Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Sermon for Christmas Eve Midnight Mass 2009


They’re back.

They show up on occasion at other times of year
but every year on Christmas eve—
Here they are.

Those shepherds.
Keeping watch over their flocks.

Those shepherds
who are probably just barely awake
(after all much of shepherding is inherently boring).

They are rather like firemen.
They have to show up for that midnight shift IN CASE something happens,
In case there is a fire—
the firemen needs to be ready to spring into action.
In case there is a hungry wolf out for a midnight snack,
the shepherds need to be ready to spring into action.

They are there in case help is needed.
Just in case.

But those shepherds did not sign up to be the first to hear the good news
of God shattering the darkness
and coming into the world as a human baby.
The good news of Jesus Christ.
Why on earth would that news
be first revealed to shepherds in the middle of the night?
What was God thinking
sending big news like this to marginal people like those shepherds?

This is probably the last things those shepherds
expected in the middle of the night.
An angel appearing in a field?
An angel coming to them ?

What is God thinking?
What is God thinking when angels are sent to us?

Angels come in so many shapes and sizes, forms and formats.
They seldom announce or introduce themselves –
We don’t get a message on Facebook that says,
There’s an angel that has asked to be your friend.
Confirm or ignore?

Angels often just appear out of nowhere,
show up and stand right before us.

If you notice in the scripture of Luke’s gospel—
no where does the angel say,
Hello shepherds. I am angel. Sent here from God.

The angel just says, Do not be afraid.
The angel just says,
I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people.

For all the people.
We are so afraid
to believe in this good news of great joy.
We are so afraid
of being disappointed or na├»ve or foolish—or a religious fanatic.
We are so afraid
to trust and believe that God would really send us any kind of angel.
We think so little of ourselves
that we cannot conceive that God might want us—me! You!—
to know the great joy of this good news.

We need an angel to come to all of us and say,
Do not be afraid of angels.
Do not be afraid of good news.
Do not be afraid of great joy.
It can happen!

Angels point the way for us.
Angels show up when we have lost our power and sit in darkness--
they turn on the lights.

Angels appear in many forms and formats.
As humans, as animals, as a line in a song or a character in a film,
as we gaze at a painting or stand on top of a mountain
or hold the hand of someone who is dying.

Do not be afraid.
The news is good.
The joy is great.
And the good news and great joy are for ALL the people.
All the people.
Do not be afraid.

This week I heard a poem on Garrison Keillor’s radio program
The Writer’s Almanac.
It is a poem by Anne Porter
Her poem titled Susanna.
Here is the poem:

Nobody in the hospital
Could tell the age
Of this old woman who
Was called Susanna.

I knew she spoke some English
And that she was an immigrant
Out of a little country
Trampled by armies.

Because she had no visitors
I would stop by to see her
But she was always sleeping.

All I could do
Was to get out her comb
And carefully untangle
The tangles of her hair

One day I was beside her
When she woke up
Opening small dark eyes
Of a surprising clearness.

She looked at me and said
You want to know the truth?
I answered Yes.

She said it is something that
My mother told me

There’s not a single inch
Of our whole body
That the Lord does not love

She then went back to sleep.

That is Anne Porter’s poem “Susanna”.

There’s not a single inch
Of our whole body
That the Lord does not love.

There are parts of our bodies and parts of our lives and parts of our world
that we do not love.
But it is so different for God.

God’s love is so immense, so encompassing,
that God loves every single inch of us and of the world.

Tonight we celebrate the birth of a baby
A baby who comes into the world
to remind us that there are only two things—
two things-- that matter in life:
Loving God
and loving one another.

We fret and worry about so many things,
when only two things matter.
Loving God.
Loving one another.

.Oh this holy night—
this night of Christ’s mass—Christmas,
we are called to go out into the world—
to go tell it on the mountain--
and to say,
Do not be afraid.

Hope is born into the world.
Love is here to show us the way.
Love for every inch of us,
for every one of us.

Good news of great joy for all the people.
Merry Christmas!

Sermon for Year C Christmas 1

Deck the Halls

As Episcopalians we wait out the four weeks of advent
without once singing “Joy to the World”---
at least not in church!

We wait.
We wait and then on Christmas eve
we burst into “those old familiar carols” with joy and gusto!

We wait.
But the good news is that when Christmas comes—
It stays for awhile.
Today we celebrate the first Sunday after Christmas.
Next week we’ll celebrate the second Sunday after Christmas.

We get to ponder and reflect upon the Christ child coming into the world
For several weeks.
“In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.”
So we hear in John’s gospel today.

In the reading from Isaiah we hear
“I will greatly rejoice in the Lord;
my whole being shall exult in my God.”

Our psalm today begins,
“Hallelujah! How good it is to sing praises to our God!”
The psalm ends with a Hallelujah too!
(Not a one of us in this Saturday evening congregation
can hear HALLELUJAH! without thinking
of our friend Neil Monroe, right?!!!)
He is our HALLELUJAH man!

One song we seldom—maybe never—sing in church is “Deck the Halls”.
It doesn’t have any specific baby Jesus references—
or even Christian references.
I wanted to use this carol as the heart of my sermon today
because the last line:
Sing we joyous all together
Heedless of the wind and weather.

I am not sure we have been heedless of the wind and weather,
But we certainly understand how wind and weather
affects our worship schedule!

But back to DECK THE HALLS….
when I did a little research
I found that it is a Welsh dance tune.
It was actually traditionally sung on New Year’s Eve.
(That made me feel it was also quite appropriate
for this evening’s service—
with New Year’s eve only 4 days away)
Carolers would dance in a circle around a harpist.

Now those of us that went on the Wales pilgrimage in 2008
remember well Llio a magnificent harpist
who played for us one evening
at the Royal Goat Hotel in Beddgelert.

Where we now sing fa la la la—
that was actually the harpist’s part.
Deck the halls with boughs of holly, sang the dancing singers--
And the harp would sing back fa la la la la
la la la la.

This Welsh carol—known as NOS GALAN (which means NEW YEAR)—became a Christmas carol in the late part of the 19th century,
the Victorian period when Christmas was re-invented in a sense.

So here we are in the season of Christmas.
It is truly a time of joy and rejoicing and happiness—
And when we hear those words—fa la la la la—
It’s almost as if someone was making up words—
Plucking out some little notes of joy!

The words to the carol don’t matter.
Because the Word has been made flesh and come into our world--
and nothing will ever be the same.


What matters is that we sing joyfully and loudly.
What matters is that we toss away our inhibitions
And do a little dance of joy—
(don’t be alarmed—I am not going to make you dance here—
but when you get back home—rejoice! Dance!
Sing out your fa la la las and dance with joy and delight.

Back to those last lines—
Sing we joyous all together
Heedless of the wind and weather.

For awhile there
it looked like we wouldn’t be having any Christmas services.
That we were going to be snowed out, frozen out.
We managed to have both services on Christmas eve
But Christmas morning was too icy, the roads too dangerous—
So the service was cancelled.

I have never had to cancel a service before—
It was disappointing.
But it was also okay.
Because even when we cannot come together in the same physical place,
we are still bound together by God.
Sing we joyous all together, heedless of the wind and weather.

Christmas is the season of great joy.
Hope has come to live in the world
and that hope promises never to leave us.
Wherever we may be
Christ is never cancelled!

Fa la la la la la la!

(Source for history of the Deck the Halls: The Penguin Book of Carols, edited by Ian Bradley)


Deck the halls with boughs of holly
‘Tis the season to be jolly
Don we now our gay apparel
Troll the ancient Yule-tide carol.

See the blazing Yule before us,
Strike the harp and join the chorus,
Follow me in merry measure,
While I tell of Yule-tide treasure.

Fast away the old year passes,
Hail the new, ye lads and lasses,
Sing we joyous all together,
Heedless of the wind and weather.

Christmas Eve 2009--5 pm service


Life is always a rich and steady time
when you are waiting for something to happen or to hatch.

So writes E.B. White in his children’s book, Charlotte's Web

Life is always a rich and steady time
when you are waiting for something to happen or to hatch.

That in many ways describes the season of Advent.

But look—all 4 candles on the Advent wreath are burning bright—and now the white candle in the middle is also burning bright.

The white candle is the Christ candle.
It is Christmas Eve.
This is the night we celebrate God coming into the world as a baby.
A human baby named Jesus.
A baby that changed the world—
and if we are open to that baby,
will change us.

Tonight is a wonderful night to ponder
how God has come into our own world, our own lives--
and keeps on coming.

Some of you may have seen the special
on television Sunday evening
about the Christmas decorating at the White House.
(And I thought greening a church was a big task!)

I was astounded to find out that
all the decorating at the White House
is done by volunteers.
That is true here at St. John’s as well.

Each year the White House, usually the First Lady,
selects a theme for the decorations.
This year’s theme is: Rejoice. Reflect. Renew.


Hold those words in your heart as you leave this place tonight.
Rejoice. Reflect. Renew.

What has God done in your life this year
that calls you to rejoice?
Think of your many blessings,
And don’t wait for everything to line up just perfectly—
Give thanks and rejoice!

What has God done in your life this year
that has challenged you?
Think of those challenges and rather than be discouraged,
How have those challenges made you stronger?
How have those challenges
brought you to your knees at times?
How have those challenges led you to discover a new path?

Jesus comes into the world as a human being
to offer us hope for our own human being-ness.
Jesus comes to renew in us
all that good and hopeful and possible.

Ponder what is good.
Cling to everything
that offers you hope.
Believe that the impossible
can and will be made possible.


Something has happened.
Something has hatched.
Advent is over.
Christmas is here.
For me.
For you.
For the whole world

Merry Christmas!
Merry Christmas!

Sermon for Year C Advent 3

The Advent Journey

It was cold,
and the wind made it bitterly cold.
It wasn’t so bad living on the streets,
especially if you could get away from the crowds,
especially if you could find a nice neighborhood,
like Haw Creek.

You could usually find a garage door left open
or even an unlocked tool shed.
You learned to sleep in spurts
and to wake up before dawn
so you could disappear.
She didn’t want to scare anyone
and she certainly didn’t want to deal with the police.

But it was so cold.
As she walked by the church—
St. John’s Episco—Epsico—something Church—
She wondered what that word meant—Episcopalian.
She didn’t know that word.
But she liked to stand out at the edge of the yard
and look at the stained glass window.
The blues and the yellows and the little bits of orange and red—
She loved the way it was lighted at night.

But it was so cold tonight.
She looked around and didn’t see anyone.
“I’ll just try the door,” she thought.
“ Maybe…maybe it might be unlocked.”
So she picked up her big black plastic bag
and slipped up through the shadows to the bright red double doors.

She looked around once more—no one in sight—
so gently, ever so gently she pulled on the door.

And it opened.
It opened!
She could feel warm air touching her face—
Ah! It felt sooo good!
she walked through the door
and quietly into the church with her black plastic sack.

The church was dark—except for the exit lights over the doorways,
and a little red candle up near the front of the church.
And that glowing stained glass window.
Oh! How she loved that window.

Was the door left unlocked on purpose, she wondered?
Or was it just an accident? Did someone forget to lock the door?
A lucky accident, for me she thought.

She moved into the church.
It was so peaceful.
Quiet. Safe.
“Holy. Holy. Holy”, she said in a soft voice.

She used to go to church.
But that was a long time ago.
Most people wouldn’t welcome her into a church these days—
not with the way she looked.

Besides, she was pretty sure they wouldn’t let her bring her bag inside--
and she didn’t go anywhere without that bag.

She sat her bag down and walked up to the front of the church.
She walked up to the altar and stood there.
Then she noticed the painting on the back wall of the church.

“What on earth…??” she wondered.
Didn’t look like any painting she had ever seen in a church before.
That painting.
“Looks like my life,” she said out loud.
“Looks like my thrown in the briar patch wilderness life.”

Everything was so clean and nice.
She didn’t have many encounters with clean and nice these days.
She peeked in the doors up near the altar
and found just what she was hoping
…ah! A bathroom!
What a luxury!
She made use of it immediately,
And then, after washing her hands,
she took a paper towel and carefully cleaned
and wiped dry the sink.

She walked down the dark little hallway
and saw all the pretty church dresses—
oh, they probably had another name--some fancy church word—
but they looked like little dresses to her.
She liked how the little dresses looked hanging there
so neatly in a row,
like they were all waiting in expectation
of what would come next.

She walked back into the church
and returned to where she had sat her sack down on the floor.
Friday night.
She wondered if church people came to work on Saturday morning.
She knew she would need to be up and out early—just in case.

She sat down in one of the rocking chairs.
How about that!
A church with comfortable chairs—she liked that.
and she liked the bright colors in the rug at her feet, too.
Her life didn’t have many bright colors these days.
Dirt and grime and darkness.
Those were her colors.

She opened her bag and peered inside.
All still there.
Good, she thought.
The bag was filled with shoes.
Yes, shoes.
She loved shoes.
You couldn’t have too many shoes.
The bag was heavy to carry around but she liked her bag full of shoes.

She never could figure out
why you would sometimes find a shoe
all by itself in the middle of the road,
or one shoe sitting all alone on a park bench.
But she never liked to see a shoe left behind.
So she adopted one shoe after another until she had a sack full.
All my lost little shoes.

She closed the bag and started to happily rock and rock and rock.

She had planned to go and stretch out on one of the pews,
but before she knew it she was asleep sitting in the rocking chair.
She had just rocked herself right to sleep.
Right there in that holy church.

+ + +

It was early Saturday morning when she pulled into the parking lot.
She was a brand new member of the altar guild
And this would be her first time setting up for the service
by herself.
She was a little nervous
So she wanted to get their early to give herself plenty of time.
Let’s see…it was 10 am and the service was at 5 pm
Yes, that should be PLENTY of time!

She grabbed her keys and went over to the church and unlocked the door.
When she pulled on the handle the door was locked.
Hmmm…she thought.
That’s strange.
She realized that when she had turned her key,
she had locked the door, not unlocked it.
The door must have already been unlocked she thought—
Oh well. It happens.
It wasn’t the first time someone had forgot to lock the door.
(Gee! I hope it wasn’t me she thought!)

She entered the narthex
and there in the middle of the floor was a big black plastic bag.
An empty bag.
What on earth?
Why would someone leave a plastic bag here in the middle of the floor?

She picked it up, folded it and laid it on the table.
She walked into the church---
and then she saw them.

Down the aisle, all around the altar.
Shoes of all colors and shapes and sizes.
How did this happen?
Where did all these shoes come from?

Stepping around and over the scattered shoes
She walked up to the altar.
There in the center of the altar was a paper towel
with something written on it.

It was difficult to read. What did it say?
She held it up to the light.

These were the words on the paper towel.
Thank you, Mr. St. John.
Thank you for being a place for all souls.
Even me.

She read the note again.
Did it say SOULS or SOLES?
She then burst out laughing.
All those shoes—must have made her read it S-o-l-e-s—like shoe soles!

She didn’t know who had left the shoes.
She didn’t even really know if the person who left the shoes
intended the pun on the word “souls,”
but she liked the image.

As she worked to set the altar for the Eucharist,
She kept thinking about shoes.

We’re rather like shoes, she thought.

God doesn’t care if we are open-toed or closed,
high-heeled or flat,
name-brand or bargain basement,
loafers or sneakers.

God doesn’t care about our shape or size or color.
It doesn’t even matter what roads
we have traveled to get to this place.
God just always seem glad we show up.

What matters is that we have found our way
and know that God has opened the door
and welcomed us in.
What matters is that we get re-souled/re-soled here at church,
to go out into the world again,
to continue our journey,
to keep walking—or running!
To give thanks and to keep asking God the question
the crowds asked John the Baptizer
“What then should we do?”

Where do you need us in the world, God?
What doors do you need us to unlock?
What souls do you need us to welcome into your church?

Where do you need us to cry aloud for those who are hungry and cold?
When do you need us to rejoice and sing your praises?

Stir up your power in our lives, O Lord,
so that we might proclaim the good news
not just by TELLING your story,
but by LIVING your story.

Thank you for welcoming all souls into your holy sanctuary.
Thank you for welcoming even me.
Even me.

This story was inspired by another story about a shoe maker and souls/soles by Doug Sloan, titled A CHRISTMAS PARABLE. You can read Doug’s story on the Network of Biblical Storytellers website.