Friday, December 25, 2009

Homily for Christmas Day

Here we are on Christmas Day after the crescendo of Advent and the Christmas Eve services of last night. Over this past month we have diligently decorated our trees, hauled out the Christmas decorations from the attic and garage; arranged the greenery and crèches; lit the Advent wreaths, baked the Christmas cookies; wrapped all the presents. We have been building on the excitement and anticipation of this day for several weeks. We have put in so much effort into creating the “perfect holiday”. So, this is the day we have prepared for. And in a moment, “in the twinkling of an eye”, the packages are torn into, the food is devoured and we can finally relax... And let’s not forget too... that finally, at last, we have a baby in the manger... “the Word made flesh”
Our Gospel reading from St. John (John 1:1-15) that we read today gives us a much different spin on the all too familiar birth narrative that we read last night. If you are like me, it is much easier to get our mind around the image of a baby in a manger than it is to swallow this notion of “the Word made flesh”. Sometimes it is just difficult to comprehend this theology. Nevertheless, in these mysterious words that we read today, “In the beginning was the Word...,” we are called to reflect on an extraordinary truth about Jesus.
At the time that the Gospel of John was written, for the Greek scholars of that day, the concept of “the Word” was a philosophical concept or theory. It was a concept that would have been very familiar to them. These early Greek scholars suggested that there was a source of eternal truth or absolute truth. This source they termed The Logos: “The Word.” To them, there was nothing personal about the idea. It was just assumed that only a few of the educated elite would be able to contemplate this truth or even begin to understand it.
As The Rev. Anthony Clavier put it in his sermon on Christmas, “the idea of an eternal Word tells us two things. The first is that there is a truth, an eternal truth to which we have access. The second idea is that this truth is communicated to us by God. ‘The Word became flesh and dwelt with us.’ St. John here says something extraordinary. The eternal truth of God, God communicating to us, is not just a philosophical ideal for scholars, but a real person for which we all have access. Jesus is the Truth, Jesus is God communicating (to us). Jesus embodies God’s agenda for the Church and for the world.”
It is easy for us to look at the all too familiar image of a stable and a new born in a manger and see the glory. We have created for ourselves a lot of pomp and circumstance around our version of the Christmas story. However, another way to look at this story is to see God’s identity with those who have nothing. The truth in the story about the Holy Family is one of two ordinary people, living in poverty, trying desperately to find some relief from the cold and place suitable for Mary to give birth as her labor pains grew stronger and more frequent. All they can find is dirty cave filled with animal manure and rotting hay. The baby is born and they have to just make do with what they have. Tired, cold, hungry, scared and alone they bring into the world a baby. It is an ordinary miracle for a baby to be born. But this was just not any baby. It is easy to wonder if Mary and Joseph knew the significance of this baby in front of them. After all, they were just two ordinary poor people just trying to survive. Little did they know who this baby would become, God incarnate; “the Word made Flesh”. As we hear echoed later in the Gospel of John, this baby does become, “the way, the truth and the life...” The amazing thing is how God chose to bring all this about.
You see, God could have chosen to bring a savior into the world in much more dramatic way. God could have revealed the truth to us in a way that had many more “bells and whistles”. He could have revealed himself in a much more powerful way... or did he? “The Word became flesh”... flesh, just like you and I are flesh. Jesus was born of a woman, living an ordinary life. The son of God was born to an ordinary human being. God used ordinary human beings, living an ordinary meager existence to change us. But God also uses you and me. For just as God became human in Mary’s womb, so God the Son, that babe in the manger, enters our humanity, and causes us to be changed. Just as God used Mary and Joseph to help bring about change in the world, God also sends us to bring about change. That is what our Baptism is all about. It is the miracle of allowing God to work through us that brings hope into the world; a hope that can transform all of human kind. It is the kind of transformation that only the love of God can bring that causes frail and powerless human beings to be transformed from living in despair to living in hope. It was the willingness of that baby, who grew to become a man, to die on a Cross so that we might live.
We are all called to follow the same journey that Jesus did here on earth. We all begin life through the miracle of a birth. Each of us are born into different circumstances. Some of us are born into privilege... others might be born into poverty or life circumstances that lends itself to suffering. Regardless of our circumstances, we are still all called to follow Christ... “the Word made flesh”. We are all the flesh of God. We become agents of God’s purpose as we do as God wants us to do. We tell the Gospel story to others. We love one another. The transforming power of God is played out in the world through us by: caring for the sick, the outcast, the starving, those in the midst of war and civil disturbances, the homeless in the street, those tortured by addiction, the abused and neglected, the single mother abandoned by her parents, those living without knowing when they might eat again or find shelter from the cold. When we allow “the Word” to become part of our own flesh, we are then able to transform not only ourselves, we transform the world...
So on this Christmas Day, accept with gratitude the abiding presence of the Christ child in your own flesh and then, in Him, go into the world to love and serve the Lord.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Our Life Stories

The Lessons and Carols we read and sang this past Sunday at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Kingsport, told us the story of our Christian heritage. The Gospel and readings announced the coming of a Messiah. John the Baptist’s cry was to get ready! Here He comes! Get ready for God to come! However, I think we sometimes get confused about what we are really preparing for. Sometimes I think we tend to think about Advent in terms of a bumper sticker I saw one time: “Jesus is coming... look busy...” John the Baptist’s cry to prepare the way gets turned around in our minds. It really does not have anything to do with getting the last minute shopping done or getting the Christmas decorations up. The Lessons we read are the prologue of the Jesus story that we will celebrate from now through the crescendo of Easter. We are here at the middle point of Advent, the wreath is up and the blue paraments are out. In a few more weeks we will celebrate the Nativity of our Lord in which we remember the coming of a baby. It is the all too familiar story of the manger, the angels and shepherds, the wise men, the sheep and lambs, the Star of Bethlehem and that image of a lowly stable where this story unfolds. But the story sometimes gets pushed aside by the excitement of the secular holiday season. This sacred story we begin telling here during this season of Advent, intersects with the world outside these walls. The holiday rush is in full tilt. We are just barely finishing up the leftover Thanksgiving turkey from the previous week. The holiday music and Christmas Carols has been blaring in the shopping centers for a month already (since the day after Halloween, I believe…) This mixture of the secular and sacred that we have bombarding our senses all around us, can have a way of leaving us feeling somewhat overwhelmed and confused. The baby in the manger that we will encounter in just few short weeks, somehow gets lost in the visions of sugar plums dancing in our heads. Advent is very surely a season of anticipation. But we must not forget that Advent is also, and more importantly, a penitential season that calls us to look inward. It is a time for us to reflect not only on the past year, but reflect with anticipation on things that will be new in the coming year.
This was my “official” last Sunday at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Kingsport. I will be moving to a new parish that has been assigned to me by my bishop, St. Christopher’s Episcopal Church in Kingsport, TN. I felt so very blessed to have had the presence of so many friends and loved ones, when I took on some new things by way of my ordination vows. It all seems fitting for me personally that my ordination has occurred during the season of Advent. Advent is the beginning of the Church year and a season of preparation. It is the beginning of a new chapter in our lives that will bring new stories and new memories.
Some 18 years ago I moved to Kingsport after going through some major changes in my life. I moved into this community literally not knowing a soul. But I quickly found a home AND a wife at St. Paul’s! St. Paul’s brings to mind for me so many different stories. There are so many people from St. Paul’s Church, both living and dead, that have influenced and enriched my life. Each one of us has a different story to tell. For me, and especially for Sister, my wife, St. Paul’s has been at the center of all those momentous occasions in life; our wedding, our daughter Rebecca’s baptism, the burial of Sister’s parents and now my ordination. All of these things, and many, many more to even begin to name, have shaped the story line that is our life. However, the significance of this story does not come from any one event, person or personality. Our individual life stories give us different ways of seeing the world. And all that is important, yet insignificant in the bigger scheme of things… The significance of the stories of our lives is found in the relationships we have with each other within the Body of Christ. It is through bonds we have with each other that we find God incarnate. Certainly, we can experience God through times of solitude and meditation. But to truly KNOW God, well, that has to be done in the context of community. Whether you choose to kneel or stand during the Eucharist; cross yourself or not; intinct or drink from the chalice; prefer Rite I over Rite II, it means nothing without community. It does not matter how much you give or don’t give; what you wear, who you vote for or support politically. It does not matter if you are liberal or conservative, moderate or indifferent; whether you go to church every single Sunday or just go every once in a while. It does not matter if you are male, female, straight, gay, lesbian, white, black, blue, green, purple or red with pink polka dots! What matters MOST are the relationships you have with that person next to you and, just as importantly, the relationship you have with the rest of the folks in the world outside your own walls. What matters are the relationships that are forged through service to one another both locally and the rest of the world. We serve Christ by participating in each other’s lives through our prayers, presence and coming together around the table.
This leg of my journey in Christ is entering a new phase as I depart from the regular parish life at St. Paul’s Church and move to begin a new ministry at St. Christopher’s. But the departure of myself and my family is not a total disconnection from St. Paul’s. We are still bound to the St. Paul’s church family by the love and support that has shaped the story that is our life. It is a story of compassion and caring. It is the story of how lives can be irrevocably changed by reaching out to those both known and unknown. My hope and prayer for my friends at St. Paul’s is that this will continue. And my advice and maybe even admonition would be to handle each other with care. Avoid harsh tones or cutting words when you disagree. Seek and follow Christ always. Pay attention to the relationships. That is where you will find Christ.
So, the next time you come together around the Eucharistic table, take a moment to notice the faces of those around you there. I think you will see, as I have seen and continue to see, the face of God; just as surely and as clearly as those shepherds did when they looked into that manger to see a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes.

Monday, November 16, 2009

New Directions

Next Sunday marks the end of the liturgical Church year in many churches across the world. The following Sunday (Nov. 29th) we will bring down the green paraments and replace them with blue or purple as we begin the season of Advent. The season of Advent is a season filled with anticipation and excitement. It is also a season of penitence in which we are called to reflect and turn our thoughts inward. For me, it is very fitting that my ordination as deacon is occurring during this season of Advent. Advent marks the beginning of the church year. This is significant for the Brewer family as we begin this new phase of our lives through my call to the ordained ministry in the world. There have been many people who have helped me along the way. As with any journey, there are many starting and stopping points along the way. My ordination on December 5th will mark both a starting and stopping point for me within both my Church life and career. I will depart from St. Paul’s Episcopal Church as lay person and enter into the ordained ministry at a new parish. I wanted to share with everyone some of changes that will happen for both myself and my family.

As many of you know, my bishop, The Rt. Rev. Charles vonRosenberg has assigned me, upon my ordination as a deacon, to St. Christopher’s Episcopal Church in Colonial Heights ("suburb" of Kingsport, TN). I am so excited about becoming the deacon at St. Christopher’s and joining with The Rev. Maggie Zeller in the ministry and parish life there. The liturgical role as a deacon is to proclaim the gospel, lead intercessions, wait at the Eucharistic table, and direct the order of worship. The vocational diaconate is unique in that deacons have a special relationship with their bishop. Deacons serve in a parish at the discretion of their bishop. A vocational deacon’s ministry is also unique in that it is NOT a “stepping stone” to the priesthood as a transitional deacon would be. I do not aspire to be a priest. My call to ministry is in the world.

My ministry in the world has encompassed two distinct areas thus far. Firstly, my work with Osman Hope; this ministry to the people of Honduras has been very central to my calling to the ordained ministry. I will continue my involvement with Osman Hope. Secondly, I have been involved in starting the counseling ministry at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in which I work with people in my role as a Marital and Family therapist. Father Jay Mills, rector of St. Paul’s, has been very instrumental in encouraging me to expand this ministry. After consulting with Father Jay and my bishop, Bishop vonRosenberg has given his blessing for me to continue with the counseling ministry at St. Paul’s Church during the week as part of my regular occupation as a Marriage and Family Therapist.

In addition to this change in my parish life, I will be leaving Youth Villages in my role as a Clinical Program Consultant. Beginning the 1st of January I will transition to doing my private practice as a Marriage and Family Therapist more full-time, in the context of St. Paul's counseling ministry. In addition to this, I have accepted the call to become the new Coordinator of the Episcopal Appalachian Ministries (EAM). This is a half-time position within the Episcopal Church to work with and coordinate the various mission ministries occurring in the dioceses throughout the Appalachian Region. I am very excited about this new direction in my life. I will use the St. Paul’s Church office as my “home base” for both my private practice work and EAM.

Life has a way of producing change. As we live, change is inevitable. When I moved to Kingsport over 18 years ago, little did I know that joining the Episcopal Church would irrevocably change my life. It was at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church that I met and married the love of my life, Sister Carlock. Sister was born into and baptized at St. Paul’s Church. We have shared the joy of seeing our daughter Rebecca’s baptism at St. Paul’s. Needless to say, St. Paul’s has been central to us in our life as a family. Through the years, we have developed so many significant and close relationships with the people and the saints of St. Paul’s. I am grateful to God that our lives have been enriched by these friendships. St. Paul’s Church has been the place where my call to the ordained ministry was awakened and nourished. The body of Christ is only experienced and shared through community. I cannot think of any place I have felt this more than at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. The love of Christ is expressed in so many ways: the food pantry, the Christmas dinner, through baptisms, meals on wheels, trips to Honduras, Sunday School, EYC, and the purely socials. And most importantly, we have celebrated the love of Christ every Sunday around the table at the Eucharist. I am thankful that I have had the joy of being part of the community of St. Paul’s Church and the life in Christ that is so rich and vibrant.

So as I head in a new direction with excitement and anticipation, I am thankful to God for all the blessings I have been given in this life. I am thankful to my wife and family for all the love and support they have and continue to give me. So as we quickly move into the season of Advent and all the excitement and anticipation of the holiday season, let us pray that we will come to know the love of God revealed to us in a manger. Let us gather together in love to experience that peace which passes all understanding.

May the peace of God, which passes all understanding keep our hearts and minds in the knowledge and love of God, and of his Son Jesus Christ our Lord; and the blessing of God Almighty, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, be with us and remain with us always. Amen.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Baptist roots.... Episcopal heart...

It has been way too long since I put in my last blog post. I realized too that I had not really written anything specifically about my upcoming ordination as a deacon in the Episcopal Church. Many of my friends and family have been aware that for the last three years I have been in the formation process for ordination in the Episcopal Church. The question I get asked over and over is, “what does this mean and why?” So here we go, let me “splain”...

My calling to the ordained ministry is to become a vocational deacon. I do not aspire to become a priest. That is a different calling and different ministry all together. So let me explain a little more for the benefit of those folks that might come from different Christian traditions and backgrounds, which might not be as familiar with the Episcopal/ Anglican traditions.

A deacon in the Episcopal Church is defined this way by the Church:

“Deacons are members of one of three distinct orders of ordained ministry (with bishops and presbyters or “priests”). In the Episcopal Church a deacon exercises "a special ministry of servanthood" directly under the deacon's bishop, serving all people and especially those in need (BCP, p. 543). This definition reflects the practice of the early church, in which deacons were ordained "not to the priesthood but to the servanthood [diakonia, "ministry"] of the bishop" (Hippolytus, Apostolic Tradition). In the ancient Greek-speaking world the term diakonos meant an intermediary who acted or spoke for a superior. Christian deacons were agents of the bishop, often with oversight of charity. Since ancient times the liturgical functions of deacons have suggested the activity of angels. As they proclaim the gospel, lead intercessions, wait at the eucharistic table, and direct the order of the assembly, deacons act as sacred messengers, agents, and attendants. The revival of the order of deacons in the twentieth century has emphasized social care and service. Many bishops in the Episcopal Church expect their deacons to promote care of the needy outside the church. In addition to those ordained deacon as a permanent vocation, there are also "transitional deacons" who are ordained deacon as a preliminary step toward ordination as a priest. This practice is required by the canons of the Episcopal Church, but its theology and usefulness has been questioned by those who favor direct ordination to the order for which one is chosen.” (Source: Deacons are typically non-stipend clergy and assigned by their bishop to a particular parish to work assisting the priest in many of the activities of that parish. However, it must be noted, as mentioned above, a deacon’s ministry is primarily “in the world” and not a particular parish. Ultimately he/she reports to the bishop and not the congregation to which he/she is assigned.

The Episcopal Church is the descendent of the Church of England in America. Even today it is still part of the worldwide Anglican Communion. I grew up as a Baptist. I come from a heritage of church folks of which I am very proud and cherish! Some of my kinfolks were “ministers” and some “deacons”... In the Baptist tradition, the terms “minister” and “deacon” have a different connotation than it does in the Episcopal tradition. A “minister” or “pastor” within the Baptist tradition is a clergy person. A deacon on the other hand, is a layperson who is elected by a congregation for a term as an administrative leader (much like a vestry member in the Episcopal Church). However, deacons in the Baptist Church are ordained, but it is still considered a lay order. In the Episcopal Church, however, a deacon is considered and holds the title of a clergy person (ie., “The Rev.”)

As I mentioned before, my calling is to the diaconate; being a deacon. It is a difficult thing to explain in words being “called” into ministry. It is something almost purely experiential in nature, and at the same time there are definite signs and roadmaps along the way. I think though the seeds to my calling into the ordained ministry were planted early on in my life. My Baptist roots are still there and have been an integral in my formation as a follower of Christ. Nevertheless, my heart is with the Episcopal Church. My attraction to the Episcopal Church is due mainly to the sacramental and liturgical nature of its worship. The Episcopal Church is also theologically grounded in tradition, with a devotion to the study of scripture that is balanced with reason. The Church uses this “three legged stool” of, devotion to scripture, tradition and the use of reason as the sources of its doctrine and authority; this too is one of the many things that brought me to the Episcopal Church. As The Rev. George Ann Boyle put it, “The beauty of the Episcopal tradition is that it is open to questions and new possibilities, as well as ancient teachings. Imagine a spiritual practice that is both grounded in tradition and open to new possibilities.” (Source: The Episcopal Church is where I have found my connection to God. It is also what continues to draw me in and compels me to take the path that I have taken in life.

The other part of being called to the ordained ministry has centered around my experiences in working with the poor and neglected both locally and abroad. As a result of being touched by the lives of people who are suffering both physically, emotionally and spiritually, my life has been irrevocably changed. I can remember distinctly, about eight years ago, listening to a presentation by my friend Pete Borg about some work being done in Honduras with some children’s shelters. I remember feeling and thinking to myself, this is something you MUST get involved with. Little did I know at the time, that would be the beginning of my involvement with Osman Hope and also my calling to become a deacon.

So eight years later I am on the verge of becoming ordained. I have nearly completed my formation process, which has involved intensive study of scripture, theology, church history, homiletics, liturgy, ethics, canon law and modern issues. I have met with the examining chaplains and they have given their “stamp of approval”. So, by the grace of God and the consent of the people of God, I will be ordained into the Sacred Order of Deacons by The Right Revered Charles vonRosenberg, 3rd Bishop of the Diocese of East Tennessee on December 5th, 2009 at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Kingsport, TN.

O God of unchangeable power and eternal light: Look favorably on your whole Church, that wonderful and sacred mystery; by the effectual working of your providence, carry out in tranquility the plan of salvation; let the whole world see and know that things which were cast down are being raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new, and that all things are being brought to their perfection by him through whom all things were made, your Son Jesus Christ our Lord; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. (BCP 540)