Thursday, December 27, 2012

7 Advent, Year C. December 23, 2012

Micah 5:2-5a; Psalm 80:1-7; Hebrews 10:5-10; Luke 1:39-45 [46-55]
Preached by Rev. Dr. Jason Haddox

I was in the church last week in the afternoon the other day, visiting the windows. The late sunshine was streaming through the Prophets’ Window—I saw Isaiah standing with one foot on the Scroll, and an angel carrying a flaming-bright coal extended to touch his lips, to go forth to speak the Word of God to those who will listen, and those who will not. The shape of the glass and concrete suggest both tongs to hold that bright coal, and the silhouette of a bird in flight. The bird—the Dove of Holy Scripture, which in the Celtic church of the British Isles becomes the Wild Goose—indicates the presence of the Holy Spirit. And that same shape appears again, mirrored in the Nativity window, with an angelic figure on one side, and a human figure dressed in blue on the other side. The bird in flight, the Holy Spirit’s outward and visible representative, comes to rest and nest and initiate a miraculous transformation in Mary and Elizabeth, and Joseph and Zachariah, to stir up the beginnings of their own lives’ transformation.

When the angels visit, they always begin with the same with the introduction: Fear not. Do not be afraid. Even though your life is about is about to change: Fear not.

Mary’s world, and Elizabeth’s, and Joseph’s and Zechariah’s, have all been turned upside down. How can this be? This should not be! But it is. An unmarried adolescent girl, and a woman well past childbearing years are both pregnant with miracle children, and there they stand together in Elizabeth’s front room, hollering and singing and laughing until the rafters ring.
We’ve had some world-turning-upside-down-events lately. On Friday at 9:30 am we kept silence as a nation, in memory of the victims of Sandy Hook Elementary School only a week previously. We forget, far too easily, to remember the people in our own town who have died because of violence—some of whom are laid to rest only a few feet from where we sit this day. We hear speculations of the end of the world, predictions of disasters great and small; we hear shrieking voices threatening a plunge over the edge of a fiscal cliff, whatever that might actually mean.

And we’ve welcomed William and Ehlana and Addison into the world; we have seen the joy and delight and wonder on the faces of their parents. We have given thanks for these new lives. We’ve gathered in each others’ homes for our Cottage Meetings, and told our own stories about how God has touched our lives—those “Thin Places” where we have seen with our eyes and heard with our ears, and touched and tasted and smelled the very Spirit of God present with us.

All of these things, both joyful and terrible, have the power to turn our world upside down, and bring us into a reality that forces us to take another look, think another thing, change the direction in which we are going. Metanoia.
Mary has come in haste to the house of Elizabeth and Zechariah. She has been visited by the angel, who tells her that she will have a miraculous child—if she is willing. (An early legend not in the biblical account suggests that Mary was the first one to say “yes”’ to the angel’s message. All the others before her had rejected the invitation outright.) She finds Elizabeth in the sixth month of her own pregnancy, she who had been childless all those years. And they both have had an invitation, a miraculous visit by the Spirit of God, prefaced by that formula: Fear not.

It is a LOUD scene in the gospel this morning. Elizabeth feels the baby leap inside her, and commences to hollering: “Blessed are you! Blessed is the child you bear! Blessed is she who believed that God’s word to her would indeed be fulfilled!” They are shouting and embracing, laughing until the tears run down their faces, a teenager and a post-menopausal woman, at the greatest joke of the cosmos, that the messengers and servants of God, whom we now call “Blessed”—Mary, Joseph, Elizabeth, Zechariah, and all the others—are simply the ones whom God chooses, through no great merit of their own, to do something amazing. To talk to Pharaoh, tell him ‘Let my people go.” To leave home and family and livestock, and become the king of Israel. To bear a child, the child of God. And in the company of all these ancestors, with Moses and Miriam, David and Esther, Isaiah and Deborah and and all the others, Mary says “Yes.” And she begins to sing aloud—the words we know as the “Magnificat.”

Words which we know well—possibly too well. We’ve gotten used to them through frequent use. Perhaps we’re afraid of them. And for good reason. Listen to this:

“My soul magnifies the Lord…he has shown the strength of his arm; he has scattered the proud in their conceit. He has cast down the mighty from their thrones; and has lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things; and the rich he has sent away empty.”

Them’s fighting words, folks. In the ‘80s the Song of Mary was on the forbidden list of several South American governments, who considered it too revolutionary for public recitation—even in the monasteries and convents. The monks and nuns kept on saying and singing it, of course.

In 21st century America, we may miss, ignore, or deny the political tones of Mary’s song, but Herod wouldn’t have missed it; not even for a second. Herod had family members executed if he so much smelled a hint of insurrection in the air. Any man, much less any woman, who would so openly sing of his downfall; any woman who would so openly sing of a world turned upside down, was nothing short of a subversive radical.

WE may have reduced Mary to a demure vehicle for the birth of a child, but she is nothing short of a prophet singing of a new world order. She is the slave singing a field chant of a coming day when the slave will be exalted and the master turned out. Mary is more than merely the apparatus for Jesus’ arrival: she is the first member of Jesus’ household. She says yes to that call, to that invitation, knowing that her life will change but not having any idea what that will look like. Nor does she ask for any such assurance.

Instead, she says Yes. Yes to incarnation—yes to taking into herself the power and potency of God Almighty, to being Theotokos—the “God Bearer” as our friends at Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church would name her. She said yes, not simply to a God who dwelt outside of her, beyond her, but yes to a God who desired to dwell within and through her. That is incarnational theology. God isn’t just with us, but can be within us; distinct yet inseparable. This is what Mary’s yes was about. She chose to participate in the divine and the holy, even as the holy and divine chose to participate in and through her.

But here’s the thing. This word of invitation hasn’t just been extended to Mary; it’s been

extended to me and you as well. Every single one of us is receiving an invitation this Christmas, not to a cocktail party, but to start establishing the world that Mary sang of in the Magnificat.

What God asks of Mary of Galilee back then and there, God also asks of each of us, here and now. God wants nothing less than for us to become pregnant with divine possibilities and then to give birth to the holy and precious in our own time. To be “God-Bearers” in our own places of work and play, in our homes and neighborhoods and communities.

This morning a teenage girl and an old woman are laughing in delight at God’s irrepresible desire to be in our midst, even if it must be by the most undignified means imaginable.

But that’s Mary’s story, and Elizabeth’s.

What’s yours? What’s our story, St. Augustine’s Church?

Do you say yes to God’s intrusive invitations?

Do we say yes to new horizons, new possibilities, new lives?

Do you and I say with Isaiah, “Here am I, send me”?

Do you say yes to questions that challenge “the powers that be” with the dominion of God? Will you bear and give birth to the holy?

Let us pray:

The angel of the Lord announced to Mary: and she conceived by the Holy Ghost.

Mary said: Behold the handmaid of the Lord: Be it unto me according to thy word.

And the Word was made flesh: and dwelt amongst us.

Hail Mary, full of Grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou amongst women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.

6 Advent, Year C, December 16, 2012

Zephaniah 3:14-20; Canticle 9; Philippians 4:4-7; Luke 3:7-28
Preached by Rev. Dr. Jason Haddox

Last week: the prelude. John appears, with words from Isaiah about preparing the way of God to come in and among and to the people. A baptism for the repentance of sins—metanoia. Changing of hearts and actions, with the expectation that something is going to happen. Does something happen BECAUSE of this repentence, or is the “something” inevitable, and repentance makes one able to receive it? Or both?

“Metanoia” as coming to a right mind, and right actions, within which “Something” is both welcomed from afar and revealed as already present all along.

John the Baptist lived in a land occupied by the army of a foreign empire. It was nothing new even then. Before Rome occupied Jerusalem and the Holy Land, it had been conquered by Philip of Macedonia, and before that, the armies of Babylon. The presence of the outsiders, the military and civilian occupation, was everywhere. It was simply the way things were. And with that occupation, then as now, came the oppression of ordinary people, especially those on the edges of society. And with that came the desire among those so oppressed, to see the destruction of their enemies, in shame and catastrophe. To see those who had mistreated them, receive the same mistreatment or more, in retribution.

The impulses toward vengeance, domination, violence, and the belief that “might-makes-right” have always been part of the human condition. These are among the favorite temptations presented to humanity by the powers of darkness, and we continue to believe the lies they tell. In the devilish desire for victory at any price, we commit violent acts against one another. We take up arms to destroy, perhaps weapons that we can hold in our hands to make war on other bodies—guns and bombs if we can get them; rocks and sticks if not. Even more insidiously, we raise weapons of defaming speech and hateful language, by which we attack, damn, and destroy the souls other human beings, created in the image and likeness of God Almighty.

And so the prophets’ work continues, as we hear them calling out (even in the wilderness; even in the midst of great crowds): STOP IT!! Quit that nonsense! You claim that you are God’s people: Start acting like it! You believe that God is on your side: are you on God’s side? Where do God’s influence, or presence, or values, show up in your life?

And do not imagine that your ancestry, or your possessions, or your accomplishments, or any Thing that you have gathered to yourself, puts you any higher in God’s favor. In fact, it may be exactly the other way around. Those “things” can become objects of idolatry real fast.

Ancient Wendy’s Hamburger ad: “Where’s the Beef?”

John the Baptist: Where’s the fruit?

Ordinary people, and tax collectors, and Roman soldiers were there at the Jordan River that day. They didn’t have to be—they deliberately came out for the occasion. Maybe just to see the action. The “looky loos” who came to gawk and joke and have a good laugh. And yet somehow, they’re drawn in to what John has to say.

They call out to him: “What shall we do?”

Teacher, what should we do?” “Over, here, what about us?” And he tells them, each receiving a particular and pointed reply.

To those who have more than they need:

“Share what you have with those who don’t have any.”

To those who have power over others: “Don’t abuse it. Don’t abuse them.”

To those who made themselves great at the expense of other people:

“Be content with what you have; don’t threaten or tell lies about folks to get more stuff. You have enough.”

They were all wondering and questioning…Is this one The One? Will he be the fulfillment of all our hopes and expectations? Will he be the one who will set us free from the power of our enemies?

No: And we know that already. (Luke 1:72, the Benedictus Dominus Deus Israel, The Song of Zechariah, p. 92 in the BCP, paraphrased in Hymn 444 and sung every Sunday among us this Advent season) God’s promise to free the people is to be accomplished by another.

And John cuts that speculation off at the knees. “No, I’m not him. You ain’t seen nothing yet…”

He is great…I am little.

I baptize with water…he will baptize with Spirit and Fire.

(Immediately after which, of course, Jesus comes to be baptized and is revealed as the Beloved of God by the Holy Spirit, who then sends him out into the desert for forty days of spiritual boot camp—so it’s not all sweetness and light by any means. But that’s another sermon altogether…)

And so in this way, “with many other exortations, John preached the good news to the people.” Good news here = evangelion, “gospel”, but in a rather intensified form. It’s not “preaching” in the sense of he’s over here talking to people over there—it’s more like he’s running around among them, sort of getting in their faces with it—rubbing it into them from himself. Anointing them in advance of what is to come, helping them get ready. “Exhortation” is related to the word we translate as “parable”…again, not just him shouting at the audience, but talking to them in their own language and context. You can imagine more of “What should we do—we have this situation…” and John telling them “This is what you should do, right away…don’t postpone for a moment.”

I was asking that same question on Friday afternoon. Maybe you were as well. “What should we do? Oh God, what can we do?” The news has been unrelenting, some facts and much speculation, and at the heart of it, a horrible horrible act of violence. A situation that should not be, and yet is altogether too common. Mental illness plus easy access to weaponry plus a culture that is addicted to violence in every form equals potential disaster—and so it was. And so it has been before, and doubtless shall be again.

“What should we do?” we cry out—and there will be conversations about this yet to come. I hope that there will be some good out of all this; that Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut will not only be known forever as another place of death and disaster, but somehow a place where a change began—how we as a people deal with mental illness, how we deal with violence, how we deal with the easy availability of firearms. But those are conversations for a future day.

Today, we grieve. We offer our prayers for those who have died, and more importantly for those who are suffering the unspeakable loss of their beloveds. Today we hold in remembrance not only these, but all who have died by massacre and violence not of their own making, the Holy Innocents in every place and time.

Today is the penultimate Sunday in Advent—traditionally called “Gaudete” Sunday, which means “Rejoice.” We sang “rejoice” at the introit; and again during the Psalm. We hear the call to rejoice in the epistle, Paul’s words to the Christians in the city of Philippi, and in the first reading from Zephaniah. In all of these places, the invitation to joy is not based on the circumstances in which those who hear the words find themselves—Zephaniah writes to people who have been carried off into exile in Babylon; Paul addresses a community of believers who are themselves facing persecution and possibly death. This rejoicing is not a call to merely enjoy oneself in the goodness of God’s creation—although that’s not a bad thing either. Listen again: “Rejoice in the Lord ALWAYS. I’ll say it one more time: Rejoice!”

Not “Be happy always.” Not “Everything is wonderful and sunshine and roses always.” But Rejoice in the Lord always. Take joy in God—when you feel like it, and even when you don’t. It’s always there for you, that joy and mercy and grace.

“And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds, through Christ Jesus.” We know that language; we hear it often at the end of the Eucharist. That peace—which is beyond comprehension, beyond outward circumstance, beyond any logic or worldly sense, but is wholly and Holy the gift of God—is more than the absence of conflict or anxiety or worry, though it includes those things too. This is the shalom of God, the well-being of the entire creation and every being in it, from the stars to the starfish to the sub-atomic particles. That peace, deep and wide and strong, which is yet to come, for which we pray, and which even now we experience by faith. We pray that peace for ourselves; we pray that peace for the families in Connecticut; we pray that peace for the world, to which Christ has come, and is coming, and shall come.

Let us pray.

Come to us, O Prince of Peace, and be with those who cry out in grief and loss today. Comfort them with your deep peace, draw them to yourself, and fill them with your light. You are the Redeemer of the world, O Christ; redeem these losses, that out of great evil, in your time great good may yet come. We ask this in your name, and in the power of your resurrection from the dead. AMEN.

Sandy Hook Elementary School, December 14, 2012

Charlotte Bacon, 6
Daniel Barden, 7
Rachel Davino, 29
Olivia Engel, 6
Josephine Gay, 7
Ana Marquez-Greene, 6
Dylan Hockley, 6
Dawn Hocksprung, 47
Madeline Hsu, 6
Catherine Hubbard, 6
Chase Kowalski, 7
Jesse Lewis, 6
James Mattioli, 6
Grace McDonnell, 7
Anne Marie Murphy, 52
Emilie Parker, 6
Jack Pinto, 6
Noah Pozner, 6
Caroline Previdi, 6
Jessica Rekos, 6
Avielle Richman, 6
Lauren Russeau, 30
Mary Sherlach, 56
Victoria Soto, 27
Benjamin Wheeler, 6
Allison Wyatt, 6

Rest eternal grant to them, O Lord . . .

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Advent 5, Year C, 9 December 2012

Malachi 5:1-9; Canticle 16; Philippians 1:3-11; Luke 3:1-6

Preached by Rev. Dr. Jason Haddox

“You keep us waiting.
You, the God of all time,
Want us to wait.
For the right time in which to discover
Who we are, where we are to go,

Who will be with us, and what we must do.
So thank you … for the waiting time.”
~ John Bell

Where were you, and what were you doing, when you got the news? The news that changed your life forever. “We’re going to have a baby.” “The war is over.” “It’s cancer.” “I want a divorce.” “The Twin Towers just collapsed.”

You remember that moment. The room where you were standing; the people to whom you were speaking. You remember feeling the world shift. It didn’t matter if the news was wonderfully good or unspeakably bad. Regardless, it threw you, and everything around you, into a spin, and a place where nothing seemed to hold together. Where everything was in confusion and chaos.

“On such a day, in such a year, at such a place, when so-and-so was ruling in the capital city…something happened.” The author of the Gospel of Luke, and the Book of Acts, tells the reader over and over where and when these things are taking place. This is very much a Lucan concern, from the very beginning of the Gospel:

“Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses…I too decided…to write an orderly account…so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed.” (Luke 1:1-4)

“In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberias, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruling in Galilee...the word of God came to John, son of Zechariah, in the wilderness around the Jordan.” Not once upon a time in a kingdom far away, but in a real place at a real time. Not just any place, of course. The wilderness—the place where God’s people had wandered forty years, led by the pillar of cloud in the daytime and the pillar of fire by night. The place where they encountered God as both demanding and protecting; as requiring obedience and steadfast faith, and yet always there for them regardless of their frequent disobedience and faithlessness.

And not just any wilderness—the desert, the uninhabited area away from towns and villages, the desolate, parched places near the Jordan River. The border country; the place where years earlier God’s people had passed through the water together and entered into the promised land.

It is here—in a place resonant with the echoes of God’s saving acts—that John the Baptizer appears.

He comes “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” Baptism, and the use of water in a variety of religious cleansing rites, was not unknown in those days—many religious sects within Judaism used water for ritual purification, as well as ordinary washing. John’s baptism is of a particular sort—to signify a change of heart and action in the one so baptized, and to prepare the participants for the arrival of God’s kingdom. And so Luke explains this baptism, and the ministry of John the Baptizer, by quoting the prophet Isaiah:

The voice of one crying in the wilderness:

“Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth:
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”

It is for this that John baptizes—to prepare the way of God’s arrival, in the lives and hearts of those who have begun to suspect, even ever so faintly, that something is about to change. That something big is on the way, something for which “getting ready” is necessary.

Last week I had the honor of visiting Erin and Carson Scott at University Hospital. Something big had arrived on November 30th, something that had indeed created enormous change in their lives. Ehlana Orin Scott is not large of body, but her coming has been the source of “Getting ready” for many people. And now that she has come, the beginning has come to an end, and a new beginning is underway, the beginning of something even more wonderful and amazing. For this one life has already affected many other lives, and will continue to do so for years, decades, maybe centuries yet to come. The transition from “getting ready” to “here she is, the new life has begun” is so quick.

We are in Advent—the season of “getting ready.” And it’s not just about getting ready for the baby in the manger on Christmas Eve, much less trying to recreate some sort of Norman Rockwell-meets-Andy Griffith fantasy about picture-perfect holiday gatherings. I don’t know any perfect people. Truth be told, I don’t think you do either. A friend of mine shared a thought with me last week, what she called her “Advent Mantra—‘Christmas will come even without a , and Martha Stewart's not coming by to judge.’”

John the Baptizer is calling his hearers to get ready—in every way—for what is already coming. He is not calling them to somehow make themselves into perfect specimens of humanity, “OR ELSE.” He’s inviting them to recognize God’s kin-dom already showing up among them, and to act in harmony with it. To cease from acquisition of power and possessions; to share what they have with those who are in need of even the basics; to see in the face of a neighbor or stranger the very image and likeness of God.

The repentance of which John speaks (and will speak further in the gospel next week) is not about feeling miserably sorry for past misdeeds. There may be need for something like that, but that’s not really the point either. Repentance—metanoia—turning around, changing the mind, changing the direction in which you’re going when you realize “I don’t want to go that way, I don’t want to live like that.” The ah-ha moment. Maybe dramatic and public—Paul on the road to Damascus; Peter in the house of Cornelius the Roman military officer—maybe private and known only to one person or a few—the alcoholic who wakes up one morning and decides “Enough—today I quit this behavior,” and takes himself to an AA meeting.

It is the practice—sustained over time—of taking on the kingdom values for oneself, even in the face of cultural and societal expectations that run completely counter to those values. Love God above all things; Love your neighbor as yourself. Then, and now, it is radical stuff.

This is the call of Advent. In the midst noise and chaos—a call to silence, and deep listening. In the midst of seemingly limitless consumption and desire—a call to simplicity and gratitude. In the midst of temptation to give in to despair and anxiety—a call to live lives of hope, faith, and love, in which all people shall see and know the salvation of God.

May it be so with us;

May it be so among us.