Monday, December 31, 2007

Sermon for the Feast Day of St. John

Lord, what about him?

Today we celebrate the Feast of St. John,
Apostle and Evangelist.
The patron saint of this parish.

Who is St. John, Apostle and Evangelist?

His official feast day is December 27th.
We have legitimately transferred it to this Sunday.
This is the closest we can get to celebrate
and not interfere with Christmas eve or Christmas Day!

From the gospels we hear that John was the son of Zebedee.
That John was one of the 12 apostles selected by Jesus.
That John has a brother named James
and that John, James and Peter
were the inner circle
of the 12 apostles.
They are the ones that always seem to be with Jesus
at the really critical moments of his ministry.

It was those three
who were privileged to be present for
the miracle of the great catch of fish
the healing of Peter’s mother-in-law
the raising from the dead of Jairus’ daughter
the transfiguration
and the agony of Jesus in Gethsemane.

Some ancient writings—not scripture-- say that John was imprisoned
and exiled because of his proclaiming the gospel
but that he was eventually released and died a natural death in Ephesus:
“a martyr in will but not in deed.”

John is credited with the authorship of three epistles (I, II, III John)
and one Gospel.
Some biblical scholars disagree with this.

Some also credit John with the writing of the book of Revelation
Others say it was a different man named John,
Sometimes distinguished by being called John of Patmos.

Much of what we know about John
is the result of trying to put together pieces
of a biblical and historical puzzle.
We don’t KNOW
but we try to discern and understand and imagine
the different facets of this faithful and passionate follower of Jesus.

I checked with the Diocesan office
to see if this church is named after John the Baptist
or John, Apostle and Evangelist
And they affirmed the latter.

I was also told that if a church has John the Baptizer as their patron saint
the name of the church will reflect that:
St. John the Baptist or St John the Baptizer Episcopal Church
or St. John in the Wilderness Episcopal Church.
Our patron saint is John the Apostle and Evangelist

Now we are not the only St. John’s in the Diocese of Western North Carolina.
There is a St. John’s in Marion, one in Sylva,
And another in Franklin.

Interestingly, this parish did not start out as St. John’s—
we started out as Trinity Chapel
(thus the name of the street that leads up to our parish).

We started out as Trinity Chapel
because we were a church plant from Trinity Church downtown—
they wanted to spread the gospel
out to the far hinterlands,
the rural part of Buncombe Country.
(I guess a few things have changed since the late 1800’s!)

When we achieved full parish status,
the name St. John’s was selected.

We are the only one in Asheville.

Well, the only St. John’s Episcopal Church.
There is a St. John’s Baptist Church
And a St. John’s God of Holiness Church.

I don’t know whom they claim as their patron saint,
but I don’t think it’s a competition.

Our gospel reading offers us some advice about competition.

Jesus says to Peter, “Follow me.”
And Peter follows but is also checking out the territory
to determine if he has been especially selected by Jesus
or if any of the other disciples are coming along as well.

Peter turns and sees another disciple (the one that got to sit next to Jesus at supper)—
his name is John--
and this little edge of green envy appears around Peter
and he says, Well, Lord, what about him?!!
Does he get to follow you, too? Or just me?

And Jesus all but snaps at him,
How about you just don’t worry about him.
What’s it to you, Peter?
Focus on the “follow me” part,
not on how or when or why others are following me---or not.

This week I saw a funny cartoon on a calendar.
There was a group of cats—and one dog—sitting around in a circle.
They are playing spin the bottle.
One of the cats is getting ready to spin
and there is this little thought balloon coming out of the cat’s head
saying, Not the dog! Not the dog!

I think Peter has a similar thought balloon.
He is excited that Jesus has asked him to follow.
But he is also thinking, Not John! Not John! Don’t ask John to come, too!

We all have those thought balloons at times.
There are those who we may allow to sit in the circle,
but like the cat with the dog, we don’t want to have to kiss them!
(I’m speaking metaphorically, of course!!)

It might be a group of people—Republicans if we are Democrats,
Democrats if we are Republicans.
The no kissing rule definitely applies there.
Historically, even in the Church, we have excluded one group of the other—
blacks, women, Hispanics, immigrants, homosexuals, the disabled—
okay, they can play the game
but we are out of here if the bottle stops
and points to them.
In fact, we might just take our bottle and leave!
Or make them leave!

What about them, Jesus?

Sometimes it is not a group of people for us,
but just an individual.
One irritating individual that we just can’t stand.
They make our blood boil.
They are just wrong.
They are so obnoxious, so self-centered, so mean,…well, you know!

We are so sure that Jesus HAS to love us
more than he loves them!

Our gospel reading today
tells us how easy it is to become distracted
by wanting Jesus to love us more than he loves someone else,
by wanting to protect Jesus
from those we determine not worthy of Jesus’ love—
not worthy of our own love.

The message to us, as it was to Peter, is this:
Don’t get distracted.
Don’t waste time or energy worrying about other people’s behavior
because it’s usually not our business anyway.
Love is not about being worthy.

Perhaps John, this beloved disciple,
is a symbol for how truly and fully inclusive Jesus really is.
The mission of a parish named St. John’s
is to welcome everyone,
to be the tangible reminder
that Jesus loves us all.

We are all beloved disciples.
We are all invited to follow Jesus;
we are not invited to be in control of the guest list.

Jesus calls us to follow.
That means to walk the walk,
to read and listen to scripture and pay attention
to the way Jesus acted—
then go and do likewise.

We get ourselves in trouble when we try to force God
into a small, tidy, rational, linear-thinking box.
God is much too big for any box we might imagine.

This season of our church year—the season of Christmas—
is not about a small and tidy God.
This season
is all about dreams and visions and stars in the heavens.
I read this week, that one third of the Bible
is about “dreams, visions, prophecies, angelic visitations
and other direct reference to God’s mysterious
and yet undeniable leading of people”.
One third of the Bible! That’s a lot.

We are called not only to follow
but to trust that God is leading us, leading us all.

We name most of our Episcopal churches after saints--
to remind us that God works through ordinary people.
People like you and people like me.
People like John.

If we can just get ourselves out of the way,
if we can let go of our need to control,
God will turn ordinary into extraordinary at every opportunity.

John, Apostle and Evangelist, walks with us.
St. John is the one we have named and claimed
as our inspiration, as our patron saint.

The most significant thing we know about St. John
is that he truly and passionately loved Jesus.
John was transformed by love.
John’s hope, his prayer was that every one might know that love.

He followed Jesus because he wanted to make that love known to the world.
He spent his life doing just that.
St. John, Apostle and Evangelist.

St. John is the one we have claimed
here in this little corner of the city of Asheville.
May we listen and follow the call to make God’s love known to the world,
in our words and in our work,
from generation to generation
to generation.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Sermon for Christmas Day 2007

The Orange of My Eye

Merry Christmas!!

Doesn’t it feel wonderful to say those words!!

The waiting days of Advent have passed
and here we are on Christmas Day.

The fact of Jesus’ birth is true.
Jesus was born is a fact both of history and revelation.
However, the exact date of his birth is not recorded in the Gospels
But then, the gospels were never intended as factual biographies.

In fact it wasn’t until the 4th century—over 300 years after Jesus’ birth—
that some Christians began to be interested in the details of Jesus’ life.

In Rome, in the year 336, the date of December 25
was selected and designated as the day the Church would celebrate
the birth of Jesus.
In many ways the date was already considered a sacred time
as it came during the winter solstice;
there was a festival that celebrated the birth of the
Unconquerable Sun (that’s spelled S-U-N).
So the Church decided that December 25 would be an excellent date
To celebrate the birth of the Unconquerable Son (that’s spelled S-O-N).

December 25 was set by the Church in Rome
as the date for the Nativity of Our Lord.
It was not until the twelfth century that the day became known as Christmas—
a contraction of the two words “Christ’s Mass”.

So before the 12th century we might have greeted one another on this day
with “Merry Nativity of Our Lord.”

The observance of the 25th of December as the day Christ was born
spread rapidly in the Western Church—the Church centered in Rome.
However, the Eastern Church, centered in Constantinople—
celebrated the birth of Christ on January 6.

Rather than get in a knock down drag out fight about a date
the Western and Eastern Churches made the entire season
from December 25th until January 6th
the season of Christmas.
Western and Eastern churches each celebrating the Nativity
on the date of their choosing
And all coming together to celebrate the Epiphany on January 6.

That period from December 25th to January 6th was—and is—known
as the 12 days of Christmas.

My mother, growing up as a child in rural Eastern North Carolina—
Lizard Lick, to be exact—
Told me stories of celebrating “Old Christmas” on January 6th.
She would receive gifts on December 25th
and then they would receive her stocking gifts on January 6th.

Many times she told me
How wonderful it was to receive each year on Old Christmas a few small gifts in her stocking and one very special treasure: an orange.

Today we live in a world where oranges are a dime a dozen.
Well, not literally.
But we live with such abundance now
that receiving an orange is hardly a treasure.
But it was to my mother.

She said it was the only time of the year that she got an orange.
You couldn’t grow oranges on a red dirt farm in Eastern NC.
An orange was store bought—or Santa brought!
An orange was exotic.
An orange was special.

Every year as a child, my brother, my sister and I
would always find an orange in the top of our stockings.
It would be years before I understood that connection
between our mother’s childhood Christmas and our own.

I tell you this story because one of the beautiful things about Christmas
is how it connects us.
We are like little dots all scattered across an immense page
through the world and through the centuries.
And certain times—certain communal celebrations—connect us,
draw us together.
Christmas is certainly one of those celebrations.

That continuous line that draws us together is the love of God.
The immense, the never failing love of God.

Life is not always a full and overflowing stocking.
Life is sometimes very hard.
But Christmas is a celebration that is here to remind us that God loves us.

Curtis Almquist writes in his marvelous little book—
which I high recommend to you—
Unwrapping the Gifts: The Twelve Days of Christmas:

God loves you. Who you are, what you are, how you’ve gotten to be where you are: God knows and loves all that…God has plans for a relationship with you that lasts forever…when you’re sleeping, God is dreaming up says to be with you. When you’re working or walking or weeping, God is catching up with you in the wind across your face, in the singing of a bird, in the free fall of laughter, in the soothing touch of a friend. You are the apple of God’s eye.

(Or my mother might say…You are the ORANGE of God’s eye!)

The beautiful prologue from the gospel of John
always sounds to me like a love letter from God.
These opening words from John’s gospel
are the penultimate good news—

In the beginning was the Word
and the Word was with God
and the Word was God.

He was in the beginning with God.
All things came into being through him
and without him not one thing came into being…

And the Word became flesh and lived among us.

We live in challenging and often confusing world.
It is hard to know who to trust and who to believe.
We struggle to make ends meet and we struggle to do the right thing.
Yes, Christmas is a glorious day to celebrate.
But for many, just getting to this day has been a struggle.
Christmas is a glorious day
to lay down that struggle and just rest in God.

God offers us respite.
God offers us open arms to come and just collapse.
God offers us love that never ends.
God offers us this baby Jesus who came into the world
to show us love with a skin face.

Christmas Day is the beautiful messenger who comes to announce peace
and to bring us good news.

God loves you. God loves me.
We are all the oranges of God’s eye.

Sermon for Christmas Eve Midnight Mass 2007

It’s a surprise!!

My husband Tom and I are the grandparents
of two energetic, beautiful and brilliant grandsons,
Cedar and Orien.
Cedar is the oldest—he is 3-1/2. Orien is almost 2.
They live in Colorado on the top of a mountain (and I do mean the top!!)

It is a very exciting event in their day
when their daddy, our son,
comes home from work each evening.

Our son shared that one day a few weeks ago
Cedar ran to greet him at the door
Daddy! Daddy!
There is a great big package for you under the Christmas tree.
It’s all wrapped up and it is just for you.
It’s from mommy and it’s a surprise.

Tonight—Christmas Eve-- is the night of the ultimate surprise.
--and it’s not a coat--
it’s a baby.

The prophet Isaiah foretells:
A child has been born for us…
Authority rests upon his shoulders
He is named Wonderful Counselor,
Mighty God,
Everlasting Father,
Prince of peace.
There will be endless peace for the throne of David
and his kingdom.

All that sounds very good, doesn’t it?
I especially like that prophecy of endless peace.

So what happened?
Was Isaiah wrong?
Did God make a mistake?


The psalmist writes “Sing to the Lord a new song.”
A new song.

Why is it we always expect
that God will do things in predictable patterns?
That is so seldom true.
God is all about being born in new ways.
And that means we have to pay attention, to stay awake.

What happens in Luke’s gospel
in Bethlehem,
is a new song:
a baby named Jesus—
born not in a palace, but in a manger.

This was truly a surprise.
No one guessed or expected
such a preposterous arrival in the world—
not for the long awaited Messiah!
Yet all gather round and they are 100% convinced:
This baby is the One.

This baby is the good news of great joy for all people.
This tiny, scrunchy faced, completely helpless, totally vulnerable baby—
here, indeed, is our Messiah.

A new song.
It was not as anyone expected.
It was not as anyone had planned or even prophesied.
This birth, this baby, was a complete unpredictable surprise.

Everyone thought the Messiah would come as an adult, a powerful king,
like Saul, like David.
The world expected a full-grown, sword wielding,
justice rendering Savior King.
But what they get is a baby.
God had other plans.

Christ comes as a baby.
A helpless, dependent, crying, messy baby.
Not what anyone expected.
but more than anyone could have hoped for.

The word literally means “to take on flesh.”
This is what God did in Jesus.
God took on a human body and boldly entered into our world.

Incarnational theology has three basic points:
1. Jesus was fully divine.
2. Jesus was fully human.
3. Jesus was both fully divine and fully human at the same time—
it’s known as hypostatic union.


Now you can believe that—
or not.
You can take that incarnational theology
or you can leave it with a shrug or even a “harrumph.”

But what I think none of us can doubt or deny
is the power of incarnation.
The power when things come to us
with a “skin face.”

Coming face to face with someone
is totally different than reading about something,
or hearing a story about someone.

Coming face to face with someone is not theory or theology.
It is presence.

Not “presents” as in all wrapped up
and sitting under the Christmas tree—
but presence
as in the being right here with us.

A few friends I know have been bursting with excitement for weeks
because people they love dearly and deeply--
a brother, a daughter, a husband--
flew home from Iraq this week.

Not only are their families and friends immensely grateful
for the safe return home of those they love,
but they all said the same words to me:

I’m so excited.
In just a few days, I will get to see her face again.
I will get to hug and hold my brother,
my daughter,
my husband.
I will see their face.
I will look into their eyes.
I will hear them laugh.
I will wrap my arms around them and hold them.
They will wrap their arms around me and hold me right back.

The power of incarnation.
The power of being present in all our touchy-feely, skin-face humanity.

Jesus arrives and he is a baby.
A helpless, vulnerable baby.
There is no doubt of his need for others to help him.
What a surprise package that was!!

That is the message of this night for us.
To lay aside our plans and our power.
To be open and vulnerable—with God and with one another.
To treasure every moment we have here together as our fully human selves.
To love each other so much that we are willing
to lay aside our plans and need to control.

That is a very new song for many of us.
It is a scary proposition to make oneself vulnerable.

We adults are masters at putting on a good front,
of bucking up and taking an aspirin,
of keeping our fears and our deep needs—even our love—
to ourselves.
And expecting others to do the same.

Our worldly ways tell us it is all about power and control,
being strong, being right.

God says no.
It is all about being open, being vulnerable,
being able to need God and need one another.

The situation in the first century when Jesus was born
was not all that different from what we have and struggle with today:
injustice, exploitation,
power struggles, danger,

Believing that God is with us is not an assurance that we will never be hurt,
that we will never suffer.
Believing in God is not a steering wheel
that helps us swerve and miss all the potholes of life.

Our assurance is that God is with us
through all the road construction on our journey--
the delays, the detours, even the dead ends.

The assurance is that God delights in being the midwife for the birth
of our true, honest and vulnerable human selves.

The assurance is that if we are brave enough to sing a new song,
God will be there to accompany us.

The assurance is that God is guaranteed to surprise us—often.

A few nights ago
My husband Tom and I went out to dinner
at the North Star Diner in Weaverville.
There was a young couple there
with a little boy, not quite three years old.
He reminded us a lot of our grandson so we liked him immediately.

He was very active and lively--
and yes, there was a slight edge of total exhaustion
on the part of his parents.
Bright and lively children are not easy to keep up with 24/7!

This little boy—not even as tall as the table top—
was not about to do what was expected—
to sit quietly and placidly in their booth
and eat his macaroni and cheese.

He was much more interested in the people in the restaurant.
He slid from his seat, crawled under the table
and began walking around to each table in the restaurant.

He stopped at every single table
and with a big and gentle smile
gave everyone the same heartfelt greeting:
Merry Christmas!

Merry Christmas.
People broke into big smiles.
People’s eyes lit up.
People’s stern facades melted away in an instant.

The whole restaurant was transformed by a tiny little boy—
a little boy with an open and vulnerable heart,
a little child who did not pick and choose
but greeted every single person there.

O holy Child of Bethlehem
Descend to us, we pray;
Cast out our sin and enter in
Be born in us today.
We hear the Christmas angels
The great glad tidings tell;
O come to us,
Abide with us,
Our Lord

Sermon for Christmas Eve 2007 5 pm Children's Pageant Service

Round yon Virgin Mother and Child

We lived in Virginia at the time.
We were out doing errands and one of those errands
took us to the Department of Motor Vehicles.
I don’t remember what the errand was,
but I do remember there was a long, long line
and we were waiting.

It was going to take awhile.

Our daughter—now almost 33 years old—was about 4 years old at the time.
a complete and total extrovert--
interested in everyone and everything.

As Tom and I stood in line
she went from person to person sitting in the chairs in that waiting room
and struck up a conversation.
We couldn’t hear what she was saying
but we could watch as people listened==
and then laughed.

Finally she was close enough and we heard the story she was telling each person—
My name is Benares.
I live in Greene County, Virginia.
I’m a Virgin.

Tom and I were stunned
I’m a virgin!!???

Where on earth did she get that?
What on earth does she think that means?

I pulled her gently aside and asked her,
“Honey, why are you telling people that you’re a virgin?”

Because, Mommy, we live in Virginia.
Aren’t people who live in Virginia called Virgins?

“No, honey, we’re called Virginians.”

Oh, she replied.

She hestitated a moment and then asked,
So Jesus’ mother wasn’t from Virginia?

Round yon virgin mother and child.

Our young daughter might have misunderstood the meaning of a word,
but she really understood the deep truth of the story.

The story of Jesus and his mother Mary was so very real,
so very feasible to our young daughter,
that surely these people must live just up the road from us in Virginia.
Surely they must be our neighbors.

To our daughter
the people in the Christmas story were very real, very alive.
The people were real enough and important enough
to be just like her.

Holy infant so tender and mild.

Holy infant.
That is the miracle of Christmas.
God’s son was born as one of us,
a human being,
a real live baby.

And isn’t it wonderful—
the world—
and we are part of that world this evening—
still gathers to rejoice in this event,
to share in the wonder of this holy night

You and I are living witnesses to the truth of this story.
This evening—right here at St. John’s—
we saw angels and shepherds and wise men.
Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus were right here.
Right here in Asheville.
We saw them all with our own eyes.
Real. Alive.
They were here.

The story of Christmas eve is our story--
a story given to us almost two thousand years ago.
and we still tell it
just as it was told to us.

We tell it and hear it
and ponder it in our hearts
over and over and over.

The waiting of Advent has ended.
The long awaited Christ child has arrived.

God calls us to go and tell this story,
to share this good and joyful news.

Go tell it on the mountain
Over the hills and everywhere
Go tell it on the mountain
For Jesus Christ is born!

Monday, December 24, 2007

ADVENT 4 Sermon

Set apart for the Gospel of God

It is an interesting reading we have from Paul’s letter to the Romans.
There’s not a lot of substance or story to it.
It is more of an introduction.
Paul reminding the community in Rome of whom he is
and why he writes.
It’s like writing a letter to some friends and saying,
Hi there! It’s me, Paul. Remember me?
Apostle, child of God?
Remember God?
Spirit, holiness, obedience, grace.

But there is one line in this brief reading
that was truly illuminated for me this week:
Set apart for the gospel of God.

Set apart for the gospel of God.

Paul may have a lot of questions
but one thing he is sure of:
God has called him
to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ.

It may stretch our power of belief
but we, like Paul, are all so called.
We are all set apart for the gospel of God.
We are not alike in the ways we are set apart.
We are each unique.
God blesses each one of us with unique gifts.
We are called to use those gifts in this world.

Our gospel reading from Matthew
attests to that theology as well.
Our gospel reading today gives us a little preview.
We’ve almost made it to Christmas
and our gospel reading teases us—
The birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way…
But before we get to the birth story,
we hear another story.

A story about a young woman named Mary.
She is engaged to a man, most likely many years her senior,
no doubt a marriage arranged by her family,
and this man’s name is Joseph.

Mary discovers she is pregnant—
and she and Joseph are not yet married—
and Mary tells Joseph that he is not the father.
Imagine your fiancée coming to you and saying,
I’m pregnant—but not by you.
By the Holy Spirit.

Cant' you just imagine Joseph--his mouth slightly dropping open,
and then his eyes rolling as he mutters under his breath,
Oh, sure. Right.

Regardless of the century,
this preganancy is not good news.
The typical punishment for an unwed mother like Mary
was death.
Stoning a woman to death
was felt to be the justified punishment.

It is not good news for Joseph either—
such a situation will bring shame on him and his family.
As a man in first century Palestine
he will not suffer physical punishment.
In fact, most people would have felt sorry for Joseph.
As a man, he will not be blamed,
But a scandal is a scandal.

Mary pregnant and Joseph not the father.

The good news is that
God blessed Joseph with the gifts of being gentle and compassionate.

Joseph does not wish to see Mary stoned.
His plan is to send her away quietly.

The village will wake up one day
and Mary will be gone.
What ever happened to Mary? some will ask.
I think there was a family emergency, some will suggest.
What about her engagement?
Oh, I think Joseph changed his mind.
Oh! Poor Mary!

Or perhaps some will be a bit more suspicious
about Mary’s sudden absence.
But regardless,
she will be gone—and safe.
Still pregnant, still without a husband,
but at least, alive.
That was Joseph’s plan.

But God has a different plan.
An angel appears to Joseph
and says, Do not be afraid.

Have you noticed that almost every time an angel appears in the Bible
the first words uttered are,
Do not be afraid.

Perhaps those would be good words for us
to keep on the tip of our tongues
when we are faced with difficulty and despair,
when we wake in the middle of the night
our minds racing with worry and anxiety.

Do not be afraid.

God sends those words to us in many forms,
and often.
Especially when our plans
have been or are about to be disrupted.

Joseph is blessed with a listening heart.
The angel says, you are not to send Mary away.
Take her as your wife.
Have this child and name him Jesus.

A name that derives from the name Joshua
which means “God saves.”

Then Joseph wakes up.
And he obeys.

Joseph is set aside for the gospel of God
and terrifying as it may be, Joseph says yes.
He does not set himself aside—he lets go and lets God.

There is nothing about this situation
that Joseph hoped for or planned.
And there is nothing easy about this situation either.
By listening to God,
Joseph—and Mary—will most likely have to endure
rude, mean-spirited and cruel comments--
from their neighbors, their friends and
even from their families.
But both Joseph and Mary let God’s voice
be the one that guides them.

Today is the fourth Sunday of Advent.
We are standing right on the brink.

Monday evening we will return here and celebrate
the birth of a baby that changed everything.

That birth, that new beginning, is only possible because
ordinary people like Mary, like Joseph
said YES to God.

Ordinary people believed that God is ever at work in this world.
Ordinary people believed that God is with us—always—
in every aspect, every twist and turn of our lives.
Emmanuel—God with us.

Ordinary people believed that God was so extraordinary
that even they could be set aside for the power of the gospel.

We stand on the brink.
God calls us to ponder in our hearts
how we, too, are set aside.
What are the gifts we have been given to change the world and those around us?

Perhaps your gift is music or art or writing.
Perhaps your gift is your gentle spirit or your kind words.
Perhaps your gift is loving and caring for God’s creatures.
Perhaps your gift is understanding the enormous responsibility
of being a loving parent.
The possibilities of our unique gifts are limitless
because God is limitless.

For these four weeks of Advent
we have reflected on how we are to prepare for God’s coming,
for God being born in our own lives.

Today we hear the key words: Do not be afraid.

God has made us ready.
God is always making us ready—over and over and over again.
Trust in the ways that God sets us apart for the power of the gospel.
God has given each of us gifts that the world desperately needs.
Advent is almost over. The time is now.

Time to say YES
And go into the world and be the power of the gospel.
In our own unique ways.

Do not be afraid.
God is with us.

Monday, December 17, 2007


The desert shall rejoice

I love our opening collect today---
Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us…

Stir up.
In England they use this collect for Advent 1—instead of Advent 3 like us—
and they take those words “stir up” very literally.

They go home that day after church and stir up their Christmas puddings.
It’s rather like using the Farmer’s Almanac to plant by the moon—
they use their Book of Common Prayer to do their baking!

Now when I learned this I thought,
wouldn’t it be marvelous to make a Christmas pudding
and share it with the good people of St. John’s this Sunday.

So I went in search of a recipe.
and here’s what I found:

225 grams of golden caster sugar
225 grams of vegetarian suet
340 grams of sultanas
1 level teaspoon of mixed spice…

…finally I got to some ingredients I recognized--
like eggs, and cinnamon and brandy…
but I am afraid that as soon as I hit the vegetarian suet
I abandoned all baking plans.
Considering my inexpertise at cooking,
consider yourself blessed!

But I still like that image God stirring things up in the world.

Last week it was John the Baptizer who was stirring things up
along the river Jordan.
But this week we find John in prison.

It is not long after John has baptized Jesus in the river Jordan,
but now John has been arrested and imprisoned by Herod Antipas.

John’s popularity was growing
and some in Herod’s court—especially Herod’s wife--
see John as a threat.
They fear the power his popularity may bring.
They don’t want to change or be changed.
So John is arrested—
and soon will be put to death.

John has heard all that Jesus is doing
but he is confused.
Jesus is not the Messiah John had envisioned, predicted or expected.
Jesus has a style of ministry
that is not the fire and brimstone
and judgment day finale that John proclaimed.

Jesus’ ministry is one of blessing and love,
healing and liberation:
the blind see, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed,
the deaf hear and even the poor receive good news.
Who is this Jesus?

Sitting there in the dark night of his imprisonment
John has doubts.
Perhaps I was wrong.
Perhaps there is someone else who will come.

John must have wondered—and worried—sitting there
in the darkness of the dungeon.
He finally sends a message with his disciples,
to ask Jesus,
Are you the one?
Are you the one we’ve been waiting for
or are we supposed to wait for someone else to come?

Are you the one?

Joyce Wycoff shares this story about Nelson Mandela

In the winter of 1964, Nelson Mandela arrived on Robben Island where he would spend 18 of his 27 prison years. Confined to a small cell, the floor his bed, a bucket for a toilet, he was forced to do hard labor in a quarry. He was allowed one visitor a year for 30 minutes. He could write and receive one letter every six months. But Robben Island became the crucible which transformed him. Through his intelligence, charm and dignified defiance, Mandela eventually bent even the most brutal prison officials to his will, assumed leadership over his jailed comrades and became the master of his own prison. He emerged from it the mature leader who would fight and win the great political battles that would create a new democratic South Africa.

Whoever could have imagined
that the one who would lead a country to democracy
would be a man in prison?
God works in very mysterious ways.

God is with us in the joyful days by the side of the Jordan River
and equally with us when we find ourselves alone in prison.

We are each in our own prison.
It may not be a prison with bars.
but certain events, certain habits, in our lives
work to keep us captive.

We can resign ourselves, give up and believe that the darkness is forever—
After all things are just not working out like we planned--
Or we can wait, be still, listen, let our eyes get adjusted to the dark,
And then there is a door that appears
right in front of us.

We are so often blind to the way God offers to free us from our prison
because it is not OUR plan.
No, no, no, God, that isn’t what is supposed to happen here.
I am doing this and I think it would be best for you to do this.
We love to give God advice!

God is patient.
God can hold all our doubts and fears and worries and anxiety—
if we will just turn them over.

If John the Baptizer can have doubts,
if Mother Teresa can struggle with the dark night of the soul,
why do we feel embarrassed or as if we have failed
when we have doubts?
We are in the company of saints.

The writer of the letter of James reminds us that we must strengthen our hearts
and be patient.
Patience is very hard for some of us.

The prophet Isaiah tells us to never give up hope.
God will come.
We might just not recognize how God comes at times.

There was an article in the New York Times on December 11
about a new vaccine that is being developed for malaria.
This is not a treatment against malaria,
this is potentially an immunization that will prevent people
from contracting malaria.

Of course such a vaccine,
would be a tremendous boost for tourists who visit places
prone to malaria.
The vaccine would also be incredibly valuable
to those serving in the mission field and in the military.
But imagine much bigger than that.
Over 3,000 children die of malaria every day.
An effective vaccine would save countless lives.

Money for this research
comes from something called the Malaria Vaccine Initiative,
created in 1999 with money from the Gates Foundation.
(Think Windows. Microsoft. Computers.)
I can’t imagine that Bill Gates could ever have dreamed
as he developed the software that essentially changed
how we use computers
that what he was doing
would result in the possibility
of saving
hundreds of thousands of children’s lives.
God stirs with a very, very large spoon.

John sits in prison.
Unable to see for himself.
Left in the dark.

That is where we sit sometimes as well.
There is nothing wrong with asking the question,
Are you the one?

But it is important that we also listen and watch closely for how God answers.
Even when the answer is not what we wanted,
Not what we planned,
Not what we dreamed.

The challenge and joy of Advent is to prepare the way
so that our hearts might believe that God is always at work in the world,
stirring things up.

The challenge and joy of Advent is to prepare our hearts
so that our lives might be transformed
as a reflection of the dream of God, not our own plans.

The challenge and joy of Advent is to believe,
to believe in the transformation Jesus offers each of us—
and to let that transformation happen
in God’s own upside-down-topsy-turvy
unexpected ways.

Anne Lamott writes in her book Plan B (New York, Riverhead, 2005, page 258):
Hope is not logical. It always comes as a surprise, just when you think all hope is lost.

The third candle in our Advent wreath is lighted today.
It’s the pink one.
Some call the third Sunday of Advent Rose Sunday
because of the color of the candle.
Some churches even use rose colored hangings for their altar on this day.

The liturgical name is Gaudete Sunday.
Gaudete being the Latin word for rejoice.
Christmas is not here yet
but we are called to prepare, to get ready—
as the prophet Isaiah proclaims—
The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad,
The desert shall rejoice and blossom.
To rejoice because Jesus IS coming!

The challenge of Advent is to see beyond the darkness
to know there is a great light
and to move towards that light,
with hope, with thanksgiving,
with rejoicing.

Sunday, December 16, 2007


I got a really funny email from my friend Michele who is back living in Italy with her husband Greg and their two sons. She turned me on to a fun site. Go to the links on this blog and click on the one that says "Tom and Jeanne and the grandsons elfing around" and you'll get a funny spirited elf dance. Just some silly fun.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

ADVENT 2 Sermon

What’s so great about John?

What’s so great about John the Baptizer?
He isn’t rich.
He isn’t powerful.
He wears very weird clothes—scratchy camel hair, probably a little smelly.
John eats strange foods—locusts and wild honey.
(I can go with the honey part, but the locusts!!??)

Yes, John had quite a following for awhile,
but eventually they dumped him.
And then, in his early thirties,
he was executed.

What’s so great about John?

Here’s what Frederick Buechner
writes about John in his book Peculiar Treasures, a Biblical Who’s Who:

“John the Baptist didn’t fool around. He lived in the wilderness around the Dead Sea. He subsisted on a starvation diet, and so did his disciples. He wore clothes that even the rummage sale people wouldn’t have handled. When he preached it was fire and brimstone every time. The kingdom was coming all right, he said, but if you thought it was going to be a pink tea, you’d better think again. If you didn’t shape up, God would give you the axe like an elm with the blight or toss you into the incinerator like what’s left over when you’ve lambasted the good out of the wheat. ”

John sounds like someone we might go to great lengths to avoid.
Yet we hear in Matthew’s gospel today
that the people of Jerusalem and all Judea go out
to find John,
to be baptized by John in the Jordan River.

There is something about John,
something about this prophet crying out in the wilderness.
Even if we don’t really like his fire and brimstone words,
there is definitely something true and real and honest
about this man.

What’s so great about John?
First of all, he is not afraid.
John is not afraid to be an outspoken prophet.
If you’ve ever had to tell someone something
you knew they did not want to hear,
you know that being honest and outspoken is not easy.

John obviously was not raised in a good Southern family
where the mantra was “Now, you be nice.”
That polite “well, bless their little hearts”—
that stance is not John’s style.

John calls the Pharisees and the Sadducees—
a “brood of vipers!”
That’s the equivalent of saying “Your daddy ain’t nothin’ but a snake.”

Most people don’t mess with the Pharisees and the Sadducees--
they are the people with the power and money—
it helps to have them on your side.

But John isn’t impressed with credentials.
He doesn’t care that the Pharisees and Sadducees
boast of being the sons of Abraham.

Oh, yeah? says John.
Well, so what?
God can make a child of Abraham come out of a rock if God chooses.

Maybe this is a reminder to us, as well,
that we are unlikely to impress anyone
with our boasts of being an Episcopalian or a Christian.
Really? John might say.
Is that how you live your life
or just a title you claim?

What’s so great about John?
He tells us the hard truth.
We all should be so blessed to have a friend that tells us the truth.
Too often we like to invent our lives,
create a comfy little fantasy island
and build on that.
We stuff difficult truths, challenging situations and family members,
under our sofa cushions
and we convince ourselves that others—
including God-
are quite convinced
that our lives are nice and neat and holy--
all they are meant to be.

HA! shouts John.

John isn’t working the room
for the Mr. Congeniality vote.
He isn’t afraid to tell the truth.
John sees himself as a prophet
who is coming to give us a message directly from God:

The word we translate as REPENT
is the Greek word metanoia.

Metanoia means change,
go a different direction,
make a U-turn, l
live differently.

John shows up in the wilderness—
the place where we are often wandering—
and bluntly points out that we need to change.
Our spiritual house is a wreck.

John is not just telling us to go through the house
with a light dusting, run the Swifter over the kitchen floor,
turn off the bright overhead lights
so no one notices the mess
we have in the corners or under our bed or
stacked high in our closets.

John is saying
the time is now—right now—
to do a deep cleaning, to give attention and focus
on our spiritual lives, to our relationship with the Church,
to our relationship with God.

It’s Advent.
It’s the season when everything changes.
It’s the beginning of everything new coming into the world.

John knows Jesus is coming
and he doesn’t want us to get caught
with dirty dishes in our spiritual sink.
The kingdom of heaven is near—
are we really ready for Jesus to ring the doorbell?

My husband Tom and I have been in the process
of remodeling our house in Black Mountain.
What we thought was a two week project
has become a 5 month—and longer--project.

There is a giant red metal container sitting in our yard—
about the size of a train boxcar it seems to me—
and that is where they have been throwing all the junk—
the old insulation, the rotted floor beams,
the nasty moldy carpet---
construction trash.

That’s a big part of what remodeling is about—
getting rid of the old yucky stuff,
throwing it out,
parting ways with the trash that is in the way,
making room for the new.

Maybe we need one of those big metal containers
for our spiritual lives as well.
What will we throw into that dumpster?

Any sin will do.
Historically we are told there are seven deadly ones—
a friend taught me a handy way to remember those sins:

There’s room in the dumpster for all those.
We can probably throw in a few less deadly ones as well—
Impatience. Gossip. Self-righteousness. Lying.
Forgetting to pray for someone when we said we would.
Putting our relationship with God last on our to-do lists.

Sin is anything that separates us from deepening our relationship with God.
If you feel like your spiritual life is a mess
or doesn’t even exist,
take an Advent inventory of what needs to go.
What can you toss in the dumpster
to make room for God, for what really matters in your life?


John is saying,
Get real.
Get honest.
Stop right now and do a U-turn.

There’s one more great thing about John.
One more thing.
John is great because he knows how to get out of the way.
He knows how to let someone else’s light shine.
He doesn’t need the spotlight or even want it.

John alerts us, John points the way.
He never pretends that he himself is the way.

There is a reason for the season of Advent.
The season of Advent offers us time.
time to prepare the way in our own hearts, in our own lives.
to tackle the remodeling of our spiritual house.
A time to remember the power of those words
we say in our baptismal covenant: I will. With God’s help.

God is coming. God is coming to be with us.
For the kingdom of heaven has come near.
And everything is about to change.
Get ready.

Thursday, December 6, 2007


It only comes around with advent so check out this great site and listen to a daily advent devotion. This site and the devotions were created by some VTS alumni (they finished seminary before I arrived). Quite cool. Very real.
If you go to the block on my blog with the links you can go directly to Devo-to-Go. It's worth a stop.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Advent 1 Sermon

I have never dedicated a sermon to anyone, but this one I dedicate to my beautiful niece Liberty.

The world is charged with the grandeur of God

We have left the season of Pentecost—
“ordinary time” as it is known in the church year
and have stepped over the threshold into the season of Advent.

Our hangings and vestments are purple.
The Advent wreath with its four candles representing the four Sundays
prior to Christmas is in place.
Our hymns are different, our service music is different,
even our Eucharistic Prayer has changed.

Advent is the season we prepare for the coming of Christ.
The word ADVENT comes from the Latin word—ADVENTUS—
which means COMING.
We usually think of the coming of Christ in the birth of Jesus,
the celebration of the feast of Christmas.
But there is another ancient theme in the Advent season:
the preparing for when Christ will come again into this world.
Some call that the “second coming” or the “end time”
or even the apocalypse.
It is interesting to me
That this is the theme that always begins our new church year.
But indeed, it is a time of hope and expectation and waiting.

It is not only a new church season
but a new church year—year A.
We have a new lectionary of readings this year as well—
All Episcopal churches, as of this Sunday,
have switched to what is known as the Revised Common Lectionary.

In practical terms
what this means is that we will hear
some different Old Testament readings on Sundays
and some different gospel readings as well.
We will also share these same readings with Lutheran, Roman Catholic
and some other churches in various denominations.
There is a beautiful power I think
in so many of us hearing and reflecting on the same scripture texts
together each Sunday.
One body, one faith, one baptism.

All these changes are small tremors meant to wake us up.

Last evening at our 5 p.m. service
Bishop Johnson was here to consecrate the Weinhauer Chapel
as well as our beautiful and lovingly crafted Columbarium
here at St. John’s.

Last evening
we also laid to final rest the ashes of the body
of Bishop William G. Weinhauer.
I venture to say that the spirit of Bill Weinhauer
is far from resting, far from being asleep.
His spirit is alive—in this parish, in this diocese, in the national church,
in many of your own individual lives,
and certainly in the lives of his family.

If we listen carefully for the voices of those we love but see no longer,
We are likely to hear a shout saying,

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
writes poet Gerard Manley Hopkins.
Indeed it is.

Advent invites us to wake up.
To wake up and to open our eyes and our ears and our lives
to the new gifts that God is about to give.

Advent scripture texts offer promise and expectation and hope.
Advent challenges our rationality and our security.

The Son of Man is coming at the time you least expect.
If you don’t think that’s a scary thought,
I suggest you think again.

If we only think to the times in our lives when we were totally hit
by the unexpected—
An illness, a death, a divorce, financial disaster--
our lives changing in ways we never would have predicted
or expected.

It is very important to me as an Episcopalian
and very important to me as your priest
that together we live fully into this season of Advent.

When much of the world has already done
a giant leap frog over advent
and has plunged head first
Into the big pond of malls and super stores
and on-line Christmas buying,
I ask you to try to live into the waiting, the expectation, the hope
of this beautiful season of peace.

However, t is also important that we do not become judgmental
of even what appears to be very crass commercialism.
God works in mysterious ways.

I was reminded of this
and humbled when I recently read a story that was shared
by a woman whose name is Jenee Woodard.

This is her true story. She writes:

…my son has autism.
He is 10 years old and is severely handicapped by his disability.
Our family learned to slow down at Christmas a number of years ago
when he was unable to tolerate *any* of the celebration.

He could not handle the changing scenarios –
the twinkling lights, the changes in grocery store displays,
the changes in the sanctuary at church,
presents appearing under the tree, the tree ITSELF, and the moved furniture.

He would fall on the floor and scream, unable to move,
afraid to open his eyes,
almost constantly from Thanksgiving until well after Christmas
when it was all over.
We carried him through that time
his head covered with his coat
so we could get through the grocery store,
or sat with him huddled in his room,
carefully ordered EXACTLY the same since summer,
with no Christmas trappings.
Worship on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day was over-crowded and yet hushed, not a good combination for an autistic child.
Christmas celebrations at home were a nightmare.
Phil would scream and cry as each package was moved and (gasp!) unwrapped.
As frightened as he was when each new thing appeared,
he was equally frightened when it changed or disappeared.
We'd try to find him a present he'd enjoy,
but he'd merely scream and cry in panic
at the intrusion on his carefully ordered world,
and the gifts would sit ignored until he outgrew them
and we gave them to some little boy who could appreciate them.

He wanted nothing.
He would look straight at toys we thought he would like,
and he would not react at all.
He asked for nothing. He anticipated nothing.
He just screamed and cried at all of it.
It is no bliss to have a child who doesn't get it –
who doesn't want anything
and doesn't want to have anything to do with Christmas commercialism –
or it is only bliss in some romantic fantasy.
In real life it is a surreal nightmare.

This year, right around Thanksgiving,
we once more asked the kids what they wanted for Christmas.
Our 14-year-old daughter sat down and made out her list.
And our 10-year old son, for the first time in his life,
answered the question. "PlayStation 2," he said.
"I want PlayStation 2 Christmas."
We just about fell over.
His sister gave him a piece of paper.
She wrote "Phil's Christmas List" at the top.
He wrote, "PLAYSTATION TWO" under her heading.
"At Sam's," he said. "Go to car."

So, we drove to Sam's.
He has never looked at anything there,
never seemed to notice that Sam's has anything he might want.
But he led us right to the PlayStation 2 sets,
picked out the bundle he wanted and put it in the cart.
"Open at Christmas," he said.
He watched gleefully as we wrapped the package,
and then he solemnly placed it under the tree.
So, a PlayStation 2 game set sits there, wrapped, with his name on it,
and he waits to open it.
"December 25," he says. "Open PlayStation 2 December 25."

Last night we'd returned from yet another Christmas rehearsal
with our daughter,
Phil found a Best Buy ad in the paper
and turned immediately to the PlayStation games.
He circled "Harry Potter" and "John Madden Football",
handed the ad to Bob, and said, "I want Christmas."

There were tears in my eyes.
It's such a small thing, but such a truly amazing thing.
It's one more bit of hope
that he will be able to function in some semblance of society
as an adult one day –
that he might be able to live just a BIT more independently,
and one day want the things he needs to survive enough to work for them.
(Not a foregone conclusion with autistic folks, which makes them particularly unemployable, no matter their intelligence.)
Consumerism might be "the enemy",
but a kid who understands none of it is only a hero
in a Chicken Soup For The Soul story.

This Advent season I am grateful
for being able to appreciate what complexity and miracle is involved
in such small "selfish" acts as wanting something for Christmas
and expressing those wants to another person.

I'm grateful that my son is able
to enjoy all of the commercial cultural trappings of the holiday this year
instead of running from them screaming.

I'm grateful for the many ways Phil helps me stop and look again,
even at my most "Christian" conclusions.

And I'm especially grateful that my son helps me see Christ's humble birth,
over and over again,
even in the midst of nightmares and worries
I could not have imagined 10 years ago,
even in the midst of Advent.

That is Jenee Woodard’s story.

We have no idea when how or when Christ may come into our lives.
No idea.

The world is charged with the grandeur of God—
even when we are blind to it,
even when we have to wait ten years for a child to ask for a gift.

God works in every place and in every person and in every time.
We wait for God because we hope for the future.

There is hope.
We must never forget that.
There is always hope.

Sometimes hope comes to us in prayer and worship and Bible study—
sometimes it comes to us in building a Habitat house
or serving at Room at the Inn or Manna Food Bank—
And sometimes hope comes to us in Playstation Two.


While we were in France, a friend and member of my parish was having surgery. Because I was not in Asheville to pray with her there, I lit a candle for her in each of the cathedrals we visited and prayed for her in all those places. When we returned home I was delighted to hear that her surgery had gone exceptionally well. Was it the candles that did it? No and yes. I think lighting a candle for someone or saying a prayer gives us a tangible means of sharing in God's healing work and God's love. I recently read an article by Curtis Almquist, Superior of SSJE, who wrote this about intercessory prayer(Cowley Magazine, Fall 2007):

"When we pray on behalf of another, we are not imploring God to begin some work and or initiate some intervention. Rather we acknowledge that it is God who is sharing what is already known to God, and we are responding to this invitation to cooperate with God's love." God's spirit calls us to join with God in offering our love in intercessory prayer and actions such as lighting a candle or adding them to a prayer list.

I remember kneeling by my bed at night as a child and saying my prayers and naming those I loved--Mama and Papa (my grandparents), Mommy, Daddy, Timmy, Polly, Sukoshi (our dog)...
I no longer kneel by my bed at night to say my prayers but perhaps i should begin that action once again.


The enormity and grandeur of the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris is magnificent but I was most moved by the beautiful, thoughtful details like the painting of these columns and the ironwork on the screens.