(with thanks to Grace Cathedral, San Francisco)
(with thanks to Grace Cathedral, San Francisco)
CHRISTMAS EVE 2016
Isaiah 9:2-7; Psalm 96; Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1-14, (15-20)
It was a dark time, an uncertain time. The rich were getting richer, the poor poorer. The people were deeply divided about public issues, some favoring the government of Rome because it had brought peace, others calling for revolution. The religious were at odds with the less pious. Everybody resented the taxes except the people who were collecting them.
And one Galilean couple was dislodged from their familiar surroundings to make the long trek to Bethlehem so that they could sign a government register and pay a government duty. There was no place in town to stay but the stable behind one of the inns. And there Mary realized that she was going into labor.
Joseph ran quickly to find the local midwife. He had already built a fire to keep her warm. Now he was heating water on it and doing all the midwife’s bidding. Poor Mary! None of her more experienced female relatives there to help and reassure her—just the midwife and Joseph.
But the child got born and the mother was doing fine. The midwife bathed and swaddled the infant. Joseph could breathe again. And the midwife left with a promise to return in the morning.
They had barely settled in for the night when they heard a rustling and some hushed voices outside and then a quiet knock on the stable door. Joseph got up and, not inclined to take strangers in the middle of the night lightly, he picked up his staff before he went to the door and raised the latch. He opened the door a crack to see a small huddle of rather dirty and nervous looking shepherds with a lantern.
After a bit of shoving and jostling, they pushed an old man forward to be their representative. “Sir,” he said—and fell into an embarrassed silence. This was more than a little odd. Joseph wasn’t used to being addressed as “sir.”
After a moment, the old man tried again: “Your excellency,” he said this time. Joseph’s brow furrowed and his eyes crossed a bit at this compounding of excess. But after clearing his throat rather noisily, the old man went on.
“Your excellency, we was directed here by a certain personage—a knowledgeable personage, I think—what told us that we should come straight here and pay our respects to the new baby what he went so far as to say is the Savior, the Messiah. We be most sorry to disturb you so late in the night, but the, uh, personage was most insistent and specific and said to come right here and no place else.”
This was all very odd, but then odd things had been happening to Mary and to Joseph, too. And, since the little huddle of shepherds really didn’t look threatening, he invited them in.
He began at once rifling through his saddle bag to find some little refreshment he could offer them. One couldn’t have guests, even uninvited guests, without offering refreshments. But the shepherds would have none of it. They had brought gifts for Mary and Joseph instead: good cheese, some hard bread, a bit of wine (not so good) and some spring water (quite refreshing). And they laid these out on a cloth as an offering to the new parents.
The old man began again. “It’s a strange tale—nothing like it in my time, though I’ve heard stories from long ago. It was like a person made of fire—lit the place up like broad daylight. We all ducked, of course—afraid of getting singed. But he said, the way those, uh, personages do: ” No need to be afraid. I’ve got good news.” And he sent us off here straightaway.
“We’d have been too blinded by it all to find the track down the hill, but then the whole sky lit up and we heard music coming at us from all sides. I never heard such music! And found our way down the mountain and into the town, and here we are. And here you are. And we brung the baby a wool blanket to keep him warm—here, it’s pretty clean; almost new.”
And it was still a dark time, still an uncertain time. Indeed, it seemed to be getting darker. The rich went on getting richer, the poor poorer. The people were still deeply divided about public issues. The religious were still at odds with those who were less pious. Everybody resented the taxes except the people who were collecting them.
But something was unleashed on the world there in Bethlehem that is still making trouble for the oppressors and giving hope to the poor, that’s still offering hope in troubled times, still proclaiming that love is more important than rigorous piety. It is the astonishing news that “Immanuel” is here. God is truly living alongside us—weak as a baby and yet strong enough to change the world in and with and for us.
The greatest of transformations springs from the humblest of beginnings. We are here with the shepherds to witness it again in awe and wonder—and to be filled again with the courage to live faithfully even in dark and uncertain times.
ADVENT SUNDAY, 2016
Sermon for St. James’ Cathedral, Chicago, Illinois
Year A: Isaiah 2:1-5, Psalm 122, Romans 13:11-14, Matthew 24:36-44
This time of year, I always feel as if I’m caught between two different calendars, grinding against each other like two tectonic plates moving in opposite directions. One is the public calendar that’s hustling us from Thanksgiving to Christmas. It’s very goal-oriented. The tension of preparing for the great day builds and builds—until !boom! it’s all over in just a matter of hours. I confess I’ve come to hate that calendar for cramming way too much into one great climax and consigning the remaining 12 days of the feast to weariness and oblivion.
The church calendar version of this season carries us on a very different time scheme. Advent, too, is pointing us toward December 25th. But instead of plunging us into a goal-oriented scramble, it starts with a strange reverse flow of time. Advent begins far, far in the future with the End of All Things before drawing our minds and hearts back to an event now thousands of years to the past, the birth of Jesus. Luckily, Advent takes its time about this maneuver; otherwise, we’d all have whiplash. But why? Understanding this strange calendar of ours can give us some help and guidance for how to pray and live the four weeks ahead of us.
We begin, as I say, at the End of the World, at the Last Judgement. Jesus, in Matthew’s Gospel, tells us about it. It is unforeseen and unpredictable, he says; “about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven nor the Son, but only the Father.” It’s unpredictable and it is sudden, he says, like the flood that swept people away in the time of Noah. It’s unpredictable; it’s sudden; and it is seemingly random. “Two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left.”
It sounds like a summary of our worst fears. And all Jesus tells us here, in the face of it, is “Keep awake.” That’s where Advent starts—with the unknown, the daunting, the uncertain, and the advice to stay alert.
Some years it’s been hard to take all this too seriously. Life was sailing along on an even keel, and apocalypse seemed no more than a topic for the movies—scary, but potentially entertaining. Not so much this year, following an angry and disturbing electoral campaign and during the first weeks of a transition in government that seems to many dauntingly uncertain. And this is not even to mention Syria, the Brexit, global warming, and all the other upheavals in the world around us.
The Last Judgement suddenly sounds more relevant, doesn’t it?
But what, after all, is it intended to accomplish? Our usual reflex answer would probably be “punishment.” But that’s wrong. Contrary to the libelous claims made by generations of religious zealots, God actually takes no delight in punishing. If the Last Judgement occasions suffering, that is a byproduct of its true goal.
The true goal is a very simple thing, really: the ultimate unveiling of all hearts. What God already knows about us, we, too, shall learn in that opening of souls. We shall know it for ourselves and know it inescapably. And it will be unpredictable. It will be sudden. It may well seem, to our eyes, random. What distinguishes that man taken out of the field from the one who is left? this woman taken while grinding grain from the one who is left?
Still, it all seems quite daunting. What ancient bishop or monk, we might well ask, had the perverse sense of humor to put something like this into the calendar a scant four Sundays before Christmas? But there’s more to it. The Judgement is not an end in itself.
We heard about it from the prophet Isaiah this morning:
In days to come
the mountain of the Lord’s house
shall be established as the highest of the mountains. . . ;
all the nations shall stream to it.
It was not in some happy, peaceful, safe era that Isaiah uttered this prophecy of hope. It was in a time of multiple threats, a time of change and uncertainty—a time like ours.
And then Isaiah reveals God’s purpose in this hope filled future:
[God] shall judge between the nations,
and shall arbitrate for many peoples;
they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more.
Isaiah and Jesus are not in conflict here. God’s goal, the goal of the New Jerusalem, even in judgement, is to see all nations beating our armaments into tools that will sustain human life and the world around us.
The Last Judgement, whenever and however it comes, comes to show us who we truly are. Parts of that revelation may be painful; parts of it may be occasions of joy and thanksgiving. But whatever the Judgement shows us, it is granted to us precisely so that we can wake up and become part of the cloud of witnesses, the saints of this world, who are building the Holy City for everyone, transforming our thirst for enmity and destruction into love—love for God and God’s world and one another. The Judgement by which we see ourselves as we are frees us to join in God’s great work of creation and restoration.
And, yet, as we know, we live now in the in-between time. The Judgement is not yet. We are still trying to figure out where we can get the strength, the hope, the love to live through the present time. And that is where we turn from the Judgement and the New Jerusalem to another much humbler time and place—Bethlehem. No, it wasn’t mentioned in the readings. Those cranky old bishops and monks were too clever for that. Don’t show your hand all at once. Build up the tension before you get to the heart of the story. But they knew what lies four weeks off. And they knew that we would know, too.
This is really all about Bethlehem.
Here comes to birth
the One who birthed us all.
Here lies the Upholder of all,
too weak to raise his head,
God, choosing helplessness instead,
has left the throne of deep tranquillity
to live in human poverty—
Has come to earth.
We speak today about the Last Judgement and the New Jerusalem in order to say that this is a world God has risked entering into. God has not sat back in the throne room of the universe, looking on while we struggle with fear and hope, blessings and disasters, failure and success. God has chosen to experience all this with us, alongside us.
I suppose God had the same thought that occurred more recently to the songwriter Eric Bazilian: “What if God was one of us?” “Risky,” God must have thought, “but worth the danger and the sacrifice. That’s what I choose to do.”
Our times are difficult. We find ourselves caught in deep national conflict, in a changing world order, in a crisis of ecology, and in a time when religion has again become, as it has sometimes been in the past, a stimulus to violence. We also find ourselves uncertain of our direction. Perhaps that’s why we follow the public calendar of feasts so intently: we find the distraction comforting.
The sacred calendar is trying to help us find our footing. If we start with acknowledging who we are, both our failures and our hopes, our weaknesses and our gifts—in other words, with the Judgement—we shall also begin to see ways, large and small, in which we can contribute to the New Jerusalem and grow into our citizenship there—citizenship in the city of peace.
Yes, there’s much to be done in the next four weeks as we prepare to greet the infant of Bethlehem again. But the great truth we encounter there is that God has already come more than halfway to meet us: “has left the throne of deep tranquillity/to live in human poverty.” And the God who was willing to take that risk that will stand with us in our time of struggle here and now.
WHAT SORT OF BIRTHDAY GREETING IS THS!?
Sermon preached by Bill Countryman for the 138th Anniversary of Good Shepherd Episcopal Church, Berkeley
13th Sunday after Pentecost, August 14, 2016
Proper 15c: Isaiah 5:1-7; Psalm 80:1-2, 8-18; Hebrews 11:29-12:2; Luke 12:49-56
Today, we at Good Shepherd are celebrating the 138th anniversary of this congregation. Here in California, it seems like a quite an advanced age for a church, though some of our fellow Christians in Asia, Africa, and Europe—or even on the East Coast—might still place us in the category of youngsters.
Of course, as is the way with living communities, we are both old and young. Some of us go back four decades and more and many of us have been a part of this congregation for less than ten years. So it’s worthwhile to retell a bit of the story,
138 years ago, the city of Berkeley was just coming into being. The older settlement of Ocean View (now known as West Berkeley) was being combined with a newer one, near the College of California (now the university) plus a lot of empty land between the two. People over here wanted an Episcopal Church, perhaps partly to help consolidate their local identity. The women of the congregation had spent several years raising money for this building with bake sales and ice cream socials (back in a day when there were few commercial entertainments available), and they persuaded a San Francisco architect to donate the plans for this beautiful space.
Since then, an ever-changing array of faithful people persevered here through thick and thin (some of it very thin) and major demographic changes, often pioneering new ways of serving the local community. More recently, this building, as you know, was badly damaged by fire and the congregation rallied to rebuild it. We crowded our life together into our already busy and somewhat decrepit parish hall, and still found the energy to expand our ministries in the neighborhood, feeding the hungry and opposing gun violence.
It’s a story worth celebrating—a story of faithful people who have given much, over almost fourteen decades, to sustain our life together here. It’s also a story about the love of God, who has supplied people here with trust and hope and love when we didn’t have much left in our own reserves. This is a time for thanksgiving and for taking stock, a time for renewing our hopes for the future and our commitment to God and to one another.
Now, I don’t want to take anything away from all this celebratory spirit. But I do sort of have to ask, “Those readings from scripture today—what sort of birthday greeting was that?” Now, of course, they weren’t chosen for this occasion. They’re just the readings assigned for this Sunday in the lectionary. But, at first hearing anyway, they all sounded like real downers.
We have Jesus saying, “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!” Now, we can’t take that to mean that Jesus wanted division. He said too much about love and forgiveness for us to read the passage as a command to pick quarrels with one another.
But as prophecy, these words have been right on target. Jesus was saying that his teaching—the teaching about God’s love—would touch an unwelcome nerve in our humanity, would wind up provoking people to division and even violence. He was proven right in the early years of Christianity when outsiders came to hate Christians enough to kill them. In fact, some of that has come back to the world in our own day. But we have to admit, too, that the same effect shows up even among us, even in churches. Christianity, in our day, is full of division—we seem at times to delight in divisiveness. There is even a history, still alive today, of Christians persecuting one another as well as outsiders we dislike.
And I can’t think of all this on this occasion without being reminded, of how, some years ago, an interim vicar took a serious look at our history at Good Shepherd—right back to the beginnings—and said to us, “You know, you have a history of internal conflict in this congregation.” It’s only one part of our history. But, as with pretty much every human community, it’s there and we do well to remember that and watch out for it.
But, you know, leave it to Jesus to tell the truth. He would do that. I think it’s partly because he didn’t want it to take us by surprise. He wanted to let us know, right off the bat, that we aren’t delivered from human weakness and sinfulness—our own or anybody else’s—just by being faithful church-goers. He wants us to know that we are a community of love in the making, not yet in complete fulfillment. We have further to go, more to understand, more growing to do.
What’s more, we need one another, even in our disagreements, if we want to learn and grow in love. We had two readings this morning that centered on the image of The Vine, of Israel as God’s vine or vineyard. Christians have always applied that image to the church, too. I don’t know how obvious it was, as they zipped past, but they’re basically saying opposite things about that image. Isaiah says, “God planted you and is sick and tired of your producing nothing but sour grapes. He’s out of here. You’re toast.” The Psalm takes the other side, saying to God, “Hey, wait a minute. We’ve done nothing all that bad, but you’ve left us wide open to the deer and the wild boar and every passerby. If you expect a harvest, we need some help here!” It’s the age-old argument between the gardener and the garden, each blaming the other for the current mess. Is the gardener right or the garden? The only possible answer is “Yes.” Both need each other in order for the garden to bear fruit.
We sometimes forget that the Bible contains such fierce internal arguments. But that’s what it’s for. It contains our internal tensions, the ones that will keep coming back to us again and again. It doesn’t paper them over. It supplies all the different voices and invites us into the conversation—the only way to begin understanding what God is doing in and with and for us.
All of this gives us some hint of our future at Good Shepherd, for us and for our successors who may one day celebrate its 237th birthday. It tells us there will be divisions. It tells us that our life together will make sense only as we are challenging and being challenged by God and by one another. The conversation will be life-giving if we let it.
And the passage we heard from Hebrews adds another part of the picture—the power that sustains faithful people through difficult times. There is a long celebration of faith in Hebrews; we read the first half last week and this week we concluded it, hearing the message that God’s people have always faced challenges and difficulties and even disasters. But they have come through it all by virtue of faith.
Or, to choose a better term, trust. “Faith” can be a problematic word in English: it too easily evokes connotations of creeds and confessions or maybe “faith”-healing. Sometimes it sounds like denial: “Everything will be fine!” Sometimes it sounds like abdication: “Well, God will have to take care of it.” We think of faith in terms of “faith that“: faith that God will do things the way we want.
But, as Susan Mills pointed out in her sermon last week, Abram didn’t have any very clear notion of what, exactly, he was expecting from God. Rather, he trusted God, trusted God’s ongoing commitment to him and to their friendship. It was trust that sustained these other saints listed in Hebrews through all their troubles. What will sustain us, too, through all our times, through division and peace alike, is trust in God’s , whose good purpose toward us never fails.
We come here week after week for a variety of reasons. Of course. That’s how human beings work. We come perhaps to spend time with friends, perhaps for the chance to sing, perhaps sometimes out of habit, perhaps looking for a way to minister to the world around us, perhaps hoping to find some solace and strength in distress. All this is good, all of it is welcome. But the central reason we come—what pulls all the rest of it together—is the opportunity to be in the presence of God, to worship, to give thanks, to share with God our sense of need, to receive whatever grace from God we are capable of handling at this moment in our lives.
We come, in other words, for the chance to renew our trust in God. We know that life isn’t going to become instantly easy. We know we won’t always agree with one another. But together, we are learning trust in God’s good purpose.
And we are aided in all this by this beautiful church, created 178 years ago and recreated by the efforts of the faithful here today. We are aided by the liturgy with its beautiful order and words. By the word of scripture, even perhaps when it is a bit off-putting as this morning. By the music. By the sacrament we are about to celebrate, this tangible and yet utterly mysterious sign of God’s love.
And for all this we give thanks: to God, to our forebears in this place, to one another.
Happy Birthday to us!
One of the most remarkable things about the resurrection appearances in the Gospels is the way the disciples are perplexed—even distressed—by them. Almost, one might say, “undone,” though in fact it is not so much they themselves as their world that is undone. Things that were clear and fixed have come loose. The future, for them, was now radically different, and they could not tell exactly how. They are torn between the known, mournful past, and this future that they could not absorb—could barely imagine, in fact. That’s why they had trouble recognizing Jesus when he appeared. He had, after all, no business being there. That’s why they had difficulty making sense of his presence when they did recognize him. The following poem tries to capture—in admittedly anachronistic images—some of their confusion:
This painting by Bellini is my favorite portrayal of the risen Christ. In the lower right background, you see the woman hurrying along. (Clicking on the picture may enlarge it.) Is this just before he meets them? Or just after?