Tuesday, December 31, 2013


One of the best things about being an Episcopalian
            is that we celebrate the whole season of Christmas
                        – not just the first day.
The story is too rich, the meaning is too deep,
            to capture in just one worship service.
So on Christmas Eve, we hear Luke’s story of the birth
            in the days of Caesar Augustus.
Later, we hear John’s operatic, celestial poem
            about the spiritual meaning of the Word becoming flesh.
Now we hear from Matthew about the 3 Wise men.
But Matthew only tells us the bare bones of the story.

Anglicans base our beliefs on three sources

– Scripture, Tradition, and Reason.
Sacred tradition tells the rest of the story.

The Bible doesn’t tell us how many Wise Men there were,
            where they came from, or what their names may have been.

If we had nothing more than Matthew’s account,

        it would be hard to interpret the significance of this visit.

But Christian Tradition around the Wise Men

        is long, deep, wide, and rich.

Three of the world’s greatest religious paintings

            – one by Fra Angelico, one by Esteban Murillo,

and one by Leonardo DaVinci –

            all portray The Adoration of the Magi.

Anyone who sees these paintings knows they too are divinely inspired.
Around 500 A.D., an anonymous artist in Ravenna, Italy
            crafted just as inspiring a mosaic of the wise men’s journey,

            and 1,400 years later, T. S. Eliot gave that mosaic words

in his poem The Journey of the Magi.

When we sing We Three Kings, the symbolic meaning of each gift
            set out in the verses goes back to a Spanish poem

written by Prudentius in the 4th Century.

That’s as old as parts of the Nicene Creed.

The Wise Men’s visit is a lovely old story, we have been telling

       in sermons, songs, paintings, and poems
            for many centuries because it is true

in the deepest and most important sense.

We have cherished this story not because we are certain
            of the historical accuracy of each detail,

            but because it teaches us

the way to peace and holiness.

We believe that three Wise Men came from the East.

Different strands of the tradition give them different names

but we know them as Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar.

Certainly they came a great distance.

And certainly they were astrologers.

At least one of them would have been

            from Persia or thereabout.

There is a tradition that one made a round about route

            from Africa.

And there is actually some evidence to support

            the idea that one came from China.

Now let us be clear, these pilgrims were not Christians.

They did not subscribe to our Creed or our religious practice.

They were not Jews.

St. Matthew says that they were astrologers.

And astrology was strictly forbidden in Jewish law

            and condemned by Jewish prophets.

The Persian was a Zoroastrian worshiper of Ahura-Mazda.

The one from China lived by the analects of Confucius.

The African may have followed a traditional African religion,

            or perhaps the established paganism of the Roman Empire.

Most likely, he followed one of the new mystery cults.

But none of them were Christians.

None of them were Jews.

And they would not have agreed with each other

            about much of anything.

They could not have agreed on what it was they were looking for.

But they were all looking for something, all seeking something.

When their search brought them to the humble stable

            in the little town of Bethlehem,

            they knew they had found it.

So Matthew tells us, they fell down before the child Jesus

            and they worshiped him.

I regret the modern translators’ choice to soften the language

            to say they “paid him homage.”

To say they worshiped him is a perfectly good translation

        of the original Greek.

To fall down and do prostrations or to kneel is an act of worship.

St. John Chrysostom’s 6th Century Epiphany sermon

            emphasizes that the Wise Men did not give Jesus
            the gifts due to a great man.

Nor did they give him things of practical value.

Their gifts were traditional sacrifices offered to God.

So let us not draw back from the clear truth of this text.

They worshiped him.

Therein lie the beauty and the sacred truth of this story.

Therein lie the beauty and the sacred truth

of this moment so loved by artists through the ages.

These wise men who were so utterly and completely different

            from each other – different in race, religion, and nationality –

            forgot their differences and knelt together

            in awestruck reverence before a mystery

they could not begin to understand.

Brothers and sisters, the Adoration of the Magi

         is not window dressing on the faith.

It  is not a quaint tale we can take or leave.

It is essential because it teaches us what we are here to do.

We are here to kneel in awestruck reverence

      before the holiness of Christ.

Our Gospel lesson is crystal clear that

the stable was not a debating hall

                        and neither is the church.

Like the Wise Men, we have our differences.

Human beings are entitled to their opinions.

The fact we have so many of them is part
            of what keeps life interesting.

But the church is not a town meeting

            or  a popular news program

with a point and counterpoint

                        exchange of verbal barbs.

The Church is not a talk show
            for controversial celebrities to rant at each other.

The church exists to kneel before the holiness of Christ,

a mystery we cannot begin to understand.

Like the Wise Men,

            we are different from each other as we can be.

Some are liberal. Some are conservative.

Some like incense and sanctus bells.

Others prefer their Sunday morning casual and simple.

Some like one kind of music.

Some prefer a different style.

Others don’t want any music at all.
Some like a priest. Others can’t stand him.

And that’s all fine.

It’s human to have opinions and preferences.

The thing that holds us together isn’t agreeing

            about any of those things.

It is our shared willingness

to lay aside our opinions, tastes, and preferences
                        to kneel before the holiness of God.

The truth revealed by the Wise Men’s journey

            is that, despite their differences, they traveled together.

 And that probably wasn’t always easy.

T. S. Eliot attributes these words to one of them,

            A cold time we had of it

Just the worst time of the year

For a journey, and such a long journey . . .
The cold may not have been just the weather

and the length may not have been just the miles.

The Wise Men probably exchanged an opinion or two

            along the road.

Their differences must have made the trip even colder

and even longer.

But they stayed on the road and they stayed together,

            until at last, together, they worshiped the Lord

                        in the beauty of holiness.

They came to Christ without coming to an agreement.

They did not adopt a common creed or moral code.

But they knelt and prayed as one.

They followed the light as best they saw the light,

            and when they met the Christ,

            they fell silent and worshiped him.

God grant us the grace to do likewise.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013


Every Advent 2, we remember John the Baptist
announcing the coming  of the Christ
who is going to overturn the ways of the world
                        with the ways of God. 
John shouted that something was about to happen
that would change everything.
God’s promise was about to be fulfilled,
the promise in today’s Old Testament lesson.

“The wolf shall live with the lamb
            the leopard shall lie down with the kid
the calf and the lion and the fatling together
            and a little child shall lead them.”

That’s what we’re praying for when we say
“Thy Kingdom come, they will be done.”
We are praying for that peaceable kingdom of diversity
celebrated in innocent harmony.

Every day, I pray for an end to war, terrorism, violence, and oppression.
Then I sum up my petitions with  “thy Kingdom come”
            because God’s Kingdom means an end to all that is ungodly.
In God’s Kingdom, money doesn’t make the world go round;
            love does that.
In God’s Kingdom, our success doesn’t come
 at the expense of someone else’s failure.

But I fear we have reduced the Christian vision
            to something rather smaller than God’s Kingdom.
For many Christians, the spiritual project is just to be forgiven for our sins
            and go to heaven when we die.
We have the church to provide spiritual support along the way.
Those are not small things.
They are important and wonderful and gracious.
I need my sins forgiven, I hope to go to heaven,
            and I need your support and encouragement
                        until I get there.

But John prophesied something far bigger.
Jesus taught about something far bigger.
He lived, died, and rose again
            to usher in something far bigger – the Kingdom of God.

John’s Kingdom vision is just the Jewish vision taken all the way.
What makes John so angry at the Pharisees and Sadducees
is that they have lost sight of the Kingdom vision.
They have reduced their religion to a way to get through life,
            instead of a way to change the world
            and have their own hearts broken open in the process.

We need to read John the Baptist each Advent
because we do the same thing.
We make our faith smaller than the vision Jesus showed us.
We  downsize the mission to something easier to manage.
But it isn’t entirely our fault.
There’s a reason we’ve lowered our expectations.
John the Baptist expected Jesus to make the Kingdom of God
            happen right then and there.

Instead, Jesus taught about a Kingdom that comes
            in unexpected ways at unpredictable times.
Instead of a political revolution, we got the crucifixion
            and the resurrection.
The world kept right on turning.
And it kept being a mixed bag of good and evil.
The first Christians hoped Jesus would come again right away
            to finish what he had started.
But centuries passed and the world kept turning.
It looked like nothing had changed after all.

Eventually, we began to do what the Pharisees and Sadducees did.
We reduced our religion to a way of getting through life
            instead of overturning to world’s ways with God’s ways.
The problem is that doesn’t work so well.
We come to Church, we come to God,
            when life throws us more than we can handle.
We need help with our guilt, our shame, our loneliness, our anxiety.
We need some grace so we ask God for it.
That is right and good. I do it everyday.
And God helps us.  The Church helps us.
Our faith holds us up.
That’s good. It’s where we all start on the path.
It’s the first step.

But there’s a second step that makes all the difference.
The first step doesn’t get to the basic source of our unhappiness
because the first step is still all about me.
It’s about my guilt, my shame, my loneliness, my anxiety.
The basic problem in all of that is the “my.”

The fact that I am so stuck in myself
            makes me vulnerable to all that bad stuff again and again.
The real liberation and healing comes in step two.
Step two is when I give myself away to God’s Kingdom mission.
I can’t make the Kingdom happen anymore than John the Baptist could.
But, like John, I can help to prepare the way of the Lord,
I can help to make straight the way.
So how do we take that second step?
How do we move past the smaller vision,
            the Pharisee and Sadducee religion of just getting through life?
How do we lay our lives on the altar for the Kingdom mission?
How do we take up our cross and follow Jesus?

We start by trusting something
            that we can’t rationally understand,
            something  that is so big we can’t get our heads around it.
Our heads aren’t big enough to take in what has happened.

The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus shifted the foundation of the universe.
The power of innocence won out over cynical politics
            when God was born not as wealthy monarch
                        but as a poor baby in a stable.
The power of love won out over the power of violence
            when Jesus forgave his persecutors.
The power of life won out over death
            when the angel rolled the stone away.
At the basic level of reality, the foundation we call heaven,
            the victory is already won.
But Jesus left us the mission of helping the material world
            catch up with its spiritual foundation.

We pray, “thy Kingdom come, thy will be done,
                        on earth as it is in heaven.”
Our task, the job Jesus gave us in the Great Commission,
 is aligning earth with heaven.
Jesus gave us that mission to accomplish in partnership with him,
            Because that mission liberates us from our focus on self
            and deepens our relationship with him.
The Kingdom mission is part and parcel of our salvation.
So how do we embark on the mission?

We do that first by faith, trusting how things  now stand in heaven.
Then we follow through with prayer and action.
Whenever we pray the Our Father,
we invite the Kingdom into this world.
And every time we act out of God’s ways
instead of the world’s ways,
we push the gate open a little wider.
Joining in justice movements   led by saints like Nelson Mandela,
Martin Luther King, and Dorothy Day would be part of it.
But we can open the gate in small ways every day
            by the way we treat other people.
We live in a cynical world of arms length transactions
            and horn-honking lane cutting relationships.
It’s a harsh world where people act out of anger and greed
            more often than kindness and generosity.
But we can usher in the Kingdom with bold stands for justice
            or with small acts of fairness and mercy.
This week I hit a curb and ruined the wheel of my car.
But the man at the repair shop found a way
            to fix my car inexpensively and quickly.
He could have done it slower and charged a lot more.
But he treated me with courtesy and generosity.
I thanked him but also said, “God is good.”

God doesn’t call most of us to leave our daily lives
            of family obligation and duties at our jobs.
But God  calls each of us to do everything we do
            a little differently because we are Christians. 

The thousand little acts of mercy, the thousand little stands for justice,
            the thousand little repetitions of the Lord’s Prayer,
            all these things are opening the gate for the ultimate Christmas,
            when heaven and nature will sing -- together,
            the lion will lays down with the lamb -- together,
            and the Lord will wipe away the tears from every eye.