Sunday, January 29, 2023

The Beatitudes

 

Mathew 5:1-12

Epiphany 4 / Year A

The American novelist Kurt Vonnegut once noted wryly, “For some reason, the most vocal Christians among us never mention the Beatitudes.  But, often with tears in their eyes, they demand that the Ten Commandments be posted in public buildings.  And of course, that’s Moses, not Jesus. I haven’t heard one of them demand that the Sermon on the Mount, the Beatitudes, be posted anywhere.  ‘Blessed are the merciful’ in a courtroom?  ‘Blessed are the peacemakers’ in the Pentagon?” he asks and then responds, “Give me a break!”

Tony Campolo, an evangelical pastor, says if you want to establish a religion which is the polar opposite of what Jesus teaches in the Beatitudes it would look a lot like the ‘pop Christianity’ which has taken over the airwaves.  There is something radically counter-cultural about the Beatitudes, calling into question everything we know and value and they may make us uncomfortable because, for the most part, we like our culture as it is.

Blessed are the poor (Matthew adds ‘poor in spirit’, whereas Luke retains what is most likely the original, shorter form of the saying).  Blessed are the poor?  This may be what Jesus taught, but in our world we act as if blessed are those who win the lottery.  We live in a country where the wealthiest 1% control 40% of the wealth; where the six heirs to the Wal-Mart fortune have more money than the bottom 30% on the economic ladder.  James Harlan, our diocesan Canon for Evangelism, was the rector of the Episcopal Church in Palm Beach before coming here.  He has fascinating stories about his time there, including when President Trump visited at Christmas and Easter.  In describing the culture and affluence of that community, he simply and succinctly says, “I can be very seductive.” 

Blessed are those who mourn for they will be comforted.  I mourn the proliferation of gun violence in our society and find little comfort anywhere.  I mourn what human activity has done to our planet and do find some comfort.  Our air is cleaner than when I was a child.  So is our water.  Growing up along the Cuyahoga River, it was little more than an open sewer system and famously once caught fire.  It is now safe for recreational use and is being stocked with fish.  A stretch of the river is now a beautiful national park.  Someday in the near future a dam will be taken down and the Cuyahoga falls will be restored; a possibility I find very comforting. 

Blessed our the meek?  Charles Barkley, in his hay day, was a fearsome physical presence on the basketball court.  He was featured in a memorable magazine ad for Nike in which he had a mean scowl on his face as he clutched a basketball.  The caption read, “The meek may inherit the earth, but they’ll never get a rebound.”  That pretty much sums up what our culture thinks about meekness.  If you what it, you have to take it for yourself.

Hungering for righteousness?  I want what is right for me.  I saw a cartoon of an adult teaching a bible study whose instruction was this: “If you don’t hunger for righteousness just say, ‘that is not my calling!’”  Being merciful?  We live in a world which is all about getting even.  Making peace?  Well, we are into peace keeping, which involves using force and power to suppress resistance, but making peace is something entirely different and much more difficult.

All of my ranting is to say it is easy to see why no one is clamoring to have the Beatitudes posted in public places or taught in schools.  Simply put, they are too revolutionary.  They teach that the marginalized are blessed and the satisfied are missing out.   The Anglican bishop and scholar N.T. Wright says the Beatitudes are the way God’s kingdom, heaven’s rule, begins to appear on earth.  They are not about how to behave so God will do something nice for you.  They describe the ways in which Jesus wants to rule the world. 

In Jesus’ reign there are no haves and have nots.  There are just those who are meek and merciful and those who aren’t.  There are those hunger for righteousness and peace and those who don’t.  There are those who suffer for doing what is right and those who prosper by doing what is wrong.  There are those who find this teaching comforting and those who find it uncomfortable or perhaps incomprehensible.

If Jesus handed out report card and graded us based on our adherence to the Beatitudes, mine would have a lot check marks in the boxes which say “Needs Improving.”  I suspect I am not alone.  Maybe when this lesson comes up again at the end of January 2026 most of my marks will be in the “Is Improving” box and the person doing the grading will write a note saying, “Keith has worked very hard to incorporate these teachings into his life.”  How about you?  What would your report card look like?


Sunday, January 22, 2023

The Annual Meeting

 


Matthew 4:12-23

Epiphany 4 / Year A

It strikes me today’s reading from the gospel of Matthew is particularly appropriate for us on this Sunday when we hold our annual Congregational Meeting (the first in-person gathering in three years).  Jesus’ call to Simon, Andrew, James, and John is his call to us: “Follow me.”  And just as these four dropped their nets and left their boats in order to respond faithfully, we too sacrifice much for the work Jesus calls us to do.  And just as Jesus brought a great light to a region which dwelled in darkness, so we too are called to bring the light of Christ to our to our world.

Reflecting back over our church life in 2022 it is clear much has changed since the onset of the pandemic and yet much has remained the same.  What hasn’t changed?  Well, we are still God’s people with the same values we have always had: love of God, care for one another, and concern for our community.  What has changed is how we express and live out our values.

We worship now at one service held at 9:30.  We have an intergenerational approach to Christian Formation which takes place after the service.  We take communion kits to parishioners who cannot be physically present with us, but who participate by watching the service through a live-stream.  While our Food Pantry is no longer operational, we support financially the feeding ministry of the Suffolk Christian Fellowship Church just a few blocks away.  We are partnering with For Kids to serve dinners and we generously donate to their back-to-school, Thanksgiving meals, and Christmas gift drives.  We made a significant contribution to support Ukrainian Refugee Resettlement. 

We are blessed with a wonderful, dedicated staff.  Cindy Cowan continues to function at a high level and warmly serves every parishioner who contacts her.  Thom Robertson has brought his considerable talents to our worship life and formation events and has instituted a very popular noon-time organ concert series.  Wanda Rector brings creativity, skill, and dedication to her work as our Christian Formation Director.  Janice Roberts continues to keep our finances straight and our reporting accurate and timely.  We have contracted with a cleaning service that seems to be working very effectively.  We also employ Macey Olenjack to fill in the gaps during the week and she has proven to be worth every penny and then some.  Kimber-Lee Defreeuw and Lisa White serve as our nursery attendants.  The staffing is in place for our parish ministries to thrive.

And our membership is doing its part.  From the Altar Guild to the Kitchen Queens, from bible studies to the Chancel Choir, from Vestry leadership to office volunteers, you all give of your time and talent in so many different ways and without these gifts our common life would be impossible.  And you give of your treasure.  We began the year with a projected deficit of over $40,000.  We ended the year with a small surplus.  In our diocese, financially speaking, we are the exception, not the rule.

Perhaps the most obvious change in our common life is attendance at Sunday worship.  If you want some good news, our average attendance at the 9:30 service rose by 25% in 2022 and that is fantastic!  If you are a realist you will note we went from 40 to 51 and 51 is still a far cry from where we were before the pandemic.  Our church is typical of what Bishop Susan is seeing throughout our diocese.  She refers to the pandemic as a time of pruning.  A significant number of people have not returned, but those who are here are more committed than ever.  She says now that we have been pruned we are ready to grow and bear more fruit.  She has a hopeful and encouraging perspective.    

And speaking of pruning, the single thing that keeps me awake at night is a concern about leadership development.  In spite of our best efforts, we are able to identify only two people to come onto vestry this year.  In addition, one member – Terry Mottley – lives in town only part time and another – Beau Holland – will be moving to Wilmington sometime later this year.  

When you look at the membership statistics in the Annual Report, you will note some significant changes.  There are 479 people associated with our parish.  These are folks we might expect to reach out to us if they need the services of a church. 

The significant shift is our reporting of Confirmed Communicants in Good Standing (members confirmed who received communion at least three times during the year and made a financial contribution of record).  In 2021 we reported this number to be 166.  Last year it was adjusted to 75.  Some of this dramatic change has to do with how the figure is calculated (or perhaps miscalculated in the past).  As I look around, 75 feels like the right number and it begins to explain why we struggle to fill twelve spots on the Vestry.  It also highlights the challenge we face to muster the human resources to we need to do all the things we did and how we did them prior to the pandemic. 

I am now in my 16th year of serving as your rector.  The building is still standing, barely.  I continue to be grateful for all the ways you love, support, encourage, and tolerate me.  I will turn 64 this fall and recognize I most likely will retire from here sometime after I turn 67.  I am still energized by the work God is giving us to do.  I am still open to the movement of the Holy Spirit in our midst.  I still hear Jesus calling me to follow and to shine his light.  I invite you to drop your nets and join me.

 


Monday, January 16, 2023

What Do You Seek?

 

John 1:29-42

Epiphany 2 / Year A

John begins his gospel with soaring Christological theology: “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God…”  And even though the rest of his gospel will focus on the person who is the Word made flesh, most of the first chapter belongs to John the Baptist.  Initially he responds to questions about who he is and why he does what he does – baptize.  Then he gives testimony about what happened when he baptized Jesus.  And finally, he who works rigorously to get his followers to follow Jesus. 

Eventually two of John’s disciples trail behind Jesus.  It is at this point Jesus speaks his first words in this gospel.  He turns to the two and asks them a question, “What do you seek?”

It may seem like a simple question on the surface, but in the bible seeking is deeply significant and central to what we are all about as human beings.  “The one who seeks finds… (Mt 7:8).  “You have said, ‘Seek my face.’  My heart says to you, ‘Your face Lord do I seek (Ps 27:8).  “Seek the things that are above, where Christ is… (Col. 3:1).  “The Son of Man came to seek and save the lost” (Lk 19:10).  

Each of you here this morning and those who are watching this service from your home homes has made a significant investment to be here today.  You have gotten up and gotten dressed.  You have given up a much of your morning.  And like the two disciples following after Jesus, you have gotten his attention.  Imagine he turns to you at this moment and asks, “What do you seek?”   How do you answer?

Perhaps you are here this morning to find some measure of peace.  Maybe you come seeking spiritual nourishment through word and sacrament.  It could be you are here to sing God’s praise.  It is possible you come to gather with friends.  Some of you might be here because you want to be a faithful member of this parish.  What do you seek today?

The two folks following Jesus seem not to be ready for this question, still there two-fold response is very telling.  First, they address Jesus as “Rabbi”.  Even though they were baptized by John as a sign of repentance and even though John identifies Jesus as “the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world”, they think of him first and foremost as a teacher.  They will have a lot to learn.

Then they answer his question with a question, “Where are you staying?”  It is not that they lacked overnight accommodations.  They seek to be with Jesus and enthusiastically respond to his invitation, “Come and see.”  And after spending the entire day with him, one of the followers – Andrew – is so impressed he goes and fetches his brother Simon who, apparently, is also a seeker.

Think about the things we say people seek after.  We seek love.  We seek attention.  We seek to be left alone.  We seek fame.  We seek fortune.  We seek knowledge.  We seek understanding.  We seek respect.  We seek recognition.  We seek approval.  We seek adventure.  We seek happiness.  I am convinced every person is seeking something, both in the short term as well as the long term.  In the short term you may be seeking a little bit of rest and relaxation.  In the long term, you may be seeking purpose and direction for your life.

In Matthew 6:33, Jesus says, “Seek first the kingdom of God and its righteousness and all these things will be given to you as well.”  St. Augustine famously wrote, “Our hearts our restless until they rest in God.”  Restlessness and seeking seem to go hand-in-hand.  Jesus knows our hearts will be restless until we determine the primary pursuit in our life is a relationship with God in Christ. 

What we need most in our lives is spiritual.  It is a void only God can fill.  It is a hunger only God can feed.  It is a thirst only God can quench.  Now, we can try to meet this need by seeking after any number of different things, but in the end we won’t be satisfied.  I suspect the opposite of restlessness is peace and, according to Jesus, we will find it only through the pursuit of God.  

I have any number of colleagues who came to the ordained ministry as a second career.  Some of them, when telling their story, say there was always something nagging at them but they didn’t know what it was.  Finally, through one means or another, they came to understand their restless was actually God’s call.  Once they discerned this and responded everything in their lives began to fall into place.  Now, I am not saying every person who feels restless should get ordained.  That may not be your call.  Still, God is calling you to something.  Seek after it.


Monday, January 9, 2023

Branding

 

Matthew 3:13-17

Epiphany 1 / Year A

I went to the outlet mall in Williamsburg on Monday, something I seem to do once or twice a year.  Typically, I only go into a handful of stores.  If you pay attention to what I wear you can easily surmise one of them is the Columbia store.  I went hoping to purchase a hat to wear while hiking because I inadvertently left my old cap in a park in Spain.  Don’t ask.  Sadly, they didn’t have the style I was looking for.

They did have lots of t-shirts and sweatshirts with their company logo on them.  Some are relatively discrete; others are large enough potentially to violate local zoning laws for public advertising.  Who would want to pay good money to become a walking billboard?  Columbia is not the only company which pushes its branding so brazenly.  In fact, most do. 

When I was growing up most clothes contained no visible branding.  I can think of only two: Levis had the little red tag on the side of a rear pocket and Izod had a small crocodile on the front of its shirt.  Each made a statement you had spent a little more money for something of higher quality and/or status.

Back in the day logic dictated our purchases.  We made our decisions based on price and features.  We went for toothpaste with a cavity-fighting additive, for sneakers that could make you run faster and jump higher, and for watches that could take a licking and keep on ticking. 

Retail has changed a lot since then largely because companies have figured out something important, namely, we are spiritual creatures who crave meaning and identity.  Branding is all about infusing a product with both.  It is all about communicating and clearly defining what makes a company, product, or experience distinct and memorable from others.

Years ago, Bishop Lee of the Diocese of Virginia told us he had been contacted by Buick because they had learned from a focus group people associated the same positive traits with their car that they associated with an Episcopal bishop.  Buick wanted to know if he would appear in an ad campaign.  After some thought, he declined.

We consumers tend to be loyal to the brands we choose in part because we identify with the product.  Are you PC or Apple?  Starbucks or Duncan Donuts coffee?  Chick-fil-a or McDonalds?  Bud Lite or Stella Artois?  Wal-Mart or Target?  Ruby Tuesdays or Ruth Chris?  It says something about me that I peruse Columbia and Eddie Bauer stores, but walk right past Brooks Brothers, Ralph Lauren, Banana Republic, and Lucky Jeans.

Chris Grindem, on a blogsite about branding, contends every person is spiritual and draws on this aspect of self to make a wide range of life and purchase decisions.  He also contends individual brands have spirituality which, if advanced, can help consumers connect with the product.  We tend to make spiritual decisions quickly and subconsciously, he says, and they are manifested either as a “Yes” to something or as a “No”.  

After my marriage ended I came to a point where I didn’t want to drive a minivan anymore and traded it in for a pick-up truck.  My “No” to one and “Yes to another had little to with the functionality of transportation.  It was based almost entirely on how I felt about myself and where I was in life.  I wanted my car to reflect this and to reinforce it.

If brand identification is a spiritual endeavor, how do you know when it has crossed over into idolatry; “I cannot be who I am without X”?

The Christian faith tells us the meaning of our lives and our identities are grounded and rooted in our baptisms.  We rise from the water claimed and named as God’s child.  Like Jesus, we are called “Beloved.”  Like Jesus, with us God is pleased.  If asked “Who are you?”, our deepest and most appropriate response should be, “I am beloved and God is pleased with me.”  When all of the products we have purchased have lost their value to us or worn away, God’s love for us will endure beyond all else.

At each baptism I use the chrism oil to trace the sign of the cross on the person’s forehead and say, “You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever.”  This liturgical act is a type of branding and although it cannot be seen with the human eye after the fact, it should be the brand we wear most obvious to everyone we know and meet. 

The writer Evelyn Underhill observed how we humans spend most of our lives conjugating three verbs: to Want, to Have, and to Do.  Our existence, she says, is caught up in craving, clutching, and fussing about things material, political, social, emotional, intellectual and even spiritual.  We are kept, she says, in a state perpetual unrest.  Underhill writes, “None of these verbs have any ultimate significance, except so far as they are transcended by and included in, the fundamental verb, to Be: and that being, not wanting, having, and doing, is the essence of the spiritual life.”


Underhill is on to something deceptively simple but greatly profound about our identity in God’s eyes: It is not what we want, what we have, or what we do that defines us.  It is who we are and who we are is defined first, foremost, and always by God.  We are God’s children, beloved, and pleasing.  Hearing this, accepting this, and learning this – what Underhill calls “being” – is at the heart of the spiritual life. 

After pondering all of this for a week, I have come to conclude I am not called to wag my finger at brand loyalty.  It is a part of who we are and how we live and move and have our being.  I will caution it can morph into excess.  Some people actually become evangelists for a particular brand; what the bible calls idolatry.  What I am called to lift up is an awareness of our baptismal identity and its meaning for our lives.  You are beloved.  You are pleasing to God.  You are marked.  And you are sealed.

 


Sunday, January 1, 2023

The Holy Name

 

The Feast of the Holy Name

In the Church year today is not New Year’s Day.  It isn’t even the first Sunday after Christmas.  Today is the Feast of the Holy Name.  On the eighth day after their son’s birth, Mary and Joseph take their baby to the Temple to be circumcised and to be named, as is proscribed by biblical law.  And, following the direction each received from an angel, they give their son the name Jesus, which means salvation. 

In a month, on February 2nd, the church will celebrate the Feast of the Presentation of our Lord.  Again, the family, following biblical law, will take baby Jesus to the Temple and present him to God because he is their first-born son.  They will redeem their child by making a required offering – in their case two doves; the offering of those too poor to afford a more lavish sacrifice such as a lamb.

From these stories, along with the story of the family making a pilgrimage to the Temple for a holy festival, we learn Mary and Joseph are devout, faithful adherents to teachings and traditions of their faith.  Today we would call them a church-going family.  No doubt they have a regular place to sit in the local synagogue where they can be found without fail every Saturday.

Names in the bible – both for people and for places – are not arbitrary.  They are chosen for a purpose and participate in some aspect of the person’s story or the place’s history.  Remember how, after wrestling all night with an angel, Jacob’s name, which means ‘supplanter’ (he takes his brother’s birthright), is changed to Israel, which means ‘one who has striven with God and prevailed’.

In our day and age, names typically don’t reflect on one’s personality or life story, but they do have a way of becoming a part of who we are.  And like Jesus, most of us have some kind of story about how we got our name.  Before I was born, my parents decided to name a boy after their fathers, so I was all set to be called Jesse William Emerson.  But for some reason, when my mother gave birth to twins, they decided to name us Karen and Keith. 

The name Keith is of Scottish origin and means “woodland forest” – not very descriptive of who I am.  It was the 39th most popular name for a boy the year I was born and there 11,749 other Keiths born in 1959.  In 2022, the name Keith did not make it on to a list of the 100 most popular boys names, which inexplicably contains such names as Waylon, Luca, and Mateo.

Caroline Maria Noel was the daughter of an Anglican clergyman who began writing poetry at the age of 17, but then dropped the habit after a few years.  She took it up again later in life when a crippling illness left her bedridden.  At first she kept her work to herself for private enjoyment, but eventually had them published.  Her best known work is now one of the church’s most popular hymns:

At the name of Jesus every knee shall bow,
every tongue confess him King of glory now;

‘tis the Father’s pleasure we should call him Lord,
who from the beginning was the mighty Word.

At his voice creation sprang at once to sight:
all the angel faces, all the hosts of light,

thrones and dominations, stars upon their way,
all the heavenly orders in their great array.

Humbled for a season, to receive a name
from the lips of sinners, unto whom he came;

faithfully he bore it spotless to the last,
brought it back victorious when from death he passed;

bore it up triumphant, with its human light,
through all ranks of creatures, to the central height,

to the throne of Godhead, to the Father’s breast,
filled it with the glory of that perfect rest.

In your hearts enthrone him; there let him subdue
all that is not holy, all that is not true.

Look to him, your Savior, in temptations’ hour;
let his will enfold you in its light and power.

Christians, this Lord Jesus shall return again,
with his Father’s glory o’er the earth to reign;

for all wreaths of empire meet upon his brow,
and our hearts confess him King of glory now.

The other hymn which comes to mind this morning was written by Bill and Gloria Gaither and has been recorded by countless artists:

Jesus, Jesus, Jesus
There is something about that name.

Master.  Savior.  Jesus.
Like the fragrance after the rain.

Jesus.  Jesus.  Jesus.
Let all heaven and earth proclaim
Kings and kingdoms shall all pass away
But there’s something about that name.

Well, while the rest of the world celebrates the advent of a new year, we celebrate that the one sent from God to be the savior of the has a name.  Jesus.


Sunday, December 25, 2022

The Light of Christmas

 

Christmas Eve

Episcopal seminarians are required to spend a summer serving as a hospital chaplain.  I did this at St. Elizabeth’s, a massive mental health campus in Washington DC, housing and treating literally thousands of patients.  In my ten weeks there I saw more suffering, loneliness, and despair than I had in my first 25 years of life. 

But I also experienced firsthand something of the unquenchable spirit of the human soul.  I remember sitting with two elderly ladies who were participating in an art therapy program.  They were painting, such has their abilities allowed.  One lady created a dark, wintery landscape with something resembling a house at the center of the canvass.  It had a stone-cold appearance, as if no one had lived there for decades. 

The other woman surveyed the bleak scene and pondered.  After a few moments, she dipped her brush in some yellow paint, leaned over, and with a quick stroke put a tiny light in one of the windows of that desolate looking house.  That one golden dot transformed the entire painting into a vision of hospitality and warmth.  It was a breath-taking statement.  I instantly thought of Eleanor Roosevelt’s famous quote, “It is better to light one small candle than to curse the darkness.”

It also provides a colorful image for a verse from Isaiah we heard just moments ago:

The people who walked in darkness

have seen a great light;

    those who lived in a land of deep darkness--

    on them light has shined.

Tonight we celebrate God loves us enough to send light into the darkness of our lives and times.  Through the gift of the babe born in Bethlehem the entire canvas of our world has been transformed.

When she preached at the community prayer service held in Chesapeake after the Wal-Mart shootings, Bishop Susan talked about dark times.  And then, as we all held lighted candles, she said our presence in the church on Thanksgiving eve was an act of light protesting the darkness of the moment.  And she noted darkness loses its power when even a single light is present.  It is a theme she shared again in her Christmas message to the diocese.

The Gospel writer John proclaims this:

What has come into being in Christ was life, and the life was the light of all people.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

This past Wednesday, on the shortest day of the year, several of us gathered in worship to acknowledged the darkness in our lives and in our world.  But we did more than name it in all its crushing manifestations, we lit candles as symbols of hope and resilience – resilience in that, through God’s grace, the darkness has not overcome us and hope for a day when all our hurts will be healed and our losses will be restored. 

After we receive communion this evening we will return to a tradition we haven’t experienced since the beginning of the pandemic.  We will light candles and sing Silent Night.  Just as God’s only begotten Son brought light into the world, so too our lighting begins with a single flame.  The light only grows as it is received by each one of you and then passed on to another, just as God’s love must be received and passed on if we are going to dispel the darkness of this world. 

I’ve told you before how during a particularly dark period in my life I prayed each day for daily bread – a single moment in the day to remind me there is light in the world and in my life.  And every day I found it, most likely because I was so desperately looking for it and expecting it.  I remember vividly one day’s bread.  I was standing in line at a grocery store (which, in my experience can be a very spiritual place if you are not in a hurry).  A mother was unloading her cart while her small child sat in its seat facing toward me.  The boy looked up at me, smiled, and waved.  I smiled and waved back.  For whatever reason I was heartened.  It was so nice to be noticed.  Why is it twenty years later I remember this exchange and still find it to be one of the most powerful experiences in my life?  Moments of daily bread may not be dramatic, but they are filling.  They transform our day just as the tiny dot of yellow transformed the painting of the dreary house.

Most artwork depicting the Nativity shares something in common.  The light on the faces of those gathered around the manager emanates from where the baby Jesus lays.  He is the source of light in the dark stable…. just as he is the source of light in our lives and in our world.  It is this light we celebrate tonight.  It is this light for which we give thanks.  And it is this light we are called to share.


Monday, December 19, 2022

The Voice of Angels

 

Matthew 1:18-25

Advent 4 / Year A

“We belong to two worlds,” writes Kate Farrell.  “The invisible, hard-to-know eternal one we come from and the noisy, obvious, temporal one all around us.”  Countless numbers of the world’s poems, myths, teachings, and traditions hint at our dual reality.  Take Plato, for example.  He made sense of our nature by saying we first live in the eternal world but then leave it behind when we drink from the Lethe, the river of forgetfulness, prior to being born.  But it is not total forgetfulness, he says, and thus we see human beings from all cultures and conditions and ages trying to find the first world while living in the second.

In the Bible’s story of creation found in the second chapter of Genesis we are told God forms a human out of the dust of the earth, but this person only becomes a living being when God breaths into him the breath of life.  In a theological sense, then, we are dust and breath, physical and spiritual, temporal and eternal, of this world and of another realm, of the earth and of God. 

To be fully alive, fully human, means learning to cultivate both aspects of our nature; learning to embrace both the dust and the breath.  And more than embrace them, learning how to integrate them; to hold both as distinct and complementary parts of our lives.  For many of us, the breath is what we do on Sunday morning – it is church – and the dust is what we do the rest of the week – we work, we go about the business of managing a home, we shop or sail or talk on the phone.  If asked how we connect the two, many might say the breath helps us to be better people, to live moral lives, and to remember God as we live in the world of dust.  And this is not a bad place to start the work of integration, but there is more… much more than this.

In this morning’s reading from the Gospel of Matthew we hear again the story of Jesus’ birth.  Luke’s Gospel tells the story from Mary’s perspective, while Matthew focuses on Joseph’s side of the drama.  Joseph is for us a model of dust and breath, of living both in the temporal realm and the eternal.  We are told he is engaged to be married when he learns his fiancée is pregnant.  The text tells us he is a ‘righteous man,’ an apt description of dust and breath.  The way he integrates the two leads him not to anger, vengeance, or wrath toward Mary, as we might expect, but to a concern for her dignity and welfare.  Thus, he plans to end the engagement quietly. 

At this point the text takes a startling turn.  Joseph falls asleep and begins to dream.  In it, an angel appears to him and reveals to Joseph his fiancée is to bear God’s child, the Savior.  Joseph awakes and the rest of the story, as they say, is history.  He will dream again, learning the child is in danger and so he takes his family and flees to Egypt.  There, after a time, Joseph will dream again and understand it is safe to return. 

If the task of becoming fully human is the task of deepening integration between dust and breath, then Joseph gives us much to ponder.  More than being a ‘good person,’ he hears the voice of angels, discerns the meaning, and acts decisively in accordance with what he perceives.  There is something in Joseph which allows him to bridge the forgetfulness Plato described.  What do you think it is?  I don’t know I can describe it for you, but this I do believe… whatever it is, it is not unique to Joseph.  It is there for each one of us.  Maybe more important than describing the thing Joseph has is searching for it within our own soul, accepting it, and embracing it.

In his poem Evening, the German writer Rainer Maria Rilke pens this wonderful thought:

your life is sometimes a stone in you,

   sometimes a star.

There are times when we sense our life is a stone, temporal, nothing but dust; and there are times, usually brief and fleeting, when we know ourselves to be a star, eternal, wild with the breath of God animating everything about us.

Creativity seems to be one way to ascend as a star.  Writers, artists, musicians, poets, and actors seem to be able to lay hold of the eternal in a way we uncreative types struggle to find.  More and more I find I find the breath of life within me as accept it is already there.  I spent this week pondering when angels speak to me.  I have come to realize the forgetfulness wanes and breath flows and the star rises and the voices speak when I write, when I walk, when I am in the shower (there is something about water, like at baptism, which opens us to God’s Spirit), when I read, when I garden, and when I can sit in church and worship.

And, I recognize angels try to speak to me when I dream.  I remember one vivid dream from some time ago.  I was in the basement of the house where I grew up (and my childhood home is a setting for many of my dreams).  This particular time it felt deep and foreboding.  As I tried to climb the stairs out of the basement the first tread gave way.  The minister from my youth was in the basement, silently watching as I repaired steps.  I woke from my dream with a sense my near future was going to test me and be challenging.  Basements are dark and difficult places.  The way out of the pit I was about to experience would not be easy, but my dream reminded me I know how to fix the stairs.  All those people from my past who have invested so much in me had prepared me for the work ahead.  I carried this dream with me throughout a turbulent season in life.  Without it, I might have been overwhelmed.  With it, I managed to find breath in the midst of dust.

Think about today’s reading.  Isn’t it amazing to realize God’s entire plan of salvation rests on one person paying attention to a dream!  You and I… we are no different from Joseph.  There is a mystery at work in our lives; a mystery from before the world began.  It is the rising star beckoning to us as the stone sinks, it is the eternal reaching out to us in the temporal world, it is the breath giving life to the dust.  When do you hear the voices of angels?