Sunday, December 25, 2011

December 25, 2011 - Christmas Day

In the name of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
            Merry Christmas! Sometimes days like Christmas are the hardest to understand and preach on. We get so many mixed signals about what today is about, what it means. Commercials tell us one thing, family traditions tell us another, the Bible something else. Today, instead of talking about what I think Christmas is all about, I want to focus on what Luke thought it was about.
            There is a book called The First Christmas by Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan that I’d recommend to you all. In it, the authors explore the birth narratives of Matthew and Luke. What they claim is that the nativity story is really an overture to the gospel. Many symphonies begin with an overture. The overture summarizes the entire work by giving you hints and nuances of what is to come, and it sets the tone for the rest of the story.
            Part of the problem that we’ve gotten into in the Church is fighting about the Bible. Are the stories true or are they fiction? Was Jesus really born in a manger, or was he born somewhere else? Was Mary really a virgin, or not? Did wise men really come to visit the newborn? We’ve fallen into a dichotomy where things are either true or false, but are those really the only two options? The authors of that book don’t think so, and neither do I, nor does Jesus. Consider how Jesus taught during his ministry- he told parables. Parables are earthly stories with heavenly meanings. No one fights over whether or not there really was a prodigal son. No one says “well, if there wasn’t a son who came back to his father, then I’m going to ignore the story and dismiss it.” It is a story that in some sense, happened, and continues to happen, but speaks to a larger Truth. Parables are not intended to be historical accounts; even the Bible isn’t intended to be a history book. The idea that the Bible is a diary of what happened is a very modern idea, and certainly not the one Luke had.
            After all, think about it- how would Luke be able to write what he did? Luke never met Jesus, he was a friend of Paul, who himself never met Jesus. Luke was written at least 50 years after Jesus lived. Do we really think Luke somehow went around and found those shepherds and asked them what the angels said, did he go and ask Mary about the encounter? How about the fact that no author from that period ever speaks of a census by the Emperor. And why are these stories only in Luke? Mark and John don’t mention a single word about the nativity, and Matthew presents a very different picture of the nativity. I’m not trying to disprove the nativity, I’m trying to allow it to function the way Luke intended, as overture.
            Parables are so often used because everyone likes the story and no one thinks that it’s talking about them. Parables though are often very subversive, they challenge those in power, and that is the case in the parable of the nativity in Luke. Now I want to make this clear so that you don’t report me to the bishop- I do think that Jesus was born to a woman named Mary, I do think that he is the Messiah, I just am not sure that the Bible tells the literal story of his birth. Instead, the Bible tells the more-than-literal Truth, capital T, of his birth.
            Look at what we see in the nativity: the role of women is elevated. Mary and Elizabeth have the major roles in Luke. The angel speaks to Mary, not Joseph as in Matthew. The power of the Holy Spirit is seen in Luke, as it moves and orchestrates the events of Jesus’ birth. Jesus is clearly seen as a king. In Luke, there are no wise men, that only happens in Matthew; instead, Luke has the shepherds, the poor peasant class, come to worship the newborn king. Doesn’t that sound like the rest of the Gospel? Jesus ministers to the poor and the outcast throughout Luke. There’s your overture; these notes we hear in the nativity will show up again. Jesus is called the Messiah at his birth, and will also be the Messiah in his death. Luke is setting up the Gospel with the nativity.
            There is another reason to read the nativity as a parable, and that is out of necessity. For Jesus to be taken seriously, he had to have some larger-than-life elements. The Emperor of Rome was called the Son of God. The Emperor was also called the savior of the world, bringer of peace, and Lord. The Emperor was thought to be the son of Apollo, making him the light of the world. The Emperor, also, was born of a virgin. When telling the story of the birth of a heroic figure, there simply were certain elements that had to be in the story in that culture. Like today, horror stories start with “it was a dark and stormy night,” fairy tales begin with “once upon a time,” and in Luke’s time, stories about the birth of savior figures began with virgin births and glorious titles. So if we read the nativity literally, we are forced to believe things that seem very implausible, but if we read them as parabolic overture, we see that Luke is pointing to the Truth, again, capital T, about Jesus. Jesus is other worldly, he is something special.
            So if I’m right, that the nativity is an overture, then how do we have the sounds of the nativity stick with us throughout our life? The theme that I find in our passage this morning is joy. Joy of the birth of a firstborn child. Joy of the birth of the Messiah. Joy in the song of the angels. Joy in the shepherds as they saw their Lord lying in a manger. Joy in Mary’s heart as she heard all that was said about her son. Joy in Mary and Joseph, who found a way to remain committed to each other through the difficulties of the circumstances.
            CS Lewis said that joy is the “unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction.” Joy, as we all know, is often most appreciated in times of hardship; in those times where we are surrounded by adversity, joy shines the brightest. Joy is not the same as pleasure. Pleasure comes and goes, it doesn’t fill us; joy is different. There are two kinds of joy. And neither joy is something you possess. Joy is simply a reminder, a reminder of the grace which is set before us. The first is a sort of ecstatic experience- your team winning a close game, the birth of a child, getting a raise at work. And this is good joy. The other kind of joy though is the joy of the Gospel. It is a joy of being filled, of being at peace, a joy of being grateful.
            We see much joy in the birth of Jesus- the joy that the Messiah has come, that things will be redeemed. Christmas is the rebirth of hope in our world, and there is much joy in that. But we all know the story of the Gospel- there will be many fights with Pharisees, there will be run-ins with the government, there will be doubters and naysayers, there will be a crucifixion. But this is a story of joy. And Luke, by putting so much joy into the nativity, sets the tone for the whole of the gospel. The notes of joy found here today are also audible in Nazareth, in Jerusalem, in Gethsemane, on Golgotha. These notes of joy are found in our lives as well, even if they are faint, even if the noise of the world seems to drown them out.
            We have much to be joyful about, and perhaps we also have many things to be sad, frustrated, and depressed about. Joy does not mean that everything is the way you want it. Joy does not take away the pains of loss and trouble. There is joy in being loved by God, there is joy in our Savior Jesus Christ, joy in family, in friends, in having homes and food, in having clean water. Even in the darkest moments of life, there is still joy to be found. For Mary, Joseph and the shepherds, there was much darkness. They were all poor, living under the oppression of Rome. Mary was unwed and just had a baby, which is not the situation she would have chosen. And yet, there was great joy brought to them by Jesus.
            Luke reminds us that the story of Jesus is about joy. The joy of redemption, the joy of peace, the joy of our Messiah; and though there will be dark times ahead, joy is still there. It is a reminder that God’s joy overshadows the darkness of death, of fear, of injustice, of doubt. Christmas is about rejoicing in this joy. Today is a time to proclaim “joy to the world, the Lord is come!” Let the joy of today be the overture for your life, the theme music that plays in the background, even amidst the low notes of life.
May the first and last words on our lips this Christmas Day, and every day, be that of joy. May God bless us and grant us all a very joyful Christmas. Amen.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

On the Incarnation

"On the Incarnation" is the title of a work by St. Athanasius, in which he outlines the orthodox arguments for the redemption given to humanity through the work of Christ. This post isn't really about that, but is just a good title for this week's topic.

I was struck this morning by something I hear on NPR. They were discussing Kim Jong Un, and his father Kim Jong Il. The state media in North Korea is praising the new leader, hailing him as "born of heaven." Immediately, I thought of another person that we talk about who is "born of heaven." In their book The First Christmas, Crossan and Borg explore some of the claims surrounding Jesus' birth. They argue (and I'm inclined to agree with them) that the birth narratives found in Matthew and Luke are parabolic overtures to the Gospel.

Symphonies often begin with an overture, which sets the tone for the rest of the work, but also, in a very condensed way, summaries the whole piece. These authors see the birth stories as doing the same. They also remind us of the charged political climate in which Jesus was born, namely that of the Rome. The emperor was seen as a deity, and in order for Jesus to "compete" with this notion of what God should be, some of these elements are found in nativies. The emperor was born of god, so is Jesus. The emperor is king, Jesus is referred to as the king of the Jews. The emperor brought the pax romana (peace), Jesus is the prince of peace. The emperors titles included: Son of God, God from God, Lord, Redeemer, Savior of the World. Sound familiar? The point is that to be divine, you had to have certain credentials, and the writers of the gospels wanted to be sure that Jesus was seen in this same divine light as the emperor.

So with that in mind, I heard the North Korean claim that the heir is "born of heaven" as as similar sort of claim. They want (mostly their own people) to know that this is the only leader. And I got to wondering, in our context, what would we claim about Jesus to make him seem divine? If we were to re-write the birth stories, what would we say about Jesus? That he has a career batting average over .400? That he leads a congregation of 15,000 worshipers? That he gives millions to charity each year? That he has bipartisan support? 

Of course, none of those apply to him that was born in poverty and ate with sinners and tax collectors. Jesus never really ended up being the sort of king that the Emperor was. As we approach Christmas, let us reflect on the incarnation. In the person of Jesus, the fullness of God dwelt (paraphrase of Colossians 1:19); or in other words, in the incarnation we get a glimpse into God. And if we can trust this vista, then perhaps God isn't as concerned with power, prestige, wealth, or even royal birth as we thought. This coming Christmas, let us remember the God we worship: not the expected military messiah, not the royal king; but instead the champion of the poor, the spokesperson for the outcast, the advocate for the poor, the non-violent leader, the suffering servant, the speaker of Truth, the embodiment of love. 

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Week of December 11

Not preaching this week- so I'll offer some quick reflections on the lectionary. Readings are available here.

We read about the everlasting throne of David being established, the Annunciation and the Magnificat (we'll use it instead of the Psalm for the day). Our Gospel reading includes the wonderful line: "'For nothing will be impossible with God.' Then Mary said, 'Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.'"

What I like so much about this encounter between Mary and the angel, and the person of Mary in general, is her willingness to live for God. The Church desperately needs more Marys. Mary was a young teen when she was told that she was pregnant (or became pregnant, I'm probably not what you would call orthodox when it comes to the doctrine of the Virgin birth), and for that she could have been exiled, or even killed. But she did not run from the situation. She trusted that God was with her and that God could redeem any situation, including this one. And because of her great faith, courage, and openness to the Spirit, she is now known as the theotokos, or God-bearer.

As we approach the fourth Sunday of Advent, we should all consider how we are all theotokoi. How do we bring Christ into the world? How do we (or don't we) trust in God's redemption? How often do we say "let it be with me according to your word? What helps us to say that? What prevents us from saying that?

In Christmas, we see God's ultimate "yes"- God's yes to redemption, God's yes to incarnate love, God's yes to all of Creation. Let us consider how it is that we are messengers of that yes and how we accept and affirm God's affirmation of us.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

December 11, 2011 - Advent 3B

O Come, O Come Emmanuel. Amen.
            So today is an interesting Sunday. The third Sunday of Advent is full of history and tradition. One such tradition is that of gaudete Sunday. Gaudete is a Latin word which means “rejoice!” Historically, Advent had been a season of fasting and introspection as we approach Christmas. Our readings the last two Sunday have been challenging as we heard about the coming of the Son of man, and then last week we met John the Baptist who calls us to repent. Gaudete Sunday began as a break from the rigors of Advent. This is why we light the pink Advent candle this Sunday, as pink is lighter in intensity than purple. And though this tradition started in a different place and for different circumstances, we too need to hear the words of “rejoice!” this morning. We are at the half-way point in Advent; two weeks in, two weeks until Christmas. Are you rejoicing, or are you coping? Do you end you day with a smile as you reflect back, or do you let out a stressful sigh? Let this Sunday be a reminder to us to remember what this season is about, the coming of our King, and for that, let us rejoice.
            The other piece of history is that today is also called “Stir-Up” Sunday. Our Collect today begins “stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us.” Traditionally, most Sundays leading up to Christmas had the Latin word excita in the Collect. Excita of course is tied to the word “excite.” As the story goes, pudding was always prepared for the Christmas season, you know, figgy pudding, and it had to stand for a few weeks before being served. So some say that the use of the words “stir up” were also a reminder to cooks and servants that they needed to be stirring the pudding so it would be ready for Christmas. But there is also a spiritual meaning to it. Stir up is a call to wake up and focus, it’s our half-time pep talk as we go through Advent. Maybe the first half of Advent has been great and full of spiritual meaning for you, maybe it hasn’t. Either way, let today be a reminder to let the excitement of the coming of our King stir up your hearts and minds, your hands and feet.
            These tones of rejoicing and excitement are found within our readings from both Isaiah and John. This portion of Isaiah comes from what scholars denote as Third Isaiah. Chapters 1-39 are written before the Babylonian Exile, chapters 40-55 come from Israel’s time in Exile, and 56-66 are written after they return to Israel. So at this point, the people have returned to their homes, and they are joyful. There is good news to share with the oppressed. The brokenhearted will be bound up, or better translated, made whole. The captives will be set free. The prisoners of darkness will be released. The year of the Lord’s favor will be proclaimed. And those who mourn will be comforted. Scholars also see this passage as one of the Servant Songs. The Servant is seen as Israel’s Messiah. Now there is a danger in reading Jesus into Isaiah, but it is acceptable to read Jesus in the light of Isaiah. Afterall, Jesus saw this passage as essential to his self-identity. In Luke, when Jesus begins his ministry in the Temple, he reads this passage. The thing which we are to be excited about on Christmas is this sort of good news, and this is a good reminder to us of that message of hope.
            This passage from Isaiah is also a favorite of liberation theologians. Liberation theology has its roots in the 1950s in Latin America, where government abuse, human rights violations, poverty, and social injustice were spoken out against. Liberation theology calls for Christianity to transform our world, to change our politics, our personal actions, and our prejudices so that justice and equality might thrive. It realizes that Christianity has become the slave to money, to success, to power, to prestige, and that it has ceased to be the radical and counter-cultural movement which it once was under the leadership of Jesus the early disciples. Liberation theologians called attention to the fact that the Church was not transforming our world, the Kingdom of God was not coming on earth as it in heaven, at least not through the Church. Instead, culture was transforming the Church. The Church was more interested in self-preservation and its growth of power and influence. And they were right. Christianity should be odd, not the norm. Christianity should be transformative to our world. So this reading from Isaiah is an invitation for us to consider our own issues of liberation and transformation.
            One of the great things about the Advent season, about all of these readings about the coming Messiah is that we are reminded that we need a Messiah. If any of you do not need to be set free from something, if you don’t need a Messiah, then I’m not sure why you are here. We need to be redeemed. So the first question in considering our liberation is- what enslaves you? Is it work? Is it some image, either self-generated or from others, of what you should be instead of what you are? Is it addiction? Is it the need for revenge? Is it doubt? Is it fear of not having enough? Is it watered down religion? Is it guilt? Is it fear of death? I know it’s not easy to think about these things. These are the sorts of things we all try so hard to forget, the pains, the rejections, the stereotypes, the mistakes, the prejudices.
One thing that the Republican nomination process has shown us is that we all have skeletons in our closet. Isaiah speaks of the coming of the year of the Lord, which is also known as the jubilee year. It is a deeply Hebraic and Biblical idea of liberation for all people. The jubilee happened every 49 years, and it was mandated that all stolen property be returned, all slaves be set free, all debts be forgiven, all fields will rest for a year. Isaiah is proclaiming the ultimate jubilee year, a time where we all are set free from our debts, our enslavements, our crises.
But the interesting thing about this concept of being liberated, is that we have to let go. God can only free you if you let loose of the chains. If you continue to define yourself by your mistakes, by your shortcomings, by your fears and doubts, then you will never be liberated. Your faith will never transform you. We hang onto these things because we think we can control them, because we’ve hidden them so deep in our mind that they’ve taken root in our souls. Advent is a season about preparing for the coming of Christ the King, and this King will liberate us from all of these things, but we have to let him.
One thing that desperately holds us back from doing this during Advent is Christmas. We need to be liberated from Christmas. I’m not talking about the celebration of the birth of Christ, I’m talking about Santa, shopping, and sentimentalism. I really don’t mind the commercialization of Christmas. Shopping helps the economy and giving is not really a bad thing. But the sentimentalization of Christmas is a major problem.
I recently read an interview with the author of a new book- and I love this title because it is so straightforward and truth-telling, the book is called Christmas Is Not Your Birthday. And isn’t that true? Christmas morning seems like a birthday party on steroids for each of us.  People are starting to realize that what we do during December is unhealthy and unchristian. There are big movements online right now called “Advent Conspiracy” and “Occupy Advent,” which urge us to spend less, give more, and love all people. And they have some truth to share. Americans spend $450 billion on Christmas. Some analysts suggest that global hunger could be eliminated with only $30 billion a year. And remind me, how is that dichotomy helping us to celebrate the coming of our King? Is it Jesus’ birthday, or ours? This isn’t to mention the fact that we spend over $500 billion a year as a nation on making war. For every $1 that Americans earn, we spend, on average, $1.22. I forget that part about spending beyond your means in the Sermon on the Mount. How would Greensboro and our world be different if for every dollar you spend on gifts, you also donated a dollar?
Or how about the ethics of Santa? We teach our children that Santa brings toys to good kids and coal to bad ones. What about a generous and loving God who gives grace and salvation to all people? How about our Christmas outreach? We adopt a family by spending an extra $50, which is a nice gesture, I’m not trying to diminish that. But is $50, or even $100 really a sacrifice? Wouldn’t the bigger sacrifice be to live in such a way that poverty didn’t exist?
I really don’t mean to be raining on the Christmas parade. It’s just that Christmas has the potential to be truly transformative, Christmas has the ability to change our world for the better, but not in its current form. It is sentimental and devoid of meaning or sacrifice. I want to reclaim Christmas for Christ, the King of the outcast, the champion of the poor, the spokesperson for the oppressed. If Martians landed in America today and did a study on Christmas, what would they think it was about? I don’t think Jesus would be on page 1 of their report. Let’s change that, let’s liberate Christmas and thereby transform our world.
What we must ask next in our survey of liberation is- who is the oppressor? Now, I’m not encouraging you to scapegoat here, a lot of the problem is with the person in the mirror, but there is injustice that needs to be spoken out against, this is what’s going on with the movements of the Arab Spring. It’s also what Isaiah was talking about. When he speaks about the captives being set free and the oppressed getting good news, he’s talking about the abuse of the poor. When the Israelites returned home, the rich people became gluttons for power and money. They reclaimed all of their old lands, and grabbed up land that wasn’t theirs. There was a system that kept the poor under the heel of the rich, a system that kept the outcasts outside. And folks, I don’t think I have to say it, but these systems are alive and well today. Isn’t this what the Occupy movements are all about? Now it doesn’t matter where you fall on the political spectrum, and I don’t fully agree with all that Occupy stands for, but you can’t deny the absurdity of the top 1% owning 35% of the wealth and bottom 80% owning only 15%. That’s simply not the Kingdom of God.
In considering liberation, we must realize that we are liberators sometimes, sometimes we are the enslaved, and sometimes we are the oppressors. Yes, in the US we are the 99%, but compared to the rest of the world we are the 1%. In fact, an annual income of $40,000 would put you in the top 97% of the world’s wealthy. There are a lot of ways to address this. We can live more simply, we can buy local to cut down on carbon emissions, we can avoid products that are made by slave labor, we can give more to charity. But I’m just wanting to do is to remind of ourselves of this fact- we are the 1% and we are the 99%. But neither of those are our calling as Christians. Instead, our task is to be the agents of God’s liberation for all people. Our mission is to stand up for justice, to stand up for better regulation, to stand up for the Kingdom of God.
And the final thing for us to consider in liberation this morning is-who is the liberator? Let’s turn to our reading from John. People really didn’t know who this John the Baptist character was. They could tell he was important, that he was proclaiming God’s vision, but was he the Messiah? Was he Elijah the prophet? And he says “I am not.” He is simply the voice crying out in the wilderness. As the gospeller John so eloquently puts it, John came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him.
John the Baptist reminds us that religion is bigger than you, bigger than me, even bigger than us. And this is because it is about God. There is a temptation out there these days to be spiritual but not religious, to say that you find God in nature, to claim that being a moral person is how your live out your faith. In other words, folks are making up their own religion; which is preposterous because we have a God for that. We don’t need a man-made religion because we have a God-made religion. John the Baptist reminds us that there is a light shining. We don’t need to search for the light, we don’t need to kindle the fire, we don’t need start a fire; it’s already burning.
And remember, John the Baptist was a bit weird. There’s a reason why he wasn’t a prophet in Jerusalem, he was on the outskirts of town for a reason. And he is a reminder to us that this light of God shines in odd and unexpected places. One theologian said that the light of God can only shine through a cracked skull, and don’t we all have some cracks? The light of God shined 2,000 years ago in an unwed mother, and it still shines there today. It shines in the cracks of interfaith dialogue, it shines in moments where Christians surround Muslims in prayer to protect them from danger. The light of God shines in hippie college kids protesting in Zuccotti Park, it shines in soldiers reaching out to children in Afghanistan. It shines in weird and counter-cultural people like St. Francis, Martin Luther King, and Nelson Mandela.
And this light of God is transformational. This light is liberating. This light overcomes the darkness of fear, of extremism, of doubt, of death, of disease, of betrayal, of injustice, of apathy, of a sentimental Christmas, of dictators, of intolerance, of greed, of evil. This is the light of the world, we don’t need to reinvent it; we just need to be mirrors- so that we can reflect this light and share it with others, so that it can transform us and our world.
As I started this sermon, I talked about Stir-Up Sunday and Gaudete Sunday. As we approach Christmas, let us be stirred up. Stirred up to transform how we celebrate the coming of Jesus, stirred up to stand up to our oppressors, external and internal. Stirred up to take a counter-cultural stance to free the captives and comfort the oppressed, and stirred up to live a truly transformational faith. And let us also rejoice this Advent. Bask in the light of Christ, the light that transforms darkness and liberates us from all fear.
And I know this is hard. I know it’s hard to re-envision how we celebrate Christmas. I know it’s hard to be counter cultural. I know it’s hard to face our captors. I know it’s hard to embrace our liberation because we’re not sure what comes next. It’s difficult to stand up to liberate others. It’s difficult to be transformed in ways that seem odd and challenge all the things we’ve assumed and done for so long. But let us take solace in Christ, our Light and our coming King, whose has gone before us in transforming and liberating. Let us all join in the song of saints and angels- “this little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine.”

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Week of December 4

So last night I had dinner with a fraternity brother before an alumni association meeting for our Chapter. He graduated a year after me from Wake, so we got to know each other fairly well. He is a commissioned (yet to be ordained) Methodist minister in a small town in eastern NC. I enjoy talking with him once a month or so and getting up with him the few times a year when our schedules bring us together. Over dinner we discussed some of the struggles, joys, and conundrums of parish ministry. Specifically, last night we discussed the difference between American Christianity (that is, Christianity in name only) and Transformational Christianity (that is, authentic and faithful discipleship).

He told me about NT Wright's writing on the four spiritualities, which I was not familiar with. I did a little research this morning and it appears that these are discussed in Simply Christian. From what I can gather, Wright says that each person hears "the echoes of a voice" which calls them to do something. The way my friend explained it is that each person, Muslim, Christian, atheist, or deist all are motivated by at least one of these voices or spiritualities. They are:

  • longing for justice (equality issues, social justice, outreach)
  • quest for spirituality (prayer, academic study of religion, meditation)
  • hunger for relationships (outreach to others, friendship gatherings, dinner groups)
  • delight in beauty (art, spending time in nature, music appreciation)
God is in each of these movements, and God's Kingdom can be built through each of these with some intentionality. Hiking is listening to the voice of delight in beauty; but we all know that hiking, in itself, isn't spiritual, nor does it really accomplish the work of the Gospel. But that isn't to say it can't be those things. It can. Our focus is what matters. I think that many of us hear these "voices" daily, but often we over look them as calls from God or as invitations to be spiritual.

As we talked, I wondered which of these spoke to me the clearest. This morning I served with others at Urban Ministry as we prepared breakfast for the homeless, and I realized that for me, the longing for justice is what I most yearn for, it is the voice that I continue to hear.

So going back to this past Sunday's readings, what is the voice calling out in the wilderness saying to you? Which of these four voices calls the loudest to you? How do you ignore or silence these voices? How do you respond to these voices? How do you help others to hear the call? Some good things to consider this Advent season.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Week of November 27

I'm not preaching this upcoming Sunday. We have some wonderful readings awaiting us though. Isaiah gives us the wonderful message of "comfort, O comfort my people." We also get our yearly Advent introduction to John the Baptist who proclaims the coming of the Lord.

In my sermon last Sunday, I mentioned that December is a month of tradition, not innovation. Now don't get me wrong, I love traditions (how could I be an Anglican if I didn't?) and have many in my family. But the danger in tradition in that we stop examining why we do what we do, or even what we're doing and we just start going on auto-pilot. As long as we focus and are intentional about them, traditions are wonderful ways to celebrate Advent and prepare for Christmas. Traditions point to a meaning beyond us, unite us to the past, and give us something to look forward to in the future.

In this post, I invite you all to share some of your favorite holiday traditions (and feel free to reflect on them, either on this blog or to yourself).

One of mine, which I no longer get to do since I've been ordained, is Christmas Eve dinner. In my family my father's mother makes homemade lasagna (they are Italian). We would eat and then attend the "Midnight Mass" afterwards. Now I do dinner between services, perhaps I'll pre-make a small lasagna dish and have Tyler put it in the oven to eat it between services. What are those traditions that you do which make the holidays the holidays?

Sunday, November 27, 2011

November 27, 2011 - Advent 1B

O Come, O Come, Emmanuel. Amen.
            So today is the first Sunday of Advent. What is Advent you might ask? I’m sure all recognize it as that season that the Church does between Thanksgiving and Christmas, but seems disjointed and has nothing to do with the rest of the world. After all, it’s Christmas already, right? Shopping lists are made, perhaps you braved the crowds this weekend and did some shopping. Santa Claus has come down 34th Street in the parade. I’ve noticed that many of my neighbors have had Christmas decorations up for over a week now. Maybe the Church should just concede defeat and go ahead and celebrate Christmas for the whole month of December since no one really pays attention to Advent anyway.
            But maybe not. What if Advent was the key to having a joyful Christmas, a Christmas that truly fills us instead of just giving us stockings filled with things we could live without, a Christmas where we really proclaimed the birth of the Messiah in our world? What if we put as much energy into Advent as we did Christmas? I encourage and charge you all to celebrate Advent this year.
            So, what is Advent? Advent comes from a Latin word which means “coming.” Advent is the season where we anticipate Christmas. It’s a tough season because we are celebrating the already but not yet. Already Christ was born in a manger nearly 2,000 years ago, but it’s not yet time to be celebrating that right now. Advent is a wonderful and splendid season. It has been said that if Christmas is the season where we celebrate the rebirth of hope, that Advent then is the season where we hope for rebirth.
Advent is a time to slow down and reflect. There is a reason why December seems more stressful than the rest of the year: shopping to do, parties to plan, holiday gatherings that you have to suffer through, extra stress at work because co-workers take time off. Plus, it gets dark earlier, which just makes it feel as if there are fewer hours in the day. Let Advent be your excuse to slow down. Use Advent as the chance to take the proverbial “chill-pill” and relax. This is not only good for your health and sanity, but will also all you to truly prepare your heart and mind for Christmas when it comes in four weeks.
This sort of high stress and anxiety level is right where we find ourselves as we walk in on Jesus and the disciples this morning. Earlier in chapter thirteen, Peter, James, John and Andrew privately ask Jesus “tell us, when will this be, and what will be the signs that these things are about to be accomplished?” They were referring to Jesus’ comment that the Temple will fall. And Jesus warns them about following false prophets and he says “when you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come.” Jesus talks about earthquakes and famines, and says “this is but the beginning of the birth pangs.” So the question we might ask ourselves upon hearing these words is- “are we there yet?”
And Jesus says “no.” Mark was written around the year 70, when the Temple did fall. When there were wide spread persecutions, when there were wars and rumors of wars. And Jesus tells the disciples “hold your horses, this isn’t it.” Our reading today picks up here. Jesus says “in those days” referring to the real coming of the Son of Man, “the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.” Last I checked, the sun still shines and the stars still fill the sky. Jesus wants to make it clear- when it is time, you will know it and it will be painfully obvious. So are we there yet? No. Well, when will we get there? “But about that day or hour no one knows.”
What is this all about? What in the world is Jesus talking about? A few years ago when I was in the Diocese of Washington, we had an Advent clergy gathering and the session was led by author Jon Meacham. He said to us “I have a room full of clergy and I’m going to ask the question that I’ve always wanted to ask. If Jesus talked like this, that the end of the world was coming before that generation passed away, and it didn’t, then what does that say about the credibility of everything else that Jesus said?” We all sat there in silence. Eventually, one poor soul tried to piece together an answer which was going nowhere fast, so he concluded by saying “just don’t mess with my Jesus.” But it’s a serious question. There is that famous proposition made by CS Lewis about Jesus- either that he was a liar, that he is Lord, or that is was a lunatic. In this particular passage, to us, 2,000 years later; lunatic might seem to be a valid choice.
Maybe there’s more to it than that. Jesus died in roughly the year 33; and as I said, Mark was written in 70. When Mark wrote those words, those of Jesus’ generation were already dying. And Mark clearly didn’t think Jesus was a lunatic, so maybe Mark is talking about something bigger than the “end of the world,” and we’ve just been misinterpreting this text for too long. Perhaps Jesus was talking about something else.
Advent is the beginning of the church year, and as we change our liturgical calendar to a new year, we focus on a different Gospel. The way the lectionary works, in Year A, which was last year, we read Matthew. This is Year B and we’ll be reading Mark. Next year we’ll read Luke. John doesn’t get his own year, but is sprinkled in throughout the other three. So in preparation for a year of Mark, I recently read a book called Conversations with Scripture: The Gospel of Mark by Marcus Borg. It’s a very approachable and short book which gives a solid overview of Mark. In reading it, I was reminded that Jesus rarely, if ever, talks about Heaven, the nature of the soul and the afterlife, or the end of the world. But what Jesus does talk about more than anything, is the Kingdom of God. Mark is sixteen chapters long, and the Kingdom of God is mentioned twenty-one times. The Kingdom of God is the reign of God’s glory, where peace, love, servant hood, and joy abound.
We all know that Jesus used parables and metaphors. What if we’ve been taking Jesus literally when we should have seen him pointing to the Kingdom of God instead of the end of the world? Well, my brothers and sisters, I hope that you can see that would make all the difference in the world. Jesus and the writers of the Bible didn’t get it wrong; we did. The Kingdom of God is clearly coming, we see signs of that all around, but it’s not here yet. It’s already, but not yet.
So what do we do with this reality? As Jesus says, we keep awake, or watch or be ready, as other translations put it. Let’s take a look at three important questions about watching and waiting. What is it? How do we do it? And why do we do it?
So first, what does it mean to be ready and wait? It’s sort of like the difference between a person standing on the side of the road waiting for a bus and that same person standing on the side of the road waiting for a parade. In waiting for a bus, it’s a passive sort of waiting. You’re just there, hanging out, not doing much, maybe playing with your phone or reading a book. But in waiting for a parade, you’re expectantly waiting. You work hard to listen for the sounds of drums and trumpets. Maybe you’re standing on your toes to see over the crowd or look around the corner. So to keep awake as Jesus suggests, we must be expectant, looking forward to something, to the rebirth of hope in our lives. A good exercise might be for you to make a Christmas list to help you figure out what you’re staying awake and being watchful for. And I’m not talking about new clothes, videogames, or a tablet. I’m talking about what you hope for, what you yearn for. Maybe peace in your family, maybe a job offer, maybe a cure from a disease, maybe end of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, maybe for the return of civility in politics. But one thing is for certain, you can’t expectantly wait for something if you don’t know what you’re waiting for.
Jesus’ words are difficult for us. Do we really need to be told to “keep awake?” Americans are sleep deprived. I’m so glad to see you all this morning, but I know that there are plenty of St. Francis folks who are in town this morning and are taking today to sleep in and recover from Thanksgiving. We don’t need to stay awake, we need to get some rest. Furthermore, it’s not easy to keep awake in the spiritual sense when we’ve been doing it so long. Advent comes around every year, and every first Sunday of Advent, we get a similar sort of reading- be ready, stay awake. But if this Advent is no different from the one before it, and the one before that one, and the one before that, then why bother staying awake?
Jesus’ call might be better translated as “focus.” Advent is a time to be intentional, to not simply go through the motions. Most of us can do December in our sleep- we know where the decorations go, the same place they do every year. We have our shopping routines, we have our recipes that we follow. December is not a month of innovation, but Jesus is inviting us to focus on what we do. And as we focus, consider how it is that we can participate in the things that you hope for. Maybe you take some time to volunteer at the shelter, maybe you pick up a religious book, or even the Bible, and read some to feed your soul, maybe you only write 20 Christmas cards, but you send them with personal notes to people who have truly changed your life. Change it up a bit, but whatever you do, focus on it.
So how do we wait? One of my favorite books is The Screwtape Letters by CS Lewis. In this book, Screwtape, a senior demon, writes to his younger nephew, Wormwood, counseling him on the ways to lead humans away from God. In one letter, Screwtape writes “our business is to get them away from the present…it is far better to make them live in the future…Nearly all vices are rooted in the future. Gratitude looks to the past and love to the present; fear, avarice, lust and ambition look ahead.” That’s another reason not to get caught up in reading this passage as a prediction of the future. When we look ahead to the end of the world and try to understand it, we become obsessed with it and we cease to live in the present, which is the only time we can experience love and God. But it also speaks to how it is we can stay awake and be watchful.
It is a similar point to my previous one about the need for focus. You all know about Advent calendars- those little calendars where you open a door each day and find a chocolate. If you open them all on December 1, you then feel depressed about not having any more chocolate. And don’t save them all for December 25, or you won’t enjoy them throughout the month. But if you open them a day at a time, you get a daily treat. Maybe those calendars have some wisdom in them that we can use for our own celebration of Advent. Instead of worrying about the stuff to-do this holiday season, perhaps we can enjoy the things we do. Take it a bit a time and focus on finding the little chocolates of the day- the moments of grace, the moments of love, the moments of the Kingdom of God.
The thing to remember in answering “how do we wait,” is that we need to be active. There is a great word play in Spanish that we don’t have in English. In Spanish, the word for wait is esperar, which is the same word for hope, and the word for breath is espirar. These ideas of breathing, of hoping and waiting are so linguistically intertwined that there is hardly a difference between them. As you live and breathe, you wait with hope. You can’t do one without the other. Waiting for the Kingdom of God doesn’t mean sitting around and twiddling your thumbs. It doesn’t mean just keeping an eye out for it. Waiting means making ourselves and our world ready for it. Next Sunday we’ll hear John the Baptist proclaim “prepare the way of the Lord.” That is how we wait, not passively, but we actively work for the Kingdom of God as we expectantly hope for it’s coming.
And finally, why do we wait? Don’t we have enough to do already? The simple answer is because there is work to be done. There is a great story that comes from New England during the colonial age. As the story goes, there was an unexpected lunar eclipse. It might have seemed that the sun really was being darkened. There was a state legislative meeting going on, and several people panicked and moved to adjourn the meeting. But one person stood up and said “Mr. Speaker, if it is not the end of the world and we adjourn, we shall appear to be fools. If it is the end of the world, I should choose to be found doing my duty. I move, sir, that candles be brought in.” We actively watch because we have a job to do. The task of the Gospel- of loving others of serving God, of making this world reflect the Kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven.
Advent is a tough season, a season of the already, but not yet. This year, let’s make Advent different. Let’s not just go through the motions. Let’s not just skip Advent and go straight to Christmas. Instead, let’s expectantly wait and hope for the rebirth of the Messiah in our world. Let’s stay awake and focus on what really matters this Advent. Pay attention to the signs of the Kingdom of God which surround you each and every day. Find ways to build up the bricks and roads of the Kingdom.
And should I be wrong about all of this, and sun really does become darkened and the moon stop giving light, then let us be found hard at work this Advent season- preparing our homes, our hearts, our minds, our relationships, our church, our world for the coming of Christ.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Thanksgiving Day

In the name of God- Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
            Happy Thanksgiving! I am so glad that you all have come out this morning for this service. You all know the history of today. Thanksgiving, of course, is one type of prayer, and the early European immigrants to this land were prayerful people. Services of thanksgiving were commonplace. The formalizing of Thanksgiving began in Jamestown in 1607, where the charter mandated that on the anniversary of their ship’s safe arrival, they would have a yearly service of thanksgiving. What we have come to call the "first Thanksgiving" happened in Plymouth in 1621 and really was more of a harvest celebration than a thanksgiving meal. The European settlers had insufficient food supplies to make it, and with the help of the native Americans, they were able to have a successful harvest, for which they were thankful. In 1777, George Washington declared a day of Thanksgiving in December after a victory at the Battle of Saratoga. And days of thanksgiving were called for every handful of years thereafter. In 1863, Abraham Lincoln declared that the final Thursday in November should be a yearly day of thanks, and hence the modern tradition began. Roosevelt in 1942 then made the holiday an official and legal US holiday. And slowly the traditions of feasts, football and parades crept into this annual day of thanks.
            I give you this history not to bore you, but to put into perspective the reasons why we are gathered here today. Thanksgiving is a largely secular holiday; most people will only devote 15 seconds in a pre-meal prayer to actually giving thanks to God. But as Christians, it is our duty and honor to put more thought and meaning into this day. So first of all, thank you all for being here. Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday, right up there with Easter- for one, I think that we too often forget the power of being thankful; and to be honest, I really like stuffing and gravy, the football and the family. I won't keep you long, but I'd like to reflect on the two necessary movements for this day- remembering and giving thanks.
            In our reading from Deuteronomy, we see the seeds of a religious thanksgiving. Moses is speaking to the Hebrew people, they are on the precipice of entering the Holy Land, the land to which they have been journeying for a generation, a land that they have been promised, a land which they will finally be able to call home. He recounts what God has done for them and how God has blessed them. Moses then says "But remember the LORD your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth, so that he may confirm his covenant that he swore to your ancestors, as he is doing today." The operative word here is "remember."
            “Remember” is a rich word. It means to consider, to bring to mind, to reflect on, and in the Hebrew language, it means to make present; to remember is to recall the past to be present again in the now. November, I think, is a great time for Thanksgiving. We have had the harvest, we have just about finished up another year, and we are preparing to enter the season of Advent on Sunday- the season of hope. This is a great time to take stock of our lives, to be mindful of our needs and our blessings before we consider what it is we need and want going forward, and I'm talking about something deeper than a Christmas shopping list. We began this month with the Feast of All Saints', a day in which we call into presence all the saints who have gone before us, where we remember those loved ones who have died. In England, November is the time when Remembrance Day is celebrated; the day when World War I ended and the bombs stopped dropping.
            So let us take some time today to remember, to recollect, to ponder. Between the parades and the touchdowns, take a few moments to think. Maybe take some time at dinner, whether you eat alone or at a large gathering, and remember. Talk about the year- its blessings and its disappointments; I'm serious, do this.
            Remembering is important because it is so easy to not. It is too easy to let the past stay in the past. It is too easy to not think about how we have been loved, how we have been kept in God's hand, how we have been supported. And in remembering, we gain perspective. We can stop and breathe, we can be not anxious about the global economy or politics; we can refocus on our attention on what truly matters, we can relax and take the higher view of life to gain some perspective. But you have to slow down and be intentional about doing this. Take sometime today to remember.
            One theologian said that the language of thanks is not natural for us, it is learned behavior. That's why you hear so many parents reminding their children to say "thank you." Being thankful is a habit, something we must practice. A writer once said that the hardest arithmetic is that which allows us to count our blessings. In counting our blessings, we must remember. And you and I know, sometimes remembering is a painful process. When we remember, we do recall those good things- but we will also remember the bad. We will remember the pains of rejection, of sickness, of job loss, of the reality of the economic downturn, of betrayal, of disappointment, of death. I've said it before, but it bears repeating today: what God offers us is maximum support, with minimum protection. Being blessed does not mean that curses will not follow. Sometimes it is easier to forget the blessings than it is to remember the curses.
            But we are all here because we realize that to be a faithful people, we must be a thankful people, and thereby a remembering people. So that is the first part of today, remembering. Moving on, we do something with these memories and that is to give thanks. Karl Barth said that the basic human response to God is that of gratitude. It is dangerous to not be thankful. If you cannot give thanks then you either are utilitarian in your outlook, meaning that we just do whatever is best, so good outcomes are to be expected; or you are entitled, meaning that you think that you deserve whatever good comes your way by your virtue. Being thankful is different- being thankful sometimes means accepting curses along with blessings, it means realizing that you are not the agent of your own success, that you aren't always the one to get the credit, or the blame. Being thankful keeps us grounded.
            In giving thanks, it is important also to remember the object of our thanks- God. Pick up a newspaper and read some of the columns about today. You'll find history lessons, notions of how we are blessed to be Americans, and other nice reflections on thanks. But you won't find God. I'm not sure if has to do with being politically correct, or what the reason is, but people are trying to be thankful in the abstract, without an object. And we all know that dog just won't hunt. It's like trying to be loving without dealing with other people; it can't happen. If we are to be thankful, we must give thanks to someone, and as Christians, to God.
            It's what is going on in our reading from Luke today. Nine are healed, one is thankful. Now, I don't want to condemn the nine, they did what they were told, and there were likely ecstatic to be healed. But one gave thanks. And in giving thanks, he received an even greater blessing. When I was in seminary, about a month into my first semester both my friend and I received a care package from a church in this diocese. Neither of us had any connections to this church, but this church made it part of their mission to support seminarians by sending care packages. I immediately wrote a thank you note to the church; my friend never got around to it. It was the last package he received from them in his three years of seminary; for me, it was the first of nearly a dozen more. I tell this story not to toot my own thankful horn, but instead to say that often in being thankful, we set ourselves up for greater joy and continued blessings. Receiving a gift or grace is easy, anyone can receive and it is one way. But in giving thanks we come into relationship.
            It was easy for me to give thanks, after all, I got a gift. But we are called, as people of faith, to, as the Psalmist writes, give thanks to God in all things. So do we give God thanks for losing a job? For a fight with a loved one? For the death of a close relative? For the things in our life that we would give anything to change? I find it interesting that Lincoln began the tradition of a yearly day of Thanksgiving during the Civil War. How in the world could he be thankful?
            For one, Lincoln counted his blessings. He said that though we had a bitter military war happening, the rest of life was good. He didn't let the cloud of darkness, even if it was a huge cloud, overshadow the whole sky. He wrote "[these gifts] are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy. It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and voice by the whole American people."
            He might not have known it, but Lincoln was expressing the idea of living a Eucharistic life. Eucharist is the Greek word for thanks, so when the one leper gave thanks, he eucharist-ed. This is what today is all about- the Eucharist. The Eucharist we will share here, around this altar, as we remember and give thanks to the giver and redeemer of all things; the Eucharist we will share over meals today; the Eucharist we will share in smiles, in giving money to charity, in stopping and recalling that we are loved, and we are blessed, no matter what the world might say otherwise.
         Happy Thanksgiving. Take some time today to remember- remember that you are the beloved child of God, nothing can change that. Remember the ways that you have been blessed and nourished. Remember the lessons you have learned from falling down. Remember the victory of Easter that shows us that there is no darkness that can overcome all light; no sadness so deep that there cannot be joy; no curse so profound that blessing cannot come; no war so fierce that there cannot be peace; no death that there can't be resurrection. Remember these things today. And having called them to mind, give thanks- live the Eucharist by thanking God in words, in actions, in love, in dedication. Thank God publicly at dinner tonight, at work, at church. And in remembering and giving thanks, we will continue to be upheld and blessed by God. And for that there is only one thing left to say- thanks be to God!

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Instructed Eucharist

Before the Opening Hymn
So today we’re going to be doing something a bit different- we’ll be celebrating what is known as an Instructed Eucharist. We’ll pause at various points to offer commentary and reflection. It has often been said that “praying shapes believing,” so it is worthy of our time this morning to explore how our faith is being shaped by our prayer.
On Sundays, we see the importance of communal worship over individual prayer. Your individual daily prayers are important, but a communal aspect is needed. Recent studies have shown that more people are praying, but less people connected to a religious institution. There is a danger in this. If your spirituality is only about you and God, all you do in prayer is confirm your own suspicions about God. The value of being together, of praying together, of knowing God together is that we are challenged to see a bigger view of God. Theological growth takes place in conversation with each other. The Church is often called the Body of Christ; Sunday worship is about bringing the various parts together for intentional time together.
Our primary worship occurs on a Sunday- the Christian day of Sabbath. Sunday, the first day of the week, is the day that our Lord Jesus Christ rose from the grave- this is the focal point of our faith and it is for this reason that we come to church on Sunday.
I’m sure you’ve all heard the word “liturgy” before. Liturgy is a Greek compound word coming from the combination of laos, which means the people, and ergos which means work. So liturgy means “the work of the people,” not “the work of the clergy.” The clergy facilitate the service, but it is your work. Our prayers are no more valuable to God than yours. Speaking for myself, your singing could easily be more pleasing to hear than mine. This notion of work is why there is so much activity by the laity. You stand, you sing, you kneel, you respond verbally. These actions might seem cumbersome, but they are a way to pray with our body, as well as our words and minds. Some of you help to lead the service by reading or administering the chalice or singing in the choir.
This is not a show, not a performance; this is worship- your worship, and your work. The Episcopal Church is more like the Smithsonian rather than the performance model found in megachruches- it takes more effort, is perhaps less fun, but we learn more about ourselves and our world. So keep that in mind throughout this, and every, service. Worship is not something you come to watch, it is your work; you lead it as much as anyone else.
As many of you know, the Episcopal Church’s worship conforms to the 1979 Book of Common Prayer. It has a rich and interesting history which I won’t go into now, but I’d encourage you to learn more about it. On my blog I’ll have the text of this commentary along with a references section. What is useful to keep in mind is that the first Book of Common Prayer was written in 1549 and drew on many ancient resources. What is so tremendous about our liturgy is that it is so much bigger than any of us. The prayers that we pray have been prayed in the Book of Common Prayer for nearly 500 years, and are based on the most ancient prayers we know of. Furthermore, about 80% of the Prayer Book is either direct quotations or paraphrases of Scripture. Versions of the Prayer Book are used by 80 million Anglicans around the world every single day. The prayers we pray together are said by millions. And there is something beautiful and mystical in sharing those common words. This liturgy is real, not something that is here today and gone tomorrow. The Prayer Book unites us, not only to those present, but those past and future as well.
Much could also be said about vestments and architecture, but in the interest of time, I’ll leave these areas to be explored in the references list. But in a nutshell, both are reflections of the culture and are supposed to facilitate worship.
So as our service began, you’ll recall that we had an organ prelude. That is the beginning of the service, not the opening hymn. The prelude is a sort of call to worship, and invitation to stop the conversations with neighbors and prepare yourself for worship. There are some great prayers on page 833-4 of the Prayer Book that you might consider using.
We then have our opening hymn. We stand and sing together. Hymns have been a part of the entrance rite since the year 430. It was St. Augustine who said that “singing is praying twice.” Hymns truly are prayer, just sung. So as you sing them, pay attention to the words and prayerfully sing them. This opening hymn is walking music, in the sense that music is crucial for any good parade, but also it symbolizes our movement towards the altar in prayer. We’ve come from different places and circumstances, but we all come here to journey towards the altar under the sign of the cross.
So let us stand together and pray our opening hymn.
The Word of God (after hymn, before Blessed be God…)
The service continues with what is called the Liturgy of the Word, which balances with the Liturgy of Holy Communion later in the service. In the beginning of the service we focus on hearing God’s word.
The opening sentences, “blessed be God…” recall Jewish blessings and have very ancient roots.
We then move to the Collect for Purity, which confesses that God intimately and intricately knows us. It is also a prayer of preparation for worship, asking God to cleanse us from all the stress and anxiety of the world so that when we enter those church doors, we might focus on worship and being spiritually fed. This prayer has its roots as a private prayer of preparation said by priests in the 11th century. It is based on Psalm 51 and the form we use today was composed in 1549.
What follows would normally be the gloria or song of praise. This element became common in the 11th century and reminds us that our primary focus here is to praise God. Today we’ve omitted it and a few other musical settings to give us more time for commentary.
The priest then says “the Lord be with you.” Which is really a prayer, hearkening back to Boaz’s greeting in the book of Ruth. The people return the prayer by saying “and also with you.” We then move into a prayer called the Collect of the day. The Collect is a prayer designed to collect the spirit of the day. Collects often come from medieval sources, some were written by the author of the 1549 Prayer Book, Thomas Cranmer. Collects have a regular formula- address God, say something about God’s nature, petition or thank God, conclude with Trinitarian doxology.
At St. Francis we then dismiss the children to Children’s Chapel. We realize that hearing readings and a sermon targeted towards adults is not very entertaining for children. But beyond entertainment, it does not form or nourish their souls. We have crafted a Children’s Chapel service which mimics the order of our service, but is designed with children in mind. So while we hear the readings and the sermon, the children are engaging in worship as well. And they return at the Peace so that all may gather around God’s altar.
Let us now commence with the Liturgy of the Word.
Readings (after Collect and children have left)
We use the Revised Common Lectionary. The pre-established cycle of readings is a helpful tool for at least two reasons. The first is that it is intentionally laid out so that in a three-year cycle, so that most of the Bible will be heard in that period. Secondly, it makes sure that nothing is left out by the preacher. The lectionary allows the Holy Spirit to be more involved and also further unites us; it also requires the preacher to think in a more critical way. We can’t dodge the difficult issues, we must confront them, and that is a blessing of the lectionary. Many churches including the Lutherans, Presbyterians, many Methodists, Catholics and even some non-denominational churches use this same lectionary, so the lectionary is also unifying.
We read two selections from the Hebrew Bible, often called the Old Testament, one of which is a Psalm. The Psalm is sometimes called the Gradual because it was led by a cantor from the gradus or steps. The Psalter was the hymnal of ancient Israel, and as such was written to be sung, so we keep this custom here at St. Francis.
As we hear the readings, you are invited to hear them as Holy Scripture. As such, the reader concludes with “the Word of the Lord” and we respond by saying “thanks be to God” as a way to acknowledge the importance of what we just heard.
So now let us hear God’s word.
Gospel (after 2nd reading)
As we prepare for the Gospel reading, we should highlight the importance of this text. The Gospel is read from the midst of the people. The Gospel is the highlight of the Liturgy of the Word and symbolizes Christ’s presence with us, mirroring how Christ is also present in the Eucharist. The sequence hymn is walking music that allows us to again process and pray as we move. Often this hymn is a repeating Alleluia chorus, but we use hymns here at St. Francis.
At the proclamation of the Gospel, you will notice some people cross themselves on their forehead, their lips and their heart to pray: Lord be in my mind, on my lips, and in my heart. May God be in my understanding, in my speaking, and in my feeling.
We now sing our sequence hymn, King of Glory.
Instead of offering a sermon today, we will have some more commentary. These are great readings today, I sort of wish I had the opportunity to preach on them. Ezekiel’s vision is wonderful. It contains that great line, “I will feed them with justice.” It preaches for itself. Then the Gospel is the wonderful passage where Jesus talks about the importance and mystery of serving God’s glory through glorifying our brothers and sisters.  
The sermon is the chance to comment and expand upon the readings, but is not a piece of performance talk, a pep talk or a lecture. Instead, the sermon is the wonderful intersection of pastoral care, Biblical study, academic research, prophetic witness, prayerful contemplation, and homiletical craft. Sermons are serious business, as they should strive to break open the Word of God so we can feast on it. Sometimes that feeding will nourish us, sometimes it will give us indigestion, but it is food that we need. It has been required since the 1549 Prayer Book.
One area to explore in our discussion this morning that doesn’t fit is elsewhere is practices of piety, so let’s address that briefly here. Piety is yours and yours alone. Don’t do it for others or to fit in. There are several ways to show signs of piety. You can cross yourself, as a reminder of your Baptism, as an acknowledgement of the prayer, as a prayer for blessing, You can kneel, bow or genuflect to show reverence. Silence is important because it allows God to speak to us. Silence is not the chance to find the right place in your bulletin, nor is the time to check your watch, or phone or to think about your lunch plans- it is a time to be silent and commune with God. Finally, looking is important. Where you cast your eyes during the liturgy can be helpful, or distracting. Focusing on the cross might be helpful when reciting the Creed; looking at the Eucharistic elements during Communion is good; perhaps closing your eyes during the readings as well.
At the conclusion of the sermon, we stand with one voice and reaffirm our faith in the Nicene Creed. In the early church, there were struggles to define what was orthodox. The disagreements were about the nature and relationship of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It comes from the Council of Nicea in 325. So yes, it is dated, but it is still orthodox and has more history in it than you can shake a stick at. It has been common in liturgy since the 6th century. The Creed is an expression of faith, not the basis for faith; it is not a litmus test, and like any product of human minds and hands, it is not perfect, but it is rich in history and meaning. 
One important thing to note is that in the Creed, we say “we believe,” not “I believe.” Maybe you can’t buy into the Virgin Birth, but we, the Church, can. Maybe one Sunday the doubt is overshadowing faith, so we say the Creed on your behalf, just as you say it for others at other times. St. Paul in Romans 10:17 writes that “faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes from preaching Christ.” Gathering and reminding ourselves of what we are about is important.
The Prayers of the People follow and they are one of the most ancient parts of the liturgy, dating back to at least the 2nd century. We pray for our world, for ourselves and for God’s Kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven. In periods of silence, you are invited and encouraged to remember aloud and in your minds those for whom you would like to offer prayer. The prayers are led by a lay person and allow us to share in Christ’s “eternal priesthood” by interceding on behalf of others to God.
In most seasons of the Church year, the Confession follows. This is another response to God’s Word and our prayers. This is a fairly new portion of the liturgy, being introduced only during the Reformation period. Silence is reserved before we pray so that we can call to mind those things we will confess, so that it isn’t just a rote prayer.
We confess of sins of commission and omission- things done and left undone. Again, the language is “we” and not “I.” We pray for forgiveness of our corporate sins, not individual ones. It is okay to think about your personal ones too, but this is a public prayer. It might surprise you to know that we do have individual Confession in the Episcopal Church; talk to the clergy if you’d like to explore this sacred and healthy tradition.
Confession has two parts- identifying the sin and the intention to address it. Confession before Eucharist not only makes sense, but is a Biblical mandate. We must examine ourselves before taking Communion. It also allows the community to more fully gather around the altar.
In the Anglican Church, the clergy pronounces that God has forgiven; this differs from the Roman Catholic Church where the priest actually grants the absolution. It wasn’t until the 1549 that an absolution was included, as it was assumed in taking Eucharist.
The Peace comes next. Though it seems like a meet and greet, it is not. It began with the kiss of peace, and has changed much since then. There is much debate over how far the peace extends. But one thing for certain, it is not meant as a time to say “your team had a rough game yesterday” or to finalize lunch plans. You are exchanging with your Christian brothers and sister the Peace of God- having heard God’s word, prayed together, confessed your sins, you are now in good standing with each other.
If we did the Peace properly, you’d leave the church, go find the people you fought with this week, your estranged family members, you’d tell them that you’re sorry, that you love them and you’d hug them and then come to gather around God’s table with them. What we do is a small symbol of that intent. The theology here comes from Matthew 5:23-24- “if you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go, first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.” Passing the peace is enacting this verse.
So now let us stand and reaffirm our faith in the words of the Nicene Creed.
Holy Communion (after offertory sentence, collection)
After the Welcome and Announcements, we transition to the second movement of the service, the Liturgy of the Table, or Holy Communion. The priest will say the Offertory sentence as an invitation to self-giving and table fellowship.
Again, there is work to do. Two things happen. The offertory plates are passed and you contribute financially to the church. This is important because it calls us all to give and helps us to go against materialism.
Secondly, we also bring forward the bread and wine, representing both ourselves and the earth. We don’t bring up grapes and wheat, but bread and wine- things not only coming from God’s creation, but also the products of human labor. We then say a doxology, giving God thanks for the many blessings bestowed upon us.
Also during this time, the clergy are preparing the table for Eucharist. Water is added to the wine to both reduce the strength of the wine, but also to symbolize the water that poured out of Jesus side at his crucifixion. This is the splendor of liturgy- it has both practical and theological elements. This is true in candles which provided light before electricity and the washing of the priest’s hand before Eucharist. These all of theological meanings, but their origins are in the practical matters of having clean hands and being able to see properly.
So now we offer to God ourselves and prepare for Communion.
Great Thanksgiving (after doxology, before sursum corda)
The Eucharist, or Great Thanksgiving, or Holy Communion then begins. Eucharist is a word which means “good thanks.” The Eucharist is the emphasis of the service.
There are four Eucharistic prayers in the Book of Common Prayer, and even more in the supplements. Prayer A tries to maintain as much of the original 1549 Cranmer language in a modern setting. Prayer B is based on the 3rd century prayer of Apostolic Tradition by Hippolytus. Prayer C is a contemporary composition written for this prayer book. Prayer D is the most ecumenical, based on the 4th century prayer by St. Basil, a major figure in Orthodox churches.
There are many ways to interpret what the Eucharist is-
·        Table fellowship- the sharing of a meal as Jesus did with others.
·        Grounding in Jesus’ ministry- as a way to remember the Gospel.
·        Invocation of the Spirit- as a way to call and be aware of God’s presence.
·        Blessing itself- something to nourish us.
·        Foretaste of the heavenly banquet- getting a glimpse of what we look forward to.
·        But it is NOT reenactment, the Last Supper happened once and for all. We might recall it to mind, but we’re not doing it again; this is not a play. In the Roman church the priest is seen as the alter Christus, not so for us- and thank God. I am not worthy to stand in for Christ, I am not taking his place in the Eucharist.
The Eucharist begins with what is called the sursum corda, which is Latin for lift up your hearts. We have evidence of this language being used as far back as the 2nd century. It is also a dialogue, you all respond. The priest can’t do it alone, you can’t do this alone- we do it together. We talk about lifting up- we seeking to be brought into Christ’s presence, not to bring Christ to us. We are trying to transcend this world to reflect the divine liturgy going on in heaven.
We then say or sing the sanctus, which is the “holy, holy, holy.” Here, we really get the sense that this is bigger than us here at St. Francis as we join in the song of the angels, archangels and the faithful throughout the ages and around the world. The sanctus, which means holy, is a conflation of songs from Isaiah and Revelation.
So now let us stand as we begin the Eucharistic celebration.
Great Thanksgiving (after sanctus)
Since the Eucharist is the focus of our worship, the culmination of Word and Sacrament, we should spend some time reflecting on it.
There is a fourfold action in the Eucharist, inspired by Jesus’ actions at the Last Supper. Watch for the times during the prayer where these actions occur.
1.     The bread is TAKEN
2.     THANKS are given as the bread is blessed
3.     The bread is BROKEN so that it can be shared
4.     And finally, the bread it GIVEN so that it may feed others.
This fourfold action also symbolizes the story of the Passion of Jesus.
There are many things that happen in the prayer, and I’ll briefly point them out so that you can notice them during the prayer:
The prayers often begin with a salvation narrative, telling the story of God’s working since Creation.
We then have what is called the Words of Institution, which is the retelling of the Last Supper. This is an ancient part of the liturgy and reminds us of why we gather at the table, because of the command to “do this in remembrance of me.” This phrase calls us to remember, and is often called the anamnesis. It is the opposite of amnesia, where we forget. We call to mind and pray that Christ is present among us. These words were commonplace by the 4th century.
There is the Memorial Acclamation, where the people respond faithfully by saying that Christ died, was risen, and will continue to come again.
In the Oblation, we offer our gifts to God. The wording today is “we offer you these gifts.”
Then comes the epiclesis, which is the calling of the Holy Spirit to bless the elements. This prayer is a function of ordination; priests have been set apart for this task. We don’t have magic hands; but we do have special duties and have been ordained for this task, just as you all have been called to serve God in your vocations. It is a prayer for the Father to send the Holy Spirit upon these gifts to enable the Son to interpenetrate them so that they are for us the body and blood of Christ. The epiclesis dates back at least to the year 215 and is likely oldest part of the Eucharistic liturgy. These gifts become a means for our own transformation.
Of course, there is the debate around substance- that is, how do we understand Christ’s presence. Rome espouses transubstantiation, that the elements literally, not symbolically, become flesh and blood.  That is not the Episcopal position. Other theories are consubstantiation- that somehow the elements are body and blood, but within the substance of bread and wine. There is Pneumatic Presence, where it is a spiritual and symbolic change. There is Memorialism, which stresses that it’s about remembering Christ, but nothing magical happens. And there are the pragmatists that claim it’s just bread and wine, but that the true glory is in the people that gather together to share a meal together. But as I said, these are theories. Bottom line is that it’s a mystery and each interpretation likely has a bit of the truth in it.
We then conclude with the doxology, giving God glory, honor and thanksgiving.
What comes next is extremely important and is called the Great Amen. Amen means, “so be it” in Hebrew or “ditto” in colloquial speech. So when you say “amen,” you’re assenting to what has happened. This Amen is your work, not mine; I’ll never say it. I then bow, to both acknowledge Christ’s presence among us, and also to acknowledge your “Amen.” Early church theologians said that the Great Amen is of the utmost importance in the liturgy.
The Lord’s Prayer then follows the climax of the Amen, it binds us together as we pray these words that Jesus taught us.
We then have the Fraction, where we break the bread, symbolizing that Christ’s body was broken for us. But Christ was broken once, we are not re-breaking it. Language of the Passover is important here. We celebrate the Passover of the Exodus and Christ’s victory over the grave in our acclamation. Alleluia comes from the Hebrew word, pronounced the same way, and means “praise to God.” It is a superlative expression of simultaneous thanksgiving, joy, and triumph. It reminds us that there is victory and grace in being broken.
It is then time to receive communion. Communion is to be done prayerfully and intentionally. As our instructions on page 10 of the bulletin note, you can receive Communion in many ways. And for the curious, studies have shown that the higher alcohol content of the port wine we use, coupled with the use of a purificator to wipe the rim of the chalice are actually quite hygienic practices. When I distribute communion and say “the Body of Christ, the bread of Heaven,” I use those words to pray for you; I trust that you too are prayerfully and thankfully receiving the gift of the Eucharist.
Another debate around communion is around who gets to receive it. The Prayer Book is very clear that Communion is reserved only for baptized Christians, with no exceptions. Many Episcopal Churches though have chosen to not follow this rule. Both sides have very valid arguments regarding who Communion is open to and the Church will need to do some serious discernment to decide the best way forward.
It brings us to the larger point though of common prayer standing in the way of local customs which make sense. You might notice that the beginning of our service, we’ve changed it from “and blessed be his Kingdom” to “and bless be God’s Kingdom. The shift is subtle, but real. The decision that was made here, and at most Episcopal churches, is that in this case, there is no reason to use the gendered language when using the word God would suffice.
But the question remains, at what point does our commitment to common prayer lead us to do something uncommon, and what price are we willing to pay to make these changes? I have no answer; I think it depends largely in the context and that any changes to the common prayer need to be done intentionally, communally, and of course, with the Bishop’s permission. The debate over Open versus Closed Communion is the same. I can argue effectively for either position, and both positions are valid. At St. Francis, the decision has leaned towards open inclusivity; and there is a cost for that, but it is worth the price.
After receiving Eucharist, you return to your pew. You may pray, you may contemplate on the Eucharist, or you may join the choir in singing communion hymns, which again, is a great way to continue praying.
As we get ready to continue the Eucharist, we reverence God by kneeling for the duration of the Eucharist Prayer when it is seasonally appropriate. Kneeling, though, is a fairly recent addition to the liturgy. The ancient posture for prayer was standing, and still is in the Eastern Church. Standing was assumed in the 1549 Prayer Book. We kneel though as a sign of devotion symbolizing humility and penitence, which make sense in the Eucharistic narrative. Of course, if kneeling is painful for you, please feel free to sit.
So now let us kneel and continue the Great Thanksgiving.
Post-Communion Prayer (before sending of LEV)
After Communion, we sometimes commission parishioners to take Eucharist from this celebration to some of our parishioners who cannot be here with us due a variety of reasons. They go to peoples’ homes or hospital rooms to celebrate a service and visit with them. They receive Communion, being reminded of the community’s and God’s care and love for them.
We then will pray the Post-Communion Prayer. In the early church, you just left after Communion. But as church got bigger and more formal, it needed a real ending. So we summarize what has happened in the service and pray for God’s continual guidance and grace in our lives.
The priest then pronounces a blessing over the people. This practice started in Egypt around the 4th century. It was intended to be like a laying on of hands to people. Some Eastern liturgies still maintain this by actually laying hands on each person before they leave. Again, the priest isn’t blessing you, but is asking God to do this. You can be a blessing to others that you encounter in the world as well, but only the priest pronounces the sacramental blessing.
We have a final hymn, as we began with one voice, we end with one voice and process out into the world, having glorified God and being nourished by and filled with God’s spirit for doing the work of the Gospel in our world.
Don’t leave too early, or you’ll miss the dismissal. This is the chance to be commissioned to go out into the world, to take the ideas of Peace and Eucharist with you in to the world.
After the dismissal we have a postlude, it another chance to sit and pray before leaving to face the perils of this world.
I hope that this Instructed Eucharist has been helpful and educational, and that it will allow us to more deeply engage in and do the work of liturgy. We will now conclude our service.

Catechism in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, page 845.
Liturgical Life Principles by Ian Markham, Morehouse Publishing, 2009.
Welcome To Sunday by Christopher Webber, Morehouse Publishing, 2002.
Praying Shapes Believing by Leonel Mitchell, Morehouse Publishing, 1991.

Academic Resources:
Commentary on the American Prayer Book by Marion Hatchett, HarperOne, 1995.
Celebrating the Eucharist by Patrick Malloy, Church Publishing, 2007.
Opening the Prayer Book by Jeffery Lee, Cowley Publications, 1999.
The Shape of Liturgy by Gregory Dix, Continuum, 1945.
Elements of Rite by Aidan Kavanagh, Pueblo Publishing, 1982.