Love the Law of God and Walk in His Ways

Sermon for 7 Epiphany, Year A

February 19, 2017

We are going to start today with our psalm. I want to read a bit of it, if you want to read along, go ahead.

  33        Teach me, O Lord, the way of your statutes, *

                        and I shall keep it to the end.

 34        Give me understanding, and I shall keep your law; *

                        I shall keep it with all my heart.

 35        Make me go in the path of your commandments, *

                        for that is my desire.

 36        Incline my heart to your decrees *

                        and not to unjust gain.

 37        Turn my eyes from watching what is worthless; *

                        give me life in your ways.

 Psalm 119, from which we read a small section today, is the longest psalm in the Bible, coming in at 176 verses. It is longer than some entire books in the Bible. It is an epic poem. And it is a love song. A love song, you say? 🤔 Yes, a love song. A song of love to the law. Which may seem like a strange idea to most here, perhaps a few lawyers or judges in the room might instinctively get it, but to most of us, that is an oddity.

 Notice all of the synonyms for the law in this poem: statutes, commandments, decrees, ways, judgments. Now, Hebrew is not a verbose language. It does not have a lot of synonyms like English does. In fact, repetition of the same word is a defining characteristic of Hebrew writing. Most often, when you read synonyms in English translations of Biblical Hebrew, it is the translator trying to make it more interesting for, you, the English reader.

 But here, the poet pulls out all of the stops, finding every word possible to describe the law, and using one of these words in almost every verse of our selection. In fact, almost every verse in the entire psalm uses the word law or a synonym. And then we have that language of love, like heart and desire. Elsewhere in the poem, it is really striking as we hear the kind of language reserved for a beloved.

             "Open my eyes, that I may see the wonders of your law..."

            "With my whole heart I seek you..."

            "With my lips will I recite all the judgments of your mouth..."

            "My delight is in your statutes..."

            "My soul is consumed at all times with longing for your judgments..."

            "The earth, O LORD, is full of your love; instruct me in your statutes..."

            "Oh, how I love your law! All the day long it is in my mind..."

            "How sweet are your words to my taste! They are sweeter than honey in my mouth..."

And that is just a small sample of the loving way that the psalmist, the poet, writes of his beloved: the law. The connection between love and law should not surprise us too much. Jesus, after all, teaches us that all the law has to be understood as an act of love of God or love of neighbor. If we view the law in any way but through the lens of love, we misunderstand it.

 Let me read you part of another poem, a bit more recent than today's psalm, this one only a couple of decades old. It is called "The Law that Marries All Things" by Wendell Berry

 1. The Cloud is free only

to go with the wind.

 The rain is free

only in falling.

 The water is free only

in its gathering together,

 in its downward courses,

in its rising into the air.


2. In law is rest

if you love the law,

if you enter, singing, into it

as water in its descent.

 Another poem of love and the law.

 There are two primary kinds of law: There are the laws that governments make. If you fail to pay the parking meter, you might have to pay some kind of penalty. If you do something a little more serious, you might need a lawyer. And then there are laws of nature. Like the law of gravity. You can try to defy this kind of law, but it is probably going to hurt when you hit the ground. Wendell Berry's poem is about this second kind of law. The law of the the movement of clouds in the wind, the descent of the rain, and the gathering of water. For Berry, as a farmer who is deeply concerned with issues like sustainability, soil erosion, the proper husbandry of animals, et cetera, I suspect he is referring to these sorts of issues. You can over fertilize your soil for a while, if you want to, there isn't a governmental law against that, but the laws of nature will catch up to you and you will find that your soil no longer gives life. But when you love the law - the rhythms of the seasons, the interconnectedness of all living things - when you love this law, when you become one with it, you will ultimately find life-giving rest in it and find yourself able to sing a love song to it. Wendell Berry is referring to this second type of law.

 And though we tend to think of God's law as the first kind of law, it looks like it after all, with all of those should and should nots, it is really more like the second. You can break God's law for a while, but ultimately you find death, not life, in that choice. Leviticus, which is one of the books of the Law, gives us a clue to understanding why this is the case. Before getting into this list of what you should and shouldn't do, God says: "Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them:   You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy."

You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy. This is a line, a phrase, that keeps repeating itself throughout Leviticus. You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy. Our holiness and God's holiness are intertwined. The laws of God - the laws of which the psalmist sings - are about aligning our lives with God's life. When we find ourselves following these laws, these decrees, these judgments, these statutes, these ways, we find this path life-giving, because we are congruent with the giver of life itself: The Lord our God.

 So, when we hear these words, these laws, to not gather the gleanings of our fields, to not squeeze every ounce of profit out of our harvest for our own gain, but rather to leave some for the poor and for the aliens, the foreigners, among us, which there are and should be, that act is not just about helping others, which, of course, it does, but the act aligns us with the life-giving love and abundance of God. When we hear these words, these laws, about not taking vengeance and not bearing grudges against others,  we have aligned ourselves with God's overwhelming and overflowing mercy and grace.

 Jesus is building on this teaching in the Sermon on the Mount that we hear in the Gospel. These are new teachings, which like Moses receiving the Law on a mountain, Jesus speaks out from a mountain. These new teachings do not abolish the old ones or supplant them, but properly interpret them, give fulfillment to them, so that we can be holy as we fully align our lives with the Holy.

Laws like love of enemy, which Jesus speaks in the Gospel today, which makes abundantly clear the idea we see in Leviticus that we cannot just love our own, but must love others, yes, even unto our enemies, for they, too, are created by God and made in God's image. These laws are the same as the sun rising and the rain falling. We can pretend that they are otherwise, but when we do, we are out of sync with God's truth and holiness and grace and mercy and love. Being out of step with them is something we can do for a while, but like gravity, it is going to hurt when we hit the ground. Our hearts are unsettled as long as we are out of alignment with God, when we have to do all kinds of mental gymnastics to justify ourselves, instead of being at rest in the truth, at rest in the law, at rest in love. Being in step with the law allows us, as the psalmist says, find life in God's ways. So walk in these ways, sing a love song, find rest and life, as you become one with the giver of life. Amen.

A Holy Earworm -- This Little Light of Mine

"Then your light shall break forth like the dawn."
"Then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like noonday."
"Light shines forth in the darkness for the upright."
"You are the light of the world... let your light shine before others."

 Do you know what an ear worm is? It's a song that you just can't get out of your head, no matter how hard you try. I have had an ear worm in my mind all week as I have been reflecting on these lessons and preparing this sermon.

 🎶        This little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine            🎶

🎶        This little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine            🎶

🎶        This little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine            🎶

🎶     Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine.     🎶

 Over and over and over again. I cannot get it out of my head.

 This trinity, trilogy, trifecta of seasons we are in - Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany - are all about light.

 In Advent, we prepared for the light to come. In Christmas, we welcomed and we celebrated the light born in the manger. In Epiphany, we have been seeing that light go out into the world. And throughout these three seasons of light, we have been hearing a lot from Isaiah as our first reading. Not every week, but the vast majority of them: 9 out of last 11 Sundays have included a reading from Isaiah! And we read from Isaiah, because Isaiah knew a lot about darkness and light. As we talked about back in December, so we won't go over all of it again, just a little refresher, Isaiah was writing in a time of great darkness. The people had been exiled from their homes. Everything they knew, everything they understood about the world, had been uprooted, and the people now suffered greatly under a ruler that they did not want. "By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept," the psalmist wrote at this time. This period of time was a time of great, deep darkness. And Isaiah in the midst came to bring hope from God, to bring light in the midst of the darkness.

 In Advent, we expectantly, hopefully heard those words from Isaiah of a future light: "In days to come the mountain of the Lord's house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; and all the nations shall stream to it... come, let us walk in the light of the Lord." In Christmas, we heard of that light now come: "The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light." Notice: have seen, not will see. "The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness -- on them light has shined... For a child has been born for us, a son given for us." On Christmas, we now understand those words to be referring for us to the birth of the baby born in a manager, Jesus Christ, our Lord.

 This light we waited for in Advent arrived in Christmas, and in Epiphany, that light shined out into the world. "A light to the nations," we heard Isaiah say on both the First and Second Sundays of this season. A light to the nations, a light to the ends of the earth, a light for every dark nook and cranny of this world.

 In our reading from Isaiah today, though, we get a slightly different take on the light. It is not the light that God is shining that Isaiah speaks of today, at least not the light that God is shining directly, but our light. "Then your light shall break forth like the dawn... then your light shall rise in the darkness." And we hear Jesus echoing Isaiah's words in our Gospel reading today: "You are the light of the world... No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lamp stand, and it gives light all in the house, in the same way, let your light shine before others."

 Oh, that bushel. Here comes that ear worm again!

🎶        Hide it under a bushel? No! I'm gonna let it shine     🎶

🎶        Hide it under a bushel? No! I'm gonna let it shine     🎶

🎶        Hide it under a bushel? No! I'm gonna let it shine     🎶

🎶     Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine.      🎶

That light that we waited for in Advent, and celebrated in Christmas, and watched go forth in Epiphany is now our responsibility to shine.

 We who are the Body of Christ - by virtue of our baptism, we became a part of that body - are now tasked with shining forth the light of Christ. Let your light shine before others, Jesus says.

 🎶        This little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine            🎶

🎶        This little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine            🎶

🎶        This little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine            🎶

🎶       Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine.              🎶

 And how do we let our light shine? Isaiah tells us today. It is quite clear. "Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? Then your light shall break forth like the dawn... If you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday."

 We let our light shine through our actions of justice, mercy, grace, truth, peace, and love. We let our light shine when we bring nourishment to places of hunger, and refreshment to places of thirst, and dignity to places of shame, and hope to places of despair. That will let our light shine.

We are trying to do that here as a community, as the people of St. Mary's, through our many ministries of feeding the hungry, and housing the homeless, and welcoming the refugee. We are letting our light shine before others.

 But it is also the task of each one of us as we go out into the world today and every day. In our schools, offices, and homes. To let our light shine in the work that we are doing, in the relationships in which we engage. It means that the doctor lets her light shine by offering dignity to her patients: a kind smile, an extra minute, a sense of compassion for the pain and struggle that the patient is encountering. It means that the teacher lets his light shine by offering respect to his students: remembering that he, too, was once in that seat. It means that the lawyer lets her light shine by caring for the downtrodden and seeking the truth. It means that the husband lets his light shine by loving his spouse and treating his spouse as an equal partner. It means that each and every one of us, in whatever place we find ourselves, begins to recognize the image of God found in those whom we encounter, and we start asking ourselves, how can I honor that image of God in that person? That will shine our light out into the world.

That's not the end of the song though, is it? It isn't just about shining our light, and keeping it out from under that bushel. There is that other verse:

 🎶        Ain't nobody gonna blow it out, I'm gonna let it shine          🎶

🎶        Ain't nobody gonna blow it out, I'm gonna let it shine          🎶

🎶        Ain't nobody gonna blow it out, I'm gonna let it shine          🎶

🎶 Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine.  🎶

That is the hardest part, isn't it? In the midst of so much darkness in this world - and there is so much darkness out there - to not get discouraged and disappointed. To not let them blow out your light. When the forces of pain and evil get the upper hand for a while, when it seems like love is losing, it is easy to get discouraged and let that darkness overtake. It is hard to resist the darkness that wants to blow out our lights. And it is hard to resist the flip side: isolating ourselves to avoid the darkness, which in turn will just extinguish our light by suffocation as we hide our light under the bushel, preventing the light from getting needed oxygen.

And so, we have to keep letting this light shine. We have to muster the courage to keep going out into the darkness, and letting our light shine. We have to let our light break forth like the dawn, we have to let it rise in the darkness, and turn our darkest hours into noonday. We have to join Christ in taking this light to the darkest corners of our lives, to the darkest corners of this world. We have to let this song become not only an ear worm, which I hope it will be for you this week, but I hope it is more than that, I hope it is a daily call to engage in justice, peace, mercy, grace, truth, and love.

 That is our task. That is our work. To keep shining the light of Christ. And so, my sisters and brothers in Christ, why don't you join me? Pull out those lights ☝️and join me in singing this song. I know it is a bit silly, a bit childish, I know it is not the reserved Episcopal/Anglican thing to do, but be not afraid, be not ashamed: pull out those lights and let that light shine before others.

 🎶        This little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine            🎶

🎶        This little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine            🎶

🎶        This little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine            🎶

🎶                    Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine.                🎶

🎶        Hide it under a bushel? No! I'm gonna let it shine     🎶

🎶 🎶 🎶

 🎶        Ain't nobody gonna blow it out, I'm gonna let it shine          🎶

🎶 🎶 🎶

 🎶        This little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine            🎶

🎶 🎶 🎶



Sermon for 5 Epiphany, Year A

February 5, 2017

Isaiah 58:1-12; Psalm 112:1-10

Matthew 5:13-20

The Foolish Wisdom of God

4 Epiphany, Year A, sermon for January 29, 2017:  Micah 6:1-8; 1 Corinthians 1:18-31; Matthew 5:1-12                 

Where is the debater of this age? This is not a serious question that Paul is asking in today's epistle. If it had been, the answer would have been: "Down the street, Paul, there is probably a debate taking place right now in the public square." Oratory was very popular in the ancient Roman and Greek world. Although certainly much older, classical oratory really took off in 5th and 4th century Greece and continued through the time of Jesus and Paul and beyond, at least for a few hundred more years. Demosthenes and Cicero were certainly some of the most famous, but oratory was an activity that all (men, at least) in the educated classes studied. It was as fundamental as the 3 Rs are today. Oratory was a hugely popular activity. Paul asking "Where is the debater of this age?" would be a bit like saying "where is the runner of this age" in 21st century Eugene! There are dozens running along Pre's trail right now. Paul isn't seriously asking, but rhetorically, to almost dismiss his opponents, to mock them. Now, I have nothing against speech and debate. I enjoy it. I used to be a competitive debater in High School and College. I learned so many valuable skills from the activity. And Paul doesn’t really have any problem with debate either. I think another serious answer to this question might have been: "Behind the pen of this letter, Paul, for you are quite the debater yourself." He made an argument that has withstood the test of time.        

Debate is ultimately about success and winning. You want to convince everyone - or at least the judges - that you are right and that your opponent is wrong. This was as true then as it is now. There are winners and losers. To win, to convince people, as Aristotle taught and as every orator would have known in the first century because they most certainly would have read his work, you use some combination of your own ethos (your presence, your expertise, your position) and the pathos of your audience (their fears, their worries, their anxieties) and your logos (your words, the carefully structured logic of your words). Ethos, pathos, and logos. But Paul wants to remind his readers, this relatively young Christian community in Corinth, that what really matters is not the logos of our arguments, but the Logos of God. In the beginning was the Word, the Logos, and the Logos became flesh. Paul points to the true Logos. Not the debater’s logos, not Aristotle's logos, but the true and ultimate Logos, the incarnate Logos, the incarnate Word: Jesus Christ.

 And the image of the logos that Paul wants to start his argument with – remember, this passage is from the first chapter and Paul is setting the groundwork for what will come later in the letter- is the Logos hanging there on the cross. "The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to those who are being saved it is the power of God." This is counter to everything that the debater - of Paul's age, of our age, of every age - cares about. Losing instead of winning; failure instead of success. The cross: that shameful tool of execution of the Roman State, designed to publicly humiliate the victim to make a point to the whole body politic. The cross: the ancient equivalent of the electric chair or the needle of lethal injection or the gun of the firing squad or the hangman's noose or the lynching tree. The cross, this horrendous thing, is the foundation of true wisdom, of true knowledge, of true discernment, of true boasting. The cross is the foundation of Paul's argument that is going to take him into his audacious claims later in the letter about what it means to be a baptized member of Christ's body - when he will claim that even the weakest, lowliest member is not only necessary, but often the most valuable - and his audacious claims about the primacy of love over every other gift that God could possibly give us. Paul is laying the groundwork for his argument about what life in Christ is really about.

 This argument is an echo what we hear Jesus proclaim from the mountain today: blessed are the poor, the mourners, the meek, the hungry, the thirsty, the merciful, the pure, the peacemakers, the persecuted. Jesus lifts up the lowly and puts them on the pedestal of blessing. 

 These are not blessings as the world understands them. These are not things that the typical debater is going to use as proof for blessing. But these are the way of Jesus, the way of God. These are the way of the cross. "Foolishness to those who are perishing, but to those who are being saved it is the power of God." Winning, success, power: these all pull at us constantly. They are seductive. And yet, as Paul reminds us, winning, success, and power are nothing compared to God. The foolishness of God is greater than our wisdom; the weakness of God greater than our strength. Winning, success, and power are all useless in the light of the cross.

 It's foolishness. It really is. Paul knows it. He says it. It's foolish. It is foolish to set the cross before the values of the world. But, it’s a similar foolishness to the foolishness of calling the old and barren Sarah and Abraham to be ancestors of great nations. It’s a similar foolishness to calling the murderer and poor public speaker Moses to lead a movement of liberation. It’s a similar foolishness to calling the foreigner Ruth to be the grandmother of David and calling the greatest sinner David to be the greatest king. It’s a similar foolishness to calling the much too young Jeremiah and the impure Isaiah and the contrarian Jonah to be God’s prophets. It's a similar foolishness to God's words recounted by Micah in our first reading to plead our case before mountains. Why would you ever plead your case before something unmovable? It’s foolishness. It's foolishness. It's foolishness. It’s foolishness for the Messiah to go to the cross, to be slaughtered like a lamb. It’s all foolishness. But it is the foolish wisdom of God. "Foolishness to those who are perishing, but to those who are being saved it is the power of God."

 And this is the foolish wisdom that we have to continue to proclaim to this world. The foolishness of the cross we have to proclaim in both word and deed. Micah lays out for us what the proclamation looks like: to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God. What foolishness it is to do these three things in our world that seems to delight in injustice, love meanness, and run arrogantly from our God, run arrogantly as if we were God. What foolishness to do this in a world that prioritizes boasting and greed, and rewards bullying. This is nothing new, it is the way it has always been. It was so when Micah recorded those words from God. It was so when Jesus proclaimed the beatitudes from the mountain and again when he was nailed to the cross. It was so when Paul proclaimed the foolishness and wisdom of that cross. And it is so today.

 But we have to keep doing this: Keep proclaiming this foolish wisdom. Keep proclaiming justice, kindness, and humility. Keep proclaiming the way of Jesus. Keep proclaiming the love taught in the words of the beatitudes. Keep proclaiming the cross. Do not weary of this of this proclamation. Even as the world calls you foolish for prioritizing service over power, humility over arrogance, love over fear. Do not weary. For this is "foolishness to those who are perishing, but to those who are being saved it is the power of God." Do not weary. For that power of God will carry you through to the end. Amen.

Location, Location, Location - The Search for an Authentic Identity

Location, location, location. It’s a very popular and familiar saying, and I think that as Americans, we may embody this desire and this longing more than anyone in the world. We are a culture that is transient, in the best and the worst sense of the word. We’re either wandering homeless, searching for that physical home, or we’re in a home, but think it would be a better one on that street; on that side of town; maybe in a different town. And at the same time we are looking for that, we are a people that are deeply spiritually unsettled. This culture of ours, not confined to this country, is a modern culture that lacks the kind of rootedness that an ancient people had. It’s always searching for a real, authentic identity that we can proclaim, and more importantly, settle us into knowing who we are.


This reading today from Matthew is something that comes from Mark’s Gospel, and is shared in all of the Gospels. But for Matthew’s community, it had a special resonance. Because the place that Jesus settles—in Capernaum, in Galilee—was a place that they not only knew, but many in Matthew’s community may have, in fact, lived there. This was their location. So when Matthew gives us this prophecy of Isaiah, it really spoke to them. This Isaiahan prophecy is rooted in their long history of suffering, from the first conquest of the Assyrians coming into that very place. They knew that oppression. It was the oppression of their families and ancestors. It was the yoke of the Assyrians, a dominating foreign power, that had claimed their home and displaced them—if not physically, emotionally, and spiritually. I think more importantly for Matthew, he needs to demonstrate to his community what location is about. The temple is gone, and they’re in a deep grief of identity. Matthew understands that prophecy doesn’t predict the future, but it explains the past. So Jesus, Matthew says, intentionally goes to this place, when he hears that John has been arrested. I think that in Jesus’s sense of identity, he knows that he has to continue John’s work. But not just proclaiming the kind of repentance that John preached, but a repentance that finds center in peace and justice and in God, and makes this prophecy an absolute incarnate one.

Today’s Psalm gives us an indication of that very way of thinking.

One thing have I asked of the Lord;

one thing I seek; *

that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life;

To behold the fair beauty of the Lord *

and to seek him in his temple.

 Matthew’s community could not have prayed that psalm without thinking of this Jesus who now is the living embodiment of that physical temple that no longer stands. It’s a familiar story for Matthew’s community, and they would have gotten the geography. It was familiar, and it was comforting. And yet, at the same time, like Jesus always is, it was disruptive. This place and this location, Jesus tells them, you know well. But then he does something that they wouldn’t have understood at all: he goes and he calls disciples to follow him. They would have been very perplexed at that. In their culture, and in their world, people went and sought out the prophets; people went out and sought those who they were going to follow. Here Jesus reverses that setting completely, and he’s brazen. He goes to them and he says, “Come with me. Go from this location with me and I will enable you to do something radically different. Not just fishing for fish, a livelihood that these people knew; I’ll help you fish for people. I will help you offer to others a sense of location, a home and dwelling in God. How do they respond? And this may be the most disarming for us: they drop the nets. They move out of that side of town; they move out of that identity that is everything they know; everything that’s going to bring them sustenance, and they follow this person that’s just spoken a couple of words to them. And their lives will never be the same. It’s even more disruptive for a Jewish audience hearing that, because they leave dad in the boat. They don’t even take him to shore and say, you’ll be OK without us. How is this Jewish father going to survive without his sons? It’s absolutely disarming to think about this man sitting out there alone in that boat—how did he get out of it? Or did he? There’s the edge of the Good News. It always brings us life, and it always leaves us on the edge of death: spiritually, possibly; emotionally terrified, and maybe even physical death. I think that’s what Paul is talking about. He goes from that Jewish identity into a place where he says, at the end of that reading, “We don’t want to empty the cross of its meaning.” He’s not just talking about resurrected life; he’s talking about the crucified Christ that he never shadows, never hides. We know that those people—Paul and Peter and those first Disciples—followed that Jesus often, if not always, to their own physical death, but to a place where they could find the center of God.

We as a community sit in this place today in all the images of light, in all of that Epiphany glory. And we know from Matthew’s Gospel what the work of incarnation must be. Jesus, Matthew says, tells us that movement is part of God’s plan; that it’s not always a movement to the right side of town, but to the place where you can be, as Jesus will say, I AM. And God is here. When the disciples in John’s gospel ask Jesus where he’s living, you know what he says: Come and see. He’s not talking about a condo in Capernaum, and off they go.

So here we are at St. Mary’s, and there is incarnation all around us; and there’s light all around us. There’s also a lot of darkness around us. But they way in which we’re going to find that light and radiate it is not to perpetuate the anxiety and the fear that in that place or this way of thinking is the only right one. It’s going to be to respond like the disciples do: to drop it all and follow, and find that place in the very heart of God that gives us that I AM feeling and knowledge and experience and identity. It starts right here for us today. Will you find that in those prophets that come to you, in those Christs that come to you and ask you to give it all up? They might not always be the ones you recognize, or the ones you want to see, or the ones you want to follow. But they’re here—right now—in this location, location, location.

Call Stories in Scripture -- Not always dramatic and unmistakable

The theme of the lessons today is all about call. And when we think about a call, our reflex is that it’s something big with a dramatic story around it. But if you look at the call stories in scripture, they run a range of different ways and methods.

If you think about Moses, you get the ultimate kind of dramatic call. Moses is eighty years old; he’s been tending sheep for forty years out in the desert. His attention is drawn to a bush that’s on fire, but not consumed. He turns aside to take a look and hears a voice say, “Take off your shoes, you’re on holy ground”, and then God speaks to him through the burning bush: “I am the God of your fathers Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, and I have heard the cry of my people in slavery. Go and tell Pharaoh to let my people go”. Moses argues; God prevails, and we’re off. Pretty darn dramatic. Hard to top that one; in fact, it isn’t topped.

Now if you go much later into the book of Samuel to the call of Samuel, you’ll remember that after he was weaned, his mother took him, according to a promise she had made to God, to the temple to be raised by Eli, the old priest, to be a holy man. When Samuel was a lad, sleeping in the sanctuary to keep an eye on the lamp, he hears a voice, “Samuel, Samuel”. The voice of God was not heard in the land of Israel much in those days. Thinking it was Eli, Samuel goes to him several times, until Eli explains to Samuel what is going on. So the next time Samuel hears the voice, he says, “I hear you, Lord, and I am your servant.” And that story is on launch.

In the book of Esther, God is never mentioned--the only book in the Bible where God is not named. Esther was the Queen; she was Jewish, and it was a secret—even the King did not know. One day her uncle Mordecai came to her. He had been her coach, and helped groom her and arrange for her to become Queen. He says to her, “The King has signed a decree. We know Haman put him up to it, but the King signed the decree that in the very near future, on a certain day, all the Jews are going to be rounded up and put to death. You have to go to the King and stop this”. And Queen Esther says, “I can’t do that. If you break the King’s rules, you face death. The last Queen crossed the King, and we know what happened to her.” And Mordecai says to her, “You think you are going to escape this? You will be found out, and you will be put to death.” And then I imagine Mordecai pausing a moment before he says, “Perhaps it was for just this moment that you were chosen to be the Queen.” This call never mentions God.

In the New Testament, in today’s Gospel, we have the calling of the first Apostles. John the Baptist says, “There is the Messiah.” And two of his followers peel off and start to follow Jesus. One of them, Andrew, goes to get his brother Peter, and he joins them in a rather second-hand method of calling.

In the Acts of the Apostles, in another dramatic type of call, Paul, then known as Saul, is on his way to Damascus armed with arrest warrants to arrest followers of the Way, and take them back to Jerusalem for trial. We know what that means. This very same Saul had arranged the stoning death of St. Stephen, first Deacon and first Martyr. Saul can see the gates of Damascus, but before he arrives he is knocked down by a blinding flash of light. (By the way, he is not on a horse. The artist, Carvaggio, put that in his painting, and that image sticks with us.) After Saul is knocked down and blinded by this flash of light, a voice says, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” Saul asks, “Who are you?” And the answer, “I’m Jesus, and you’re persecuting me. Go into Damascus to the house you were supposed to go to, and you’ll get further instructions.” Paul gets up, still blind, and makes it to the house, stays there, and is baptized. And as he gets up, something like scales fall off his eyes, and he can see. And he is off.

There are all kinds of different ways to be called. One of the fun things for me as Bishop, something that took me a couple of years to figure out, was to ask people as I was getting ready to confirm them, “How did you end up here?” I remember one Sunday morning at Christ’s Church, Martinsville, everyone was in the narthex getting lined up, and someone came to me and said, “Here are two of your confirmands”. They were 30-35 years old, husband and wife, and were in the choir. On the spur of the moment I asked the wife, “How did you end up here?” She said, “We’re newly minted doctors, and are working off our student loan bills by working in an under-served area.” Then she pointed to an older woman in the choir and explained that she was their real estate agent. As they were going around town looking at houses, the agent asked if they were looking for a church. The woman said, “Yes, but it’s got to have a good choir.” The agent said Christ’s Church had the best choir in Martinsville, Virginia.

Another time I was at a church in a more urban setting for a confirmation, and I had the adult confirmands say in a sentence or two why they were there. And this young woman said, “I was kind of lost; I was at loose ends, particularly about faith, and I walked by this church where there is a labyrinth in front of the building. So I walked the labyrinth, and then I went indoors and have been here ever since.”

Different stories – different ways to be called. And it’s true for people’s non-church stuff, too. It’s fun to ask a contractor, or a teacher, or a doctor, “How did you end up doing this?” The stories are sometimes very touching: “I was inspired by a teacher in the fourth grade”; or “I have always imagined myself doing this very thing”. Other people say the job is OK, but what I really love doing is this....

So I bid you this week to open your ears and open your hearts; think about yourself and the calls you’ve had. I invite you to share your story with someone, or ask other people to describe their story to you.

The last word is this: God loves you, each and every one, exactly as you are, without reservation, more than you can ask or begin to imagine.


Christmas Eve 2016

(singing) “Christus Natus Hodie; Ding dong ding; ding-a-dong-a-ding. ding dong, ding dong ding-a-dong ding”.

I’ve always wanted to be able to sing that in public, and it’s not a song that I’ve ever been able to. So there! I hadn’t decided to do that until before the 9:00 service tonight. But it is the opening line that I had, Christus Natus Hodie—Christ is born today; this very day. And it’s a wonderful thing. But I have to tell you, and I don’t know if you’re like me or not, but I am really tired of the Christmas myth. I’m so tired of the myth that Christmas has to be perfect, and that we have to have it all in place. I’ve done it over and over, and every year I say, “No, not this year”, but then it catches up with me and it just has to be right. We kill ourselves and we worry: is tomorrow’s dinner going to be right? Will the tree lights go out in the middle of everything? It is the perfect Christmas. I think that what’s so ironic about it is that we just heard a story about Christmas, and nothing in that story is perfect. In fact, if it had been, there wouldn’t have been a story. It’s filled with misunderstanding; it’s filled with disaster; it’s filled with errors and people being shut out in the night. And maybe that’s why it is so attractive to us, because we know that it’s a story of terror; we know that it’s a story of anxiety, and it draws us in because we can go to that place with those people and share in that. It’s a safety for us, and we need them, really, as our companions to get through Christmas. Especially the way the world throws us Christmas.

But look at that story: it’s really weird. I mean at the very beginning, the very fact that we look at a scene of people outside, in a manger, in a stable, in a cave and see warm light and think of comfort and warmth. Abandoned in a cold night. Stand on your front lawn tonight when all the Christmas lights are on, and see how warm and cozy you are in the morning; how many people have joined you to celebrate that. People locked out in the night? They didn’t even have a place to stay in a room in a house that was their rightful property as the kinfolk. So off they’re put to a place where the animals nest.

Shepherds—that wonderful Christmas image. But in the 1st century Judaism, shepherds were very odd people. They lived out in the countryside; they lived by themselves; a nomadic life; probably terrified of the city and very distrusting of other people. One commentator has suggested that they are the modern day equivalent of bikers. A Harley gang riding out on the streets, and that’s who God chooses to give the message to. Because God only knows, quite literally, that they are the only ones able to take it. Take a message that’s going to be one of Jesus reaching out to the dispossessed, and those on the fringes, and those who don’t have the perfect Christmas—never have and probably never will.

And then most of all, I think, the baby. Yes, it’s about a baby, but the problem with this baby and this child is that in that world it was not the reality we think of, certainly when we look at a creche set. A child was that to be reviled; a child was a nuisance, not considered a person; not worthy of any consideration. And certainly not this child who’s going to move around with the biker gang; who’s always going to reach out to those who are on the fringes. This child who lays in a manger in Luke’s story—what is that about? In a place where the animals eat? But this is the child that will be food, and maybe that’s why we’re here tonight. We know that in our anxiety and in our grief, we come into this place, we become their comrades, and we will eat that bread that will give us life. And a child, because in that world, something that would have come from that child, would have been odd. And for us, certainly, a child always signifies something new. Certainly a new way of looking at things that always confronts and confounds us, especially at Christmas. “Don’t screw it up, Johnny or Suzie. Mommy’s got to do this; we’ve got to make sure it’s right.”

Good friends of mine have a house that is a wonderful magic place for their nephews and nieces to come to. I call it The Great House. And Elaine has creche sets all over the place. She told me that last week her niece, Kennedy, came. Kennedy is maybe a 2nd grader. Kennedy has no exposure to Christianity; doesn’t know this story at all. She began to play with the creche set. She moved everyone around and she created a story. Elaine said when she finished, “Tell us, Kennedy, what this story is.” For Kennedy, the sheep were kittens; the cow and the donkey were dogs; the Three Kings were friends and were off in a circle facing one another, having a conversation with themselves. The angel was the mother of the baby, and the shepherd was the father. Mary and Joseph were the brother and sister of the child. That’s not bad theology for someone who doesn’t know the Christmas story; that’s not bad theology for someone who’s not a Christian. It’s pretty good theology if someone were a Christian and thought that way. Mary and Joseph as brother and sister of Jesus; an angel as the mother; and a shepherd, the Great Shepherd, the Good Shepherd, God the Shepherd, as the father. But I think the most intriguing to me, and I’d never thought about it, were the Three Kings, or the Wise Men, as friends. That’s a wonderful image for the Trinity, isn’t it? Three Kings, on this Feast, facing one another like a Trinity. Just today I happened to see in the New York Times an op ed piece by Peter Wehner. He’s writing about this very notion of friendship. He says, “The Incarnation also underscores the importance of relationships, and particularly friendships. The Rev. James Forsythe, a winsome and gifted pastor of McLean Presbyterian Church in Virginia, which my family attends, says friendship is not a luxury. It is at the very essence of who we are. The Three Persons of the Christian Godhead—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—speak to the centrality of community. ‘When we are in friendship’, according to Mr. Forsythe, we are participating in something divine. That is, fellowship and friendship were present in the Trinity and are therefore of immense worth to us. I’ve experienced that in my own life, he says, when friends served as God’s proxies, dispensing grace I could not receive in solitude’”.

The Three Kings as friends, the notion of friends, and the kings bring to the child the gifts. And it’s in that notion of gift-giving, especially between friends, not receiving, but giving. Four years ago I was involved in my parish at Trinity Cathedral in Portland; I was involved in the Wednesday community meal. It was a meal that anyone could come to, but it was largely 400 homeless people that came there for a hot meal. I met a young man named Scott. Scott was about 32. Scott had the mentality and social skills of maybe a 5th grader, maybe a 5 year old, sometimes. But Scott would always speak to me and welcome me when I came up to serve at the meal. Scott had had a rough year: his mother had died; he was homeless. I never knew from one week to the next if I would see Scott when I got to Trinity, or if he would be there. But this particular day, which happened to be a couple of weeks before Christmas—my perfect Christmas (I’ve told you about it before), the Christmas tree fell over in the middle of the night, Jesus went flying off onto the coffee table; the ornaments were smashed; it was a disaster. And it was the year of the Clackamas shooting when violence came very near to me. There was Scott, and he handed me this. It’s a pretty cool toy for a guy to give another guy. It’s a red RZN motor bike. He wanted me to have it. I can’t imagine him parting with it, but I took it, and it sits on my shelf of sacred items. I always know Scott by this; I don’t know where he is, but I know that he gave me this, and that gift is his presence. That gift is an incarnated presence, and God dwells in that reality.

Every year since I can’t tell you when, on Christmas Eve there comes an hour, usually 4 to 5, when I’m expecting Christmas to come. It gets very quiet, and if the light is out, it starts to sink, and it seems so sacred; it seems so near, and then it passes away. There’s a sense of loss, like it was there, and I couldn’t keep it and make it stay. And I have to go on, off to church, and do our things. It’s an experience that W.H. Auden knew. He writes about this in his Christmas oratorio, For The Time Being. “The happy morning is over”, he says.

“The night of agony still to come; the time is noon:

When the Spirit must practice his scales of rejoicing

Without even a hostile audience, and the Soul endure

A silence that is neither for nor against her faith

That God's Will will be done; that, in spite of her prayers,

God will cheat no one, not even the world of its triumph.”

So here we are again, and Christ is born today. And yet the world will move on; we’ll have to pack the decorations; and we’ll have to figure out what we’re going to do. And that safe space will be filled with anxiety once again. It wasn’t until today, when I listened to the Service of Lessons and Carols from King’s College, that I heard a verse from one of my favorite Christmas songs, O Little Town of Bethelehem. The 3rd verse:

How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given.

So God imparts to human hearts the blessings of his heaven.

No ear may hear his coming, but in this world of sin

Where meek souls will receive him, still the dear Christ enters in.

Is that that hour? Is that that silent coming, the gift that’s given to me? And for an hour I can hold it, but then I have to give it out and move back into the world. Christus Natus Hodie. But we’ll have to do the work with him. If Jesus is Incarnated, then he needs your friendship to make that reality, and to tell that Good News.

It is my prayer for you that you’ll have the perfect Christmas.