Thursday, December 24, 2020

A Merry Little Christmas


Christmas Eve

The 1944 movie Meet Me in St. Louis chronicles a year in the life of four sisters.  At Christmas time the children learn their father’s employer is sending him to work in New York City.  The family will be moving in the new year; news the children don’t take well.  Tootie, a spunky and spirited five-year-old, is despondent.  Esther, her older sister (played by Judy Garland), comforts her with a song:

Have yourself a merry little Christmas,

  Let your heart be light.

  From now on our troubles will be out of sight.

Have yourself a merry little Christmas,

  Make the Yuletide gay.

  In a year our troubles will be miles away.

Here we are as in olden days,

  Happy golden days of yore.

Precious friends who are dear to us

  Gather near to us once more.

In a year we all will be together,

  If the fates allow,

Until then,

We’ll just have to muddle through somehow

  And have ourselves a merry little Christmas now.

You’ll have to watch the film to learn whether or not the song helps Tootie cheer up.

Written by Ralph Blane and Hugh Martin, Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas is one today’s most popular Christmas songs and has been recorded by hundreds of different artists in every music genre imaginable.  And for all the reasons you can imagine, it has been on the minds of a lot of people this holiday season.

It seems like most every other year, we get to the Fourth Sunday of Advent and say something like, “I can’t believe Christmas is already here.”  We are so absorbed in the preparations and the parties and the present shopping the days just slip by.  This year, however, feels so different.  Yes, we are still saying, “I can’t believe Christmas is this Friday” but we are saying it because it just doesn’t feel like at all Christmas.  We won’t be going to Grandma’s house (or anywhere else for that matter).  There won’t be a packed candlelight service in the church.  And we won’t be getting together with friends from far and wide.  This year, Christmas is more like a Friday than it is like Christmas.  Ah, but next year… what might Christmas 2021 be like?  Well, I am not ready to give up on Christmas 2020 yet.  I think it has something good in store for us.  Something sure is blowing in.

The birth of Jesus looked nothing like how we celebrate it today.  There was no tree, no stockings, no presents, no decorations, and no fancy meal.  Mary, Joseph, and Jesus did not have matching pajamas to wear nor was there a crackling fire in the fireplace for warmth and atmosphere.  They were alone, without family or friends.  They did get to travel on that first Christmas day, but not by choice.

In all the years I have preached on Christmas Eve I don’t think I have ever focused a sermon on the setting and circumstances of the stable and manger.  I’ve always focused on Christmas’ bigger and grander themes.  Perhaps this is the year for us to spend some time with the Holy Family in the humble stable.  If you catch yourself feeling down tonight or tomorrow, use it has a prompt to ponder how Joseph or how Mary was feeling on that day so long ago. 

I wonder what it was like for them to be in such a meager setting, alone and vulnerable with their newborn.  And I wonder what they made of the shepherds’ starlit visit as they pondered the angelic story in the light of the new day.  And I wonder how these polar opposites might speak to us on a day and in a season when we have so much to be sad about while at the same time have much to celebrate.

For Mary and Joseph, that first Christmas day was as dark as what I suspect many of ours will be like this year.  Still, they had the one thing necessary for Christmas – the Light of the World had come into their lives.  So may it be for each of us.

This year, a merry little Christmas may just turn out to be more special than we anticipate.  Here is something you may find interesting: antonyms for the word merry include sad, miserable, and unpleasant; antonyms for the word little include overkill, kingsize, and insane.  Against these, merry and little don’t seem so bad, do they!  Do you know what the antonym is for Christmas?  There isn’t any!  Christmas stands alone as a day which cannot be undone.  It may be different, but it cannot be undone.  So hang a shining star upon the highest bow and have yourself a merry little Christmas now.

Monday, December 21, 2020

Mission Possible


Advent 4 / Year B

I recall vividly the moment in early 1991 when my wife told me she was pregnant with our first child.  We had been married for two years and were living in our first house, which we purchased several months earlier.  Because we were actively trying not to have a baby, my initial reaction was bewilderment.  Like Mary, I said, “How can this be?”  As the shock dissipated, secondary emotions began to fill the void – panic and fear. 

We had a lot going for us back in the day.  Educated and employed, our careers came with demanding and quirky schedules.  We were married, but didn’t have a lot of family around able to offer critical support.  We had a home, but needed two incomes to pay the mortgage.  I did not feel ready to be a parent and could not imagine for the life of me how it was all going to work out.  I remember a wise parishioner telling me we are all born into families whose parents had doubts, yet they made it work for us, so too I would make it work for my child.

Any person who does not receive the news of pregnancy – at least the first pregnancy – with an element of hesitation and doubt does not fully understand (understandably) the implications.  When I do premarital counseling I tell couples I am not going to attempt to describe the challenges of being a parent for the first time because there is no way to express it adequately.  I just say to them, “After the birth of your first child, let me know if I could have said or done anything to prepare you for it.”  To a person they have come back to me and said “No!”  Parenthood is a daunting challenge, even in the best of circumstances, and yet we all find a way to make it work. 

This morning we read the story known as The Annunciation, when the Archangel Gabriel tells Mary she has been chosen to give birth to God’s Child.  I am not sure which is more frightening for her, being in the presence of an Archangel or the message he conveys.  Surely both are overwhelming for a young, unmarried woman in her early teens.  The text tells us she is “perplexed”, but Gabriel picks up on something deeper: “Do not be afraid, for you have found favor with God.”

Gabriel is allotted the bulk of the dialogue in this brief passage.  Mary has but two lines to speak, still they are memorable: “How can this be, since I am still a virgin” and, once Gabriel lays out the plan, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”  The Archangel’s clinching argument is this: “With God, nothing is impossible.” 

What at first appeared to be mission impossible becomes mission possible through God’s activity and Mary’s consent.  Her willingness and cooperation have made Mary a model of Christian devotion and openness to God’s plan for one’s life.  When in your life have you had this kind of experience – a movement from mission impossible to mission possible?

The truth is life is filled with a lot of occasions feeling like mission impossible, some are more significant than others.  It may be as commonplace as wondering how you are going to manage everything on the day’s ‘To-Do’ list.  But of more significance, it may involve figuring out how to embrace parenthood.  I have known people who have gone through this shift during a job or career change; either voluntary or on account of termination.  I see it in folks who receive devastating news from a doctor.  I sense it in people who must learn to live after a divorce.  And I recognize it in those who find themselves alone after the death of a spouse.  Each feels impossible and each is… apart from God.

If, prior to any of these kinds of things unfolding in our lives, Gabriel appeared to announce what was about to happen to us, I suspect we (like Mary) might say, “How can this be?”  How can we get to a place where we (like Mary) can say, “Let it be to me according to your word”? 

I think the ability to see into the future would be a frightful thing.  When I look back over my life and consider the many ways I have been blessed, if I could have seen all of this when I was starting out I would have felt unworthy.  And when I consider the many hardships, disappointments, hurts, and pains I have experienced, if I could have seen them coming in advance I never would have been able to get out of bed in the morning.  You see, the thing missing in being able to see the future is the sense of how God equips us to manage what at first feels unmanageable, how God sustains us in moments of need, how God makes the impossible possible.

Think about how you felt on Thursday, March 12 – the day all in-person worship and parish activities were shut down due the pandemic.  Within days everything stopped – schools, jobs, all non-essential events.  Back then we thought it might be a two-week ordeal.  And while things have eased and opened a bit sense then, these are still challenging and difficult times.  Back in March, who would have thought this is where we would be at Christmas and who would have thought it would be possible to endure all we have been through?  Praise the Lord, God is in the business of making the impossible possible.

And now we turn our attention to Juniper Mae who is to receive the sacrament of Baptism.  Her very presence here this morning is a testimony of God’s desire to make the impossible possible.  I suspect every day her life will bear witness to this truth.  She truly is a miracle child and more than once, when being given an update about her natal activities, I said, “How can this be?”  Well, because with God all things are possible. 

I began this sermon by reminiscing on the birth of Ellen, my first daughter.  By coincidence, she and Juniper’s mother - Christa - were born on the same day… September 5, 1991.  Christa has already done much for St. Paul’s: acolyte, nursery, vestry, administrator.  Christa will be the first to tell you I love to give her a hard time… which is not all that hard to do.  But I hope she knows I think of her as being a surrogate daughter.  Given this, I lay claim to being Juniper’s surrogate Grandfather.  I can’t wait to see her in a Nativity Pageant, bringing a beloved pet to be blessed, receiving communion at the Altar Rail, searching for leprechauns, hunting for Easter eggs then sitting on the tower door steps with me for a bazillion pictures, standing on the Chancel steps and singing “He’s got the whole world” led by Sarah Blake, running up to me after church showing me what she created in Sunday School.

Christa, Josh, always remember God makes possible what seems impossible.  And always remember to remind Juniper she is the most powerful, most profound, and most poignant example of this hope and truth I have ever known!

Monday, December 14, 2020

Despair / Hope / Patience


The Third Sunday of Advent / Year B

Psalm 126

If you are starting to feel good about life again, you might want to visit the website which specializes in what it calls “demotivational” products.  The site asserts “no industry has inflicted more suffering than the Motivational Industry” through the billions of dollars spent on books, speakers, and those annoying posters aimed at inspiring a workforce.  “At Despair, we offer the cure for hope and for surprising affordable prices.” 

If you look at page 5 of your bulletin you will see images of some of my favorite despair posters:

(a group of people putting their hands together as a sign of teamwork) Meetings – None of us is as dumb as all of us!

(a picture of a sinking oil freighter) Mistakes – It could be that your purpose in life is to serve as a warning to others.

(a salmon about to be eaten by a bear) Ambition – A journey of a thousand miles sometimes ends very badly.

(a person standing at the foot a tall, steep mountainside) Challenge – I expected times like these but I never thought they’d be so bad, so long, and so frequent.

This from the website: “Motivational Products don’t work.  But our Demotivational Products don’t work even better.  The Motivational Industry has been crushing dreams for decades, selling the easy lie of success you can buy.  That’s why we decided to differentiate ourselves – by crushing dreams with hard truths!”

Can there be a better summery of the year 2020 than “I expected times like these, but I never thought they’d be so bad, so long, and so frequent.”  That pretty much says it all.  The word ‘despair’ comes from the Latin de, meaning ‘without’, and sperare, meaning ‘to hope’.  These feel like despairing times, days without hope.

If Christianity is about any one thing, no doubt it is about hope – the hope we receive from the Good News of God’s redeeming love made known through and possible by Jesus Christ.  The Catechism teaches “The Christian hope is to live with confidence in newness and fullness of life and to await the coming of Christ in glory, and the completion of God’s purpose in the world.”  There are moments in our lives when this is easier said than done.  2020 has been one of these times. 

Again this morning we read about John the Baptist.  He conducts his ministry during a very dark period in human history, but the heart of his message is about hope.  John the Gospel writer says of the Baptist “he was not the light, but came to testify to the light.”  Can there be a more hopeful message than “Make straight the way of the Lord” – a reference to an ancient prophet’s hope one day a savior will come.

This morning we are blessed by the reading of the 126th Psalm, with its message of hope.  Notice how the first four verses seem to indicate the moment of despair has passed:  When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, then were we like those who dream…”  However, the final three verses are cast in the future tense:  “Those who sowed with tears will reap with songs of joy.  Those who go out weeping, carrying the seed, will come again with joy, shouldering their sheaves.”  Yes, the times may be bad, long, and frequent, but they do not last.  There will come a harvest.  There will be singing.  There will be joy.

As inspirational as this psalm is, there is one disconnect between it and our times.  By using the imagery of planting and harvest it implies a person can have a rough idea of when God’s restoration will occur.  In my experience – and certainly in our current situation – often the end is not in sight.  Patience and hope must go hand in hand.

Last Monday the Presiding Bishop shared a poem by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin on a Zoom call with the House of Bishops.  On Tuesday our bishop shared it with the diocesan staff.  On a Wednesday Zoom with clergy, Canon Roy shared it with us.  I suspect I am not the only priest citing it in a sermon today.  The poem is titled “Patient Trust”, and you can find it on page 6 of your bulletin:

Above all, trust in the slow work of God.

We are quite naturally impatient in everything

to reach the end without delay.

We should like to skip the intermediate stages.

We are impatient of being on the way

to something unknown, something new.

And yet it is the law of all progress

that it is made by passing through

some stages of instability—

and that it may take a very long time.

And so I think it is with you;

your ideas mature gradually—let them grow,

let them shape themselves, without undue haste.

Don’t try to force them on,

as though you could be today what time

(that is to say, grace and circumstances acting on your own good will)

will make of you tomorrow.

Only God could say what this new spirit

gradually forming within you will be.

Give Our Lord the benefit of believing

that his hand is leading you,

and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself

in suspense and incomplete.

I have a hope something new is happening in me through the changes of the last year.  I don’t know what it is, it will only reveal itself completely when we are able to reenter the world the way we used to, but discover it and we are different.  And I have a hope something new is happening at St. Paul’s as well.  Again, it will not be evident until we are able to regather as God’s people in this place.  This is a time when we pray, as the psalmist did so long ago, “Restore our fortunes” and this is a time when we open ourselves to the work John the Baptist calls us to do: “Make straight the way of the Lord.”

Monday, December 7, 2020

How Far would You Go to be Forgiven?



The Second Sunday of Advent / Year B

The 1986 film titled “The Mission” is widely recognized as one of the best religious films ever made.  Set in Argentina in the 1740’s, it tells the story of Spanish Jesuits who set out to Christianize native tribes, including the remote Guarani people who live deep in the forest above the Iguazu Falls. The first Jesuit to visit the Guarani is martyred, but Father Gabriel (played by Jeremy Irons) is able to win over the people with the simple beauty of his oboe’s music. 

While Father Gabriel is with the Guarani, a slave trader by the name of Rodrigo Mendoza (played by Robert Di Nero) captures dozens of tribesmen and needlessly shoots a person trying to get away.  It is clear the two Spaniards have crossed paths before.

When Mendoza makes it back to the main city he makes a handsome profit for his work.  However, he learns his girlfriend has fallen in love with his brother and, in a jealous rage, kills him in a duel.  Acquitted of murder, he spirals into a deep depression and exiles himself in a secluded cell at the Jesuit Monastery.  Six months later, when Father Gabriel returns to the monastery, he challenges Mendoza to undergo a rigorous act to penance to find forgiveness and redemption.  Mendoza, believing neither is possible for him, agrees.

His penance is to accompany a small group of Jesuits back up river to the Guarani.  It is an arduous journey made even more difficult for Mendoza because his penance is to drag one of his old slaving nets filled with his armor and swords.  More than once, while attempting to climb a muddy hillside or rock cliff, Mendoza loses his balance and is dragged backward by the weight of the huge, clanky, bundle of junk.  One of the Jesuits approaches Father Gabriel and says, “The other brothers and I think he has done enough” to which Father Gabriel replies, “But he doesn’t think he has done enough.” 

The group arrives at the near impossible climb up the Iguazu Falls and Mendoza barely manages, through sheer power of will, to do it while hauling his load.  The Guarani warmly greet the Jesuits, but the mood changes quickly when they see the man who captured and killed members of their community.  Mendoza is on his hands and knees, physically exhausted and covered in mud.  The tribal leader instructs one of the tribesman to get a knife.  The lieutenant holds it to Mendoza’s throat and there is every reason to believe he will exact revenge then and there.  Father Gabriel and the leader have a brief exchange in a language we don’t understand.  The leader then issues an order, again in his native tongue.  The person bearing the knife moves it from Mendoza’s throat to the thick rope he uses to pull the net.  The knife cuts the rope and the tribesman, who lost kin and friends to Mendoza, kicks the bundle over a cliff into the raging waters below.  At this Mendoza breaks down and weeps - bitterly at first, but then with tears of joy.   Through his penance he finds forgiveness in the most palatable way imaginable.  Well, this is only the first 45 minutes of the movie, but you can watch it in its entirety on YouTube (I recommend the version with subtitles).

So here is my question: How far would go to be forgiven? 

As we just heard, the Gospel of Mark begins by introducing us to John, a religious figure of some sort who sets up shop along the Jordon River and calls people to prepare for the Lord’s coming by confessing their sins and being baptized.  Perhaps this does not strike you as a successful church growth strategy, but it works.  The text tells us people come to John from all over the countryside.  Not only this, “everyone” in Jerusalem travels to see John.

Now, this is surprising for several reasons.  First, you might think the people of Jerusalem have better things to do with their time than to spend several days trudging through the wilderness to a backwater location.  Next, it is not easy to get from Jerusalem to the Jordon River.  The path is a remote, desolate, downhill, rocky grade with twists, turns, rises, and falls.  Beyond the physical challenges, it is not the safest of journeys; being riddled with bandits and animal predators (remember Jesus set the parable of the Good Samaritan on the way from Jerusalem to Jericho).  And finally, as difficult as the walk to the Jordon is, the journey back to Jerusalem is even worse.  It is all uphill.  When I was in Israel we drove from the Jordon Valley to Jerusalem and there were several times when our tour bus struggled with the grade on a major highway.  I remember thinking I was glad to be riding rather than walking.

So why are people willing to make this journey?  Because they want to confess their sins and be forgiven.  And we get it.  Each of us knows what is like to live with the crushing burden of our mistakes and failures.  “I know my transgressions,” writes the Psalmist, “and my sin is ever before me” (51:3).   Though filled with different symbols of regret, each of us knows what it is like to drag Mendoza’s burden.  How far would you go to have your burden lifted?

Jesus has a lot to say about forgiveness, doesn’t he!  In the Lord’s Prayer he connects forgiving others with being forgiven.  He teaches we must forgive seven times seventy.  He challenges us to forgive our enemies.  He gives us the example of forgiving while dying on the cross.  But nowhere, to the best of my recollection, does he speak about how to receive forgiveness; how to appropriate it into one’s being in order to let yourself off the hook.

It is possible to believe God forgives you but to be unable to forgive yourself.  It is especially challenging to forgive yourself when the consequences of your actions cannot be undone or if a person you wronged won’t grant release to you.  Mendoza was forgiven by the Guarani and welcomed into their tribe, but no such redemption is possible with the brother he murdered.  He must learn to live with what he did to his brother until he can learn deeply and authentically how to receive absolution. 

Maybe the reason so many people go to such lengths to see John in order to confess their sins and be baptized is because they need to make the effort.  For whatever reason, the Temple’s sacrificial system, with its easy offerings of this, that, or something else, in order to be forgiven, simply do not break through the penitent’s self-imposed sentence of condemnation.  So the journey to the river is an important part of the process of believing you are forgiven. 

So too is the water.  There is something restorative about it.  I am amazed how I enter the shower every morning feeling like a zombie and step out moments later feeling resurrected and ready to take on the day.  When I was immersed in the Jordon River at the traditional spot where John was believed to have baptized, it was a warm day and I was surprised by how cool the water felt.  I imagine the people John baptizes enter the river hot, dirty, tired, and sinful and come out of it refreshed, renewed, and believing they are forgiven.  How far would you go to feel forgiven?

I have only once engaged in the prayer book’s service of a Rite of Reconciliation.  I did something so seriously wrong that participation in the General Confession was not enough for me.  Confessing my specific sin to a priest and having absolution pronounced for it helped, but it did not erase the consequences of my actions.  I knew God forgave me, but I had to live with the knowledge of the hurt and pain I caused.  Years later I was blessed to reconnect with the person I offended and was released from what I did.  Life doesn’t always work out this way, but when it does it is one of the richest blessings imaginable.

How far would you go to be forgiven?  And why do you think John connects confession with preparing the way of the Lord?  I suppose at one level he associates being cleansed with being worthy to be in the presence of the Lord.  At a deeper level, perhaps he associates it with being ready to serve.  It is a call to throw off the old in order embrace the new.  But I suspect at the deepest level unburdening oneself makes it possible to live life as God intends.  You can’t soar if you are weighed down by the things you have done and left undone.  Jesus comes that we might have life and have it abundantly and this is what John invites us to prepare for by confessing our sins and being forgiven.

Monday, November 30, 2020

Two Kinds of Signs


Advent 1 / Year B

Mark 13:24-37

The way the new Church Year and the season of Advent begins with the end always feels counterintuitive.  It is like one of those movies where the opening scene is actually the end of the story and the rest of the film reveals all the events leading to the ending.  

“The sun will be darkened… stars will fall from heaven…  They will see the Son of Man coming in the clouds…”  Whatever this imagery describes, according to Jesus it has already happened.  Speaking to his original followers he states clearing “This generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.”  There have been about 100 generations since then, and yet still we wait for something that transpired in some form or fashion a long time ago. 

Some biblical scholars associate Jesus’ apocalyptic vision with the fall of Jerusalem and destruction of the Temple in 70 AD – an event taking place within the lifetime of the actual generation Jesus addresses.  The pleas to watch for signs, to stay alert, and to keep awake urge followers to anticipate the catastrophe to come and to trust Jesus will provide a pathway to deliver the faithful through it.

Because the language is so vivid and the ‘signs’ are so timeless and universal, believers have long suspected they are living in the end of days.  During last Monday’s Evening Prayer we heard a passage from Ephrem of Syria, who lived in the 4th Century.  He notes how the signs Jesus describes “have come and gone with a multiplicity of change; more than that, they are still present.”  What does is it suggest to you that a person writing around 350 AD is bemused by all the generations before him who thought Christ was going to return at any moment in their own time?  It suggests to me those who attempt to sync events in our world with apocalyptic imagery in the bible are mining for fool’s gold.

But it is such a tempting project, isn’t it!  In the midst of threats and calamities, we long for explanation and meaning.  We want something or someone to quell our anxieties.  What more powerful narrative can there be than grounding our present challenges in a cosmic struggle and believing specific troubling signs indicate a Savior is coming who will rescue those who recognize what is happening while those foolish enough not to pay attention will be left behind.   I take from today’s reading Jesus promises to be with us to deliver us, no matter what the challenge. 

Jesus draws on two kinds of signs as he speaks to his followers.  The first kind, of course, is dark and dramatic.  The second kind of sign is softer and more hopeful.  Did you hear it?  Jesus said, “Learn the lesson of the fig tree: as soon as its branches becomes tender and puts forth leaves, you know that summer is near.”  This second kind of sign points not to an ending, but rather toward renewal, a new beginning. 

What signs do you see indicating God is about to do a new thing? 

Origen, who was born in Egypt in 185 AD became the leading representative of the school of theology in Alexandria.  He possessed the most powerful mind in Christendom in his age, but sadly many of his writings have been lost or destroyed.  In his work On Prayer, he offers these thoughts which help to illuminate today’s reading:

According to the words of our Lord and Savior, the kingdom of God does not come in such a way for all to see.  No one will say, “Behold, here it is!” or “Behold, there it is!” because the kingdom of God is within us.  Indeed, the word of God is very near, in our mouth and in our heart.  Thus it is clear that the one who prays for the coming of God’s kingdom prays rightly to have it within, that there it may grow and flourish and reach its full potential.  For God reigns in each of his holy ones. 

Advent begins at the end because we anticipate God’s kingdom will break forth in us in a new way.  As our lives change and as our world evolves, God’s Spirit in us manifests itself in new ways; creating new paths to worship, to pray, and to serve.  Jesus’ words remind us to be open to possibility and to except renewal.

This morning we hear of two kinds of signs, both of which are always present in our world.  The first kind of sign is ominous and threatening.  And Jesus tells us when we see these kinds of signs we are to look for him because he will be with us as the Good Shepherd.  The second kind of sign is more hopeful, like a bud about to burst forth in bloom.  When you see this, Jesus says, be open to me and my presence in your life.


Monday, November 23, 2020

Now and Not Yet


The Last Sunday after Pentecost

This final Sunday of the Church Year is celebrated as Christ the King Sunday.  Having spent the previous fifty-one weeks working through the Salvation story of Jesus’ life and teachings, today we affirm the reign of Christ over all creation.  In a very real sense we sense the Kingdom is now and not yet, already here but not in fullness.  We live into it by faith even though we don’t always see it with our eyes or experience it in our world.

Every day this past week has brought new news of Covid vaccines with promising results.  Like the Kingdom, there is a now and not yet feel to it.  I sense in myself resistance to hoping one day all this will be over – no masks, no distancing, no bubble, no fear.  It just doesn’t seem possible.  And it feels especially remote today as we have suspended in-person worship at St. Paul’s after only two weeks and as we prepare for a largely isolated Thanksgiving Day.  Still, one day this pandemic will be over just as surely as one day Christ the King will reign in fullness. 

The pandemic has changed us and reshaped us in ways we don’t fully recognize.  Our lives have new patterns and routines and what at first was imposed as restrictions has now become habitual.  When all of this is over I wonder what it will take to jump start St. Paul’s and, frankly, I wonder what it will take to jump start me.  I think it will take time and the end of the pandemic will be less like crossing the finish line at the end of a marathon and more like how a heavy fog slowly burns off over the course of a day.  I suspect we are in for a gradual reentry, both as a parish and as a society.

In the meantime, this morning we begin something new at St. Paul’s.  This will be our last spiritual communion.  I will be consecrating enough bread and wine for us to create “Communion-to-Go” bags.  If you contact the Church Office and make a reservation before noon on Friday, we will have a bag with the number of consecrated wafers and our best guess at the necessary amount of consecrated wine your household will need for the following Sunday’s service.   Pick up time in the church parking lot runs each Sunday from 11:00 to noon.  Then, on the next Sunday, as you participate in the live-stream, you will be able to receive communion in your home during the service.  Each to-go bag has a set of instructions detailing how properly to store to store the consecrated elements during the week, how to prepare them for administration, and how to carry out the ablutions (or cleaning) after receiving.  If you cannot get here on Sunday morning, come by during the week between 10:00 and 12:00 and we will have a bag ready for you.

Our bishop has authorized this possibility during these unprecedented times and my hope is it will provide us with spiritual nourishment and deeper sense of community.  Her key directive is what is consecrated on Sunday must be distributed over the course of the week and consumed in homes during our live-stream service on the following Sunday.  While it may sound complicated, I think it will feel pretty natural in just a few weeks.  For individuals as well as families it calls on you to consider how you will make an ‘altar’ in your home.  What can you do to make your experience as reverent and holy as possible?  Al suggests during Advent you place the bag in the middle of your home Advent wreath - the place normally occupied by the “Christ Candle” can now be a place of tabernacle for Christ’s Body and Blood.

Now, and not yet.  Communion-to-Go at home will not take the place of communion as an act of public worship here at St. Paul’s, but it is far superior to no communion at all.  And, in truth, communion as an act of public worship is itself only foretaste of the heavenly banquet hosted by Christ the King we one day will enjoy.   Here, but not in fullness.  We people of faith carry a vision of what we know will be.  We work for it.  We pray for it.  We give to it.  And when things beyond our control thwart what we normally do, we continue to believe God is still present and creating new ways to connect with us.  I can’t wait for the First Sunday of Advent when each of us - in a setting unlike any ever before - will be able to participate in the early and ancient practice of the Church; receiving Christ into our very bodies as we partake again of the Body and Blood of our Savior.


Monday, November 16, 2020

The Target


Matthew 25:14-30

Proper 28 / Year A

What is your goal in life?  What is the target at which you aim and what exactly is the bullseye you are trying to hit?  If you had to prioritize everything important to you, what would be at the top of the list; the one thing from which all others get their orders?  If you can’t answer these questions, by the end of my sermon you will have a suggestion to ponder.

But first, let me offer why it is helpful to have an aim:

·    Without an aim you risk wasting your life away. 

·    If you drift through life you may find yourself with many regrets.

·    An aim will help you make good decisions and give guidance for life’s biggest questions.

·    Knowing your ultimate goal helps you to be the best possible version of you; to maximize who you can be.

I spent some time this week reading student essays speaking to this question.  I noticed each student has a vision for what he or she wants to do in life – become a doctor or a teacher or research scientist.  And each student articulates why he or she wants to become something specific – to help people or to make the world a better place or to follow in the footsteps of an admired person, for example.  But no student wrote about how he or she wants to navigate life in and beyond a career.  For these young people the job itself is the ultimate aim. 

As we grow older we begin to sense we are more than what we do – much more, in fact.  We learn who we are and what we do needs to be grounded in something significant in order to give it meaning.  The actor and comedian Jim Carrey once said in an interview, “I hope everybody might get rich and famous and have everything they ever dreamed of, so they will know for themselves this is not the answer.”

This morning we hear Jesus tell his parable about the Talents – money a master entrusts to his servants while he is away.  Each gets a differing amount – ten, five, and one – according to his abilities.  Two put the money to use and make a handsome return for the master.  One buries his resource and, upon the return, hands it back.  The master who empowered the servant is not pleased with his lack of effort. 

Two obvious questions arise from this story.  First, what are your talents?  And second, what are you doing with them?  But the parable also raises a question about your ultimate aim.  Two servants strive to take advantage of an opportunity in order to please their master.  One seeks not to disappoint his master by losing what has been entrusted to him.  The first two hear these words, “Well done, good and faithful servant,” while the third receives harsh condemnation.

What might your goal in life be?  What might be the bullseye?  Your number one priority?  Allow me to suggest it should be this: Live your life in such a way that at the last, when you come to your “heavenly reward”, the words you will hear will be “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

To hear these words you don’t have to be the most talented person in the room.  You don’t have to be the most ambitious or the most successful.  You merely have to be good and faithful. 

I came across this prayer in one of my old devotional books I use for Monday night’s Evening Prayer:

If any word of mine has caused on tear

    from other eyes to flow;

If I have caused one shadow to appear

    on any face I know;

If but one thoughtless word of mine has stung

    some lovely heart today;

Or if the word I’ve left unsaid has wrung

    a single sigh, I pray

Thou tender Heart of Love, forgive the sin.

    Help me to keep in mind

That if at last I would Thy “Well done” win,

    in word as well as deed I must be kind.

This prayer reminds me the goal of being good and faithful is not the same as being perfect. 

The New Testament word for sin is hamartia and it means “missing the mark” as when an archer’s arrow does not hit the target.  Now there are two ways an archer can miss.  One is by being off aim.  The arrow goes left or right or over the top.  You are trying to hit the mark, but every now and then you miss.  Such is the human condition.  The other way to miss is by not pulling back the bowstring far enough to get the arrow to the target.  It is not a question of aim, but of effort and intention, both of which are lacking. 

I guarantee you the two good and faithful servants missed the target more than once in their lives, but it wasn’t for lack of trying.  The sin of the one talent servant is the sin of not trying.  He is condemned because his life lacks effort and intention. 

What is your goal in life and with how much diligence are you working at it? 

Monday, November 9, 2020

Renewed Beginnings


Matthew 25:1-13

Proper 27 / Year A

A shout goes out, “The bridegroom is coming.  At last the long wait is over.  It is time for the party to begin.  Trim your lamps and come on inside.”  What a beautiful image for us to ponder as we celebrate on this first Sunday of in-person worship in thirty-seven weeks!  It has been an exhausting process, but I am so proud of how each and every one of us has made it through to this point in time.  Yes, we are back together, but we are nowhere near being out of the woods.  It feels like we are at that moment in the story when the bridesmaids awaken and begin to check on their supplies of lamp oil.  Do I have enough left in me to make it to end of this strange time?

Like most of Jesus’ parables, the one we hear today has some odd elements to it.  Why can’t the maidens with oil share with those who are out?  Why can’t two people share a lamp by walking side by side?  Where would you go in 1st century Palestine to purchase oil at midnight?  Why must the doors to the celebration be shut?  And perhaps most puzzling is the teaching Jesus associates with the story.  In what appears to be a cautionary tale about preparedness, Jesus warns, “Keep awake, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”  Keep awake?  Wait, all ten bridesmaids fell asleep.  If the point of the story is to remain watchful, even vigilant, why should any of the maidens gain entrance to the wedding banquet?  After all, all ten dozed off.  As I like to say, it is Jesus’ story and he gets to tell it any way he wants.

Here is some good news.  First, unlike the parable, you don’t have to have all the oil you need on you right now to make it through this pandemic.  Over the last eight months I have experienced days I refer to as “low tide.”  These were the times I felt overwhelmed by the immenseness of what we are facing; days when I acutely felt the loss of so many things; days when there was no oil left in my lamp.  But those days didn’t last long.  The tide came back in; the oil was replenished.  Yes, we have a long way to go, but once again we are on the journey together.  We can support each other and we can be together to receive God’s grace through word and sacrament.

More good news:  The Bridegroom is here… in this place… at this moment.  In-person worship is not going to be like what we experienced before all of this.  You must wear a mask.  You can’t sing.  You can’t pass the Peace.  Heck, you can’t even sit in your favorite pew.  Still, the Bridegroom is here, but you will have to be open and watchful to detect the presence of the Holy One. 

During the Sundays of what we are calling the Season of Covid-tide, I have sensed God present in new and powerful ways.  I sense it in the joy shared between the reader, the Altar Guild person, and the Vestry member as they connect for the first time in months.  I feel it in the colorful light streaming through our beautiful stained glass windows.  And I feel it very powerfully as I sit and listen to the organ.  No, we can’t sing, but I suspect we will find the Bridegroom speaking to us through the organ’s voice. 

I have learned something through the process of celebrating spiritual communion.  Yes, the words of the liturgy and the acts I perform are the same, but there is something absolutely essential about the process of administration.  Without the ability to give the elements to you, it felt a little bit like I was going through the motions.  I can’t wait to look each of you in the eye and say, “The Body of Christ, the Bread of Heaven.”

In today’s first reading we hear Joshua say to the people, “Choose this day whom you will serve.”  His directive comes at a turning point in Israel’s history.  They have entered the Promised Land, banished their enemies, settled into their homes, and planted on their properties.  It is the dawn of a new day and an appropriate time to chart one’s course into the future.

While the election results are not yet certified, it appears the Republican Party can retain control of the Senate and has strengthen its minority position in the House, while a Democrat will occupy the White House.  If these results stand, it suggests to me we are going to have to come together, find places of unity, and work together on projects that will bring us together rather than drive us apart.  As one person said, in America there are no red states or blue states, only The United States.  If this truly is the dawn of a new day, each one of us will have to choose how we will engage it. 

Joshua gathers the people at Shechem, at the same spot he had gathered them years early in a ceremony where they agreed to the terms of the Covenant God offered to them.  Now they gather again to reaffirm their fidelity to this agreement with the Most High.  In fact, scholars believe the people of Israel gathered at Shechem every year hereafter for a covenant renewal ceremony.  We citizens of the United States have similar traditions and practices aimed at helping us remember who we are and what we value as a people.  On July 4 we celebrate our founding.  On the fourth Thursday in November we give thanks for our blessings.  And on the first Tuesday in November we participate in free, fair, and open elections.

Every four years we participate in a general election and vote for a president.  In so doing, we renew our commitment to the American dream and pledge to uphold every person’s right to the pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness.  When Joshua calls on the people to make a choice, it is for each person a very personal response with tremendous public implications.  Each of us is in the same position today.  Each of us must choose how we are going to participate in our democracy and how we will respond to one another - particularly those people whose vision for our country is remarkably different from yours. 

A friend posted a rather poignant message yesterday: “You do not belong to a donkey nor do you belong to an elephant.  You belong to the Lamb!”  My hope and prayer is this is how we can be in relationship with one another here at St. Paul’s.  We are the Lamb’s.  We await the Bridegroom.  And we come together once again to worship and pray with one another in this beautiful and sacred space.  Trim your lamps.  The doors are open.


Monday, November 2, 2020

The Triumphant


All Saints' Day

I have officiated the Burial Office seventy-nine times in the thirteen years and one month I have served as the Rector of St. Paul’s Church.  To be honest, I don’t remember some of the people for whom I offered these sacred prayers.  Others I think of often.  One was a young husband and father, another a young mother and wife.  One was a brother.  One was a son whose father I buried a year later.  One was a curmudgeon, another was a four-foot/eleven-inch cyclone of energy in the parish who constituently reminded me I would miss her when she was gone… and she was right! 

Those who were active in parish life each made a unique and irreplaceable contribution to our work and mission.  Some sang in the choir or served on the Vestry.  A few were faithful to our food pantry ministry.  One used a backhoe to install the vaults of our columbarium and a barbeque grill to roast the lamb and chicken for our Agape Meals.  Some were second or third or even fourth generation members of the parish, faithfully following in the footsteps of their ancestors’ witness of service to our church and to our community.

About a third of the burials involved a loved one of a person who most likely is watching today’s live stream.  They flood your memories often and especially on this All Saints’ Day.  You can see their faces, hear their voices, and perhaps even remember the feel of their touch.  You have a memory giving rise to a smile on your face or maybe even makes you laugh out loud.  You have a memory bringing tears to your eyes.  Perhaps you have a memory of something left unfinished or something you wish could be undone. 

Seventy-nine feels like a big number, but it pales in comparison to the burials held here before I began to serve as your rector.  And it pales in comparison to your loved ones who were buried from a different parish or in accordance to a different tradition.  “All those we love but see no longer” is an incalculable number.

This year I miss our All Saints’ tradition of writing names on streamers of paper and suspending them above the Chancel.  As the streamers move and dance in the air it is as if the presence of all those we love but see no longer is revealed.  They are with us and we sense they are much, much closer to us than we imagine.

Our Eucharistic liturgy invites us to “join our voices with angels, archangels, and all the company of heaven.”  It is a powerful reminder more is happening in worship than can be experienced through the senses - who we see and what we hear.  Christian tradition speaks of the Church Militant and the Church Triumphant.  The Church Militant is comprised of those of us who are currently engaged in the struggle to make the Kingdom of God the kingdom of this world.  The Church Triumphant consists of those people who fought the good fight and God has exalted to heavenly glory.  As we gather at the Lord’s Table the entire Church – Militant and Triumphant – is always present. 

Every time we say or sing the Sanctus something amazing is happening.  We join our voices with the voices of the Church Triumphant in a single chorus of praise proclaiming God’s holiness and glory.  Our voices are joined the voices of Billy, George, Peter, Esta, John, Eva, Doc Thomas, Art (although he might be carping about why more people are not in attendance), Stephanie, Vivian, Francis, Walter, Betty Anne, Shirley, Marie, Henrietta, Vince, Jack, Johnny, Curtis, Sue, Connie, Tom, Esther, Matthew, Carol, George, Wynter, and so many, many others. 

It seems to me All Saints’ Day, like Easter, is a day of respite from our sense of grief and loss.  On Christmas, Easter, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, and so many other days of personal and public remembrance, we experience an acute sense of who we have lost.  Yes, time heals (to a certain degree), but scars marking loss remain and prove naggingly resilient and painful to the touch.  But Easter and especially All Saints’ are different.  Today is a day when we live into the hope of our faith, when we allow the doctrine and teachings of the Church (based on the unbreakable promises of our Savior) to sink in… and sink in deep.  Today is a day when each of us acknowledges the loss of seventy-nine dear souls (or whatever the number is for you), yet embraces or grasps or clings to or rests and relaxes in the knowledge the Triumphant exist in a bliss beyond our imagining, are nearer to us than we can ever know, and one day (guided by our Good Shepherd) we will be led to a place of reunion with all those we love but see no longer.