances or a geographical move…

A partner, spouse, or long-lived friend announces a change in your relationship – a greater connectedness or distance…

A therapist announces the next step in your hard-fought, long-sought journey toward wholeness…

A physician announces that your medical condition or that of a loved one has improved or has worsened.

Each of these annunciation experiences, desired or undesired, raises the specter of the unfamiliar, the uncertain, making it sometimes hard to know what to do. Mary, again, as a model for us, shows us how to be in the moment, listening, waiting for a clarifying revelation.

The Annunciation (1898), Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859-1937)

Gabriel appears. “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” Though Mary is familiar with the lore of her people Israel about how God speaks through angelic messengers, she has heard no such word. Now, she has and she is perplexed.

“Do not be afraid, for you have found favor with God.” Mary would conceive and bear a son, Jesus, who would reign on the throne of David in an everlasting kingdom. For an oppressed people in an occupied land overrun by the Roman Empire, this is a thrilling word of hope, fulfilling an age-old prophecy of liberation.

But Mary is a virgin, thus, Gabriel’s message abounds with logical and biological impossibilities. “How can this be?”

“The Holy Spirit will come upon you.” Then Gabriel offers an anticipatory sign, a revelation concerning Elizabeth, who “also conceived…(although she) was said to be barren; for nothing (is) impossible with God.”

“Here I am…let it be with me according to your word.” Mary’s assent is no docile denial of her own will in the face of divine fiat. (Verily, I believe if the only answer Mary can give is “yes” and, thus, she is not granted the freedom to say “no”, then her “yes” wouldn’t be true.) Hers is the “yes” of faith; her conscious acceptance of a new thing, literally, a new creation and with it, a new meaning of and for her life.

The Annunciation. A story of the announcement of the coming of salvation within human history. A story about Mary and her embrace, verily, her embodiment of that divine Word.

Many are the announcements that come to us. May we, like Mary, remain present in the moment, listening, waiting for a clarifying revelation. For even, perhaps especially in the most unlikely, undesirable circumstances, we never can know when an angel may appear calling to us, “Greetings, favored one!”, calling us to bear the life of Jesus in the wombs of our souls, calling us, through our response, to bring the life of Jesus more greatly into the world.

 

Illustration: The Annunciation (1898), Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859-1937). Note: I love Tanner’s depiction of The Annunciation – the muted earth tones of the room, for me, expressive of groundedness in the reality of time and space and of the moment of divine-human encounter, Mary, with her hands-clasped prayerful posture, looking upward with patient expectation, and Gabriel, not portrayed in human form, but rather as the pure light of heavenly illumination.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

sue God?

a sermon, based on Isaiah 61.1-4, 8-11 and John 1.6-8, 19-28reached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 3rd Sunday of Advent, December 17, 2017

Isaiah (1896-1902), James Tissot

Over 2500 years ago, the people Israel, after nearly fifty years of captivity in Babylon, were free. For a second time, they would journey to the Promised Land. The prophet Isaiah marked the auspicious occasion with this word of hope: “The spirit of the Lord God is upon me…anoint(ing) me…to bring good news to the oppressed…the brokenhearted…the captives…(and) all who mourn.”

By contrast, stories of this past week from around the globe screamed the sorrowful news of the daily revivals of ancient animosities, civil unrest, escalating terrorist violence, and, perhaps most ominously, steps forward and backward and forward again toward the threshold of war with North Korea.

Reading Isaiah, then looking at the world, where is the good news to the oppressed, brokenhearted, captive, and mourning? It’s been 2500 years! Plenty of time for God to bring this glorious vision to light and life. Sometimes, when I think things never will get better, I feel like suing God for breach of promise!

But one thing gives me pause. My belief that we humans bear responsibility for the state of the world. Yes, we pray: “Stir up your power, O Lord, and…come among us…we (who) are sorely hindered by our sins…to help and deliver us.” Yet what seems an honest confession of our need can sound like our abdication of our accountability; our all-too-facile admission of our failings so to absolve ourselves of our guilt and grief over the mess we have made of this world. Perhaps we should sue ourselves, declare moral bankruptcy, and throw ourselves on the mercy of the Court of Cosmic Claims (or Crimes, as the circumstances may warrant)!

However, accepting our responsibility immediately raises the question: For what? And if the “what” are the big and abiding problems of our world – hunger, homelessness, economic disparities between rich and poor, the destruction of the environment, racism, sexism – then every one of us, whether one individual, one community, one congregation, one nation, with limited energy and resources, immediately is overwhelmed.

So, what do we do?

John can help us. To the question, “Who are you?” he confessed, declared, “I am not the Messiah!” that is, in common parlance, to say, “I’m not God!”

Saint John the Baptist and the Pharisees (Saint Jean-Baptiste et les pharisiens), 1886-1894, James Tissot (1836-1902)

John then described himself in terms of his life’s mission: “I am a voice crying in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord’”, thereby, reminding all of their responsibility. If the vision of good news to the oppressed, brokenhearted, captive, and mourning had not then and has not yet dawned, perhaps it was they then and we now have not done all we could do to bring it to light and life.

Thus, in response to the question, What do we do?, which is another way of answering the question, Who are we?, following John, we are to be those who always are mindful of our responsibilities for and to the world. It isn’t about whether we always fulfill our responsibilities. We never always fulfill anything. Ultimately, that’s God’s job. Our job, individually and communally, is to be aware and alert to human need and to our resources (not worrying about what we don’t have and acknowledging what we do have!) and to our commitment to respond, and then in the name of the One for whom we Advent-wait, to make straight the way of the Lord, that is to say, to do something.

 

Illustrations:
Isaiah (1896-1902), James Tissot (1836-1902)
Saint John the Baptist and the Pharisees (Saint Jean-Baptiste et les pharisiens), James Tissot

Footnote:
(1) Full text of the Collect for the Third Sunday of Advent: Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us; and, because we are sorely hindered by our sins, let your bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory, now and for ever. Amen.