Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Feast of St. Matthew


This is the first of what I plan to be a weekly message to the members of St. Christopher’s. My goal is to reflect on the gospel message of the previous day with the attention on our call to follow Jesus. This first submission, however, is inspired by the story of Matthew, the tax-collector-turned-apostle, written on this, the feast day of St. Matthew, Apostle and Evangelist. He was an abhorrent tax-collector, yet Jesus sought him out and called Matthew to follow him. Matthew, a most unexpected character is called to follow Jesus. I believe the conversation around following Jesus and committing our life to him is lacking in many faith communities. Sure, we worship and attend various social activities in our churches, but how much of this work is focused and dedicated to serving Jesus? As of the morning that I wrote this, I read this devotional from the Forward: Day by Day devotional booklet, by the Rev. Jonathan Melton:



“My only job, the only thing I ought to be about, is proclaiming the glory and joy of the holy and undivided Trinity. It is very easy to forget this most important fact about my vocation. No sooner do I pray to be a person of peace than I am swearing at the copier or lamenting spotty wireless [phone connections] – as if the astonishing and animating Trinity depends in any real way upon those amenities.”



It can be difficult to keep Christ at our center – or even “the glory and joy of the holy and undivided Trinity” – in the midst of our busy lives. We have bills to pay, children and grandchildren to give time to, our health to maintain, difficult people with whom we work, the list goes on. Our lives are distracted. Our cares are many. But God is present. Christ is present. And God wants to be, and joyfully desires to be, in these various and mundane occurrences in our daily lives. Jesus is calling us to follow him. Like Matthew, Jesus calls us despite our own feelings of treachery, brokenness, inadequacy, or distance from God.



As Jesus went on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax collector’s booth. “Follow me,” he told him, and Matthew got up and followed him. – Matthew 9:9



Get up and follow Jesus.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Seeking Balance


Benedictine spirituality has always been attractive to me. This is no wonder, since a great number of Episcopalians feel drawn to this kind of spiritual discipline. I think we like this “brand” of spiritual discipline because it allows us to practice the spiritual life in the context of our own lives, that is, Benedictine spirituality lends itself to our daily rhythms and routines.



A book entitled, “How to be a Monastic and Not Leave Your Day Job” by Brother Benet Tvetden, describes the Benedictine Way thusly:



The entire Rule of St. Benedict is centered on Christ and the Christian life. That’s why everyone—not just monks and nuns—can benefit from following it. Benedict added nothing new to Christian doctrine. He preached gospel values applied in an orderly fashion to everyday life. His way of living is similar to that of the early Christians who are described in the Acts of the Apostles. They devoted themselves to holding all things in common, breaking bread together, and praising the Lord. Benedict is focused on Christ in prayer, work, and in familial relationships. Seek Christ, Benedict insists, but he realizes that you don’t have to go very far to find Him. His image is reflected in ourselves and in everyone else.



My ecclesiology (that is, theology of the church community) greatly hinges on Acts 2. I’ve taught this, written on it, and preached about it. Acts 2 speaks to our common life, the expectations of fellow Christians, and even encouragement of welcoming guests and newcomers to be counted among Christ’s Body. Read Acts 2:42-47 and you will see what I mean. Brother Tvetden describes the life of Benedict and of early Christians rightly by referring to Acts 2.



When we open our hearts and minds to the reading of Acts 2 (especially to vv. 42-47) we see a comprehensive image of the church that the Holy Spirit breathes into being. We are reminded in the words according to St. Luke of what good, healthy church life looks like. Breaking bread together; praying for one another; sharing our bounty; and inviting others into the community.



The Benedictine way has three main points for living healthful Christian lives: work, study, prayer. Benedict insisted on a balance to our lives. Since God is reflected in all others—and in our Anglican spirituality, all of nature and our sensory experiences— then God is surely found in our daily lives of work, relations, and certainly our spirit-work. In our contemporary, western culture, work toward success, and work to just make ends meet, can overwhelm us and rob us of our relationship with God. I think this is why we find Benedict’s Rule so attractive. We crave balance, because we crave God and yearn for a closer relationship to God. Our hard work, our fervent busy-ness, our addictions and procrastinations are evidences of our yearning. Benedict calls for a balanced life, so that activity such as prayer and service to others doesn't fade and become forgotten. In a balanced life, our spirituality is always on our minds and practiced regularly.



As we enter this season of reflection, thanksgiving and stewardship, there is no better time to think about balance in our lives as followers of Jesus and children of God. As we enter the fall season, we will begin adult and children’s education each Sunday; Bible Study each Tuesday, several opportunities for service to our neighbors and to our fellow members, vibrant and meaningful worship, and many other opportunities to tend to our spiritual lives that will reflect our Creator in each other and in our common work, study, and prayer life.



Seek Christ, Benedict insists, but you don’t have to go very far to find Him. His image is reflected in ourselves and in everyone else.


Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Choices

Life is difficult. We are bombarded by choices. We choose where and what we want to eat. We choose where we want to shop and the brands we want to buy; we choose what automobiles we want to drive; we choose what movies we want to see; we choose how we want to spend our time and how we want to spend our money; we even choose what church we want to go to. We choose, we choose, we choose. And in our culture, it seems to have become our right – to choose what we want and how we want it.

The readings for today are really about choices. These choices can be very difficult, and all have profound consequences. But in every case, we are called to make decisions that lead to a deeper life with God. The big chasm of our lives is the decision to live our lives God’s way, the way God intended for us to live, or to live the world’s way, the way the world dictates we should live.

Especially in western, American consumerist culture, we are conditioned to make choices that make our lives easier or at least more fulfilled. Advertisements that seek our attention and loyalty attempt to win our choice to buy their product or service. If you pay attention to the underlying message in most advertisements, the message is that our lives will be better if we buy. This messaging is not limited to products and services from corporations and manufacturers. In an election year, we hear a similar tone: vote for me and you will be safer and richer. Vote for the other and you will be poorer and at higher risk. Vote for me and your life will be better. Vote for the other and your life will be worse.
We have the right, right? To live high quality lives, whether we vote for them or purchase them. We are entitled to the good life…and it can be yours for a 60-month payment plan. That’s what the world tells us. Repeatedly.

Since the beginning of religion as we know it; 5,000 years of our relationship to God or Yahweh through the Jewish and Hebrew faith, there has been the great chasm: God and humanity; God’s way and our way. For the last three Sundays, the Old Testament lesson has been from the prophet Jeremiah. Jeremiah’s prophecy was written in the 6th century BCE during the Babylonian Exile. Babylon conquered Jerusalem in 597 and exiled the Israelites to Babylon to enter them into slave labor as well as the brightest and best of Israel, crippling Israel’s communal life and success as a nation. Jeremiah’s message to those in exile was to return to Yahweh, because Israel had lost their way. Last week, the first reading was from the beginning of chapter two of Jeremiah: The Lord says, “What wrong did your ancestors find in me that they went far from me, and went after worthless things, and became worthless themselves?” And it seemed their heart didn’t turn. Ten years later, in 587, a second exile took place. At this time Jeremiah felt that all was lost and that only God could make something out of the nightmare that Israel was living. So he likened Israel to clay that God (the potter) would mold into something new.
A potter working with clay was an everyday occurrence in the ancient world, so it was an understandable image. As a result of his watching the potter at work, Jeremiah receives God’s instruction to issue a call for repentance. This call for repentance includes an unequivocal warning that the consequences for failure to honor God can be severe. The community needs to know that God’s dealings with the nation extend to the consequences of covenant theology. Covenant theology is a theology of rewards for obedience and punishment for disobedience. As in our Baptismal Covenant, we honor our promises to God and to each other, and when we fall into sin, we promise to repent. This is the call that Jeremiah is making to his people and the nation of Israel.
As humans on our journey with Christ we remain pinched between our desire to live God’s way versus the way the world influences us to live. Our decisions matter. So many of our decisions, even small seemingly insignificant ones, lead us closer to God and others away from God. I don’t believe in a vengeful, wrathful God that we might find in the OT, but I do believe that if we fail to nurture our spiritual lives, most specifically, our lives in Christ, then we will drift and miss the blessings that God promises us in the life of faith; promises of grace and peace in our living.
In the gospel teaching today, we hear that “large crowds were traveling with Jesus.” Now, if Jesus were a good church programmer, he would have dispatched some of the apostles to get everyone’s name, phone number, and home address from the members of this large crowd. He would have made sure everyone felt welcome. Perhaps he would have fretted over his sermons, making sure that each one was a practical, uplifting message that the crowd would come back for again and again. If they were singing psalms, he would have made sure the tunes were easy and appealing to the largest group possible.
But Jesus wasn’t a good church programmer. This is because Jesus wasn’t calling crowds; he was calling disciples. Jesus wasn’t concerned with being popular; he was concerned with helping people transform their lives. Jesus was leading people toward eternity, not temporal things like material success.
When Jesus sees the crowds, his instinct is not to wow them. His instinct is to make each person aware of the cost of being his disciple. It is this awareness of the journey that brings about transformation. He tells the crowd that unless they can detach completely from everything they are holding onto emotionally and physically, they can never really be his disciples. He tells them – and us – that we have to detach from our family and cultural norms, from our very lives as we know them. We have to be ready to take up our cross. Jesus says, “Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” End of sentence.
The conditions that Jesus sets forth here for true discipleship are radical, uncompromising, and even harsh. First, Jesus calls for the denial of close family ties and even of life itself. Family obligations were central in Hebrew culture; but even the most cherished relationships must be renounced if they stand in the way of faithful discipleship. Those who follow Jesus will have a new family of disciples based on their loyalty to Christ and one another.
So we find ourselves as confronted and challenged once again by scripture and Jesus’ teachings to order our priorities. Although I believe in a forgiving and loving God whose Son came to teach us how to live for the Father, I believe that the accountability and expectations are high for the Christian believer. The door into the church is the beginning point for us. Once we have decided that we want to be sojourners with Jesus, then we must examine our lives and prioritize.
Jesus never said “don’t have a life and stay at church 24/7”, but he did say, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” Harsh and scary words for sure. But to keep this in context with the thought of his day, Jesus’ word ‘hate’ means to prioritize. If our current priorities get in the way of our relationship to God, then we have a really hard time with his call to discipleship. The imagery here calls us to live the covenant which God calls us into: To love the Lord your God with all of your heart mind and strength and to love your neighbor as yourself. All is renounced for the sake of Jesus. Even our possessions. The gospel passage ends with Jesus saying, “None of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.” We must be ready always to give up, put aside and renounce everything that seems important to us. We are called to stop seeking fulfillment from our own means and the world’s means, and to start seeking faithfulness to God in Christ. It was Jeremiah’s call to his people 2,600 years ago and it stands today, as we too are a people of covenant.
One must be willing to renounce anything that stands in the way of a full commitment to discipleship. Discipleship demands sacrifice. The imagery of taking up one’s cross must have been striking to the disciples before the crucifixion, and even more so in the days and years immediately following the crucifixion. A fitting description as discipleship demands sacrifice: sacrifice of one’s own dreams and ambitions, sacrifice of one’s pleasures, sacrifice of control over one’s own life. In exchange, however, discipleship offers a new vision of God’s will for our lives, new joys, and an acceptance that God is in control. Discipleship means counting the cost, which is often large. Count the cost, Jesus said, if you want to be my disciples. You’re liable to lose a lot if you choose to become a disciple, but what you gain will be immeasurably greater.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Safe Places

I got to thinking about “safe places” this past week. There are those of us who take safety for granted, living lives with low risk. Those who live in gated communities or who send their children to upper-class or private schools, seek safety in their lives. Sometimes these safe places are intruded upon. Gated communities are not entirely impervious to theft and violence. Upper class schools have been in the news lately where young women have been violated and abused. We all seek safe places.


We believed our schools were safe; then came the shooting at Sandy Hook. We believed our churches were safe; then came the shooting at Emmanuel AME Church. We believed our work places were safe; then came the shooting in San Bernardino. We all seek safe places.


We seek safe places in our homes, in our churches, and in our places of employment, and sometimes we take these safe places for granted. Even Disney World is supposed to be a safe place for a child. Over the last week I learned something new about safe places. Our sisters and brothers who are counted among the LGBT community seek places to gather for safety. Not necessarily from gun violence, but from those of us in the more mainstream community, usually of white privilege and traditional family structure, who may not understand those different from us. Pulse nightclub in Orlando was one of those safe places. I should say, with the perseverance of those who are a part of that community, Pulse nightclub will be a safe place again. We all seek safe places.

When our safe places are violated, especially by the terror of a mass shooting, it is paralyzing, confusing, disorienting, shocking, scary. Therefore, I as the rector and pastoral leader of St. Christopher’s Episcopal Church in Houston, Texas, declare this parish a safe place for all who come seeking the knowledge and love of our Lord Jesus Christ who did not passively tolerate those different from him, but embraced them. People of various backgrounds, races, and nationalities are counted among this congregation. This is a safe place for you. Members of the LGBTQ community and their parents and loved ones are counted among this congregation. This is a safe place for you.


In the words of my friend and Dean of our Cathedral, Barkley Thompson, “This is, I believe, part of our collective challenge. We in the United States have striven to become a tolerant society. But mere tolerance doesn’t breed familiarity, and without familiarity there is little chance for understanding. Tolerance is a passive virtue. It says, in essence, “I can abide your presence in proximity to me, but I do not want to know you. I have plumbed the depths of the Gospels, and nowhere do I find Jesus exhibiting tolerance. Rather, Jesus embraces. Embrace is an active virtue, the preeminent Gospel virtue. Again and again, Jesus embraces the one who is outcast, who exists on the margins, who is maligned. Through his embrace, which comes in the forms both of physical contact and words of acceptance, Jesus declares that, in God, there are no outcasts, there are no margins, and woe be it to anyone who maligns any one of God’s blessed and beloved children.”




In light of the horrific murders this past weekend in Orlando, we are asked by our Bishop for our continued prayers for the repose of the dead and strength and comfort for their families and friends, and for healing for those wounded in the shooting. He asks us also to pray for the first responders and for the medical professionals in Orlando, for our LGBTQ brothers and sisters and for wisdom to confront violence and hate with love.


Thursday, April 7, 2016

Atychiphobia to Success

There are some incredible stories in the world about success. Counter intuitively, the most interesting ones seem to come from stories of failure. Failure is one of our top fears. According to Jerry Seinfeld, our number one fear is public speaking. Our number two fear is death. Therefore, Seinfeld reaches the conclusion that if the average person finds themselves at a funeral, giving the eulogy would be the scarier option. But there is a third fear that I would say is pretty high on the list, and that is atychiphobia. Atychiphobia is not a fear of attics; rather it is the fear of failure. As a matter of fact, it is the persistent fear of failure, which can very well lead to a constricted lifestyle.
As with any phobia, the fear is usually irrational, having really no basis or prior experience necessarily. But with failure, there is some suggestion that fear of this issue can be overcome because of our experience with it. In other words, we may be less afraid of failure if we have failed in the past. Here are some examples:[1]
Bill Gates is one of the world’s wealthiest people, but he didn’t earn his fortune in a straight line to success. Gates entered the entrepreneurial scene with a company called Traf-O-Data, which aimed to process and analyze the data from traffic tapes. He tried to sell the idea with his business partner, but the product barely even worked. It was a complete disaster. However, the failure did not hold Gates back from exploring new opportunities, and a few years later, he created his first Microsoft product, and forged an incredible path to success.
One of the most creative geniuses of the 20th century was once fired from a newspaper because he was told he lacked creativity. Trying to persevere, Walt Disney formed his first animation company, which was called Laugh-O-Gram Films. He raised $15,000 for the film company but because of a distribution company that went belly up, he eventually was forced to close. Desperate and out of money, Disney found his way to Hollywood and faced even more criticism and failure until finally, his first few classic films skyrocketed in popularity.
Steve Jobs, I think we can agree, was an impressive entrepreneur because of his boundless innovations, but also because of his emphatic comeback from an almost irrecoverable failure. Jobs found success in his 20s when Apple became a massive empire, but when he was 30, Apple’s board of directors decided to fire him. Undaunted by the failure, Jobs founded a new company which was eventually acquired by Apple. Once back at Apple, Jobs proved his capacity for greatness by reinventing the company’s image and taking the Apple brand to new heights.
In the gospel lesson from the 21st chapter of John, the scene is at the Sea of Tiberias, or the Sea of Galilee, which is really a lake; a really big lake. Jesus appears on the beach, but the disciples didn’t know it was Jesus. The scene is a resurrection scene, the last we find in John’s gospel. It follows one failure after the next. Earlier in the gospel, the sons of Zebedee wonder who might be greatest in God’s kingdom; which we find out by Jesus’ washing of the disciples’ feet that the kingdom Jesus proclaims is one of servanthood. Simon Peter denies Jesus three times after his arrest; major failure there. Judas certainly fails at whatever he was trying to accomplish by turning Jesus in to the authorities.
In this scene of the resurrection appearance at the sea shore, Jesus reverses these “failures” by offering extravagant grace in encouraging his friends to be successful disciples. But it’s not just encouragement that we witness in this breakfast on the beach story. We are once again witnesses to the extravagant generosity offered by the risen Jesus. If the disciples let their failures and shortcomings fester, or if their fear of what the authorities did to Jesus caused them to recluse and quit, the world would be a darker place. If their fear of failure and rejection won, they just might have been gripped by atychiphobia. And this would not be good for the Jesus Movement; because the Jesus Movement is all about risk. It was then and it is now.
Persons afflicted with atychiphobia consider the possibility of failure so intense that they choose not to take any risk. Often these persons will subconsciously undermine their own efforts so that they no longer have to continue to try. Because effort is proportionate to achievement, the unwillingness to try arises from the perceived inequality between the possibilities of success and failure. This in turn holds the atychiphobic back from a life of meaning and the realization of potential. Unfortunately this reality is not limited to humans, but can very well be symptomatic in an entire organization, such as the church, where the risk of failure always looms. But good news for us, so does grace.
The scene in John’s gospel today is one of successful discipleship where images of abundance prevail. A large catch of fish, an untorn net, and a scrumptious grilled fish breakfast. “The appearance provides signs of Jesus’ identity”, Cynthia Kittredge writes, “in the huge haul of fish, the net landed untorn with one hundred and fifty three fish, and Jesus taking and giving the bread and fish to [his friends].”[2]
This story has great implications for the modern church. The landscape here is one of encouragement and grace. After the unspeakable tragedy that was the innocent death of Jesus by capital punishment, we see the early church founders back to life as usual. They are most likely riddled with fear coupled with all their hopes extinguished. This might explain Peter’s nakedness on the boat – I mean who puts clothes on and then jumps into the water? Peter’s nakedness is a symbol of his raw, vulnerable humanity after a harrowing couple of days.
Like the sighting of Jesus on the seashore, we are witnesses to the resurrected Christ still. We might need that unnamed beloved disciple to point him out to us from time to time, but Jesus is here, just as he promised. To offer us encouragement and grace to reach out to others in love and evangelize by word and deed the Good News of Jesus Christ to all those who come searching.
The disciples may have been fearful. They may have been borderline atychiphobes, but they were faithful. Like last week’s gospel where the disciples were locked in a room for fear of the Jewish authorities, they were faithful. Thomas was faithful. And as in other gospels where fishing is a metaphor for evangelizing, we find faithful Peter as the successful fisher.
How might we overcome our fears of telling others about our faith in Christ? As Episcopalians, we seem to be atychiphobic, fearing failure, loss, and rejection. But there is a way forward. The treatment of this phobia can take place in a few different ways: 1) drugs that raise our serotonin level and thus lower our anxiety – let’s not jump there; 2) psychotherapy and counseling; maybe, as with spiritual direction, therapy is good for all of us as we deal with life experiences that have shaped our perspectives; or 3) confronting situations or circumstances that are increasingly similar to the feared ones. I recommend starting here.
If we fear talking about our faith to others, then perhaps the cure is to talk about our faith with our spouse or partner, or close friend. Then we can eventually move on to our work places, social groups and beyond. If we fear being part of a group at church because we may feel judged or inadequate, attend a small group for a short time. If we fear helping in a ministry like worship ministry, or outreach ministry because we think we may not be good at it, try it once or twice and see that you’re probably better at it than others. If we fear, try…if we fear, try…if we fear, try.
Because there’s actually a fourth cure to atychiphobia: God’s grace. Let’s look to the scene on the beach once again. Gracious Jesus offers encouragement and second and third chances to the disciples who deserted Jesus at his arrest, denied him while he as at trial, locked themselves away out of fear, and failure to recognize the resurrected One time and again.
Like the other appearances in John, Jesus is not recognized at first as he stands on the shore. He calls the disciples “children”, recalling the theme throughout the gospel that those who believe will have power to become children of God. They do not recognize Jesus from his voice, as Mary did, or by his fishing instructions. Only the disciple whom Jesus loved recognizes him when he sees the many fish in the net.
The charcoal fire recalls the same in the courtyard where Peter warmed himself at his denial of Jesus. Like the seamless garment undivided by the soldiers, the untorn net is a picture of the unity of the church. In response to his denial and disobedience, Peter hauls ashore the abundance of fish in obedience to Jesus’ instructions.[3] Jesus also asks Peter three times if he loves him; reversing the thrice denial that Peter was guilty of.
And what does Jesus do in response? He hosts a breakfast. He returns to his disciples as flawed as they are, reverses their shortcomings, affirms that they are children of God, and serves them.
Do you not know that this is your story too? You who are out on the waters each day? Do you believe that you are alone, unacceptable, inadequate, flawed and unworthy? Today, Jesus reaches out to you and offers himself. The grace of the Resurrected One that we find in this very gathering, in the breaking of the bread and our shared meal, forgives you; reverses your shortcomings and failures, that you may have power to become children of God and successful fishers.




[1] Six Stories of Successes who Overcame Failure. www.entrepreneur.com
[2] Conversations with Scripture: The Gospel of John. 2007. Cynthia Kittredge.
[3] Conversations with Scripture: The Gospel of John. 2007. Cynthia Kittredge.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Easter Clothes

Every winter, it seems, I end up gathering with friends over dinner and drinks at someone’s house
watching the Academy Awards. Each year I think I’ll enjoy watching actors and film creators and crews accepting the coveted Oscar award, but I really don’t. I guess I really want to watch the Oscars to see what movies got the top award for best picture and best screenplay, etcetera, so I know which movies to go see. But as far as the show itself, I’m really not all that into it; except for who might be hosting the program. This year it was Chris Rock – he was alright. If you remember years ago, Billy Crystal hosted the Oscars like a few years running. If you ask me, he was the best host yet.

Then there’s the Golden Globe awards. Now this awards show I have zero interest in except for one factor: Ricky Gervais. Yes, he’s raunchy and offensive. But he absolutely cracks me up. Much of his humor I cannot and will not repeat. But most of it skids around the acceptable. If it weren’t for his English accent – especially his dialect – he probably wouldn’t be near as funny. Nevertheless, when Ricky hosts the Globes, I set the DVR. But like the Oscars, I’m just not at all that interested in the show for the most part.

What I have determined over the years of watching these sorts of programs is that they are all about an incredibly wealthy and glitzy industry congratulating itself. For me, that’s not all that entertaining. The music awards perhaps, is probably the most entertaining since I really like music and watching bands perform, but it all comes down to the same thing really: an industry congratulating itself on it’s own accomplishments. We see wealthy movie and television stars as well as music icons virtually competing against each other for best dressed, best looking, and most beautiful date – male or female.

Perhaps it’s the follow-up entertainment news that makes me yawn the most. As much as celebrating ones accomplishments as an actor, or director, or writer, or musician, the entertainment news covers just as much about what the stars are wearing. Discussing to the last detail of someone’s tuxedo or evening gown; whether Will Smith wore a bow tie or neck tie or what color Leo was wearing, or who Cate Blanchett was wearing, seems as important as their talent. I think the only thing I’m less interested in is the Kardashians!

We have a fascination about wealth and fame in our culture. We are captivated by the news of what a celebrity – actor, singer, sports icon or billionaire turned wanna-be politician – owns, wears, lives in, or drives. It used to be that we wanted a successful life and own our piece of the so-called American dream, but these days it seems financial success and wealth are not enough; we desire fame as well, so we compare ourselves to others. We fill our living rooms with images of celebrity, fame, wealth, and power and we begin to think that there must be something missing in our lives. That maybe we aren’t good enough, so we start believing that we need something more. And we begin to think that it’s probably something someone else has, rather than what’s already present within us.

At the Great Vigil of Easter, which usually takes place the eve of Easter, we begin the order of worship with a series of Old Testament readings, reminding us of God’s saving deeds in history, of how God acted in the various circumstances of his people, and ultimately the work of redemption that God promises to all. The first of these readings is most appropriately the Genesis story of creation where God creates everything in the world and calls it good. Creation – everything that we see, hear, feel and touch, God made and claimed it as good. Even the final touch of creation, humanity itself, God calls good; made in the likeness of God. We are made in the likeness of God – but both Adam and Eve ultimately started believing that their existence needed more than Eden and even God, so they ate the fruit – the only thing in all of creation they were told to avoid, they ate. They started to believe that maybe they weren’t good enough, so they started believing that they needed something more. And they began to think that it must be something someone else has, rather than what’s already present within them. So they ate.

When they were called out on their errant ways, they discovered something about themselves that they never realized before: they were naked. In their now fallen state, they discover that they are naked and fashion loincloths with which to cover up their nakedness. According to Canon John Newton’s book “New Clothes”, we have been donning loincloths ever since. Trying to find who we are, we seek almost breathlessly the loincloths of our own identity. We are so attracted to the loincloths of the wealthy, the loincloths of the powerful, the loincloths of the famous. But God created us just as we are and called us good.

I hope this is making sense so far, because in the ancient world, clothing was very symbolic. Beginning with the loincloths of Adam and Eve in the garden, to wedding garments at the great heavenly banquet that Jesus speaks of, the image of what one wears is very meaningful. Not only in the Judeo/Christian tradition do we find clothing as symbolic, but also in the tradition of Islam; of which I am reminded after our Interfaith series during Lent. Barkley Thompson, Dean of our Cathedral recounts that,

“One of the Five Pillars of Islam is the Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca that every able-bodied Muslim is expected to take at least once during life. The pilgrim’s first stop upon reaching Mecca is the miqat, or changing room, in which he removes whatever clothes he has on, including jewelry, and dons a stark, plain, white garment known as the ihram.

Eventually, the pilgrim makes his way to the mosque housing the Kaaba stone, believed by Muslims to have been built by our shared father Abraham and symbolizing the faithfulness of God, where the pilgrim falls in with thousands upon thousands of identically-plainly dressed Muslims to ritually walk around the Kaaba seven times.

Before he arrived in Mecca, the pilgrim might have been a peasant or a king. But in Mecca he strips himself bare, ritually divesting himself of any and all indicators of his station. He removes his world, as does everyone around him, and he gives himself over to God.”

Clothing, then as now, is a powerful symbol of who we are, what we do, and how much we matter relative to others in the world. We find the images of clothing even in the account of Jesus’ trial, death, and resurrection.

Of course, it was a mockery to dress Jesus in a purple robe and a crown of thorns at his trial and crucifixion, but what would come next has powerful overtones. According to St. Paul’s theology, Jesus becomes the new Adam for us. As the prayer book recites, “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive” (BCP 83). And just as Adam was clothed in his loincloth, so is Jesus; stripped bare, donning just a loincloth as he becomes at his most human and distant from God, for our sake.

After Jesus dies, Joseph of Arimathea, a leader in the Jewish council who did not agree with the decision to try Jesus, asked Pilate for the body of Jesus. Accompanied by another Jewish leader, Nicodemus, he and Joseph would clothe Jesus in burial linens and lay him in a new tomb in a garden. Three days later Mary Magdalene, early in the morning before daybreak – when all is darkest just before the dawn – makes her way alone to the tomb. When Mary comes to the garden, summoning up the Garden of Eden in the creation story, she finds the tomb empty and runs to tell the other disciples. What always strikes me about the Easter story we hear from John, are the two disciples – Peter and the other disciple (that’s it, that’s all we are told, the other disciple) – who run to the tomb after Mary Magdalene runs to tell them the news. The running race between Peter and the other disciple may be a way to portray competition between two important figures in the community of John. But what I find most striking once again is what these two disciples find upon their entrance into the tomb: “the linen wrappings”. Gospel of John scholar Cynthia Kittredge observes that the “other disciple arrives first, looks in and sees the grave clothes”.

The tomb is empty because the life of God cannot be contained. The tomb is empty because a tomb is for the dead, not for the living. The tomb is empty because Jesus cannot be contained and as his "grave clothes" have been shed and left behind, he is now clothed in the splendor of the resurrection. So much so that Mary doesn’t even recognize her longtime friend and teacher. Even after she finds the tomb empty and even as she confesses her confusion to the angels, her grief blinds her. It is only when Jesus calls her by name that she understands that he’s done what he promised. Like the sheep who recognize the voice of their shepherd, Mary knows Jesus’ voice. She turns, with great excitement and says, Teacher! For a moment in time she believes everything is back to normal and life is good again. But Jesus tells her, ‘Do not hold on to me.’
It’s Easter; Jesus’ work on earth is accomplished.


And because it is accomplished, what to wear now? The freedom that Easter grants to us is that we are now redeemed and justified by this mighty act. We no longer need to fervently seek out an identity that makes us like someone by whom we were not created. The fame and celebrity that seems to surround us on all four corners need not be a distraction or even temptation for us. Because Jesus’ glorious resurrection garments are available to us. And the best part is that they don’t hide who we are; rather, they highlight who we are: beloved children of God, from whose love we can never be separated– not even by death or any other power that may be.

We no longer need to dress ourselves in loincloths of our own making, but rather grow into the splendid garment, the free garment of salvation, tailored for us at the resurrection. Then, we must search with each other for the post-resurrection Jesus, the living Christ, and listen for him to call our name and then we must run, run with excitement to tell others, proclaiming our Easter reality:

Alleluia! Christ is risen.
He is risen indeed. Alleluia!

Awakened

Good evening! Good evening and welcome to this celebration of the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ. Yes, tonight we celebrate. We know celebration well, don’t we? We celebrate birthdays, anniversaries, home-comings, various holidays throughout the year. Sometimes we celebrate just for the heck of it. As the youngest of three sons, my older brothers would often talk about “partying”. As a kid I always wondered, “what are you celebrating?” I didn’t have to become too old to realize that people need not a specific reason to celebrate, to have a party.
There’s a lot of celebration going on this time of year – and I’m not just talking about the holiday season – I’m talking about this specific year, December 2015, there is a whole lot of celebration going on. On December 14 a new era began, as the Force, apparently has Awakened. Star Wars gear from t-shirts to costumes to bed linen sets (which I’m hoping for a king size set under the tree tomorrow) seem ubiquitous in stores across the country. This is a big deal to a lot of people (I admit, me included). I have not seen the new Star Wars movie so no spoilers will happen from this pulpit, and I bid you please don’t tell me anything! But my question going into this film is, “The force awakens?” When was the force asleep? Return of the Jedi ends with the defeat of the Empire, including the death of Darth Vader who just previously killed the evil emperor. And of course at the end of the movie, who could forget the gleeful glow of the ghostly saints of Yoda, Obi Wan and Anakin Skywalker smiling on at those at the Rebel’s celebration. It seems to me the Empire must awaken – but perhaps I need to see the movie. And I will.
So yes, tonight is a celebration. But it’s a different kind of celebration, isn’t it? Yes, it’s different because we are celebrating in a church where certain customs and behaviors are expected. This certainly isn’t the kind of celebration where we buzz around socializing with cocktails in hand. Yes, it’s different because we are celebrating a holy event in human history (I think a Star Wars junkie would most assuredly argue the same). A stark difference, however, in the kind of celebration that we encounter tonight as compared to a more personal celebration, like a birthday or New Years’ Eve, is that at least in my experience, a birthday or holiday celebration is rarely prefaced with the question: “So, how long do you think this thing will last?”
Our celebration this night is a cosmic one. What I mean when I say this is that when a child, a human child, one of the most vulnerable creatures on this planet, was born as an intentional act of God, Creator of all that is, all of creation changes. The human condition with it’s propensity to seek self-promotion through violence and control was changed. Our propensity to seek darkness (or the “dark-side) as a way of life was turned around. Love was born unto us anew this day. What more incredible thing can we celebrate?
Have you ever seen those bumper stickers on cars that say, “Keep Christ in Christmas”? Whenever I see or hear short sound bites that presumably seeks to wrap up a whole idea that is most likely a complex issue, I get very suspicious. But this little catch phrase, “Keep Christ in Christmas” has some truth to it if dig a little bit. For me the implications of such a short saying has so much more to do with the cosmic and universal impact that Jesus was born into this world than simply making sure we go to church on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day – although I highly recommend doing so.
“Keeping Christ in Christmas” for me, means making room for Jesus in our lives. Among the almost unbearable crazy rush of a holiday that our western way of life has created, we hopefully will come to realize that this chaotic rush and busy-ness of life runs counter to what we – yes – celebrate this night; and indeed for the next twelve days.
Imagine a celebration that does not include loud conversations, music, and crowded rooms, but rather the hush of a cool evening. Mystics and spiritualists say that we meet God not in the noise of life but in the silence. But there is some irony, however, to the quietness of a Christmas Eve for which we yearn, since what we celebrate is the birth of a child to a couple in challenging circumstances far from home. The outbuilding in which Jesus was born did not smell of cinnamon brooms or roasting turkey. It wasn’t decorated in lights and bows. It smelled quite frankly of animals and hay. The manger, as we usually call it, was a stable where animals ate. It was no place for a mother about to give birth. It was no place for a newborn, certainly. Mary had every reason to say no to that angel. If she had some way of seeing into the future to this cold, filthy stable where she would have to give birth to her first-born, she certainly may have taken a pass. But she did not.
Mary, our exemplar of faithfulness and obedience to the divine call, said yes. Taken from scripture literally, she said to the angel, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” This was a profound act on the part of Mary. We forget what an arduous journey this was for her. Or at least we tend to caricaturize her as someone who pleasantly went through the motions of childbirth, as if that’s ever true – remember there were no pain meds to take, no epidural, and her midwife was a carpenter. But not only did Mary’s physical surroundings make it near impossible to go through with this birth, the political climate of the time, with Israel being occupied by Rome, was very dangerous. As the gospel story from Luke’s account reminds us, there was a census taking place, and everyone had to go back to the town of their origin. Joseph, belonging to the house and line of David, returned to Nazareth in Galilee, with expecting family in tow. Under the most precarious of circumstances is our Savior Christ born.
We celebrate Christmas this year in the shadow of terrorism and the horrific loss of life that seems to happen every month. Violence, darkness and death are nothing new to the human experience as the Church remembers the slaughter of the Innocents on December 28, three days after Christmas Day. According to Matthew’s gospel, Herod, who asked the Wise Men about the location of the child who was born, became infuriated when the Magi tricked him by not telling him where the Holy Family could be found. In response, the evil Herod ordered all male children under the age of two to be killed, for fear of losing his throne. No one knows how many children were killed, but the Church has always honored these children as martyrs.
It is into this dangerous world that God enters as a human child – this is the radical grace of Christmas. Lutheran pastor and author Nadia Bolz-Weber, who regards herself as a ****, tattooed, ****, with the mouth of a truck driver, writes,
Yes, the radical grace of Christmas is that God enters fully into our existence and reality when the Christ child is born.
Christmas looks different this year, it looks different every year, but the meaning and significance remains the same. A child is born as a light in our darkness. It is no surprise that Christmas comes at the darkest time of the year. The days are the shortest as night falls earliest.
Tonight we celebrate what God has done in humanity – and what God is doing in humanity. We celebrate a cosmic shift in the history of human life where light pierces darkness, death is over run by life, truth prevails and hope endures. God becomes human, lives and dies as one of us, and raises us to himself that we too become God’s children ourselves. Ponder this truth. Don’t try and figure it out. Let the light of this Christ child glow on your doubt and reservations.
In the words of Cynthia Kittredge: [Let us] be “filled with wonder on this Christmas day, let us welcome Jesus, splendid guest. Let us be those who receive him. Rejoice that the word and wisdom of God comes in human flesh like ours. Give thanks that our fragile lives are holy and shine with the radiance of God’s glory. In communion with saints and in company of friends, celebrate the feast.”
Merry Christmas. (And may the force be with you.)