Monday, December 24, 2012

The waiting is over

Our priest has spent the last couple of days sick with the flu, so in order to ensure that she was well enough, I wrote the backup sermon. Because if I write it, I won't need it. So, this is what is not getting preached at my church for our late service.

Welcome to Christmas Eve. Or, rather, Welcome to the Feast of the Nativity of Our Lord, the beginning of the Great Feast of Christmas.

Some of us are more about the Great Feast and the twelve days of Christmas than others...It's currently serving as my excuse as to why some people are getting their presents a little later than tomorrow morning. Fair is fair, I was told that someone else was “Going Orthodox” about presents since it didn't look like it was going to make it by mail in time.

But now is the space of time where we breathe. The shopping is done, and gifts are either here or not. The presents are wrapped and under the tree. Santa will show up this evening to fill the stockings. You're as prepped as you're going to get until tomorrow. Your family is here, or will show up to feast in the morning or the afternoon and there is nothing you can do about the stressful parts until the dawn.

Tonight – tonight we breathe.

Tonight we remember.

The waiting is over. The white candle is lit. Christ is born!

People like rituals. We like routine. Making our coffee in the morning is a ritual. Thanksgiving dinner is a ritual. And this gathering of people is one of our greatest rituals, that binds together the church universal. All over the world this night people gather in churches and chapels and homes and read this short little story – about a babe, lying in a manger, because there was no room in the inn. Amidst war and peace, fear and joy, this quiet reading reminds us that two thousand years ago, a child was called Emmanuel, God With Us.

The incarnation is the greatest gift ever given. Imagine willingly taking on the messy, illogical, chaotic, and limited form of a human baby. A wet diaper is no fun, even if you're God. An infant is essentially helpless, and the “fully human” part of the equation meant he couldn't just skip past that bit. God, creator of the universe, chose helplessness, chose to feel pain. It's part of what shapes us and defines us, our childhoods. Sure, He could heal a skinned knee or a sprained ankle as soon as they happened, but getting injured hurts in the first place. And He chose to feel sorrow, because when someone died, he was here and they...were not.

God also chose to feel happiness. And exultation. For the first time, He could celebrate with people. He could hug them close or swing them around or play silly party games at the festivals that He had decreed. He who created the sun and the earth and the to have a drink with friends.

Incarnation was a choice, and Christ chose us. A short three months from now, we will gather again, to celebrate the results of that choice, a journey that took him thirty years. But those thirty years were human, a set of limits on the limitless one. And tonight, we remember and rejoice in that decision, in the knowledge that a helpless child will grow up and become the savior of the world.

We gather together as people are doing everywhere, and sing Silent Night. And we will light candles, for the light of the world has come among us, and that light grows as passed from person to person throughout the earth.

And we remember. Tonight, the waiting is over. Christ is born!

Sunday, November 4, 2012

At the table of the lord

Episcopalians did the unthinkable this morning: there was *applause* for the offertory anthem. Choir is seriously kickin' it. I need to figure out some of the vesting issues, including taking up some robe hems for our shorter members and acquiring more belts.

I'm teaching Nehemiah for this six week segment. It's been really interesting - I have a fabulous study I'm working from looking at leading projects biblically, esp in a church setting. We're having a really good discussion every week, and this morning we semi-diverged from the topic (Resolving Internal Conflicts) to over-arching goals. What are our goals as a community? What is the specific burden placed in the heart of this parish? Who are we supposed to be to each other?

As a church, we have a vision statement. We are to be Christ's presence in the community.  What does that mean? What does that look like?

What are we supposed to do when someone's behavior doesn't look like that?

Because we are Episcopalians. We are the people of the broad theology and the accepting nature and the constant politeness. How dare we judge? And it's so much easier to be passive, to not call someone out, to not say, "No. That's not right." I do it. It's 'picking my battles'. But that's not what I'm called to do, not with my brothers and sisters. I am called to be active, to not just let things slide. I am called to say, "Are you sure?" right along side "Can I help?" and "What is best?" Sometimes, rarely, I must say, "I don't think so," or the dreaded, "Stop. No. That is not right." It's not my job - I am not their clergy. But I am their friend. I am their sister in Christ. I am also tasked to help others be the presence of Christ in the world, and sometimes that task requires breaking the comfortable silence and not letting things just...go, when that damages the world's perception of the church. Or when it damages them.

These are people with whom I share a Table.  In the midst of all our lives, the presence of that shared meal is important, because it requires me to care. It enjoins me to open my heart and mind and ask the hard questions...and truly listen and hear the answers.

This morning's communion anthem has very quickly become a favorite. I hear in it the sound of a call, of a reminder that part of what it means to be a Christian, is to come to the table, to be fed, renewed, and made one, the body of Christ. It's up to us, to be the visible work and community of God in the World.

Friday, November 2, 2012

To Conquer Death

Isaiah 25:6-9, Psalm 24, Revelation 21:1-6a, John 11:32-44

When you have had a year of death, coming around to the readings for All Saints is like another punch in the face. Because chances are, the last time you heard these scriptures was at a funeral. And while they are supposed to be there to give comfort, that those we love are not separate from us forever, it's a reminder that they're gone now. And that's hard. The reading from John, while often cited as “see, Jesus raises people from the dead!”, when it is in this context, makes my inner 5 yr old want to ask, “but why didn't He do that for Grandma?”

This is supposed to be full of joy, and I just can't get there. I get the concepts of the great feast and the holy city and the coming of God to dwell with His people. And these are good things, things to be celebrated, to be greeted with loud hosannas and songs of praise. Knowing my grandmas, one has baked a pie and the other cooked some asparagus for that feast, because it's not right to just show up without bringing something! Their certainty is my certainty, that we will see each other again in a day to come. I hold to that, in the darkness, that there will come a day when death itself is no more, and all our tears wiped away.

Doesn't mean I don't miss my grandma.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

My teacher, let me see again.

Proper 25: Job 42: 1-6, 10-17 Psalm 34:1-8 Hebrews 7:23-28 Mark 10:46-52
It's about seeing. It's about sight. It's about the Lord opening the eyes of the blind and the blindered.

Sometimes, the hardest challenge is being willing to look. We describe many things as “eye-opening” experiences. Often, the other adjectives are “sobering” and “world-changing” and that's scary. Even in a situation that is horrible, you often know the boundaries. It becomes comfortable, a known quantity, and it's easy not to look beyond where we find ourselves, because it's a strange world out there. It may be better, it is often worse, it is always different. Change, in perspectives, in realities, in the perspectives of reality, of someone else's reality...that's hard, shifting out of the world we know so well. It will leave marks, visible or invisible. It's a choice.

People say there are things that one can't unsee, but that's not true. Memory is subject to will, and the choice to forget, to ignore, is present. We watch people do this every day; the boss who does not see bullying, the person who walks right past a beggar. We can choose our blinders, to narrow our perspectives down to what is acceptable, what will fit with the world we want to know. There is a burden on the Christian, though, to not do that. God opens eyes, and it's our duty to not close them again. The world is our stewardship, we must see it as it is in order to put it back in order. That means feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, caring for the sick, and it means if we can do nothing else, we have a responsibility to see, to acknowledge, to know, because it is someone else's reality, even when it is not our own. That's scary, that's strange, and that is the choice we have, because to see often creates another burden, one on our hearts, to change the status quo, to make the impossible possible. It will drag us out of our comfortable world, where the boundaries are known, into somewhere, something else, and once you start to practice seeing, it becomes difficult to stop.

 Remember, though, to not use the other set of blinders, the ones with the wider range of view, but only of the negative things. Despair follows, for the world is full of things about which to wail and sorrow. But God enjoins us to also see the good things – the bright fall day, the perfection of a child's smile, the joy of people in love. Seeing is a skill, it is a duty, a responsibility, a joy; the gift of God, sight to the blind.

 Taste and see that the Lord is good.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

liminal spaces (redux)

A good friend of mine is often heard to say, “People make better walls than doors,” when someone is blocking the only passage between spaces. It's a habit that we've all watched happen – humans tend to like to stand in doorways or hallways. It's like we're cats, but with the attraction being spaces between places rather than sunbeams.

Transfiguration Sunday is about being between – between the joy that is Epiphany and the sorrow of the onrushing Lent. Thresholds are by their nature both concrete and immaterial. The readings this morning emphasize this balancing act, the presence of liminal spaces within our lives, and show the importance of spaces not entirely of one type or another – crossing points between us and God.

As much as walls, rivers are a boundary, and it takes special conditions to cross. It's one of the miracles of Elijah that he just creates the proper conditions, separating he and Elisha from the fifty prophets who followed them. They could not smack the water with their cloak and have the waters halt and part. It is part of Elijah's holiness and part of his legend, to be like Moses and cause the waters to allow him to walk on dry land through the middle of a river. God creates the space, stopping the water and making the earth to be solid, and Elijah walks*. The two are still walking when God creates a boundary, the famous chariot of fire, that comes between Elijah and Elisha. At this point it is Elijah who exists in liminal space, no longer of the earth, but not yet of heaven, caught up in God's whirlwind of air, and Elisha who cannot cross the wall God has created. It's good biblical storytelling – four verses and mastery of four elements, crowd of witnesses and sole witness. It's also more than that – As I've said before, my God is a god of the spaces between.

The mountain of the gospel is also a space not entirely of one thing or another. High points have long been mediation zones between men and God – before the temple was built in Jerusalem, there were altars on mountains and hilltops all over Israel. And that makes sense. If your concept of heaven, of God, is “up there in the clouds,” the higher you get, the closer you are to God. The stories of Moses and Ten Commandments, Abraham and Issac, etc., just reinforce this particular theme. The Temple itself was built on top of a hill, as Jerusalem was built around it. So Jesus goes up to this liminal space, where feet are on earth, but the rest is in heaven. We know this is heaven because Moses and Elijah show up. Arguably, all three of the prophets on that hill were just those sorts of liminal beings – interfaces between the word and will of God and his people on earth, being born or transformed by the presence of God to be not of either while on earth. They were living thresholds, doors between mundane and divine. With their presence, they reinforced the old theme – the boundary between the seen and unseen, between God and man is thinner in such places. Peter wanted to create structures to mark this liminality, to set aside a space to say “here, this place is sacred, where the wall between God and Man has a way through.”

The purpose of churches, of any sacred space, is to thin those boundaries. There is no difference between a house, a church, or a shack, when it comes to “God is in this place.” However – churches are built to be liminal spaces, a place between the mundane, every day world and God, where the two can meet more easily. Not every church or sacred space has this quality, and none of them have it all the time. Roofs leak, heaters break, people argue, the outside world intrudes into the sacred. But there is a reason such places are “set apart”, not entirely of this world, not truly of another. We need these spaces that make hearing God a little easier. These are Sanctuaries in the old sense, a place of safety where not only the walls between heaven and earth are thinner, but also other walls – those that we've built ourselves, between us and God, between our perceived selves and our real selves. Churches are crossing points, creating doors in impenetrable structures, creating a way forward where there was none, or illuminating the proper path at life's crossroads. And while all these things can happen in places that aren't sacred, because God is everywhere in all things, it's a little bit easier in the space set apart for just that sort of communication with God.

* For me, the note about dry land is just as impressive as 'parts the waters'. It's a river bottom – the mud left behind when the water stopped would make crossing nearly as impossible as if the water still flowed.