Monday, December 28, 2009

Christmas 1, Year C, Sunday December 27, 2009

Isaiah 61:10-62:3; Psalm 147; Galatians 3:23-25; 4:4-7; John 1:1-18
Preached by The Rev. Ellen Francis, OSH

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (John 1:1)

When I was in high school, I spent one summer traveling in France with a few classmates and our French teacher. We visited the famous places: the Louvre, the Eifel Tower, Versailles, Mont Saint Michel. However, one of the most impressive things I saw wasn’t in a famous church or museum, but rather it was the very ancient drawings in the Lascaux caves, estimated to be around 16,000 or 17,000 years old.

I saw these drawings in 1962, and in 1963 the caves were closed because the many visitors were bringing in contaminants, and eventually the paintings would have been destroyed. I feel very fortunate to have been able to go into the actual caves, and walk where those ancient people walked, and see the paintings exactly where they were painted.

In spite of all of the study of these drawings, I don’t think that we know even today exactly what they were supposed to mean. They seem to show little stick figures of people hunting, and they include magnificent representations of animals, especially some large wooly animals, which might be bison. There are bulls, horses, deer, and over 900 animal drawings in all. There is even a large bison which has one leg drawn in front of the other to show perspective, which was not attempted again in Western art until the 15th century.

Perhaps these ancient people had visions, and wanted to record what they had seen. Perhaps they were telling the stories of the hunt. Perhaps they hoped to influence the future, and have a successful hunt the following season. We don’t know what these drawings meant to the original artists or to those who saw them. We do know that they are breathtakingly beautiful.

We can’t always know what art is supposed to “mean.” There was once a student who had been asked to write a term paper about a poem. This student couldn’t make heads or tails of the poem, so he wrote a letter to the poet and asked him what the poem “meant”. The poet wrote back to him, and said that he didn’t know what the poem meant either. The poem just was what it was, and it meant what it meant to those who heard it. The poet Archibald Macleish also wrote about the simple “being” of a poem in “Ars Poetica”: “A poem should not mean, but be”.

I’ve noticed this also with my icon paintings. Other people will see the most amazing things, that I had no idea were there. They will see an emotion or likeness in a face I’ve painted. They will see symbols that are meaningful to them, but that I never intended. Over the past year I’ve been working on a large icon, 3’ by 4’, and now after all this time it is finally finished and ready to be shipped.

Part of me wants to keep it, but mostly I want to let it go, almost like letting a grown child go out into the world. So I will light a candle and pray in front of it, and then pack it up for shipping. When I do send it off and let it go, I will feel some emptiness, but I’ll also be glad that it will achieve its own meaning for the people who look at it, engage with it, and pray in front of it.

The Gospel of John is a work of art. The other three Gospels tell of the story and the miracle of the Good News of Jesus Christ and they give powerful witness, each in its own way. However, the Gospel of John tells the Good News in words of true poetic power. Especially in this prologue that we heard today, the words evoke a truth that is beyond proof and reason.

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (John 1:1)

Every year, on the first Sunday after Christmas, our lectionary appoints this passage from the first chapter of the Gospel of John. We have just barely heard the story of the birth of Jesus, and the Gospel of Luke is very specific in telling us when it happened, during the reign of the Emperor Augustus and while Quirinius was governor of Syria, and exactly where it happened, in Bethlehem, the town that is in Judea, not the other Bethlehem that is up north.

Now, all of a sudden, just days later, we are launched by the Gospel of John into a mystery that spans all time and space. We are in the realm of poetic art, without secure handholds, but with the promise of the divine light that is God’s gift to all people.

Jesus is the true light, which came into the world; he was born a human baby, lived a simple, human life, died on the cross, and rose again. He is also the light that existed from the beginning of all time, and continues to give hope and comfort. This is the light that helps us to see Christ in our grumpy neighbor. This is the light that helps us to be patient when we are grumpy and tired ourselves. This is the light that shows us the way when we are lost. This is the light that helps us to be kind and compassionate and loving towards all people and creatures, which God also loved into being.

This is the light that helps us to see God, and to love God, and to have faith in the saving power of God’s grace. The very nature of faith is that we can hold belief and hope without concrete proof. The words of the Gospel of John illuminate a truth that is clearer and deeper than anything we can touch or see.

In the depths of time and human origins, a few early people sketched their dreams on the wall of a cave. They could have made simple scratches to remember how many bison were caught in the hunt. Instead, they created a tableau that spoke of desire for something more than just a hunt or a vision. They, and all human peoples who followed them, have been reaching for the divine.

The divine Word came to us in Jesus, who became human, that we might see the divine more clearly, believe in Him, and carry hope in our hearts, and be ourselves transformed in the Spirit into a holy people of God. As the true light came into the world at his birth, in the first century, in Bethlehem, may we also see that light here, today, and may it be enkindled in our hearts and shine forth in our lives forever.

Christmas Eve, Year C, Sunday December 24, 2009

Isaiah 62:6-12; Psalm 97; Titus 3:4-7; Luke 2:1-20
Preached by The Rev. Ellen Francis, OSH

On a late night long ago, some shepherds were settling in for the night, having a last chat by the fire and rubbing their hands to keep warm. They were grubby, rough, somewhat disreputable characters, living on the fringes of the town of Bethlehem. Suddenly they heard a choir of angels and a startling message. They rubbed their eyes and scratched their heads. They asked one another, “Did you hear that?” “Did you see those angels?!” “How can it be that angels would appear to the likes of us?”

During my trip to the Holy Land in November, we visited a hilltop near Bethlehem called “Shepherd’s Field.” After a bus ride from the convent where we stayed for the night, we arrived at a garden with lovely olive trees and shaded walkways. We had a view of hills and valleys all around. At the end of the main walkway, there was a small outdoor altar and simple stone benches, and nearby there was a little grotto that had been converted into a chapel.

There was also a little church with frescos painted high up on the walls, including one of the shepherds listening to the message of the angels. Windows high up in the dome let a stream of light pour down on the altar. We gathered inside this church, and one of the members of our group read the story about the shepherds and the angels from the Gospel of Luke. We sang “Angels We Have Heard on High”. Then we were given time to wander and to pray.

We have no way to know for certain that this really was the place where those shepherds were watching their sheep on that night so long ago. As I walked among the trees, and experienced the great peacefulness of that place, I felt that it just didn’t matter. It seemed to me that this was still a very holy place, which was set apart to commemorate and honor the witness of the shepherds and which has received the prayers of so many pilgrims over hundreds of years. It was also a very ordinary hilltop in that region.

In a lovely and ordinary place, those rough and scruffy shepherds, were the ones chosen to receive the message of the angels and the Good News of the birth of the Messiah. They were blessed to be the very first to visit and adore the newborn Jesus. They were also the first evangelists, since they “made known what had been told them about this child”, even though people who heard their story were “amazed”, as the Gospel says, and they probably doubted the story, given the reputation of shepherds.

These shepherds lived difficult lives, and they lived in a time of war and conflict and of much suffering and poverty and oppression. Today we also live in a time of war and conflict, and much suffering and poverty and oppression in many parts of the world. Also, it seems to me that this past year has been especially difficult for our beautiful, fragile world, and for many of us in our personal lives.

Some years ago I had a spiritual director who would catch me up as I was in the middle of telling her about my latest woe. She would stop me in the midst of my saga, and say, “Now, wait a minute.” She would pause to get my attention, and then she would lean forward and say, “So, where is God in all this?”

Indeed, where is God in the midst of all the pain? God came to be born a human baby at a time and place which was also messy, chaotic, and suffering. There was no perfectly peaceful, holy time and place for Christ to be born, so why not in the first century, in a small village in a distant corner of the Roman Empire? And why not make the primary announcement to some ordinary shepherds?

These shepherd were terrified and then touched by God’s message, and they believed. They were ready to get up and go to Bethlehem, and afterwards they persisted in telling the Good News to others. Then, why should not the message and the blessing come to us now? I believe that if the message of the good news could be sent even to those grubby ancient shepherds, God also has a message of hope for us, here, tonight. That one event in ancient Bethlehem transforms all time and makes all places into a “Shepherd’s Field”.

Even now, God calls us to come to him and to find him, a humble, simple, human baby. As he was fully human, he could enter into and understand our human condition of suffering and of joy. As he was fully divine, he brings infinite compassion and offers to shoulder our burdens. God comes to us now, today, right here, always taking the risk to offer to us Love without bounds and without end.

God takes this risk. Can we also take the risk of responding to this gift and receiving Him? What sort of commitment does this require from each one of us? When God has risked and given all for us, how can we give him anything less than a full-hearted response? When all else is falling down around our ears, who else but Christ can be our strength and hope and comfort?

During this past year, we have been on our own journey here at Saint Augustine’s towards calling a new rector. This is rightly a time of stress and anxiety as well as anticipation. It would be natural to assume that this new rector will be the savior, and that he or she will grow the church and fix everything that could possibly need fixing. I’m sorry to say that the new rector will not be the savior. The job of Savior is already taken. The new rector will more likely take the role of the angels, announce the good news, and point the way.

Do not be afraid, the angel said on that night so long ago. This is also the message to us today: do not be afraid; do not lose heart. Instead, come and see what God has done, and is doing, and will do to make known the glory and love of God, even in the midst of all the messiness of our lives and the brokenness of our world.

Today, in this place and this very night, we have the invitation to get up and go to Bethlehem. We are offered a glimpse of the eternal presence of God’s love and the promise of salvation, which is for all people through faith in Christ. As spiritual nourishment for the journey, we will gather shortly at this altar to receive the Body and Blood of Christ. Then we will be sent forth, propelled out into the world by our deacon, to proclaim in word and deed the Good News of the birth of Jesus Christ, our Savior and the Redeemer of all the world.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Advent 4, Year C, Sunday December 20, 2009

Micah 5:2-51; Canticle 3; Hebrews 10:5-10; Luke 1:39-55
Preached by The Rev. Ellen Francis, OSH

In the town of Nazareth today there is a re-creation of the ancient village where Jesus grew up. There’s a village carpenter’s shop, an olive press, and a boulder where grapes were stomped and aged into wine. There’s a shepherd with a little flock of sheep. There is a woman who is dressed in traditional costume and who demonstrates the spinning of raw wool into yarn, which is then dyed and woven into blankets.

There are also examples of villagers’ homes, with thatch roofs, stone walls, and mud floors. These homes were lit with little clay lamps, about the size of a cupped hand. We can imagine that the life there was very, very hard.

In Nazareth there is also the Church of the Annunciation which has been venerated for centuries as the exact place where the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary. Inside the church, downstairs, we can enter a spacious sanctuary built in a circular design, with the main altar in the center and seating for the congregation surrounding all sides.

As you look down at the altar, on one side there is a gate through which you can see into a little grotto or cave. Inside the cave is a small altar, and in the back you can see rough stairs and maybe shelves in the walls. The cave is very natural and simple, and quite small. This space is venerated as the actual place of the annunciation, and the cave itself is simply called “Mary’s house”.

We don’t know for sure whether this was the house in which Mary grew up or the exact place where she heard the message from God that she had been chosen to bear the Savior of the world. We do know that there is one ancient well in Nazareth, not far from the church, which is called “Mary’s well”, and archeologists are convinced that Mary must have drawn water from that well. “Mary’s house”, on the other hand, holds no clues that can definitively prove its identity.

When our tour leaders gave us some quiet time to meditate and pray, I sat for several minutes by the gate in front of the front of the cave. For a short while there was no press and or bustle of crowds. It felt so peaceful and quiet. I thought that this could be the house of Mary, and it could be the very place where she was astonished, afraid, perplexed, and finally knelt in acceptance of Gabriel’s words. I could feel the prayers of millions of people over the centuries that have soaked into the stones, and I felt the peace of her gentle surrender to the will of God.

The cave is very simple, but the church surrounding it is quite magnificent and it was built to honor and enclose the simple little cave. It serves as a fitting symbol of the words of Mary’s song, the Magnificat. The poor and simple little cave dwelling has been exalted and sanctified and honored. God has indeed looked with favor on the lowliness of Mary. God has brought down the powerful, and lifted up the lowly.

We could also translate the song of Mary into more modern words: as God has given favor to a simple, young girl, so also God gives blessing and hope in our own time: serenity of spirit to the depressed; healing of body, mind and spirit for the sick; hope to the unemployed; consolation to the grieving; compassion to all those who suffer.

This is so much a part of the Christian tradition that we forget what a scandal it was in ancient times. The idea of the blessing of God going to the poor and lowly was counter to everything that ancient people believed about God. Everyone knew (or thought they knew) that it was exactly the opposite: the wealthy and healthy were the most blessed by God, and the lowly and poor were out of favor with God and perhaps even notoriously sinful. Mary’s song celebrates the upside down world of God’s mercy: it is exactly those who are meek and humble and suffering whom God will especially bless and heal and comfort.

Mary’s song echoed in our hearts as we left the Church of the Annunciation and explored the courtyard outside. On the walls enclosing the courtyard, there are paintings and frescos and stone inlays of Mary donated by many countries. There is a Japanese Mary who looks like a lovely geisha in a kimono. There is a Mexican Mary who looks like a Spanish peasant. A Korean Mary has a traditional high-waisted gown and big bow. There are Marys depicted in folk art style, and Marys in traditional icon style, and highly modern Marys who are hard to discern at all.

Mary has been adopted by each culture and tradition, and each of us may find her reflected in our own experience and prayer. She is for all times and all people, the eternal mother of Jesus and the one most blessed and favored by God. The call to Mary is to a unique one, and also a reflection of the message that God sends to us all: to be faithful, to trust, to hope, and to open our hearts to receive the Christ child.

While we were in Nazareth, someone noticed that there are hills surrounding the town, and we wondered whether Mary went to visit Elizabeth in the “hill country” nearby rather than traveling far south to Judea, as reported in the Gospel of Luke. I think that it doesn’t really matter where they met. The two women greeted each other in joy and anticipation of the birth of their two very special children, and they both believed in the promise of salvation.

As we draw nearer to Christmas and the celebration of the birth of Jesus, may we also be pregnant with the hope and anticipation that God gave to Elizabeth and Mary. In these humble and faithful and holy women, in the midst of their daily work and struggles, God entrusted the hope of all the peoples of the world, and they provided the humble hospitality for the one who came before and the one who would come after, and who would be our Savior. May we also provide our own humble hospitality for God to come to us, and may we also say “Yes!” as Mary does, to whatever surprises, blessings, and challenges God may have in store for us.

We may feel that we are poor vessels to receive such a call and to receive Christ and to do God’s work. It sounds like that’s just the point: in the upside-down world of God’s mercy and grace, we are all chosen and entrusted with the precious gift of God’s son, and in Him, we are also blessed with the hope of salvation.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Advent 3, Year C, Sunday December 13, 2009

Zephaniah 3:14-20; Canticle 9; Philippians 4:4-7; Luke 3:7-18
Preached by The Rev. Ellen Francis, OSH

Just when we thought it would be a lovely and happy thing to come to church and enjoy Advent and Christmas celebrations, and just as we finish hearing these exuberantly joyful readings from Zephaniah, Isaiah, and Philippians --- then suddenly we hear John the Baptist blasting his followers: “You brood of vipers!”

I wish I could say to John, get a life; forget the diet of locusts; have a Christmas cookie! His sermon definitely puts a bit of a damper on the Advent and Christmas spirit. He sound awfully angry, and he goes on to rant about chopping down unproductive trees and throwing them into the fire. His listeners understand him to mean that some of them are like trees that do “not bear good fruit” or like useless “chaff”, and they fear that they are in danger of losing their souls to an “unquenchable fire”.

How can this be “good news”? How can this be cause for rejoicing? We hear that large crowds of people came to hear John the Baptist preach and received baptism from him. At first we may wonder why. He seems to have been highly successful in attracting followers, in spite of this dreary and even frightening message.

There must indeed be some “good news” somewhere in all this, and I do think there is. In those days, there were synagogues in many towns and cities, but there was only one Temple, in Jerusalem, and it was there that people came to worship and to celebrate the great festivals, if they were able to make the trip. It was a long and arduous journey to get there, and once someone had arrived, they would have had to climb the hill to reach the city, and then climb a long flight of stairs to reach the Temple gates. The steps were built with a long, flat spaces between each step, so that people would be forced to climb with dignity, one step at a time. The gates were very impressive with wide entrances and large stone archways overhead. As our worshipper mingled with larger and larger crowds, we can imagine his increasing awe and amazement.

After passing through the gate, our worshipper would enter the outer Court of the Gentiles, and if he was a Jewish adult man and ritually clean he could enter the inner courtyard to give his offering to a priest. Only a priest could offer the sacrifice. And only the High Priest, once a year, could enter the most sacred place of all, the Holy of Holies, where it was believed the presence of God rested.

Not everyone could make the journey to Jerusalem. Not everyone could become or maintain ritual purity. Not everyone was Jewish and adult and male! All others were excluded from entering fully into the worship and ritual, and from receiving the blessings of offering sacrifice and atonement for sin.

This reminds me of a worship experience of my childhood. When I was growing up, I remember singing in the children’s choir in a very large Episcopal church in New York City. Every Christmas eve, the children’s choir sang the hymn “O Holy Night” with the adult and boys’ choir, and some of us could even quiver and quake our way up to the very high note, at the end of the last verse, “O night Di-viiiine….” It was a very special and lovely occasion that I looked forward to every year, but there was one catch. As I said, it was a very large church, and on Christmas eve the children’s choir sang from the balcony. Being almost always the tallest in any group when I was growing up, I was seated at the back of the balcony. Every Christmas, from the back row of the balcony, I looked down on the sanctuary, very very far away, where the boys’ choir was, and the boy acolytes, and the men who were servers and the master of ceremonies, and the men who were the lay readers, and the men who (of course) were the priests.

One year it occurred to me that something was strange with this picture. I didn’t have the foggiest thought at that time that I would ever see women priests in my lifetime, or that I would ever be one (I think I would have fallen off the balcony if anyone had told me that!), but still I felt excluded. By not seeing a woman or girl anywhere in the picture, I felt somehow that I must be somehow unacceptable and just not good enough to be near God.

Many years later, I was singing in a choir in New Jersey, and there came one Sunday in summer when the rector (a man) was away on vacation. The curate (a woman) was the celebrant that day, the acolyte was a girl, and the lay reader was a woman. I’m sure this was all a coincidence, but looking down from the balcony I felt for the first time that perhaps, just maybe, I could after all be fully acceptable to God.

There are many times in our lives when each one of us may feel excluded or ashamed or inferior, but the most painful seems to me to be when the hurt comes from someone close to us whom we respect and love. It can be most hurtful at church, because that is a place where we are especially trusting and vulnerable. My mistake, so many years ago, was to believe that because the choir director had put me in last row of the balcony, then God agreed and to God I was only worth putting in the distant, dark balcony. The “good news” of Christ is that this is nonsense.

In today’s reading from the Gospel of Luke, John the Baptist tells his followers that their souls are in danger from the “unquenchable fire”. When the people ask, “What should we do,” he responds to them all, even Gentiles and despised tax collectors and Roman soldiers. Their task isn’t easy: they were paid very little because it was expected that they would take bribes and line their pockets. John requires them to be satisfied with their wages and to share what they have, with the expectation that they too may anticipate the salvation of God.

The “good news” of John the Baptist is that the Messiah is coming, and he will bring salvation for all people. He calls us all to amendment of life and to transformation through Christ’s baptism. The words of John the Baptist are “good news” and cause for rejoicing, because they give hope and promise that it is possible for all people to be embraced and welcomed as God’s own beloved.

We don’t need to change who we are in the world to hear and attend to these words, to amend our lives, to receive the blessings of grace, and to be drawn into the fellowship of the people of God. Today, just as we are, we can follow Christ in right relationship with our neighbor. We can prepare to receive the mystery of grace in the celebration of the birth of Jesus, in whom is our hope and our trust and our salvation.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Advent 2, Year C, Sunday December 6, 2009

Baruch 5:1-9; Canticle 4; Philippians 1:3-11; Luke 3:1-6
Preached by The Rev. Ellen Francis, OSH

So many of my visual images of Bible scenes and events have been completely re-drawn after my recent trip to the Holy Land. For example, the city of Jerusalem is usually described as “stand[ing] upon the height”. I guess I always pictured a high hill, with a city perched on top and enclosed by some sort of wall, and surrounded by an open plain.

On our trip, we saw that the “old city” of Jerusalem is indeed placed on a hill but it is surrounded by several valleys and other hills. From the Mount of Olives, nearby, you can look down into the Kidron Valley and then up to the high walls of the city itself. In ancient times, those walls fully enclosed the city; today the modern city of Jerusalem sprawls out beyond the walls and across the nearby hills and valleys.

We can still imagine what it was like for ancient travelers as they came “up” to Jerusalem. They would have crossed barren deserts and wilderness, fields and rocky hills, forests and river valleys. They would have passed through small villages and modest towns, but mostly they would have travelled through open countryside. It would have been a long and arduous journey. As they approached their destination, the great city of Jerusalem, there would have been still more hills to climb and river valleys to cross, until they reached the magnificent, high walls and imposing gates. Ancient travelers must have been fit and hardy indeed for such a journey.

John the Baptist used the experience of ancient travelers to describe the difficulties in preparing for the coming of the Messiah. The task that he set before his disciples was repentance from individual sins. Also, in the tradition of all the ancient prophets, he called his followers to faithfulness as a community to the one God of Israel and to generosity to the poor.

In coming forward for baptism, John’s followers made a commitment to repentance and to preparation, individually and as a community, for the coming of the Messiah. In Advent, we also set aside a time of preparation for the birth of Jesus and for the Christ’s mass on the eve of his birth. Traditionally Advent has been like a little Lent: a time of lighter penitence, but still a very special and sacred season.

It’s a time of preparation and especially a time of waiting, which isn’t always easy. It might seem easier just to get on with the main event. Why not go directly from the end of the season of Pentecost right to Christmas? Other than time for Christmas shopping, why have a season for waiting at all? It seems completely contrary to our culture to set aside a time dedicated to anticipation and waiting, rather than doing. We have so many self-help books and programs on how to be more efficient, get more done, achieve more success. We see very little if anything on the self-help shelves about how to wait, and how to do nothing, and just be.

After my first time to visit a convent for a silent retreat, someone asked me “What did you do last weekend?” I answered, “Oh, nothing.” That was true, in a way, or at least I tried, but “doing nothing” was ever so much more difficult than I could possibly have imagined. In fact I alternated between wanting to leave and puttering around looking for something to do.

There is a story of a hermit who instructed his followers simply to stay in their rooms, which they called “cells”. “Stay in your cell,” he said, “and your cell will teach you everything.” When we do figure out how to sit still long enough, it’s amazing to find that inactivity can be enormously productive, in a spiritual sense. When we slow down long enough, and listen attentively, a sense of peace and clarity may come, and we may even give God a chance to get a word in edgewise!

One of my sisters is fond of saying that we all are “human beings”, not “human doings”. I ask each of you to think about one what inactivity might be helpful to you in preparation for the coming of Christ. What would be most helpful for you -- not to do? And, I might add, not to worry about not doing?

It may seem very odd for a preacher to say “do less”, rather than saying “do more, give more, etc.” Such quiet, preparation time is an opportunity to reflect and to rest the soul, stop spinning wheels and making quick choices. It’s time to listen for the call of God. What I’m describing is a time of preparation for the transformation of our lives in Christ, with faith that in good time the most valuable and important and life-giving things will be done.

As a parish family, we will be having our annual meeting this morning, including a report on our activities for the past year. We have counted the numbers of people and numbers of dollars and listed events and ministries, and all that we have to report is quite impressive! On the other hand, it’s much harder to report on the quality of our worship and fellowship. Hardest of all would be to report on what spiritual growth has been happening in this time of waiting for a new rector.

In the midst of activities and programs and ministry, there are the in-between grace-filled moments when we are not doing anything that we can count or measure. This is holy, fallow time when the seeds of the Spirit are resting and preparing. This is time for prayerful and attentive listening.

We may see obstacles in our way, individually and as a parish. Our scripture promises that through the grace of God, once we set out, the journey will be made smooth. Mountains and valleys can be made level and there will be shade from the sun. We can walk safely on our journey to the holy and heavenly Jerusalem, which is the place of God’s presence where “all [people] shall see the salvation of God”.

Through the grace of God, we are being led safely on a highway, which is smooth, unobstructed, open access, a two-way street, for God to come to us in the birth of the Christ child, and for us to go to God. My dear friends, it is a journey that we continue every day in search of our personal and parish goals, and also a journey which is already fully complete in the fellowship of each moment that we spend in worship and service and quiet waiting in the presence of a gracious and loving God.