Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Sermon Year A Epiphany 2

Come and See

I received a wonderful Christmas gift this year
from my son and his family.
It is book titled Listening is an Act of Love.

This book is a collection of stories recorded
by an independent nonprofit project called StoryCorps.
If you aren’t familiar with the book,
you may have heard some of these stories on NPR occasionally.

The mission of StoryCorps is to honor and celebrate
one another’s lives through listening.

Since 2003 tens of thousands of ordinary people
have interviewed family and friends
in StoryCorps recording booths.
Each conversation is recorded on a free CD to take home and share,
and is also archived for future generations at the Library of Congress.

I want to share with you one of these stories.
It is in the book and was also broadcast as a podcast this past week.
If you are hooked into iTunes
you can listen to this story on line when you go home.

It is Martha Conan’s story
and she told it to her daughter in law Brittany.
Martha was one of the survivors
of the deadly United Airlines Flight 232 plane crash
which occurred in 1989.

111 people died in that accident.
But 185 people survived.
However, only 13 people walked away with no injuries at all.
Martha Conan was one of those 13.

She tells of the survivors, of which she was one,
talking with counselors and social workers after the crash.
She struggled to make sense
of why she walked away unharmed
when so many others were killed or critically injured.

A young counselor said to her,
“God must have had a reason for saving you.
You haven’t yet finished
the work God wants you to do here on earth.”

And Martha Conan struggled with those words.
Because if those words were true,
Then what about the 111 people who died?
Was God finished with them?
Was their work done?
Babies and children died on that flight.
How could their work be completed?

Martha Conan cannot accept that explanation—
and neither can I.
We are not marionettes
And God is not some great puppet master out in the cosmos,
jerking us around,
picking and choosing who gets to live and who gets to die,
whose work is finished, whose work is not yet done.

So what does it mean to be alive here on this earth—
especially when others are not alive?

Our scripture readings this morning
offer us some wisdom in that direction.

Isaiah names it well—
God gives us each gifts, unique gifts.
God makes us stewards of those gifts and we are asked to be faithful stewards.
Part of the work of the Church is to help us with stewardship.
to help us celebrate and use those gifts
and to give us strength to oppose the forces
that deceive us into wasting those gifts or taking them for granted.

Whatever our gifts
we are called to view them with the same radiance and beauty
that God sees in each of us--
even, as Isaiah says, while we were in our mother’s womb.

Many of us spend an inordinate amount of time
wishing we were someone else,
wishing our lives were different,
wishing we had received the gifts someone else has received.
This is our 21st century version of
resorting to evil spirits or turning to false gods.
The truth is
we are called to celebrate both our own gifts
and to equally celebrate the gifts of others.
Perhaps the greatest gift we all receive is this present moment.
In reality, this moment,
right here, right now,
is all we really have.

Martha Conan believes that her lesson from walking away from that plane crash
was not to affirm that God chose her over others.
Her lesson was to receive a wake up call to treasure the present.
The gift she received was a deep understanding
of why she needed and now wanted
to change the way she would live her life.

Never again would she walk out of her house angry with someone.
Never again would she fail to tell someone how much she loves them.

Never again would she harden her heart and not forgive someone,
even when someone has hurt her or diminished her.
Never again would she forget to give thanks for simply being alive.
Every day as the sun rises
she is grateful for the gift of being here to rise with it.

The voice of God that Martha Conan hears is one which says:
This is your ONLY life.
Be grateful.
Don’t take it for granted.
Don’t wait for “perfect.”
Live with gratitude and thanksgiving---every day.
Live with gratitude and thanksgiving for each person who shares your life.

I knew an older woman whose last years were lived out in a nursing home.
In my mind,
she deserved better than that.
In my mind,
there was everything for her to be discouraged and despondent about—
most of her family were deceased, the others seldom visited.
Yet I never heard her complain.

She said to me,
My gift here at this time in my life,
and in this place,
is that I have all this time to pray for people.
Isn’t it wonderful that I can lay right here in this bed
and still pray.

And that is how she spent those long hours—praying.
We all know people (maybe even ourselves on occasion?!!!?)
who have lots of time
but jampack those hours
with complaining or criticizing or simply full-tilt busy-ness.
What a waste!

The woman who filled her waking—and probably even sleeping—hours
with prayer, once commented to a friend of mine:
Oh honey! Even when you have lost everything—
if you still have Jesus, that is enough.
That is more than enough.

Isaiah and Paul and John and many others in the Bible
are honest and forthright
because they know
that God’s gift is not getting to live
a perfect, easy, trouble-free life.
That is not the gift we receive
just because we are believers,
just because we are Christians.

But when we open our eyes, our ears, our hearts, —
we see that God is, indeed, our strength.

As the psalmist writes,
God lifted me out of the desolate pit, out of the mire and clay;
God set my feet upon a high cliff and made my footing shure.

God puts a new song in our mouths.
And that song is a song of praise and thanksgiving.

It is not a song of complaint or bitterness or regret.
It is praise and thanksgiving that illuminates God’s grace.

We don’t come into the world or into our faith
with a warranty or a money-back guarantee.
We come into this world as beloved children of God.
We are called to see that as pure gift, pure abundance, absolutely enough.

Jesus invites the disciples—and we are among those—
to come and see.
We are invited to come and see where Jesus lives.

Jesus lives in every person, in every place, in every life--
in the good, the bad and the ugly.

Through the grace of God, we have each been given what Martha Conan
discovered when she walked away from that plane crash:

The gift is being here another day.
The gift is this one amazing, incredible life.
Our work is to find the way to live joyfully with thanksgiving.

Jesus calls us to come and see.
Jesus invites us to come and stay.
Jesus encourages us to come and give thanks—always.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Sermon for Anna & Ethan's Baptism: Epiphany I


What a joy it is to be here with you at All Saints.
Ben may have told you
that he and I were classmates at Virginia Theological Seminary.
(Now if you're looking at Ben and then looking at me
and thinking, "My! She hasn't aged well,"
let me just say, I had a head start on Ben of a few years--
in fact my daughter and Ben were classmates at Kenyon College
for their undergraduate studies).
Friendship does overcome age and
Ben and Ellen and I became friends during our time together
at seminary
and that friendship has continued in this Diocese.
So I am honored to be here because I think the world of Ben and Ellen.

And having been a resident of this Diocese for over 11 years,
I also know a few other faces in this congregation.
So being here this morning is, indeed, pure joy!

This morning, as you know, we will baptize
both Ethan Gabriel Gibson
and Anna Wolfe Robertson.
That is quite appropriate—and wonderful-- on this first Sunday after Epiphany
when the whole Church celebrates the Baptism of our Lord.

But first I want you to take one step backwards,
back towards Christmas.
I serve now as the Rector at St. John’s in Asheville.
and like many parishes,
we have a children’s Christmas pageant
at our early service on Christmas eve.

Now when I served at St. Mary’s in Blowing Rock,
every year we actually had a real baby for the baby Jesus
in our pageant.
It just seemed to always work out that there was a baby just the right age
(a little older than newborne—let me assure you!!)

But at St. John’s a new doll was purchased and wrapped in swaddling clothes
and became our Baby Jesus
(who, by the way, gave an Oscar worthy performance in the pageant).

After the pageant
one of the children, who had been one of our littlest angels,
was horrified to think that the Baby Jesus
was going to be put away in a storage closet
along with the pageant costumes.

Our very intuitive Christian Formation director—also the pageant director—
said to the little girl,
Addie, would you like to take the Baby Jesus home with you?

The answer was YES!! YES!!
So on Christmas Eve,
the Baby Jesus went home with Addie.

Since then,
every Sunday Addie arrives at the church with her mother--
and the Baby Jesus comes, too.

He has a new wardrobe now—
swaddling clothes have been replaced by a mint green jump suit
and he looks quite happy.

Last Sunday Addie was at church--
along with the exceptionally well-attired Baby Jesus--
and following the service, at Coffee Hour
Addie told me she had changed the baby’s name.

Really? I asked. What is the Baby Jesus’ name now?
Gloria, she responded.

Sometimes even priests are wise enough to know
when to be silent, to not say anything.

It was only later that day as I was driving home from church
that I got it.
As in Gloria in Excelsis Deo!
I think the Baby Jesus would approve the name change.

And I tell you this story not to leave us stuck back in Christmas
but because I think it has everything in the world to do with this day—
this day we celebrate the baptism of our Lord.
this day we celebrate the baptism of Anna and Ethan.

Baptism really is about Gloria—
Sacraments sing out to the world: Glory to God in the highest!

Baptism is indeed a holy mystery.

We can’t even begin to touch or comprehend the immensity
of the grace received in baptism.
Baptism springs from the deepest essence of God.
We as human beings may never fully understand its meaning—
at least not in this world.

And yet,
and yet,
we are drawn to the font.
For thousands of years—we keep coming to these waters of baptism.

We are drawn to baptism for ourselves,
for our children, for our grandchildren.
We just cannot stay away.

We might say,
Well, it’s just what you are supposed to do as an Episcopalian,
as a Christian.

But it is far deeper and broader and wider than that.

Jesus himself
offers himself to be baptized.

He doesn’t skip this step.
He doesn’t ignore it, saying with a shrug,
Well, after all, I AM the Son of God.
Surely I don’t have to go through this liturgical ritual.

But no.
Jesus, too, is drawn to the waters of baptism—
and he insists—he insists—that John baptize him.

Jesus understands it is not a do-it-yourself event.
Baptism is the beginning of being part of a community,
the people of God.
Baptism is the beginning of sharing ministry together.
Baptism is the beginning of looking at one another and noticing
we are all marked as God’s beloved children.

No matter what happens to us in our lives,
no matter if we mess up or get messed up,
if we disappoint others or ourselves,
no matter if we become famous or infamous,
celebrity or ordinary,
rich or poor,
Baptism is our assurance
that God’s arms are always wide open and waiting--always.

Ethan and Anna do not come to the font on their own.
They come because of the love made incarnate in Christ--
which, in turn, comes to them in their parents,
in their godparents, in their grandparents, in their families,
and most importantly in the love of this congregation.

God entrusts you today with an enormous responsibility
and an absolutely awesome gift as witnesses to this event.

Baptism is not a private party with a select and exclusive guest list.
Baptism is a holy fiesta—and the whole community is invited to be present.

John baptizes Jesus in the Jordan River
and the heavens open up and a voice is heard:
This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.

Today that very same voice says:
This is Ethan, my beloved, with whom I am well pleased.
This is my beloved Anna with whom I am well pleased.

We should all wear nametags that say,
Hello, my name is (you fill in the blank with your name),
I am God’s beloved with whom God is well pleased.

For we are God’s beloved.
We are called to this journey of sharing God’s love with the world
and our baptismal covenant is the map that guides us.

Christ is before us, beside us, beneath us, above us
and always and forever with us.

In baptism
we are marked as Christ’s own forever.
The heavens open.
The waters part.

And all our names—at least for one brief moment in time—
are changed to Gloria!

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Epiphany Sermon

Sharing our bread

No one ever went near the house of la vecchia ("the old woman"),
whose name was Befana.
Some thought that she was a witch with mysterious powers.

Her body was twisted,
and she leaned on an old broom in order to move about.
Her hands were withered and crooked
from working the land and tending her few animals.
She had stringy gray hair,
pulled back from her face
and tied with rags,
and her clothes were patched and worn.

The old woman kept to herself.
She busily spent every day keeping the fire going
in her small cottage and sweeping the floor all day long.
Befana lived near Bethlehem.
One cold winter's night
while preparing her supper of beans and bread,
she heard a knock at the door.

Leaning on her broom, she slowly hobbled to the door and called out,
"Who is it?"

A deep soothing voice answered,
"Please, help us, we are lost."
Befana opened the door just a crack,
but the light that shone through nearly blinded her.
Before her towered three kings,
dressed in brilliant colorful cloaks of purple, blue, and green.
Each king wore a crown of gold
and a large jeweled necklace.

Befana kept squinting to see them
because they were so dazzling.

"We have come to worship
at the feet of the Child King, born in Bethlehem,"
said the tallest king.

"We have been following His star as the angel prophesied,
but have lost the way.
Can you tell us where He is?"

Befana was astonished by their words.
"I know of no king born in these parts," she said
and proceeded to shut the door.

"Wait," begged one of the kings,
"come with us and we will find Him together."

Befana shook her head from side to side.
"I cannot go. I have animals to tend, vegetables to water,
and a house to clean.
Besides, what would this king want with an old woman like me?"

The kings said good-bye to the unwilling Befana
and continued on their journey.
The old woman sat down to eat her now-cold beans,
but she was not hungry.
She kept thinking about the strangers
and their invitation.

Something inside her said that she should go.
Without wasting a minute,
Befana picked up her broom,
put a few pieces of bread in a sack,
and set out to find the strangers.

She followed their footsteps and those of their camels
for as long as she could.
But then a great wind came
and blew away all traces of their path.

Befana walked and walked,
and in each town that she came to,
she asked if the three men in brilliant clothes had passed through,
but no one had seen or heard of them.

Discouraged, she lay down near a rock and fell asleep.
The next day, she began her journey again,
never ceasing to ask the same question.
Every time she saw a baby,
she broke off a crust of bread and gave it to the child,
thinking that this baby might be the Child King
who would recognize her.

Italian legends tell us

that to this day, Befana is still wandering

through towns and villages

looking for the Child King.

Every year on the Feast of Epiphany, or Three Kings,

the children of Italy eagerly await the arrival of la vecchia,

who still leaves each child a small gift.

Today we celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany.

The Wise Men have arrived and seen this baby.

The World now knows
this baby has come for everyone—
not just for one religious or ethnic group,
but for the whole world.

Today we bring forward our gifts for the babies in our community.

Like Befana,

we should always be looking for the Christ Child,

sharing our bread, our abundance, or even our scarcity of abundance,

Sharing what little we have

with those who have even less.

Each time we gather as a community for the Holy Eucharist—
Eucharist being a word that means thanksgiving
we each receive a small piece of bread broken from a much large whole.
God gives us that bread
just as God gives us a baby named Jesus,
this Child King the wise men—and Befana-- sought.
The body of Christ,
the bread of heaven.
The body of Christ,
bread for the journey.

Just as we are given bread--
bread that is blessed and broken and given and shared--
we are called to go into the world---
not complaining of all that is lacking in our lives--
but celebrating all that is present
all that is given, all that is abundant and blessed.

I have a gift for each of you today.
It is a piece of chalk.
I know, I know—
you have all been dreaming that someone would give you a piece of chalk!

I give it to you so that you may take it home with you
and mark the entrance to your homes—
on the porch, on the sidewalk, on a wooden post, on the doorframe
the choice is yours.

Mark the entrance to your home with these letters
Those letters represent the first letters of three names—
Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar.
The names that are traditionally known as the names of the three magi.
Others say C-B-M stands for Christus Mansionem Benedicat—
Latin for May Christ bless this dwelling.

It is an ancient Epiphany tradition—more common in other parts of the world
than here in America—
to bless homes and chalk the doors with the blessing.

In front of the letters write 2007.
At the end of the letters write 2008.

2007 is over. Let it go.
Remember it but let it go.

2008 is all that lies ahead of us this year.
Embrace it.
Embrace every minute.
2007 C B M 2008

I give you this chalk as a blessing for your home, your life, your very being.
Mark this day.

Mark this day
as one that is full of the same wonder and joy
the wise men discovered
by following a star.

Mark this day
as one that is calling out to you
just as Befana was called
to go into the world,
and share what has been given to you—
And to never cease believing
that God works miracles,
that the Child King is just around the bend in the road.

Share your bread.
Live in blessing.
Follow the star.
Journey on.