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.