Our Impatient Savior

Sermon for Christmas Eve 2016 || Luke 2:1-20

We all know the Christmas story so well. We’ve listened to it our whole lives: in storybooks about the animals in the stable; in Linus’s monologue in A Charlie Brown Christmas; in the pageant; in carols about angels and little towns; and in the second chapter of Luke’s account of the Gospel, which I just read. We all know the Christmas story so well that we tend to crystallize it, to turn the story into a Norman Rockwell painting and hang it over our mantles. Continue reading “Our Impatient Savior”

Tapestry

Sermon for Sunday, January 3, 2016 || Christmas 2 || Luke 2:41-52

tapestryWell, here we are in 2016. Another year has come and gone, and oh so quickly. Years are short and not necessarily memorable unless we take the time to remember them, to stitch them into our living tapestries. I love that today’s Gospel mentions that Mary “treasures all these things in her heart.” Mary treasures both the painful memories, like losing Jesus in the caravan, and the happy memories, like finding him again in the temple. Mary treasures her memories, and they become the warp and weft of her life. They become the story of her walk with God.

At the last Confirmation class, we discussed how hard it can be to notice God’s movement in our lives because of how constant God’s presence is. We are hard-wired to notice change, not constancy. So to improve our awareness of God’s movement – and thus improve our chances of responding to that movement – I have a homework assignment for you. I want you to treasure things in your hearts.

Specifically, as we begin another new year, I invite each of you to look back over the past decade. For each year since January 2006, choose one event or theme that crystallizes for you what that year meant for your life. The event or theme doesn’t have to deal overtly with God’s movement, but I suspect that as you stitch these ten important moments together, you might start to see the wind of the Holy Spirit blowing in your life in unexpected ways. For the rest of this sermon, I’d like to present for you a personal example of this homework assignment. So, starting ten years ago:

It’s spring 2006, and my first year of seminary is coming to a close. I refuse to notice that love has already eroded into convenience and is well on its way to indifference. In mid-May, my girlfriend of two years initiates the end of our relationship. I push away the abyss threatening to engulf me because I need to focus on my chaplaincy at the children’s hospital. Back at seminary, I fall into despair. I isolate myself, presumptuously assuming that none of my friends has ever felt this way. I escape into the fantasy world of an online video game. I don’t surface again for many months.

It’s December 2007, and I ask my spiritual director to hear my confession in preparation for my first ordination. We enter the sanctuary. I kneel at the altar rail. I have written some notes on yellow legal sheets. The tears begin to flow as I confess the big things like my arrogant reliance on myself above everything else. I also confess the little things like cheating on that math quiz in fifth grade (sorry Mrs. Goldberg!). I am utterly exhausted when I finish. I feel empty, but in a good way, like there is more space in me for God to fill.

It’s June 2008 and blisteringly hot outside. There’s no A/C at the church, so I’m glad to be wearing seersucker. I kneel before my bishop and his hands are gripping my head firmly. The rest of the priests touch me lightly. I can feel my father’s hand on my shoulder. At the end of the service, people come to me for the customary blessing from the new priest. I don’t know what to say, but the words come just the same.

It’s late 2009, and some situations are just so brutal or hit so close to home that reliance on God is a requirement and not the fallback position. I get a call that a parishioner’s daughter has died suddenly in the night. God finds me cowering on the front stoop. I take a deep breath and enter the house. Every day for a week and a half, I spend time with the grieving parents, and I know without a shadow of a doubt that my normal strength is unequal to the task. I officiate at her funeral, my first for someone my own age. And God is there.

It’s the beginning of 2010, and I’m looking for a new position. I email my former spiritual director about a job on the day after she mentions off-handedly to her husband that she’d like an “Adam Thomas clone” to be her assistant rector. We don’t believe in coincidences, but in the weaving power of God’s movement. I start my new job in Massachusetts six weeks later. Four weeks after that, I meet Leah.

It’s February 2011, and I’m standing at the top of the steps in my church with my father by my side. Leah walks towards me wearing a beautiful white dress. We vow in the name of God to have and to hold each other until we are parted by death. She is my future, and you couldn’t stuff any more gratitude to God in my heart if you tried.

It’s July 2012, and I rush Leah to the hospital. She’s at a ten on the pain scale, and it takes the ER doctors all day to figure out why. The reason is connected to the fact that every month we hope and hope and hope for a positive pregnancy test, and every month our hopes are dashed. We cry a lot. We wonder what’s wrong with us that we can’t seem to do what our bodies are designed to do. The future we planned together dims.

It’s November 2013, and I get off the phone with Chris Barnes, who has just invited me to be your rector. I have to wait patiently for him to stop talking so I could say, “YES!” I feel the same sense of glowing rightness in my chest that I had felt about going to Massachusetts and marrying Leah. The next day, Leah and I have a special medical procedure, and two weeks later we see two tiny heartbeats on the ultrasound monitor.

It’s July 2014, and I watch as first a tiny baby girl and then a slightly less tiny baby boy enter the world. I look in awe at their solemn little faces and their fingers and their miniscule fingernails. I have no idea what I’m doing, but I hold them and whisper to them and change their diapers, and those seem to be the right things to do. I am overwhelmed, and my gratitude comes in kisses, not in words.

It’s the end of 2015, and I’m writing this sermon. I only cry twice (maybe three times) while writing it. It takes me a long time to figure out what to say about this last year. It has been a year of ups and downs, of complete joy and utter exhaustion. It has also been a year of first words and first steps and lots of food dropped purposefully on the kitchen floor. But as I look back, the one word that captures this past year for me is “home.” In all my life, I’ve never felt at home until now – until my children started crawling up the stairs and knowing which room is theirs, until I started walking in the back door and knowing that a pair of sticky hugs was in my immediate future. I am home.

This is what I treasure in my heart today. These are the events from the last decade that have woven themselves into the tapestry of my life. These are the moments – both happy and painful – that have helped sink the moorings of my faith deeper and deeper. As we begin 2016, I invite you to take some time to treasure the last decade in your heart. View your own living tapestry and see how the golden thread of God’s movement weaves through it. If you’d like to write yours down like I did, I would love to read it. Above all, in this new year, I pray that you may find treasure to hold in your hearts, and I pray that you may be the treasure, which others hold in theirs.

Say “Yes”: A Christmas Pageant

Performed at St. Mark’s in Mystic, CT on Sunday, December 21, 2014

SayYesThis version of the Christmas pageant employs two sets of main characters, one younger and one older. The older versions sit on stools flanking the main action. They stand up to deliver their monologues. During the monologues the younger versions pantomime the action and speak at the end of each speech.

Prologue

NARRATOR

Before the universe existed, there was God. There was no time and no space, but there was God. Then God spoke and Creation came to be. One of the things God created was freedom, which was the ability to say “yes” or “no” of your own free will and not be compelled to answer one way or the other. God yearned with all of God’s heart that the Creation God made would say “yes” to a deep relationship with God its creator. But more often than not, parts of that Creation said, “No.” People said, “No.” We said, “No.”

Saying “No” to relationship with God led people down some dark paths. They dominated each other instead of serving each other in love. Fear ruled the day. And yet God did not give up. God decided to send God’s own Son into this wayward Creation to show us the path back to the God who never broke the relationship like we had done. All God needed was someone to say, “Yes.”

Scene 1: The Annunciation

While the OLDER MARY speaks her monologue, YOUNGER MARY and GABRIEL pantomime their conversation.

OLDER MARY

Until that day, nothing had ever happened to me. I grew up like everyone else in my town. I worked my father’s farm with my brothers and sisters. I watched the sun set. I watched the sun rise. That was life. Even getting engaged to be married to Joseph was just another day. It was expected. I always did what was expected.

Then Gabriel appeared to me, and every day since has been more unexpected than the last. He told me not to be afraid, but there was no need. His presence wasn’t frightening. It was exciting. From the moment he spoke, I felt a quickening in my gut, a hum, a desire finally to discover the person I longed to be.

The angel told me of the son I would have, the heir of David’s throne, the flesh and blood of the Most High God. It all sounded impossible. But Gabriel said nothing is impossible for God. I thought for a moment: I’ve never done anything in my life. I’ve never been anywhere. I’m not special in any way. Why would God choose me?

And that’s when it hit me. God chose me because God knew I would say…

YOUNGER MARY

Yes.

Scene 2: Joseph’s Dream

NARRATOR

Mary said, “Yes,” to the angel. She said, “Yes,” to God’s dream for her life, and that dream became a reality. And as the dream was growing inside her, the angel made another stop.

YOUNGER JOSEPH is fast asleep when GABRIEL stands over him pantomiming speaking.

OLDER JOSEPH

My namesake was a great interpreter of dreams. He saved Egypt during a seven-year famine. He saved his own family, too. I always wondered what it would be like to have that kind of gift. Then one night I found out. My dream didn’t need interpretation, however, because the angel stood before me plain as day, and when he spoke, the words tasted true.

Everyone around me, society at large, even my own father, urged me to get rid of Mary, to dismiss her quietly so as not to cause a fuss. But I couldn’t bring myself to do it. Then the angel told me why. Somehow I knew, even before the angel told me, that the child was special. I didn’t have the words to describe the way I felt until the angel called my son, “Emmanuel.”

GABRIEL departs, and YOUNGER JOSEPH rises from sleep. He join YOUNGER MARY and puts his hand on her pregnant belly.

OLDER JOSEPH

Yes, the joy I felt came from that place, that place of nearness. When I looked at Mary and felt the baby kick, I knew…

YOUNGER JOSEPH

God is with us.

Scene 3: Arrival in Bethlehem

As the NARRATOR speaks, YOUNGER MARY and YOUNGER JOSEPH make their way to Bethlehem.

NARRATOR

Mary spent the first few months of her pregnancy with her cousin Elizabeth. But as the time drew near for the baby to be born, the Empire called for a counting of all the people in their territories. Joseph had to go to Bethlehem to be registered because his ancestors hailed from there. Mary went with him.

OLDER MARY

The waves of pain began weeks before Jesus was born. At first I thought I was going into labor, but Elizabeth assured me it was normal. I learned to live with them, even though they got worse as the day drew near. But that first night in Bethlehem, a different pain hit me, and I knew it was time.

YOUNGER MARY AND YOUNGER JOSEPH pantomime the story being told: breaking into the room, being surrounded by ANIMALS.

OLDER JOSEPH

In desperation, I broke into the backroom of a house to get us out of the cold. The owner’s animals were huddled there. It stunk to high heaven, but at least it was warm. When Mary started to cry out in pain, I thought that we were done for, that the people of the house would drive us back into the night.

The FARMER comes in with a rake. Then the MIDWIFE enters.

OLDER MARY

But they didn’t. The farmer came in brandishing a threshing rake, but he took in what was happening right away and called for his wife. We asked if we could stay, and she said, “Yes.” Turns out she was a midwife. What a blessing from God. Joseph was beside himself. He didn’t know what to do. But she calmed him down, directed him.

OLDER JOSEPH

She put a blanket in my hands and guided them.

OLDER MARY

One last thunderous wave of pain washed through me, and then…

YOUNGER JOSEPH holds the BABY JESUS in his arms.

OLDER JOSEPH

I held my son Jesus in my arms. I held God. And I knew God was holding me.

Scene 4: The Shepherds

The SHEPHERDS and SHEEP cluster in the center aisle.

NARRATOR

The light of the world shining from the baby wasn’t the only light shining that night. In the fields outside Bethlehem, dawn seemed to be breaking impossibly early.

The ANGELS and GABRIEL stand on the first pew and pantomime talking to the SHEPHERDS.

OLDER SHEPHERD

The light grew slowly at first, so we didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary. But then the field was awash in brilliance. It was like an eclipse in reverse. But what I remember more than the light was the song. The angels sang a song of peace. Of peace! How could you sing a song of peace in such a war-torn age? And yet that is what they did.

The SHEPHERDS and SHEEP walk to the Nativity scene and join it. The ANGELS gather around behind the Nativity scene.

We went to find the One of whom the angels sang. And we found him in the dirt, among the animals just like my own children were born. The song of the angels rang in my mind and I sang it for the baby, a lullaby of peace for the Prince of Peace. And I knew he was one of us. And he was here…

YOUNGER SHEPHERD

To make us more like him.

Scene 5: The Magi

The MAGI begin their trek slowly from one side aisle of the church around the back and up the other side aisle. At the side of the church near the lectern, the MAGI meet HEROD, who pantomimes a conversation.

NARRATOR

Not only did Jesus’ own people seek him out. Immigrants from a far off land arrived guided by a star in the heavens. They first met King Herod in Jerusalem, but they knew Herod was not the king they sought.

The MAGI move to the main group and present their gifts.

OLDER MAGUS

We had been searching the stars for a sign of the One who was to come. And when we found the celestial body streaking westward we knew we had to follow. We didn’t know where it would lead. What we didn’t expect, though, was for it to lead us not only across the desert, but deeper into our own hearts. When we met our true King the first time, we felt the inadequacy of the gifts we had brought – the gold, the frankincense, the myrrh. The infant gazes at us, into us, into our hearts. And we knew the gift he truly wanted. And so I gave him not just a box of gold…

YOUNGER MAGUS

I gave him myself.

Epilogue

The OLDER CHARACTERS move to join their YOUNGER SELVES.

NARRATOR

And so God sent God’s only Son to teach people to use their freedom to remain open to God, to say “Yes” to that deep relationship. A few decades later, he would die for his convictions. But then he rose again to show that nothing, not even death, can separate us from God’s love.

OLDER MAGUS

So when you are searching for God…

OLDER JOSEPH

Know that God is always with us…

OLDER SHEPHERD

And when the Prince of Peace calls to you…

OLDER MARY

Say “Yes.”

*  *  *

The Players

(*=tiny speaking part; **=big speaking part)

Little Children
SHEEP
ANIMALS
ANGELS
(BABY JESUS)

Children/Tweens
GABRIEL
YOUNGER MARY*
YOUNGER JOSEPH*
SHEPHERDS (1*)
(HEROD)
FARMER
MIDWIFE
MAGI x3 (1*)

Tweens/Teens
OLDER MARY**
OLDER JOSEPH**
OLDER SHEPHERD**
OLDER MAGUS**
NARRATOR**

*Artwork: detail from “Birth of Christ” by Antoine Pesne (1745)

Cue the Sun

Sermon for Sunday, February 2, 2014 || The Presentation || Luke 2:22-40

sunriseThis past Thursday morning, Leah and I awakened early to watch the sun rise over the water. We sat on our bed in the house on Groton Long Point looking east, away over the tip of Fishers Island as the velvet dark blue of night softened, as the dawn fire kindled on the horizon, as the stars faded from view – all except one stubborn star up and to the right. With each passing minute the glorious scene displayed before us took on more and more depth and color and vibrancy. The skeletal trees stood out in silhouette, their branches arcing in all directions. The waterfront houses transformed from indistinct rectangles to homes with windows, shutters, and weathered shingles. And the water – the water caught the nascent light, which gilded the crest of each small wave, turning the water from blue to gold and shimmering brighter every minute.

When the sun finally broke over the low clouds, the light of day was fully upon us, and we reveled at the beauty of all we could see out the window, of God’s virtuosity on display in creation, all illumined by the light of morning sun. During the night, we could have gazed out that same window and imagined what the trees and houses and water looked like. By the silver light of the sliver moon, we might have been able just to pick out the shapes of the structures and known the water was there by the dark mass in the distance. But not until the dawn broke in the morning could we truly see the majesty before us and take a few minutes to appreciate it and thank God for such wondrous artistry.

You see, when the sun rose, we weren’t looking at the light itself; we were looking at everything the light illumined – the gilded waves, the quaint New England homes, the backhoe I failed to mention earlier. Indeed, we can’t really see light at all. Rather, because of light, we see everything else. We don’t see light; we see by light.

So keep this image of the dawn breaking over the ocean in your minds as we turn to today’s reading from the Gospel according to Luke. Today is a special day, a feast day of the church year. Some feasts – like Easter – always happen on Sundays and others, like today’s, trump the normal Sunday schedule whenever their particular date on the calendar falls on a Sunday. Today we celebrate the event when Jesus’ parents presented their infant son to the Lord at the temple in Jerusalem, according to the law of Moses.

Luke is the only Gospel writer to include this tale. It’s possible he wouldn’t have included it at all if everything had gone as expected, but since we’re talking about Jesus, of course, everything doesn’t go as expected. In the temple, Mary and Joseph meet two people who have been waiting for something for a long time. These two elders, Simeon and Anna, don’t quite know what they are waiting for, but they are in tune with the Holy Spirit, who beckons them forward to meet the Holy Family.

Simeon gathers Jesus into his arms and sings a lullaby of praise, which the Book of Common Prayer renders like this:

Lord, you now have set your servant free
to go in peace as you have promised;
For these eyes of mine have seen the Savior,
whom you have prepared for all the world to see:
A Light to enlighten the nations,
and the glory of your people Israel.

When Simeon gazes into the face of the infant Jesus, he sees the Light of Christ with his own two eyes and he knows – he finally knows – what he’s been waiting for all these years. With the Light of Christ shining on him, Simeon looks into the future and sees the same kind of beauty, the same kind of virtuosic majesty that Leah and I witnessed in the dawn breaking over the ocean and gilding the waves. Simeon both sees the baby Jesus and sees by the light shining forth from this luminous being before him, this light which enlightens the nations.

We, too, see by this Light of Christ if we allow ourselves to look with the same kind of eyes that Simeon and Anna have, the kind of eyes that see through the lens of the Holy Spirit. Not only that, but we ourselves can be that light of Christ, as well, because as his followers we reflect his light, as the moon reflects the light of the sun.

As this is my first sermon with you, we don’t know each other yet. We start today and, thanks be to God, we will have many years to deepen our relationships – with each other and together with God. I debated how much biographical information to provide during this sermon, and I decided on very little, preferring other venues for such sharing. But I would like to offer this one piece: what I feel God is calling me to do with my life, the life I now get to share with you.

Like Simeon and Anna, God calls me to witness to the Light of Christ breaking through the clouds of this world. And God calls me to be a small piece of the Light of Christ, so that by my words and actions, others may see God’s presence shining throughout this creation. This is my mission, and I hope you will share it with me. I hope it will become our mission. It may seem lofty or too demanding, and it can be.

But more often than not, we live such a mission not in grand gestures like the sun rising over the ocean, but in small ones like gathering a baby into our arms and singing a lullaby. We live the mission to be vessels of God’s light when we are mindful during in the small moments of each day:

In the line at the grocery store when you choose not to be annoyed that the person ahead of you is taking too long;

In gym class when you stand up for the kid who’s being laughed at because he can’t climb the rope;

At church when you see a new face in your pew and you exchange a kind word of welcome.

These small moments gather together, like the minute by minute lightening of the sky at dawn, and soon the sun is shining, soon the light of Christ is spilling from you and landing on everyone around you. This is our mission: to see the light and to be the light.

Near the end of the film, The Truman Show, the main character has discovered that his entire life has been a lie, a scripted life caught on camera for the world’s viewing pleasure, and so he tries to escape. What he doesn’t know is that he’s living in a dome so massive it can be seen from outer space. Even the weather and the movement from day to night are controlled from a room at the top of the dome. When Truman escapes, the entire cast of the town mobilizes to find him, but it’s night in the dome and they can’t see a thing. So Christof, the mad genius creator of the show, says three little words: “Cue the sun.”

And in the middle of the night, the fake sun rises to illumine the search party, a daybreak hours before dawn is supposed to come. Now while Christof might be a misguided man with dubious motives, I invite you to remember those words. Pair them with the words of Simeon, whose eyes see the savior called to be a “light to enlighten the nations.” When you need a reminder that you are, in fact, a vessel of God’s light, remember the shimmering dawn gilding the waves. And ask God to cue the sun/son so you can see what God would have you see. When you are faced with a situation in which you need help being your best self, ask God to cue the sun/son so you can see how best to be God’s light.

Our mission is to see the light of Christ and to be the light of Christ in this world. So I pray, “Dear God – in my life, in each of our lives, and in our life together – cue the sun.”

The Heart’s Square Footage

(Sermon for Sunday, January 1, 2012 || Feast of the Holy Name || Luke 2:15-21; Philippians 2:5-11)

At the end of this sermon, I’m going to invite you to make a New Year’s resolution, but don’t worry because you only have to fulfill the resolution for a week, which I think is the standard longevity of such things anyway.

But first I have a couple of wondering questions that this morning’s Gospel calls to mind. We read that the shepherds “made known what had been told them about this child.” I’m wondering to whom did they make this known? I’m really curious. Did they run through Bethlehem Paul Revere style (“The messiah is coming! The messiah is coming!”)? Did they go to the local census bureau and tell them to add another Israelite to the rolls? Did they go to the religious leaders and tell them that their hopes had been fulfilled?

In fine Godly Play style, I’m just going to let that first question hang in the air while I pose a second one. I’m wondering what kind of reaction the shepherds received. Luke tells us “all who heard [the shepherds’ testimony] were amazed at what the shepherds told them.” But “amazed” is neither a positive nor a negative word. As far as the shepherds are concerned, I suspect that they received quite a few responses that went along the lines of: “That’s amazing; ridiculous, but amazing.” Others probably said, “Get off my front stoop, you mangy shepherds.”

In the end, the narrative gives us single answers to both these wondering questions. While the shepherds surely told a wide array of people and received a wide array of amazed responses, we are privy to only one, and that is Mary’s. The shepherds burst in on the exhausted new parents with their witness to the angel’s words about the infant. The angel had said, “I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” The shepherds proclaim this good news to Mary and Joseph. And “Mary treasure[s] all these words and ponder[s] them in her heart.”

Notice what is happening here with Mary’s response to the shepherds’ news. For nine months, since the angel appeared to her on that fateful day, Mary has carried within her the Incarnate Word. She has nurtured in her womb the physical embodiment of God’s good news to the world. She has felt the Son of God kick. Then, on the night we celebrated last week, she delivers him. Jesus is born to the rest of the world, and Mary’s womb is empty once again.

And yet, even though her womb is now empty, is her body void of the Word of God? Thanks to the shepherds: No. They bring the first message of the Gospel back to Mary, and she fills herself with the good news. She treasures their words in her heart as she had so recently treasured the Word in her womb.

Each of us bears the Gospel inside of us. The good news of Jesus Christ is treasure hidden in our hearts waiting to be shared. But our hearts are also home to all of the boxes and baggage and bulk that accumulate over lifetimes of focusing our attention away from the things that really matter, away from God and loving relationships. Our hearts are storage units for all of our misplaced priorities, inflated egos, broken promises, habituated distrust, forgotten loyalty, and shackling fears. These things clutter our hearts and leave less room for the good news of Jesus Christ to dwell.

Mary’s brave agreement to carry the Christ child makes a space within her, and God fills her emptiness with the embodiment of this good news. In today’s passage from the Letter to the Philippians, Paul tells us of another emptying, one that the Word made flesh accomplished in order to inhabit Mary’s womb. Paul says of Jesus: “Though he was in the form of God, [he] did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.”

The Greek word translated “something to be exploited” might be better translated as “something to be grasped” or even “something to be hoarded.” Even though he was in the form of God, Jesus let go of his station. Even though he was part of all the might and majesty and magnificence of God, he did not hoard them. Even though he shared the most precious thing in the universe — equality with God — he shared himself with us by emptying himself; by taking on the form of a slave; by filling Mary’s empty womb and being born in human likeness.

All this happened because Jesus was willing to let go of his grasp on his divine form. All this happened because Jesus refused to hoard the incomprehensible harmony of light and love and grace that is our God. All this happened because Jesus emptied himself. And Jesus emptied himself to fill Mary’s emptiness, to fill our emptiness.

So the question is: how empty are we? How much space within our hearts is left for the good news of Jesus Christ to fill?

If you’re anything like me, then the boxes and baggage and bulk take up a majority of your heart’s square footage. But we can begin to clear away this accumulation by resonating with Jesus’ own self-emptying and echoing Mary’s assent to be filled with God. The resulting emptiness is unlike any other instance of emptiness out there. This is not the emptiness of a bare pantry or a sock drawer on laundry day. This is purposeful emptiness, holy emptiness. This holy emptiness makes room for the grace of God to expand within us. Our internal storage units, once the depositories for those misplaced priorities and shackling fears, transform into the sanctuaries they were always meant to be. The emptier we become, the greater is our opportunity to discover true fullness.

This wonderful paradox is at the heart of our life of faith. As we begin the slow process of self-emptying, we realize that God has been at work in us all along: breaking down the boxes, removing the baggage, and shaving off the bulk. When we, like Mary and Jesus, empty ourselves, we find ourselves ready to respond to God. We are eager to serve others. We are prepared to give of ourselves because we know the fullness of God expanding within us has no bounds.

I invite you to join me in a New Year’s resolution this week. Each night before you go to sleep, focus your mind and heart in prayer. Identify something in your life that is taking up too much square footage within you, that is cluttering your heart. Perhaps this something is trouble at work or doubt about your financial future or concern for a loved one. Give this something to God in prayer. Ask God to inhabit the space vacated by this offering. Do this every night. Each time give something else to God. Practicing this holy emptiness will allow more space for the good news of Jesus Christ to breathe and move and dance within you. Soon you will empty yourself of enough clutter to notice that God has been at work in you from the beginning, and you will be able to dance along.

The garden and the wasteland

(Sermon for January 3, 2010 || Christmas 2, RCL || Luke 2:41-52)

They say that every therapist should be in therapy. Likewise, every priest should participate in spiritual direction. Without trained professionals helping us priests notice God’s movement in our lives, one of two things happens. We either forget to rely on God, thus emptying ourselves of all nourishment even though a feast is perpetually spread before us. Or we decide we don’t need to rely on God, because we are doing just fine on our own (thank you very much!) and the same starvation results. We priests are a rather thick bunch, usually quite stubborn when faced with the Almighty, because the Creator-of-All-That-Is rarely seems to fit the predictions of our seminary studies.

When I was in seminary, my spiritual director diagnosed my particular case as a combination of failing to notice God’s presence and deciding I didn’t need God anyway. I’m glad I could offer her such a potent mixture of blindness and stupidity. Needless to say, our sessions were never boring. Over our two years together, she taught me many things, but one stands above the rest. You can basically separate the events of your life into two categories, she said. There are moments of consolation, and there are moments of desolation. Both will happen and ignoring one will make the other that much harder to define. In this morning’s Gospel, Mary runs the gamut from desolation when she loses Jesus to consolation when she finds him again. Then she treasures “all these things in her heart” because she knows that the emptiness of desolation and the joy of consolation combine to form the trajectory of her life.

(c) Wizards of the Coast

Usually, people want the bad news first, so we’ll begin with the emptiness of desolation. Desolation is the nuclear winter of the soul. Desolation makes the soul a wasteland – arid, parched, rendered uninhabitable by events in the life of the very person who must inhabit the internal desert.

Sometimes, we bring desolation on ourselves: a man cheats on his wife, and she doesn’t even catch him. He expects to feel the thrill of adventure, of subterfuge. Instead, he feels the pain of a broken promise. He doesn’t realize he is a moral person until he fails to live up to his own unexamined values. And his failure eats away at his soul. Sometimes, external events bring desolation upon us: the pregnancy has been difficult, but the doctors have managed to stay positive. If she can hold on just a few more weeks…but the contractions start, and she delivers a tiny life. The infant’s underdeveloped lungs struggle for breath. He lives for four days, and her soul dies with him. Sometimes, desolation happens not in these large events but in the accumulation of small frustrations and disappointments. They hired the other guy. The repair cost more than the estimate. Another D-minus. Chicken for dinner – again. Each frustration erodes the soil of the soul, nutrients leach out, and eventually only the wasteland remains.

In these times of desolation, we do not look for the presence of God because we think God can’t possibly be there. We abandon ourselves to despair, so we expect that God has abandoned us too. We may even stop believing in God, while paradoxically blaming God for our situations. When we are desolate, we don’t live: we merely subsist. And we fail to realize that our very ability to survive through the torment of despair is a manifestation of God’s awesome power and love.

While our desolation happens when we think God is gone, Mary’s desolate moment happens when she literally loses Jesus. The family has been attending the festival of the Passover in Jerusalem. They start their journey back to Nazareth, and Jesus is not with them. But they’re not worried because the caravan is peopled with family and friends; surely, he’s wandered off to chat with some favorite uncle. A day out, Mary and Joseph realize Jesus is missing. They rush back to Jerusalem, frightened, anxious. They search for three frantic days. As someone who has only experienced the combination of harsh words and fervent embraces that accompany a parent finding a lost child, I can only imagine the desolation that those three days brought to Mary’s soul.

On the third day, Mary’s search brings her to the temple. And there she finds Jesus, safe and sound and unaware of the years his absence has shaved off his mother’s life. Desolation gives way to the warmth, the electricity of consolation. What was lost, Mary now has found. They travel to Nazareth without incident, and Luke assures us that Jesus is obedient to his parents.

(c) Wizards of the Coast

Whereas desolation makes the soul a wasteland, consolation makes the soul a garden in full bloom. In consolation, the roots of our souls grow deep in the rich soil of God’s presence. We are aware of the persistent activity of creation, and we revel in the joys that life has to offer.

Sometimes, our determination brings consolation to us: a young girl is told she’ll never become a concert pianist. Her hands are too small, her technique mediocre, pedestrian. But she practices and practices and practices. Her joy is in the vibration of hammer on string buzzing up through her fingertips, in the notes transferred from black dots and squiggles to tones of weight and beauty. She may never play at Carnegie Hall, but the music is inside her soul. Sometimes, as with desolation, external events bring consolation to us: the city-dweller finds himself in rural woodland at night. The sky is clear, the moon a sliver. He lies on his back and gazes up at the stars. He didn’t know there were so many. The subtle band of the Milky Way brings shape to the clutter. The innumerable points of light in the darkness bring light to his soul. More often than not, consolation happens when we gather together all of the small blessings in our lives. A good night’s sleep leads to energy and cheerfulness. An unexpected phone call comes from an old friend. The house is warm. Chicken for dinner again! Each blessing enriches the soil, in which our souls thrive, and our gardens bloom with unrestrained life.

In these times of consolation, we notice God filling us to overflowing. We cannot possibly hold any more grace, so it spills from us, hopefully landing on those around us. Our joy prompts us to invite others to gather up their blessings and notice God’s presence in their lives. We form communities to share our joy, and these communities help sustain those who inevitably fall into periods of desolation.

You see, desolation and consolation are the extremes of life – the subsistence and the abundance. Most of the time, we exist somewhere along the spectrum between the two. Luke tells us that Mary treasures “all these things in her heart” – both the empty time of desolation when Jesus was lost and the joyful time of consolation when she found him again. Mary takes both categories into her heart and ponders them. Her life, like all our lives, brings together experiences both of desolation and consolation. As faithful people of God, we try with God’s help to lead lives that trend toward consolation on the spectrum.

As we begin a new year and a new decade, I invite you to take stock of where you fall on the spectrum between desolation and consolation. If your trajectory is moving toward consolation, rejoice, and continue to gather your small blessings and keep a weather eye out for God’s presence in your life. If your trajectory is moving toward desolation, I pray that God grants you the courage to turn around. You may still be stuck in the wasteland, but you will be facing the right direction – out of the desert and toward the garden.

Finally, may God grant you the grace to survive when you are desolate, to thrive when you are overflowing, and to treasure all these things in your hearts.

The bedtime story

(Sermon for Christmas Eve, 2008 || RCL || Luke 2:1-20)

Imagine with me the day after Jesus’ Ascension. His followers, including his mother Mary and Mary Magdalene, are sharing a meal and remembering all their favorite stories about the one who had died and risen again. The two Marys are sitting in a corner talking when Mary Magdalene asks Jesus’ mother to tell her something about Jesus’ childhood. Mary ponders for a moment and then begins:

As a boy, Jesus had trouble falling asleep. No, he wasn’t afraid of the dark or of monsters under his bed. He just had too much energy. Even a day full of running up hills and building rock forts and fetching water from the well couldn’t tire him out. When he couldn’t sleep, I would sing him a lullaby and run my fingers through his matted hair. Sometimes, after a few notes, he’d say, “Not tonight, Mama. Tell me the story instead.” The story. I was always glad when he asked me to tell him how he was born because, when the story remained silent in my heart, it always threatened to transform into a dream and vanish.

“Before you were born,” I would begin, “I was engaged to your father when an angel…”

Right then, he would interrupt: “You mean Joseph, Mama.” There were no secrets in Nazareth: the town was too small. Everyone knew that Joseph and I didn’t marry until after Jesus was born. Our neighbors knew the truth up to a point — that Joseph wasn’t Jesus’ father, but anything more was speculation. We didn’t want Jesus to hear some maimed version of the events. So, when he was old enough to understand, we told him that Joseph was Jesus’ father because he loved him not because he helped make him. But you know how literal children can be.

“Yes, dear, I mean Joseph. I was engaged to him when an angel from God named Gabriel came right into my room.”

Always a second interruption: “How’d you know he was an angel, Mama?” I’m convinced that he started studying Torah because I could never come up with a satisfactory answer for him. I would say, “Well, he looked like a man, but also like his feet never got dirty or his hair never needed to be combed. More than that, though: it was his voice. When he talked, I didn’t hear his words in my ears. I heard them in my heart. That’s how I knew.” Then Jesus would roll his eyes, the signal for me to continue telling the story.

“Gabriel told me that I was going to become pregnant with you and that I should name you ‘Jesus.’ Do you know what your name means?”

“Yes, Mama. It means ‘God saves.’ ” He would say it matter-of-factly, like there was no disputing such an obvious claim. Then he’d roll his eyes again, and I would continue.

“Even though Gabriel told me what was going to happen, I knew in my heart that it wouldn’t happen if I didn’t want it to. But the moment he said your name — I just knew. I said yes. After Gabriel left, I realized how much trouble I would get into if I got pregnant. I wasn’t married yet, and I thought your father (yes, Joseph) would disown me when he found out. But he was wonderful, and we got married after getting back from Bethlehem.”

Then I would tell Jesus about the journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem, leaving out the part about how uncomfortable it was to travel nearly nine months pregnant. Mary, I wouldn’t mind if that part of the story would transform into a dream and vanish.

Jesus would always sit up and lean in close when I got to the part about Bethlehem. “Because of the census, all the inns were full and we had no place to go. We were passing by a barn when my water broke. Joseph didn’t know what to do. We went into the barn, and he spread his blanket over the hay. I lay down and told him to go find a midwife. He didn’t want to leave me, but I said that the labor would last a long time and that he’d be back well before anything important happened. By some miracle, the wife of the man who owned the farm was a midwife, and she came with hot water, strips of cloth and no thought to turn us out of the barn.”

One time when I was telling the story, Jesus — he was maybe seven or eight — put his hand on my arm and said: “It was a miracle, Mama. She helped you even though she didn’t know you. I wish more people would do that.”

I remember crying after he fell asleep because his words were so true and yet so infrequently accomplished. The song I sang when I was pregnant with him came back to me that night: “God has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.” Was my son really the one to bring about these things, I thought?

After telling him about the midwife coming, I would get to the part where Joseph laid him in the manger. And I would hug him tight to show him what swaddling clothes felt like.

He was twelve years old the last time he asked me to tell the story. We had just gotten back from Jerusalem, and I had had the scare of my life when he wasn’t in the caravan home. I said, “Then your father… (He had stopped correcting me by that point.) Your father placed you in the manger.” When I reached to give him the swaddling hug, he stopped me. For a moment, I thought he was getting too old to hug his mother, but then he said:

“Mama. I know…I know now why I was born in that barn. It was a miracle. It all makes sense. At the temple I was reading the prophet Isaiah.” He jumped out of bed, still talking. “Right at the beginning of the scroll, Isaiah says, ‘The ox knows its owner and the donkey knows the manger of its lord; but Israel has not known me, and my people have not understood me.’ ”

He was so excited. He pulled me up and grabbed me into his own swaddling hug. “This is what I’m supposed to do. Israel, Mama! Israel will know God because of me. And not just Israel. Everyone everywhere will know God because of me. They will understand what they’re supposed to do. I will tell them to love each other and help each other, and when they do that, they will be loving God. They will be helping me. Everyone everywhere will know God when they see me. Mama!”

We held that embrace for a long time. I remember feeling his tears soaking through my dress. The words of Simeon — that old man in the temple — sprang to my lips and I whispered them into Jesus’ matted hair: “These eyes of mine have seen the Savior, whom you have prepared for all the world to see: a Light to enlighten the nations, and the glory of your people Israel.’ ”

We didn’t finish the story that night. The shepherds coming to see us – always his favorite part as a little boy – didn’t need repeating. When he slept, his countenance was different, older. Then I remembered what Simeon told me next: “A sword will pierce your own soul, also.” I wept that night, too, when I felt a premonition of the sword that wouldn’t pierce me for twenty years yet. But let’s not talk about that now, Mary. We were both there, and I still have no words even though he came back to us, thank God.

Well, I haven’t told the story of his birth to anyone since that night after we lost Jesus in the caravan. (Yes, I can tell you that one next if you like.) But first, my Mary of Magdalene, tell me a story of my son. What was he like when his mother wasn’t around? Has Israel come to know their God? Has everyone everywhere? If you don’t tell the story, it could transform into a dream and vanish. So tell me of my son. Tell me his story. And tell everyone everywhere.

Notes
*Special thanks to Raymond E. Brown, whose study An Adult Christ at Christmas unlocked this sermon for me.