Sunday, December 26, 2010

1st Sunday after Christmas Yr A

From Isaiah we hear, I will rejoice greatly in the Lord, my whole being shall exult in my God, for God has clothed me with the garments of salvation, God has covered me with the robe of righteousness. And in Galatians the Good News is that we are children of God.

We read this same set of readings each Sunday after Christmas, and each time I am overwhelmed by the awesomeness of God and of our human inability to speak of that. These readings challenge our understanding of God, and yet I’m not convinced we even understand God’s nature in an intellectual or a cognitive way. I think we understand it in a much more organic way, a way that touches the very truth of our being, and the very core of our limitedness.

Our humanness is tied directly to language. We really are formed and shaped by language, however adequate or inadequate it is. How we understand God, our relationship with God, how we understand Jesus human and divine, how we understand the presence of the Holy Spirit, is often about the words that we employ to describe that experience, that relationship. For example, those who say they are atheists are not necessarily people who do not believe in God, rather they may be people who cannot assent to a particular way of describing God, because our language is just not adequate to describe the totality and the mystery of that relationship.

Throughout history people have tried desperately to describe God, we have tried desperately to describe the reality in which we live. Today, postmodern thought suggests that what is real is only what we put language too. In many ways I am a postmodern thinker, but in this case what I think is real is God and our relationship with God. What that means is that God exists whether or not we have the language to describe God, and therefore a relationship exists whether or not we have the language to describe it. The challenge is to find the words and the symbols and the actions to describe God’s relationship with us and our relationship with God.

The first chapter of the gospel of John, In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the Word was God I hear as an absolutely beautiful and poetic song helping us to not only understand, but to feel and to see and to hear how we are related to God, and who Jesus is in that relationship. It is not coincidental that In the beginning is the Word invokes in us a notion of the spoken language, but language is so much more than the spoken word.

Every time I read these words from John I hear the language of music. Sometimes for me the language of music speaks more clearly than words. When I hear this passage from John, I am encircled, enveloped, swaddled, if you will, in the awesome and abundant love of our creator. When I hear these words I hear a symphony.

I hear the bass, the tuba, the tympani and the baritone, beating as the heart of creation. I hear the bass clarinets, and the bassoons, and the saxophones joining in the building of the harmonies. I hear the flutes and the clarinets with the melody of love and hope. And I hear the trumpets and the French horns with the blast of the proclamation that God has created the world and come into it as one of us. And I hear the sadness of the oboes, with the news that some do not choose to listen to and be transformed by the music.

Music is organic; as is the love of God. It is in the fiber of creation, the stones shout it out, the wind hums the word, the rain keeps the beat, the grace and truth of Christ is made real in the dance of the spheres.

In A Wind in the Door, the second book in a series of books by Madeleine L’engle, the first being A Wrinkle in Time, the author writes that for growth to happen there is a necessary death. The passage I quote this morning is a passage late in the book, when Meg O’Keefe, the main character, and her friend Calvin are really beginning to understand the interconnectedness of all things, and they are beginning to understand, birth, death, and resurrection. The reason I quote from this story and from this passage is that it hearkens to the first chapter of John. It goes like this. “We are the song of the universe. We sing with the angelic host. We are the musicians. The stars are the singers. Our song orders the rhythm of creation. Calvin asked, ‘How can you sing with the stars?’ There was surprise at the question: it is the song. We sing it together. That is our joy. And our Being.”

The Light has come, is come, and will continue to come into the world. That is what Christmas attests too. Light overcomes darkness, darkness will not prevail. The Word is with us, the Word is in our midst, and the Word creates the song.

I am also aware that the first words of John, and the first words of Genesis, are very similar. In the beginning was the Word, In the beginning God created. This incarnation, God breaking into our world, God interrupting our lives, God in our midst, the Word made flesh, the song that sings light into the darkness, are words that attempt to describe God’s awesome activity.

Listen again to these words from the Gospel of John, from The Message. The Word was first, the Word present to God God present to the Word. The Word was God, in readiness for God from day one. Everything was created through him, nothing—not one thing! —came into being without him. What came into existence was Life, and the Life was light to live by. The Life-Light blazed out of the darkness, the darkness couldn’t put it out.

Alleluia. To us a child is born: Come let us adore him. Alleluia.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Christmas 2010

In the midst of the trees and the tinsel, the shopping and the wrapping, the baking and the giving, God breaks in. A baby, born in a barn, cold and vulnerable, to parents who have no discernible home, and of questionable status, is our God. A baby, born to show us what love looks like in the midst of the brokenness of our lives. God comes crashing into our world, sometimes painfully, sometimes dangerously. And God comes quietly, as a newborn baby. Ready or not, crashing or quietly, God comes. Madeleine L’engle, in her book Bright Evening Star, describes it like this. “Was there a moment, known only to God, when all the stars held their breath, when the galaxies paused in their dance for a fraction of a second, and the Word, who had called it all into being, went with all his love into the womb of a young girl, and the universe started to breathe again, and the ancient harmonies resumed their song, and the angels clapped their hands for joy?”

Christmas comes and I am reminded of the Who’s in Whoville, from the Grinch story. No matter what the Grinch did, Christmas would come anyway. Because Christmas is not presents and trees and lights and cookies, Christmas is incarnation, and incarnation happens with or without the rest of it.

Imagine yourself living in the dark days of the oppressive rule of Rome. This census that caused Mary and Joseph and all the others to travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem was about unjust taxation by Quirinius. The gospel writer Luke knows that Jesus was born in dark times. He knows about the dark times that followed as well—the famine in Judea, the war with Rome, the destruction of the Temple, strife within synagogues, the persecution and martyrdom.

And yet, still, tonight we celebrate the Good News. This is not a celebration of sentimentality and nostalgia. It is not a celebration of the power to get, or a contest about what’s in your wallet. It’s not a celebration about who is at the head of the table, who is able to give the most, the biggest, the best, gifts.

Jesus has come among us. The Light has come into the world; darkness has not, is not, and shall not prevail. God’s glory is revealed! All we need to do is to follow the signs. And what are the signs? A child, wrapped in ordinary cloth and lying in a manger. A peasant girl, narrowly spared from being stoned to death by her village after her husband-to-be found her to be pregnant with a child that wasn’t his. An overwhelmed father, doing his best to find shelter for his family on a night when they are homeless and friendless. A gathering of shepherds, among the lowest of laborers.

You see, the signs show us that the world doesn’t have to be made perfect before it is made new. You and I do not have to be perfect before we are made new. That’s what’s so amazing about God with us. God comes to us in the midst of the chaos, in the midst of the darkness. God comes to be with us in the midst of our isolation and alienation, in the midst of the muck of the stable, and the pain of a Roman cross.

This is an extravagant love, an abundant love, poured out for each one of us as if each one of us was the only one in existence; poured out for all of us in unlimited supply. This abundant love is offered without reservation or regard for what you have and haven’t done, or how many Christmas cookies you make, or how many Christmas presents you give, or how many lights are on your house.

The prophets of the Old Testament testified to this love, in Isaiah we hear a statement of faith, trust, and gratitude for what the Lord has already done. Grounded in this certainty makes the next words of promise and future hope believable. While it appears that the powers of this world have a firm hold, God's power will have the final victory. In the midst of that which creates despair and darkness, God's light shines as that which is the fulfillment of all that we need and everything that we wish could be.

On Christmas Eve, when candles burn bright to witness to the God's light that shines in all of our darkness, we are reminded that this is not just a claim for tonight, or even because of Jesus, but points to the nature of who God is and always has been. When the candles are extinguished, the lights put away, and the decorations stored until next year, God is still God.

The love that God has for creation is beyond comprehension. That is why God came into our midst, to shed light on this love. You see, Jesus is more than a teacher who can help us understand the words in scripture. Jesus is the Word made flesh. We don’t have to figure it all out; we can experience it in relationship.

God with us, God in our midst, the light that has come into the world is the power and the hope of Christmas. And this isn’t just something that has happened, or that happens to us, we are not a passive observer. This is a relationship in which we participate. You and I are part of it; we are constituents, part of a community that is the body of Christ. The Word made flesh meets us in the Flesh. We are not acted upon by a “big guy up there.”

That’s what this is all about. God came to be with us, and God comes to be with us, and God will be with us, and therefore we are invited into a relationship with God and with one another. And we don’t have to be perfect in this relationship. In fact, it is into the midst of our brokenness that God comes.

One way we express this participation is when we gather together and the Word is present in our midst, and we are re-membered in the Body and Blood of Christ, just as we are doing right now.

Another way we participate in a relationship with God is to carry the light into the world. You see, God’s work is not contained inside a church. We participate in God’s work, and are nourished and fortified to do God’s work, but most of that work takes place out there, it takes place in your work and in your play, in your school. We are to be the light that illuminates God, we are to be the light that shines on people and shows them the way to God.

It’s a new life. It’s a new world. Right here, right now, we are invited to experience the Incarnation we celebrate in Christmas by living and loving as Christ’s body in the world. That’s the light we walk in, that shines all the more brightly in the darkness that cannot overcome it. That’s the hope that sustains us, the peace that keeps us centered amidst life’s turmoil, the joy that makes eternal and abundant life present in the here and now.

Alleluia. To us a child is born: Come let us adore him. Alleluia.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

4 Advent Yr A

All four candles in our Advent wreaths are lit. The light is beginning to fill the void. As we find ourselves nearing ever so closely to Christmas, the anticipation grows; the waiting will come to fulfillment. The stories we have before us point to incarnation, they point to God-with-us, they encourage us to see the signs. The Christian journey is about recognizing God who comes to us. Observing a time of waiting and preparing culminating in the incarnation once each year causes us to remember God’s relationship with us, and we remember that relationship through the stories we tell, we remember that relationship through the things we do, we remember that relationship through the songs we sing. We remember those who populate the stories of faith, those who responded to God’s call to relationship, those who realized that God is indeed the author of the story.

Ahaz, a king, who according to the rabbis, persisted in his wickedness even in the face of all the trials to which he was subjected, would not repent. Worse than this, he threatened Israel's religion to its very foundation, in order to destroy all hope of regeneration. He closed the schools and houses of worship so that no instruction should be possible, and the Glory of God should abandon the land. It was for this reason that Isaiah had to teach in secret, though Ahaz always humbly submitted to the prophet's rebukes—his only redeeming feature. These years of kingship in a divided Israel demonstrate the failed solutions people throughout history have tried as a means to be in control, it was idol worship, not God worship. And in the midst of this idolatrous kingly reign Isaiah points the Hebrew people toward the sign that would show the people the extent that God would go to come to the people, to be in a new relationship with the people, to come in the flesh.

This sets up a contrast between Ahaz, a king who was concerned mostly with himself and his own power, and Joseph, a man who completely inhabits his part of this amazing story of the love that gives and does not possess, the love that empties so that the beloved may be filled. God has asked Joseph to name this child.

Joseph by rights should toss Mary out for the punishment that should befall her, death by stoning. According to Matthew’s telling, it seems that even before the angel came to Joseph, he already knew that Mary was pregnant, maybe she told him, maybe he just knew; we don’t hear anything about that. What we do hear is that Joseph considered his choices. 1st century customs about betrothals were quite clear. If you think the woman to whom you’re engaged is bearing someone else’s child both the woman and the man whose child it is get death by stoning.

Joseph is a righteous man, but he refuses to expose Mary to public disgrace to carry this out. So Joseph plans to divorce Mary quietly, this divorce is the measure that would have to be taken to nullify a betrothal. It’s the best option he can take to avoid claiming a child that wasn’t his. In the face of common law, tradition, all the cultural forces mounting against him, derision and judgment, Joseph chooses life, Joseph chooses incarnation,

When Joseph had resolved to do this, an angel appears to him too, and says the words angels are famous for in scripture, “Do not be afraid.” The child Mary is bearing is of the Holy Spirit, and when he is born, Joseph is to name the child, Joseph is to call him Jesus, which means, “Yahweh saves. The writer of Matthew very intentionally connects this story with the passage from the prophet Isaiah that says there will be a son and his name will be Emmanuel, which means “God is with us.”

Joseph could not ignore God’s presence, Joseph could not ignore incarnation, neither can you and I, just like Joseph, we have a choice to make. This was a child who was born of Mary, a child who should not have been born at all, and of Joseph, who had he been so inclined, would have left Mary to public justice, stoning and all. This is a child whose birth, death, and resurrection attest to God’s creativity and power.

I am reminded of a scene that I love in the first Jurassic Park movie. I realize that Jurassic Park is an old movie now, but try and picture this with me. Shortly after arriving on the tropical island that is Jurassic park, the scientists tour the whole park, and then they sit down to dinner with Mr. Hammond the owner, and Ian Malcolm, a mathematician and scientist at the park. They are talking about the cloning that has been done to create the dinosaurs at the park, and that the safe guard to not having more dinosaurs out there is that they created them all female. At the table while they are eating this gourmet meal, Ian delivers a brilliant line. He says, “Life will not be contained! Life breaks free, it expands to new territories, and crashes through barriers, painfully, maybe even dangerously, but, ah, well, there it is.”

That is what has happened, is happening, and will continue to happen with Jesus and incarnation. God breaks into our world, God interrupts our lives. The life that God creates breaks free, it expands to new territories, and it crashes through barriers, sometimes painfully and dangerously. It is the life in Mary’s womb, and in Elizabeth’s womb, that exists not because of biology and despite humanity’s tendency to end life, but because of God’s awesome, creative, power. It is the life to which Joseph joins Mary in saying yes. It is the life in which God pours out upon us unlimited love.

This is the Fourth Sunday of Advent. We are ever so close to that inbreaking. How do you prepare your heart and mind and body for the crashing in of God? How do you join with Mary and Joseph and say yes to this incarnation? The question at the mall, the question asked by the culture is Are you ready for Christmas? Well, are you ready for Christmas? This question is asked from the perspective of perceived expectations, not from the perspective of this inconceivable conception. What that question really means is do you have your decorating done, are your lights up, did you get your cookies baked, is your house clean and ready for the guests, do you have all your gifts purchased and wrapped?

But the real question is, are you ready for God’s crashing into our world, are you ready for God’s crashing into your life and into your heart? Are you ready to be transformed into the person God would have you be? Are you ready to say yes? Now those are hard questions.

I am ready for Christmas, and I am not yet ready for Christmas. I have experienced the inbreaking of God into my life and I know that God’s inbreaking continues in new and life changing ways. I know that God has broken into this particular church and the universal church; and at the very same time, I continue to wait and prepare for the cosmic coming of Christ, for all times and all places, and the church continues to wait and prepare, and we have no idea what that will look like. All we have is what we imagine.

But we do know what God’s inbreaking, God’s incarnation looks like today, right now. It looks like the clerk at the store, the one who really needs someone to say, “you’re doing a great job in the midst of this madness.” It looks like the guy in the car beside you, who needs a smile and a nod, not a raised finger. It looks like the mom and children who really could use something good to eat in these days, and a warm coat to wear. It looks like the family that works two and three jobs just to make it to the end of the month and still needs a little help from the food shelf. And it also looks like the executive who works 80 hours in a week, and long ago forgot that it’s not about the stuff that he can give to his family, it’s about the time he can spend with his family. Or it looks like the young person desperately trying to fit into a world that values contingency over commitment. Sometimes it looks like the sadness we feel when our loved one has died, and it is so very hard to remember that life will not be contained, life breaks free.

God’s inbreaking, God’s incarnation looks like when we gather together around this altar and are re-membered, we made into the body of Christ, it looks like when we invite others, sometimes people who don’t look like us or speak like us, to eat at this table with us. God’s incarnation looks like the gathered church in the diocese of South Dakota, people of all colors and shapes and sizes. God’s incarnation looks like the church gathered across the United States, people from every country, of many colors, and mostly who can agree on something, maybe. God’s incarnation looks like the love we share with one another; and it is made real when we say yes with Joseph and Mary.

For me, the experience of the inbreaking of God in my life and into the life of the church has everything to do with God being revealed in absolutely new ways, in ways I couldn’t have imagined, even in ways the church hadn’t imagined before. Because that is what and who Jesus is, God comes as a lowly child, not as the expected King. And like lan Malcolm says in Jurassic Park, that breaking forth of new life is sometimes painful, but is always creative.

Our King and Savior now draws near: Come let us adore him. Amen.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

3 Advent Yr A

Do you see what I see? Do you see what Jesus sees? Do you see what God sees? John seems to be expecting something that Jesus isn’t expecting. Last week we heard the first of the John the Baptist stories, in which John proclaims that Jesus is the one for whom we all prepare. This week we hear from John the Baptist again, not from the Jordan River, but from prison. John has been thrown into prison for sedition, for proclaiming a King who is not the Roman emperor. Even in prison John is interested in Jesus’ mission, so he sends one of the people who visit him to find out about how Jesus is carrying out his mission, and John is not pleased. You see, John spoke about a mighty one coming to baptize the righteous with the Holy Spirit and the wicked with fire to destroy them. Jesus talks about and does plenty of Holy Spirit things—that is what we read about in today’s gospel, the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them—but Jesus doesn’t talk much about fire and destruction, like John thought he should.

John and the Jewish community are expecting the Messiah, the anointed one, the one who will come in power and glory to overthrow the Roman government and put Israel into power. This is not what happens. Even John questions Jesus identity, he asks, are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?

And Mary sings my soul magnifies the Lord, for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant. He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty. He has come to the help of his servant Israel, for he has remembered his promise of mercy. But God has not come as expected. God comes as a baby in a barn, God comes as child in a culture where children have no voice, God comes as a man who is lifted onto a cross to die.

It is not in power that God comes, but instead it is in healing and compassion. It is healing and compassion that point us toward the coming of the Christ. It is not in power that God comes, but instead it is in deeds of love and mercy.

John’s displeasure may be a result of finding out that he was wrong about the Messiah. The people’s expectation of the Messiah may be wrong as well. Jesus says to them, What did you expect? A King? Someone dressed in soft robes in royal palaces? Because that is in fact what the people expected, a King that would come in power to give them all a place at the head of the table. Jesus says and demonstrates that he is not the King they expected.

What we have is a huge chasm of unmet expectation in this story, and that unmet expectation in fact plays out throughout the gospels. God does not come to the people as King, as a powerful ruler. Instead, God comes into the midst of the people as a child, born in a barn, born to a lowly woman who is not even married yet to Joseph. God, who has all power, gave up all power to come into the midst of the people as one with no power. God, who would be King, instead is a child, who we tend to make into a King.

A world of unmet expectation. I think we know that world well. What you hope and dream about usually is nothing like what it is that actually happens to you. So much stress at holiday time is caused by perceived expectations, by the chasm between a sort of nostalgic view of what should happen and what you think should be accomplished, and what is real. What is real is usually unrecognizable compared to what is imagined.

I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing. I think it is the very thing that helps us to remember that we were and are never in control anyway. We do this to people all the time. We expect them to behave in a particular way based on our own expectations of them. But we have no control over other people, and what they think, believe, or how they act. We, just like John, have no control over Jesus, who he was, who he is, and who he will be. The real Jesus that we read about in the bible, and whom we encounter in the bread and the wine, and who we experience in the other, is nothing like the Jesus some wish Jesus was.

The Jesus some wish Jesus was is the Jesus of power, the Jesus who seems more like a magician than a man. Jesus who judges who can be in relationship with him and who cannot. Jesus who said every word that is printed in red in their bibles. And who is the real Jesus, who is God in the flesh? The Jesus I read about in the bible heals the blind, and the lame, and the lepers. The deaf hear, the dead are raised. He eats with tax collectors and women; he spends his time with children. He says that the last shall be first, he says those in bondage will be freed; he says love God with everything you’ve got, and love your neighbor. Jesus who got so angry that he turned the tables in the temple, and broke everything in sight.

And what happened to this Jesus? He was rejected; he was rejected because the way he lived and taught was threatening to many, especially those in power. And he was murdered in the most brutal and lingering of ways. He took it all, and yet forgave those who dealt it out. When he came back afterward, he still didn’t come back as a King. He still didn’t come back like a magician, or a superhero, rising from each blow to deal out better than what he got to the one who gave it to him; he came back pretty much with the same attitude and behavior he exhibited before his crucifixion.

So what kind of Jesus are we expecting will be coming back at the climax of all things? Are we hoping that this next time, Jesus will finally come back as The Terminator, getting rid of all the people we don’t like? Maybe we look for Jesus to come back as the one who will finally bring prosperity to everyone, or peace to the world. Some may look for Jesus as the one who will destroy all those who don’t agree, or who believe wrongly. Or maybe the next time he’ll protect himself by shooting first.

If so, we’ll be just as disappointed, if not more so, than John the Baptizer was. The Jesus our hearts long for, the Jesus our lives as well as our lips confess is coming again to judge the living and the dead, the Jesus whom John’s followers were told about, is not the Jesus of superheroes.

The Jesus we wait for, the Jesus we long for is the one who humbly serves the poor, the outcast, and the sinner. He is the one who is willing to eat with Pharisees as well as tax collectors and women. And most of all, he is willing to die on a Roman cross rather than retaliate against those who treated him and his people brutally. That’s the only Christ there is. Jesus who accepts you and I exactly as we are, who loves us exactly as we are. Who gives us not what we deserve; but instead gives us love that has no conditions, love that is selfless, love that gives up all power for the good of the other.

There is no other Jesus. The Jesus we read about in the bible accepts, he does not condemn. Jesus forgives. Jesus frees people from a lifetime of bondage so that they, and we may live a life that is marked by love and generosity.

There is no evidence that Jesus, who will come again in glory at the end of time, will come as a ruler to hold power over creation. The story that we read in these gospels suggests that Jesus, who we wait for and prepare for, will come again to judge us against the standard he set: humble service to the poor, the outcast, the sinner; willingness to eat with those with whom we disagree and with those who are unlike us; and whether or not we spread the good news of God’s love in him. These are the markers of the people who follow Christ, and who wait for his return.

As the anticipation of Jesus comes to a climax, do as Jesus does, go out and serve the poor, the outcast, the sinner. Or maybe eat a meal with someone you can’t agree with. And we can say with all our heart, Come, Lord Jesus, Come!

Our King and Savior now draws near: Come let us adore him. Amen.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

2 Advent Yr A

We just prayed this morning when we lit the second candle on the Advent wreath, Gracious God, Grant that we may find peace as we prepare for our Lord’s birth. May divisions in ourselves and in our families be peacefully resolved. May there be peace in our cities and in the countries of our world. Help us to see the paths of peace in our lives, and then give to us courage to follow them. Lord, let us remember that you only are the giver of lasting peace and that you are always with us. We relit the first candle, the candle of hope, and lit the second candle, the candle of peace. On this the second Sunday of Advent, may we find peace and hope.

Isaiah shows us that the political situation of the people of Israel is in total disarray. Into this setting, however, just when things appear hopeless and the future looks very bleak, the prophet promises that God will send a leader who will rule with justice toward all, and with mercy toward the most vulnerable in society. The little ones, the defenseless ones, the innocent ones will be protected and cared for. Isaiah urges the people to remember who they are as the people of God, reminding them that their power, their life, comes from goodness, not from greed. In Matthew, the people that John the baptizer was with had stopped believing the Messiah would be coming. We live in a similar time of cynicism, we have stopped believing that there can be an end to war, that there can be an end to homelessness, that there can be an end to inequity and injustice. Mostly because we look to the wrong place for justice and peace. Only God will bring justice and righteousness, the world cannot do it. God’s mission in the world is healing and reconciliation, it is not justice as the world understands it. It is in God’s healing and reconciliation where real hope and real peace lay.

What is your greatest hope? What makes you get up in the morning, and move through your day, and, at times, struggle against discouragement, injustice, and despair? What are you moving toward, and what carries you toward it? We always need to remember that hope is not the same thing as a wish. We often make the mistake of using hope when we really mean wish. We wish for presents at Christmas, but hope is in the promise of new life. Wishes sometimes come true, hope is already true. God has already broken into our lives and our world to bring peace and reconciliation, to bring hope, and to show us what that looks like. Advent reminds us of this truth, Advent gives us an opportunity to listen, to stay awake, and to prepare ourselves and our community for the day that God will fulfill our hope.

The story in Isaiah shows us what hope looks like. A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. Even when something looks dead, in God’s economy, new life is possible. That is hope. The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. That is hope.

And that is what John proclaims in Matthew; this one who is coming is the one who begins the new peaceable kingdom. But the peace and the hope that Jesus brings is not a nostalgic romantic peace, it is not a wish. It is about turning away from the powers of the world and to live in hope. We have heard Eugene Peterson’s translation in The Message; repentance is about turning in your old life for a kingdom life. Peterson writes, Jesus will ignite the kingdom life within you, a fire within you, the Holy Spirit within you, changing you from the inside out. Jesus places everything true in its proper place before God, everything false he’ll put out with the trash to be burned.

And Paul in Romans shows us what that kingdom life looks like. Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God. Peace and hope are about welcoming everyone into this kingdom life. You are welcomed into this new life that God has for you, you don’t have to be perfect to be welcome, surely the Pharisees and the Sadducees were only perfect in their own minds and they were welcome in God’s kingdom. Welcome one another just as Christ has welcomed you. There are so many that aren’t hearing this from us Christians. So many people continue to live in hopelessness and despair because they are hearing and seeing that some Christians believe a certain way, behave in a certain way. But that is not what Paul says here. This welcome, this radical greeting, is the welcome offered to the one who does not look like myself, who is not a member of my "immediate" family. Perhaps this one dresses differently, celebrates different traditions, looks different, perhaps this one is even sick or without a home or in serious difficulty. Perhaps this one is the one with whom I vehemently disagree, Paul says all are welcome in Christ.

Paul is here pushing the boundaries of the community. Yes, Christ came to one particular place, was born into one particular race and a unique religious tradition, but it is precisely this particularity on God's part that allows God to be paradoxically present in all people, in all cultures, in all flesh. The incarnation is about the infinite becoming fully embodied in the finite and yet never restricted by that finite. Christ's coming into the world, into the house of David, is God's coming into all of humanity, for all humanity. This coming, the advent of Christ, can never be claimed as a privilege by one group. Rather, everyone is invited, those who are inside and those who are not. Hope abounds when we welcome everyone as Christ has welcomed you.

Last week I mentioned that here at St. Andrew’s we have shifted from using the liturgical color purple, which signifies penitence, to using blue instead. This passage from Romans illustrates that shift. The shift is from penitence to hope. When I am out walking just as day is dawning, the sky is an amazing blue. Blue is the hope of a new day, blue anticipates coming of new creation. And the vision of the coming kingdom is broad, wide, deep, and generous. The vision of the kingdom is peace and hope.

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Our King and Savior now draws near: Come let us adore him.
Amen.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Funeral homily for Bernice Holland Jones

I am humbled and privileged to say these words as we gather to celebrate Bernice’s life. Although I am the one who has the privilege of speaking, many of us will tell similar stories of Bernice’s impact on our lives. She taught all of us, whether you are a St. Mary’s girl, whether you are a friend, she taught all of us. All of us know that in these last years, she wondered to herself and aloud at her purpose for continuing on this earth, she was somewhat impatient to get started on the next part. Today, I get to tell you what she taught me. I hope you will share with each other what she taught you.

I was called here to Rapid City to lead this congregation of St. Andrew’s. But it was Bernice who really taught me what it means to be priest. It is Bernice who blessed me. Each Wednesday Bernice would stand at these steps after taking the bread and the wine, and wait for prayers of healing. As I made the sign of the cross on her forward, and laid my hands on her head, I wondered what healing meant when you are 99 years old. I would say, Lord God, we ask for healing and for wholeness, and especially Lord for the power of your Holy Spirit, in whom we are made new creations, in whom we are born again, and by whom we are being made in your image. Each time I prayed these words, I saw Bernice’s beauty, I saw Bernice who I believe looks as much like God’s image as I can imagine. I would stand before Bernice and I would be blessed by her. Many believe it’s the other way around, that I bless them. But as Bernice stood before me, I was blessed by her, over and over again.

Bernice taught me about learning. There is always something new to be learned. Her attendance at Bible Study until quite recently attests to that, most would suggest that they’d been there done that got the tee shirt. But not Bernice, scripture always had something new to teach; each time we approach scripture there is something new for us to learn. I bet that’s why she was such a good teacher herself for so many years, I imagine she approached her students with the hope of learning something new, and that always results in transformation.

But I think what is most important to me and has formed me as a priest, is Bernice’s graciousness toward all people. It wasn’t just about kind words, Bernice had the ability to embrace people and encounter them as I think Jesus would have. At least she did with me. She and I didn’t see eye-to-eye, probably true with many of you as well, you see this isn’t about right and wrong, or agreeing and disagreeing, it‘s about seeing into someone’s soul and respecting the dignity of that creation. Bernice could do that, and that actually sounds a lot like living out our baptismal promises. Bernice helps me do that.

All of us have heard Bernice’s stories I hope. Stories of the Episcopal Church in South Dakota, stories of St. Mary’s girls, stories of Thunderhead Episcopal Camp, and of Camp Remington, Bernice was not just at these places, many of them wouldn’t be around if it hadn’t been for her and Emmitt. I to have been blessed by these stories.

So today we celebrate a life well lived. We celebrate the hope in the promise of new life that God gives and that is shown to us in the death and resurrection of Jesus, that death and resurrection that is so beautifully illustrated by the butterfly that Bernice loved so much.

One of the most difficult things I do as your priest is to accompany people on life’s journey to death. It is also one of the privileges of my work, because life’s journey to death is a sacred journey. God came into this world, into our midst, to show us that death does not have dominion, that the material demise of our bodies is not the ultimate story. The ultimate story is the story of resurrection.

This is the celebration of Bernice’s life, and it attests to the hope we have in the new life that is given by God through Jesus Christ. What God brings to us is change. Death is the penultimate change, resurrection is the ultimate change, and that is what we celebrate today. As we celebrate this life well lived, we are sad, and in the midst of the sadness, the good news remains. We hear scripture today full of good news. The good news is about the absolutely new life that God gives to us in Jesus.

Our hope rests in new creation. Our hope rests in the story that the work Jesus does on the cross matters. And what Jesus does on the cross is to collect all of the pain and suffering of this world, and take it and hold it so that the stream of pain or sadness or hurt will flow no farther. Jesus takes in all of our pain and our suffering and Jesus contains it. Jesus’ life and death says to our world, it all stops here. It all stops with me.

Jesus doesn’t take away pain and sorrow. You and I both know that reality. To be human is to feel, to feel pain, to feel joy, to feel fear, to feel intimacy. Being human means being born to die, and only a God who is willing to share that can actually help us face our own mortality and that of those we love. Only by facing death, our most primal fear, can we move ahead to embrace life with the great “nevertheless” that is God’s gracious word to a broken world.

Death is real and grief hurts and sometimes we just have to sit in the silence and cry and wait. What Jesus accomplishes is to let the pain and suffering wreak its fury upon him, to negate its power and take it out of the world with him. Jesus didn’t defeat pain and suffering by resisting it; but by absorbing it and removing it through the power of love.

And Jesus is the reason we rejoice today. It is this truth of what God in Jesus does in life, and on the cross, and in the resurrection that we celebrate Bernice’s life today. It is the truth that God lived and died as one of us, that connects us to each other, and gives us the strength and courage to love one another in our sadness and in our joy. God came to be with us, so that we may be new creations. God came to be with us, so that our pain and suffering, and joys and celebrations are made absolutely new.

Alleluia, Christ is risen. The Lord is risen indeed, Alleluia!