Sunday, December 25, 2011

Saved by Beauty

Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
December 25, 2011

Christmas: The Nativity of Our Lord
Isaiah 62:6-7, 10-12
Titus 3:4-7
Luke 2:1-20

Saved by Beauty

As usual, Christmas has been just so beautiful here at Grace Church. The church looks great, yesterday’s pageant was as charming as ever, and somehow Dr. Anne and the choirs keep topping themselves with gorgeous music.

Surrounded by all of this beauty reminds of a line from a character in a Dostoevsky novel. The character says, “The world will be saved by beauty.” “The world will be saved by beauty.”

Actually, for Christians that’s half-right. The world will be saved by beauty and the world is already saved by beauty – by the beauty of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, the holy one whose birth we celebrate this morning.

Now, often the world doesn’t seem very beautiful at all. But, sometimes during times when we’re really paying attention, when we’re really mindful, we can see clearly the beauty that saves the world, the beauty that will save the world.

We are fortunate to live in a time and place where most births – though sometimes quite difficult and painful - are moments of great beauty.

A couple of months ago close friends of ours had their first child. Although she was a little early everything went just about as well as possible. After a short labor a healthy baby girl with a thick shock of dark hair on top of her head was welcomed joyfully into the world.

My wife Sue and I went to the hospital a few hours later to see the new parents and to meet the baby. I was moved by the beauty of what we found in the hospital room. The new mother’s eyes glowed with joy as she held and nursed her newborn daughter. The father was excited and proud to show off his daughter while also busily working the phone – calling and texting to spread the good news far and wide. Other family members and friends arrived, relieved and overjoyed.

“The world will be saved by beauty.”

Now, before you think I’ve gotten all sentimental, I also noticed a starkness to the beauty of the scene in that hospital room. There were deep lines under the mother’s glowing eyes. Even an easy birth takes a physical toll. And I glimpsed a dawning recognition in both new parents that this was as real as it gets: their daughter is really here, beginning that day a life that, like all of our lives, will be filled with some mixture of sadness and joy, failure and success, fear and hope.

It was a big moment. And that day in the hospital with our friends and their newborn child I saw the beauty that will save the world.

Just a couple of weeks ago I had a different kind of hospital room experience where I also saw the beauty that will save the world.
As many of you know, after a valiant effort, the doctors reached the conclusion that there was nothing more that could be done for our beloved parishioner Phyllis. Her two sons honored her wishes by not keeping her alive through extraordinary means.

When the time came to disconnect the machines, with Phyllis unconscious and comfortable, we had a short service at her bedside and shared communion. Then her sons stood on either side of her bed, each holding one of her hands, and began to tell wonderful stories from their childhood. There were tears and there was also laughter.

Although unconscious, in her last moments in this life Phyllis was surrounded by love and laughter. And in the midst of pain and sorrow in her family’s love I had the privilege of seeing the beauty that will save the world.

This morning we heard Luke’s telling of the story of Jesus’ birth. It’s a story that remains beautiful no matter how many times we’ve heard it, no matter how familiar it’s become.

There’s the beauty of the angel appearing to the shepherds keeping watch over their flock by night. There’s the beauty of the heavenly host singing their great hymn, “Glory to God in the highest heaven!”

There’s the beauty of the shepherds seeming to drop everything to go see for themselves the newborn savior and then later returning, “Glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen.”

But, there’s nothing sentimental about this story. There’s a stark beauty to the story of Jesus’ birth, too. Mary and Joseph seem to be alone in the world. Although hospitality was an important practice in the ancient world, no one in Bethlehem seems willing to welcome Mary, Joseph and the child. Instead the Messiah enters the world humbly, primitively, placed in a feeding trough meant for animals.

Most of us can only imagine the terror of heartbreakingly young Mary, maybe just 13 years old, giving birth to her son in such harsh conditions. And then later, maybe while resting and beginning to recuperate, she and Joseph receive a visit from the shepherds telling them – or reminding them – that their child is the Savior, the Messiah, the Lord.

And then there is the beauty of young Mary treasuring all of these words and pondering them in her heart.

I’m sure Mary didn’t yet understand that the world would be saved through the beautiful life of her son. We who know the rest of the story see this beauty in Jesus’ teaching – his call to love God and to love one another. We see this beauty in the parable of the prodigal son whose father rushes out to welcome him home, no questions asked. We see this beauty in the feeding of the multitudes – the overflowing abundance of God that fills everyone - and there are even leftovers. We see this beauty in the parable of the Good Samaritan when it’s the outcast who shows mercy. We see this beauty in Jesus’ bold declaration that in God’s kingdom it’s the poor and the hungry and the mourners who are blessed. We see this beauty in Jesus’ command to love our enemies, to do good to those who hate us, to bless those who curse us and to pray for those who hurt us.

The world is saved by beauty.

We can even see the beauty of Jesus’ life in the horror of the cross where he completed his life of love by asking God to forgive what seems most unforgivable.

And, at last, the world is saved by the beauty of Easter morning when God does the most beautiful thing imaginable by doing what God always does, turn death into life.

The world is saved by beauty.

It’s Christmas morning and right now we are surrounded by beauty.

Yet, for some of us here and for lots of people out there the world doesn’t seem beautiful at all – and lots of us don’t feel saved at all.

So, God’s work continues. And God calls us, invites us, to be part of the ongoing salvation of the world.

We’re called to be beautiful – to love each other like brand new parents love their child and as children love their dying mother.

We’re called to be beautiful – to offer hospitality to all the Marys and Josephs who are out there right now, alone and frightened in the world.

We’re called to be beautiful – to forgive one another especially when they – or we - seem most unforgivable.

We’re called to be beautiful – to give of ourselves without counting the cost and expecting nothing in return.

Dostoevsky’s character got it half-right. The world is already saved by the beauty of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. And now that work of salvation continues through us – through the Body of Christ on earth – through all of us here at Grace Church - through whom the world will be saved by beauty.

Merry Christmas.


Sunday, December 18, 2011

Marginal Mary

Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
December 18, 2011

Year B: The Fourth Sunday of Advent
2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16
Psalm 89:1-4, 19-26
(Romans 16:25-27)
Luke 1:26-38

Marginal Mary

Today we begin the final week of Advent – the final week of preparation for Christmas, which ready or not, arrives a week from last night.

With time growing short, we can feel a shift in our Christmas preparation. It feels like a change in the weather.

I’m sure you’ve all got everything done but out in the world Christmas preparations are getting more frantic. The mall parking lots are packed as people scramble to cross the final items off their Christmas list. If it hasn’t started yet, soon we’ll be receiving emails from online retailers warning us that time is running out to get items purchased and shipped in time for Christmas. As usual at the end of the week I’ll finally get to the card store only to find that just about all the really nice cards are long gone.

And we can feel a shift in our preparation here in church.

It’s still Advent but this afternoon we’ll have a performance of Messiah followed by the greening of the church and a potluck supper. All week it will still be Advent yet the church will be decorated for Christmas, bathed in that wonderful evergreen scent.

And we can feel the shift in preparation in today’s gospel lesson.

For the last two Sundays the spotlight has been on John the Baptist. We’ve had “purple preparation” courtesy of the prophet who prepared the way for the Messiah through his message of repentance and forgiveness.

But now finally today we finally get to the blue preparation of hope and joy. The spotlight turns from John the Baptist to the other central Advent figure – Mary, a heartbreakingly young girl probably about 12 or 13 years old. A girl from Nazareth, a town so unimportant that it’s never even once mentioned in the Hebrew Scriptures.

Out of the four gospels it’s only Luke that has much interest in Mary. Matthew tells us about the birth of Jesus from Joseph’s perspective and Mark and John are silent about the nativity.

But, Luke is very interested in Mary. And I think Luke is interested in Mary not only because it’s a wonderful story that has enchanted and inspired people for two millennia. Luke is interested in Mary because her story tells us a lot about God and tells us a lot about us.

Luke is writing for a primarily non-Jewish Christian audience – people who were already followers of Jesus. But their Gentile friends and family would have known lots of stories about miraculous births so Luke’s story of a divine messenger appearing to a human woman telling her that she would carry the Son of God wouldn’t have raised too many pagan eyebrows.

“Oh, sure, human-divine births happen all the time. No big deal.”

What would have surprised the Gentiles was who is chosen for this awesome task of bearing God into the world: Mary of Nazareth – a nobody – a girl who lived way off at the margins of society.

Life was almost unimaginably hard for just about everyone in the ancient world – very much including the Jews in the First Century. And in a harsh time Mary would have had it tougher than just about anyone else.

She lived in Galilee – a rural backwater.

She was young in a society that valued age.

She was female in a society ruled by men.

She was poor: which meant she was almost inevitably destined for a life filled with unending backbreaking labor ended only by what we would call a shockingly premature death.

She lived in a society in which a woman gained status only through having a husband and giving birth to children. But now the angel has given her news that will end any hope having a “normal” life. Luke doesn’t tell us but obviously Mary must have known and worried that her betrothal to Joseph was at risk. And she must have known only too well that the busybodies in little Nazareth who minded everybody’s business would be gossiping about her pregnancy and the birth of her child.

In her time and place people would have looked at Mary and seen someone way off on the margins of society – nobody special at all.

But, God saw who she really was and chose marginal Mary to carry the Messiah into the world.

Look at how Luke describes marginal Mary and get a glimpse of what God saw in her. She must have been just about completely uneducated but she is deeply thoughtful. Instead of running away in fear from the angel, Mary ponders what this totally unexpected announcement means.

Marginal Mary is faithful – although she surely doesn’t understand or imagine all of what’s in store for her, she puts her trust in God. She says to the angel, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

Gentiles – and Jews for that matter - would have been surprised that God chose marginal Mary to bear God into the world. Just as they would have been skeptical that her son – who was born and lived almost his whole life on the margins – could really have been the Son of God.

And even Christians have sometimes struggled with the idea that God chose a woman from the margins to be mother of the messiah.

There is a Second Century text called the Proto-Gospel of James that didn’t make it into the Bible although it was very popular for centuries and influenced a lot of Christian art. And in this very interesting text marginal Mary is given a back-story that takes her from the margins of society right into the heart of First Century Judaism.

The author of the Proto-Gospel of James tells us that when Mary was three her parents brought her to the Temple. He writes,

“And the priest of the Lord received her and gave her a kiss, blessing her and saying, ‘The Lord has made your name great for all generations. Through you will the Lord reveal his redemption to the sons of Israel at the end of time.’ He set her on the third step of the altar, and the Lord God cast his grace down upon her. She danced on her feet, and the entire house of Israel loved her.”

The Proto-Gospel claims that Mary lived in the Temple until she was twelve and betrothed to Joseph. It’s a charming story but I’m glad it didn’t make it into the Bible because it undoes Luke’s point that God has chosen the last person you’d expect, marginal Mary, for the most important task of all time.

Luke knows that God’s choice of marginal Mary tells us something important about God and about us. Luke knows that God’s choice of marginal Mary tells that God has a special love for the poor and the outcast. And Luke knows that with God’s choice of marginal Mary the world is turned downside-up. Since Luke knows all of this, he has Mary sing her great song about God:

“He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”

So, what does this have to do with us here in Madison today as begin our final preparations for Christmas?

Since God has a special love for the people on the margins, you and I as followers of marginal Jesus, son of marginal Mary, are called and expected to share God’s special love for our brothers and sisters on the margins of our society.

So, we’re called to have the soup kitchen sign up sheet filled out so quickly and fully that there’s a waiting list to donate food and there are so many volunteers that they’re tripping over each other to serve the hungry and the homeless.

We’re called to overflow the Food for Friends barrel with the best food we can afford, dropping off so much food that we create a temporary safety hazard in the lobby.

We’re called to visit people in nursing homes not just around Christmas or on other special days but on a random Tuesday.

We’re called to sit with the unpopular kid in the cafeteria at lunchtime or to befriend the neighbor who seems strange or who’s maybe just plain annoying.

We’re called to reach out to our friends and family members who’ve been out of work for what seems like forever even if it means confronting our own fears about our fragile security.

We’re called to reach out to people who are sick even if it means confronting our own fears about illness and death.

We’re called to give as much as we can to the people on the margins – people who can’t even dream of the kinds of lives that most of us enjoy.

And we’re called to face the maybe unsettling truth that most of us live far from the margins, far from Nazareth, far better than just about anyone else past or present.

Like a change in the weather, there’s been a shift in our Christmas preparation. With a week to go, the spotlight is on faithful, courageous, marginal Mary who said yes to God and carried marginal Jesus into the world.

Today you and I can best say yes to God, best prepare for Christmas and best honor Mary if we share our wealth, share our time and share our love with God’s beloved marginal people.


Sunday, December 04, 2011

Purple and Blue Preparation

Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
December 4, 2011

Year B: The Second Sunday of Advent
Isaiah 40:1-11
Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13
(2 Peter 3:8-15a)
Mark 1:1-8

Purple and Blue Preparation

In her sermon last Sunday Lauren talked about how in a very real way we Christians live in two worlds – the world of the church and the world outside the church doors. That’s always true, of course, but we’re probably most aware of our split existence during these weeks leading up to Christmas.

This time of year both worlds encourage us – urge us – to prepare in very different ways for Christmas. Out in the world that preparation mostly means buying and buying some more and also wrapping presents, decorating our homes, and getting cards and packages into the mail.

The church also encourages us – urges us – to prepare for Christmas. Here in this world during Advent there are two types of preparation – two types of preparation that I’ll call purple preparation and blue preparation. And in order to really prepare for Christmas we need both types of preparation – purple and blue.

This Wednesday evening I’ll be leading my first Compline for Kids service since I’ve been back. Many of you know that the program begins with the children and me making pizza in the church kitchen. I remember being a little, um, hesitant when I first heard that this was part of my job, but over the years I came to enjoy it. And I think the pizza is pretty good, too.

Anyway, once the pizzas are in the oven, the children usually work on some craft or service project that Mary Lea has created. Then we say grace. Then we eat. And then we come into church for a beautiful, if a little chaotic, service of music and prayers and a brief reflection from me.

I remember a couple of years ago trying to think of a visual way to talk about Advent when finally I decided to use our Advent vestments to illustrate the purple and blue sides of Advent.

At the service with the children gathered around me I held up the chasuble (that Lauren is wearing right now) and began my talk. Unfortunately, the children – who, of course, normally would hang on my every word – now only wanted one thing: to touch the chasuble… with their greasy pizza hands. At the last second I pulled the vestment away from them, just barely avoiding a serious altar guild crisis!

Maybe that didn’t work so well. But, I still think our vestments offer a good illustration of the purple and blue sides of Advent.

Many of you remember when the color for Advent was purple and it was a season of repentance and sacrifice very much like Lent. In many churches (including here) in more recent times there’s been a shift to blue – a color associated both with hope and with the Virgin Mary. And that’s very appropriate since Mary is one of the central figures of Advent – the young woman who said yes to God, accepting the awesome gift and responsibility of bringing Jesus into the world.

Although blue now dominates the season we still haven’t lost the purple – if you look carefully it’s right here in the lining of our vestments. And the purple is very much in our gospel lesson both today and next Sunday when the spotlight shines on that great prophet of repentance, the other central figure of Advent, John the Baptist. Or, as he’s called in the Gospel of Mark, John the Baptizer.

So, whether we like it or not, during Advent the church gives us two Sundays worth of John the Baptist – two weeks of purple preparation - because the truth is that without repentance we can’t truly experience the hope of Advent. And without repentance we can’t truly experience the joy of Christmas.

Today we heard the opening verses of the Gospel of Mark. Most scholars agree that Mark is the earliest of the four gospels to be written, probably around the year 70 – drawing on stories about Jesus that had been passed around for decades both orally and in writing.

Mark is both the oldest and the most barebones of the gospels. Apparently the author doesn’t know about or isn’t interested in any birth stories about Jesus. If all we had was the Gospel of Mark there’d be no Christmas pageant.

Instead of birth stories, Mark opens his gospel with a simple but profound declaration: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”

It’s kind of redundant to begin the gospel… by telling us it’s the beginning of the gospel. But that opening makes more sense when we consider that the Greek word that’s translated as “the beginning” can also mean “the starting point, foundation, origin.”

Mark’s opening line suggests that the story of Jesus’ life that he’s about to tell is the foundation of the good news that his community was sharing and experiencing in the First Century. And Mark’s story of Jesus’ life is the starting point of the good news that you and I share today.

Mark begins his beginning by looking back to the prophets of Hebrew Scripture.

The prophets had two main roles. One was to call the people to repentance. Over and over the prophets called the people to turn away from their wrongdoing and to turn back to God.

The prophets’ second task was to offer a vision of the world transformed by God – to offer a vision of what the world could really be like, of what the world was always meant to be like. The prophets offered a vision of a world that was and is possible if only we accept the invitation to turn back to God.

In today’s first lesson from Isaiah the people of Israel have endured exile in Babylon but now that bleak time is drawing to a close – as the prophet says, the term has been served, the penalty has been paid.

Then Isaiah offers a vision of a transformed world where “every valley shall be lifted up and every mountain and hill made low.” Isaiah offers a vision of a world in which “the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all the people shall see it together.”

In the gospels John the Baptist is presented as the last of the Hebrew prophets – he plays the role of messenger described in Isaiah and he dresses like Elijah. Like the prophets before him he calls the people to repentance – he calls them to turn away from wrongdoing and to turn back to God.

And, like the prophets before him, John the Baptist also offers a vision of a world transformed by God – a transformation that begins with the birth of Jesus, the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.

Mark tells us that John’s message of repentance was popular – people from the country and the city came to be baptized by him in the Jordan. And Josephus a near-contemporary Jewish historian agrees that John had a wide appeal.

John’s popularity shouldn’t surprise us. I’m sure back then people felt the weight of their sin – really felt the burden of not loving God and not loving one another.

I’m sure back then people were quick to put their own self-interest above the needs of others. I’m sure back then people found it easy to look the other way when they saw people suffering in mind, body or spirit. I’m sure back then people chose to assume the worst of others rather than giving them the benefit of the doubt.

The offer of repentance and forgiveness – symbolized by washing in the Jordan would have been very attractive.

And I’m sure that many of us here today feel the weight of our sin – really feel the burden of not loving God and not loving one another.

Fortunately, God still invites us to repent. Fortunately, God still offers forgiveness. If only we turn back to God.

So, it’s now the Second Sunday of Advent and the spotlight is on John the Baptist. We’re given this time of purple preparation so we can truly experience the hope of Advent. We’re given the opportunity to repent so we can truly experience the joy of Christmas.

We Christians live a split existence, so while we answer the world out there when it urges us to prepare for Christmas by buying and buying some more, let’s make sure we also answer the call to repent – to turn away from whatever separates us from God and from one another. Let’s make sure we turn back to God.

Then, freed from the burden of our sin, we’ll truly be able to experience the blue preparation of Advent. Freed from the burden of our sin, we’ll truly be able to experience the hope of a world transformed by the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Freed from the burden of our sin, we’ll truly be able to experience the joy of Christmas.


Thursday, December 01, 2011

The Long Loneliness

Grace Episcopal Church
Madison, NJ

The Messenger
December 2011 - January 2012

The Long Loneliness

After Sue and I returned from Florida in mid-August we rented from some friends an apartment in downtown Jersey City, just around the corner from where we lived when were first married. Those few months felt like a slow-motion homecoming as we gradually put the pieces of our lives back together again. Sue resumed her studies, but, aside from filling in at various churches on some Sundays, I had the mixed blessing of a good bit of free time. During beautiful late summer and early autumn days I took long walks around the old neighborhood and often took advantage of the quick and easy access to Manhattan.

I also used this time to read as much as I could. Browsing in a bookstore one day, I spotted and bought The Long Loneliness, the autobiography of Dorothy Day (1897-1980). Born into a non-religious family, as a young woman Day was drawn to the writer’s life, both as a journalist for radical publications and also as a Hollywood screenwriter. She traveled in artistic circles, counting the playwright Eugene O’Neill as a friend. Then Day’s life took a wholly unexpected and radical change. To the dismay of her common law husband, around the time of their daughter’s birth, Dorothy Day began to feel Christ’s call.

After formally entering the Roman Catholic Church in 1927, she prayed for God to show her how to live out her sense of vocation as a writer committed both to the poor and to building God’s kingdom here on Earth. She received her answer in 1933 when in the depths of the Great Depression, she and a handful of others founded a movement called The Catholic Worker. While living in voluntary poverty, Day and her coworkers churned out a newspaper (still published today), opened houses of hospitality in Lower East Side slums, and protested against war and injustice, leading to heated debates and frequent arrests.

Some of Dorothy Day’s views were controversial within the Catholic Church and even among some in the Catholic Worker. For example, during World War II she remained an adamant pacifist. Yet, even those who were sometimes exasperated by her recognized that her life and work were rooted in a radical attempt to live out the Gospel of Jesus Christ. At great cost to herself and those around her, she sought to love her neighbor – especially the poorest and most broken – as herself.

Today there are over 200 Catholic Worker communities around the world, and there is a move underway in the Catholic Church to canonize Dorothy Day a saint. During these days of economic uncertainty, deepening poverty and rampant militarism, Dorothy Day’s faithful witness remains as provocative and challenging as ever.

At the conclusion of her autobiography, Day writes, “We have all known the long loneliness and we have learned that the only solution is love and that love comes with community.”

I’ve reflected on these words a great deal over the past few months. Many of you know that Sue and I had a lonely time in Florida. We hadn’t realized just how challenging it would be living so far from our families and friends. Fortunately, even during that difficult year we were sustained by the love we received and shared in community. The people at St. Michael’s Church welcomed us with open arms and were incredibly gracious when we announced that we were leaving much sooner than anyone had expected. At the university chapel we held our services on Sunday evenings followed by a free supper lovingly prepared and provided by parishioners at local Episcopal churches. Each week undergraduate and graduate students sat beside the homeless and the poor – all attracted by a free home-cooked meal and the promise of warm fellowship.

And then there was the love we received from so many of you in the Grace Church community. Your prayers, calls, emails, cards, gifts, and even a couple of visits, helped us to remember that we were in your hearts and still very much part of this wonderful community.

Now, amazingly enough, we’re back in this place where we receive love from one another when we pray together and work together and play together. We’re back in this place where we receive Love each time we stretch out our hands and take the Body and Blood of Christ into our bodies and into our hearts.

As both a new church year and a new calendar year begin, I give thanks that right here at Grace Church we discover and receive the only solution to the long loneliness: the love that comes with community.