Wednesday, December 30, 2015

The Light Shines in the Darkness

"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was in the beginning with God.  All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.  What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light was the light of all people.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it...And the Word was made flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father's only son, full of grace and truth."
--John 1: 1-5, 14

Merry Christmas!  Yep, it's still Christmas.  Regardless of what the world around us says, we know it's still Christmas, right?  And this past Sunday we got to hear my favorite Christmas story:  the prologue to the Fourth Gospel.

There is no manger, no shepherds, no choir of heaven's angels to announce Christ's birth, not even a Mary and Joseph (they're never so much as name-dropped in the Fourth Gospel).  There is only the Word.  Nothing else matters.  The only thing that is important to the writer of this gospel is that the One who was in the beginning, the Word through whom all things were made, the Light of all people, has come into the world. 

But did you notice how the text put it?  "The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness did not overcome it."  How excellent is that sentence?  It doesn't say that the light comes into the world and destroys the darkness.  Doesn't say that it disperses the darkness.  Just that it shines IN the darkness.  The reality, of course, is that there has always been and always will be darkness.  You can call it the devil, you can call it life.  Whatever you call it, it's as true now as it was in Jesus' day:  there is always going to be darkness in this world.  There are always going to be times when we look around and wonder how things can get any worse.  War.  Disaster.  Personal tragedies.  These are unavoidable.  They're a part of life, sadly.  Sometimes we ask ourselves how it is even possible for there to be light in such dark times.  Yet the promise made here in this piece of prose that I think is the most beautiful in all of Holy Scripture, is that we are given the reassurance that the darkness will never overcome the light.  Sometimes the light may only seem like a flicker, but it's there.  The darkness can never, ever overcome it.  And let me tell you, that's a truth that can sustain us and get us through some extraordinarily tough times in our lives.

I was a hospice chaplain for one summer.  It was my clinical pastoral education, which is one of the biggest pieces of the curriculum when you're getting ordained.  I chose to do mine with hospice, which was both rewarding and heartbreaking.  I had one day especially where I visited several folks who were in nursing homes, folks who didn't even realize I was there.  Then I went to the hospice wing of one of the local hospitals and spent time with folks who had about a week or less to live.  And when I got back to the house I was drained.  I was so sad.  And when you added on the stuff going on in my personal life, you know, the usual stressful things that we all deal with, I was a bit of a mess.  I sat down to read Evening Prayer, and THIS was the gospel reading for that day.  I kept repeating that line:  the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.  As I read and reread this sentence I realized that Jesus did not come to make everything in life perfect.  There was never a promise from Jesus that life would be smooth-sailing by following him.  Instead, Jesus' promise is simply that he will be in the midst of the darkness, still standing there, still shining.  I needed that promise that night.  And I've come back to that promise time and again.  I whisper that line to myself (or to God) when I'm troubled, scared, or feeling weighed down by the darkness of life. 

The light shines in the darkness.  Christmas is the time when we celebrate that light breaking into our world in physical form in Jesus, but it's a light that was actually here the whole time.  That light burned in the prophets as they proclaimed God's Good News of freedom.  That light burned in the apostles even after Jesus left, inspiring them to form the Church as we know it.  And believe it or not, that light is still here.  In a world that mourns over mass shootings, where refugees are turned away when seeking solace, where politicians pander to people's prejudices and care nothing for the least of these, that light is still here.  It might seem like a small match in the great sea of darkness that we find ourselves in, but the Christmas hope proclaimed in this gospel is that that light still shines.  And it always will.  It will because, in no small part, it burns in you.  The light that burned at creation, it burns in you.  You.  The Body of Christ.  As members of Christ's body you have that light inside you, and as long as you share it, as long as you let it continue to shine for others, the darkness will never overcome this world.

There's a story about a monastery in the hills of Europe.  It was going through a really hard time.  Folks weren't coming there anymore, so they weren't getting donations.  The brothers were getting frustrated with each other, and the abbot was really worried.  He talked to the bishop, who told him that if things continued, they may have to disband the order and leave the monastery.  The abbot was at a loss, so he went down the hill leading to the monastery and went into the town to talk with the wisest person there:  the old rabbi.  He came to him and said, "Rabbi, I don't know what to do.  The brothers argue like they never have.  We are not getting people to come to visit, and I'm afraid we may have to close.  What do I do?"  The old rabbi, sitting there drinking his tea, never even looked up.  He said:  "The Messiah is in your midst."  The Messiah is in your midst?  The abbot said:  "You mean that one of the brothers is the Messiah?"  The rabbi never looked up, but the abbot ran back and shared the news with his brothers.  Who could it be?  Was it you?  Was it you?  No one knew.  But from that day forward they treated each other as though each was the Messiah.  They did everything any of us would do if we knew for certain we were in the midst of Jesus.  The air in the monastery changed dramatically, and gradually people started coming back.  That's the place with those monks who are so friendly, so caring for each other, they'd say.  And the monastery thrived. 

Amazing things happen when we know that Jesus is in our midst.  They happen when we have the courage to recognize the light of Christ in each other, and when we dare to believe that it's actually inside all of us, just waiting to be shared, waiting to bring some light to what can be a seriously dark world. So let it shine!  Let it shine!  LET IT SHINE!!

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.  No matter what darkness this world may throw at you, don't ever forget that the light of Jesus is in you.  It's all around you.  It will protect you.  It will guide you.  It will hold your hand and get you through any darkness this world can throw at you.  And that, brothers and sisters, is Christmas Good News, indeed.


Tuesday, December 22, 2015


"My soul doth magnify the Lord
And my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Savior
For he hath regarded the lowliness of his handmaiden
For behold from henceforth
All generations shall call me blessed
For he that is mighty hath magnified me
And holy is his Name
And his mercy is on them that fear him
Throughout all generations
He hath showed strength with his arm
He hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts
He hath put down the mighty from their seats
And hath exalted the humble and meek
He hath filled the hungry with good things
And the rich he hath sent empty away
He remembering his mercy hath holpen his servant Israel
As he promised to our forefathers, Abraham and his seed forever."
--The Magnificat (Luke 1: 46-55; BCP Rite I translation)

There has been an awakening.  Have you felt  it?  OK, that line was from Star Wars, but can you feel it?  Can you feel Jesus stirring, ready to be born into this fragile world?  We have reached the pinnacle of our Advent journey, as we move from John the Baptist out in the desert and head to the hill country of Ein Karen, where a young girl named Mary is paying a visit to her cousin Elizabeth. 

Here in this visitation we hear Mary sing the great hymn of the Church, the Magnificat, which, for my money, sums up the entirety of the gospels in just 10 elegant verses.  So majestic is this hymn that we not only proclaim it together this morning, but we hear it a second time, with a different translation, from Mary herself.  In these few verses is, what one of my seminary professors called, the most revolutionary document in the world. 

Statues depicting Mary & Elizabeth, just outside the Church of the Visitation in Ein Karen.

Why is it so revolutionary?  Because it proclaims with magnificence God's own revolutions, the manners in which God has turned the world upside down through the Gospel of Jesus Christ. 

There is the moral revolution.  He hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.  In Christianity is the death of our own pride.  As St. Paul said, it is not I who live but Christ who lives in me.  All that we are is Christ's.  Washed in the waters of baptism, sealed by the Holy Spirit, and marked as Christ's own forever.  All of our faults, our sins, our shortcomings, crucified with Jesus; we are dead to sin and from that death is resurrection, the promise of something new and better.  When we let those sins be nailed to that cross and let a new self be raised, it is the deathblow to our pride and arrogance and personal shame and the beginning of a moral revolution. 

There is an economic revolution.  He hath filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he hath sent empty away.  There are no haves and have nots in a truly Christian society.  Look at the early Church:  no one dared to have too much while others had so little.  They got only so that they could give away.  We Christians are crazy enough to believe that there can be a world where such a revolution is possible, where one is not measured by an economic status, where someone who is poor is actually given real hope,   To be a Christian is to put Christ first, and to put Christ first is to put our fellow human beings and their needs ahead of our own.  And in that is the economic revolution.

And then there is the social revolution.  He hath put down the mighty from their seat and hath exalted the humble and meek.  Christianity puts an end to the world's labels and prestige.  I'm gonna go back to Star Wars because, why not.  In the original Star Wars Luke Skywalker was nothing more than a poor moisture farmer on the desert planet of Tatooine.  In the newest installment Rey is a scavenger on the barren world of Jakku, and Finn is a stormtrooper of the First Order.  None of them have any right being heroes.  But through the power of the Force, all three rise to become more than they were before.  The labels they gave themselves and that others gave them no longer matter.  And the same is true for any of us who dare to claim the Lord Jesus as our Savior.  Labels mean nothing! The world had no business being saved by a poor carpenter turned rabbi who ended up dead on a cross like a criminal.  But God ignited a social revolution in Jesus and flipped the world on its head.  Now the labels that we give ourselves are meaningless.  Again St. Paul nails it:  there is no longer rich or poor, slave or free, male or female.  Today we could add to those:  there is no longer Episcopalian or Baptist, republican or democrat, gay or straight, black or white.  For we are all one in Christ Jesus.  Our labels disappear.  What the world once found to be worthless is now exalted.  Being disciples of Jesus begets such a revolution in each of us and in the world. 

Every night when I was in seminary we sang Evensong, the office of Evening Prayer set to music.  And each and every evening we sang the Magnificat.  We sang it until we didn't need the words in front of us anymore, sang it until those of us who weren't even musically inclined could effortlessly hit every note, every cadence.  It got in our bones.  And that's what it's there for.  Mary's Song is your song!  It's my song!  It's the song of the Christian hope;  hope that the way we experience this world now is not all that there is. Hope that we are more than our social status, more than the worst thing we have ever done, more than the best or worst job we have ever held, more than our material possessions, or lack thereof.  Hope that that God does ,God is, and God will, transform this world, set it on fire with justice, wipe away every tear, break down every human-made barrier, and turn us all around.  In this poor nobody of a girl, who said yes to God, is the beginning of a new world. 

Can you feel it?  Can you feel Christ stirring in you as he stirred in his mother?  Can you hear  God whispering to you, as God whispered to Mary?  Will you say yes?  Yes to a world transformed, to a world that has known the moral, economic, and social revolutions of God?  Will you say yes to whatever it is God is doing in your life right this minute?  Will you magnify God and prepare the way of the Lord? 

Monday, December 14, 2015

The Baptist's Cry

*This entry is taken from my sermon on the Second Sunday of Advent, 10/13/15.*

"The crowds said to John, 'What then should we do?'  In reply he said to them, 'Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.'  Even tax-collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, 'Teacher, what should we do?'  He said to them, 'Collect no more than the amount prescribed to you.'  Soldiers also asked him, 'And we, what should we do?'  He said to them, 'Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.'"
--Luke 3: 10-14

One evening while I lived in New York I was transferring trains at 42nd Street, which requires you to walk a good ways underground.  While you're down there you'll run into all kinds of folks:  street musicians trying to make a couple bucks, tourists who have no idea where they're going, and the inevitable street preacher.  I can still remember one of them, standing by a set-up with some tracts on it.  'How do you know if you're going to heaven?' is what the tracts were called.  This guy, though, caught my eye:  he wore tattered clothes, his shoes were untied, his hair was crazy, and he smelled like an ashetray that had been dipped in bourbon--bad bourbon.  As he handed me the tract he said 'Here ya go, young man, God bless ya.'  And I went on my way and never saw him again.  I said to the person walking with me, 'I think that was John the Baptist!'

John the Baptist or a homeless person?  You decide.

I suspect that that is a common visual that we get when we imagine John.  He lived in the dessert, so his skin must have been like leather.  We're told he ate locusts and honey, a cloak of camel's hair, and a rope for a belt.  Most depictions of John show him with crazy hair, beady eyes.  Not the kind of guy that you would want to run in to while transferring trains.  But something about this guy drew the people from all over, drew every single kind of person.  Because as crazy as this guy may have seemed, he had the answer to the question that every person, rich, poor, Jewish, Roman, wanted to ask:  what must I do to be saved?

Tracts like the one that John's long lost cousin gave me under the 42nd Street train station try answering that question.  You know the kind I'm talking about:  they're usually done like a comic strip and show a person making two choices, one of the choices lands them in hell, the other in heaven, and then the strip asks you which choice you'll make. But I don't think it's that simple.  We cannot expect to read a tract and have it all figured out.  Nor could the folks coming from all over to see John expect to merely listen to him and have it all figured out.  And John knew it. 

He puts the work of salvation back on the shoulders of the people.  To the tax collectors, the ones who were despised because they tended to overcharge folks, he said to collect only what was prescribed, no more.  To the Roman soldiers, who bullied and abused people that they were meant to protect, he said not to extort by way of threats.  And to everyone else he said, if you have two coats, share one, if you have enough food, share it.  This wasn't some magic formula, this was the kind of work that anybody and everybody could do.  It's the kind of work that we can do.

How many of us have been asked whether or not we are saved?  My response is that I am being saved.  Salvation is not a one-time thing, it's a process.  It happens our whole lives long, and it happens communally.  As Episcopalians, catholic Christians, we believe that salvation is done together.  Through our common prayer, our songs of praise, and the work that we do together, we move ever closer to salvation as members of one Body, the head of which is Jesus Christ.  John knew this.  He was an Essene, a sect of Judaism that abandoned the cities and lived together in the dessert, working together, praying together, and moving ever-closer to salvation together. 

What should we do to be saved?  We should prepare the way of the Lord.  It's been the theme of our Advent.  How can we prepare the way of the Lord?  Well, John the Baptist would tell us that we don't have to give up our roles in society by going out in the living in the dessert like he did, but that we should use our jobs, our skills to work toward salvation together, honoring God by using those things God has given us to strengthen and encourage one another and to glorify God.  I'm currently serving on the steering committee for NETworX Randolph, an organization that seeks to partner churches and other charitable organizations with individuals looking to get out of poverty.  They do so by paring up the individuals--called Champions--with allies who educate them over the course of 16 weeks on ways that they can change their own narratives.  Over time relationships are formed, and lives are transformed.  This happens, not by some magic formula, but by those allies using their own jobs and their own skills to strengthen and encourage those individuals.  The program hopes to get off the ground in September, meaning they'll be recruiting allies over the next several months.   So if you're a teacher, maybe you can use your gift to help someone get their GED.  If you're a banker, maybe you can help someone set up a checking account and teach them how to balance finances.  If you're just a really good cook, maybe you can teach someone how to prepare homemade meals for their family.  NETworX understands what John the Baptist is getting at:  all you have to do is use what God has given you to help one another and you will know what salvation really looks like.  This is what it looks like to prepare the way of the Lord.

NETworX seeks to help folks get out of poverty in a holistic manner.  Check out their Facebook page!

John preached for action and produced it.  He wasn't concerned with theological subtleties in his sermons. He knew that handing out a tract wouldn't do it, and he knew that people wouldn't get it if all they did was listen to him talk.  Instead, he challenged them to go out and make salvation happen with the people that they met on a day-to-day basis.  The same is true for us.  If we sit here and listen to a sermon, or take in the beautiful songs of our choir, or receive the holy sacrament and are not compelled to go out into the world and respond to the Holy Spirit that got stirred up in us, then what are we doing this for?  There's a story of a priest who was standing at the door of the church after a service one Sunday, and folks filed past with the usual "Good sermon." comments.  Finally, someone told him, "I really liked your sermon," to which he responded, "Thanks, but what did it do?" 

What will any of what we experience in our worship communities do to serve one another and especially serve the folks outside our walls.  It's like a priest friend--and fellow actor--has always been fond of saying:  "Sunday morning is the dress rehearsal for the rest of our lives!"  We are meant to take what we hear, see, and feel on a Sunday and put it to good use in our day-to day lives.  What impact will any of it have on our lives and the lives of others? John is still crying out to us to take what we have and use it to better others' lives.  Do that and we will, indeed, be moving together toward salvation.  Do that and we will prepare the way of the Lord.  

Monday, December 7, 2015

If We Choose To #Care

*This entry was taken from my sermon on the Second Sunday of Advent.  The #AdventWord of the day, of course, has changed since then.*

"The word of the Lord came to John son of Zechariah in the wildnerness.  He went into the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentence for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the words of the book of the prophet Isaiah:  'The voice of one crying in the wildneress, "Prepare the way of the Lord.  Make his paths straight."'"
--Luke 3: 2b-4

"I thank my God ever time I remember you...because of your sharing in the gospel ...for all of you share in God's grace with me."
--Philippians 1: 3a, 5, 7

There is a social media campaign happening right now called #AdventWord.  The idea behind it is that folks are invited to take pictures each day during the Advent season and post them to social mediaTwitter, Facebook, Instagramalong with #AdventWord and then # whatever word there is for that day.  The pictures posted reflect the word of the day, so when it is all said and done these social media platforms would have created a virtual Advent calendar with pictures from around the world.  Some of the words of the day this past week included proclaim, repent,  worship and give.  The word of the day for the Second Sunday of Advent is 'care.'  So as you post your pictures to social media today, be sure to include #AdventWord and #care.  You can then go online and see what images of care others have posted.  

This week Ive been thinking about what it means to care.  I see it all around us here at Good Shepherd.  I saw it last week when our youth collectively shopped for presents for Operation Red Sleigh to be given to other kids who are having a tough time this holiday season.  I saw it this morning in the loving work provided by the Fellowship and Parish Life Committees, who set everything up and served breakfast during our annual meeting.  I see it in our Mission Outreach team, getting ready to prepare dinner for the inmates at Randolph Correctional so that they can have a Christmas meal. I see Good Shepherd caring for one another in this community, and in Asheboro and Randolph County on a regular basis, and it fills me with great joy.

But Ive also been wondering about what it means to care in the wake of the events of the past week or so.  Three mass shootings, candidates for public office throwing anyone and everyone under the bus and disrespecting basic dignities of their fellow human beings, and a world still living in fear in the wake of the events in Paris and the ongoing questions around how we deal with folks fleeing violence in the Middle East.  Ill admit that sometimes it feels so much easier not to care.  Just turn off my phone, never go online, ignore the bad stuff going on in the world, and just go on with my life.  Its enough to break a persons spirit, make them question whether God is even real.  I look around and I wonder if maybe it would not be better for my own emotional health if I didnt care.

But then I come to here.  I come and listen to your voices singing Gods praise.  I see such love and joy and hope in the eyes of our children, especially when they come up here to receive Holy Communion.  I spend time talking to yall, and I am reminded once again of the greatness and the goodness of God.  And I am reminded that, as a baptized member of the Body of Christ, it is my obligation--my solemn vow--to seek and serve Christ in all persons, to love my neighbor as myself, and to respect the dignity of every human being.  Thats pretty hard sometimes though.  Its pretty hard to truly love our neighbor when he or she spews rhetoric that we find abhorrent.  Its hard to respect the dignity of someone who kills without any remorse.  But the more time I spend with you, and the more I see you caring for each other, the more I am reminded that that is what I am supposed to dowhat all of us are supposed to do.

This is the time in our Advent season when we are introduced to crazy John the Baptizer.  Luke tells us that the world of God came to John, son of Zechariah, who went out into the wilderness, apart from the hustle and bustle of the big cities like Jerusalem, and proclaimed to all:  prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.  Prepare the way.  How do we do that?  We asked ourselves that question last week when we started this journey.  How do we prepare?  I think one way we prepare for the Lords coming is to try and make this world a better place than he left it; and doing that starts with caring for one another.  In his Letter to the Philippians, Paul commends that community for sharing in the Gospel and sharing in Gods grace.  The word used for share is koinonia, and Paul uses it a lot.  The word appears 20 times in the New Testament13 times in Pauls lettersand it means to share in the sense of bearing one anothers burdens, a joint participation. Literally, for Paul, to care is to share. He uses that word to emphasize a truth that the early church knewa truth we can all stand to be reminded of todaythat we are in this thing together.

This faith journey, yes, but also this life. We are in this life with folks that, sometimes, it is just plain hard to care about. Regardless of the labels we give ourselvesChristian, Muslim, Conservative, Liberal, us, themwe must care for one another, we must share the burdens with one another, if we are to make this world a better place and truly prepare it for the Lords coming.  One of the best ways to do this, of course, is through prayer.  In all things we are meant to come to God in prayer.  But I fear that sometimes we forget how prayer works.  Pope Francis , when asked how prayer works said, You pray for an end to world hunger, and then you go out and feed someone.  Thats how prayer works.  Rabbi Jack Moline put it another way when he said:  Prayer without action is just noise.  For those who have already been affected by evils of this worldpoverty, violence, discriminationprayers can seem pretty hollow when done after the fact.  But action that is inspirited by prayer?  Now that gets things done!  When our whole lives are rooted in prayer, in conversation with God, we can be inspired to change the narrative, change the world for the better, and truly prepare the way of the Lord.  We can move beyond our labels to share the load with our brothers and sisters.  We can with all our hearts, souls, bodies, and spirits, care for each other.  But we must be willing to put that faith and prayer into action. 

The recent back cover to the New York Daily News in response to the recent mass shootings.

Some of you may have seen the backpage of the New York Daily News earlier this week, which said in large type:  God’s Isn't Fixing This—a reference to all of the violence in the past few days.  That headline isn’t necessarily wrong.  If we sit on our hands and do nothing, if we decide not to care about what’s going on around us, and if we wait for God to do it all, nothing will get fixed. But if we let our lives of faith inspire us to work together, to cross boundaries and put aside differences so that we can leave this world in better shape then we found it, then there is hope for a world that can be transformed.  Advent , after all, is the season when we hope for God to break in and transform our world.  It can happen.  It will happen.  If only we can, as St. Augustine said, ‘pray as though everything depended upon God, and work as though everything depended upon us.’. We have that choice.  My prayer is that we all—not just those of us here today, not just Christians, but all of us in this country and in this world—will choose to care, will choose to put our faith into action and allow God to work through us to make significant change for a world of good.  We can do it.  We will do it. If we choose to care.