Who Does Christ Want to Be for You?

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Who Does Christ Want to Be for You?

The Rev'd Stephen C. Holton
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
Christmas Day
December 25, 2017

When I was a kid we had a great Christmas album that I loved to play.  It was vinyl, warm, and only a little scratchy and poppy with the years of wear--no wonder, since I’d often just set it on repeat so that I could hear Bing Crosby, over and over again, singing Christmas favorites like “I’ll be home for Christmas,” “White Christmas,” “O come all ye faithful,” and, of course, with the Hammond organ and a choir of backup singers crooning behind him, “Silent night.” 

I loved that album--maybe you do, too--it’s been around since 1945, so lots of people have heard Crosby’s take on these holiday favorites. 

Somehow between “White Christmas” and “I’ll be home for Christmas” my young mind internalized the idea that, indeed, Christmas was a time that you were supposed to be at home--wherever or whatever home might mean for you--and for me, that meant being with my parents, at their house.  I couldn’t imagine ever being anywhere else.

Many decades later, I realize “I’ll be home for Christmas” was about American GI’s longing to be home--home from war, home for Christmas--just back home.  But as a child it was pretty much a directive for me, an early imprinting.  I’ll be home for Christmas! Of course I will!  And I can pretty much guarantee that, at some point in my young adulthood, my mother said, “It doesn’t matter where you live, as long as you come home for Christmas.”  

I’ll bet that lots of you here today have come home for Christmas--or wish you could be home--however you understand home.  You’ve come here with parents and grandparents because that’s what you do at Christmas--you spend time at home with your family; you go to church; you’re home for Christmas because you love one another.

Or maybe you wish you could be home; perhaps you mourn loved ones who are gone, or you long for a place that is home, or loved ones to go home to.  Our experiences of love, of place, of home, may be different.

But for me, the message I internalized from those songs--a message of obligation--thou shalt be home for Christmas--has, as I’ve gotten older, turned into something more like a message of invitation.  I’ve realized that what Bing Crosby was crooning about was a longing, a desire, to be with people--to be with the people we love.  That my mother’s insistence, “It doesn’t matter where you live, as long as you come home for Christmas”--that expression was just a desire to be together--a longing to spend time, to be with one another, to share the love that parents bear for their children--the love that children feel for their parents.

We’re made for community; we long to be together.  And, often, that’s made even clearer around the holidays--a time when we slow down, when we focus on community, on peace, goodwill.

No wonder.  After all, the whole message of the birth of Jesus, the whole message of the incarnation, is that God has come to dwell among us, as one of us.

We know that, right?  We say it every Sunday as part of the creed. We’ll say it again today.  “For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven: by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man.”

We heard it in the gospel lesson, the same reading from Saint John that we’ve heard at the end of mass each Sunday in Advent:  “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”

But are we hearing it?

Are we hearing in this doctrinal truth, in this scripture, in this Word, the enfleshed reality of our lives?  That God wants to be with us?  Not only at Christmas but always?

Here’s a story that helps me gauge how willing I am to receive the gift of the Incarnation.

It’s a story told by Father Martin Smith, former monastic and now secular clergy.  Fr Martin leads lots of retreats and has had many folks in spiritual direction, and this is a story about a retreat he led.

During the retreat a cleric asked to meet with Fr Martin for spiritual direction, and Martin gave him an exercise.  He said to the priest, I want you to go away and pray--spend the day thinking and praying on this one question:  Who does Christ want to be for you, just now?[1] 

The priest dutifully went away and meditated and prayed  and read scripture and walked in the woods.  We’re a task-oriented bunch of folks, the clergy.  He did the thing he’d been told to do!  And later that evening he came back to Fr Martin to check in.

So, what did you learn? What did you hear?  Martin asked.  The priest had conscientiously made a list--things he could work on.  Well, Father, the priest began, I think Jesus wants me to work on being a better husband.  Taking my day off, spending time with my family.  I think he wants me to take my retreat days, to read more, to spend more time in study of scripture and sermon preparation.  I think I can visit the sick more often, spend more time with those in need… And it was about that time that Martin interrupted the earnest man. 

Stop, just stop! he said.  You misheard the question.  I didn’t ask what you can do for Jesus.  I didn’t ask who Christ wants you to be.  I asked you who Christ wants to be, for you.  Who do you want Jesus to be for you, just right here, right now?

Martin says that he asks those questions all the time now.  And that people really struggle to answer.  They default--I’d default--to what they can do.  It’s hard for them to think about what Jesus wants to do. What they want Jesus to do.  Who they want Jesus to be for them.  Who Jesus wants to be for them in that very moment.  In their very lives.

It’s hard for us, in our great struggle to be competent, to be successful, to be effective, or just even to be relatively good at something--or even good to one another--it’s hard for us, in our striving, to just stop, to stand still, and to realize that God has already done the thing that God wants.  God has already done the thing that we long for.  That God just wants to be with us, full stop.  No explanations.  No machinations.  Only acceptance.

We are already home for Christmas, home in the presence of Christ in the sacraments.  Home in the presence of Christ in this, his Body, the Church.  Home in the hope, in the joy, in the love of God’s own self-offering.

Will we receive that gift?  Will we recognize God’s love in it?  God’s longing--God’s own longing for us?  Will we receive God’s longing for us, without strings, without trying to earn it, or deserve it, or do anything to merit it?

For when we truly recognize the love that God has for us, that’s when we’re changed.  That’s when we’re freed to respond with love--love for God and neighbor, love for all Creation.

But it begins here.  In the Incarnation. In receiving that great gift.

Who does Christ want to be for you? 

He wants to be with you.  Right here, right now.  And always.

The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.

O come, let us adore Him.

 


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That's What Christmas is All About, Charlie Brown

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That's What Christmas is All About, Charlie Brown

The Rev'd Stephen C. Holton
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
Christmas Eve - Solemn High Mass
December 24, 2017, 10:00 p.m.

Tonight on Christmas Eve we hear again the story of the angels, the angels who announce the birth of Jesus ,the Christ Child, in the manger at Bethlehem.

At 4:30 this afternoon the children helped us build the crèche which you see behind you, the visual representation of our collective memory, helped out by Saint Francis and early writings, of what things might have looked like when Jesus was born to Mary, right there in the manger.  We’ve laid the figure of the infant in the crèche this very evening, in procession, and we’ve prayed.  And I hope you have in your mind’s eye a picture of the reality of this event, the Word made flesh, Jesus come as a baby, into the world.  I love this part of Christmas--the crèche, the angels, the story.

But I confess to you that every time I hear that story read aloud, especially in the Authorized version, another image I have, a complementary image, is the one from the Charlie Brown Christmas Special from 1965. 

Do you know this television special?  It’s run, pretty much every Christmas, since it premiered in 1965.  The thirty-minute animated special, based on characters created by Charles Schulz, was a bold experiment for the CBS network and for the Coca-Cola Company and its ad agency, McCann-Erickson.  The network executives were nervous when they first saw the show: there was no laugh track; children’s voices exclusively voiced the characters and sang the music; a jazz soundtrack by the Vince Guaraldi trio accompanied what Charles Schulz himself called badly-drawn characters.  The sound was bad (by modern standards), the animation barely matched the dialogue.  It was rough and clunky.  And, to top it all off, the highlight of the entire show was Linus, the anxious blanket-wielding character of the comic strip, reading the passage we hear in tonight’s gospel, the angels announcing the birth of Christ.  [1]

The network executives were nervous.  McCann-Erickson were nervous.  But the time slot had already been reserved, and the quickly-drawn show was televised in what executives were sure would be a flop.  “This isn’t very good,” the ad man at McCann said when he saw the screening.[2]  With no way out, the network went ahead and aired.  And everyone was astonished when they realized that fully one half of all American households with television sets had tuned in that night.  The show was a huge success.  And it’s run every year since, without the corporate sponsorship.

If you remember the story line you might have some ideas about why the show was and is such an iconic hit.  Blockhead Charlie Brown, in his yellow shirt with zig-zag stripes, always gets everything wrong.  He’s down, massively depressed, about the commercialization of Christmas.  Everyone is making fun of him.  And yet, in the midst of this depression, he’s asked to direct the school Christmas play.

There’s music, there are costumes, and there’s a cast--there’s little for Charlie Brown to do but follow the script and tell the shepherds and angels where to go.  But there’s one little detail; he must get the Christmas tree for the set.  And, as usual, Charlie Brown can’t get it quite right.  He selects the smallest, the thinnest, the puniest little tree--one so small it can’t even hold itself upright when an ornament is hung on in. And so once again Charlie Brown is jeered; he can’t get anything right.  “What kind of a tree is that?” “Boy, are you stupid, Charlie Brown.”  “You’re hopeless, Charlie Brown.” “Everything I do turns into a disaster.  I guess I really don’t know what Christmas is all about.” And in his frustration and despair he cries out, “Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?”

And Linus comes forward to the center of the stage and says, “Sure, I can tell you what Christmas is all about.”

And he reads the passage from Luke that we heard tonight:

And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men. (Luke 2:8-14)

“That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown,” Linus says.[3]

Charlie Brown goes home, determined not to let his Christmas be spoiled by commercialism, but he’s still thwarted by the little tree.  Discouraged, he abandons it, but his friends come behind and decorate it.  And suddenly there is peace and goodwill; everyone admires the tree, and the cast of characters bursts into a rendition of “Hark, the herald angels sing.” 

It’s good that Charlie Brown escapes the commercialism of Christmas to find its true meaning.  And believe me, the irony is not lost on me that, ultimately, the first airing of A Charlie Brown Christmas was, in effect, a big commercial--sponsored by a multinational corporation at the direction of its ad agency.  Maybe it’s Vince Guaraldi’s score, but every time I watch it I come away with a warm, fuzzy feeling--that there can be peace on earth, and goodwill among all people--even the underdogs like Charlie Brown.

And that’s okay, I guess.  But it’s a little thin.  Like a commercial that makes me feel good about something--that might create positive associations with a product or brand.  Everything’s okay, I could walk away feeling after watching Charlie Brown.

But we know things aren’t okay.  Things weren’t okay in 1965.  Kennedy had been assassinated.  Vietnam was getting bigger.  The march from Selma to Montgomery for the Voting Rights Act, the Pettus Bridge Crossing, was in the minds of Americans and had been in the scenes of the media.  Things weren’t okay in Jerusalem at the time of Jesus’s birth.  Mary and Joseph were called there for a census, to be taxed, as part of the government of an occupied land.  If we believe Josephus, there was violent fighting among different factions within Judea.  And Matthew tells us that the Herodian government, pawns of the Roman empire, were so nervous about their tenuous hold on the crown that Herod would call for the execution of all infant males under the age of two when he found out that people were talking about this Jesus as a king.

Where is peace on earth, and goodwill among all people?  Good grief, Charlie Brown!

I mean to suggest that there is something more than a fuzzy, feel-good association with Charlie Brown, with Linus reading this story of the angels, with the story of Jesus in the manger, with all of it.  The passage that Linus reads is the bit about the angels announcing to the shepherds what’s happened.  The pith, the core, of the whole story.  Told by God’s own messengers--told by Linus--to the shepherds.

Why is the story told to the shepherds?  Think about them.  They are always outside, in the cold, with the sheep; they’re functionally homeless, at least for part of the time.  They don’t necessarily own the sheep; they’re likely watching them for someone else. They don’t control the means of capital production.  They’re laborers.  They’re sleeping rough.  They and the sheep entrusted to them are at the mercy of wild beasts and bandits.  They probably haven’t showered for days.  For weeks even.  They’re pretty unsavory.

And they’re vulnerable. 

And that’s who the angel appears to.  The very next humans to learn of the birth of Jesus, right after Mary and Joseph, are the shepherds.  Don’t be afraid, shepherds!  There’s good news!  There’s a new king!  A new anointed one!  A messiah!  He’s in Bethlehem, in a manger!  Hurry and go there!  And they did.  In their hope, in their expectation, they ran to Bethlehem and found the child.  It was true!  And then they went out and told everyone they met.

What would you think if a homeless person came and told you that the Saviour of the World had appeared to her, down on the New Haven Green?  Whatever you’re thinking, that’s probably about what folks thought when they heard the shepherds’ stories. 

And yet those were the messengers the Angel chose.  Those were the folks that God entrusted with the first news of God’s own Son, born into the world.  The angel didn’t go to the king or even to the emperor.  The angel didn’t go to the bankers or the analysts or even to the sages and academicians.  The message wasn’t sent to the beautiful, the wealthy, the lovely, the powerful.  The birth of Christ was announced to the shepherds first.  They were the first ones told of this good news.

Friends, there are a whole lot of people on the margins of our empire right now.  A whole lot of folks that, well, maybe feel a little like Charlie Brown.  There are lots of shepherds.  And the good news of this new king, of Emanuel, God with us, is for all of us--and especially for them.  For in the reign of the Kingdom of God, the reign of the Prince of Peace, everyone is beloved.  God has come among us--and the first to hear it are the shepherds.  If you’re feeling like King Herod, if you’re feeling like a shepherd, if you’re feeling like Schroder the pianist, on top of your game, or if you’re feeling like Charlie Brown, God has come to show God’s love for you.  Even in the midst of suffering or fear or anxiety, God has been born in a manger for you.

But God doesn’t show up only for you, for me.  God shows up for all of us.  Christian, Jewish, Muslim, even atheist; rich, poor, housed, homeless; powerful, weak, showered and street-worn.  God shows up for all of us.  But first he tells the good news to the shepherds, because they need to hear it most.

The good feeling, that warm fuzzy feeling I get watching A Charlie Brown Christmas is, at its core, a feeling of hope that even I could be loved.  The hope--the knowledge--that God who sees even our unloveliness loves us fully.  Loves us so much that God comes to be among us.  As one of us.  That God won’t let us go.

Charlie Brown’s world is changed when his friends decorate the Christmas tree he’s bought; when they show him just a little kindness.  What are we doing to love the shepherds among us?  How are we loving one another?  How is our government, our public policy, manifesting the values of love?  How is peace and goodwill, that little reflection of the kingdom of God, being exercised--and what’s our part in it?

You already know the story.  You’ve heard it tonight, you see it in the crèche, we’ll sing it in the carols and hymns, and we’ll receive it in the sacrament of Christ’s own Body and Blood.  God God’s very self has come among us.  How are we going to help tell that good news to the shepherds?  To you, and to me?

Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.
For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.  (Luke 2:10, 11)

That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.

I pray for you--I pray for us--a merry Christmas.

 


[1] For analysis of its contemporary reception, see Carrie Hagan’s article “The ‘Charlie Brown Christmas’ Special was the Flop that Wasn’t,” Smithsonian Magazine, December 9, 2015, accessed online at https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/charlie-brown-christmas-special-history-television-classic-cbs-180957490/ (last retrieved 12/23/2017)

[2] ibid.

[3] You can view the entirety of A Charlie Brown Christmas at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zXsAzBCaCPs (accessed 12/22/2017).  

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What Was Really Present?

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What Was Really Present?

The Rev'd Carlos de la Torre
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
Christmas Eve - Blessing of the Crèche & Sung Mass
December 24, 2017, 4:30 p.m

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Were animals really present at the Nativity? (And does it matter?)

This is the title of an article I read earlier this month written by Father John Alexander, Rector at Saint Stephen’s, Providence. Fr Alexander asks this question after surveying depictions of our Lord’s Nativity. From crèches to Christmas cards to Christmas carols and classic pieces of art, so many of these include animals as part of their Nativity story. However, in Luke’s Nativity passage, we don’t hear any mention of animals present at the birth of Jesus. No sheep, ox, or donkeys. Yes, we’re told that the angels rushed to visit the newborn child but no mention of their animals coming along with them.

So, where there animals present at the Nativity?

I don’t know, I wasn’t there... but I hope there were. I hope there were sheep, oxen, and donkeys. I hope there were camels, birds, and even dogs. Why not?

If you were to visit my parent’s apartment, you would notice that my mother’s Nativity scene includes dogs, llamas, and alpacas. What can I say, we’re from the Peru — the original breeding ground for llamas and alpacas.

I hope there were all kinds of animals and people, more than just the shepherds. I hope all of creation was made aware of ours Lord’s Nativity and present if at all possible, animals and humans alike, all present to see the glorious act we celebrate today — God became human.

If we really wanted to, we could go down a long list of the “what ifs” and various possible details of our Lord’s Nativity and explore their historical reality and presence. However, the reason for the season of Christmas, the reason for this day, regardless of who was present or not, is that God was and is present. In Bethlehem and here in New Haven. God became human and took on flesh.

Mary became the mother of God. Joseph became the guardian of the incarnate word. What was present at the Nativity was God’s very self. God’s very love made flesh in the person of Jesus.

Through the mystery of the Incarnation, God does not take on the form of a human or adopt some poor person’s body for a while, but takes on flesh becoming fully human just like us. Born from a woman, God enters the world as a newborn infant — fragile and vulnerable. In the Incarnation, God joins our humanity not merely the creator but as a participant in everyday life. Through the Incarnation, God shares in our joys and pains. In the blessings and challenges of this life. In moment of joy with friends and tearful moments of loss and pain.

In the Incarnation, God takes on flesh reminding us of the beauty in all of creation, yes, from animals to humans. Regardless whether they were really present at the Nativity.

As we celebrate this glorious day, whether with presents and great food or in prayer and song, let us remember the glorious act of God’s love. God took on flesh to redeem all of creation. Glory be to God on high. May you have joyous and merry Christmas!

Amen.

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Embodying the Birth

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Embodying the Birth

The Rev'd A.K.M. Adam
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
Fourth Sunday in Advent
December 24, 2017

But Mary was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.

In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit— Amen.

This time of year can be hard on lecturers in New Testament studies. Chestnuts are roasting on an open fire, Jack Frost nipping at your nose, Advent Prose being sung by the choir, and nobody really wants to hear about how there were either shepherds or magi at the Nativity, but not both, or about the number of magi there were, or about the lexicography of the Greek and Hebrew words for ‘virgin’. This season welcomes warm fireplaces, candlelight services, and a shared sense that everyone knows the story that begins this morning, and unfolds tonight at Midnight Mass. Even many otherwise-grouchy secularists succumb to the glamour of Nativitytide, and in many respects it is a good thing that these days offer the world a sense that this annunciation, this birth belong to the common knowledge of so many of the people around us: the common knowledge that the birth of Jesus, for which we wait with eager longing, was described in advance by prophets, and that this specific birth occurred among us in such detailed congruence with those prophecies that any semiliterate observer could tell that ALL THIS WAS ABOUT JESUS THEREFORE YOU MUST BELIEVE. Such a reading of Luke’s story — not even a ‘reading’ so much as a general perception — makes it more difficult to read how baffling the Annunciation’s message was to Mary, and more difficult to grasp her response of faith to Gabriel’s greeting.

We can easily enough imagine a Common Knowledge Mary responding to the archangel as if she had won the theological equivalent of the National Lottery. ‘Oh my goodness,’ she might say with a scrupulously minced oath, ‘can it be that I’m the one about whom Isaiah prophesied?’ ‘It’s about time to crush that ancient serpent’s head!’ She might pull from the folds of her robe a printed tract with a checklist of anticipatory signs, the better to know What To Expect When You’re Expecting The Messiah.

Luke doesn’t tell us that story. Mary, in our readings this morning,. doesn’t already know what Gabriel is talking about. Later tonight, she won’t say ‘Well, of course there are choirs of angels and a crowd of reverential agricultural labourers, duh!’ She won’t in a few years, scold Joseph, saying ‘Why were you searching for him? Did you not know that he must be in his Father’s house? Our Lady, recipient of an angelic revelation and explanation, treasured all these things and pondered them in her heart remains almost as uncertain as all the other characters who populate Luke’s Gospel.

In other words, in Luke’s words, ‘she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.’ And we, and the world, could enter more fully into Luke’s gospel were we to allow ourselves a higher degree of puzzlement as we observe more closely the unfolding of God’s ways walking through these closing hours of Advent with Mary.

For instance, if we were a little more perplexed by Gabriel’s message, we might show more patience to our Jewish neighbours and colleagues, to Abraham and his descendants forever, and to most of the rest of the world, who see no convincing reason to suppose that this bleak midwinter night differs from any other evening you picked out of a hat. Our Lady’s perplexity testifies to us that the meaning of Jesus’s advent is not simply transparent, to be read directly off the pages of familiar prophecies. With a greater appreciation for perplexity, we might be readier to recognise in tonight’s holy goings-on more of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages, to which the Apostle refers in our Epistle reading. Made more aware of our own proclivity to self-deception and misapprehension, we might be slower to scold sceptics and swifter to show sympathy to neighbours who find our devotion to Jesus as bewildering as Mary found the greeting from Gabriel.

Even more, though, we might find in perplexity an entryway, a permission to let our faith STEEP IN WONDER without jumping prematurely to dogmatic conclusions. In this morning’s reading from II Kings, Nathan receives God’s promise to David that David’s name will be made great, that he will be made the eponymous head of an everlasting dynasty — and the church affirms that these promises have been realised in Jesus. But God also promises David that Israel would be disturbed no more, that no evildoers would afflict them, that they would at long last have rest from their enemies — promises that sound more distant today than they might have even a few decades ago, and that look no closer to fulfilment now than in David’s own day.

And a short while ago we sang ‘Tell Out, My Soul’, Mary’s hymn of thanksgiving that she had been uniquely blessed by this extraordinary conception, that God had wrought a great wonder with her, and that generation after generation would remember her with reverent devotion. At the same time, though, she saw the proud scattered, the mighty dethroned, and the rich deprived; and she saw the humble and meek in power, the hungry amply fed. The daily news, though, suggests that wealth and privilege and surfeit have only been amplified, often at direct cost to the health and well-being of the muscles that build, the backs that bend, the bones that break, the bodies that burn out in burden-bearing. We misread Luke’s Gospel if we see in this morning’s lessons a message of prophecies gloriously fulfilled, without at the same time sharing Mary’s bewilderment when we see promises unfulfilled, dreams deferred so long that we need prophets to remind us that the promise of Jesus’s incarnation came along with promises of righteousness, healing, and nourishment.

This, too, we may hear from today’s lessons, for when Mary rejoiced at the greatness of the LORD, she did not simply congratulate herself for having been chosen as Miss Theotokos of 4 BCE; she did not tick off one from her pocket florilegium of messianic proof-texts. Mary’s response to Gabriel — her explicitly stated consent, her faith — expressed itself bodily, incarnationally, in LIVED TRUST that God would support her through the challenges to come.

Now, I’m a great one for words. I write with them; I exchange them with Margaret; I compose them into lectures and sermons. And the way that words help us navigate a complex world with exactitude can tempt us to think that if something doesn’t have words attached to it, then maybe it doesn’t count as much, and to think that maybe strictly verbal formulations of events and circumstances matter most of all, standing in pure ideal abstraction, purged of the messy details of intoxicating feelings, of awkward contingencies, fallible flesh. And yes indeed, Mary said, ‘Behold, the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word.’ Yet had she offered only abstract agreement to Gabriel without actually, you know, bearing this holy child in her womb, something essential would have been missing from the Incarnation — something such as ‘incarnation’ itself.

In a similar way, the promise that righteousness pour down from the heavens, that the mighty be relegated to the margins and the humble raised to authority depends not solely on our approval, saying ‘Yes, God, good policy decision there,’ but also on our living that way, bearing in our flesh the beginnings of a new way in the world without any certainty that we control what will happen next, that we will enjoy seeing how the story comes out, that we can shape our lives to sing Magnificat truthfully without it costing us anything. One of the consequences of Mary’s Yes, after all, was the sword that pierced her heart at the crucifixion; the promise to Mary comes to its fulfilment in ways that perplex us, that escape our expectations, that serve a purpose higher and holier than the devices and desires of our own hearts.

If that gospel lesson were common knowledge, if we said Yes bodily to the angels who call us daily to join in their adoration and obedience, we might sooner show the world a fulfilment of Mary’s vision in cleaer, more radiant light. We can bear in our flesh — indistinctly at first, haltingly, uncertainly — we can embody the birth an uncommon knowledge, holier and more glorious ways in life, offering to God our selves, our souls and bodies, fulfilling faith with our own words:

‘Here are we, the servants of the Lord; let it be with us according to your word.’

AMEN.

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Sermon for Advent III

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Sermon for Advent III

The Rev'd Matthew Larsen
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
Third Sunday in Advent
December 17, 2017

Asterius of Amasea was a bishop in the late 4th/early 5th century. He gave a sermon on January 1st, A.D. 400 against the New Year’s festival. He says we should celebrate Christmas, Stephen’s and all the rest, Epiphany, Easter, but not the festival of the Kalendae. Here’s why:

1.      This festival is not a feast at all

2.      There is no real friendship behind the presents.

3.      Everyone wants to receive presents. Those who give them are ill-tempered; those who received them, pass them onto more prominent people

4.      This festival brings about debts and personal grief

5.      Children become money-grubbers.

6.      City officials waste money on the festival and use it to acquire personal gain.[1]

Bah humbug. Sounds like he need the Ghost of Christmas Future to haunt his dreams for a bit to put him in the Christmas spirit.

No place where the Christian and secular calendars misalign more than the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas. The readings often grind against what counts as good holiday cheer.

Today’s readings are no exception. Our Old Testament reading, Isaiah 61, assumes a very specific type of readership and frankly only makes sense if you are oppressed, brokenhearted, imprisoned, and disabled. If you are one of those people, God’s word is indeed good tidings to you. God will heal your fractured hearts, set you free from your incarceration, restore your sight. If you are not, God’s retribution awaits, for God loves justice and hating people grabbing things that aren’t theirs.

John 3 contains one of the more haunting lines in scripture. Everyone comes out from Jerusalem to ask John, “Who are you?” He says “I am not the Messiah.” And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the prophet?” He answered, “No.” Then they said to him, “Who are you then?” He said, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’” as the prophet Isaiah said.

Then he tells them the words that I find so troubling: There stands among you one whom you do not know. The Messiah is here, rubbing shoulders with you, in the crowd, and you fail to sense his presence. You don’t see him, because you don’t know what to look for.

Luke 4 shows this to be true: Jesus is in his hometown. To everyone there, he is just regular old Joshua from the block (that’s how we would translate Jesus). Then he stands up to read and the attendant hands his a scroll of Isaiah. He reads Isaiah 61, just like our reader did today. Except at the end, he sits down and says, “Today this reading has been fulfilled in your ears.” (I am glad you didn’t do that, [name of reader])

Jesus was there, standing in the crowd, walking in the streets, asking for spare change, walking into our places of worship, before our eyes and we did not know it. When he appears, it surprised us.

It reminds me of Matthew 25, which is almost an advent reading, a pre-advent reading: There is a revelation about how ready we were to see Christ.

when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or naked and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’

But to the rest, he send them away, saying …

For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink. 43 I was a stranger and you did not receive me as a guest, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’  Just as you did not do it for one of the least of these, you did not do it for me.’

 

There stands among you one who do not recognize: Jesus Christ.

 

The work of Advent is preparing our hearts to discern Christ’s body. St. Paul tells us we are not to come to the Lord’s table, to Communion without discerning Christ’s body in the bread and wine. The Isaiah reading and John the Baptist’s words in the Gospel of John reminds us we are not to come to the Christ mass without preparing our hearts to discerning Christ’s body in the sick, the foreigner, refugee, the naked, and the imprisoned. In those whose vote is systemically oppressed, whose live lives in the threat of violence from those sworn to protect them.

 

Christ stands among us and, please God, give us eyes to see her, to see him.

 

We get ready to receive Christ we must learn to see Christ in the dispossessed, the disinherited. Not just to reach out a helping hand, but to identify with them. Which brings us back to the Isaiah reading: in order to hear the good news as good news, one must identify with the oppressed. James Cone put it this way: “By becoming poor and entrusting divine revelation to a carpenter from Nazareth, God makes clear where one has to be in order to hear the divine word and experience divine presence.” Preparing for Christmas in the end is not all about buying all the gifts, it “means that” (to use the language of Cone again) “your heart, your soul, your mind, and your body are where the dispossessed are.”

Let us prepare to meet the Christ child by aligning our hearts with the incarcerated, the paralyzed, the foreigner, the unloved. Because once we learn to see God’s presence in them, to see their presence among us as a gift to us, then we will be ready to meet God’s Word incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth.

 


[1] Summary adopted from C. Datema, Asterius of Amasea, Homilies I–XIV: Text, Introduction, and Notes (Leiden: Brill, 1970), 36.

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Counting Time like Counting Stars

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Counting Time like Counting Stars

The Rev'd Stephen C. Holton
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
Advent Sunday
December 3, 2017

Yesterday a merry band of parishioners, under the good leadership of the altar guild, the flower guild, and the subsacristan, spent the morning preparing the church for Advent.  We hung wreaths and arranged greenery in the windows and on the altars; the advent wreath was set out; silver was washed and altar frontals changed; some woodwork was repaired, and everything got a good sweeping.  (Every year at the greening of the church I am reminded how hard it is to sweep fir needles.)  Musicians have practiced and planned; service leaflets have been printed; acolytes have rehearsed; flower envelopes have been counted and recorded.  All week we’ve been preparing, planning, making ready for today--preparing for Advent, this season of preparation.  Of anticipation. 

We’re putting out the Advent wreath.  We’ll put out the crèche in only three weeks!  (It’s a short Advent this year.)  We’ll celebrate with carols services and parties and gift giving.  And all to prepare for, to celebrate, the birth of an infant--of the very Son of God--in Bethlehem, in a manger. 

Isn’t that what we’re preparing for?

And so you’ve come here this morning, expecting the smell of fresh greens, the cheer of preparation, maybe even some readings about John the Baptist, or Mary, or an angel…  And instead we hear this passage from Mark:

‘But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.  (Mark 13.24-25)

We hear omens of destruction and devastation, desolation even.  And we’re told to watch.  To keep awake.

While our downtown neighbors are putting up holiday decorations, even projecting a laser show of Santa Claus dancing on the tower of Christ Church so large you can see him down Broadway—while the world around us is celebrating--celebrating something, even if it’s not clear what--Christians are reading a passage about cataclysmic destruction at mass on Advent Sunday.  What’s going on, a reasonable person might ask.

The passages we read today from Isaiah and from Mark fall within the genre of apocalyptic--a body of literature that has in mind an epic upheaval and restructuring of the world.  It’s not limited to Judeo Christian thought, of course, but there is apocalyptic in our scriptures. Think of Noah’s flood, for example, an archetypal story of apocalypse.  The Revelation to Saint John the Divine exhibits aspects of apocalyptic.  The structure is something like this:  The world has become corrupt and evil, damaged and distorted.  There’s anxiety and suffering and the poor and dispossessed are calling out to be saved.  An outside divine force judges the world to be enters and, through destructive force, wipes away the powers of evil and reestablishes a new world order--a re-creation--where justice is restored.

Now the problem with apocalypse is that it’s violent, right?  We focus on the destruction.  We focus on the judgment. 

And we should be worried, shouldn’t we.  After all, we’ve seen what happens when humans take the idea of apocalypse into their own hands.  Consider the young Xhosa woman in the middle 19th C who, inspired by visions of her ancestors, prophesied that if the Xhosa people would only destroy their cattle that the spirits of the dead would rise up and drive the colonial British settlers into the sea, and that their cattle and crops would be restored--a destruction, and a restoration of justice.  Many of the Xhosa did indeed kill their cattle, and, in a sad twist, this crippling of their economy probably made it easier in the long run for colonists to settle and take over their lands.  The promised restoration never came, and the Xhosa cattle killings stand as a hard reminder of what apocalyptic vision looks like when humans take things into our own hands--when we try to manage, alone, the re-ordering of the world.

The utopian community known as Jonestown that Jim Jones and his followers built in Guyana was modeled on principles of justice and equality, but Jones’s own  untreated mental illness and heavy drug abuse fueled his paranoia.  He held residents there against their will, abused them, murdered legislators investigating his management of the community, and ultimately instigated a pre-emptive murder-suicide event that took the lives of almost a thousand people.  He staged his own apocalypse.  And innocent people were murdered.

It’s no wonder that we hear these promises of apocalypse and are nervous. 

But I’d submit to you that even in these apocalyptic visions there is hope.  For what we are celebrating in Advent, what we’re looking forward to, what we’re anticipating, what we’re preparing for this Advent Sunday, is not simply the coming of a baby--not merely the first coming of Jesus, born to Mary somewhere in Bethlehem.  That birth has already happened.  That child has been born.  That messiah has come, and by his very presence he has given hope to the world.

But the hope doesn’t stop there.  What we’re celebrating is not merely an historical event, a baby born two thousand years ago--but the promise that that Jesus, born as an infant, crucified as a man, raised, ascended, will always be with us.  That in fact, as we say each week in the creed, he will come again in glory to judge the quick and the dead and his kingdom will have no end.

That’s what the prophet is calling for, the breaking in of the divine: “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence” (Isaiah 64.1) or, in the old Authorized version, “Oh that thou wouldest rend the heavens, that thou wouldest come down, that the mountains might flow down at thy presence, as when the melting fire burneth, the fire causeth the waters to boil, to make thy name known to thine adversaries, that the nations may tremble at thy presence!” (64.1-2)

Rend the heavens, O God!  Shake up this mess that we’ve made of things.  For some of it is our fault, Lord.  And some if it has been visited on us--some of it we cannot control.  But we know we can’t fix it alone.  We can’t fix this ourselves.  Rend the heavens and come down.

And we hear that promise in the gospel of Mark, in the good news, that in the midst of this moment, as the sun and moon darken and stars fall and heaven shakes, that “they will see ‘the Son fo Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect fro the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.” (Mark 13.26-27)

The prophet isn’t calling for destruction of creation, only a wiping away of the great evil that has set it off course.  This apocalyptic language in Mark doesn’t promise destruction wrought against God’s people, but rather a salvation--a coming with power and glory--to re-order all things, to make all things new.  After the destruction, after the suffering, after the world has done the very best it can, that evil seems to have gained a stronghold, that the very foundations of the world have shaken, that we can expect that even the heavens will shake, and tear open, and God will make all things new once more.

That Christ coming isn’t merely a one-off, a one-time event, but is the event that changes everything.

Because we know that what we’re preparing for is not just the joy of the birth of a baby.  That’s a wonderful thing, and we will celebrate that.  We’ll build the crèche.  We’ll sing the carols.  We’ll revel in the joy and delight that is the promise of the Christ Child come among us. 

But right now, today, as we watch and wait, we know that there is evil, that there is suffering, that there is power that stands against the goodness that is God’s creation in the world.  We know the powers of greed, of racism, of sexism, of violence, of addiction, of lust--we know how firmly sin has gripped our lives and the lives of people around us.  How sin has battered and bewildered our society, our city, and our world.  And we stand here, in the earliest hours of Advent, and cry out, “Oh that thou wouldst rend the heavens, that thou wouldst come down..., that the nations wouldst tremble at thy presence.”

And we stand there, in that crying out, and we look, and we watch, and we wait, knowing the assurance of that very babe in the manger, of that very Word incarnate, of the very Son of God--that he has come, that he is, and that he will ever be.  We stand and wait and watch and know that he is coming again to judge both the quick and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.  We stand and wait and watch because we have hope.  Because we know that the evil of the world has no hope, no place to turn, no place to go.  Because we know that God is faithful.   We know that Jesus saves.

Even in the midst of darkness there is hope. A sure and certain hope.  A hope in Jesus.

In San Pedro Sula, Honduras, a city that’s gained the moniker “murder capital of the world” for the high per capita rate of violence and homicide, there’s an orphanage called “Our Little Roses.”  It’s not actually an orphanage; many of the girls have families.  But they’ve been sent there, placed there, in a group home so that they may have a better life.  So that they may be safe.  So that they may grow up to have a chance to become a beautician, a college student, a teacher--anything other than another statistic in the world of poverty, drugs, and violence that surrounds them.  A few years ago poet and Episcopal priest Spencer Reece spent some time there on a Fulbright scholarship.  He went to learn Spanish, but he returned to write poetry--not his own, but to help the girls learn to write their own--to find their own voices.  A documentary film has been made about Our Little Roses and Spencer’s time there with the girls; it’s called Voices Beyond The Wall: Twelve Love Poems From the Murder Capital of the World. I watched a screening of it last Tuesday.  But there’s also a book, Counting Time like People Count Stars[1], of the girls’ own poetry, their voices in their own words. 

One of the poems both the brokenness of the world--and the hope that we can find in God’s work of reconciliation.  The hope that we can find in Advent.

This is a part of a poem “Counting,” by a girl called Aylin, who’s 15.

Every week, every day, every hour, every minute, every second that I pass without my family it feels like a knife trying to get inside a rock.  I am the knife and the rock is my life.  So this is me, Aylin, and this is my difficult life without my family.  Some people think that living in a home for girls like Our Little Roses is a big blessing.  Yes, I say to those people, it is a great blessing but at the same time it is a curse.  Every night I start thinking and talking to God in my prayers: “Why, God, why did my family leave me alone?” There is no answer…Really all of us think the same thing that no one ever says: One day, will our mother come to visit us? …But God, listen to this:  I am counting the time like people count the stars and I will keep counting until my mother comes… When I graduate from college and when I am finally somebody in this world, God, I will go straight to Mexico where my mother lives and I will stare at her like I stare at the stars and with a voice that cracks like thunder I will say:  I FORGIVE YOU!  But for now, God, I am here, in Our Little Roses, counting.

Even as the very earth shakes, as we witness evil, and destruction, and anxiety, and fear, we stand here counting time like people count the stars, praying, O that you would rend the heavens, and come down.  And God answers, in the person of Jesus Christ--not once, not that one time in Bethlehem, but always. 

Friends, even in the midst of despair, there is hope.  In the voice of a young girl that cries out, “I forgive you,” there is hope.  In the presence of a babe in a manger there is hope.  In the one who comes on clouds with power and great glory, there is hope. 

I pray for you, I pray for us, hope this Advent.  Hope in the one who makes all things new.  Hope in the one who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

-----

[1] Spencer Reese, ed., Counting Time like People Count Stars: Poems by the Girls of Our Little Roses, San Pedro Sula, Honduras. San Fernando, CA:  Tia Chula Press, 2017 (dist. Northwestern University Press), p 103-104.

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The Least of These

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The Least of These

Mr Patrick Keyser
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
Last Sunday after Pentecost: Feast of Christ the King
November 26, 2017

“Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

It is an incredible gift and privilege to serve as one of your seminarians here at Christ Church this year. One aspect of this position that I am still getting used to is wearing a seminarian’s collar and the fact that wearing one immediately identifies me as a person linked with the Church, with religion, and with God. I’ve already had some interesting encounters, one of which happened a few weeks ago as I was preparing to go on a pastoral visit to the Saint Raphael Campus of Yale New Haven Hospital. The hospital is not too far from here, so I decided to park at Christ Church and walk the short distance to the hospital. It was a lovely fall afternoon, and as I tend to do when I am walking, I allowed my mind to wander as I began to think about tasks I needed to complete that evening and the following day. I was walking along Chapel Street in my own world until I was brought back to reality by a loud voice calling out, ‘Excuse me. Are you a pastor?’

Fear quickly set in. Not even knowing where this voice came from, I immediately thought, ‘I wonder what this person wants from me.’ In my hasty judgement I had quickly erected barriers that limited the possibility for any type of meaningful encounter. I had already pinned this person as someone who ‘needed’ something from me. I turned to find a woman approaching me. I took a deep breath and responded, ‘I’m studying to be one, yes.’ ‘That’s great’ she said. ‘Would you like to support the homeless of New Haven and buy a copy of the Elm City Echo? It has stories written by homeless members of the New Haven community, and the money goes to support the homeless.’

I immediately relaxed. I had passed individuals around New Haven several times who had asked the same question. Perhaps you have encountered them as well. I always intended to actually get a copy, but of course being a millennial who depends on paying for everything with a card, I never had cash. This day, for reasons unknown to me, I actually did have some cash. Remembering from earlier encounters that the suggested donation was $2, I pulled out my wallet and found a $1 bill and a $10 bill. Without even thinking I said, ‘Well I only have one $1 bill.’ Without missing a beat she asked me, ‘Well what about that $10?’ Feeling a bit embarrassed and caught in my own attempt to be deceptive, I decided I was perhaps clinging too closely to my money and handed over both bills. ‘I’ll even give you an extra copy to share with a friend,’ she told me. ‘Have a great day pastor!’ My new friend moved on, and I stood for a few moments on that street corner feeling certain that God was trying to teach me something. After a few moments standing on that street corner, I continued my journey to the hospital, now with two copies of the Elm City Echo in hand that I planned to explore later.

I later sat down and took the time to read through the entirety of the magazine, lingering over each story. I was immediately immersed in a world that I knew was foreign to me. Addiction, violence, sexual abuse, abandonment, and mental illness filled the pages. Each offering was a sacred gift, though. Each offering was the unique story of its author, and too many of these stories had never before been heard. One anonymous author shared some of the immense pain that had marked her life. Growing up in a dangerous neighborhood and having to deal with the separation of her parents at an early age, she writes ‘my life was drugs and violence. My life has been horrific.’ She continued by describing the tragic and senseless murder of her young son, which led her to a relapse into a life of drugs that lasted for two years. She then entered a rehab program and got clean. She wrote, ‘What caused me to leave the drug life was that I was simply sick and tired of being sick and tired. I was tired of being hungry and homeless.’[1] Another author shared his story in one short paragraph. ‘I would like to tell you a little bit about myself,’ he wrote. ‘I was born in New Haven…and have been through alot in my life- drugs, alcohol, and many other things…I had started using drugs when I was 23 years old. I became homeless and now I’m here trying to get housing again. I have given my life over to God. He has been good to me. Please pray for me.’[2]

Each story was a gift and a chance for someone to be seen and known who rarely had the opportunity to be either of those things. Each story was an invitation for me to see God moving in the world in mysterious ways. As I read, I was reminded how much I had shielded myself from so much of the world from my position of comfort and isolation within a Yale institution perched on Prospect Hill. Yet, even as I read these stories and realized how far removed I felt from this world, I was also overcome by the sense that we were all caught up together in a way I didn’t fully understand and certainly couldn’t deny. I don’t know personally the pain of addiction or violence, but I experience my own sense of isolation and pain. I began to see that I was not as far removed from this world as I first thought.

Each one of us is a sacred mystery. We all carry a story, many stories in fact. Look around you. I mean it. Really take a moment and look at those sitting around you. Each one of us carries joys, sorrows, pain, loss, grief. We live in an atomized world. Though we have access to technology that can connect us in ways never before possible, many of us feel more isolated than ever. We can easily connect and communicate with friends who live on the other side of the world, yet at the same time many of us don’t know the people who live and work alongside us each and every day. We have somehow lost sight of the fact that we are all interconnected and bound together in a mysterious but real way.

Today’s gospel passage has both a message of good news and a warning for us in this regard. ‘Good news in this passage?’ you might ask at first. The reality of judgement makes many of us uncomfortable, and today’s gospel speaks directly to this reality. We proclaim it every week when we join in the Nicene Creed and say, ‘He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.’ Yet, the topic of judgement brings to mind negative feelings, often guilt and shame, for many of us. Today I would like to offer a different view and suggest that this gospel message is actually an invitation into joy.

Today’s passage from Matthew’s gospel describes this moment of judgement. Jesus, the Son of Man, will come in his glory with all the angels and will take his place on his throne of glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the peoples as a shepherd separates sheep and goats. The criterion for this judgement is very simple. Those who feed the hungry, gave a drink to the thirsty, welcomed the stranger, clothed the naked, cared for the sick, and visited prisoners will inherit the kingdom, and those who failed to do these things will be led to the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. It is both simple and frightening. There is no other factor upon which the judgment is based besides the completion of these acts of mercy. I could stand before you today and simply exhort you to do these very things: feed the hungry, clothe the naked, welcome the stranger. These are indeed good and right things to do, and we as

Christians must be serious about doing acts of mercy and justice in this world. But it would be far too easy for me to leave it at that, because this passage invites us to much more.

While this story may at first seem to be quite simple, there is another layer that rests just beneath the surface. Though it’s easy to miss at first, this story is in many ways a profoundly sad one. When the king tells the sheep at his right to come and inherit the kingdom, they ask only one question: “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food?” They had missed the point entirely. They had been serving the king all along, but they did not even know it. Likewise those to the king’s left ask only one question when he bids them to depart into the eternal fire: “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty and did not care for you?” The question hangs in the air: When, Lord?

Jesus continues and in one of the most remarkable claims of the entire story he proclaims, ‘truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ In a mystical and mysterious way, Jesus tells us that acts of mercy and justice done to those who in need are actually works of mercy and justice done to Jesus himself. Both the sheep and the goats had missed the opportunity to serve Jesus, and in the process they missed the opportunity to experience the great joy that comes from serving God. How often do we find ourselves asking the same question: ‘When, Lord?’

Today I believe we are called to pay attention to this missed opportunity. The Christian life is fundamentally one marked by an abiding sense of joy. We are called into relationship with a God who loves us and wants us to know that love, and that is something to celebrate. That is indeed good news. Today’s gospel tells us that we can see Jesus all around us, if we only open our eyes to that possibility. We are promised that the world is dripping with opportunity to encounter the divine. This invitation calls us out of our atomized worlds in which we live as if we didn’t need others. It invites us to attend to the sacredness of each person we meet and each story we are given the gift of receiving, for each offers us the opportunity to meet our Lord.

Today we celebrate the coming of Christ’s reign as king. This king and this kingdom do not look like any we know in our world. The kingdoms of this world seek power and control, often through tyranny and repression. Our king is one who was mocked and spit upon and who died a humiliating death on a cross. This king is the one who overcame death and the grave, destroying death and opening for us the way to everlasting life. This king will come again in his glory to judge the nations. He comes to us in ways that are both familiar and comfortable and foreign and afflicting. This king comes to meet us in bread and wine day after day, and he also reveals himself through those who look and seem so different from us: the stranger, the convict, and the homeless drug addict. We meet this king in the holy sacrament of the altar and on the street corner. As we met Christ this day in the sacrament of his body and blood, I pray that we might be empowered to go forth from this holy place prepared to find him in the most unexpected places and in the most unexpected people. As we do that, I pray that we might experience the true joy that comes from serving God, and at the last that we might hear the voice of our God calling out, ‘‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.’

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

-----

[1] “The Hood,” Elm City Echo, Issue 13

[2] “My Name is Maychris,” Elm City Echo, Issue 13

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Talents

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Talents

The Rev’d Stephen C. Holton
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
Twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost
November 19, 2017

When I was a kid I had a summer job cutting grass for our neighbors.  I was used to mowing our lawn on our riding lawnmower--frankly, I enjoyed it--and so I was surprised to realize that other people who didn’t  like moving the lawn would actually pay me money to do it for them.  It was a great realization.  And suddenly I had a little cash as a result.

My parents took me down to our bank to open a passbook savings account.  If you’re older than about half of you here, if you’re my age, you’ll remember these accounts--at least at the George D. Warthen Bank of Washington County, a savings account had an actual passbook--a little book that you’d write deposits and withdrawals in--and you’d bring it in every time you visited the bank to make a deposit or withdrawal.  I was introduced to the miracle of compound interest--interest rates were much higher then--and I loved going to the bank.  It had cool air conditioning, and beautiful and clean terrazzo floors, and everything smelled like money--the metallic smell of pennies and the ink from dollar bills.  The tellers were patient and kind and I loved it when they stamped my passbook savings folio.  And they always gave me gum.  Chicklets.  The bank was a magical place back for a child back in the heady days of profitable retail banking.  I still love a good old-fashioned bank lobby, though much has changed for banking.

But what’s not changed is the sense that I learned, in those little ritual actions around that savings account, that saving money is a virtue--an important thing to do.  And so I get really concerned when I read the parable of the talents--when I hear that the person who’s taken the most conservative strategy, the third servant who just wants to protect the master’s wealth by burying it in the ground, is cast “into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (Matthew 25.30)  His portion is taken away and given to the one who earned the most.  “For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will haven an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.”  (25.29)

I don’t like the way this story turns out.  Shouldn’t the cautious, careful, saving servant be honored?  And if he now has less than the other two, shouldn’t he be given more?  Why should his portion be taken away? 

I’ve been thinking a lot about this story this week, especially as it might involve us, in this time and place.  And if you’ll bear with me I’d like to re-tell it, updated for our time and place.  This is NOT the gospel text, and I’ve taken lots of liberties with it, but sometimes seeing a story from another perspective can help us learn something.  Here’s a contemporary re-telling of the parable of the talents:

The kingdom of heaven is like this.  A very wealthy man is taking a trip around the world--it’s been a dream of his for years, and he’s finally doing it, but there are places that will be remote, and out of touch, places he won’t have cell phone and data service, and so his risk management advisers have told him that, to be safe, he really needs to divide up at least part of his wealth--to diversify its management--while he is away.  And so he calls in his closest in-house financial advisors--his money manager, his accountant, and his lawyer, and asks them to steward some of his wealth while he’s away.  The man thinks his manager is really clever, so he gives him 3 million to invest, all at the manager’s discretion, while he’s away.  He knows his accountant is very trustworthy but a bit more conservative, but she’s got some good ideas, and so he decides to give her 1.2 million to manage.  His lawyer is so honest, and he trusts him, but, the man thinks, he knows the law--not the financial markets--and so he gives him just over half a million to manage for him.  That’s almost five million dollars in today’s money--or, in the measure of the ancient near east, eight “talents” or 48,000 denarii, or days’ wages, to be managed by the three trusted employees. 

The man heads off on his journey, satisfied that, no matter what happens to the rest of his property, at least this part of his wealth will be well managed, available for him when he returns.

After many months, about a year, he returns to his home and calls in his employees, asking for an accounting of his five million.  The money manager is thrilled to tell him that he’s done a really exciting deal.  He’s funded a research trial for a new cancer therapy at Alexion in exchange for a guaranteed portion of the future earnings of the new medication.  The FDA has approved the therapy for use, and wouldn’t you know it, he’s doubled his investment.  The future returns on the investment for the new year are conservatively estimated at six million.  The manager has effectively doubled the value of his cash--and helped bring a new therapy to market that will save lives. The man was delighted at this innovative--and lucrative--use of his money. 

The accountant presents her portfolio.  She’s bought a small retail property, a set of storefronts that have been derelict and empty; she’s invested just a portion of the money in renovations, and she’s spent several months signing multi-year leases for tenants that are neighborhood-friendly:  a deli, a clothing store, and a daycare.  The appraisers have valued the building that she bought, with its new leases, at 2.5 million.  She’s doubled the value of the cash the man left her to manage, and by renovating and bringing in new businesses into an old eyesore of a building, she’s built up the neighborhood in the process.  The wealthy man was overjoyed and what his accountant had accomplished--not only for his balance sheet but also for the neighborhood.

But the lawyer--the lawyer was very careful.  He knew he had a fiduciary responsibility to preserve his employer’s wealth.  And so he socked the half million away in various savings accounts; that way it would be protected by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation and would be immediately accessible in the event that someone else’s investment went south.  It was a prudent measure, safe, conservative.  And the money would earn the prevailing interest rate of .01%.  When he was called to account for the funds he’d been given, he presented his employer with a bank draft of five hundred thousand dollars--plus fifty dollars in interest that had been earned for the year. 

The wealthy man was furious.  Furious at his lawyer.  He took the bank draft, handed it over to the money manager to invest, and fired the lawyer on the spot.

When I think of the story in this way, in this retelling, I realize a few things.  The risk that the manager and the accountant took was calculated--but it was exactly what the man wanted them to do. They used his wealth as a tool, to give back to him, and to give back to the community. It was only through taking the risk that something new happened, something good--a new development, a new treatment. 

The man expected them, we learn, to do something with the money--not merely to hold onto it.  To gain a return on his investment.  Stewardship in this story involves actively using the gifts that have been given, not just holding onto them.  That’s why the lawyer fails at the exercise.  You or I might be perfectly happy getting back what we had given, with no loss; that’s certainly safe, after all.  But the man in our story is entrepreneurial.  He expects more.  He expects the employees to do something with it.  And the amount of the return doesn’t even matter.  Three million, one and a half million, it doesn’t matter. What’s important is that the first two employees took the chance, that something happened. They attempted to generate a return of some sort. 

And, in fact, the third employee misses the mark in another way.  Not only does he fail to try something new, to generate a return, to do something good with the tools he’s been given, but he fails to realize the scope of the project.  He has been given something that does not even belong to him.  And he is afraid--so afraid of the wealthy man, so afraid of the risk, so afraid of failure, that he just holds onto it.  In returning what he’s been given, the same value, he’s actually devalued the wealth.  The wealthy man expected a return.  He expected an increase in value.  And here he is, getting back the same amount. It’s a lost opportunity, there’s less value than there could have been.  And all because the third employee was afraid.

Isn’t it like that in our own lives?  God has given us gifts, all different, in different amounts and sorts.  But our money, our talent, our ability, our skill, even our very lives--these come from God, and they belong to God.  And God expects us, invites us, to use those gifts for the kingdom of God.  There is an expectation that we will take a risk!  That we will do something radical and holy for the kingdom of God!  That we will give God a chance to take what we offer, giving back to God from God’s own bounteous goodness, and bless and return those gifts for the reconciliation and healing of the whole of creation.

That’s what we’re doing today when we drop our pledge cards in the alms basin.  When we make your offering today.  When you pledge and pay online or write a check or serve on the altar guild or as an usher or teach a Forum class or bring a dish to a potluck or say a prayer for a fellow parishioner or even ourselves.  We are taking a chance, trusting God, taking a risk, knowing that God will be faithful.  We are offering to God a little bit of what God has given us, trusting that it will be enough, that God will use it for the work of God’s kingdom.  That our gifts can be used by God to heal and restore the world.

And we know that God is faithful, we know that this is all possible, because we have seen God’s own gift, the gift of God’s love in Jesus Christ, Jesus’s own self-offering that triumphs over sin and death and rises and ascends and fills all the world with God’s love. 

I want to tell you a story that I learned this week at a celebration I attended.  This year is the 40th anniversary of the Community Soup Kitchen, and most of those years have been spent in the parish hall here at Christ Church.  This Thursday we gathered in the Hall to celebrate the anniversary of the Community Soup Kitchen, and the CSK board honored Christ Church for its years of partnership in ministry.  As part of the celebration, Diane Welborn, the founding director of CSK, told a story about how the program was founded, in the basement of the Salvation Army just a few blocks away from here.  Wanting a larger, above-ground space, Diane put together a dinner, hosted by Father Rowan Greer, to ask David Boulton, the ninth rector, if it might be possible for the Soup Kitchen to move to Christ Church.  There was anxiety in the vestry, there was worry in the neighborhood. What would it mean to welcome these guests?  Was there enough capacity?  Could the building--could the neighborhood--handle this influx of folks day after day for a meal?  But you said yes.  You took a risk.  And what was then a program feeding maybe 30 hungry people each day now feeds ten times that.  People who come to Community Soup Kitchen aren’t guests of ours; they are becoming a part of our community.  We are joining at tables together, anticipating that heavenly banquet where there is enough for everyone, all are fed, and all are whole through God’s creating and redeeming love.

And all of this happened because God took what you offered, blessed it, and gave it back for the building of the kingdom of God.  All of this happened because you said yes to God.  Because someone asked, and you took a risk.  Because you gave.

Today, when you make your pledge, say yes to God.  Take a risk in joining in God’s reconciling work.  Know that, whatever you can give, God will bless it so that there is enough for the work of the kingdom of God.

After all, all that we have is of God’s own bounty, given to us.  It already belongs to God.  Take a chance. See what God is working to accomplish here in us, using us, here at Elm and Broadway.  How will God multiply our talents today?  How will we join in the abundance of God’s kingdom?  How will we trust in the hope and promise that is the kingdom of God?

I give thanks for God’s goodness, and thanks for your stewardship of God’s good gifts.

Comment

Who are these?

Comment

Who are these?

The Rev’d Daniel R. Heischman
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
All Saints' Sunday
November 5, 2017

“Who are these?”  That is the question of the hour on All Saints Sunday.  Who are these people we refer to as saints?  On the one hand, we may speak of saints as anyone who has been baptized into the Christian community, a rank we hold by virtue of our initiation into Christ’s death and resurrection – “for the saints of God are just folk like me,” as the familiar hymn goes. 

At the same time, we inevitably wonder about those “holy people,” whose lives seem to reflect a powerful and unusual presence of God through their distinctive service, temperament, or spirituality, those who stand out from the Christian crowd. These were the ones to whom, in the words of Sirach, “The Lord apportioned great glory.”  It is so often these saints that come to mind and heart when we ask, “Who are these?” 

If I was to venture a common attribute to these types of saints, I would say that what most commonly characterizes them is their lack of awareness about being of “saintly material” in the first place.  They might be quite surprised to hear that they were candidates for sainthood, and their powerful commitment to service and deep love of others was something they would consider to be “no big deal.” The writer Kathleen Norris once observed that, “If I am Christian, I will be the last to know.” Given, I am a Christian by inheritance, she continues, and a Christian by theology.  But, as she put it, “I can point to any number of people in my small town who are much better Christians than I.”

Perhaps because saints live so deeply with their belief, day after day, they are so keenly aware of how deficient they might be in their belief and practice.  Their modesty about the shape and scope of their faith clearly delineates them from the self-righteous, and can leave us in awe of their humility.In the work that I do with school teachers I am often struck by the degree to which so many of them are, at root, utterly modest about the impact they have on their students.    Drawing upon what Norris wrote, they are usually the last to know about their influence.  Their essential goodness, coupled with their humble expression of that goodness, makes many of them such wonderful people to work with and know, let alone true saints in our respective communities.

Or, we might recall those first responders who, as hundreds were escaping down the staircases at the World Trade Center, were heading in the opposite direction – right into the very danger those hundreds were escaping.  As with them, there can be a certain fearlessness we can identify in saints – at times their boldness may seem to border on carelessness, but it leaves us awestruck just the same.

Modesty, fearlessness, a willingness to sacrifice – all of those things may come to mind when we think of saints.  But there is at least one more dimension to sainthood that leads us, here in church, to celebrate this great feast day – it is through a saint that we are privileged to capture at least a glimpse of God.

In the end, sainthood is not about human achievement; it does not primarily have to do with possessing a particular virtue or doing some good deed, important as that can be.  Saints are not to be equated with heroes, who may well have done what they have done on their own.  It is the grace of God working in that person that befits sainthood, a grace that all of us possess by virtue of our baptism.

In these times, it might be worth considering if there are particular ways that the grace of God is shining through in the saints we encounter in life.  Saints can point us not only to God in general, but to the specific needs of our world in this place and time, and how God calls us to respond to those needs.

I can think of at least three.

The first is our need to recapture the basic dignity of all human beings, something clearly affirmed in our baptismal covenant.  In a world that seems obsessed with rank, media exposure, and externalities, the basic human dignity that forms of the core of who we are, regardless of our status or even our achievement, longs to be recognized, and saints can indeed point us back to that fundamental reality.

In 1952, Robert Coles was a medical student in New York, deeply discouraged by a world of empty achievement and cut-throat competition.  He decided to do some volunteer work for the Catholic Worker Movement in Lower Manhattan, a movement led by Dorothy Day.  Making his way down to the Lower East Side on afternoon, he entered the soup kitchen where Dorothy Day was working.  There he saw the woman, about whom he had heard so much, engaged in a conversation with a woman that was, while intoxicated, able to carry on in a mildly coherent fashion.

The conversation seemed to be taking a long time, to the impatient Coles, eager to meet Dorothy Day.  At long last, Ms. Day got up from her conversation, came over to Coles, and asked him, “Are you waiting to talk with one of us?” 

Coles was stunned by Day’s question – “Are you waiting to talk with one of us?”  Wasn’t it obvious he wanted to speak with her?  As Coles later explained, those three words – “one of us” -- cut through all of my layers of self-importance, pride, and pretense. 

In a world where appearance, external accolades, and attention on the self so often is equated with human worth, Day’s simple question not only challenges us, it may well bring us to understand what God is seeking for all us to do and be in this world.

Second, a recommitment to the essential but, oh, so difficult challenge to love our enemies.

Coles encountered another saint in his studies, later on in his career, a saint who may well tell us something more about God’s challenge to us today.  Her name was Ruby Bridges.  In the late 1950s Ruby’s family moved to New Orleans, from rural Mississippi.  At that time white children and black children went to different schools in New Orleans, and, following a court order to desegregate the schools in 1960, Bridges was one of four black girls to go to two white elementary schools.  Of the four, only Ruby was sent to the William Franz Elementary School.

On Ruby’s first day, a large crowd of angry white people gathered outside the school.  People carried racist signs, shouted out derogatory names to Ruby as she entered the school, escorted by federal marshals.

Ruby experienced that treatment each day for several weeks as she entered school.  Ruby would not say a word. 

One morning her teacher noticed that Ruby, as she passed by the hostile crowd, seemed to turn to them and say something.  When asked by the teacher what she had said to the hostile crowd, Ruby responded, “I wasn’t talking to them.  I was praying for them.” Every morning, she explained, she had stopped before encountering the crowd to pray for them.  This morning she had forgotten, until she was in the midst of them.

In a world full of hostility, where we are quick to label the other as an enemy, where name calling and threatening language have become commonplace, a young saint continues to challenge us to pray for those who might wish us harm, who look upon us filled with anger and fear. 

Finally, a love for the stranger.

We often think of saints as having mystical visions, and there is one vision I recall that may well have great relevance to our lives today.  In 1958, Thomas Merton was walking in downtown Louisville KY, in the midst of a great spiritual struggle he was having over how, as a monk, he was to seek to move beyond the world toward God while living in the world.  An answer seemed to be provided to him that day.

As he writes:

In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I was theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers.  It was like awaking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation…This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and joy that I almost laughed out loud…..

Strangers do not normally engender that type of response in us – indeed, where our tendency in the world today is to keep our distance from strangers, rather than feel a deep connection with them, Merton’s vision reaches across the decades to us, perhaps with a message from God – the stranger, that mass of humanity out there, is capable of being loved, not simply assumed to be our enemy.

“Who are these?”  One who turns a life upside down by her simple question; a young child praying for those who wish her harm; a monk searching for meaning and finding it in the midst of, of all things, a downtown crowd.  These are the saints who show us God, who radiate the image of God stamped on all of us, and who call us back to that image, to our own sainthood, our own capacity to be truer followers of Christ.

“Who are these?”  The ones we can all recall, who in turn call to us.

Comment

Render unto God

Comment

Render unto God

The Rev’d Stephen C. Holton
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost
October 22, 2017

You may notice each week that the front cover of the leaflet usually features a Northern European woodcut that somehow comments on the gospel reading itself--an image depicting the scene in the gospel, or somehow commenting on it.  This pairing of art and text is the exegetical work of our fine parish administrator, whose attention to the service leaflet is itself a ministry, and for which I am grateful.  This week, however, the image that best suited the reading was a small one, one buried inside your leaflet, the image of the denarius, with the emperor Tiberius’s likeness on it.  This coin, probably worth about a day’s wage for a farm laborer, is probably the same one that the Pharisees brought to Jesus when he asked them to show the coin used to pay taxes to the emperor.

The image of the coin was too small to feature well on the front page of the service leaflet, however, and so we defaulted to the image of the interior of Christ Church, the engraving you see there before the rood screen was added.  This prompted a conversation about what it might mean to have a picture of the nave on the front of the leaflet.  If the image on the front cover of the leaflet is usually a commentary on the gospel, what does it mean for the pictureto be the building itself?  What are we saying by putting an image of a physical thing, real property, the building itself, on the cover of the leaflet?  Can a building be gospel commentary?  What need does God have of physical things like buildings, like money?

The Pharisees have plenty of questions like this for Jesus in today’s gospel reading.  Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor?  The Pharisees are trying to trick Jesus.  They’re trying to get him to say that the Jewish people, that his followers, that anyone in earshot can ignore the demands of the Emperor to pay taxes.  That everything belongs to God.  Jesus surprises them by pointing out that the emperor’s image is on the coin, and, as the old Authorized translation says, they should “render therefore unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.”  (Matthew 22:21)  But Jesus surprises them by saying, yes, do your duty.  Pay taxes--give what’s required for the common upkeep of society. 

And we get that.  We understand that we have to pay taxes.  Or that we have a moral obligation to pay taxes.  A commitment to one another in the social contract that is our common life together in society. 

We even understand that we have an obligation to give above and beyond the tax, the amount needed to fund our civil society.  And we call that not an obligation but a duty--philanthropy--the love of humanity, expressed in our generous giving to help one another, especially those in great need.  Philanthropy is a great thing.  It’s our duty. 

We are obligated to pay taxes, to participate in our part of the social contract.  We are bound by duty and moral conscience to help one another, to participate in philanthropy, the love of humanity, by giving to causes that help our fellow humans--the arts, disaster relief, poverty relief and recovery programs.  All of these are deserving of support.

But what about God?  What are we to give to God?  What does God need from us?  Sometimes I miss that second part of Jesus’s directive--render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, sure, we understand that.  That was what the Pharisees were listening for. Would he upset the political order.  But the far more radical thing that Jesus says is the second part of that statement:  “Render unto God the things that are God’s.”

Well, what are we to make of that?  If God made the world, everything belongs to God, right?  So where do we draw the line?  What is it that Jesus is saying, really? 

And why would God need our money anyway?   Salvation has been paid for by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  We can’t buy our way into it.  We can’t earn salvation through good works.  It’s only available through the grace of God.  And besides, what would God do with money, anyway?  Isn’t asking for money in the church just a continuation of a collusion with empire, the Constantinian model of doing church continuing into our present day, dying a long, slow death?  Think about it.  Maybe Jesus could buy a bunch of bread with a denarius, or some clothes, or new sandals, but the resurrected and ascended Jesus surely doesn’t need coin.  God doesn’t need our money.  God is, after all, fully spiritual!  God has no need of material things like money.

I hear those arguments sometimes when I talk about tangible things like money, or buildings, or heating bills and roofing slates.  And there’s a great story that Antony Bloom, the late Orthodox Metropolitan of London, tells about material things and God.  It’s a story about Moses and a shepherd. 

Moses spent the day with the shepherd in the desert, tending his sheep together, observing, milking, herding them.   At the end of the day, as they were settling down for the night, Moses noticed that the shepherd poured a little of the best milk into a bowl and set it on a rock away from the camp.  Curious, Moses asked what the shepherd was doing.  He replied, “Each night I take some of the best milk from the day and set it aside as an offering for God.”  Moses, much wiser and more sophisticated than the simple shepherd, was amused, and asked, “Well, does God drink it?”  The shepherd assured him that, yes, God drank the milk!  It was always gone by the next morning.

Moses smiled and explained to the shepherd that God, being spirit, has no need of material things.  There was no way that God could drink the milk.  The shepherd was mistaken.

To settle the disagreement, the little shepherd hid behind some bushes and stayed awake all night, hoping to get a glimpse of God coming to drink the milk.

Later that night, while Moses was sound asleep, the shepherd, barely able to keep his eyelids open, spied a little fox creeping across the desert towards the rock.  The little fox sneaked over to the bowl, lapped up all the fresh milk, and ran off as quickly as he’d come. 

The next morning, the shepherd dutifully reported to Moses that, indeed, Moses was right.  Crestfallen, the shepherd conceded that, indeed, God had no need for his milk—it was just a little fox drinking it.  “Why, this is good news!”  Moses told the disappointed shepherd.  “Now you know more about God than you did before.”  But the shepherd was still sad.  He explained to Moses that the one thing he could do for God was now useless.  His act of love was useful only in his own head.  His eyes now opened to the truth, that night he set out no milk on the rock.

Moses, surprised by this turn in the shepherd’s emotions, thought about this for a while.  And that night, while he slept, God appeared to him in a dream.  “Moses, why did you deprive me of the milk the shepherd used to offer me?”  God asked.  Moses, rather stunned, said to God, “But you had no need of it!  I was only trying to help the shepherd know you better.  To teach him that you are spirit!” 

“Moses,” God replied, “you were wrong.  It’s true that I am spirit and that I have no need of the milk.  But the little fox quite likes milk.  And it was my joy to share it with him.”[1]

It is exactly true that God has no need of our gifts, our offerings, our money.  But God can use them for God’s good purposes.  The shepherd had no idea he was feeding the little fox.  But God knew. His gift was taken and transformed by God, sent back to do God’s will, God’s work, in the world.  Cyrus the Great, whom we hear about in our reading from Isaiah today, wasn’t even Jewish, and yet God used Cyrus to free God’s people in exile in Babylon.  Mary, engaged to Joseph, unmarried, just a young girl, had no idea that she would be the mother of the Messiah, Jesus, the Christ, and yet God used her faithfulness to accomplish God’s good purposes of reconciliation, of salvation, in the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ.  God can take our offerings of ourselves, our souls, our bodies, our time, our involvement, our prayer, and yes, our money--the resources given to us by God--given back to God--and, like the bread of the Eucharistic feast, take them, bless, break, and give them back, transformed, to do the work of building God’s kingdom.

It’s true, friends, God does not need our gifts.  But he can use them, just as God used  the action of the simple shepherd and used it to accomplish God’s ongoing creative will in the world.  The little fox was fed through this simple action of the shepherd’s gift to God.

But what’s more, the shepherd himself needed to make that gift to God.  When it was taken away from him, his relationship with God was broken.  Sharing the milk, giving the first, the best of his milk back to God, from God’s gift to him--this was an act of love and service to God.  He didn’t even mean to feed the little fox--that was God’s work--but his work was loving God.  Being in relationship with God.  And giving the milk, setting out that small saucer each night, was his work.

And that’s what Moses learns in the story--that the shepherd needs to give.  That giving is a part of the shepherd’s right relationship with God.  That in giving, the shepherd is transformed.  That the shepherd is incorporated into the saving works of God, through God’s grace, involved in this simple act of sharing.  Taking, blessing, breaking, and giving--the cycle of thanksgiving into which we are invited, in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, in the Mass, in this very moment, in all time.

Moses surely knew this; he would have known that Abraham gave a tithe, one tenth, of what he had as an offering through the priest Melchizedek. (Gen 14:20)  Jacob at Bethel, after his dream, promised a tenth of what he had as an offering to God.  (Gen 28:22)  The law assumes an offering, a tithe,  one tenth, of what the earth yields, of produce or livestock, is offered to God.  (Leviticus 27:30-32, Deuteronomy 14:22-23) 

The shepherd knows about the law.  He knows that we’re expected to give one tenth of our first fruits, the bounty of our labor, gifts given to us from God, back to God.  And that’s what he does with his little saucer of milk.  But he’s not giving out of obligation.  It’s not an obligation, like a tax.  It’s not even a duty, like philanthropy.  This is a wholly different sort of giving.  The shepherd is giving out of joy.  He’s giving because his gift describes a relationship--a love for God--a reflection of the love that God has for him, in God’s creation and perseveration of the shepherd and his sheep, in the relationship and love that the Great Shepherd has for us.

Friends, we give out of joy, of the first fruits that God has given us.  And this giving changes us.  It is an expression of our love for God.  It is a way of keeping God first.  It’s an expression of God’s love for us.

Render unto Caesar, sure.  We know how to do that.  We have forms and accountants and laws for how to do that.  But rendering unto God the things that are God’s; are we quite as clear about that?  The second part of the commandment is the big one! 

And sure, there are plenty of reasons that we might not give.  That we might not give enough.  Or even at all.  Maybe it’s not convenient to bring cash.  Maybe you don’t use cash or even checks--just your bank card or electronic payments.  Well, there’s a url right in your bulletin where you can make a gift online.  There are cards in the back of the church that you can drop in the almsbasin when it comes by that say you’ve made a gift online so that everyone can participate in this action of offering--the taking, breaking, blessing, and giving of thanksgiving, of the Eucharistic feast.

But I suspect the real reason we’re uncomfortable around conversations about giving is far larger.

Over the last few weeks you may have noticed a new wooden almsbasin in the lady chapel.  It replaces a wooden almsbasin that was taken a few months ago.  When the almsbasin was missing from its usual spot in the chair in the front row of the chapel, often the mass server would forget to bring out an almsbasin from the sacristy, and often we’d just forget to pass the plate entirely at the weekday masses.  We’d forgotten to give.  Last week at a daily mass I was in the congregation, and I made a point of asking a parishioner to pass the plate.  There were nervous twitters and even a good-natured laugh as the plate was passed around and came back empty.  No one had prepared, no one had cash on hand, to drop in the plate.  I asked someone, one of the Hildans, actually, afterwards why he thought folks had laughed--what that was about.  And he replied, “Well, we all know each other pretty well in the House, and we know how poor we are.  We didn’t have anything to offer.”

I suspect that’s more true to the point about all of us.  We believe we are too poor to offer anything to God.  Like the little shepherd, we are doing the very best we can to care for our own sheep, to lead our own lives, and in this time of scarcity there’s not enough to do any more. 

That couldn’t be further from the truth.

We have every blessing we can imagine.  We have life, and health, and hope.  We have Christian community.  We have the very presence of God amongst us--a God who creates and sustains, who redeems and loves us, who longs to be with us so much that God comes to us in the person of Jesus Christ.

The shepherd is not rich by earthly standards.  But his heart is full of love for God.  And God takes his saucer of milk, the first fruits of his labor, and blesses it, and uses it for the healing of the world.

Friends, today, this week, this month until Advent, I invite you to think about how we give.  How we render unto God the things that are God’s.  How God has given to us.  And I invite you to be always giving.  How will you give that saucer of milk, that tenth of what God has given you, that first fruits of your labor, to God?  If you don’t believe you can, what’s stopping you?  What barrier is in the way, and what does it mean?  God has broken every barrier down to be with us in the person of Jesus Christ.  Let us render unto God the things that are God’s, of the great love he has for us.

AMEN.

-----

 

[1] The story of Moses and the fox is told by Anthony Bloom in Beginning to Pray (New York:  Paulist, 1970), pp 48-49.  (Also published as School for Prayer, London:  Darton, Longman & Todd Ltd)

Comment

Taking a Knee

Comment

Taking a Knee

The Rev’d Stephen C. Holton
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost
October 1, 2017

This week a seminarian and I took an afternoon to review the 9 o’clock customary.  If you serve in the acolyte corps, you already know that the customary is a document that lists in detail what we do in the liturgy, with step by step instructions--what each person does, where she or he moves, what comes next--that sort of thing.  It’s detailed.  The customary for the 11am Solemn High Mass runs over 70 pages at present.  It’s a valuable document, important mostly for training new acolytes, but also for making sure the celebrant doesn’t just wander about aimlessly.  It tells us all where to be next.  Every now and again, however, the customary has to be reviewed--to make sure it still matches what we’re actually doing in the liturgy.  To add anything that might have been missed in previous editions.  To make sure it remains a living, useful document.

Some of the things we looked at in the customary this week were the moments when the celebrant and sacred ministers bow after the words of institution, “This is my body, broken for you.  Do this in remembrance of me.” At the nine o’clock service we bow, because, truthfully, it would be hard to genuflect, or kneel on one knee, behind the altar.  It just looks funny. And so we bow at that moment. 

We do lots of bowing around here.  We bow our heads at the name of Jesus.  We might bow or genuflect before the Sacrament of Holy Communion.  We may bow or genuflect at the mention of the incarnation, as in the creed, “[Jesus] came down from heaven…by the power of the Holy Spirit, he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man…”  We may even kneel during the canon of the mass, the portion of the Eucharistic prayer when we pray that the bread and wine may become for us the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ--that his real presence might be made known in the gifts of Bread and Wine.

All of this bowing and genuflecting and kneeling is designed to do one thing--to show reverence, respect, to the presence of Christ in the world around us.  It’s designed to show us in our bodies as well as our minds that we put Christ first in all things.  That we confess with our whole selves that “Jesus Christ is Lord…” as the epistle reading says.

I love that we genuflect here, that we bow, that we kneel--that we use our whole bodies, not just our minds, to pray.  When I was growing up the only time that I thought about kneeling was when I watched a period film and characters were genuflecting to a monarch--or when a coach said to a high school football team, “Take a knee.”  That usually meant he wanted to tell them something--and wanted the players to be quiet and listen.

With the start of football season again this year, lots of players have been taking a knee--not just football players, but lots of people--in what’s become a surprisingly controversial gesture.  If you follow football at all, or if you read the news, or if you’re on Twitter, you already know what all this is about. Almost a year ago now a player for the San Francisco 49’ers called Colin Kaepernick, during a pre-season game. Kaepernick remained on the bench while other players stood.[1]  Kaepernick sat out the National Anthem as a form of protest, as a way of making a statement publically repudiating systemic cultural racism, protesting the racist treatment of African Americans and people of color in our society.  A few games later,  Kaepernick shifted to kneeling during the national anthem before games as a way of maintaining his protest while also honoring the service of men and women in our armed forces.  A way of showing love and respect for our nation and her people, while still calling it and us to account for the racism that’s a part of our shared lives together.[2]  By the time our President called on the NFL to fire players who didn’t stand for the National Anthem,[3] the idea of taking a knee during the National Anthem had apparently become a subject of national debate, with passionate feelings on both the standing and kneeling sides of things.  This week at the New Haven Symphony’s opening night of its season, as the conductor walked on stage at Woolsey Hall to lead the stirring strains of our National Anthem, the woman in front of me knelt down in her row, and later the conductor made a comment about making it through the National Anthem “without incident.”  Wherever I go, I can’t seem to get away from this issue of kneeling and the National Anthem.

Now, I suppose Christians of good conscience can hold different opinions about Mr Kaepernick’s action.  The irony is not lost on me that what this It strikes me that taking a knee looks an awful lot like genuflecting to me, like a posture of deep respect.  But others see it as an affront to the flag, the nation, or the National Anthem itself.  Mr Kaepernick has made public statements about both his love for our country and also about his concern about how our country treats people of color.  I don’t think, as Christians, we can ignore the overwhelming evidence of systemic and ever-present racism in our culture that seeks to oppress African Americans and other people of color.  We can’t ignore statistics that show that the US locks away in prison a far higher percentage of its citizens than most of the rest of the industrialized world--and that a tremendously disproportionate number of those prisoners are black.  We can’t ignore our history of racial injustice, from Jim Crow to slavery itself.  We can’t ignore that some people in our country owned other people, and that our entire economic system, at its founding, benefitted from slave labor.  It’s worth taking a knee to lament, to mourn, those injustices.

But if in Mr Kaepernick’s action we find critique and rebuke, I also find invitation and hope in the idea of taking a knee.  I’m not suggesting anyone should or shouldn’t fall down the next time the National Anthem is played.  But I am suggesting that the one we are called to kneel before, the one at whose name “every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father,” that this one, Jesus Christ, gives us a way forward.  Even when the whole world, when all of our civil society, seems divided, when there seems no way forward together, no hope, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ gives us hope for reconciliation.  Hope for healing.  Hope for tomorrow.  I find hope in the gospel lesson—the story of the son that shows up to work in the vineyard.

We had something of a similar story in my family growing up.  Every Christmas my grandmother would host a big gathering for all of her family.  It was a big enough family, five four children and their spouses, twelve grandchildren, cousins, aunts, uncles, and a few crying great-grandchildren sprinkled in for good measure.  And so this gathering was pot luck.  Folks would volunteer to bring something--a meat, a side, a dessert.  And every year my aunt Rachel would promise to bring asparagus casserole for thirty people, for example, and then flake out and bring dinner rolls instead.  My aunt Sarah, however, would always over-prepare. She’d say she was bringing a ham, but she’d really show up with a ham, a turkey, sweet potato casserole, and asparagus casserole for thirty--because she knew her sister-in-law was going to forget.  Now, the dynamics of all of this are fraught, to be sure, but the point is that we learned to rely on my aunt.  We loved both Aunt Rachel who brought the rolls and Aunt Sarah who over-functioned and brought enough food to feed an army.  But we could COUNT on Sarah.  We knew, no matter what was said, that Sarah would come through.  That she’d make sure everything was okay.

The gospel today has a story a bit like that.  A father has two sons, and he asks them to go work in his vineyard.  One son says he’s not coming, don’t count on him, he just can’t make it.  And yet he shows up, he puts in his time, he helps out and gets the job done.   The other says that, sure,  he’ll work in the vineyard.  He has the best of intentions.  But who knows, maybe he overslept, or maybe he just needed to get a little work done at home, or maybe he just wasn’t feeling well.  He doesn’t show.   It sounded right, but he never delivers.  It’s the brother that shows up, the one that changes his mind, that actually ends up doing the thing his father asks.  

The brothers are both from the same family.  But only one shows up in the vineyard. We know that Matthew’s story, this tale in the gospel, is designed as an invitation to Matthew’s community, to his brothers and sisters, an invitation to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, to follow him.  But the verses that follow make it clear that whatever the community has believed, whatever has come before, all are welcome in the vineyard. 

The prostitutes and tax collectors will enter the kingdom before the religious authorities, Jesus says.  Because nothing that has come before is beyond redeeming.  Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ.

How can our society, so deeply divided -- divided by racism, by ideology, by hurtful words and hurtful policies and hurtful disregard for one another -- how can we move forward?  How can we live together, in the legacy of racism and slavery that divides us?  That oppresses so many of our brothers and sisters, that tears our society apart? 

This story of the son who changes his mind, who ends up doing the thing that his father asks even when he said he wouldn’t--this story gives me hope for our country, our society.  This story of God’s grace gives me hope for change, for healing, for reconciliation and wholeness. 

In Ezekiel today we hear the proverb, “‘The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge’? As I live, says the Lord God, this proverb shall no more be used by you in Israel.” (Ez 18.1b-3)  God, speaking through the prophet, proclaims a different reality--a reality in which change is possible.  A reality in which future generations can live differently.  “Cast away from you all the transgressions that you have committed against me, and get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! Why will you die, O house of Israel? For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, says the Lord God. Turn, then, and live.” (31-32)

When we realize the great sacrifice that Christ has made--how much God has loved each of us, how much God wants to be in relationship with us--how much God wants us to be whole, to be the people that God has created us to be--when we realize that, how can we but help to love God and love one another in return.  How can we but help to turn and live--to do whatever it takes to change our lives, our systems, our culture so that every person is valued, every person is respected, every person is treated with dignity.  So that every person is loved.

We have an example in Christ Jesus ,who “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness…and became obedient to the point of death--even death on a cross.” (Phillipians 2.5-8).  Not only do we have an example in Jesus, but we have an invitation--an invitation to participate in his death and resurrection.  An invitation to be freed by him from the bonds of sin and shame.  An invitation to turn and live.  An invitation into new life, into the hope, the joy, of resurrection and wholeness.

Not merely an example, a pattern, but a whole new way of being.  We have died with Christ, and we have risen with Christ.  We are incorporated into his new resurrection life.

In the days that follow, can we take a knee?  Can we acknowledge Jesus as Lord, his life, death, and resurrection--his invitation to new life--as the governing principle of our own lives?  Can we love as Jesus has loved us?  Can we love one another as he has loved us?  Can we trust in his redeeming power?

Through God’s grace we can.  May we claim the liberation, the freedom, that Jesus promises.  May we change the things in ourselves and in our society that separate and divide, that oppress and subjugate, so that all may live.  In the love of Christ, through his redemption, may it be so.

-----

[1] Steve Wyche, Colin Kaepernick explains why he sat during national anthem.”  nfl.com, 8/27/2016.  Retrieved 9/30/2017 at http://www.nfl.com/news/story/0ap3000000691077/article/colin-kaepernick-explains-protest-of-national-anthem.

[2] Billy Witz, ”This time, Colin Kaepernick takes a stand by kneeling during anthem.”  The New York Times,September 1, 2016, p. B11.  Accessed online 9/30/2017 at https://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/02/sports/football/colin-kaepernick-kneels-national-anthem-protest.html.

[3] https://twitter.com/realDonaldTrump/status/911655987857281024 (accessed 9/30/2017).

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What God Sees

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What God Sees

The Rev’d Carlos de la Torre
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost
September 24, 2017

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

I still remember the first time I discovered the wonders of DirecTV and Dish Television. Growing up in a household with basic cable, where our channel list only reached double digits, seemed amateur and primitive once I stumbled upon satellite television. There were all kinds of television channels. Channels dedicated solely to cartoons, sports, news from around the globe, movies, and music. There were also channels that I found extremely odd yet interesting, for example, the Golf Channel and the Outdoor Channel. I never understood why someone would want to watch a channel solely dedicated to doing things outdoors while seating inside . Wouldn’t you just move outside and experience a true live broadcast of the Outdoors. 

However, as I scrolled down the infinite glorious list of television channels, one channel in particular caught my attention. And that channel was the Eternal Word Television Network, known as EWTN.

Are you shocked?

I remember watching Life on the Rock with Fr Mary and of course Mother Angelica. Till this day, I occasionally peak and watch EWTN programming, however, nowadays I do this through their YouTube Channel rather than on the television. On a particular Saturday morning when I was visiting my uncle’s home, I stumbled upon a kids cartoon series which retold the great stories of scripture. From the story of creation, to the parting of the red sea, the story of David versus Goliath, and of course, the story of Jonah and the whale. This cartoon series quickly became the highlight of my family visits. So often the core message behind the re-telling of these biblical stories was simple -- God is faithful, even amidst human sin, doubt, and all other obstacles. These cartoons were not concerned with biblical interpretation and history and cultural context. After all, their audience was a seven year old Carlos not a twenty-seven year old man.

Unfortunately, in simplifying and whittling down a biblical story to one or two easy points, we lose sight of the layers and complexity in holy scripture. We accidently neglect pockets of scripture that demand of us to more deeply listen, read, and inwardly digest God’s holy word. So far many years, my understanding of the Book of Jonah came from a 18 minute cartoon episode and nothing else. So if you would have asked me what the story of Jonah was all about I would have simply said -- “The story of Jonah is the story of a man who was in a shipwreck. He trusted in God and loved God. So God protected him by giving him refuge in the belly of a whale. The whale spit out Jonah and God forgave a few bad people afterwards. The end.”

In reading this week’s scripture passages for mass, I quickly realize that my childhood understanding was not only that, a child understanding, but neglected the layers of conflict and wisdom in holy scripture.

Professor Julia O’Brien at Lancaster Theological Seminary points out that“Throughout this book, Jonah cares only about himself. In the first chapter, Jonah jeopardizes all on board the ship in order to avoid a task he refuses to accept. In chapter 4, which we heard today, Jonah’s concern appears to be his reputation: he credits his refusal to go to Nineveh to his awareness the God might relent from carrying out the very punishment Jonah had announced. In the same way Jonah's care for the bush is not for its own well-being but for what it offers him.”[1]

The image of a faithful and humble Jonah has been shattered, I admit, I had not given much thought to the book of Jonah since I was a child. My attention would sometimes shift to the story of Jonah, without much meaning, whenever I saw a Vineyard Vines whale on an article of clothing. In re-reading this book, rather than finding a faithful hero in Jonah, what I found was an anti-hero. By no means a villain but a true anti-hero --  someone whose actions and character are highlighted for the specific purpose to not follow in their ways.

Even with its comic and exaggerated features, the story of Jonah challenges us to question not only the main character’s actions and comments but also question God’s response.

It’s clear from the minor prophets in the Old Testament, that Nineveh was at odds and despised by the Judean community. So much so that Jonah cared more about the destruction of a bush than the possible destruction of women, men, and children in Nineveh. And let’s not forget the opening lines of the book, where God tells Jonah “ Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it: for their wickedness has come up before me.” All signs point to an utter rejection and punishment of Nineveh and its people. But by the end of the story, God shows mercy on Nineveh. Completely at odds with Jonah’s message from the Lord and his human understanding. In the story of Jonah, God’s freedom to act is reinforced. While wicked cities and people are punished in other prophetic books, in the Book of Jonah God shows mercy.

God is free to act as God pleases. We can trust in a loving, merciful, and redeeming God because of God’s very own gift in the person of Jesus Christ. However, even before the arrival of the Incarnate Word, we see God act out of love, mercy, and redemption. Even if it meant shocking those who swore they know God and had heard his word spoken to them. Regardless of how Jonah viewed Nineveh, regardless of how we might view anyone on earth, even our biggest enemies, borrowing words from First Samuel, we should never forget that God does not see as mortals see.

What Jonah saw in Nineveh was an evil and wicked nation and people. His view was supported by those around him and by their understanding of God. But God does not see as mortals see. What God saw in Nineveh was a people who had turned in their ways which was more than Jonah could gaze on. This is not to excuse the horrors that the people of Nineveh had committed against feuding nations. Rather, this is a reminder that even amidst horrible deeds, wickedness, and sinfulness God does not see as mortal see. Because what God sees in all of humanity is not, as the old spiritual says, a “wretch like me” but humankind created in God’s image.

What God sees in us we cannot fully understand but we can begin to acknowledge that no matter how hard we try, how well educated our opinions and thoughts might be, we will never see the world as God sees it. And this is a good thing. Because as Christians our job is to view the world through the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. If we’re able to hold on to an ounce of understanding of how God views the world it is not by our doing but by doing of Christ. Even if we can’t see as God sees, we are given a lens through Christ to see the world beyond our capacity and imagination. We are able to see God’s kingdom even if blurred and at moments unclear. We are assured, once again, of God’s capacity for love, mercy, and redemption, even if we our eyes fail to see. For the love of God is broader than the measures of the mind, and God’s mercy like the wideness of the sea. Amen.

 

[1] Julia M. O’Brien. Jonah, Theological Bible Commentary. Westminster John Knox Press, 2009.  

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How often should I forgive?

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How often should I forgive?

The Rev’d Stephen C. Holton
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost
September 17, 2017

I once knew a woman that had a memory, they said, like an elephant.  She could recount any wrong done to her by anyone in the county, or to her mother or grandmother, for that matter.  Like the Appalachian feud between the Hatfields and the McCoys, wrongdoing--and remembering--was generational for this woman, and it carried on to her children.  She was willing to forgive, but she never forgot.  And she passed that gift of remembering down to her children.  And they remembered everything she’d ever done wrong to them.  And they never forgot.

Forgive and forget, we say.  But she never forgot.  And so I wonder what she thought about forgiveness--what forgiveness meant for her.  I wonder what we think forgiveness means to you.  What forgiveness means for me.

My sister and I loved to play Monopoly growing up.  I liked to be the car or the little dog.  My mother would sometimes be the top hat.  I never wanted to be the shoe.  But whatever game piece I was, as I moved around the board, I was wary of that corner space, “Go to jail.”  Or, if you were very unlucky, you might draw the card, “Go directly to jail.  Do not pass Go.  Do not collect $200.”  This was an unfortunate sentence.  But, if you were very lucky, you might be holding another card, the “Get out of jail free” card, which would let you out of jail, back to the action, back to racing around the board, buying properties, collecting rents, and bankrupting your opponents.  “Get out of jail free” was forgiveness.  A reprieve.  A chance to get back out there.  Isn’t that what forgiveness is about?

We know we are supposed to forgive one another.  We pray for forgiveness at every service: “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us,” we say.  And I don’t know about you, but usually I think of forgiveness as something a parent gives to a little kid.  Oops, I broke the window!  I’m sorry!  Forgive me!  Don’t punish me!   Or like that “get out of jail free” card.  Forgiveness is a pass on something we’ve done wrong; it’s avoiding punishment, right?

No.  That’s not what forgiveness is about, though I confess to you it’s what I think about when I think about forgiveness.  Real forgiveness, true forgiveness, seems to elude us, as it does Peter, who really wants to understand.  Who really wants to get it right.  Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive?  Is seven enough?  That’s a gracious plenty, right?  Three strikes and you’re out in baseball.  Seven times is really generous!  But Jesus says, Not seven times, but seventy-seven times.

Over and over again.  Forgive over and over.

How can that even work?

I want to tell you three stories about forgiveness.

Several millennia ago, maybe seven or eight thousand years ago, there was a boy called Joseph.  He was the son of Jacob, also called Israel.  He was the grandson of Isaac, and the great grandson of Abraham and Sarah.  Joseph was the next to youngest boy out of twelve boys and at least one girl in his family; he was the firstborn of his father’s second wife.  He was younger, a bit clever, and very annoying, and most of his dozen brothers hated him. 

One day when he had been particularly insufferable a few of his brothers decided to kill him.  Instead their brother Reuben convinced them to throw him down a well.  (That’s better, right?)  And so they did.  They felt a little bad about leaving him there, though, and so they sold him as a slave to a caravan of merchants heading to Egypt.  (Again, better than letting him die in the well, right?)  And so they were rid of Joseph.  Remember, however, that Joseph is clever.  And even as he is borne away into slavery in Egypt, all is not lost.  He works his way up through the ranks of servant eventually to become the second most powerful government functionary in all of Egypt, second only to the Pharaoh himself. 

When Joseph was in his thirties, and his authority in Egypt well established, a famine struck the ancient Near East.  Joseph, because again, he is clever and wily, had stored up on behalf of the Egyptian government so much grain that he could not even measure it all.  And so all of the Egyptians and the surrounding tribes and nations came to the Pharaoh to beg for grain.  They came to ask Jacob for help. 

And amongst those who came were the sons of Jacob, his father, the Israelites.  Not knowing who he was, they came even to Jacob for help.  And Jacob fed them. He gave them grain.  He saved them.  And years later, when their father died--it’s always at the funeral that things come out, right?--when his father died, his brothers came to him and begged forgiveness.

Realizing that their father was dead, Joseph’s brothers said, “What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us and pays us back in full for all the wrong that we did to him?” So they approached Joseph, saying, “Your father gave this instruction before he died, ‘Say to Joseph: I beg you, forgive the crime of your brothers and the wrong they did in harming you.’ Now therefore please forgive the crime of the servants of the God of your father.” Joseph wept when they spoke to him. Then his brothers also wept, fell down before him, and said, “We are here as your slaves.” But Joseph said to them, “Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today. So have no fear; I myself will provide for you and your little ones.” In this way he reassured them, speaking kindly to them.   (Genesis 50:15-21)

Joseph’s forgiveness didn’t unwind all the past.  It wasn’t a “get out of jail free” card.  But it saved his brothers and their families.  And it acknowledged a far greater truth--that God’s goodness prevails even over our sinfulness; that the love that is God triumphs even over death and destruction.  His brothers had intended to do Joseph evil.  But God used it for good.   Joseph didn’t put himself in the place of God, which is, at the root of all things, the original sin.  He simply continued to love his brothers.

Here’s another story about forgiveness.  Basil, Cardinal Hume, formerly Archbishop of Westminster, tells this story.   

When he was a boy the young Basil sneaked into the pantry of a neighbor’s kitchen, poking around for a treat or something good to eat.  He found there, in the unattended pantry, a bushel of apples--just picked, ripe and fragrant.  There were so many apples, and surely his neighbor wouldn’t miss just one. 

So sure enough, Basil reached out and took just one apple.  Just one.  And, as he turned to run from the pantry with his purloined fruit, he ran into the neighbor himself.  And what do you think the neighbor said to him?  Of course the neighbor told him to put it back.  And of course that’s the right thing to do.  But later in life, as he pondered the mysteries of God’s forgiveness, Basil the adult, the Benedictine monk, the Archbishop, began to suspect that there might have been a different response. 

He began to reimagine the story so that, as he turned and ran from the pantry, right into the neighbor, the God figure in his re-imagining, God might have said, “Basil, I see you’ve taken an apple. They’re so ripe, so fragrant, so delicious.  Here, why don’t you have another.  Go on.  Take two.”

What do you feel when you hear that story?  Profound relief at the forgiveness and generosity of God?  Confusion or even anger that the boy isn’t corrected, or even punished?  I have to admit I struggled with this story for a while.  I wanted to explain to young Basil why it was wrong for him to steal.

But God, who has all the apples, is generous and giving.  Is loving and forgiving.  Here, take two.

This word “forgive” has nothing to do with “getting out of jail free.”  It has nothing to do with punishment postponed or remitted.  It has nothing to do with getting away with something.  It doesn’t even have anything to do with correction, or reproof, or reproach. It’s neither fair nor just.  But it is lifechanging.

This word “forgive” that Peter is struggling with, this word “forgive” that we are praying for--forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us--this “forgive” isn’t even about other people.  It’s not about those who’ve sinned against us.  It’s about us ourselves.  It’s about how we have been forgiven by God.  It’s about God’s radical willingness to love us in spite of how we have failed to love God.  And it’s about the possibility of something new, of something radically alive with generosity and wholeness.

The word “forgive” that Peter asks about--Lord, how many times should I forgive someone--that word, in the Greek root, is aphiemi.   It’s the same word in the Our Father--“Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”  And it’s the same word in another story that you may remember, the story of Lazarus.

Jesus’s friends Mary, Martha, and Lazarus were about the most hospitable folks we know of in the gospels.  They always had friends over.  They were always welcoming people.  And when Lazarus fell ill, Mary and Martha sent for Jesus.  But he didn’t arrive in time.  And so, when he finally made it to their house, Lazarus was dead and in the tomb.  Jesus, with tears in his eyes, called his friend forth from the tomb, and Lazarus came out.  Jesus’s next words to the community, as Lazarus stepped forth from the tomb into the sunlight, were “Unbind him and let him go.” 

The Greek word that Jesus uses is aphete, from the same root, aphiemi,  that Peter uses to mean forgiveness.  That Jesus himself uses when he teaches us to pray, “forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”  Jesus isn’t saying Lazarus has done something wrong.  He’s saying that Lazarus is freed, set forth, sent forth, going into new life. 

And that’s what forgiveness is. 

It’s not a “get out of jail free” card.  It’s not a pass, an excuse, an avoidance of punishment.

It’s a chance for something new.  For wholeness, for reconciliation, for a new life.

It’s what’s offered to us in Christ’s death and resurrection.  That God loves us so much that, despite our failings to love God, even in the moments of greed, lust, wrath, pride, or whatever sin you can imagine when we put ourselves in the place of God, that God still holds onto us, expecting that we can be in better relationship.  That we can love God, that we can love one another, as we ourselves have been loved.

For that’s what God does.  Even in the face of our sinfulness, God is still there, loving us, giving God’s own self to us.  Even as we take all the apples for ourselves, God is there saying, take more.  Here I am.  As Christ pours himself out on the cross he forgives the thief who hangs by him.  He forgives those who have crucified him.  He is there, offering his love.  Inviting us into loving relationship.  And sending us out, forgiven, to love one another and the world. 

When you come to the altar today, receive God’s presence in the Sacrament; receive Christ’s forgiveness.  And be transformed, sent out to something new, to love God and love one another.  That’s the story of Joseph--responding only to the love of God, not the hurt that’s been done to him.  That’s the story of Basil Hume--God’s gracious love, offering even more of God’s own self.  That’s the story of Lazarus--sent forth into new life.  That’s our story--healed, forgiven, restored, and sent forth into new relationship, new life in Christ.

AMEN.

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Sermon for Holy Cross Day

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Sermon for Holy Cross Day

The Rev’d Molly James
     Dean of Formation, Episcopal Church in Connecticut
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
Holy Cross Day
September 14, 2017

May God’s Word be spoken. May God’s Word be heard. May that point us to the Living Word, who is Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

It is a privilege to be with you all this evening. I am grateful to Fr. Stephen for the invitation. It is always a joy to be a part of liturgy in this beautiful and holy space. It is a particular joy to be with you on this night as we celebrate the feast of the Holy Cross. It may sound strange, but this is actually one of my favorite feasts of the Church year. Now, don’t get me wrong, of course I love Christmas and Easter. Of course I find Holy Week to be tremendously meaningful. It is more that today feels a like a more personal and intimate feast day. It is like Holy Week in miniature without all the logistics and details we clergy have to keep track of then. It is a day that is a real gift. It is a day to contemplate what the Cross means in our own lives.

For me this day has real, personal significance. When I was in the midst of my own discernment process for ordination, I was asked what moment in our Lord’s life I connected with most deeply. My answer was immediate: the Cross. I was 22, and I was only a few years removed from a battle with bone cancer. It mattered a great deal to me that our Lord and Savior knows the fullness of the human experience, including the realities of pain and suffering. My intimate connection with God came through confronting my own mortality and knowing that God knew exactly what I was going through.

I know I am not the only one for whom the realities of the crucifixion hold deep meaning. No doubt many of us here have had profound experiences of personal pain and suffering. No doubt, like so many of the notable Christian theologians and mystics, we have come to the realization that God’s presence can often be most deeply felt in the midst of those challenging experiences. Profound experiences of suffering have a way of narrowing our vision. We realize how many things in life are more superficial or insignificant. The mundane distractions of daily life fade away, and we are left with what really matters: our relationship with God and with those around us. The experience of illness or profound loss can take away so much, but as St. Paul, so eloquently reminds us, there is nothing in life, not even death, that can separate us from the love of God. And it is so often in those crucible moments of our lives that we see the love of God most fully and feel it most deeply in our own hearts.

That is the truth of the Cross. The Cross shows us the depth of God’s love for us. God loves us so very deeply that God is willing to give of God’s self, even to the point of death. This is a profound reality, and it is often the pathway to deeper relationship with God. There is, however, an important caveat to be made here.

While I absolutely believe that suffering is an avenue to deepen our connection to God, that does not mean that suffering is a good in and of itself or that it should be sought out. Our Collect today asks that we might “take up our Cross” and follow Christ. That phrase deserves a little unpacking. And our readings help us to do that. Our readings, particularly the Epistle from Philippians and John’s Gospel remind us that love and self-giving generosity are at the heart of the Cross. They remind us too that we are called to be children of the light. God does not wish for us to experience pain or suffering. We must remember that Jesus came so that we might have LIFE, and have it abundantly.

Unfortunately, there is a strand in our Christian tradition that has said that since suffering is a way to God, we should seek it out (note the monastic traditions of self-deprivation or even self-harm). Or perhaps even worse is the way the Church has used the glorification of suffering to promote oppression. Sadly,there is a legacy of the Church saying to those on the margins or those who are oppressed that they should accept their current reality as their “cross to bear” and to find consolation in the fact that suffering brings us closer to God.

One of my favorite theologians, is a Roman Catholic sister from Brazil named Ivone Gebara. She is a feminist theologian who is deeply critical of the Church for the ways in which it has used the Cross to perpetuate those on the margins of society, particularly women. Gebara helps us to look at the reality of suffering with an important critical lens. When we encounter suffering in our lives, our own or others, we must ask an essential question: is this suffering endemic to the human experience (such as illness or a natural disaster) or is this suffering the result of injustice? If it is endemic, then we must learn to live with it, and it is here that we can be grateful for the gift of feelings God’s presence most abundantly in the midst of suffering. If, on the other hand, the suffering we have encountered is the result of injustice then we followers of Jesus are called to fight injustice.

There is far too much injustice in our world today, whether it is the economic injustice of the ever widening gap between rich and poor, the rise of hate speech and hate crimes against individuals for their gender, race, sexual orientation or ethnic identity. Too many of our sisters and brothers are suffering. We are called to take action and to speak out against injustice wherever we find it.

So I hope that this Holy Cross day will be a day of comfort and inspiration for all of us. I hope we can find comfort, particularly any of us who may in the midst of our own trials and tribulations, in the profound truth that God knows our suffering and God is present with us even in our most painful moments. And I hope that we will also be inspired, particularly those of us who are in positions of power and privilege, to fight against injustice. I hope that we will be inspired to stand with those on the margins, and to realize that if we have any cross to bear in life it is the hard and holy work of realizing God’s dream of justice and life abundant for all people.

AMEN.

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Beyond "Playing pretty," being nice

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Beyond "Playing pretty," being nice

The Rev’d Stephen C. Holton
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost
September 10, 2017

When I was a child we’d often visit my great grandmother on Sunday afternoons.  She lived only about 40 minutes away, and we could leave right from church and be at her house in time for a late lunch, eat some fried chicken and drink some sweet tea, enjoy a slice of chocolate pie that was her special recipe, and then change out of our church clothes into play clothes to go outside.

Outside was a wonderful place for a young child to be--no adults around to supervise, garden toolsthat doubled as toys, a wild rose garden with paths to explore, and a barn with a hayloft to climb up in.  It’s a wonder I never got tetanus, climbing over rusty farm implements and boards with nails in them and all manner of other things that, today, seem pretty dangerous.  But as a child there seemed to be no danger, and it was good to be outside, playing with my sister and our cousins.

My great grandmother, however, was wiser than I was, and she knew the perils of the outdoors.  She’d warn us not to throw chinaberries at one another for fear we’d put someone’s eye out.  She’d remind us to turn the water off at the pump house for fear the well would run dry.  (It never did, as far as I know.)  And she had a particular phrase for how she expected us to behave:  “Y’all play pretty, now.”

Y’all play pretty.  What my great grandmother meant was pretty straightforward.  Don’t hit one another.  Don’t break any bones.  Don’t call each other names.  Be nice.  Be safe.  Take care of each other.  Play nicely with one another.

That’s a reasonable thing to tell children, isn’t it.  It’s probably a good thing to tell adults, too, for that matter.  Play nicely with one another.   And we generally did.  I suspect that, had we not been nice, if we’d “played ugly,” my great grandmother would have come out the door of the screened in front porch and told us about it. 

As best I remember it she was a pretty straightforward person.  She’d have told us if we were doing something wrong. 

And that’s really what Jesus is talking about in the gospel reading for today.   If someone sins against you, go and tell them privately.  If the person doesn’t listen, go with one or two other people.  If he or she still won’t hear you, tell the whole church.  

Part of that seems like good advice.  It sounds like my great grandmother stepping out of the screened porch onto the concrete steps of her farmhouse, calling across the garden to us to stop throwing chinaberries, or to quit running with the rake, or to turn the tap off at the pump house.  It’s reasonable, instructive rebuke--clear, concise, and truthful.

But what really makes my skin crawl about that passage, and maybe yours too, is another image.  The image of well-meaning, good Christian folks, banding together, coming to someone’s home and calling them out for something.  In the community where I grew up, I heard this sort of thing called “speaking the truth in love,” and I imagine it went something like this.  “Brother So-and-So, you’ve acted contrary to scripture.  You’ve sinned against the Lord.  You’ve not kept the faith.”  And it makes me think of these stories I’ve heard of folks getting thrown out of their faith communities--sometimes for things that you and I wouldn’t think are sinful.  Maybe for being who God has made them to be--gay, or lesbian, or transgendered--or somehow being a little bit “other” in the eyes of the community. 

I tend to associate this passage with moral purity codes--of how the community think folks should act and be and do--which sometimes can align with what we know of God in scripture, and sometimes doesn’t.

I think that sort of approach, using this scripture as a proof-text to get what we want from another person, seems manipulative and, frankly, contrary to what the gospel is really telling us.  “Telling the truth in love” isn’t a mandate for trying to remake the world in an imaginary image, or a way of testing someone’s purity, or a way of excluding someone from society.  I’m not sure I trust the motivation of those folks who are showing up to “tell the truth in love.”  So there’s the bit about manipulation that makes me wary about this passage.

But there’s also some discomfort around anyone telling me what to do, anyone calling out sin!  I’m not very comfortable with that, and maybe you’re not, either.  We are a pretty individualistic society, and we don’t want other folks to tell us what to do--and we certainly don’t want God to tell us what to do!  That’s at the core of our human condition, isn’t it; what was the one thing God told Adam and Eve not to do?  Don’t eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil; everything else is yours, just don’t eat from this one tree.  And of course, that’s exactly what Adam and Eve did.  They ate from the one tree that was forbidden. 

We don’t like to be told what to do.  But sometimes it’s actually good for us!  God set boundaries for Adam and Eve that protected them from the problem of evil, and they broke those boundaries.  They’d have been better off following what God said.  My great grandmother was right to tell us not to run with rakes or throw chinaberries; there’s a slight possibility we could have injured ourselves. 

But what Jesus is inviting us to do is not to be the morality police.  It’s something quite different.  He’s inviting us to be honest with one another in relationship; even to name when we have experienced sin personally; when we have been hurt. 

That can be quite empowering, and it can indeed lead to repentance, to change. 

If someone has hurt me, I can be honest about that hurt--to speak how I am experiencing that hurt--and perhaps they’ll listen.  Perhaps they’ll change.  But even if they don’t, I am surrounded by the Church, that bears witness to the kingdom of God come near. 

“If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax-collector. Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.   …Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.’” (Matthew 18:17-18, 20)

Jesus is inviting us to be more than nice--to do more than “play pretty”--but to genuinely be honest with one another, to be open, vulnerable, to be in real relationship with one another where we can tell each other honestly how we are, how we experience one another; he is inviting us to be honest about sin itself.  Not as a method of rebuke, as a way of shaming or blaming one another, but as a genuine expression of relationship, of honesty, of loving faithfulness to God and one another.

I hope this bears itself out in community here at Christ Church.  I believe it’s part of what we’re working on at Saint Hilda’s--a life of Christian honesty.  I like to think of Saint Hilda’s House as something of a lab for life--a place for discernment and formation where young people get to reflect on what it means to give their lives to Jesus; what it means to love one another, to be in honest Christian relationship.   You know the part about service, how each Hildan volunteers for ten months in a nonprofit group focused on justice--the Community Soup Kitchen, Columbus House, IRIS, Christian Community Action, and, this year, Junta and the offices of the Episcopal Church in Connecticut.  You probably know that each Friday the Hildans spend a day in study and contemplation, reading and discussing theology together and meeting with spiritual directors and mentors to reflect on their time in the House.  But also each week they have a house meeting--a facilitated time to check in with one another and a time to reflect, honestly, with one another on how their common life together is going.  It can, and often does, involve telling the truth in love.  It can be hard.  And it’s also a primary way for the community to grow in relationship, to deepen in love.

“Playing pretty” -- being nice to one another--is good up to a point.  But for real relationship to happen, we also have to be honest with one another.  And here’s the catch--and here’s where that phrase “telling the truth in love” gets it right in theory if not in practice--the lens through which we relate to one another can only be love.  “Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet’; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbour; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.” (Romans 13:8-10)

What would it look like if everything we did, every action we took, every word we said, was rooted in love?  Love for our neighbor as ourselves? 

How would our laws change?  What would national borders and immigration policy look like if everything was borne of a place of love for our neighbor?

How would our criminal justice system change?  If we love the neighbor who sins against us, who steals, who commits murder, how then do we go about the work of justice--the hard work of protecting the vulnerable in society, of lessening the danger around us, while loving even our enemies--even those who perpetuate crime? 

How would we be in relationship with one another?  How would we deal with hurt, with pain, if we loved one another? How would our tongues be tempered?  How quick would we be to forgive--if we were rooted only in a place of love?

If it sounds like hard work, it probably is, and we have a lifetime to practice. When we don’t get it right we are assured of forgiveness. And that there will be a chance to try again.  But through God’s grace we already have the pattern for love--the cross.  We have already seen how Christ’s love for us has changed us, has changed the world. 

I invite you this week to look at the relationships you’re in.  To do more than “play pretty” or be nice--but to be in real relationship, to really love one another.  Let everything you do be rooted in love.

Christ has shown us the way.  We know how to love, because he has first loved us.

AMEN.

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