Monday, March 9, 2015

The Chair in the Doorway

Sermon for Year B Lent 3
March 8, 2015
Cathedral Church of St. Paul, Burlington, VT
The Rev. Jeanne Finan

The Chair in the Doorway

...sixteen tons and what do you get
another day older and deeper in debt.
St. Peter don’t you call me cause I can’t go
I owe my soul to the Company Store....

This is an old Johnny Cash song,

A song about the life of coal miners who can’t make ends meet
no matter how hard they work.
By the end of the month the only option to feed their families
is to shop at the Company Store
where everything costs triple--or more---
and where they just keep going deeper and deeper and deeper
into debt.

Today we call it predatory lending.
It still happens.
People who can’t make it to payday get a loan.
The typical two-week payday loan
usually has an annual interest rate of around 400 %.
Yes, you heard me correctly.

These loans are not rare.
The estimate is that 12 million Americans
are trapped every year in this cycle of payday loans.
And we wonder why the poor stay poor?
Why those on the margins can’t ever get ahead?

Now the good news is that in Vermont
payday loans for exorbitant interest rates are illegal.
But yes, there are loopholes
(it seems there are always loopholes)--
but we are fortunate to live in a state
that realizes that the Company Store mentality
is not a good thing
not good for our communities
and certainly not good for individuals.

We hear in today’s gospel
that Jesus doesn’t care much
for the Company Store way of business either.

People are coming
from all over the Roman Empire to Jerusalem.
It’s probably around the year 32
and it is the season of Passover.
A very holy season.

According to their traditions,
each family is expected to make an offering to God in the temple.
This offering is usually a lamb, perhaps a calf,
or if you are of limited means, a dove.

But if you own no livestock,
if you’re poor,
or if you have had to travel a long distance
which means you could not bring an animal with you,
you have to purchase the animal
once you arrive at the Temple.

The temple merchants are greedy.
Their livestock offerings are priced off the charts.

In addition you also must pay a temple tax.

Here’s where the money changers come in.

You cannot use your regular money,
you cannot pay in the currency from your own region.
These coins are not allowed in the Temple,
because Caesar’s money--
or any coin with the image of a secular ruler-- was “unholy”.

You have to change your everyday coins into temple money,
into shekels, the local Jerusalem currency.
The money changers made quite a hefty profit
on each exchange.

It would be a very shallow interpretation of this scripture
to think that Jesus is upset
about items being sold in the temple.

Jesus is upset--very upset--
because people are cheating other human beings,
people are very purposefully taking advantage of others,
especially the poor.

Jesus is not turning over the money changers tables
because he thinks money is bad.
He is not chasing the merchants out of the temple
because he doesn’t want anything sold there.

We must not forget that there are very good merchants,
generous corporations,
who care about individuals and about communities.

Even in today’s market-driven world
so many of you
work incredibly hard on the various events and fund raisers
here at St. Paul’s.
So you can give money to others.

You don’t get richer.
The Cathedral doesn’t get richer.
We raise money
to give it away.

But in so many ways that DOES make us richer.

Christmas wreaths.
Tree saplings.
Silent auctions.

Spaghetti dinners.

There are many ways to work for justice.
Yes, our labor is important.
Our voices are essential.
But we must not scoff at raising money
or writing a check or giving away money.
Because this is another way
to make a dent in an unjust system.

We must not forget prayer and worship
for these, too, weaken the ropes that bind
the oppressed.

To give for the common good--
whether with our bodies, our creativity, our worship
or our wallets--or all of the above--
this is the good news made real and alive.
This is all justice work.

Jesus is standing in the Temple,
whip in hand,
looking a bit like Indiana Jones.

Jesus is calling for a boycott of the Company Store mentality.
Jesus is angry about injustice
and those who perpetuate it.

Jesus calls us to be angry too--
not a senseless violent rage
but an anger that is born of love and compassion
for our fellow human beings and this world we inhabit.

An anger that will strengthen us
to believe that we can make a difference.

One of my many favorite poems is one by Libby Lindsay.
Here it is:

My father left when I was eight years old.
Mom had six kids to raise.
She was educated but never worked outside the home.
Father didn’t allow that.
She had never written a check.
The money was his domain.
She didn’t know about debts he had made--
debts she became responsible for.

She went on welfare.
In 1965 the maximum benefit was $ 165 a month.
We were strangers in Boone County--no family,
no one to turn to for help but the
church we attended.
Men came to repossess our furniture.

Mom called the pastor.
He came to our house and sat in a chair
in the doorway
and wouldn’t let them take the furniture.

I’m forty now but I’ve never forgotten that.

I’ve never forgotten that.

We are constantly called
to be the people that will come and sit in a chair in the doorway
for someone else,
for someone who has been pushed to the margins,
for someone who is being beat up by bullies
over and over and over.

You do not need to be a pastor or priest or ordained in any way
to block the doorway against injustice.

We promise in our baptismal covenant
to strive for justice and peace
among all people
and respect the dignity of every human being.

We need to show up to sit in those chairs.
We need to care more about others than ourselves.

We all need to do a little spring cleaning of our own lives,
It is so easy to judge and criticize others,
especially the poor, the excluded, those who are different--
when really,
we ought to be turning over some of the sharp-edged tables
in our own lives,
and looking deeply into our own souls.

And yes, I feel certain that the merchants and the money changers
have their own story to tell as well.

But the gospel story today is clear.

Injustice is not alright.
Keeping silent is not acceptable.
Being too busy is not an excuse.
We are called to work together to protect the vulnerable
from having their souls
owed to the company store.

This fight against injustice
is the journey
to save our own souls as well.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Bear Season

Sermon for Year B Lent 1
February 22, 2014
Cathedral Church of St. Paul
The Very Rev. Jeanne Finan


Mark 1:9-15

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased."
And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.
Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news."

On Ash Wednesday,
we began our journey into Lent.
But I really think Lent began on Shrove Tuesday.

We gathered in this nave and sang.
I mean we really sang.
People of all ages and preferences
called out numbers from the hymnal
and Mark Howe played and we sang.
The nave was full--
of people and of music and of great joy.

some hurried straight downstairs
to pancakes and maple syrup and bacon and sausage.
Because you see, while we were upstairs singing
there was another crew downstairs,
setting out silverware and flipping pancakes and frying up sausage
and getting the dishwasher geared up--
making ready.
Getting ready to practice what we preach about loving and serving others.

Did I mention that the entire church was filled with glorious smells
of those pancakes getting done just right,
to that bacon crisping?
An incense everyone can live with!

After the hymn sing, a few of us went out into the cold,
into the Memorial Garden where Anthony had set up a metal fire pit
and we set a great bundle of dried palms on fire.
We stood there as they burned into ash.
For our Ash Wednesday service.
Remember that you are dust
and to dust you shall return.

Shrove Tuesday and Ash Wednesday are, to me,
the double doors into Lent.
We embrace all that is delicious,
and then we let it go.
We embrace how much we enjoy life
and then we acknowledge
that yes, we know life is very short.

This is Jesus talking here in Mark’s gospel.

What does repent mean?
Essentially it means CHANGE.
Turn around. Go a different way.

Find a new door that will open your heart.

Speaking of doors,
ome of you may have seen the video I posted on my Facebook page this week---
the one with the bears?

This video was made in North Carolina, sent to me by a friend,
shot from a second story balcony overlooking the driveway.
Now in the driveway is our friend’s brand new Honda CRV.
And she’s shooting this video to show off their new car
and then, enter on the scene
these four bear cubs.

Not little tiny bear cubs
but more like teenager bear cubs.
Two of them immediately bound up the steps onto the deck
just below where she is standing.

But the other two go right to the brand new Honda CRV.
And guess what?
A bear can open an unlocked car door.
I kid you not.
One of the bear cubs immediately,
opens the car door--
and climbs inside.
Climbs inside their brand new car.
And then the second cub
climbs inside.

And then the two cubs up on the deck look down
and it’s as if they say,
“Hey! What are you guys doing? That looks like fun!”
And down they go
and a third cub climbs into the car
and the fourth one is just about to hop aboard
when the owner of the car,
the husband of the woman making the video,
just can’t take it any longer
and he comes bounding out of the back door,
door slamming behind him,
and the bears start coming out of that car
like clowns exiting a circus car.

Out they come and out of the driveway
and back across the road towards the woods.

And then,
and then the man
(he must be insane!!)
goes down the steps towards the car--
the bears have now turned and are watching him--
he goes to the car door and sticks his head into the car.

My brothers and sisters in Christ,
I don’t care how much Jesus loves you,
do not stick your head into a car to check if there are any more bears
still in your car!

The car must be bear free
because he slams the car door shut and
looks over at the bears
as if to say,
‘I win.”

And at that moment,
the largest of the bear cubs starts running right towards him.
Have you ever seen a human being fly up a flight of stairs?!!
It can happen!
He quickly realized that

So what on earth do bears have to do with Lent?

Lent is a season to remind us of the bears.
The bears in our lives that come out of nowhere.
The bears that surprise us, that shock us,
that throw us off balance.

Sometimes we believe we have created an impenetrable and safe fortress
to surround us and those we love--
no one can harm us.

But then we learn that some bears
are far more clever
than we ever imagined.

The bears open the door
and take their place in the driver’s seat.

The place where we thought only we sat.
We realize we have lost control.
We probably never really had control
but we thought we did.

Those bears are not named Papa and Mama and Baby bear.
These bears are a medical diagnosis we did not want,
the breakup and loss of a relationship that we believed was forever,
a spiral into an old addiction.
or even
someone we love moving on to a new adventure--
without us.

And yes, we can take a run at chasing the bears away--
and sometimes that works, that’s helpful--
but sometimes the bears turn around
and chase right after us.
Bears are fast.

Lent is a good season to be mindful of  the bears.
To pay attention to those things in our lives
that we can’t control.

I know for some of you,
it was quite a surprise to learn
that our Priest Associate Diane
is leaving the Cathedral in April.

It is hard to let go of people who have become a vital part of the life
of a community.
Change is difficult
even when a decision might be for the best,
it doesn’t make it less difficult.

Even before Diane’s decision,
a parishioner said to me,
“It feels like the Cathedral has been in transition for ever.”

That comment took me to my bookshelf
where I pulled out William Bridges’ book,
It was on my bookshelf but I had never read it.
And I thought,
I better read this book
and get some help on how to move the Cathedral out of transition.

Only what I discovered as I read
is that we never move out of transition.
That is impossible.
Because we are always in transition.
We are always changing.
The challenge is to accept,
and yes, even to welcome, change.

We need to learn to step away from our fears--
yes, there may be some bears out there
but we will never get to enjoy the ride
if we lock ourself in our house.
God is constantly calling us to change,
to accept challenges
that are outside of our comfort zone.

Diane has made a decision
to involve herself more fully
in her ministry with Kids4Peace.
That decision changes things for Diane
and for us.

Jesus goes to be baptized by John.
That decision changes things for Jesus--
and for us.

When Jesus calls us to “repent”
maybe what he is saying is,
“Come on in.
The waters of change are just fine,
the temperature is just right.
Well, just right after you’ve been in the water for awhile!”

Change is not the bear.
Our fears of change are the bears.

Back in Advent,  I had the gift of reading a manuscript,
loaned to me by a friend.
The manuscript is titled
Good News, Bad News (According to Mark).
It's pretty magnificent.
I am re-reading the manuscript in Lent.

As I read this week, the line that struck me was this:

We don’t walk into the kingdom without the hope of something better.

We don’t walk into the kingdom without the hope of something better.

Lent is the season that calls us to keep walking.
Bears or no bears,
keep walking.
Keep walking.


Sermon for the Conversion of St. Paul
January 25, 2015
Cathedral Church of St. Paul
The Very Rev. Jeanne Finan


Paul is telling his story to King Agrippa.
Most likely he is standing there in chains
before this august group of Roman leaders,
royally seated upon their ruling seats of power.
Agrippa is the last of King Herod’s descendants.

Paul is telling his conversion story
and all the story that came after that experience on the road
to Damascus.

What does it mean to convert?

We can convert inches to centimeters,
kilograms to pounds,
dollars to euros.
Our bodies convert food to energy.

But Paul’s conversion has nothing to do with learning the metric systerm,
or getting travel money
or learning to count calories.
Or even making a conscious decision to convert from one faith tradition
to another.

Paul’s conversion is a conversion of the heart.
And it was dramatic and unexpected and stunning.
Even as he stands here in front of the King,
twenty-five years or so after he saw the bright light and heard the voice
that would change the entire course of his life,
even now, it is still so vivid it feel like it was yesterday.
Paul tells his story with passion.

On the morning of that day of conversion,
Saul woke up---
that’s right, he went by the name of Saul at that time--
he was a Pharisee and he did not like the “saints”--
his name for Christians.

It wasn’t that Saul was evil or cruel;
he was a faithful man
he believed these Christians were way off base.
He did not believe that Jesus was the Messiah
and he resented those followers of Jesus going around
spreading the “good news”
because it was upsetting his orderly world.
Saul believed he was doing the right thing to persecute Christians,
to get rid of them.
Saul had not a doubt that he was right.

But on that day, traveling to Damascus, everything changes.
There is a light, there is a voice, and in the course of three days,
Saul realizes how wrong he has been.
Saul is so changed that he receives a new name--Paul--
and a new life.

The Hebrew word which translates to “convert”
means to turn back or to return.
The word can also mean restore--
as it does in Psalm 23--
God restores my soul.

God converts my soul.

Convert in a religious context, in a scriptural context
means to return us, to restore us,
 to what we are created to be.
Conversion restores us to the relationship with God
that was always intended.

Somewhere along the way
we may have gotten lost,
or maybe we never even got started,
but something happens
and we find ourselves changed beyond rational explanation.

The direction of our life takes a turn.
It as if a compass is placed in our hand
and now we know how to find the way home.

This is what happened to Paul on the road to Damascus.
He wasn’t seeking conversion.
He thought he knew the direction and purpose of his life.
Paul is just as amazed, just as stunned, as everyone who knew him.

There is another amazing thing about this story in Acts.
King Agrippa is almost converted.
He almost believes Paul.
We have to read ahead a few verses
but if we did, in verse 28 we would hear
King Agrippa speaking to Paul and saying,
Are you so quickly persuading me to become a Christian?

King Agrippa is almost convinced.

Paul will not be freed. He will go to jail. He will be executed.
But King Agrippa hears the passion
of a man who has found his way.

Many of us would love to have a conversion experience
as clear and as dramatic and as convincing as Paul’s.
Probably some of you have had that type of experience.
It might not be something you share very often
but dramatic, mysterious conversion experiences still happen.

Why is it full steam ahead for some of us
but only “almost” for others
and for some, it is never more than “you must be kidding me”?

Frederick Buechner writes:

“If only Paul had been a little more eloquent.
If only Agrippa had been a little more receptive, a little braver,
a little crazier.
If only God weren't such a stickler
for letting people make up their own minds without forcing their hands.”

Buechner is right.
God lets us make up our own minds.
God gives us free will to make the decision.

Conversion is a total overhaul of our hearts.
It can happen in a split second flash of brightness
or it can happen slowly,
following one teeny tiny blinking LED bulb
along a winding path.
Or we can keep the door barred and say, No. No, thank you.

Some of you have spent the last three days here at the Cathedral
watching the simulcast of the Trinity Institute.
Some of us, for a variety of reasons,
followed along on our iPads at home or as we traveled.

This year’s theme “Creating the Common Good”
focused on economic inequality,
the growing gap between the have’s and the have not’s,
and the gospel imperative to fight economic oppression.

This conference has not been about personal conversion
but about collective conversion.
How is God working with us, with our churches,
to speak out against injustice?

St. Paul has some wise counsel for us.
Remember that he was not afraid to speak the truth to power.
He stood in chains before King Agrippa but he stood.
And he spoke.

The Bible--both Old Testament and New Testament--
calls us repeatedly to confront the powers and principalities
and speak up.
Many of us are very fortunate, very blessed,
and God calls us
to use our privilege and power
to bring about God’s kingdom on earth.
Nothing tells us to wait for heaven.

Paul also shows us that we all have need for repentance,
for a change of heart in some ways.
Paul had no agenda when he was persecuting Christians,
just as we have no agenda to oppress the poor.

But God always calls us to listen and to look closely--
especially when we think we are so very right--
and so very not-guilty of any offense.

We are already at work.
JUMP provides direct services.
VIA works to change systems that are broken.
SASH offers our senior citizens, often some of the poorest of our citizens,
    care and comfort.
Cathedral Square Housing has almost 800 people on their waiting list.
800 people who need safe, clean affordable housing.
We recycle. We compost.
We cook meals and serve at the Salvation Army and other shelters.

We pray.
Yes, prayer matters.
Never believe that it doesn’t.

We are blessed to have so many ways to engage,
to engage in creating the common good.

Everyone is needed.
God’s heart is open to all of us.
Conversion is about opening our hearts to God
    but also opening our hearts to one another,
    even the others we don’t know,
    the others we don’t know much about.

In the words of our patron saint St. Paul,
If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels,
but do not have love,
I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.

Conversion is about love.
God loving us so much that the desire is to draw us closer
   and to have us live the life God dreams for us.

Conversion is about love.
Us loving God so much
    that we really believe
that we can change the world.

Listening for God

January 18, 2015
Cathedral Church of St. Paul, Burlington, Vermont
The Very Rev. Jeanne Finan

Listening for God

Hannah wanted a baby.
Scripture doesn’t tell us much about her husband Elkanah
and his desires,
but we do know that Hannah longed for a child.

She prayed to God for a baby
She sat at the doorway into the sanctuary of the Temple in Shiloh
and prayed and prayed.
Please, God...listen.

The priest Eli saw her and heard her praying--
she was praying so fervently and so non-stop
that at first he thought something was wrong with her--
this constant mumbling of prayers over and over and over.

But when he Eli talks with Hannah,
he realizes the goodness of her heart.
He blesses Hannah and she is then blessed and becomes a mother.
She has a little boy
and she names him Samuel.
Some say that Samuel means God has heard.

God has heard your prayers, Hannah.

In gratitude Hannah dedicates Samuel to God
and after he is weaned he goes to live in the Temple
to serve and to be educated by the priest Eli.

One night, when Samuel is around 12, maybe 13 years old,
he hears a voice calling his name.
“Samuel, Samuel.”
It is so distinct that it wakes him from sleep.

Samuel thinks it is the priest Eli calling him.
So he gets up and goes to Eli
and asks, “What do you need?”

Eli tells Samuel,
“I don’t need anything. I never said a word.
I was asleep.”

So Samuel goes back to bed
and back to sleep.
But he hears the voice call his name again.
Samuel. Samuel.

And again Samuel goes to Eli
and again Eli says,
“Samuel, I did not call you.”

But then,after this happens three times,
Eli understands-- that someone IS calling Samuel.
It is not Eli.
It is God.

God is calling Samuel to become the leader that is needed at that time.
God is calling Samuel to do a new thing,
to restore what is falling apart,
to build up what is being torn down.

God is calling Samuel to break the news to Eli
that his own sons will not take over his position of authority and power,
but this boy--this young boy Samuel--
is the one that God has chosen to lead.

How do we know when God is calling us?
Often that voice is not as clear as it was for Samuel.
We may not have an Eli handy to interpret for us
in the middle of a dark night.

What is God saying to YOU? What is God saying to me? To us?
What is God calling us to be, to do?

We need to understand that answering God’s call
is not always easy or pretty.
Indeed, Samuel is going to face many challenges.
as will Jesus and his disciples.

Even in this season of Epiphany,
as we count the stars shining in the heavens,
we are on a journey that will soon cross over into Lent
and Holy Week and we will find ourselves once again
at the foot of the cross.

Listening to God is accepting risk,
Doing the right thing often has a hefty price tag.

About a week ago Tom and I went to see the movie SELMA.
We both found it to be an excellent film,
a film which brought back memories,
both good and very bad
from the time when we ourselves were teenagers.

I remember Selma.
I was not there.
But Selma came into my house via the television
in our living room in Raleigh, North Carolina.
Selma entered into my very protected white middle class world
as it was spread out upon the front pages of the newspapers.

Like many people in the United States,
my parents
were horrified at what happened in Selma.

My parents were not activists in the civil rights movement.

but they knew wrong from right
and they knew that people were people.
regardless of the color of their skin.
They knew it was wrong to bludgeon an unarmed person with a billy club.

People marched in Selma
because they had heard God calling them to freedom from oppression.
They did what they believed was right,
what they believed was right in God’s eyes.

The first march took place on March 7, 1965.
They were marching from Selma to the state capitol of Montgomery
to speak out for voting rights.

That march, often known as “Bloody Sunday,”
involved about 600 marchers.
Those marchers--men and women,
young and old--
were viciously attacked
as they crossed over the Edmund Pettus Bridge after leaving Selma.
Alabama State troopers and County officials
attacked the unarmed marchers with billy clubs and tear gas.

And it was televised around the world.

The second march took place two days later
when Martin Luther King, Jr,
along with clergy of many different faith traditions
led a much larger crowd over the bridge once more.

Only this time when the marchers and the troopers and the police
confronted each other,
the troopers stepped aside.
Was it a trick? A trap?
What did it mean?
None of the marchers, none of the leaders of the march, know.

There is a powerful scene in the film
when King and the marchers stand there motionless--
and then King and all the religious leaders kneel
and then the marchers lined up for miles behind them kneel
and they bow their heads and they pray.
They listen.

They let go of their agenda and their plans
and they listen.

After they pray--
and this is no twenty second toss up prayer--
King stands and turns
and leads the marchers
back to the church where they had begun.

Some people are upset,
angry that they did not keep marching;
but others understand that Martin Luther King, Jr.
and some of the other leaders that day
felt that God called them to turn around,
to wait for the promised court order that would hopefully offer protection
for the marchers to travel safely from Selma to Montgomery.

Tragically, that very night, James Reeb,
a Unitarian Universalist minister from Boston,
who had come to Selma with thousands of others
to march in the second march,
was beaten to death by a group of angry white men.

Answering God’s call can be dangerous.
Even deadly.
But it can also make a difference.

Bloody Sunday and Reeb’s death led to a national outcry
and motivated the passing of a new federal voting rights law
to enable African Americans to register and vote without harassment.

There was a third march that began in Selma on March 25.
That group of marchers--now over 25,000 in number--
made it from Selma to Montgomery to speak in support of voting rights.

God keeps calling,
calling us to root out the hatred and fear
that is still breeding--
not only in this country but throughout the world.

God calls us to monitor carefully the little seeds
of fear and prejudice and anger
that breed in our own hearts.

God seeks to shine light into every dark nook and cranny
of injustice and oppression.
And yes, there are still a lot of dark nooks and crannies.

We are God’s hands and feet in this world.
This is no accident.

At times we are called to speak and to act,
but at times we are called to be quiet,
to be absolutely silent and to listen.
To be still.

God hears us and our prayers
but God also wants to be heard.

Feast not Facts

Sermon for the Feast of the Epiphany
Tuesday, January 6, 2015
Cathedral Church of St. Paul, Burlington, Vermont
The Very Rev. Jeanne Finan

Feast not facts

Some of us are old enough to remember watching the original,
or young enough to have seen the re-runs,
of the television program DRAGNET.

Remember Sargent Joe Friday?
One of favorite lines was, “Just the facts, m’am.”
Just the facts.

Sargent Friday would have a struggle finding the facts
when it comes to the Feast of Epiphany.

Because you see so many of the “facts” about Epiphany—
well, they’re not really “facts” at all.

For example,
We sing the hymn (which I love!)
“We three kings.”

There is not one word in the gospel
that says these men are kings.
The only king mentioned is Herod.
Perhaps when you heard Matthew’s gospel,
you were thinking,
Hmmm…it must be in one of the other gospels
where we are told these men are kings.

The story of the magi, the wise men,
is found in only one gospel—Matthew.

And yes, it only says they are wise men—
it never says kings.
Our tradition has made them kings—
probably because of the extravagant gifts they bring—
gold, frankincense and myrrh.

And where are the camels?
We hear of camels in Isaiah, yes.
In most of our crèche scenes,
the wise men are always traveling with their camels.
Sorry. Not factual.
Not one word in Matthew’s gospel
about a camel—not even a donkey in this story.
The magi could have been walking.
We don’t have any facts about how they traveled.

Tradition-- but not scripture—
also gives us the names of these kings—
(some stories tell us he was King of Arabia)
(he was the elderly one with the grey hair—
King of Persia)
And finally Caspar
(though sometimes you see his name written
as Gaspar or even Jasper)—
he was the young one, King of India.

Of course these names are not in the Bible.
But they have become part of the story.

And then there is that number: three.
Scripture never tells us there are three of them.
They are simply referred to as “wise men from the East.”

Orthodox tradition says there were 12 of them.
Some stories say there were 40 or 50 of them.

Our western tradition says three—
probably because there are three gifts
and we assume
they would each want to have their own gift.
After all, who wants to show up to see the Messiah
and have to say,
“Well, Melchior and I went in together
on your present!"
And about that baby.
Nope. Not a baby.
A “child” says scripture and that would be more accurate
Because let’s face it—if the wise men were walking,
by the time they arrived,
Jesus was probably starting to walk as well.
Not a baby in a manger
but a toddler
by the time they arrive.

But you see,
It is not about facts.
The truth is we don’t know the facts.
The truth is that we sometimes read scripture
and fill in the missing parts to fill in the story.
But that’s okay.
Because things don’t have to be factual
to be deeply true.

Epiphany is about shining the light
on something that is far bigger
than any collection of facts.

Epiphany comes from a Greek word which means
“manifestation” or “showing forth.”
Epiphany is the light bulb that goes off
over the cartoon character’s head.
Epiphany is the church season filled with AHA! moments.

The big AHA! of this church season is that
God has come into the world as a human being.
Divinity has morphed with humanity.

The AHA! of Epiphany is that anyone—absolutely anyone—
who wants to seek God
is welcome on the journey.

The wise men were from the East—they weren’t part of the inner circle—
they were the ultimate outsiders.
Gentiles—maybe even pagans.
Yet here they are in the  gospel,
in Jesus’ story,
in our story.
All are welcome.

Epiphany reminds us that God does not hide from us.
God does not play favorites.
God is with us.
with all of us.
God wants to be found.

The psychologist Carl Jung, had these words
carved over the front door of his home in Zurich:
“Bidden or unbidden, God is present.”

Later he had those same words
carved on his tombstone.

Bidden or unbidden,
God is present.
God is manifest.
God is revealed.
Even when we may not see it.

Epiphany reminds us that God appears
in even the most mundane moments,
to even the most ordinary people.

We do not have to be a king
or ride a camel
or have a name like Balthazar
or have gold to offer.

We are simply invited to come, to seek, to journey.
We are called to pay attention,
to take notice.

Epiphany is the season when all the lights are turned on:
All the better to see you with, God.

God has jumped into the world as a baby—
not as a king,
not as a person of wealth or prestige—
but as a helpless, poopy little baby.

God jumps in as a baby at Christmas
and when Epiphany arrives,
when those magi (and we)
show up,
God shouts, with great joy, “Come in! Oh, do come in!
The door is open. Wide open.”

Epiphany is when we realize
that the door is always open,
the table always has room for one more,
and we are all invited to the party.
We are all invited to the feast.

This is indeed the FEAST of the Epiphany!

The Visited Planet

Sermon for Christmas Day 2014
December 25, 2014
Cathedral Church of St. Paul, Burlington, Vermont
The Very Rev. Jeanne Finan

The Visited Planet

For those overwhelmed by Christmas.
Sit down.
Rest a bit.
Imagine that you’re in God’s presence.
Because you are.
Now just be with God.
And let God be
with you.

Aren’t these marvelous words?
These words are written by Father James Martin,
a Jesuit priest,
and editor of AMERICA magazine.

Wonderfully wise words for Christmas Day--
especially for those of us
who love coming together to worship on the day of Christmas.

Yesterday evening over 300 people gathered
to watch little angels
and wise men and shepherds
energetically herald in
the birth of the baby Jesus.

And then a few hours after that
we listened to the angelic voices
of our choir
and then,
with our Bishop Tom Ely
moved into worship that ended close to midnight.

But here we are this morning.
Ready to worship once again.
I love Christmas Day.

Yes, there is that feeling of ,
“Whew! We made it!”
but it is much more than that.

It really is a grand day
to stop
and just be with God.
Christmas Day.

What a gift to begin this day together.
Here in the nave
of this Cathedral Church.

This is a grand day
to ponder the words we hear in John’s gospel:
The light shines in the darkness
and the darkness did not overcome it.

Darkness can be overwhelming at times.
The news headlines, both local and global,
can be so dark and desolate.

Many of us face
our own personal nooks and crannies
of despair and darkness.

The good news is
that there is good news.
The good news is
that there is light.
The good news is
that Christ has been born
this day
and will keep being born
every day.

Some of you may be familiar
with the Anglican clergyman
and author J. B. Phillips.

His most well known book may be the one titled
or perhaps it’s his translation of the New Testament--

What you may not know
is that Phillips also wrote a version
of the Christmas story
from the point of view of two angels.
The story is titled THE VISITED PLANET.

In his story
a senior angel is giving a very young angel
a tour of the universe.
The angels observe swirling galaxies and blazing suns
and then they fly across cosmic space
into one particular galaxy
of 500 billion stars.

Phillips writes:

As the two of them drew near to the star
which we call our sun
and to its circling planets,
the senior angel pointed to a very small,
and rather insignificant sphere turning very slowly
on its axis.
It looked as dull as a dirty tennis ball to the little angel,
whose mind was filled with the size and glory
of what he had seen.

“I want you to watch that one particularly,”
 said the senior angel,
pointing with his finger.

“Well, it looks very small and dirty to me,”
said the little angel.
“What’s special about that one?”

You see, to that little angel,
who had seen things
that you and I can’t even imagine,
earth was not all that impressive.

That little angel’s jaw dropped open
when the senior angel told him
that it was this planet,
small, insignificant and not particularly clean,
this very planet
was the renowned Visited Planet.

“Do you mean that our great and glorious Prince..
went down in Person to this fifth rate little ball?
Why should He do a thing like that?”

The little angel’s face wrinkled in disgust.
“Do you mean to tell me,” he said,
“that he stooped so low as to become one of those
creeping, crawling creatures on that floating ball?”

“I do,
and I don’t think He would like you to call them
‘creeping crawling creatures’,
in that tone of voice.
For strange as it may seem to us,
He loves them.
He went down to visit them
to lift them up to become
like Him.”

The little angel looked blank.
Such a thought
was beyond his comprehension.

It is often
beyond our comprehension as well.
And the Word became flesh
and lived among us....


All because of love.
The immensity of God’s love for us,
for each of us,
for all of us.

Christmas says to us:
Believe in this overwhelming, unconditional, love
Believe in this love
that is larger than the universe,
and much, much larger than any one of us.

that light is always trying to break into the darkness.
that love is stronger than hate.

Believe that God loves YOU--
yes, YOU--
and God wants only the best for you.

It is Christmas Day.
So at some point in this day stop.
Sit down.
Rest a bit.

Imagine that you’re in God’s presence.
Because you are.

Fall into God's love
and just be there.
Be with God.
Just as God is always being
with you.