Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Sermon Year A Christmas Eve Midnight Mass

God Came and God is not disappointed

Love came down at Christmas
Love all lovely, love divine;
love was born at Christmas,
star and angels gave the sign...
Those words were written by poet Christina Rosetti in the year 1885.
Those words have been put to music by a variety of diverse artists,
from Irish folk musicians to John Rutter to Jars of Clay.
You will find one version in our hymnal (page 84 I believe).

Love came down at Christmas.
This is the good news. 

Love came.
We didn’t have to plead or beg or accomplish anything.
Love just came.
Pure gift. Unexpected.

Greg Boyle is a Jesuit priest,
who works primarily with gang members in east Los Angeles.
He started a business called Homeboy industries
which provides employment for young people
who want to learn business skills and turn their lives in a different direction.
Greg Boyle also wrote a book 
titled Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion.

I read this book while on sabbatical 
and it was one of my favorite reads
during that time.

Recently Greg Boyle’s name surfaced again
in a daily meditation I receive by email.
This time it was in reference to the song
O Holy Night.

He pointed out a line in this song
that we sometimes overlook.

O holy night, the stars are brightly shining 
(We remember that line pretty easily)
It is the night of the dear Savior’s birth
(We’ve got that line memorized, too)
Long lay the world in sin and error pining 
(Oh yeah! Got it covered)
       --and then comes the final line of that verse
and it is the one that we too often forget--
’Til He appeared and the soul felt its worth.

Til he appeared.
And the soul felt its worth.

This is the meaning of Christmas.
Jesus appears.
Love comes down.
So that our souls might feel their worth.

So that we might come to realize, to remember,
that we are loved by God
deeply, widely, completely,unconditionally.

Love comes down in the form of this baby named Jesus
so we might realize and understand that we matter.
We matter!

‘Til he appeared and the soul felt it’s worth.

On this holy night we are reminded
that we belong to God
and we belong to each other
and that God has created each one of us to be 
exactly the person we already are.
And God is not disappointed.

Love came down at Christmas
so God might meet us face to face
and God is not disappointed.

You are exactly the person God wants you to be.
I am exactly the person God wants me to be.

We spend so much time trying to perfect ourselves,
to live up to and into the expectations of other people.
That’s not a totally bad thing.
We all have room to grow 
and ways we can improve.
BUT we need to remember that God is not about perfection.
God is about love.
God calls us to be about love as well.
Messy, imperfect, chipped around the edges love.

Remember, if God was about perfection and meeting human expectations,
Jesus would have been born in a gilded palace, 
arriving just as many people hoped and predicted,
as a royal king,
swaddled in soft velvet robes,
with multiple bowing attendants.

But look--
he and his family were pushed into the least elegant accommodations--
no Hilton Diamond Honors Suite for this family.
The attendants at the birth were more likely a cow and a donkey,
maybe a chicken or two and some mice that lived under the straw.

There is nothing perfect or easy about this birth scene.
We sometimes sanitize it;
we have tried to make it picture-perfect over the centuries.
We have added rosy cheeks to Mary
and beaming light and singing blonde angels playing little golden harps.
But the truth is, it was more likely a rough and gritty scene.

But even in the grittiness of it all,
love still came down. 

Even in the grittiness of our own lives,
God wants to enter and be with us.
God loves us--each one of us--
more than we can possibly ask or imagine.

We don’t have to ask for this love
or earn this love
or perform for this love.

God’s love is pure gift.
Pure and abundant and amazing grace.

Why are we here on this holy night?
We are here to say, " Okay! Come in, God!
Come down, love!"
We are here to rejoice!

Christ is born.
The time of waiting is over.
In the story and song,
in the flowers and the greenery,
in the quiet light of candles and sparkling lights,
our souls remember their worth
and we bask in the light of this love.

Love came down at Christmas
Love all lovely, love divine;
love was born at Christmas,
star and angels gave the sign.

Sermon Christmas Eve Family Service

St. John's offers two worship services on Christmas Eve, one at 4 pm and one at 10:30 pm which follows a concert by our choir. We try to make the early service reasonably short so that it is a good choice for families with young children. This year, Neil Monroe and Sandra Gudger assisted me in the sermon by offering two versions of Twas the Night Before Christmas which led into the story of the first Christmas.

Tell me a story

Beginning with the first cave paintings, 
we human beings have been telling stories 
for at least 27,000 years. 

There is one story that has been told for almost 2000 years. 
We heard it again tonight 
as we listened to the reading from Luke’s gospel. 

Why do we tell stories? 
Why do we love stories? 

Scientists say that our brains are actually hardwired to THINK in stories. There is a narrative story going on in our head 
almost every waking moment--
and in sleeping moments too, in our dreams.

We love stories.

This Christmas Eve we have three very different stories for you.
All three are about generosity and kindness.
All three are about unexpected joy that mysteriously appears.

The first is a poem by Clement Clarke Moore.

Even though the authorship is sometimes contested, 
most believe it was indeed Clement Moore 
who wrote A visit with St. Nicholas--
also known as T’was the Night before Christmas

He--Moore, not St. Nicholas--
was a professor at General Theological Seminary in New York City.
He wrote this poem for his own children in 1823.
Listen to the story.

  • Neil Monroe reads A Visit with St. Nicholas. by Clement Clarke Moore.

  • Asheville storyteller Sandra Gudger then tells the Appalachian version of the story, Night Afore Christmas by Thomas Turner.

Stories and the way they are told, teach us about place
and about people.
We might tell a familiar story a bit differently so it makes sense
to us in a certain place or time.
You can read the story of T’was the Night Before Christmas
in Cajun, Ozark, Redneck, Cowboy, Irish, Texas, Truckers,
and even Pennsylvania Dutch versions!

T’was the Night Before Christmas is about wonder and surprise,
about deep and sparkling joy,
the joy of giving without any expectation of receiving.

We are gathered here this evening
because of our longing to celebrate
or to at least know a little more about a story that happened long ago.

Luke’s gospel tells us about the first Christmas.
That first Christmas
happened in a world that was filled with darkness.
A world that knew oppression.
A world where people cried out, “Where is God?”
Where is God in the hunger and the poverty and the violence.
The people were looking for a sign from God.
The people were waiting for a Messiah to come 
to come and rescue them from the darkness.

And then came a baby.
A child.
The story tells us that a child was born in Bethlehem in a humble stable,
some say it was a cave,
surrounded by barnyard animals.
And angels came
and told the shepherds,
the lowly shepherds,
and the angels sang,
Glory to God in the heavens.

This story is the heart of any story about Christmas.
It is the story of giving.
Mary gave herself to  be the mother of this child.
Joseph gave his reputation to be the father of this child.
The angels gave their good tidings of great joy.

The shepherds gave their fear away
and then went to give away the good news.

Everyone gave
without any expectation of receiving.
They gave out of love, out of joy.

God gave us the gift of this baby
who would grow into a man named Jesus.
Who would live a life and call others--even us--to follow.
To follow in the way of love and giving.

Jesus’ birth did not erase the suffering or darkness in the world
but what it did
was bring a Light into the world
that gave hope.
The name Emmanuel means God with us.
Jesus being born means we are never alone in the darkness.

Over and over and over,
Jesus told the story that love matters,
Love is the gift that can transform both us and the entire world.
Love is the gift we are given 
so that we might give it away to others.

Now we are the gift-bearers
and we are the story tellers.

We are the ones that have been chosen
to go into all the world 
glorifying and praising God 
and telling all those we meet
the story of Christmas,
the story of love,
the story of Emmanuel,
God is with us.


Monday, December 23, 2013

Sermon for Advent 4--Sunday Morning

So why are there two sermons posted for Advent 4?

At St. John's we have a worship service on Saturday evening and then another on Sunday morning. Both are services with Holy Eucharist, though our Saturday evening service is a more contemplative spoken word service without music and Sunday morning has hymns and a choir. I usually preach basically the same sermon at each of these services. But this week was different.

Throughout Advent I have lamented that I had not even mentioned St. Nicholas, Bishop of Myra. On the day that was closest to his feast Day (December 6) we had our annual meeting plus it was the first Sunday of Advent. It just seemed that too much was going on and the feast day was a little too far removed for it to make sense. We also have our annual vestry retreat in December…so one excuse led to another and nary a mention of good St. Nick.

My original intentions back in November were good: I had discovered the sewing and creative talents of parishioner Donna Cook and she and I had conspired to find a pattern, purchase the fabric for vestments for the good Bishop and I had even ordered a beard and a wig. I even asked Chris Rhodes, who had magnificently portrayed St. John the Apostle and Evangelist for us a few years ago if he would step into the role of St. Nicholas. He agreed as long as I wrote the script. But things kept getting in the way and I wondered if perhaps waiting until next year would be a better option.

Somewhere along the way liturgical insanity overtook me and I decided we needed to do it and in order to surprise the congregation (and not interrupt the contemplative nature of Saturday evening) I would need to preach two different sermons. So I wrote a script (which you can read here as my sermon--though most of it was delivered by an amazing Bishop of Myra!), gave it to Chris on Tuesday (yes, that would be the Tuesday just prior to the Sunday) when he came to be fitted with the fine vestments that Donna had created.

All I can say is God is good. Very, very good. Chris did a magnificent job. The congregation was stunned and delighted and the children stood with mouths wide open for much of the sermon. It was such a joyful morning and I feel immensely grateful to serve with such willing and gifted people.

So kick back and enjoy a few words from St. Nicholas. I am immensely indebted to several resources for the script inspiration. First is the St. Nicholas Center. They have a plethora of resources. Check them out at:

Secondly, I have a very old copy of a very old children's book called SIX O'CLOCK SAINTS. I first heard of this book in the movie MILLIONS (definitely recommend that for your Christmas viewing) and tracked down a copy. I also used HOLY WOMEN, HOLY MEN from Church Publishing. 



Here we are at the end--well, almost the end of the season of Advent.
We started with being told to stay awake,
to get ready.

The next Sunday we heard prepare.
Prepare the way.
Make the paths straight.

Last week we were told to go and tell.
John the Baptist was sitting in prison and could not help but wonder,
maybe even doubt,
if Jesus was the true Messiah.
And Jesus told the disciples
Go and tell John what you have seen and what you have heard.
Go and tell John that the news is good indeed.

Now we arrive at Advent 4.
We have lighted three purple candles and one rose colored candle.
On Christmas Eve we will light the white candle in the Center.
We know we are getting close to Christmas.

Today we hear in Matthew’s Gospel
that Joseph is about to walk out on his fiance Mary.
She’s going to have a baby
and he doesn’t think it is his baby.

But before Joseph can completely shun Mary,
as he intends to do,
he has a dream.
And in the dream an angel comes
and tells him
that Mary will bear a son and they will name him Jesus,
God is with us.

And Joseph knows that he will not leave Mary.
He will not abandon her or this baby who soon will be born.

He awakes from the dream
and everything changes.
Joseph listens to that dream
and bravely steps forward into fatherhood.

(At this point, St. Nicholas enters but is behind me--the congregation sees him but I act as if I am unaware of his presence. He goes and sits down in the Bishop’s chair)

We have much to learn from Joseph
and from our dreams.
You seem happy about that.

(Turns to see St. Nicholas)

Why...why, aren’t you Nicholas, Bishop of Myra!??
What are you doing here at St. John’s?!!

St. Nicholas comes up to the pulpit--and speaks.


Excuse me.
Do you mind?

Jeanne moves aside so that Nicholas can come to the pulpit.

Greetings everyone!
I am indeed Nicholas, Bishop of Myra.
You might know me better as Saint Nicholas.
Some even call me Kris Kringle or Santa Claus
but my true name is Nicholas.

I have travelled a long long distance to be with you.
I want to sit down and rest my weary feet.
After all, I am 1,713 years old!

But before I sit down for a rest
let me say a few things to you.
You may be wondering where I came from.

I am from a small village called Patara.
It’s in an area you today would call Turkey.

I was born in the year 300.
That’s right.
That’s a very long time ago

My parents were very devout Christians.
They had heard the story of Jesus
and they told me those stories when I was growing up
and they taught me to follow in his footsteps.

Sadly my parents died when I was very young.
Yes that was sad.

But there was an up side!
They left me with quite a bit of money!
I was fortunate to be very very wealthy.

But I kept thinking about all the stories about Jesus
and how he encouraged people to sell what they had
and give the money to the poor.
How Jesus said to care for the poor and the oppressed,
for the children and for the widows.

So I did just that.
I tried to use my wealth to help those who were sick
and those who were suffering,
those who were being mistreated
and those who were lonely.

I dedicated my life to the Church--
and eventually they made me a bishop.
Bishop of Myra.




Indeed it was!
And I don’t remember you saying one word about my feast day!!

But we had our annual meeting that day and it was the very first Sunday of Advent.

NICHOLAS interrupts:

Not one word.
I have a feast day only once a year
and I don’t even get a mention.
I wasn’t even the Episcopal Moment that day!



To err is human, to forgive, divine.
Don’t worry, be happy!
I just decided that today was a fine day
to come  to St. John’s for a visit.

You know i heard that gospel reading today.
About Joseph and the dream.
And I know there are some dreamers in this congregation--
Hi Rose!  (He gives a little wave towards Rose Wilkerson who leads the dream group at St. John's).

The truth is God spoke to me through dreams also.
And I always tried to pay attention.

Once I was traveling
and in a dream I saw three young students
who had been murdered and stuffed into a pickling barrel.

I know, I know, that’s rather gruesome
but dreams can be gruesome.
When I woke up I called the innkeeper
and together we prayed.

And do you know what happened?
There really were three boys who had been murdered
and stuffed into a pickling barrel
and they came back to life and were completely whole.

That’s how the church made me the saint who protects students and children.

Another time I was traveling to the Holy Land
and we were crossing over the Mediterranean Sea
and a great storm came up.
the wind blew and the waves were enormous.
And I prayed to Jesus
to still the waters
and the storm stopped.
That’s how the church made me the protector of sailors
and all the people who travel on the seas.

You know we didn’t have as many saints back in the year 300
as you do now--so we had to do double duty some time!

But my favorite story of all,
the one which probably people know me the best for,
is about three little girls.
They were so poor.
Their mother had died and they lived with their father.

When they grew older and could be married
their father had do money for dowries
(and in those days--no dowry, no marriage!)
so the father was going to have to sell his daughters into slavery.
I did not like this one bit.

So one night,
when the moon was full,
I approached their house
and in my pocket I had three bags of gold coins.

Now I listened at the door
and I did not hear a sound
so I knew they were all asleep.

So I opened the door quietly
and slipped inside the house.

Yes, yes,
I know today I would be arrested for breaking and entering
but things were different back in 300.
We didn’t even have locks on the doors of our homes.

Oh--and just to be clear,
I never went down any chimneys!
What kind of fool would go down a chimney???!
Especially when you could just walk right in the front door!!?

So I slipped quietly into the house
and the girls had washed and hung up their stockings to dry.
over the fireplace.
I slipped a bag of gold coins into the stockings--
one bag of gold for each of the daughters.

And then I slipped away.
When they woke up they were so amazed!
They ran through the streets shouting,
“It’s a miracle! It’s a miracle!”

My three bags of gold brought freedom from oppression and poverty

And for this the Church made me--
yes, yes, the protector of young women and young brides.

 But enough of my stories.
The real truth is that my stories would not have happened
had it not been for the story of Jesus.

A story which is leading us to Bethlehem
for the birth of a child.
A story which leads us every day to be generous
and loving and kind.

In just a few days
you will all come back and gather here
for the story of a baby born in a manger.
A baby who came to transform us all.

I just did not think it was fitting to leave the season of Advent
without even one mention
of --ME!!
St. Nicholas, Bishop of Myra.
So I just thought I might as well stop by
and tell you my story myself.

 I must be on my way now.
There is much to be done.
After all,
Christmas is coming!

I hope you are all staying to help decorate the church after the service today.
Advent is a beautiful season
but we are nearing the time
when we need to deck the halls!

So as good Episcopalians we cannot say--
MOUTHS THE WORDS  “Merry Christmas”--
so I will just say.
Advent blessings to you all!
And pay attention to your dreams!

ST. NICHOLAS LEAVES giving out gold coins (chocolate) as he leaves.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Sermon for Year A Advent 4

Dream a little dream

Here we are at the end--well, almost the end of the season of Advent.
We started with being told to stay awake,
to get ready.

The next Sunday we heard prepare.
Prepare the way.
Make the paths straight.

Last week we were told to go and tell.
John the Baptist was sitting in prison and could not help but wonder,
maybe even doubt,
if Jesus was the true Messiah.

And Jesus told the disciples
Go and tell John what you have seen and what you have heard.
Go and tell John that the news is good indeed.

Now we arrive at Advent 4.
We have lighted three purple candles and one rose colored candle.
On Christmas Eve we will light the white candle in the Center.
We know we are getting close to Christmas.

Today we hear in Matthew’s Gospel
that Joseph is about to walk out on his fiance Mary.
She’s going to have a baby
and he doesn’t think it is his baby.

But before Joseph can disappear,
and essentially make Mary disappear from his life,
as he intends to do,
he has a dream.

And in the dream an angel comes
and tells him
that Mary will bear a son and they will name him Jesus,
God is with us.

And Joseph knows that he will not leave Mary.
He will not abandon her or this baby who soon will be born.

He awakes from the dream
and everything changes.
Joseph listens to that dream
and bravely steps forward into fatherhood.

All because of a dream.
All rational thought aside,
Joseph changes his direction, his intentions,
because he has a dream.

To him this dream is a divine revelation.
Throughout scripture
dreams lead and change the course.

Throughout scripture people listen to their dreams
because they believe--
they deeply believe--
that God is speaking to them through their dreams.

As early as Genesis we hear --

God came in a dream by night and said ..(Genesis 31:24)

...the angel of God said in a dream (Genesis 31:11)

The prophets are filled with dream imagery,
and of seeking God through dreams--

My soul yearns for you in the night,
my spirit within me earnestly seeks you. (Isaiah 26.9)

These are just a few of the Old Testament references to dreams.
There are many.

There are also numerous dream references in the gospels,
especially in Matthew.
And in the dreams in the Gospel of Matthew,
there is always an angel.

...the angel of God said in a dream.

Now the word angel is a Greek word (angelus) which means messenger.
Angels are often God’s dream messengers.

But even in ancient times
they did not see all dreams as from God.
Sometimes dreams were seen as fantasies of the ego.
Sometimes as ridiculous.
Sometimes as just a distraction.

But we cannot deny the plethora of dreams
that are used to reveal a message from God.

And how about us?
How do we know when to listen to our dreams?
What might be a holy message from God
and what might be just a fanciful distraction?

Perhaps it was not so much that Joseph trusted in his dreams
but that he trusted in God.
He knew how to listen--
both awake and asleep.

My father was diagnosed with a brain tumor,
had surgery,
which confirmed that the tumor was malignant
and that no treatments were going to be effective,
the hospital nurses and social work staff
told my mother she would not be able to care for my father at home.
She needed to find a facility that could provide the care he would need.
This was not the news we wanted to hear
but it was the voice of realism.

My mother and I spent several days visiting
assisted living places
and nursing homes
and still, at the end of those long and wearying day,
we were no closer to a decision, a solution.
I knew, as did my brother and sister,
the decision belonged to my mother.
We were there to support her.
My mother said, “I just need to sleep on this.”

And the next morning,
the very first thing the next morning,
my mother said,
“Jack [my dad] is coming home.”
No discussion.
No need to question.
She was bringing my father home.
Against medical advice,
against the unexpressed concerns of her children,
against choosing the easier path.
She was crystal clear.
“I am bringing him home.”

Did God speak to my mother in a dream?
I have no idea.
I never asked.
She never told.
But she woke from sleep and knew exactly what she was going to do.

My father came home.
Hospice and other caregivers came to help my mother
and my father died at home 6 weeks later.

There was nothing easy about those 6 weeks
but my mother--and my father--
were content.
She never once questioned her decision.

I just need to sleep on this.

What a gift that Joseph, too, took the time to “sleep on this.”
What a gift that Joseph listened to a dream that told him
what he needed to do
even though his actions were more counter-cultural
than we can possibly imagine.
To marry a woman who was having a baby that was not your child
was just something men did not do.
Not then, and most often, not now.

Don’t for a minute think the people in the village
where Mary and Joseph lived didn’t know.
Just like any small town,
everybody knows.
I can just see the heads shaking
the fingers pointing.
the whispered comments.

Yet Joseph’s strength and character are clear.
It is a powerful example to do the right thing,
to act with care and with love,
even when it means that you yourself will suffer.

The writer Frederick Buechner has been my companion
for much of this season of Advent.

Here’s just a bit of what he has to say about dreams:

Freudians and Jungians, prophets and poets, philosophers, fortune-tellers, and phonies all have their own claims about what dreams mean. Others claim they don't mean a thing. But there are at least two things they mean that seem incontrovertible.

One of them is that we are in constant touch with a world that is as real to us while we are in it, and has as much to do with who we are, and whose ultimate origin and destiny are as unknown and fascinating, as the world of waking reality. The other one is that our lives are a great deal richer, deeper, more intricately interrelated, more mysterious, and less limited by time and space than we commonly suppose.   (from Whistling in the Dark)

This gospel story is not just about dreams.
This gospel story is not just about trusting in our dreams.

This is a story about profound and unwavering trust in God.

Whatever the truth about that baby that Mary was carrying,
this is a story about love,
the deep and mysterious womb of love.

+   +   +

The image at the top of this post is a painting by artist Laura James. Check out her amazing artwork:

Friday, December 13, 2013

…and they're off!

I will not be posting a sermon this week as I will be away with our Vestry for our annual retreat at the Valle Crucis Conference Center. My thanks to the Rev. Jane Smith for supplying for me while I am away. 

Every year our vestry goes away for a planning retreat, beginning on Friday evening and ending on Sunday morning. Both vestry members who actively served in 2013 and those new vestry members who will begin their terms in January 2014 are invited to attend. We get to know one another and we get to dream and plan for the future of St. John's.

This year Mahan Siler will again be our facilitator. He really helped us last year as we planned for my sabbatical and prepared for the possibility of my being elected Bishop. I wasn't elected but had I been, St. John's would have had a plan and moved forward without pause. 

This year there is no sabbatical or bishop election so we will focus our thinking on "What's next?" What's next for St. John's? Where do we want to go and who do we want to be by the end of 2014?
What projects do we want to accomplish? What goals do we want to set for ourselves? What will help us worship joyfully? What will inspire us to do Christ's work in the world? How can we be better stewards of our resources?

Friday and Saturday are spent looking to the future and developing a plan for how we will implement our dreams. On Sunday morning we will worship together with each vestry member taking part of "preaching" the sermon for Advent 3. Our worship connects us to the worship which is happening back home at St. John's. After worship we have our regular vestry meeting, wrapping up details for the year.

The retreat closes with lunch together. (I know some prayers have already been said hoping for fried chicken!) After lunch we wind our way back down the mountain, filled with dreams and hopes and the love of God and excited to share with the congregation.

Time away, either on our own personal retreat or shared with a group for planning, is so helpful. It is good to step away from the day to day--both day to day schedules and day to day environments--and intentionally ponder, pray and plan in God's holy presence.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Sermon for Year A Advent 2 2013


I did a quick inventory this week of what I have in my car.
In the front side pocket
I carry a Bible and a Book of Common Prayer.
(You might expect that a priest would have those, right?)
There’s also a pitifully out of date church directory
but it generally gets me your phone number and street address
if I need to be in touch while on the road
or trying to find your house to visit.

There is an assortment of maps in the other side pocket,
even though I haven’t looked at a map in two years.
Now I just say pick up my phone and say,
“Siri, I need directions to....”

There is a first aid kit that has come in handy,
a toolbox my son gave me when he was in middle school,
a coat hanger in case you need my help to get your car door open
if you lock your keys inside,
an assortment of CDs,
my mileage book,
some quarters for the parking meters downtown--
and umbrellas.
Big umbrellas, little umbrellas.
I counted five.
Travel with me and you won’t get wet.
I like to be prepared.

So why did I take this inventory of my Subaru’s contents?
Because of John the Baptist.
Didn’t you hear ?
He says PREPARE...
PREPARE the way.

Last week we heard in the scriptures BE READY.
This week we hear PREPARE THE WAY.

Advent is a time of preparation,
a time of hopeful preparation.
though I don’t think John the Baptist was talking about multiple umbrellas.

Prepare the way.
Make the paths straight.

Advent is not a penitential season like Lent
but John does call us to repent.
And that word,
metanoia in Greek,
means to turn around, to go a different way, to make some changes.

We like that theologically.
But oh how hard it is to change our paths.
The old ways get so comfortable, so easy.

Our path starts to wander
and before we know it,
we have built stone walls to keep the path
from every changing or being straightened.

John calls us to a different way.
John is a feisty fellow.
He certainly seems capable of tearing down a wall or two.

Look at the way he is dressed.
Camel hair and a leather belt.
Did he even wear sandals or just go barefoot?
I think John would be very comfortable in Asheville.

Look at what he eats.
Locusts and wild honey.

(I don’t think he will be approached to host coffee hour,
but he would certainly be comfortable with the slow food movement).

John lives a simple, bare bones life.
He knows what matters.
John is getting ready.
John is preparing for the One who will come.
Prophets see the world in a different way.

I heard a marvelous interview on NPR this week
with a young pianist, Yuga Wang.
She was speaking about Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 3--
she referred to as “Rach 3”.
She describes it as the most famously difficult piece of piano music
there is.
But she loves it.
She says,
“I am always amazed by improvisations
because of how they turn around a motif
and can just be all creative about how everything is connected.”

How everything is connected.
I think this is what the prophets saw.
I think this is what John the Baptist knew.

We need to be prepared because we are not in this world by ourselves.
We are connected to everything and everyone
and there is One to come
who is the ultimate connector.

I love the way Presbyterian minister Tom Long describes John the Baptist.
He writes:

As the door to a new era swings open, John the Baptist is the ideal hinge. He is dressed like the old age, but he points to the new. His preaching style is vintage Old Testament; his message paves the way for the new Israel. He appears to have wandered out of some retirement home for old prophets, but he announces the arrival of one who is even greater than the prophets. He baptizes with the water of the ancient Jordan River; he promises the coming of one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire. Everything is about to change. The old is passing away, the new presses in. The long, lost night of hopelessness is coming to an end, and John the Baptist is the rooster who awakes the sleeping world with dawn’s excited cry.

Everything is about to change.
This is where we stand in this advent season.

John the Baptist is preparing us for this
and we are called to prepare ourselves.
Everything is about to change
but the good news is,
just like the Rach 3 piece of piano music,
everything is interconnected.

The kingdom of God will soon appear in the flesh.
A baby.
Imagine that--the Messiah coming into the world as a baby.

Jesus is going to be a very different Messiah
than anyone had imagined.
Even John the Baptist is going to be surprised.

This Messiah will not come as a powerful king
with a sword and fiery judgment.
This Messiah, this Jesus,
will come offering peace and love and mercy.
The war against the powers of evil and oppression will be waged---
but In such unexpected ways.

Even though John may not be completely prepared for all the details,
John knows that the change is a big one
as this kingdom of heaven draws near.

It is not just about making a few tweaks and improvements on one’s life.
It is about seeing the world in a radically different way
and embracing a new way of life.

I love these two icons of John the Baptist.
One is more traditional.
Brought to me by some friends who took a trip to Greece.
In this one John looks rather fierce--
I especially love his hair--
it’s unruly as if to say,
“What?! You think there’s time to worry about my hair out here in the wilderness!??!!”

And then there is this icon.
By a Latino artist (Br. Arturo Olivas, SFO)
John looks a bit loopy.
But in a good news, joyful sort of way.
This John is saying that once we make those paths straight
it’s going to be better than we ever hoped.
He holds his hand pointing to the One who is coming
as if to say,
“This guy who’s coming--
He is awesome!
Just you wait and see!
Prepare the way!”

Both these images of John
let us know that something is about to happen
that is BIG.
Really big.

And that is good news.
That is not news to frighten us
(Well, that burning the chaff is a wee-tad frightening)

But Advent is about hope.
As cantankerous as John the Baptist may sound to our 21st century ears,
he is filled with hope.
Everything--EVERYTHING---is going to be made new.

Advent calls us to prepare the way, to straighten the paths,
to make room --
to make room for something new to be born in our lives.
And John the Baptist tells us
what is coming
is beyond our wildest imaginations.

Way, way beyond our most wonderful dreams!

A wonderful source for icons is Trinity Stores:

Monday, December 2, 2013

Sermon for Advent 1 2013

Be ready

My father was career Army.
When he said we were leaving on vacation at 8 am on Saturday morning.
you better be ready and standing by the front door,
your little suitcase in hand,
because the car was backing out of the driveway at 8:01.

I guess I could say my dad was a man
who would have liked the season of Advent.

Advent is about being ready.

Have you noticed, there are certain people in this parish--
you may be one of them--
who often back into their parking spaces.
I commented on this once
and was told
this was so they could make a quick get-away!
This type of parking
is sometimes called “back in, head out" parking.

We might also label this type of parking
“advent parking.”

Advent calls us to be ready.

Advent  is a word that comes from the Latin adventus
which means “arrival” or “coming”.
The liturgical season of Advent refers to
the coming or arrival of Christ into the world--
referring to both Christ arriving as a baby,
who will be named Jesus,
and the second coming of Christ into the world.

Who is coming?
When is he coming?

Well, our scripture readings today tell us we don’t know when.

Now some of you might argue with that
and say,
No, he’s coming on December 25th.
That’s his birthday.

And you are right.
Sort of.
We don’t really know the date Jesus was born.
There is no date or even time of year mentioned in the Bible.
Scholars argue this widely
but we do know that by the year 400,
celebrating on December 25th had become the norm.

And what about Jesus coming again?
We may have some different theological views on that as well.
But we do proclaim Jesus coming again.
We say it every week when we celebrate the Eucharist.

Christ has died.
Christ is risen.
Christ will come again.

Christ WILL come again.

The scriptures for this first Sunday of Advent are all about time.

Isaiah says--”In days to come...

Paul’s letter to the Romans tells us
“You know what time it is....”.

Then Matthew’s gospel somewhat contradicts that
and says
“But about that day and hour no one knows”
Not even the angels.

But the true message is clear--
whether we know what time it is or we don’t have a clue,
the message of advent is this:  be ready.

Be ready.

Advent is a season which focuses our attention on time passing.
Each week in church we light one candle on the advent wreath.
On Christmas eve we will light the white candle in the center.
We are getting ready.

Some of us use special advent calendars.
Each day you open a little door or color a picture or do something special.
Our son makes an advent calendar each year for his children.
Each day there is a card and it has some activity they will do together
as a family.
It may be as simple as making blueberry muffins together.
It might be to load up their pick up truck
and take a load of firewood to an elderly neighbor.
But each day--from December 1st to December 24th they do something
as a family.
They take time to step away from iPhones and legos and television
and daily chores
and be present.
To joyfully celebrate what is right before them.
When we learn to be present--fully present--with one another,
we also learn to be present with God.

Jesus is telling us in Matthew’s gospel,
don’t assume you have an endless amount of time.
Keep awake.
Keep awake and be ready.

Not everything that happens in our lives or in the world
is joyful and happy.
Sometimes it does indeed feel like a thief has broken in
and stolen or damaged what we treasured.
There are things we cannot change.

But there is One that never changes.
That one is God.

Remember, the word Emmanuel
means God with us.
Remember that Advent is the season when we sing the hymn,
O come O come Emmanuel.

God with us--always.

Advent is a season of preparation.
Unlike Lent which is a penitential season,
Advent is a time of joyful preparation.
A time of waiting in hope
for all that will come and all that will be.

What will you do this advent to be ready for Jesus?
What will you do to make room for God in your life?
What are the hopes you have and want to nurture?

How will you answer the door,
when there is a knock and you are asked,
“Do you have any room here for something new to be born?”

Do we have any room for something new to be born?

Sometimes we get so busy and overwhelmed with all the stuff--
both physical and emotional clutter--
that we can’t even find our way to the door--
much less open it.

Advent is a season of preparation.
To seize the day and to make room in our mangers.
To get ready for whatever and whenever the knock comes.

That knock is not something to dread or to fear.
That knock is something to be excited about, hopeful.

So keep awake.
Carpe diem.
Park your lives “back in, head out.”
Be ready.
Be ready for the light to break through the darkness.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Sabbath Day

Sabbath Day

I was very fortunate to have a three month sabbatical this past spring.  Part of that sabbatical was going away for an eight-day Ignatian silent retreat at Eastern Point Retreat House in Gloucester, Massachusetts. During those days of silence (broken only by worship and a daily meeting with a spiritual director) I realized how much the silence and the time away from busy-ness renewed me. I decided that I needed to take one day each week as my sabbath day. A day when I did not do work, did not run errands, did not make plans, but just had a full day set aside to pray, to write, to paint, to be, to rest, to open myself to the presence of God. 

I am somewhat surprised but I have managed to keep a weekly sabbath day quite faithfully. Yes, there have been some interruptions (a dentist appointment that could not be scheduled any other day, travel, pastoral emergencies, etc.) but overall Mondays have become my sabbath time.

I cannot even begin to tell you how much I look forward to these Mondays. I sleep so well on Sunday evenings. I do not set an alarm clock for Monday morning. 

I try to begin my sabbath at sundown on Sunday evenings and end at sundown on Monday evenings. The rhythm of this day of rest has become part of my spiritual practice and one I dearly love. Of course, I realize that I do not have small (or even large) children at home or other demands which would make such a day difficult if not impossible. I feel fortunate and blessed to have a full day. It has made a real difference in my ministry.

Some sabbaths are better than others. By that I mean, there are some sabbath days that I rather fritter away the day. Other days I feel very close to God and am able to enter a space and time of deep prayer and reflection. I feel that I will continue to get better at keeping the sabbath and offering it to God to be made holy. For it is God that makes any day and every day holy; I am not the one that does that.
Stopping for a day, reminds me. None of this is about me. All of this is about God. For that I am grateful. Immensely grateful.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

This was sent to me by a friend. How I could I not love this!!??!!

I love this image of squirrels playing leapfrog. It speaks well to how I feel right now--the need to leap over a lot of empty time on my blog.

It is what happens to my blogposts every year as Holy Week approaches. The truth is my blogposts usually dwindle…or come to a complete halt.  As a parish priest there are too many sermons to write, services to plan and all else that seems to join the whirlwind about that time in the liturgical year. Plus there is that need to stop and listen for the still, small voice.

So…I have delayed posting on my blog because of the obligation I felt to post the sermons I had written or preached but hadn't taken the time to post. I was in the midst of posting about writing an icon and then everything stopped.

So rather than try to catch up (I will one day get back to the icon process) and post months and months of sermons, I decided to take the advice given to me by a bishop about 6 years ago, " Just go forward."

Forward I go. Leaping over the empty months without a posting and going forward with joy.  I just posted the meditation I offered at our Diocesan Convention and will make an effort to post at least weekly now. If you're still hanging around my blog, thank you for waiting.



Matthew 16:13-20

13 Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that the Son of Man is?’ 14And they said, ‘Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’ 15He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ 16Simon Peter answered, ‘You are the Messiah,* the Son of the living God.’ 17And Jesus answered him, ‘Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. 18And I tell you, you are Peter,* and on this rock* I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. 19I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.’ 20Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was* the Messiah.*

Today’s reading from the gospel of Matthew is all about elephants.
That’s right---elephants.

Who do you say I am?
Jesus is asking his disciples. Asking us.

This is a bit like the old folk tale of the blind men and the elephant. 
The men cannot see the entire elephant. 
The entireness, the wholeness, of the elephant
is a complete and unseen mystery to them.

They reach out into the small world that is theirs
and they touch and they feel and they try to make sense.
All they each know is one part--
just the ear of the elephant, or the leg or the trunk. 
And each one believes they know.
Each one believes they know 
what an elephant is.

Who do you say I am?

We are too often like those blind men trying to define an elephant.
We grab hold of the part that is right in front of us--
the part that most interests us,
the part that is most familiar,
the part that mirrors where we are in our journey.
Maybe that part is liturgy or justice and outreach
or evangelism or Christian formation or stewardship.
All worthy parts. All important.
but not the whole elephant.

Who do you say I am?

Music! Youth! Valle Crucis! Kanuga! Lake Logan! 
Money! Preaching! Moral Monday! College ministry!
Small churches! Big churches! Emergent churches!

We grab hold of that one part 
and try to convince everyone around us that this is THE elephant. 
This is Jesus.
This is what matters the most.

Jesus loves me 
This I know,
Of course Jesus loves what I love the best!

Oh my.
You mean there is more than just this one part?
You mean you want me to look beyond this ear that I know so well?
To connect the dots between my part and your part
and his part and her part...
The whole elephant, huh?

Who do you say I am?

Jesus is the elephant in the room.
We know he’s here.
But sometimes we pretend he’s not.
Sometimes we pretend that we are the only one in the room.
Our needs, our desires, our loves.

Jesus is the difficult truth we don’t want to face.
Jesus is the truth we are afraid to speak to those in power.
Jesus is the truth we run from and hide.
Jesus is the one we try to bind up here on earth.
The truth is so big. So strong. Like an elephant. 

We look every which way and keep our blinders on 
for fear.
For fear
of the wholeness of Jesus,
of what he really knows, 
of what Jesus really knows about us,
(now there’s a scary thought)
of how Jesus might ask us to follow, to take risks, 
to speak up, to treat people differently.

To become real truth-tellers, 
gospel spreaders, 
church builders,
God lovers.
To let loose 
the wholeness of Jesus.

Who do you say I am?

You are the Messiah.
You are the Son of the Living God.
You are my all in all.
You are everything.

Who do you say I am?

You are the whole shebang, Jesus.
You are the entire elephant.

So big.
So mysterious.
So alive.

Right here. 
Right now.
Right in this very room. 

+           +        +

A meditation on Matthew 16: 13-20
offered at the Annual Convention of the Diocese of Western North Carolina 
Morning Prayer, Friday, November 15, 2013
The Rev. Jeanne Finan