Tuesday, December 15, 2015


In France, northeast of the city of Arles,
         stands an old country church, St. Gabriel’s
                  – named for the Angel of the Annunciation.
Above the front door is a stone bas-relief,
         which once depicted the Angel,
         the Blessed Virgin Mary, and her cousin, Elizabeth.

Time has all but obliterated the Angel from the scene.
But one can still see Elizabeth and Mary gazing
         toward him, awestruck and amazed.

Today’s lesson is like that.
The angel does not appear.
The verse before our lesson reads,
         “And the angel departed from her.”
Instead of an angel, we have two expectant women.

But, in their humanity, they radiate grace.
“My soul magnifies the Lord,” Mary says.
She knows she’s glowing and she knows
         where the light comes from.

Our lives are also a bit like the stone bas-relief
         over the door of St. Gabriel’s.
We don’t see angels very often.
We don’t often see God intervening dramatically
         in our world – not in a clear way
         with his name written on it in bold letters.

What we see is each other.
Sometimes we see Mary and Elizabeth.
We see them in today’s lesson,
         and even if we can’t see the angel,
                  we can see them.

They can’t really see the angel either at this moment.
But they remember him,
         remember him with such clarity
                  that they still stare in wonder
                           at the spot where he once stood.

This is a good lesson to read
         when the days are short, the traffic is heavy,
                  and the check-out lines are long.
When we can’t see angels or even remember angels,
         it helps to call Mary and Elizabeth to mind,
                  to watch them watching.

Maybe if we just sit with their image,
         listen to their words, we’ll catch a bit of their spirit.
When Mary was in the presence of Gabriel,
                  she bowed her head and said, “yes”.

Now, at this moment, when she can’t see the angel,
         she finds divinity elsewhere.
“My soul magnifies the Lord,” she says.
She has Christ in her womb, and Christ in her soul
         because she said “yes.”
It’s good, this time of year, to hold her image in mind.

The great Secretary General of the U.N., Dag Hamersjold,
         wrote in his journal that he did not know
         who or what had asked the question, 
                  and he wasn’t sure when it was asked,
         but he knew that at some moment,
                  he had once said “Yes to Something,”
         and since that moment his life of self-sacrifice
                  had meaning.
The meaning depended entirely on that one “yes.”

It is a good thing, any time, to look upon someone
         who has said “yes” to the mystery of God,
         someone who remembers that mystery
                  even when she can’t see it.
It is good to remember that we have said such a “yes,”
         or someone has said  “yes” for us
                  and sealed our foreheads with that “yes”
         – or just to be reminded that the mystery is always there,        
                  seen or unseen, bidden or unbidden,
                  and at any moment we may still say “yes,”

Mary’s yes now flowers into her Magnificat.
But she needs Elizabeth to give her the cue.
Mary had traveled a long way,
         probably in a caravan, no doubt
         tired, dusty, and maybe nauseous
                  when she arrived.

Then Elizabeth saw her, saw her deeply,
         and greeted her with the first Hail Mary,
         “Blessed art thou among women,      
         and blessed is the fruit of thy womb.”
Elizabeth prompted Mary to remember her “yes,”
         to remember that even in her tired, dusty state,
                  she was glowing;
         and she remembered where the glow came from.
“My soul magnifies the Lord,” she said.

When we don’t see angels, when the angels have departed,
         they leave a faint trace of divinity in our souls;
         just a faint trace, but our souls can magnify it,
                  can manifest God.
We can manifest God in acts of obedience, acts of mercy,
         acts of worship.

And if we look deep enough, we can see
         the traces of divinity magnified in each other.
Even if our friends and families have forgotten the angel,
         as perhaps Mary had during her journey to Judah,
                  we can see the afterglow in them
                  as Elizabeth saw it in Mary.

Now we are at the brink of Christmas,
         a time of travels and gatherings,
                  a time of joy and stress,
                  of people being people at their best
                           and at their worst.
We will be with people we wish we could be with always,       
         and with people we moved here to get away from.

It is an intensely human time of year
         – not serene and transcendent,
         not a time of spiritual retreat and reflection,
                  not a time of centered holiness.
It is a time when we are not likely to see angels,
         but we are very likely to see each other.
We will see each other in our dusty humanity,
         in all our human charm and human obnoxiousness.

Perhaps, if we hold in our imaginations the picture
         of Mary and Elizabeth staring at the place
                  the angel once stood,
         we may see each other at a deeper level.
We might even see each other as Elizabeth saw Mary.

We might see people pregnant with Christ,
         we might see situations pregnant with Christ,
         even when those situations are strained and broken.
They might still seem to us to be theotokos moments,
                  god-bearing moments.

And like Elizabeth we might say, silently in our hearts,
         “Blessed. Blessed art thou.”
And our blessing may touch some person,  
         or touch some occasion to say,

                  “My soul magnifies the Lord.”

Sunday, December 13, 2015


Our Gospel lesson (John the Baptist] berating and threatening) 
          is ironic because we know what John didn’t know.
He expected Jesus to be like himself,
         lambasting sinners and bringing miscreants to justice.
Instead, Jesus was in the line of the prophet Zephaniah
         who gives us our Old Testament lesson.
Zephaniah said,
         “Sing aloud, O daughter Zion;
                  shout, O Israel!
         Rejoice and exult with all your heart,
                  O daughter Jerusalem!
         the Lord has taken away the judgments against you . . . .”

Not as John the Baptist says, “You brood of vipers,
         who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”
         – but “Sing aloud . . . . . Rejoice and exult with all your heart,
         . . . . the Lord has taken away the judgments against you . . . .”

Jesus followed Zephaniah,
         and his greatest follower, St. Paul,
         gave us our Epistle lesson:
         “Rejoice in the Lord always.
          Again I say ‘Rejoice.’
         The Lord is near. So don’t worry about anything.”

The voice of John the Baptist has continued to echo
         down through the centuries.
It’s a good text for those who want to use fear
         as a tool for power.
But orthodox Christianity isn’t a religion of fear.
It’s a religion of hope and joy.

That’s why our year begins with Advent.
Advent spirituality casts off gloom and despair
         to open our hearts for Christ.

On Advent I our lessons were about the future.
We heard about how hope sustains us
         through the hard times.
Trusting in God means hoping
         for a better day coming.

On Advent II our lessons were about the past.
We were invited to “take off the garment of sorrow,”
         to let go of our habitual misery
         our old ways of looking at the world and ourselves.

Now, on Advent III, Joy Sunday,
         the lessons are about the present.
They call us not just to forget the past
         and hope for the future,
         but to rejoice right now today.
They invite us to celebrate and delight
         in the day we have been given.

Who knew the Apostle Paul would be bopping around
         like Bob Marley to a reggae beat, singing,
         “Don’t worry. Be happy.”
I said exactly that on Joy Sunday several years ago;
         so I’m not just quoting our new Presiding Bishop.
But he wasn’t quoting me either.
He was paraphrasing Paul.
There it is in black and white:
         “Rejoice in the Lord.”
         When? “Always,” signed Paul.

But we are likely to say, in the words of the Virgin Mary,
         when she heard the first good news from the angel Gabriel,
         “How is this possible?”
How can we rejoice in the midst of . . . .
         fill in the blank with your own particular hardships.
How can I rejoice when my children are troubled,
         when my marriage is troubled,
         when my parents are sick,
         when I am staggering under guilt and shame
                  for the things I’ve done or failed to do?

Or fill in the blank with the sufferings of the world.
How can I rejoice
      with strife in Iraq, Syria, Turkey, Nigeria,
Kenya, and Ukraine                          
-- street violence in Chicago, L A, and Ferguson
-- with 355 mass shooting in the United States this year so far
– with poverty and sickness all around.

How can we rejoice?
The idea of rejoicing always is absurd
         until we understand what it means to rejoice,
                  until we get a better understanding of joy.

Christian joy is not a limited conditional happiness,
         celebrating because something has worked out well.
It runs deeper than our emotions.
It is a fundamental yes to life itself.
         A yes to reality.
                  A yes to God.

Joy that depends on the absence of suffering
         is always a nervous sort of gladness.
It knows how contingent it is. .

If we start with the attitude, 
         “I will be happy only if this happens or that doesn’t happen,”
then any relative well being we feel will be fraught with anxiety.
Our happiness will always be set on shifting sand.

Our joy isn’t conditional.  The prophet Habakkuk said,

                  Though the fig trees do not blossom,
nor fruit be on the vines,
the produce of the olive fail
and the fields yield no food,
the flock be cut off from the fold
and there be no herd in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord,
                           I will joy in the God of my salvation.

So what is Habakkuk celebrating?
He doesn’t rejoice that his crops have failed
         or that his flocks are lost.

But when calamities happen,
         he rejoices in God.
He rejoices in the God of his salvation,
         the God who will get him through this.

It is, in fact, in the midst of disasters,
         that we rejoice the most that God is God,
         that God is bigger than anything that can happen to us,
         and that God loves and creates,
                  God heals and restores,
                  God forgives and redeems.

St. Paul doesn’t say to rejoice about everything that happens.
He says “Rejoice in the Lord always.”
If joy depends on our circumstances,
         it will be a flimsy kind of joy.
But we can always rejoice in God,
         because God is always the God of joy, hope, and salvation.

God is the one who invites us to cast off
         the garment of sorrow.
God liberates us from old misery.
So, maybe we have troubles today,
         but we had troubles yesterday and they are over.
We can rejoice that they don’t just pile up.
Sorrow is not indelible.
It fades. It washes away in the rain of a new day.

And even if things are hard,
         we can rejoice that we have hope right now
                  of a better tomorrow.
Pain is still pain.
But pain without hope is unbearable.
So if we have hope – and we do have hope –
         then we rejoice that we have hope.

And this isn’t just about situations and circumstances.
It’s about who we are.
Very few of us are really satisfied with ourselves.
A lot of us are painfully dissatisfied with ourselves.
We are ashamed or guilty or disappointed in who we are.
The most chronic obstacle to happiness
         is usually dissatisfaction with who we are.

Even here, there is space for rejoicing.
We are already free of our old identities.
Zephaniah says,
         “the Lord has taken away the judgments against you . . . .”

All those judgments the world laid on us are overturned.
90% of them were wrong to begin with,
         but right or wrong doesn’t matter.
They are over and we are free to become new.
The old judgments are ripped in two,
         shredded, up the chimney in smoke.

1st John says,
         “We are God’s children now.
          It does not yet appear what we shall be.
         But when (Christ) appears, we shall be like him.”

Flower seeds and bulbs usually aren’t much to look at.
But we know what they will become.
Caterpillars aren’t much to look at.
But we know what they will become.
So even when we aren’t satisfied with ourselves,
         we rejoice at who we are going to become.

Advent III is called Joy Sunday,
         even though it comes at the darkest time of year,
         when the days are short and cold,
         the traffic is heavy, and the lines are long.

There’s a lot of stress and bother,
         there are a lot of family tensions.
But in the midst of it all,
         God is still the God of our salvation.
God comes to heal us a little every day,
         and he is coming soon to heal us
                  completely and forever.

Sunday, December 6, 2015


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.

But 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 lay down with the lamb -- together,
            and the Lord will wipe away the tears from every eye.