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Sermon, December 26, 2021 – Christmas 1

Christmas’ Meaning

Merry Christmas!

Today we shift our focus from the events in the stable to asking what does this all mean? Luke told us about that marvelous night when Jesus was born – the angels and the shepherds – Mary pondering all these things in her heart.  This is great story telling.  Now John comes along and says to us, “this is what all this means” – the Word which was in the beginning is now dwelling in our midst as one of us.

So, what does all of this mean?  Especially when we consider that there are more than two millennia separating us from the event. This is something theologians have been wrestling with since the day of Pentecost, and we continue to wrestle to this day.

For the ancient Israelites and Jews, the Word represents God’s creative power. It was by means of God’s spoken word that the heavens and the earth were created. Jewish people even regard their own spoken words as dynamic, as having an inherent power. This is why many Jews are careful with their words. They are careful in pronouncing blessings and curses, and in choosing meaningful, significant names for people and places. They also believe that the Word represents the “Wisdom” of God which is intrinsically creative.

The expression “the Word of God” can even refer to God himself. Out of reverence for God, whenever he was mentioned in the Scriptures as having human feelings and actions, some people substituted the name of God with the phrase “the Word of God” to avoid anthropomorphism. This overscrupulous paraphrasing, however, overlooked the fact that sometimes God does indeed act personally with humankind in ways that we, as humans, can identify with both emotionally and practically.

Certain strands of Greek philosophy held that the world was created by a mediator called the Word or Logos. The Greeks considered that all matter was evil and so a transcendent, spiritual God could never have been in contact with evil, base matter, let alone create it. However, the Greeks also recognized the beauty, order, and rhythm of the universe, and saw it as the work of a divine creator. Greek philosophers came up with the idea that the supreme God created the universe through an agent: the Word or Logos.

This Greek idea, that the world was created by the Word, interestingly enough, originated in Ephesus, where John wrote his Gospel. It was the Ephesian philosopher Heraclitus in 560 B. C. who came up with the idea of the Word as, not only the agent of creation, but also the sustainer and controller of the universe (cf Heb. 1:2-3).

Heraclitus also saw the Word as the Judge of Truth, and the mind, or Reason, of God. His philosophy spread and became established in many branches of Greek philosophy. The Greeks saw the Word, or Logos, as the creating, guiding, and directing power of the supreme God, so John cleverly used this Greek concept to introduce Jesus to his Greek readers.[i]

Keep in mind that the New Testament, especially the Gospels were written forty years or more after the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.  The world had changed for the Jews as well as the Christians. Hence, there was a need to link Jesus’ life with the people’s world view and their understanding of that world view.

It’s the same for us.  Our world is vastly different from the world Jesus and the earliest disciples knew.  Bishop N. T. Wright in his seminal work, Paul: A Biography (2020 reprint) stated that if Paul were to walk into either a Christian or Jewish worship service today, he would not recognize the service Jewish or Christian.

In other words, our understanding of the Gospel and of the early fathers and mothers in the faith have evolved; just as our liturgical practices have evolved through two millennia of lived experience. How we understand the Christ-event is nothing like the understanding of that same event that emerged in the last quarter of the first century, or the understanding of those who went before.

There is a story about Thomas Merton (known as Fr. Louis in his monastery) was speaking to a group of his novices:

He said,

          “There is only one thing for anybody to become in life.

There’s no point in becoming spiritual — the whole thing is a waste of time. What you came here for is to become yourself, to discover your complete identity to be you. But the catch is that of course our full identity as monks and Christians is Christ. It is Christ in each of us. … I’ve got to become me in such a way that I am the Christ that can only be the Christ in me. There is a Louis Christ that must be brought into existence and hasn’t matured yet. It has a long way to go. There is a Louis Christ [a Thomas Merton Christ], a you Christ, a me Christ — each one of us is called and graced to be our true self — the self that God has made us to be.”

To put it a different way as St Irenaeus said, “God has become what we are, what I am, so that I/we might become what God is.”

My dear friends in Christ, we will continue to wrestle with what Christmas means, and that is one of the gifts given to us in this holy season.

Merry Christmas!

Amen.

________________________________

[i] Marg Mowczko at margmowczko.com

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Sermon, December 24, 2021 – Christmas Eve

What I Want for Christmas

Merry Christmas!

Every year in my family it was the same question over and over – what do you want for Christmas?  The answer from every member of the family was, “I don’t know.”  Unfortunately, our gift-giving was reduced to gift cards which more often than not wound up in a drawer and forgotten.  Having a birthday so close to the holiday compounded this dilemma for me.

Several years ago, we, as a family, agreed that instead of giving gift cards because we couldn’t think of what to give; instead, we would find an activity that was open, such as a museum or state park, and visit that place as a family and spend the day together.

When I was younger, Christmas morning was spent opening gifts. Breakfast was cereal and sweet rolls.  We would spend the morning playing with our gifts. The Christmas feast was not the traditional turkey and usual trimmings – it would be hamburgers and hot dogs cooked on the grill.

How did your families celebrate the Christmas holiday? What traditions carried over from generation to generation in your families? What kind of gifts did you exchange?

Perhaps a question that needs to be asked, what would you like to receive this Christmas?

All birthdays have one thing in common – they are celebrations of a person’s life and the gift they are to us? What should come into clearest focus in these celebrations is the shared love made manifest. Geoffrey Tristram of the Society of St. John the Evangelist, or Cowley Brothers, writes:

Christmas is not about the arrival of a new philosophy, nor of a new religion, but the arrival of a person — a person who stands with me and holds me and strengthens me — whose words and actions and sufferings make sense of my life — and can transform my life with a love which is stronger than death.

Today we celebrate God’s ultimate gift to the human race. A gift that draws us deeper and deeper into God’s unconditional love for us. A gift that empowers us to love others in the same way that God loves us. A gift of love that will find its way to the cross in order to demonstrate the infinity of God’s love.

So, what would I like for Christmas? I would like to kneel at the entrance to the holy grotto – the stable offering shelter to the Holy Family – before the angels begin their singing; before the shepherd arrive from the fields. I want to listen to the sounds of a young mother in labor. I want to hear the first cry of a newborn baby in the night, and in that cry hear the whisper from heaven, “It is finished.” Amen.

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Sermon, December 19, 2021 – Advent IV

It’s Not Christmas, Yet.

Today is the Fourth Sunday of Advent.  Four tapers burn on our Advent wreath, and many of will begin in earnest to prepare for the holiday later this week.  It’s not Christmas yet. 

If your family’s custom is to set up a Nativity Crèche you may do so, including the animals and the Holy Family.  The baby Jesus figurine, however, must remain in the box until Christmas Eve after Mass.  The shepherds will arrive at dawn on Christmas Day, and the Magi have to wait until Twelfth Night, or January 6th.

For three weeks now, we’ve been hearing the prophetic voices warning us of what’s in store for us; last Sunday we heard John the Baptist call us a “brood of vipers.”  Today we turn out attention to Bethlehem and the meeting of two very different women.  In some places, the hymn by Bishop Philip Brooks, “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” will be sung as the processional out into the world; but it’s not Christmas yet. 

The prophet Micah was active in the southern kingdom of Judah during the middle of the 8th century BCE.  The northern kingdom of Israel was about to be conquered by the Assyrians and Judah was about to become a vassal state in order to preserve their way of life for a little while longer. 

Micah tells us that God is about to turn things upside down in the lives of the people of Judah.  In order to preserve the status quo with the Assyrians the nation of Judah had to pay tribute in order to keep the Assyrian army from marching in.  This tribute was paid through exorbitant taxes most heavily leaved on the poor and disadvantaged (if this sounds familiar …).  Micah tells us that God’s people will be taken back to a different time and promises the restoration of David’s throne.  However, we will not return to Jerusalem the home of King David, but to Bethlehem the home of the shepherd and peasant David.  It will be a restoration of God’s justice.

Our Gospel recounts the meeting between two marginalized women.  Mary is young, she is betrothed but unmarried, and pregnant – this put her not only on society’s fringes, but in potential mortal danger under Jewish law at the time.  Elizabeth is older, though married, she was past child-bearing age and barren, thus on the margins of society.  Mary has just had her encounter with the angel Gabriel announcing that she will conceive and give birth to a son.  Now, she off to see her cousin Elizabeth who is now six months into her pregnancy.

The two women greet each other, and the child in Elizabeth’s womb leaps for joy.  Elizabeth calls Mary “Blessed” and Mary responds with her hymn which is traditionally known as the Magnificat from the Latin opening “magnify,” or as we have it now, “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord. (BCP, page 119).  This hymn is traditionally sung at Evening Prayer as the response to the first reading from Scripture.

This hymn makes the idea of Mary as a meek and mild woman a lie – this is a statement of strength, specifically feminist strength that calls into question the social norms of her day.  During portions of the last century, this hymn was prohibited by several totalitarian regimes because of its subversive message.  It’s ideas are nothing new, Hannah’s Prayer (I Samuel 2: 1 – 10) is another example of the notion that God’s desire for justice places everyone on the same level no matter what their race, economic status, sexual orientation, or political affiliation.  Both Hannah’s Prayer and the Magnificat describe God acting in history to bring about his desire for justice and love in the human community.

Mary, along with Elizabeth and Hannah, are envisioning a world turned upside down.  The one who will accomplish this is God, and that plan is in motion and there’s nothing we can do to stop it.  Today’s Gospel is intended to give us hope that the world for which God long, for which we pray to come among us, is indeed taking place, and eventually we will find our world turned upside down.

Still, we have to wait – it’s not Christmas yet.

Amen.

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Sermon, December 12, 2021 – Advent III

Rejoice!

Happy “Brood of Vipers” Sunday!  Every year on the Third Sunday of Advent we hear John the Baptist call us a “brood of vipers fleeing the wrath to come. (Matthew 3: 7 – 12; Mark 1: 2 – 8; Luke 3: 7 – 9).  Only Luke adds the admonitions to groups that were considered outsiders from the Jewish community of the time.

This is in sharp contrast to the liturgical emphasis for today.  Today is “Gaudete” Sunday, or “Rose” Sunday – many congregations in the Anglo-Catholic traditions will wear Rose (not pink) vestments.  The term “Gaudete” comes from the Introit of the Latin Mass meaning “Rejoice, O daughters of Jerusalem.”  It signals a lightening of our Advent disciplines in order to focus on St. Paul’s instruction for us to rejoice always.  At the same time, we pray for our Lord to come among us and stir up in us the fire of His love.  We light the Rose-colored candle to give further emphasis on today’s importance.

We are called to live a life grounded in joy.  This is not a giddy feeling that comes when something extraordinarily good happens.  Rather, it is a deep abiding presence that sustains us no matter what happens – good, bad, or in the midst of a brood of vipers.  This joy is ours as a gift given to us in our baptism and is one of the signs of being marked and sealed as Christ’s own forever.

The church in Philippi was a source of joy for Paul, of all the congregations he started they were the ones who got it right.  So here he is in a dark, dank Roman jail filled with joy when he remembers the Philippian people and their faithfulness to the Gospel of our Lord.  What does Paul do, he encourages them to remain joyful and to allow their joy to permeate every part of their lives.  In this life of rejoicing, Paul adds another gift to the mix – God’s peace which passes our understanding.  A peace that will guard our hearts and minds in the knowledge and love of God in and through Jesus the Christ.

This enables us to trust and not be afraid, even in the midst of this we cannot understand.  So, too, we on this Third Sunday of Advent are called to sing for joy, to celebrate the ways in which God has delivered us, is delivering us now, and will deliver in the future, until there is true peace, shalom, wholeness on earth and goodwill throughout the entire creation.  Isaiah reminds us that we shall draw water from the springs of salvation (healing).  If the Lord of love is ruling how can we not sing for joy. 

Amen.

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Sermon, December 5, 2021 – Advent II

The Prophetic Voice

We continue our journey through Advent, now two candles bear silent witness to our coming Lord. Advent’s purpose is to help us prepare our hearts and minds for the mystery that will unfold for in about three weeks from now.

This morning we turn our attention to the work of the prophets. A prophet in Jesus’ day and age was not a fortune teller who would predict future events in order to persuade people to part with their hard earned money for pipe dreams and the empty promise of get rich quick scams, or to convince God to give us something for nothing by investing in anyone of the many prosperity gospel schemes that attempt to convince us that wealth in this world equates with the amount of God’s blessing as well as the outward and visible sign of one’s faithfulness.

The Biblical history of the life, work, and ministry of the prophets is completely different. The prophet’s primary task was to give voice to God’s word, usually because our society’s acts and values are in conflict with God’s desire for us, and the standards to which we are called.

John the Baptist is considered by many as the final prophet in a line and heritage that traces its roots in Abraham’s encounter with God in the form of the three mysterious visitors under the oaks of Mamre through Moses, and the likes of Elijah and Elisha. The prophetic tradition includes notable figures such as Amos, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel.

The common thread throughout the prophetic tradition is for the people (including us) to repent. This was the heart of John’s message. “Repent, (literally turn around or change your mind) because the Kingdom of God is at hand.”  In this call for repentance, we catch a glimpse of God’s grace and love. The prophetic message is not “repent or something bad will happen,” or “repent, and then God might do something good for us.”  No, the prophets’ call to repentance is always a response to God’s gracious presence already in the here and now. Our repentance, our turning around, is not a legalistic transaction but rather a response to the love already given to us. It is through this encounter with the Divine love that we are placed in a position of having God let go of our sins, which is the heart of forgiveness. Only God has the authority and power to let go of our sins. This is the gift we await in this Advent season. John is inviting us to prepare with him the way of the Lod.

So, on this Second Sunday of Advent, let us pause to listen once again to the voice of the prophets. Let us continue the process of repenting knowing that the One who will release us from our sins is coming.

Amen.