Sunday, January 31, 2010

Following God

A sermon for the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany, January 31, 2010. The lectionary readings are Jeremiah 1:4-10, Psalm 71:1-6, 1 Corinthians 13:1-13, and Luke 4:21-30.

On Sundays such as this, when there are inches of snow on the ground, the District doesn’t seem to do much in the way of cleaning the streets, and Metro is delayed… many of you probably have some pretty interesting stories to tell about how you got to church. Maybe you walked and saw things you ordinarily might not see. Maybe you took a cab and had an interesting driver. Maybe you were helped by the kindness of strangers, or perhaps even by an angel. Whatever it was, we (each of us) went through some kind of experience when we left home this morning.

Leaving home can bring complications, whether it’s the leaving home on a daily basis or the LEAVING HOME, when we move away from family and all that is familiar. A lot can happen when we walk out that door. Sometimes we almost become a different person. Perhaps we feel a new freedom—no longer someone’s sibling or child or parent…we move out, we go one, we “become,” we “improve,” we change… until we see run into someone who has known us from “before.” This is what happens in today’s Gospel.

Jesus returns home after having grow up, changed, and begun a public ministry of teaching and healing. In today’s Gospel we see the tension caused by Jesus’ willingness to leave home and then try to return again. Jesus grew up partly in Nazareth, but he traveled. He was baptized by John. He struggled with demons in the wilderness. He taught in synagogues and Luke tells us that Jesus “was glorified by all.” But then he came back to Nazareth, his home town. He read liberating words from Isaiah in the synagogue and then he added his own, saying that “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” That was last Sunday’s Gospel, and today’s reading picks up where last week’s left off.

Momentum was building around him. People spoke well of him. They wondered at his wisdom, but they were confused – after all, they knew him, or at least they thought they knew him. Was this not, after all, just Joseph’s son? Sensing their skepticism, Jesus reminds them of the longstanding tradition of a prophet being welcome in almost every place BUT his or her own country, or home town. Elijah, after all, was sent to Zarephath. And there he healed and prophesied. Elisha, too, healed the outsider, the foreigner. And so what should be been a home court advantage for Jesus quickly turns into an upset for his enemies. The game almost ends as people in the synagogue try to run Jesus out of town. Growing up is hard to do.

Growing up is hard for Jeremiah, as well, but for different reasons. In our first reading, we hear about Jeremiah, someone who also had significant growing pains—especially in relation to his calling from God. Jeremiah had an even more complicated leave taking—he tried to leave the familiar and the homely, and found he couldn’t get away. “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you;” God says to Jeremiah, “I appointed you a prophet to the nations." Jeremiah tries to get out of this calling. “But I’m too young. I’m inexperienced. I’m not trained. I’m not fit for service.” But God calls him anyway. Later, when people seem to ignore him, when people laugh at him, when people go the opposite direction of this prophet, Jeremiah feels like he’s all alone. He moves away from almost everything that is familiar and comfortable. He ends up so far separated from those he loves or those from whom he might feel love, that he feels cut off from God. “O LORD, thou hast deceived me, and I was deceived; thou art stronger than I, and thou hast prevailed. I have become a laughingstock all the day; every one mocks me.” (Jer. 20) But slowly and somehow, Jeremiah later realizes that he has, indeed, grown up. God has simply been with him the whole time.

Spiritual growth comes so often when we are willing to leave what is familiar. We grow with God often by leaving home, though home can be many different things. We’re sometimes called to move to a new job, with new expectations and challenges. We’re sometimes called to move into new relationships where patterns and behaviors are different. We’re sometimes taken to new cities or perhaps even new countries and we find ourselves needing to make new friends, to develop new social networks and to re-define family away from home. The move away from home is not always physical.

I have a friend who has “moved” without doing much moving. She lives in North Arlington, New Jersey and rarely leaves her little town. But she reads, she writes friends, she prays, she learns. Consequently, she has a soul that is well-traveled, and like in today’s Gospel, she is often misunderstood and made fun of by her family and her local church. They don’t understand her need of challenge or growth, and they find it threatening. But I know my friend and I know that a part of her motivation is her belief in a God who almost plays hide and seek, who invites us to rise to a challenge and longs to show us new and complex depths to his love and mercy.

In this new year, I’ve been spending some time praying and meditating with W. H. Auden’s “For the Time Being” (A Christmas Oratorio). Auden, I think, understood this leaving the familiar and venturing out into unknown places—the whole adventure of faith. When he looks for the Christ who is born, the Christ we celebrate at Christmas, and then, moving into the new Year, the Christ we can almost lose sight of, Auden point to the Christ in movement and in becoming. He helps us locate God in change:

He is the Way.
Follow Him through the Land of Unlikeness;
You will see rare beasts, and have unique adventures.

He is the Truth.
Seek Him in the Kingdom of Anxiety.
You will come to a great city that has expected your return for years.

He is the Life.
Love Him in the World of the Flesh;
And at your marriage all its occasions shall dance for joy.

We can be confident in the adventure of faith because we know that God is with us. God reminded Jeremiah that he was known in the womb, before he was born, God has consecrated him, and chosen him. God knows each of us at that depth as well. God knows our fears and our limitations, but God also knows our potential and God knows what we are made for.

As we learn to leave home and return in whatever ways we may be called, let us continue to grow in our faith. Let us grow in flexibility and in mercy. Let us grow in love.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Sharing the Burden of Being the Body

A sermon for the Third Sunday after the Epiphany, January 24, 2010. The lectionary readings are Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10, Psalm 19, 1 Corinthians 12:12-31a, and Luke 4:14-21.

In today’s first reading, from the Book of Nehemiah, you can almost feel the excitement. All the people of Israel are gathered in to a great square, like some huge event in Washington when people absolutely fill the National Mall. And so all the people of Israel are crammed into square in anticipation for the chief scribe, the head religious leader, Ezra, to read from the sacred scroll. Ezra gets the book of the law of Moses and reads from it for several hours. The people listen. The men and the women hear and they understand what God is saying. Ezra blesses the Lord God, giving God thanks and praise, and the people all cry, “Amen, amen.” The people worship. But they also seem to lose heart. The scripture doesn’t go into detail about it, but it sounds like the gravity of the importance, the weight of the Word of God, begins to feel heavy to the people. Maybe they begin to realize that they have not lived up to God’s expectations. Maybe they feel like they are unworthy of the ways in which God is blessing them. Maybe they wonder even why they have been spared some of the misfortune, and disease, and calamity that has befallen other people. However it is that the people begin to feel the burden of God’s love, Nehemiah, Ezra, and all the religious leaders tell the people an amazing thing. They say, “This day is holy to the LORD your God.” But then they go on to say what that means. Because it is a holy day, they say, “do not mourn or weep.” Nehemiah offers encouragement: “Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine . . . send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared. And again, he says, “for this day is holy to our LORD; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the LORD is your strength.” The joy of the Lord is your strength.

It’s sometimes hard to hear the joy in scripture, especially if we think the scripture is directed at us, or if the scripture seems to apply to us in some particular way. It says a lot about Jesus, that in today’s Gospel, when he goes into the temple and is given the scroll to read, Jesus simply accepts the words as being a part of who he is, a part of what he’s meant to be. He reads those words that probably you nor I would think even remotely refer to us, because they are words so grand and so difficult, words worthy of an epic servant of God, a real hero of faith. These were words that first came to Isaiah, in describing one who is to come:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor."

And yet, as grand and glorious as that vision may sound, the vision of one who is specially chosen, anointed even, to bring good news, proclaim release, to heal, to free… Rabbis and other theologians have also understood that they do not just refer to Cyrus of Persia, who allowed exiled Israel to return home. The words do not just refer to Jesus, who heals and frees and brings good news. The words of Isaiah also refer to us.

If we thought they referred to us individually, and took them seriously, then we would probably begin to resemble the people in the Book of Nehemiah—at least, I know if I thought it was all my job to all those things Isaiah mentions, and Jesus reads, I would either work myself into a pious frenzy and pretend, or I would despair.

While I think we are meant to take those words personally, and to evaluate our faithfulness by them, we’re not meant to do it individually. We’re not in this alone. As someone has said, there is no such thing as an individual Christian. To be a Christian means to be in community with others who seek to follow Jesus Christ. We look for others to add to our community not so that we can fill committees, or have more people to cook breakfast, or to help pay the bills—we look for others because the more we interact with other people, the more we see the contours and complexities in the face of God.

The scary news comes today from Nehemiah: that the Word of God can convict us and startle us. The even scarier news comes from the Gospel: that the Word of God shows us how and who we should be. But the Good News comes to us from Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians, in which he makes it very clear that the work of God we’re given to do does not fall to any one of us, individually. Each of us has particular gifts, and so in community, as the Church, through prayer, conversation, even a little conflict, we discern who is good at doing what, and we work together to accomplish God’s work.

Paul makes it sound funny, and it is funny when we think of the human body. A foot wouldn’t say, “just because I’m not a hand,” I don’t belong to the body. An ear doesn’t get upset and try to leave just because it’s not an eye. All work together. But that’s harder when we’re talking about people, isn’t it? Sometimes when we look around and it seems like everyone else is smarter, or has a better job, or lives in a nicer place… we might begin to think we don’t fit in. Or sometimes because others seem better grounded in scripture or “Episcopal ethos,” (whatever that may be), we feel like it’s not the right place for us.

Or maybe it’s my passion to visit people in prison, and since this church doesn’t seem to have a prison ministry, I move on. Or maybe my interest is to work with a youth group, but again, since there aren’t many youth around, I give up. But there is room for everyone.
But Paul’s letter to the Corinthians explains how we can bear this burden of hearing God’s word and knowing that it’s meant for us.

“Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers; then deeds of power, then gifts of healing, forms of assistance, forms of leadership, various kinds of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret?”

Do all bake as well as Nancye Suggs? Do all rally a group for mission like Tony Domenico? Do all sing like our choir? Do all welcome like our ushers? Do all crunch numbers and keep us honest like Larry Sturgeon? Our list could go on. Especially as we rearrange our church staff, there are new opportunities for gifts to be shared. Do you walk by the church during the week—if so, perhaps you could notice if there’s any trash in the garden. Do you attend a meeting or group at the church—if so, maybe you could make sure things are picked up after the meeting, turn out lights and lock doors. Can you put up the hymn numbers? Can you help fold, or collate, or proofread?

We ARE the body of Christ. It is for us to live and reach and embrace and share as a body that is complex, but is uniquely gifted by God.

When we hear the Word of God, may we hear it’s joy, may God be in our eating and drinking and sharing, and may be know that the Lord is our strength.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Looking for Signs

A sermon for the Second Sunday after the Epiphany, January 17, 2010. The lectionary readings are Isaiah 62:1-5, Psalm 36:5-10, 1 Corinthians 12:1-11, and John 2:1-11.

When I was in college, we occasionally had what we called “hash runs.” Hashing is said to have originated in the 1930’s by British soldiers stationed in Malaya (later to become Malaysia). The run is patterned a little after fox-hunting except that you just have people who are jogging or running. The way it works is that a “hare” is the person who goes ahead of the running gang and marks a trail. Ours was always marked with flour. The Hare would use straight arrows to tell us which way to run. Then, at certain points, there would be a big “X” made out of flour. That meant that the whole group had to spread out in every direction and look for the next arrow. This also meant that the leader of the race, the lead “hound” might immediately become the last person, if another person picked up the new direction of the race. It was always a lot of fun, and a great way to get in a good run without it getting boring. Navigating the run had a little to do with being in shape and being able to run around, but it had much more to do with paying attention, with being awake, and with looking for signs.

In today’s Gospel, we’re told that at a wedding in Cana of Galilee, Jesus did the first of his signs. The actual miracle seems less important than the fact that this was one sign, and more would be coming. The miracle involved changing water into wine, but the real miracle seems to have been that God would be interested in giving us signs, signs to show us the way forward, the way through life, and the way (even) to God.

For those who have been following the devastation in Haiti this week, today’s Gospel may seem to be in very poor taste. In Haiti there are no weddings today. There is very little water, much less water-turned-into-wine. If, as biblical scholars often suggest, today’s Gospel is about the abundance of God’s love and mercy, the abundance of God’s ability to turn what is a little into a lot, then again—the folks in Haiti could really use some of this God’s attention.

If you can calm the seas enough for Jesus to make a point with the disciples, why not calm the tectonic plates enough to avoid catastrophe? If you can make water into wine, how about turning clean water into water than can be drunk? And, while we’re at it, if God could let Jesus give Lazarus a little more time on earth, why can’t the same thing be extended to others?

We can answer some of our own questions. As theologians like Austin Farrer have sometimes explained, God makes the creation to make itself. And so the tectonic plates shift to maintain a balance of carbon in the universe. It’s not personal. We might pray for clean water and food, but our prayer is a little like Mary’s prayer to her son at the wedding, when she pointed out to him that they were running out of wine to drink. His response to her was that “his hour had not yet come,” perhaps referring to the transformation of his own blood into wine, his own body and blood transformed into mystical food and drink for us and all who put their faith in him. We wonder about premature death and we ask God, why?

None of these answers are very satisfying. It’s not really enough to say that tragedies are a part of nature, and that God will appear in God’s own good time, and that when our bodies die, then (and only then) we’re changed and raised to new life.

The life we lead can feel like a hash run, we think we’re heading in a direction that makes sense, only to find that there’s a big “X” in the clearing, and we’re confused, disoriented, and perhaps lost. But there are at least three things that can save us: the community around us, the strength within us, and the signs that lead us on.

Disasters that happen may very well knock the wind out of us, but they also remind us how precious life is, don’t they? Going to the movies with friends finds a new perspective when we realize that we can text a word on our cell phones and send that same money to help others. We give renewed thanks for people with particular skills—doctors and nurses, but also planners and coordinators, and organizers. Hearing stories of those who are in danger and those who have died, we are reminded again that skin color, education, language, beliefs… those things don’t really separate us, after all. We know what it feels like to lose someone we have loved. We know what it is to worry about tomorrow. We (perhaps) know what it is to have to rely on others for help. And so we have each other, thanks be to God.

We also have the various strengths that God has given us. In Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians he names some of the spiritual gifts that people have. Whether we are looking at those who physically respond to a tragedy, or those of us who try to do our part here, we are not without strengths—spiritual and otherwise. Some are indeed wise, and some are smart. Others can heal, and a few even seem to work miracles. Some are prophets, some gifted in language. Paul goes to highlight the work of teachers, administrators, helpers, those who can pray, those who can serve, and on and on the list goes. As we recalled last week, our Baptism begins to awaken the gifts that God has put within each one of us, and you never know when the situation may call for just your gift, your ability, your talent.

And finally, we do have those signs that the Gospel of John talks about. They are signs of God’s breaking into our midst, into our lives. Sometimes they look miraculous, and other times they are as simply as the rising of the sun. Sometimes we feel like we’ve been knocked off the path, but that doesn’t mean the signs are all gone—it just means we might need some help looking for them. And so we keep running, or walking, or stumbling, because God goes along with us. As Martin Luther King, Jr. is thought to have said, “Faith is taking the first step, even when you don’t see the whole staircase.”

But taking those steps can be frustrating when the symbols are hard to find. In college, it used to frustrate me when the person who marked the trail did a sloppy job, or when the wind or nature somehow obscured the marks pointing the way forward. It would make me mad and I’d want to blame someone. I will continue to ask God to make clearer marks in our world, to be bolder with the signs we’re to follow, and I’ll even continue to pray for a few miracles.

May God be with the people of Haiti and anywhere in the world where the signs of God’s presence are slim. And may God enflame the spiritual gifts of all so that we can more nearly bring his kingdom here and hereafter.

In the Burial Rite, there is a beautiful prayer that seems unusually appropriate for us on this day. It prays, “Make us, we beseech thee [O God] deeply sensible of the shortness and uncertainty of life; and let thy Holy Spirit lead us in holiness and righteousness all our days; that, when we shall have served thee in our generation, we may be gathered unto our fathers, having the testimony of a good conscience; in the communion of the Catholic Church; in the confidence of a certain faith; in the comfort of a reasonable, religious, and holy hope; in favor with thee our God; and in perfect charity with the world.” (BCP, p. 489).

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Baptized for a Purpose

The Baptism of Jesus, tapestry at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, Los Angeles

A sermon for the First Sunday after the Epiphany: The Baptism of Our Lord Jesus Christ. The lectionary readings are Isaiah 43:1-7, Psalm 29, Acts 8:14-17, and Luke 3:15-17, 21-22.

Most of my memories of childhood revolve around fixing things. My father has always been very handy and so pretty much every Saturday had some kind project attached to it. We fixed cars. We built a room on the house. We built patios and re-shingled roofs.

My help was always needed, but when I was small, it seemed like I was only there to fetch water, to wind up cords, to sweep up or to hold a flashlight.

But every once in a while, there were those particular occasions when I, and only I, was needed. Because my hands were small, I could reach a hard-to-get-to place. Because I was little, I could move under the crawlspace of a house and check on leaks or termites. Because I was small and lightweight, I could be hoisted up into a tree to jump on the limbs, creating a rainstorm of ripe, fat, pecans. Or pee-cans, as we called them.

Those times were wonderful, because as un-athletic, as awkward, as nerdy as I was--- these were times when I was the hero. I was just what they needed and my help made everything better. Each one of us is needed. Each one of us has some gift, some skill, some way of thinking or speaking or looking at things, that God want us to share.

Today the Church celebrates the Sacrament of Baptism. We hear in the Gospel about how John baptizes people with water. He even baptizes Jesus. But he says that there will be another baptism, a baptism with the Holy Spirit, and the fire of the Holy Spirit will then be forever burning in us.

With Baptism, and through the remembrance and celebration of our baptismal vows, the Church promotes the gifts and the uniqueness of each person. It also encourages us as individuals spend some time begin honest with ourselves about our gifts, and then being the kind of people who are willing to share ourselves with the whole church.

When I think about those times when I was little – it took two things for my help to be used. First, my father and his friends needed to be willing to use me. They needed to be honest when they got to a place where they simply couldn’t do more, and they needed the help—in this case, they needed the help of someone who didn’t know a lot or have a lot to offer, but the little I had was exactly what they needed.

But the other side of that equation had to do with my own willingness to help. I might have seized the opportunity to say to them that since they didn’t seem to need my help very much all the other times I was there, then perhaps they didn’t really need me this time. I could sulk. I could savor their neediness for a little while. Or, I could simply offer what I could.

The Letter to the Ephesians (4:1-6) says that God’s “gifts were that some should be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers,” [and some software designers and some stockbrokers and some school teachers and some short-order cooks] “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ”

When we give ourselves, when we welcome the involvement of others, then we become like those who as scripture puts it “grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every joint with which it is supplied, when each part is working properly, makes bodily growth and upbuilds itself in love.”

Vocation – the way in which we allow God to develop our gifts and abilities for the building up of the church—is never easy. It’s never as clear-cut as we might think. Almost no one is “born” to do anything.

Frederick Buechner has suggested that true Christian vocation is “that place where our deep gladness meets the world’s deep hunger.” It’s important to remember both sides of that—it does little to build up the body of Christ if I volunteer for a soup kitchen, but am miserable and resentful doing it. I might be meeting the one of the world’s deep needs, but my deep gladness is not being touched. By the same token, sometimes my own happiness, my own future, my own comfort becomes the motivating, but unless that’s in some way contributing to the building up of the Church, it’s not Christian vocation either.

Vocation is that place where my deep gladness meets the world’s deep hunger. The church is where we can test those places of gladness and need, to try, to fail, to pray and talk with others, and eventually to find a balance that feels faithful.

The words heard earlier from Isaiah seem especially well-timed for us a few weeks into this new year. “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.”
God is doing new things in the world. God is doing new things in the Church. God is doing new things in each one of us.

May we have faith to perceive the new things, may we have faith to help one another, and may we have faith to follow our Lord Jesus Christ.

In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sunday, January 03, 2010

Holy Families

Modern Holy Family by Malaika Favorite

A sermon for the Second Sunday after Christmas Day, January 3, 2010. The lectionary readings are Jeremiah 31:7-14 , Psalm 84, Ephesians 1:3-6,15-19a , and Matthew 2:13-15,19-23

Last Sunday (the First Sunday after Christmas Day) in the Roman Catholic Church, was The Feast of the Holy Family. It’s a fairly recent celebration, from the 19th Century, and popularized by Leo XIII. The day is often used to suggest that the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph might be a model of the ideal Christian family. Parents are taught to love one another. Children are taught to listen to their parents. And the mathematics of family is suggested to be that of one plus one equals a blessed three, then four, then five, and so on, with the subtle or sometimes overt suggestion that holiness comes through the human family, and the larger the family, the more faithful the parents.

The Gospel gives images of the Holy Family, but if we look closely, it looks very different from the rendition of artists and many theologians. Its lines are shaky. Its boundaries are blurred. The Holy Family consists of Joseph, probably an older man, who may well have died while Jesus was very young. Joseph is not at the cross. There is Mary, probably a very young woman, a very young mother, unprepared but faithful, unsuspecting, but hopeful. Both Mary and Joseph could be easily ostracized for not fitting in—both had foreigners in their families, and when they went to Egypt, they, themselves became the foreigners.

It all began in Bethlehem, of course, but soon the Holy Family begins to grow.
And it grows in ways no one could have imagined. Shepherds make their way. Wise men from the East—kings, Persians, astronomers. They begin to make their way to the manger, and when they get there, they will find the door open and the welcome warm.

Jesus himself seems to add on to his family as he grows. When he’s twelve, his parents take him to Jerusalem for the Passover. He gets lost, and when they find him, he is in the temple. I imagine him looking at his parents as though this is the most normal thing in the world, as he says, “How is it that you sought me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father's house?”

When Jesus is preaching and teaching and healing, he’s told that his family wants to see him, and one gets the sense that his family might think he’s gone just a little too far. Jesus asks, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he says, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother, and sister, and mother.”

Jesus seems never to be satisfied that his family is big enough or strange enough. In the calling of the disciples, he adds tax collectors and fishermen. Added to this are rich folks, civic leaders, military officials and soldiers, former prostitutes, adulterers, thieves, bandits, and everything in-between. All at the same table – that table that was set and shared in an upper room, but extends through time and space to us—at that table continue to be all sorts and conditions of people. Even on the cross, Jesus continues to reshape what family is, as he looks at his disciple and his mother and says, “Woman, behold, your son!” And to his disciple, “Behold, your mother!”

Even as the Holy Family grows and expands, it holds together whenever there is a threat. And in today’s Gospel, the family moves to get out of the way of danger. They listen to the angel of God, and they go where God sends them.

And so that’s what we do, too. We move forward.

We listen for God’s clues. Confused and overwhelmed, tired, and perhaps even a little cynical, we pray. We listen the scripture. We listen to the church. We listen to one another. What would God have us do in this new year? What would God have us be and how might God have us be toward one another?

We also cherish our family. We hold onto each other, and given thanks for those who God has put in our lives to love and to share love with. We become thankful even for those who make us mad, who rile us up, because we understand the fragility of life, the quickness with which it can come to an end.

And finally, like Mary and Joseph, we simply go. We go forward. We choose life and we try to share it as fully as possible. We follow the one who conquered death itself; we follow Jesus closely, knowing that he will never, ever leave us. We reach out for others. We give of our money and our creativity and our energy to those to suffer. Through Christ, we begin to see just how big our family really is.

Listening closely to God, holding on tightly to one another, and moving ahead with strength and confidence, we step into a new year.

It is with the family that God gives us that we can celebrate a New Year. In Tennyson’s great poem [excerpts] for the beginning of a year, he sings out for us to

Ring out, wild bells.
Ring out the false. Ring in the true.
Ring out the grief that saps the mind, for those that here we see no more;
Ring out the feud of rich and poor,
Ring in redress to all mankind.
Ring out a slowly dying cause, and ancient forms of party strife.
Ring in the nobler forms of life, with sweeter manners, purer laws.
Ring in the valiant man and free,
The larger heart, the kindlier hand;
Ring out the darkness of the land,
Ring in the Christ that is to be.

In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Saturday, January 02, 2010

A sermon for a wedding

Our first scripture reading today comes from the prophet Isaiah. Many scholars have made careers out of Isaiah; most suggesting that the book of scripture we call “Isaiah” may be a compilation of at least three different “Isaiah’s.” Nevertheless, what the church has received is “Isaiah.”

If you’ve been anywhere near a church over the last few weeks, as we have moved through the season of Advent, and now celebrate the full twelve days of Christmas, you’ve heard a lot of Isaiah.

Through these weeks the church watched and waited. We heard and sang the old promises as we hoped together for God’s promises to unfold—promises of peace, promises of purpose, of knowledge and wisdom, promises of love.

In today’s reading Isaiah again offers evidence from nature about promises. As rain and snow come down from heaven, do their work of watering, and then return…. just as seeds are planted and then sprout up, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater… in just the same way, God says, God’s own promises, God’s own Word will come and be among us and not fail. God’s word will accomplish and succeed, and result in joy and peace. Trees will clap their hands, hills will burst into joy, all sorts of signs will appear, and all sorts of celebrations will show forth.

St. John traces the movement of God’s word, God’s word that comes with a purpose and succeeds (eventually) in promoting peace and love and joy. The primary Gospel reading for Christmas is from John, who says, “Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory,” … glory that is “full of grace and truth.”

A wedding is a service of words, but especially during Christmas, and especially today, this wedding looks at words in at least three different ways.

There are the words that are exchanged.

There is the Word of God.

And there is the word that Laura and Tom become, proclaim, and share.

We use a wordy service. The words come from the American Book of Common Prayer, which originated in Thomas Cranmer’s Book of 1549, but of course had even earlier roots in Sarum rites, used around Salisbury and most of England since at least the 11th century. And so these words carry weight. Not only to they include the “I do’s” and “I will’s,” they include the words, “I give thee,” “with all that I am, and all that I have,” I honor thee. These are words that have been said over the centuries, and they are words that are said not only with us as audience, but also with a cloud of witnesses—saints who are standing by for help—to pray for you, and the help you. Laura and Tom, I hope you will feel the power of the tradition that upholds you.

We have noticed the wordiness of the rites we observe today, but grounding us all is that larger Word of God, the word pointed to by Isaiah, the Word made Flesh in Jesus Christ. As Laura and others in this room well know, in the Hebrew scriptures whenever God speaks, something happens. God’s dabar, God’s spoken word, never remains merely something that is heard, but always results in something. This Word of God gets behind and drives toward completion. And so whatever words Tom and Laura may say to eat other today, tomorrow, for the rest of their lives, God’s creative Word goes with them, surrounding them, whispering and reminding, soothing and stirring up, offering the power of silence when minds and bodies become too busy, offering a word of insight when things seem stuck.

Sometimes God’s word seems faint, as though God stopped speaking. T. S. Eliot wonders about this in Ash Wednesday,

If the lost word is lost, if the spent word is spent
If the unheard, unspoken
Word is unspoken, unheard;
Still is the unspoken word, the Word unheard,
The Word without a word, the Word within
The world and for the world;
And the light shone in darkness and
Against the Word the unstilled world still whirled
About the centre of the silent Word.

Even when we can’t hear it, even when we can’t quite make it out, God’s word (just as the world’s whirling) continue. Tom and Laura, I hope you will feel the power of God’s word upholding you.

Finally, there are the words we speak today, there is God’s Word that under girds us, and then there is a new word about to be pronounced, about to be spoken and proclaimed. Its syllables are just forming, its language, even, has not really yet been decided. This word-that-is-forming is the love of Laura and Tom. As they come together, they begin to create their own word, a word inspired by the various traditions they bring together, a word growing from and sometimes bouncing off from the Word of God, but little by little, they will create their own word. It’s our job to honor that. The word they create may sound different to some of us. It may look different and we may have trouble figuring out how to spell it. We may have to ask them to repeat it to us, over and over. But it’s THEIR word to create—not ours. The word that is created by Laura and Tom’s love may not appear in any of our books, it may not be a part of our vocabulary, and it may even sound offensive to our comfortable ears—but again, it is their word, their word whispered into their hearts by God who creates, who moves, who never speaks empty words, and whose word changes the whole world.

Laura and Tom, you have begun your word together. As you move into marriage, may it continue to be a word that includes justice, nature, kindness, truth, laughter, and love. May you continue to have the generosity and patience of sharing your word with us. And so, now, let’s get about it, let’s put letter to letter, join the syllables, maybe even violate a bit of syntactical precedence, and get you married!


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