Announcing “Advent with the Beginning of Luke,” a new daily devotional book for your Advent observance. Entries from December 1st through Christmas follow the first two chapters of the Gospel according to Luke – from the birth announcements of John and Jesus to the songs of Mary and Zechariah to the birth of Jesus, and culminating with the presentation in the temple. This Advent study will make a meaningful addition to your personal or group preparation for the feast of the Incarnation. Continue reading “Advent with the Beginning of Luke”
Sermon for Christmas Eve, December 24, 2017 || The Eve of the Feast of the Nativity || Hebrews 1:1-4; John 1:1-14
Imagine the scene in your mind’s eye: Mary collapses in the hay, her body racked with the utter exhaustion of labor. Joseph wraps the newborn in cloth he has ripped from his own traveling cloak and kisses his son’s eyes clean of the life-giving fluids of the womb. The baby boy tests out his lungs, and the shrill shriek of new life startles the placid animals dozing in their stalls. Mary beckons Joseph to hand her the baby, which he does – reluctantly. She places the naked infant on her own bare brown skin, and he inches his way to her milk, an impossible crawl for one so new, but he manages it just the same. Joseph watches, rapt with awe and wonder. The wild star burning bright in the night sky, the echoes of angels’ song – neither could compare to the beauty of the newborn, this treasure Mary holds to her breast.
Christus Natus Est. Christ is born. Continue reading “The Uniqueness of the Incarnation”
This is the script for a new Christmas Pageant written for Advent 2017. At St. Mark’s we have an abundance of small children (under 4), so this pageant is written with them in mind. Seeing them jump up excited when it was their turn to run up on stage was so wonderful!
If you’d like to hear a monologue version of this from the early service, please click here.
Narrator is seated on a stool slightly stage right of central entrance. Children are all seated on the floor in front of narrator, speaking characters are in the sacristy.
In the beginning, God had a story to tell: the greatest story ever told, the story of Creation. And God began that story with four simple words: “Let there be light.” Everything God created was a character in the story: birds and bugs, land and lizards, fish and flowers, mammals and the moon. Birth and life, death and decay were also characters, as were both cataclysm and cultivation. For untold generations, God’s story of Creation grew in the telling until a new group of characters entered the tale, characters who somehow knew the story was being told. Continue reading “Part of God’s Story: A Christmas Pageant”
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”
Performed at St. Mark’s in Mystic, CT on Sunday, December 18, 2016
In an homage to the preferred story-telling method of one of my writing heroes, Aaron Sorkin, this new Christmas pageant takes place during a rehearsal for a traditional Christmas pageant. Over the course of the play, the traditional elements of the pageant get untangled from each other and we distill the stories as told by Matthew and Luke. Continue reading “The Best Christmas Pageant Never (A New Christmas Pageant Script)”
Sermon for Sunday, November 27, 2016 || Advent 1A || Matthew 24:36-44; Romans 13:11-14
At the end of this sermon, remind me to tell you why “O come, O come, Emmanuel,” is a funny thing to say. I’ll get to that in a few minutes, but first I want to tell you about my parents’ Nativity scene.
During the season of Advent when I was growing up, my family placed a beautiful Nativity scene on the shelf above the TV. The wooden stable had a bark and moss covered roof, above which we suspended angels on fishing line. Inside the stable, a bearded Joseph leaned on a staff and a kneeling Mary pondered things in her heart, while a donkey and a cow looked on. Outside the stable, a pair of shepherds, a woman balancing a jug of water, and assorted townsfolk queued up like bridesmaids and groomsmen in a wedding photo. Each character was transfixed by something going on at the center of the stable, something that was obviously important if the painted expressions on their faces could be believed. The trouble was that nothing was going on at the center of the stable. An unassuming manger stood in between Mary and Joseph, who stared lovingly down into the empty box.
Sermon for Christmas Eve 2015; John 1:1-14
Right now, you might be thinking, “Wait a second…where are the baby and the manger and the shepherds and the angels? I know it’s late, but I don’t think I nodded off during the Gospel reading.” Now, I don’t know whether or not you nodded off, but I can assure you that I didn’t say anything about the baby or the manger or the shepherds or the angels. Tonight, I read a different version of the story of Jesus’ Nativity. Allow me to explain in brief, and then we’ll get to what I really want to talk about on this most Holy Night, which is God making a home here.
But first: yes, we are used to the Christmas Pageant version of the story of the Nativity. Most of that story is found in the Gospel according to Luke. I say “most” because a few bits come from the Gospel of Matthew and a few others bits are made up entirely. Tonight we read another take on that same story, a take so vastly dissimilar that it seems to be a different story entirely. But it’s not. The story is just condensed. The story of the Nativity is distilled down to a single, yet powerful verse of scripture: “And the Word became 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.”
That’s it. That’s the Gospel of John’s Nativity story. That one verse; half a verse really. “And the Word became flesh and lived among us.” Pretty concise, right? But even in their brevity, these words pack in a whole lot of meaning. They are pregnant words, so to speak.
The Word that becomes flesh is the main character of this prologue to John’s account of the Gospel. In just eighteen verses, John explores some pretty weighty theological ideas, and he does so using poetry. Indeed, these verses are best understood as a poem: John uses special words and rhythm and imagery in an attempt to get to the very heart of God’s making of and presence in Creation. The weightiest of these special images is the word “Word.”
This is the Greek word logos. We get the English suffix “-ology” from it; you know, biology, zoology, paleontology. We also get the word “logic” from it. When something is “logical,” it is orderly, organized, it makes good sense. So when John claims that Creation “came into being through [the Word],” he’s stating that God was organized about the act of creating, that God had a plan for the universe and wasn’t just creating all willy-nilly. You can see how John’s poem goes all the way back to before anything existed, all the way back to when there was only God. John needs this cosmic perspective in order to demonstrate the extraordinary specialness of what happens next.
This organizing principle, this logic behind Creation, this giver of all life, this Word became flesh. This Word took on the very meat and bones and skin and breath and soul that had evolved over untold millennia within the Word’s own orderly Creation. This Word became flesh in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, a man of seemingly humble origin who had a knack for helping people live better, fuller, and more authentic lives, serving one another in love. This Word became flesh, which means he got dirty and tired; he grieved and wept and sought comfort; he ate and drank and laughed with his friends. He was homeless at times; he was also a refugee. He was welcomed and excluded; he was loved and hated. He touched and healed so many people, but sometimes he needed to go off by himself to recharge. He took a first, newborn breath. He took a last dying breath. All this to say: he was one of us.
In fact, he was the best one of us. He was the best one of us because he was so much more than simply one of us. He was the Word. He was life as life is meant to be lived, as God dreams for life to be. As so many theologians have said, this Word became like us, so that we could become more like him.
And this thought brings us to the last important word in John’s brief Nativity story: “And the Word became flesh and lived among us.” Lived among us. I don’t like this translation. It’s about as weak a translation of the original language as you can get. I prefer this: “And the Word became flesh and made his home among us.” Made his home among us. This gets much closer to the intent of John’s original poetry. The Word didn’t just live here for a time. The Word settled here. The Word made a home here.
I think this second translation impacts me so much because I have lived quite a nomadic existence. In my nearly thirty-three years on this planet, I’ve lived in ten different states. The longest I lived anywhere was six years in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. The second longest was four years at college. I’ve lived a lot of places. But I never, ever felt like I was making my home anywhere. Until now. I live in a real house with my wife and two children. We brought the twins home to that house. In their short lives, they have never lived anywhere else. That is their home. We have made a home.
The Word became flesh and made his home among us. God made a home here. The Nativity we celebrate this night marks not a brief dalliance with Creation, not simply a passing through, but a commitment to be present, to be active, to be here. And through the power of the Holy Spirit, this commitment continues long ages past the Word’s earthly walk. The home God made is no longer just in Bethlehem or Nazareth or Jerusalem. The home God makes is here, in each beating heart. And the home God makes is also out there, within the whole of Creation. As the Godly Play stories so aptly put it: “All of God is in everyplace.” That’s God’s home. We are God’s home. And God is our home, now and into eternity.
So this night, we celebrate not only the first, newborn breath of the babe in the manger. We celebrate the deep reality that God made a home here in order that we might have a home in God.
Art: Detail from “On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity” by William Blake, 1809.
The greatest story ever told began
When God breathed deep and bade the light to shine;
Creation burst from Love and Word, then ran
Away and grasped at purpose less divine
Than God would wish or yearn for it. For God
In foolish wisdom wove with freedom’s thread
And gave creation chances to be flawed,
If chance there were to choose the Lord instead.
This freedom came to earth when Eden’s dust
Was poured in human form, but right away
The fruitless choice was made, and broken trust
Turned Eden’s joyful hues to shades of gray.
The freedom God had granted first abused,
When fear and shame were learned and love refused.
With love refused, sad separation reigned:
We littered earth with broken covenants
And chose dark paths to walk and then complained
To God that we were lost beyond all sense.
In longing God would call us to return,
And for a fickle time we would repent.
The cycle thus unleashed: we’d grasp then spurn
The love of God, but God would not relent.
We showed no willingness to come to God
So God in mercy chose to come to us,
As shepherd, comforting with staff and rod,
To teach us sheep again to love and trust.
As love so often does, this love began
When Mary felt a tremor ‘neath her hand.
Her hand leapt up to shield her dazzled eyes
When Gabriel, awash in radiance,
Appeared to her, and much to his surprise,
He saw no fear in Mary’s countenance.
Confusion showed instead on Mary’s face:
She wondered how she ranked as favored one
When her humility would grant no place
As high, yet humble love would bear the Son.
Now God entrusted Mary to decide
If God’s design to walk upon the earth
Would flow through Mary’s womb, thus God relied
On human freedom to approve the birth.
But God chose well: the humble maid said, “Yes,”
And through her love this broken world was blessed.
The world was blessed one night in David’s town,
But so few saw the miracle arrive
That we might wonder whether it came down
At all, or if it simply failed to thrive.
The savior people sought was not a child,
Who nestles helpless at his mother’s breast.
They sought a fighter who like Samson piled
The bodies of the foes he sent to rest.
They sought a soldier who like David led
His troops to bloody victory with ease.
They sought a muscle-bound Messiah bred
To root out rank imperial disease.
So when the unexpected came that night
The people waiting all ignored the light.
The light was fading fast in Bethlehem
When Joseph, hand in hand with Mary, passed
the final house, which closed its doors to them
Like all the rest had done that day. At last
The months of waiting ended with a burst
Of pain that echoed through the darkling gloom;
She knew the birth would now be unrehearsed
And cried to Joseph, “Please go find a room.”
But Joseph would not leave her in the street,
So heaving Mary to his arms he veered
Off down a dusty trail and heard the bleat
Of sheep and goats, and knew a stable neared.
For once, thank God, a door stood open wide,
And breathless, weak, the couple dropped inside.
The couple dropped inside a stable stall,
And Joseph gathered up the fresher hay
While anxious Mary paced from wall to wall
Until the urge to push would not delay.
The universe contracted to the here,
The now, the pain, the prayer, the ancient swell,
The final push, the crystal cry so clear,
The Word made flesh was born — Emmanuel.
The universe expanded once again
As light ascending from within the child,
Reflected in the nighttime sky, and then
The light ignited in a star most wild.
The brilliance shone on heaven and on earth,
Proclaiming God-with-us, the Savior’s birth.
The Savior’s birth took place, yet no one heard
Until the herald angels praised his name
To shepherds (“lowlife rabble,” many slurred),
And yet for outcasts such as these He came.
When eastern wisdom read the star’s good news,
The magi journeyed west toward the flame;
But Herod welcomed them with bloody ruse,
And yet for immigrants like these He came.
For all creation was the Savior born:
Yet not for wealth, nor fortune, nor for fame,
But for the broken, lost, abandoned, scorned,
And Yes — what Joy — for you and me He came.
The greatest story ever told endures
Oh God, keep telling it till we are yours.
Performed at St. Mark’s in Mystic, CT on Sunday, December 21, 2014
This 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.
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.
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…
Scene 2: Joseph’s Dream
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.
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.
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…
God is with us.
Scene 3: Arrival in Bethlehem
As the NARRATOR speaks, YOUNGER MARY and YOUNGER JOSEPH make their way to Bethlehem.
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.
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.
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.
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.
She put a blanket in my hands and guided them.
One last thunderous wave of pain washed through me, and then…
YOUNGER JOSEPH holds the BABY JESUS in his arms.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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…
I gave him myself.
The OLDER CHARACTERS move to join their YOUNGER SELVES.
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.
So when you are searching for God…
Know that God is always with us…
And when the Prince of Peace calls to you…
* * *
(*=tiny speaking part; **=big speaking part)
MAGI x3 (1*)
*Artwork: detail from “Birth of Christ” by Antoine Pesne (1745)
Sermon for December 22, 2013 || Advent 4A || Matthew 1:18-25
Imagine with me a letter written by Joseph to his father on the night Joseph had the dream of the angel that today’s Gospel reading narrated.
By the time you read this letter, I will have left home. I awoke in the still hours of the night to write it, and I imagine that when I leave, the sun will be many hours from rising. I hope someday you will welcome me back into this house. I know it will not be tomorrow or the next day. But someday, I hope.
By the fact that you have found this letter on my workbench instead of finding me there, you will have concluded that I changed my mind. You are correct in that deduction. I know we agreed on my course of action. I know what you said yesterday – what you’ve been saying for weeks, really – is still the correct decision. But now, as I sit watching the swaying light of a guttering candle, as my mind empties of all the noise and my heart fills with every new possibility, I find that our agreement is not the correct decision. It is simply a correct decision. But there is another, and this is the one I choose.
I know, father, that reading those words will make you want to tear up the rest of this letter at once, but I beg you to keep reading, because I must explain myself. I need you to understand how my heart has come to change. I need you to understand that disgrace is a small price to pay to do what I feel God is calling me to do. I need you to understand how my agony has turned to joy. In the simple of act of choosing the better of two right answers, I find a weight I didn’t even know I was bearing has lifted. I feel free. I feel like I am making the choice that truly reflects the man I want to be, the man God dreams for me to be.
Let me start at the beginning. I know I came of age years ago, but until the day you entered into terms with Mary’s father and she and I got engaged, I never knew the weight of true responsibility. What I didn’t expect was to discover my duty to wed Mary deepen into the love I now have for her. Though from that first meeting, we’ve never been alone, just Mary and me – still, whenever we’re together, I feel like we’re the only two people in the world. Everything fades except her strong, sturdy, quiet presence. When I think about the prospect of life without her, all I can feel is the absence, the ragged hole her disappearance would leave.
And now I can hear in my mind your argument begin again, father. What about you duty to your family? What about your love and respect for your mother and me? What about the marriage prospects of your own brothers and sisters, your own flesh and blood, if you ruin our reputation? Believe me, I am aware of the implications of my choice, hence my decision to leave home and spare you the humiliation. Nazareth is a week’s journey from our home in Bethlehem. When Mary and I move there, we will be far enough away to keep you from public disgrace. Disavow me as your son and make my brother your heir. Then your legacy will be safe.
As for me, I will take Mary for my wife. I do this not despite her pregnancy, but because of it. I now know my life’s purpose – to take care of Mary and her child. To love them, cherish them, and provide for them, come what may. The boy – yes, it’s a boy – will call me father, but he will know who his true father is. No matter what I said to you yesterday, I now believe Mary’s story. I’ve always wanted to believe it. I had been trying to believe it since she first told me because I knew in my heart a false word has never escaped her lips. But now I truly believe.
You once said to me, father, that believing means setting your heart on something. It’s not just thinking or acknowledging something is right or true. Believing means taking all that’s precious within yourself, all that makes your blood flow and your lungs fill, all that keeps you alive, and placing it in other, worthier hands. I learned that from you, and I’ve found something worthy of my belief – the unborn child in Mary’s womb and the power who placed him there when she said “yes” to the angel.
You might be wondering what changed my mind. You had convinced me yesterday, after all. I was ready to have the hardest conversation of my life. But something told me to sleep on it, to give it another day. You know I’ve always been a heavy sleeper; I’ve never remembered a dream in my life. I didn’t think I had them, which is ironic considering whom you named me for. That Joseph could interpret dreams. He saved Egypt from famine. He saved the family who had sold him into slavery. And all because he listened to the special way God spoke to him.
Tonight I discovered I’m more like our ancestor than I imagined. I had a dream, but before you say it was “only” a dream, know that it was realer than anything I’ve ever experienced in my waking years. The angel who stood before me, the brilliance of his gown, the fire in his wings, the music in his voice – they made the real world seem dull and counterfeit by comparison. The angel gave me permission to make the choice my heart has longed to make, the choice that you and our neighbors and this society says is wrong.
Again, I can guess your mind, father. What makes you so sure of yourself? How can you discount your family and your culture so blithely?
Please know there has been nothing casual about this decision. I have been in agony since Mary first told me, and I know she has too. The decision I was going to make yesterday – to dismiss her as you wished – is correct by any measure available. But so is standing with her, remaining faithful, being true to myself and to my promises. Surely, you can see that, father. Choosing between right and wrong is simple for the most part. But choosing between right and right? That’s the harder challenge.
In making this choice, I listened to Mary, whose honesty even you once said is beyond reproach. I listened to my own heart, which lifted from agony to joy the moment I changed my mind. And I listened to God, whose power and presence has been weaving in and out of this mess from the beginning. I can do no more than try to follow where these promptings are leading me.
I hope you can see that, father. I hope when the scandal dies down, you will be able to welcome us back home. Know that you will always be welcome at our home in Nazareth. Know that Mary and I desire with all our hearts for Jesus – that’s what we’re going to call him – to meet his grandparents. My prayer for you, father, is that you will do the same soul-searching I have been doing this night by the light of this nearly spent candle. Listen to those you love. Listen to your own heart. Listen to God. And perhaps you will find that what you believe, that thing you set your heart on, has shifted without you realizing it.
This is my hope for you. In the meantime, know that Mary and I are safe. We await the coming of our son with joy (not to mention some anxiety). He’s not even born yet, and Jesus has already saved me from walking down the wrong path. Perhaps the right path will lead us all back together again someday.
With sadness and joy, I remain
Your loving son,