June Sherry passed into glory on December 17, 2011, after her long and debilitating illness. We gathered at her graveside on December 27th to celebrate her life and ask the God of the generations to give her eternal rest. Her good friends Marion and Joyce Bothwell let us know that she hoped to have “When the Saints Go Marching In” played at her funeral, so Colin Brennan was kind enough to bring his trumpet and Nancy Jukins her guitar. They played and we all sang.
If you’re wondering who Jesus is, and who Santa is, here’s some thing to think about.
And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.
I know this is true. I have witnessed it and felt it here in this place with you. We celebrate this day the feast of God’s incarnation in Christ – a festival that crowns the year and draws our minds and hearts to rejoice again. But even after all the greens have been taken down and the light strands stored for another year the festival goes on because the reason for it never ends. The Word becomes flesh and dwells among us, full of grace and truth.
It infuses our community and takes on flesh and blood in us. It finds voice through our voice when we dare to talk together and with others outside of these walls about how we experience God’s presence. It pulses and grows strong when we reach out healing hands to all who come to us seeking to share with us in God’s blessings. The Word moves through the world when we offer ourselves as the vehicle. So wherever we work, wherever we learn, wherever we play and whomever we cross paths with see, hear, feel and know the Word in ways that are only possible through us on our unique path. What a wonder!
On some level the plan seems preposterous – that God should be born as a helpless infant, live a risk filled life, gather others around him to carry out a ministry of teaching, healing and speaking truth to power, only to have it end in his execution. But then not to have it end, to have it rise up again mystically to continue the goodness through the, heads, hearts and hands of fallible folk like us. Preposterous! But I testify to you, I know it to be true.
Just the other evening, as we gathered for our monthly Vestry meeting, in response to a written meditation we read about Mary receiving the word of the Angel Gabriel, we began sharing with each other some of our most palpable experiences on God’s presence in our lives. As our stories were told one by one, I could feel the connections between them. The circumstances of each story were different, but the grace, power and peace bestowed on us were the same.
Suddenly I was struck by the image of all of us sewn together into one tapestry by the golden thread of grace. What before looked like individual human lives were revealed to be deeply connected. We were connected by the One who had touched each of us and brought us together by what had once looked like random coincidence but which now seemed plainly to be grace filled purpose.
This Christmas morning let us celebrate again the birth of the One whose preposterously wondrous life story has made all the difference in ours. And then let us recommit to birthing him day in and day out to a world that he longs to occupy and companion to the fullest.
For the sake of his fathomless love. Amen+
Grace and peace from God the Creator and Christ Jesus our savior. Amen.
“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light,” says the prophet Isaiah. Who are these people who walked in darkness? Luke’s gospel tells us that some of those folks are shepherds.
Imagine this: you yourself are going, around sunset, into the wild land near Bethlehem and Jerusalem, to visit those shepherds. Imagine you got it into your head to go out into their pastureland and bring them the good news. It’s up to you to tell them what Isaiah said: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light,” What do you think might have happened?
Well, shepherds in the neighborhood of Herod’s Jerusalem led difficult lives. Even today in that part of the world, the herders from the wilderness aren’t welcome in the towns. They’re strangers. People suspect them of all kinds of mischief. Nobody has their backs except themselves and each other. Back then they were surrounded by great dangers of all kinds – wild animals, Roman soldiers, even hungry neighbors trying to steal their animals.
These are not gullible people. So we can imagine they’re suspicious. They’re on guard against approaching strangers … even you, as you come to bring them glad tidings of great joy. You might not even be able to get close enough to talk to them without them brandishing their slingshots to keep you away.
To get close, you’ll need to do something to show your friendly intention. Certainly you won’t bring along your stout walking stick. Maybe you should carry a basket of bread and a big plump wineskin. They’ll see even that as suspicious – who offers food to strangers? – but maybe it will get you close enough to talk.
When you do get close enough, what will you say? “Hey you all, the ones living in a land of deep darkness: a light is going to shine on you!” Do you think they will say, “oh, good! We’ve been hoping a long time for that great light to shine – the light of truth, justice, and peace. Thanks for bringing us the good news! Say, you look cold: sit down by the fire here.” That may not be what they will say.
No, they’ll probably be rude to you, and tell you they don’t believe you. They may ask whether you drank the contents of another wineskin. Shepherds are hard-working worldly folks. By necessity, they’re skeptical when strangers show up with great promises.
Seriously, they’ll likely tell you you’re a patronizing city slicker. “Of course we walk in darkness … how else are we going to keep our sheep safe through the winter night? Now, either help us out or get lost, willya?”
Isn’t it interesting that God sent the angel first to them to proclaim the good news? Those shepherds lived on the edge of their culture. Why choose them over people living in a village or, or prominent people in a city? If God wanted help spreading the good news, wouldn’t a well-known village person, maybe a midwife, been a better choice? I wonder: Why didn’t God choose somebody who could read or write?
At any rate, it takes some serious convincing to get shepherds to leave their flock in the dark and rush into town to see something. God had to pull out all the stops. It took a multitude of the heavenly host to convince them. But God did convince them, and they’re the first witnesses (other than Mary’s family) to the coming of the great light.
And here we are, two thousand years later. Most of us have heard this account of the humble origins of the anointed one, the Lord. Our gospel reading sets this up very clearly: a title of the Emperor Augustus was Son of God. He had the means to convince people to do things: All he had to do was speak a few words to one of his generals, and it would turn the lives of countless people upside down: “take a census,” he said. Everybody had to travel, or face the wrath of the Roman army. So, they traveled. They had to live in their world – the land of deep darkness – even as they hung on to hope. They hoped, in the words of Isaiah’s song, for “endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom.”
And here we are, two thousand years later. We still hope for the same realm of God that Isaiah hoped for:
For all the boots of the tramping warriors
and all the garments rolled in blood
shall be burned as fuel for the fire.
Even our government has tried, faithfully, to give life to that hope by bringing soldiers home from Iraq in this season. But despite all that effort, we still live in the realm of the broken world – the return of the warriors is marred by violence abroad and unemployment at home.
Two thousand years later we’re gathered here as the church of that same anointed one, that same Lord, born that night. As Christ’s church, we’re called out to be the angels: to shout out to the world “Do not be afraid; for see– we are bringing you good news of great joy for all the people.” And we’re reluctant to do that shouting. We’re concerned we won’t be taken seriously by a skeptical world. We do have a couple of thousand years of history with us. Still, it sure would be easier to convince people if we had the help of a vast choir of angels.
Two thousand years later, who are we? Yes, we’re the angels – the ambassadors of the good news of great joy. But, my friends, you and I are also those shepherds. Like them, we live in a world that isn’t always friendly. Like them, we walk in darkness sometimes. Like them, we are not sure who has our backs. Does the commercial culture have our backs? How about our government? Maybe not.
We all have our own flocks to tend, and it’s a bad idea for us to be too gullible. Even though most of us have the privilege of sleeping under a roof, in many ways we, as followers of Jesus, live on the edge of the main stream of the culture.
So the question is this. why does God pick US to be witnesses to the coming of the Messiah? Why not pick somebody else? Somebody with more power might be a better choice. Why us?
I’m sure those shepherds wondered the same thing. We know Mary wondered about it. I wonder too.
But there’s one thing we can all be sure about: God has indeed chosen us to hear that good news and to proclaim it to the world. God has given us a glimpse of God’s realm of endless peace, because God loves us and God yearns for us to love each other, for the life of the whole world.
These things I say to you in the name of the Christ child born this night, and for his sake. Merry Christmas
The Christmas caroling evening on December 19 was wonderful
The evening finished up when we visited Eleanor and Ginny Abby.
Grace to you and peace, in God our creator and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen
Today’s letter of St. Paul – according to scholars – is the very earliest part of the New Testament to be written down. Those folks in Thessalonika were real pioneers – they didn’t have lots of human examples of how to organize themselves into a church. They didn’t have the power of human institutions behind them. In fact, the opposite was true: to come out as followers of Jesus was to risk serious trouble or death from the Roman Empire.
What those folks did have was the power of the Holy Spirit. That power seems to have been strong enough – they live on as an example to us. That same Spirit lives on with us.
Paul gave them this advice, “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances.” It’s astonishing advice! Maybe it’s even patronizing and insulting advice. How can you rejoice when an occupying Roman Legion is giving you a hard time? How can you give pray with joy when people you love are being persecuted and killed? How can you give thanks in the face of sin, evil, and death?
My Greek teacher in theological school, Sze-Kar Wan, grew up in China. It happened that our class met on the day an earthquake hit his parents’ town. It killed people and wrecked his home congregation’s building. The local authorities didn’t respond competently and so the devastation was much worse than it needed to be.
Sze-kar opened that class that day with these very words of Paul’s. He then asked us to pray and give thanks with him. We thanked God for the lives of his friends who were killed and for the strong spirit in ones who survived. He invited us to rejoice for the privilege of taking time to study the Word of God in a world of trouble.
And we did pray and rejoice together. It was right and good to do that. Still, it felt a little troubling. It felt like cheating by sweeping the tragedy under the rug. In that moment, to me, it felt like we were giving ourselves an excuse to ignore the suffering and get back to our little academic task – whatever it was.
From our privileged point of view as students in that classroom, praying was convenient. It would have been harder to actually stand up, go, and do something: fix something. But we didn’t do that. We prayed and went on studying.
You may know what that feels like, especially at this time of year when various charities hit everybody up with hopeful phone calls and send hopeful letters. Those charities (the church does it too) know about human nature. People have strong senses of compassion, guilt and pride, and it’s easy to appeal to those senses. We all know the drill:
1. Poor suffering people. 2. You aren’t doing anything about it. 3. You can fix the problem if you act now. Compassion, guilt, pride. This is a powerful brew of human emotions to use if you’re trying to get people to do something. It works.
A heady brew indeed. We students of Biblical Greek felt its power that day of the earthquake. We all feel it tugging at us when we hear the Salvation Army bell ringing at the supermarket. At about the 50th phone call from a charity solicitor, we rebel and stop answering the phone.
Can I exaggerate a bit to make a point? This same brew of human nature is what drives our pre-Christmas commercial hoop-la. Compassion, guilt, pride.
My loved ones deserve nice presents. I gotta finish my Christmas shopping — I gotta stick to my budget. Look at me! I got a great deal at a doorbuster sale.
All this gets me to wondering. What is it like to be the one we’re compassionate about? On a silly level, does my spouse really want that wide screen TV set I scored for her at 5:30 am?
On a more profound level, I wonder what was it like to be those folks in Professor Sze-kar’s home town after the earthquake? I wonder: did they feel a need to be rescued?
We spoke the Magnificat together a few minutes ago. That’s the song of a young woman in dramatic need of real compassion.
What was it like to be in her position? Let’s try to imagine that. She’s a poor teenager. She’s engaged to a decent guy, but not yet married. Her people live by a strict historic purity code. She lives in a land that’s overrun by the occupying Roman army. And, she’s pregnant. Her explanation for her pregnancy is, how can we put it? hard to believe, unique, supernatural. She must have been in very serious trouble in her culture.
I wonder how she dealt with that? Two thousand years later, we have the privilege of hearing her inward prayer:
My soul magnifies the Lord. My spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant. From this day all generations will call me blessed: the Almighty has done great things for me, and holy is his Name.
Surprise! She isn’t feeling sorry for herself! We don’t hear angry regrets. She isn’t thinking poor-me thoughts. She isn’t praying prayers of despair in the stereotypical way we think unmarried poor mothers should.
She’s full of hope for her own life, the life of the child growing inside her, and the life of the world. Still she’s no stoic. She doesn’t simply accept the fate of one oppressed. Her prayer is full of confidence that things will get better for the generations of her people to come, at the expense of the kings, and the rich folks, the occupying Roman army and their collaborators.
She’s full of compassion for her baby and her people. That puts her in the company of lots of mothers. She’s full of fierce and confident pride: she knows the power of the promise the LORD made to her people ages ago, and she knows she’s bringing that promise life and birth. She surely knows what Isaiah promised to the people of Judah centuries before:
The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon [her], because the LORD has anointed [her];
he has sent [her] to [bear] good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted.
The spirit of God has filled her human nature — she has the same compassion, guilt, and pride as the rest of us – and transformed it. By the spirit of God she’s transcended her really sketchy personal situation. She possesses God’s own compassion and God’s own pride, but no guilt. She’s waiting with joy for her baby’s birth, and with a marvelous lack of anxiety.
Her witness of confidence can transform you and me. We too are waiting for her baby’s birth, and waiting for his reign of justice and mercy to fill the world. We know the world is waiting for his reign.
Can we live the way Mary does in her time of waiting? Can you and be as ferociously proud of God’s compassion and peace as she is?
We can indeed. When power of the Holy Spirit breaks in on our human nature, breaks in on our heady brew of compassion, guilt, and pride, we too are set free to live in God’s realm. With that freedom comes the ability to serve and be served with complete joy. We gain the ability to be God’s hands and heart for the life of the world.
Professor Sze-Kar’s home church has rebuilt their building. They’re stronger than ever, and building for the future. Our God of mercy has answered our tentative students’ prayers, and the prayers of many others around the world. He seems to have given us wise advice: we can all pray with confidence and pride.
How do we invite the Holy Spirit in to change us? We follow Paul’s advice and Mary’s example: “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances.”
For this is indeed the will of God in Christ Jesus for us.
Jesus asked the crowd:
“Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” They said to him, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.” (from the Gospel of the day, Matthew 21:33-46)
“Put those wretches to death!” That was not the answer Jesus was looking for. So he gave his own more complex answer about the wonderful workings of God, who does not kill those who oppose divine ways, but rather looks for every opportunity to transform them into friends.
And our second lesson (Philippians 3:4b-14) is written by a man whose life story is evidence of just that. Before he was Paul, he was Saul. He was a well educated and highly ambitious young Pharisee who, the Book of the Acts tells us was violently determined to put an end to the followers of Jesus.
But one day, on the road to Damascus that all changed. Taking an image from our Gospel, one could say that on that Damascus Road, Paul fell on the cornerstone of Christ and was broken to pieces. The person he was – Saul the impeccably credentialed Pharisee – was broken open and Paul, follower of Christ Jesus, emerged. I refer you to chapters 8 and following of the book of the Acts of the Apostles for the achingly difficult details of this transformation.
The beauty of the story is that Saul, who worked against God’s purposes, was transformed – or one might even say resurrected – and became known as St. Paul, our patron saint. His good news is that the pain of being broken open can be survived and great power can come from it. That is true for us as individuals, but also as a faith community. St. Paul shows us that God’s call can sometimes require that we let go of things as they have always been, and embrace the uncertainty of what God wants to put into our hands in the future. On that Damascus road, Paul lost his vision – he was blinded by the light of Christ. But gradually he received a new vision from inside the community of the followers of Jesus.
New vision is the gift Paul was given, and new vision is the gift I believe we are receiving right now, as St. Paul’s Church. Over the last year we have celebrated 300 years as a parish. And we have not just celebrated, but also, through a series of forums and Bronson deStadler’s history minutes, we have come to feel connected to those who have passed this parish down to us. The are most certainly not just names on a plaque or on a gravestone, but we know them as friends, and we see how who they were is related to who we are here and now as St. Paul’s Church.
Just as importantly, alongside those celebrations or our heritage, our Holy Conversations Team has led us in thinking about where God is calling us in the next chapter – led us to ask, who are we called to be as a parish in the next 300 years, or at least in the next 3-5 years. All of this looking back and looking forward has resulted in a rich vision for the future. .
In the next several months the Vestry will be sharing with all of us the results of the Holy Conversations report and the strategic plan that will be arising out of it. This morning I want to tell you a bit about what I perceive that vision to be. When I look ahead to the next 3-5 years of our parish life, I see a church that builds on the incredible strengths already present, and responds to the needs of its members and the world around it.
I see a church:
- Where the story of each person is held as sacred, and is known.
- Where common questions are, “Where have you been? What brought you here? What are you longing for? What do you hear God calling you to be as part of this parish?”
- Where through knowing each other’s stories we see how God has already provided all that we need to be Christ’s compassionate hands in the world.
I see a community of faith:
- Where we rejoice in the heritage we have received in this place and marvel over how God continues to write our history by way of each person God draws through our doors.
- Where members are bursting at the seams to tell others our common story so the spiritual riches we find here can be theirs too.
- Where we spend time, talent and treasure on getting the word out broadly in our community through many avenues from word of mouth to the media.
I see parish that cares about and is connected to:
- the neighborhood it sits in;
- the diocese it is a part of ;
- the nation whose roots are so intertwined with its own;
- And the wild and beautiful global village that needs its care.
- A parish that shows care in meals served here weekly and funds sent overseas to assist our brothers and sisters in distant lands
I see a church that has its fingers on the pulse of the larger culture and is not hesitant to try new things:
- where we combine contemporary music and liturgy with the best of our traditional forms resulting in an alchemy of worship that catapults us all into the deeper into the presence of God
- where we stretch ourselves to appreciate song and prayer that are held dear to the hearts of those sitting in the pews around us
- where shifts in the ways individuals and families live are understood and honored, and seen not as roadblocks but as opportunities of new ministry
- where leaders are willing to wonder about and pursue ways of being church in a highly digital world so that members and visitors can regularly connect to church even if they cannot come through the doors every Sunday.
I see a parish:
- where generations blend and blur as we pray, serve, learn and follow Christ together (and we saw this just recently at the parish homecoming picnic)
- where sometimes elders lead and young ones follow, and sometimes the young ones lead and the elders follow
- a church that knows anyone of any age is called to live out their baptismal covenant in daily life. A church which provides real, deep and meaningful education and support for all ages in doing that
- where we spend time and money to provide as many growth opportunities as we can.
I see a community of faith:
- that does not make all of us happy all the time, but which we are nonetheless deeply thankful to be members of.
I see a church:
- where significant differences can live side by side, united in the conviction that Christ has called each of us to this place.
I see a parish:
- that knows it has shortcomings, and dares to pray for grace to overcome them.
I see The Body of Christ:
- where we are challenged when we are too comfortable, comforted when we are too challenged, and where we receive new eyes to perceive resurrection continually unfolding among us.
I hope I have listened well to all of you and that this is not just what I see but at least in part what you see too. If you did not hear your vision in what I have just shared, I urge you, in fact I beg you, to speak to me or to one of your Vestry members and let us know what you think is missing. This vision of ours will be honed and tested among us in the coming months.
But this morning, I need to ask that each and every one us to prepare to join in the hard work of making this vision a reality. It will require time, talent and significant financial support from all of us.
The Vestry joined me on Monday night in affirming a proposed budget for 2012 that includes initiatives that begin to embrace this vision. We have increased our line items in the music and liturgy section of the budget to reflect the broadly agreed on need to buy new, more contemporary music resources. Some funds have also been added to allow me and our music director to pursue training as we continue our work of expanding our worship life.
In that proposed 2012 budget we have also included funds to bring Ollie Jones on as a 15 hour a week Assistant Priest. His good work among us this year as a partner in discernment has been felt broadly among us, and especially among our youth and their families. This month he has launched a youth forum to meet at 9:15 each Sunday. We need to continue to deepen this work, and hiring Ollie will be a much needed strategic move in that direction.
This week you will be receiving our annual stewardship mailing which will give you all the information you need to join in making our forward vision take flight. To do so will we need to significantly increase our pledge income across the board. The theme therefore of our campaign is “step up your pledge”. I am personally raising our family’s pledge by 25% and I invite each of you to consider doing so as well. I realize that some will be able meet that challenge, some will be able to exceed that challenge, and some will be able to do less, but still in a faithful way. The important thing is that we all make a sacrificial gift. This is my rule of thumb – you know it is a sacrificial when it hurts a little. If we all give this way, we imitate God’s extravagant goodness to us and we place our vision within our grasp.
We have so much to give thanks for at St. Paul’s, and so much to look forward to as we embrace a vision that I believe God is providing through all of us! Thank you for your generosity and your prayerfulness as we undertake this stewardship campaign.
In the name of Christ Jesus our Cornerstone name. Amen+
Our spiritual formation program for children, the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, needs you to help out! If you can spend time with our children on Sunday mornings between 9:15 and 10:30 or so, please consider being part of this important part of our congregation’s ministry.
If you can commit to serving every Sunday or every other Sunday for a month or two, that would be a real gift to our children and our catechists. Please speak to Jenn Mansfield or Rector Martha Hubbard.
Here is an introduction to this service. How to be an atrium assistant for the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd