Thursday, January 24, 2008
Epiphany 2-A 1/20/2008
1 Corinthians 1:1-9
I know a Catholic priest who is a biblical scholar, who was teaching at a university. He recalled that a student came up to him one day after class to ask, “Do you have a personal relationship with Jesus?”
As a Catholic, a scholar, a devout and committed Christian, the professor was taken aback. “Let me think about it, and get back to you,” he said.
Many things ran through his mind. He could of course give formulaic responses, from the cathechism, from the creeds, from the church teachings. The question also reminded him of times when he had been caught off-guard by missionaries, earnest young people who came up to him with such questions, looking for another notch on their belt of “the saved.”
The professor thought it over. A week or so later, he asked the student to walk with him back to his office. “To my surprise,” he said, “I found myself saying that the Gospel stories about Jesus continue to connect my spirit to the Spirit. Jesus effectively baptizes me with the Spirit.” Such an answer would not satisfy many people. The professor knew that a Christian wanting a secure, formulaic answer, or a Catholic expecting a reply out of the cathechism, would not be satisfied with something about connecting with the Spirit. “Although I was in the line with John the Baptist,” the professor said, “I did not know if I wanted to say this is the only way to encounter the Spirit of God. But one thing for sure, it had been my way.”[i]
We have four different versions of the baptism of Jesus. The Gospels agree, and disagree – and yet all together they tell us the truth about Jesus. He comes to John, he is baptized, the spirit of God pronounces him as the one. For Jesus, it is a vocational moment. It is the moment from which he is sent into the world with a Good News to proclaim.
For us, it is a vocational moment, too. When we read these Gospel stories, our spirit connects with The Spirit, our life with the Life of Jesus. Like Jesus, we are sent. Like the disciples who were curious, we “Come and see.” We have to experience him for ourselves.
Disciples are not perfect. The Gospels are full of various “problem personalities,” but it seems that is not so important. It is the curiosity – the response to the invitation, “Come and see.” Paul is writing to the Christians in
… to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints …
The value of these Christian folks is not their perfection, their smooth answers, their harmonious community or their theological purity. Their value to Paul is that they answered the invitation of Jesus to “Come and see.” They came, they heard the Word of God, they encountered the Spirit, and they stayed. They were dedicated. Convicted. Sanctified.
We’re giving thanks today for people who served on the Executive Committee of this parish. You stepped in at a difficult time in the life of this community faith, and served faithfully. You knew that by keeping faith with this place, God would keep faith as well – actually it’s the other way around: you knew that God had faith in this place, in these people, in this mission, and if God did, you could, too. You knew that God was in this place, you knew it, you could feel it, in the people around you, in the relationships of friendship and fellowship, in the outpouring of love and service here and beyond these doors.
Jesus turned and saw them following [and] he said to them, ‘What are you looking for?’
All the people could say in response was, “Where are you staying?” When they followed Jesus, when they went to see where he was and who he was, all we know is that they stayed. They stayed all day. They weren’t perfect, or highly accomplished, or rich, or well educated. They didn’t have the best manners, or the highest SAT scores. They were not free of psychological problems. They made mistakes. They got angry, and afraid, and were selfish and lonely.
None of those things are prerequisites for discipleship. Being a disciple means following the invitation when it is offered. Jesus said, “Come and see,” and some of you volunteered to serve on the Executive Committee. Jesus said, “Come and see,” and some of you joined the Altar Guild. Jesus said, “Come and see,” and some of you started working at
[i] John Shea, The Spiritual Wisdom of the Gospels for Christian Preachers and Teachers; Year A, Matthew: On Earth as it is in Heaven (
Monday, January 14, 2008
In his poem, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” Langston Hughes evokes the power of these commonplace yet compelling bodies of water. When people like John the Baptist started dunking people in rivers like the Jordan they opened a torrent of imagery and symbolism that washes down to us even today. We humans know water. We know what rushing water can do. We know it can clean us, and if we are feeling full of sin and woe and regret, we can wash away all those troubles and get a fresh start in a flowing river. If we are frightened and oppressed, if injustice and poverty threaten to keep us enslaved, we can jump into that river and come out the other side a free person. If we dislike the world as it is, torn by strife and inequality, a world where the rich get rich and the poor get poorer, and sicker, and weaker, and lonelier, and colder, we can take power from that mighty river, plunging in and springing up again, ready to take on the forces of wrong.
We have a lot to do today at this river. We are going to renew our own baptismal vows. We are going to have our parish Annual Meeting, to recap the past year and look forward to the new. We are going to gather in friendship and fellowship – to break bread and share wine, to nibble cake and drink coffee – to do all this in communion with the One who takes all our ordinariness and blesses it, and brings us simple souls into his body, and through his body, into the very nature of God’s own self. We have a lot to do today.
But back to the river.
This story of the baptism of Jesus is found in all four gospels, and next week we’ll read the version from the Gospel of John. They are all alike, and yet a little different, and those differences can jar us a little bit. For example, don’t we think that Jesus and John are total buddies, cousins, completely on the same page in this
If you remember back to the 3rd Sunday in Advent, the John the Baptist Sunday, John and Jesus are not exactly on the same wave length. John is rough, ready to take up arms – if not literally, then symbolically. Remember Jesus’ words: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? Someone in soft robes?” In that passage, you may remember, Jesus sympathizes with John, stands in solidarity with John, and yet clearly makes the distinction that his message brings peace, healing, hope, compassion, kindness – he cites this same prophet Isaiah that we read this morning. When Jesus comes, he brings justice, healing, light to the blind, freedom to the enslaved. No wonder slaves escaping the south before the Civil War sang about gathering at the river: freedom, spiritual and physical, was on the other side.
Jesus does not denounce John, or his methods or his message. Jesus stands with John, and with all those others waiting baptism: Jesus stands with us sinners, us dirty folk, us yearning for freedom, us hoping for a better world. Jesus plunges into those same waters with us, and comes up the same way we do, the same river water pouring off him as it pours off us. When God thunders from the heavens, “This is my child, the Beloved,” God means us, too. Just as God is pleased with Jesus, God is pleased with us, too. We gather at the river, we beloved, we little band of believers, we who are pleasing to God.
Big changes are ahead for
- A new Executive Committee has been formed, which includes partners in mission from outside this worshipping congregation along with leadership from among you, the worshipping congregation.
- A budget has been drawn up to support the development of this Episcopal Church as a “new start,” plans which will depend on the financial support of our neighboring parishes in the
and Taunton River Deaneries. South Shore
- The Diocese of Massachusetts will continue its base line support, and will provide other support in grants and aid for specific projects and initiatives.
- All of these partners from outside these walls challenge us, the worshipping congregation of
’s, to do our part: to continue our financial support in pledges and giving that exceed or match what we gave in 2007. St. Paul
- Our partners in mission – from the Bishop on down – are depending on us -- to continue, in the words of the Baptismal Covenant, “in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers.” That means to get here every Sunday, to be part of this part of the Body of Christ.
- Our partners in mission – the guests and volunteers at
’s Table – are counting on us – to continue “to persevere in resisting evil … to seek and serve Christ in all persons, to love our neighbors as ourselves, to strive for justice and peace among all people, and to respect the dignity of every human being.” That means that people across the City of Brockton are counting on us to be here, not just to feed the hungry but to be a beacon of light and hope and compassion. St. Paul
- I am counting on you – to continue “to proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ.” I am counting on you, each of you, to be part of this new venture to be this Good News in this place. I am counting on each of you to take this seriously. To act, to read, to study, to pray, to give, to show up, to give thanks, and to start all over again.
We are gathered at the river. It’s rushing by. John is there in the middle of it. He is fierce, frightening, over the top, too demanding and too bossy. It all seems too much; we can’t do it, it is too much change. If we go in that water, things won’t be like they used to be, they won’t sound the same, they won’t look the same. It will be too weird. There is no one else there in the river that we know.
Except for Jesus, who wades in even though John is not so sure about this. Jesus, who comes up out of that water with us in tow, hearing those same words, that we are beloved and pleasing to God.
Sunday, January 6, 2008
Epiphany Jan. 6, 2008 St. Paul’s
Isaiah 60:1-6 Psalm 72 Ephesians 3:1-12 Matthew 2:1-12
They were headed west. They were following a star. It was night. They went to the wrong place. These sages from the East were following the signs in the sky, which they thought, like the prophet Isaiah foretold, led them to Jerusalem. Hundreds of years earlier, Isaiah wrote this message of hope to the Jews living in the East, in captivity in Babylon. Take heart, he told them. The holy city of Jerusalem will be rebuilt. It will be so glorious that kings from all nations will stream to it – the glory of the Lord will shine forth in that place. Isaiah’s was a prophecy of restoration: the good old days would not only return; they would be even more fantastic than ever. But our wise men in today’s reading from Matthew have discovered a different sign. They are looking not for a return to a glorious past, but for a way to a new future. Herod, the king of that restored Jerusalem, is not so keen on their seeking this new reality. No, no, he has his scholars tell the visitors. There is no new king in Jerusalem. Look, the scholars say, the prophecy you want is not from Isaiah but from Micah: But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah . . . from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old . . . Go to Bethlehem, Herod says, and tell me what you find there. Of course, if they find a king, Herod wants to kill him. Like any political establishment, Jerusalem does not want to be upset. This news from these mysterious Eastern visitors could be very destabilizing. So off the wise men go, away from the center of imperial power and wealth, away from the palace of the king, away from the Temple, from the Roman legions, from the court intrigues and the power plays. Off they go, nine miles south down the dusty road to Bethlehem, to a modest, ordinary place. These wise men read the scriptures, and realize that the hope for their future lies not in the city of glitter and achievement, but in some place unnoticed and unpretentious. The king the wise men seek is not one who will triumph by revolutionary power, but by living among the people – a king who brings peace not by the sword but by love. There is no way to know whether this story is “accurate” or not – how many wise men? Were they kings? What did they look like? We imagine their names, their camels, their servants, their fine gifts, their swarthy, oriental complexions. Who knows. We do know that the early church thought their story was very important: their story of coming from a far-off foreign place to find hope in the birth of this child, their story of not finding the true king in Jerusalem, their story that this king would be the one to bring God’s hope and truth and peace and love to the whole world beyond the walls of the old Jerusalem. Read this story, the early Christians said. Our Jesus is sought by the wisest people from afar. Our Jesus, born in modesty and simplicity. Our Jesus, whose name means “he saves,” will reach far and wide with his Good News. See, the early Christians said, see how far this light shines. I don’t think we can pretend that Brockton is Jerusalem. I suppose if those wise men came to Massachusetts, they would head to Boston first. But then they would have to turn around and leave, to head south, maybe, to a much more ordinary and commonplace city like this one. They would be surprised, as we would be surprised, to find the Son of God born in such a place. But it was, in such a place as this, that the Good News began.
Saturday, January 5, 2008
Saturday before the Epiphany Jan. 5, 2008
Jonah 2 Ephesians 6:10-20 John 11:17-27, 38-44
This week we attended the opening of the marathon reading of Moby-Dick at the
Being swallowed by a whale is a symbol of great isolation and loneliness – what a place for an enforced retreat! This image of a involuntary introspection stretches from pop culture to high culture. In the 1980s punk rockers sang, “I feel like Jonah in the belly of the whale,” lamenting a lost love:
somewhere the sun is shining
on this world but not for me
two lovers hearts are rising
ohh How long before I'm free
Or, more seriously, the poem “Jonah” by May Sarton:
I come back from the belly of the whale
Bruised from the struggle with a living wall,
Drowned in a breathing dark, a huge heart-beat
That jolted helpless hands and useless feet,
Yet know it was not death, that vital warm,
Nor did the monster wish me any harm;
Only the prisoning was hard to bear
And three-weeks' need to burst back into air . .
Slowly the drowned self must be strangled free
And lifted whole out of that inmost sea,
To lie newborn under compassionate sky,
As fragile as a babe, with welling eye.
Do not be anxious, for now all is well,
The sojourn over in that fluid Hell,
My heart is nourished on no more than air,
Since every breath I draw is answered prayer.
Perhaps you, dear sisters and Companions, feel akin to Jonah, after your long sojourn of discernment, prayer, testing the Spirit, waiting for this day of Admission to the Society of the Companions of the Holy Cross..
Now, don’t get your hopes up. We as a Society are, collectively, no where near as colorful characters as Jonah. Committed as we are to social justice, we do share with Jonah the frustration that people just don’t listen to us (!), whether our issues are the trafficking of women and men or global climate change, in our day, or the issues of child labor, mine safety, civil rights or the war in the Philippines which were championed by Companions of 100 years ago. You, dear sisters, now share with us, in our commitment to social justice, the burden of Jonah, blessed (or cursed) with a God-given prophecy which we proclaim tirelessly to people who just won’t listen (!).
But, take heart, and hear again these words of May Sarton:
Do not be anxious, for now all is well,
The sojourn over in that fluid Hell,
My heart is nourished on no more than air,
Since every breath I draw is answered prayer.
You have also entered a Society of women dedicated to prayer, and we are ever enriched by the prayers you bring to our collective. At least while Jonah was in the belly of the whale he learned to pray, to be still, to be humble, to give thanks – I realize that once he was spit up on again onto the earth he resumed his stubborn and self-righteous ways -- but at least there, on that forced retreat, he was still enough to hear the voice of God. Like Lazarus, Jesus’ dear friend dead three days, Jonah came to know that even in our deaths God reaches out to us, God saves us, delivers us, has the power to spit us back out onto dry land, that God loves us nonetheless, even if, once spit out, we don’t always behave as well as we could. Spit back out, and breathing air, May Sarton reminds us, every breath we draw is answered prayer.
St. Paul reminds us that as Christians we are committed to a great struggle, against the forces of darkness which want to overcome the light and truth which is God, the light and truth we celebrate in this holy season of Christmas and Epiphany. Paul reminds us , as we engage in this struggle, that we are to put on the armor of God and the helmet of salvation. We are to take up the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word – the Word, which St. John reminds us, is made flesh, and lives among us. But beneath all of that, holding us up, filling us, sustaining us, is breath, the breath of prayer, the prayer that marks this Society, into which we today welcome you, as beloved sisters, Companions, and friends.
Thursday, January 3, 2008
There's a story here. Hymns are living texts, words we make alive each time we sing them, and through them the stories of Christians from centuries past come alive to us.
Christmas 1 Dec. 3o, 2007
Isaiah 61:10-62:3 Psalm 147 Galatians 3:23-25; 4:4-7 John 1:1-18
The baby has been born. The reality of our lives has changed forever. Now, we ask, what does it all mean?
Jesus is a shock to the human family, just as the birth of a baby is a shock to any individual family. All those angels and their frightful appearances. Shepherds coming in from the fields. Rich kings from the east. More frightful warnings of danger, and a midnight flight to escape a vengeful king. What does this all mean, this baby born to a refugee family, this baby on the run, this Jesus, this one whose name means he will save his people from their sins?
The Word was made flesh and dwelled among us, full of grace and truth. As Christians pondered what the birth of this child meant, they began to understand this astounding gift of God come to live among us as one of us, God made flesh, and bones, and heart and voice – and as Christians began to incorporate this reality of God among us into their lives, they prayed about it, talked about, wrote about it, and sang about it. When one sings,
Hymn 82: Of the Father’s love begotten – This was written in the late 4th century. The church was pretty well established across the
Our hymnal contains several other religious songs from the Middle Ages. 103: A child is born in
Omega and Alpha he!
Let the organ thunder,
While the choir with peals of glee
Doth rend the air asunder.
Our other medieval carols are very jolly, and we like them still because they are folk songs, songs ordinary people sang in their homes, around their fires, walking from house to house drinking wassail. 105: God rest you merry, gentlemen – the word “rest” in the first line at the time meant “keep”, so the song begins, “God keep you merry” or “Merry Christmas!” This stanza found printed on a song sheet in 1800 shows this to be a rollicking wassail song:
God bless the ruler of this house,
And send him long to reign,
And many a merry Christmas
May live to see again.
Among your friends and kindred,
That live both far and near,
And God send you a happy New Year.
109: The first Nowell – is also a folk song, retelling the Christmas story with some creative license. Drama was another medieval medium to tell the Christmas story. In some plays, the shepherds were given names, and in one English play they are given the hearty names of Harvey, Tudd and Trowle. The word “Nowell” shows how language and song crossed borders: it comes from the French “Noel” which is derived from “the Latin natalis, meaning “belonging to a birth” … That it was a cry of joy to celebrate the birth of Christ is clear from Chaucer’s
And “Nowell” cryeth every lusty man.”
After the middle ages, we have a big gap in music. The Puritans, who dominated the 17th century, refused to celebrate Christmas. The holiday had gotten too bawdy, too full of pre-Christian customs to celebrate the solstice, and besides, there is nothing in the Bible to say that Jesus was born in December. So there: no music, no wassail, nothing which smacked of Catholic or European excess. Just the plain truth, please.
Early in the 18th century, we see some joy creeping back into this dour Protestant faith. Isaac Watts, who wrote hundreds of hymns based on the psalms – for Puritans, only the psalms could be sung – took Psalm 98 and came up with this all-time hit, 100: Joy to the world. Watts would change the psalms a bit, to make them reflect the Christian theology of his day, so if you look at the original psalm side by side with a Watts interpretation you get a picture of the 18th century and not ancient
We know several other of Christmas’s greatest hits from the 18th century, big, loud hymns, popularized in
Two 18th century hymns were composed as poems. The massively prolific Charles Wesley wrote a “Hymn for Christmas Day” which was put to a tune by Felix Mendelssohn. Mendelssohn had written a piece to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Gutenberg and his press, and specifically noted that this lively tune was NOT suitable for sacred music, but lo and behold, the combination of Wesley’s words and Mendelssohn’s Gutenberg melody took off as 87: Hark! the herald angels sing.
106: Christians, awake, salute the happy morn – was written by John Byrom, the same man who invented shorthand. His little daughter, Dolly, asked for a poem for Christmas – this was 1749; Puritan piety was still influential – and on her breakfast plate she found this “Christmas Day for Dolly.” In 1750, Byrom’s poem was set to music by the church organist in
If 18th century Christmas hymns reflect the confidence and security of Protestant piety and British imperial expansion, we can see sentimentality and an awareness of social disharmonies creep into 19th century Victorian church music. 78: O little town of Bethlehem; 89: It came upon a midnight clear; 102: Once in royal David’s city; 112: In the bleak midwinter – all tell the Christmas story, but reflect a modern dis-ease with how far we are from the innocence of those early days. These poems reflect urban life – the “dark streets” of the little town of Bethlehem; one can hear the anxieties leading up to the American Civil War in It came up on the midnight clear:”
And man, at war with man, hears not
The tidings which they bring;
O hush the noise, ye men of strife,
And hear the angels sing.
The 4th stanza of that hymn is positively Dickensian:
And ye, beneath life’s crushing load,
Whose forms are bending low,
Who toil along the climbing way
With painful steps and slow, --
Look now, for glad and golden hours
Come swiftly on the wing:
O rest beside the weary road,
And hear the angels sing!
But all was not gloom and fear in the 19th century. American poets and musicians contributed two rousing songs to Christians around the world.101: Away in a manger – was not composed by Martin Luther, but was first published in an American Lutheran church school hymnal in 1885. And 128: We three kings of Orient are – was has been called “the first modern American Christmas carol,” was written by a professor of church music at General Seminary in
And you? Your favorite hymn? The one that speaks to you of the Word made flesh?
Isaiah 9:2-4, 6-7 Ps. 96 Titus 2:11-14 Luke 2:1-20
Why, a friend asked me, do they celebrate Christmas at Hogwarts?
Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry is the site of much of the Harry Potter books, a gloomy and foreboding castle somewhere in the north of
Well, they must not read much of the Bible at Hogwarts, because we’ve been reading some texts of terror. First there are all those Old Testament prophets and their words about the end time, the terrible day of the Lord. Then, the one phrase that has appeared in several of our readings is: “Do not be afraid.”
“Do not be afraid, Zechariah, “says the angel who announces the birth of John the Baptist. “Do not be afraid, Mary,” the angel says again, “for you have found favor with God.” “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife.” And then more angels, now to a group of shepherds: “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news.”
Something must really be frightening people, if the first thing these angelic messengers have to say is “Do not be afraid.”
What must you see when you see an angel? Light, I imagine. Light from light, a terrifying vision – is this what is meant by true God from true God? This begotten one, through whom all things are made? It is a fearful thing, this God made flesh, God among us, God coming to save us from our sins.
I think what we know, and what those Hogwarts Christmas revelers do not know, is that being a Christian means we look those fears in the face everyday – for our terror is not of evil or of death, but we are afraid that it might all be true. That God has come among us to save us from our sins, our sins which are so close to us that you may say God has come among us to save us from ourselves. What we are afraid of is that this is true, and if it is true, then we will be changed. No longer business as usual, but a whole new news.
It’s tough, being a Christian, living with this Good News that is here, but with so much more to come. Here but not yet. We live in this middle time, this “time being,” as W. H. Auden says:
…To those who have seen
The Child, however dimly, however incredulously,
The Time Being is, in a sense, the most trying time of all.*
We’ve heard the good news, we’ve seen the child: now how do we live in this time being? How do we keep alive this glimpse of glory we see tonight as we continue to live in the midst of the ordinary?
This is a very ordinary place, and like it or not, we are very ordinary people. But here in our midst, between us and around us, in what we do for each other and what we do for other people, you can see, you can just see, that glory shine.Want to read more about For the Time Being?
Here is an excerpt from this article by William C. French ... For Auden, our ordinary existence is lived out in a post-Christmas world where “The Christmas Feast is already becoming a memory. . . . And the kitchen table exists because I scrub it.” His concern in the poem is not simply to speak of the Nativity events but rather to draw out their incarnational impact upon the mundane world of the everyday. And what could be more boring, more deadeningly mundane, than the cabin-fever periods of February?