Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Sermon for Year C Christmas Day 2012

Sing to the Lord a new song

Sing to the Lord a new song,
for he has done marvelous things....

Those are the opening words of our psalm this morning,
this Christmas morning.

Biblical scholars tell us that most if not all the psalms
were originally meant to be sung.
The name “psalm” comes from the Greek word psalmoi
which means “to sing to the accompaniment 
of a harp or lyre.” 
(from "Prayer Shock Therapy: Praying the Psalms" by Robert L'Esperance, SSJE, Cowley Magazine, Vol 39 Number 2, Winter 2013)

Even though this morning
we are using a spoken word service,
usually here at St. John’s we sing the psalm,
using a rhythmic pattern called simplified Anglican chant. 

Even when you speak a psalm,
if you speak it aloud,
you can still hear the rhythmic pattern.

I have recently learned that chanting 
is one of the few human activities
that engages both sides of the brain--
left and right hemispheres--
What that means is that chanting
puts our bodies in a very relaxed state
and yet heightens our attention
at the same time.

Sing to the Lord a new song...

There was an interesting article recently
that little magazine has been around a very long time--
it was established in 1958.

The article I read pointed out 
that so many of our Christmas traditions and carols 
have very Anglican/Episcopal roots.

Even our image of Santa Claus/St. Nicholas
was shaped by a professor
at an Episcopal seminary.
Clement Clarke Moore taught Hebrew and Bible
at General Seminary in New York City.
He actually donated the land where the seminary is built.

His poem, “Twas the Night Before Christmas,”
published in 1823,
is largely responsible for how we envision Santa Claus--

...He had a broad face and a little round belly,
That shook when he laughed, like a bowlful of jelly!

He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,
And I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself!

That poem formed our image of Santa Claus--
an image which lives on today.

And then there are the Christmas carols--
O little town of Bethlehem was written by Phillips Brooks,
an Episcopal priest who later became Bishop of Massachusetts.

Of the father’s love begotten was written by John Mason Neale.
who also did the translation of the O Antiphons into the Advent hymn
we have been singing at communion throughout the season of Advent--
O come O come Emmanuel.
Neale also penned 
Good Christian men, rejoice 
(which has now become Good Christian friends, rejoice) 
and Good King Wenceslas.

Charles Wesley,
who many people think of as a Methodist,
was actually an Anglican
and he wrote Hark! the herald angels sing!.

Issac Watts of the Church of England wrote Joy to the World
and Christina Rosetti an English poet and devout Anglo-Catholic
had two of her poems
In the Bleak Midwinter and 
Love came down at Christmas put to music
and become popular carols.

Cecil Alexander, wife of a bishop in the Church of England,
wrote the hymn Once in royal David’s city.
Nahum Tate, son of a priest and England’s poet laureate,
wrote While shepherds watched their flocks by night.

So you get the idea...
we Episcopalians may not start singing Christmas carols
on the day after Thanksgiving,
but if it weren’t for faithful Episcopalians and Anglicans
there wouldn’t be quite so many carols to sing!

Sing to the Lord a new song....

Even our reading from the prophet Isaiah mentions singing--

How beautiful upon the mountains
are the feet of the messenger who announces peace...
...lift up your voices, together they sing for joy....

I admit it.
It is rather ironic 
that there are so many references to singing 
in our scripture readings for this morning
and we are having for a worship service without any songs!

But ultimately this day,
this Christmas day, is about the Word.
The Word that was God.
We hear this in the beautiful verses that open the gospel of John,
our gospel reading for this morning.

The really good news that the messenger brings us this morning
is this:

..And the Word became flesh and lived among us...

That is the true meaning of Christmas.
It is this Word that became flesh and lived among us
that inspired all the hymns and the carols
and the scripture and our very lives.

Christmas is when we remember
that God came to us as a human being,
so that we might understand and believe
because we understand what it means to be human.

And occasionally we understand
what it is to be divine.
The arts--painting, music, poetry, dance--
are often doorways to the divine.

The Word becomes flesh
but the Word sings divinely.

What new song will Christ inspire in you?
What new song will you sing this year?

Perhaps you will follow in the footsteps of those Episcopalians
who have gone before you
and write your own song,
perhaps a new Christmas carol for us
and generations to come to sing.

Or perhaps your new song won’t be a literal song
but this will be the year when you make some choices,
guided by the grace of God,
that will make your life sing.

Sing to the Lord a new song....

Sing your song.
Sing to the Lord this Christmas Day!

Information about the various Christmas carols was inspired by the article "Christmas without Anglicans?" in the Winter 2012 ANGLICAN DIGEST (pages 4-5).

Sermon for Year C Christmas Eve Midnight Mass 2012


I live in Black Mountain.
Every day I come to St. John’s 
by traveling west on Highway 70/Tunnel Road.
I pass the Ingles warehouse,
the VA hospital and Sonic drive in.
Then when I come up the hill I turn onto Beverly Road
at Groce Methodist Church.

Groce is a fine church.
We share the Welcome Table Ministry with them.
Their Senior Minister Gerald Davis 
is a kind-hearted man 
and a fine pastor.

Last week as I left the Saturday evening Eucharist 
here at St. John’s--
it was about 6:30 PM--
I was at the stoplight on Beverly Road,
waiting to make my left turn onto Tunnel Road 
and head back home towards Black Mountain.

Groce has had this large plywood nativity scene 
in front of the church for quite a few weeks now.
In fact, the nativity scene went up
about the time their Pumpkin Patch came down.

I like their nativity scene.
I have seen it every day
and have thought on more than one ocassion
that it was nicely done,
I wondered
if they had an artist in their congregation 
who created this nativity scene.

Last Saturday evening 
I am waiting at the stoplight
and I glance over at the nativity scene--
and then.....
It’s moving!!
The figures are alive!!

I blinked and shook my head
and thought,
“Help me, Jesus! 
I am seeing things!!”

And then,
and then I realized,
the plywood figures 
had been replaced my real living people
who were acting out the scene.

I may have sat through several lights.
I don’t know.
No one was behind me honking 
or anything
and I was absolutely entranced.

I watched as a shepherd
walked over 
and knelt down next to the manger.

I know that Groce is not the first church
 to ever do a living nativity,
but I have to tell you,
for me,
this was the first time 
I ever felt so moved by it.

It reminded me 
that this scene from long long ago
is not just out of a storybook--
this is a story that happened.
It may not have happened 
just as we portray it in Christmas carols
and picture books,
but the truth is--
well, the truth is
this story is true.

    Things can be true without being factual.

We Americans 
(and I can only speak from this point of view 
since it is the only one I have)--
we Americans are obsessed with facts.

We like information.
Even trivial information.
We are Wikipedia addicts.  
Wikipedia has 326 million users a month.
People looking for facts.
We don’t want anybody pulling the wool over our eyes.
No sir-ee.

For those of us old enough 
to remember the old television program DRAGNET,
we remember Capt. Joe Friday’s line,
“Just the facts, Maam.”

“Just the facts” may be very helpful 
for a detective trying to solve a crime mystery,
but “just the facts” is not very helpful 
when we are pondering 
how the birth of Jesus intersects and affects our own life,
when we are pondering the depths of holy Mystery,

There was an interesting article 
in the recent issue of THE WEEK magazine 
(Volume 12 issue 588-589, page 11):
It was about the facts--and the discrepancies-- around the first Noel.

It is more likely that Jesus was born around 5 or 6 B.C.
We think that because historical and biblical references tell us 
Jesus was born during the reign of Herod the Great--
well, Herod the Great died in 4 B.C.
So Jesus was most likely born 1 or 2 years prior to his death.

Everyone does seem to agree that Jesus was born in Bethlehem--
so we can say that is a fact.

December 25th?
Most likely a date picked by the Church in the 4th century
to co-opt a pagan feast day.

Scholars think that Jesus was probably born in the summer
because of the star that is mentioned.

Astronomer John Moseley of the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles
recently suggested that
the Star of Bethlehem was actually a convergence
of Jupiter and Venus that took place on June 17 in 2 BC.

He writes,
“The two planets had merged into one single gleaming object
in the direction of Jerusalem as seen in Persia.”

The wise men--who certainly could have been Persian--
all we know is that they came from the East--
see this star and follow.
It is factual that people-- “magi”--
sought guidance from the stars. Some people still do.
Plus there is a reliable 8th century text that offers an account
from the magi’s point of view of their travel to Bethlehem
following a star.

Our tradition and our hymns tell us that Jesus was born in a stable, 
because there was no room in the inn.
This is probably a result of a mis-translation of a Greek word--
which was translated in the King James Bible as “inn”
but  a more accurate translation would be “a spare room”.
So if no one had a spare room 
to offer Mary and Joseph and the soon-to-be-born Jesus,
what they were most likely offered--and where Jesus was born--
  was the first floor of a lowly peasant house--
and yes, if this were the case, there were animals there .

People at that time did not have separate barns or outbuildings 
for their animals--they brought them into their house--
into the ground floor level , at night.
The animals lived downstairs, the people lived upstairs.

Every one seems to be in agreement 
that Mary placed the newborn baby in a manger, a feed trough.

When Jesus was born
Augustus Caesar, way off in Rome, was at the height of his power.
Augustus was the adopted son of Julius Caesar.
After a bloody civil war Augustus established himself as the head.
As a god really.
First, he established his father as a god 
and thus, he then often referred to himself as the ‘son of god.’
Augustus saw himself as the king, the lord.

Does this language sound familiar?

Even though they were alive at the same time, Augustus never met Jesus.
There was no Facebook, no twitter, no CNN,
no leaving on a jet plane.

But it did not take too long 
for those who came after Augustus
to hear about this Jesus and his followers.
And they did not like what they were hearing.

This Jesus was born far away to the East,
born in poverty--
yet people were saying that Jesus was the true son of God,
the real king?
Get real!

This did not sit well with those in power
and in the generation that followed Augustus
they set out to do everything they could
to annihilate all followers of Jesus.

The birth of Jesus is the beginning of a war between the kingdom of God
and the kingdoms of the world.
This war is still raging.
That is a fact.

However, within three centuries after Jesus’ birth,
the Emperor himself, Constantine,
converts to Christianity.
Okay, let’s be honest--
this conversion was likely not as much for spiritual reasons
as for political ones
(not to mention making his mother happy)
but Christianity suddenly shifts 
from being revolutionary
and punishable by death 
to being the approved norm.

The verdict is still out 
as to whether making Christianity “mainstream” 
was good news or bad news.
But it is a fact.

So you see there are plenty of facts
and yes, 
there are plenty of discrepancies as well.

But remember--what we know from the gospels
is not intended to be a complete historical narrative.
The word “gospel” means “good news”--
the writers of the gospels were sharing good news,
news they were excited about,
news that made their hearts race with joy and excitement,
events and people that had changed everything for them.

Mary and Joseph and Jesus and the shepherds--
were living, breathing human beings.
What exactly happened that night--
this night we call Christmas Eve--
we do not know.

But something happened that changed the world
and continues to change not only the world,
but us.

Each of us
who is willing to take this story 
into our hearts
is changed, transformed.

Sometimes there is a truth that is greater 
than any collection of facts.
Sometimes even the most skeptical
have been surprised by how the Spirit moves
in the mess and muddle of everyday life.

We can look at the story as two-dimensional plywood cut-outs.
We can obsess about the factual.
But we just might miss the deeper truth.

We can stand in the skeptics corner
but I will tell you--from my own personal experience--
baby, it’s cold over there.

As Joan Chittister writes:

There is a child in each of us waiting to be born again....Christmas is not for children. It is for those who refuse to give up and grow old...for those who can let yesterday go so that life can be full of new possibility always...for those in whom Christmas is a feast without finish...
(from Joan Chittister's book IN SEARCH OF BELIEF)

The call is to keep our eyes open this Christmas Eve
and all the eves that follow.

Because we might see something move,
come to life,
capture our hearts.

We might find ourselves falling in love--
for the first time--
or for the four-hundredth time--
with a baby whose name is Jesus.

We may not have all the facts
but we may discover
that following a star 
is the journey our hearts truly long to travel.


Sunday, December 23, 2012

Sermon for Year C Advent 4

Breath of Heaven

In Luke’s gospel today
we hear Mary’s Song--also known as the “Magnificat.”
You don’t need to be a Latin scholar to understand
that “Magnificat” means “magnifies”--
my soul magnifies the Lord--
and “magnificat” also relates to the word 
from which we get “magnificent”--amazingly great.

For many this is a very familiar song, canticle.
My soul magnifies the Lord,
my Spirit rejoices in God my Savior...
I have listened to these words, read these words, 
spoken these words and sung these words.
But I never really understood the meaning of Mary’s words
until this past Monday evening.

I came to understand Mary’s Song on Monday evening
when I attended the Christmas program
at the Swannanoa Correctional Center for Women.
Whatever name we may call it--
a prison is a prison.

The choir is The Voices of Hope.
Roberta Rhodes and Mary Sorrells 
have been working with the women there 
for over a year--maybe almost two years now.

Monday evening was their Christmas concert.
This year the choir was joined by the liturgical dance team,
the Kingdom Bound Dancers.

We have been so blessed here at St. John’s
to have both this choir and these dancers 
come and join us for worship here.

But Monday night was a little different.
I was on their territory--
their chapel at the prison.
I was their guest.

You know,
I will be honest.
It is always a little unnerving for me to drive into the prison--
through gates that can close behind you,
into a compound surrounded by tall fences topped with razor wire.
You definitely get the message--
you are leaving behind your
privilege of freedom.

The Voices of Hope did not sing the “Magnificat.”
No one read this portion of Luke’s gospel.

But I will tell you--I will give a witness right here--
their souls--both the singers and the dancers--
their voices and their bodies--
did indeed magnify the Lord.

We all know that the week before had been a difficult week.
The shootings in Connecticut.
People struggling with the holidays---
so many people in need and so few resources,
not always a joyful time for some.
Loss can be felt ever more deeply during holiday times.

For me Monday evening was one of those nights
that followed one of those days,
a very exhausting day.
When I arrived and sat down,
I felt like I just sort of melted into the pew.

I felt I had given all I had in the days before.
I felt there was not much left--
and I knew I had not even made it through Advent yet!
Come, Lord Jesus, was indeed my prayer!

And let me tell you--Jesus came.
Jesus came with bells on!

I was the lowly one that night
and those women--those women that society has cast as lowly--
those women magnified the Lord
and lifted me up!

Mary knew--God will work through us and with us. 
With all of us.

DId you know that Luke is the only gospel writer 
that really celebrates Mary?

Mark skips the birth of Jesus completely
and Mark’s Jesus seems pretty indifferent 
about his mother.
She shows up with his brothers 
in chapter 3 and that’s about it.

Mary in Matthew’s gospel never says one word.
Not one word.
Let’s just say that Matthew 
did not think Mary deserved a speaking role.

In all his letters, 
Paul only refers to Jesus being “born of a woman” 
but he never names her.
Not once.

Mary does appear in John’s gospel, 
but it is Luke that really gives Mary a voice.

At the prison on Monday evening,
the women of the Voices of Hope choir
gave voice to Mary too as they sang
and the dancers gave voice as they danced--

The program opened with what I believe is an Amy Grant song...

Breath of Heaven, hold me together..
Breath of Heaven, lighten my darkness...

Do you wonder as you watch my face
If a wiser one should have had my place?
But I offer all I am...
Help me be strong, 
help me be, 
help me...

In Luke’s gospel Mary says,
God, you have  “looked with favor on your lowly servant.”

Jesus’ mother understands lowly.
Mary is poor, she is pregnant, she is unmarried.
She is in a mess.

It takes God, sometimes working overtime,
to help us see that sometimes being in a mess,
can unlock the door that will lead us to true freedom.

Jesus’ mother understands.
She sings.
Mary sings!
Because through it all,
Mary knows that God is with her.

Mary is not just singing for herself.
This is not just a pretty song in the Bible.
Mary’s song is a freedom song,
a song that tells us that God will overcome.

Mary sings that God has scattered
the proud and brought down the powerful from their thrones
and lifted up the lowly.

Mary sings that God has filled the hungry
and sent the rich away empty.
You can see the DNA of Jesus in his mother--
because she is singing about 
God turning the world upside down
and God putting back together 
all that has been torn apart

Even in utero John the Baptizer knew that this cousin of his,
the baby that Mary carries in her womb, 
is no ordinary baby--
John leaps in Elizabeth’s womb!
It’s almost like John and Jesus want to give each other baby high-fives!
Woo-hoo! Watch out world! 
Here we come!

How important it is that we listen to the words of the Magnificat
to remind us to thank God for everything,
to remember that God has done great things for us--all of us--
even when things did not look or feel so great,
the Spirit was moving in our lives, in the world.

God used the Voices of Hope choir 
and the Kingdom Bound dancers to bless me,
to lift up me 
and a chapel full of others--
to remind us all 
that when you feel worn out, just wait.
God will send someone to lift you up.
Trust in God.

Be ready.
That’s what advent is all about.
Be ready.

Be ready
not only to receive,
but also to give.

Mary gave completely.
She gave everything she was--her entire self. 
No complaints, no whining, no blaming.
Here I am, God.
The answer is yes. A glorious yes.

We are not here in this world to serve ourselves.
We are here to do God’s work and to serve others.
This is what Mary is trying to tell us.

Everything we do,
every word we speak,
should be done in such a way that we glorify God.
When we live our lives--even a little piece of our lives--
to the glory of God
we have no idea what a gift we give to others.

I left the Christmas concert on Monday night 
and walked out into the darkness
which did not seem so dark any longer.

Breath of Heaven.....Pour over me Your holiness...


Saturday, December 22, 2012

...for whom the bell tolls

Yesterday morning, after we stood for a few moments around the baptismal font inside the church, in silence,  a small group of us moved outside into the bitterly cold and blustery morning. At 9:30 AM at St. John's Episcopal Church the church bell was rung. 28 times. We were close enough to the bell that the sound was almost deafening, piercing the silence of both the neighborhood and our eardrums. And then it was over. Silence again.

Not everyone who is a member of St. John's or in our neighborhood was able to come and stand with us, but many honored that silence, that brief time of prayer, wherever they found themselves at 9:30 AM, to remember those who were murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary and in Newtown, Connecticut. Some people in our congregation/community also mourn for those who have died because of violence in other places, other times.

I could not help but think of poet John Donne and his "...ask not for whom the bell tolls." After a little googling work I uncovered that those familiar words are not a line in one of his poems but actually from a devotion he wrote, a 1624 work of prose titled Devotions upon Emergent Occasions. This made me laugh a little as I think of how we banter about the term "emergent" church these days--looks like Donne was way ahead of us.

Donne had suffered from a serious illness. Some believe it was typhus but Donne, nor others, ever seem to clearly identify the disease. Perhaps the name of the disease did not and does not matter. The fact was Donne was getting well, feeling better. 

But he credits that illness with opening his eyes and heart to a new way to see the world and others, a heightened awareness of how connected we all are to one another:

No man is an Iland, intire of it selfe; every man is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine; if a Clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie were, as well as if a Mannor of thy friends or of thine owne were; any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.

Indeed, we are not independent islands but we are bound together as a community of humankind--a "peece of the Continent" as Donne terms it. Any person's death diminishes each of us. No wonder we have felt so exhausted and so sorrowful this past week--in a matter of minutes, we were diminished by 28 deaths, deaths that we know should never have happened, deaths that have diminished all of us.

Bells tolled at our churches, in our neighborhoods, in our downtowns and in the countrysides throughout our nation--and far beyond the boundaries of this nation. We are so connected one to the other, that even if one little piece of us disappears, we are less because of that loss....never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

John Donne