Monday, December 22, 2014

Christmas Eve

Do You See What I See?

Readings: Isaiah 9:2-7; Psalm 96; Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1-20

“Do you see what I see?” a popular Christmas carol asks. “A star, dancing in the night with a tail as big as a kite!” And I know that many miss seeing what is most important. Our rich world has claimed Christmas. But it is a Christmas without Christ. They have taken on the holiday spirit, the friendly atmosphere, the giving and receiving of gifts, and for the most part, the symbols of Christmas as long as they are not too religious. All of that is good, because the world becomes a saner and better place for a time. But it is not enough for us as Christians.

So let us take ourselves back in time. Let us observe the sights and the sounds of that first Christmas.

Do you see what I see? I see two people on a journey. It is a long and difficult journey. Because of the census, Mary and Joseph must uproot themselves, and leave their home in Nazareth to go to Bethlehem. It is not an easy journey at the best of times. A hundred and forty kilometers of hilly country to cover means a journey of several days. And with his wife almost ready to deliver her first child, it takes even longer.

I see them arrive in Bethlehem. It is a back road place close to the city of Jerusalem. Most people are headed there. So there are few inns to be found around Bethlehem. Most people who stop there have family. The rest must try their luck at the few small inns. I don’t see anything that I would call an inn. I see a few small homes with two rooms to rent out. The men all sleep in one room, the women in the other. Hardly the place for a baby to be born! Occasionally there is a small home with a guest bedroom, but those are filled by now with family members. By the time Mary and Joseph arrive even the courtyard is filled to capacity. And so they are led into a stable. And there a baby is born, and they name him Jesus. In him is born such hope for the world. But apart from a few shepherds no one seems to notice the miraculous event.

It is the spiritual side of Christmas that gets overlooked today. There are things that get noticed. Oh! There is a lot to see at Christmas! The season is a feast for the eyes. There are wonderful displays of lights on every street. It is truly magical. There are Santa Clauses and elves. There are reindeer nodding their heads. There are strings of lights hanging like icicles from the eaves of houses. If we went in to those houses, we would see wonderful sights as well. Not everyone celebrates Christmas, but there are few homes in Canada where you will not see a tree strung with lights and beautiful decorations. We put up wreaths and decorate with pinecones and holly. Candles are lit, their soft glow transforming our homes into places of peace and tranquility.

But do you see what I see? When you read the newspaper or watch the news, do you see chaos and strife, or do you see a world that has lost its way? Do you see sheep without a shepherd?

When you do your Christmas shopping do you see only hordes of people rushing madly about the stores, or do you notice the worried look on the young father’s face as he wonders if his unemployment check will stretch far enough to buy a few gifts? Do you notice the elderly couple at the cash register checking the total as each purchase is rung in? Do you see them regretfully put aside some of the items as they realize they don’t have enough money to cover their purchase?

“Do you hear what I hear?” the song goes on. “A song, ringing through the sky, high above the trees, with a voice as big as the sea!”

Back to Bethlehem! Do you hear what I hear? The lowing of cattle, the bleating of sheep, a dove cooing up in the rafters, the scurrying of mice in the straw … But keep listening, for there are other sounds to be heard. The cries of a young woman delivering her first child, her husband’s encouraging words, the baby’s first cry … And then strange sounds that remind me that this is no ordinary baby. Angelic voices singing out the good news! Those are the sounds of the first Christmas.

But they go unheard. Oh! The Christmas season is rich with sounds. Sleigh bells ring out even when there is no snow. Seasonal songs designed to make us purchase more, play in every mall.

But do you hear the silent sighs of the lonely? Do you hear the cries of the bereaved, who dread the Christmas season because it makes them feel even more lonely?

“Do you know what I know?” the song continues. “A child shivers in the cold. Let us bring him silver and gold.” But for much of the world the Gospel story of Christmas goes unseen, unheard, unrecognized.

Do you know that thousands of people die every day of hunger? Do you know that children go hungry even in Canada? Perhaps you blame their parents for their condition. “They get welfare. They just need to spend their money more wisely!” Do you know what someone on welfare gets each month? What about the working poor? They struggle to get by. They have no benefits. They live from paycheck to paycheck.

“Oh,” you say. “I know what Christmas is all about. I know the real meaning of Christmas. I know the sights and sounds and story. I understand. I know the Christ child.”

I hope and pray that you do, because so many people do not. But if we really start to observe and listen, then we will start to see the sights and hear the sounds of Christmas. Then we will understand that what we see and hear does not depend on the event, but on our participation in it. We share together in the Eucharistic feast, remembering that today salvation has come into the world. We pray for one another, for the lonely, the bereaved, the sick, and the suffering. It fills us with hope. We hear the sounds of laughter and joy because we furnished gifts and warm mittens and scarves to needy people.

From the manger Jesus radiates to the world a message of gentleness in the midst of conflict and violence, tenderness and goodness to a world of sinfulness, love to a world full of hatred and racism, light to a world of darkness, hope to a world of cynicism and despair. The stable is our destination on this holy night. As Christians we know that Jesus has not come just to spend a night. He has come to take up permanent residence amongst us, to live and die as one of us. Let Christ be born in us this and every day! I pray that you may have a blessed and holy Christmas! Amen

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Third Sunday of Advent, Year B

There was a Woman Sent from
God Whose Name was Ann

Readings: Isaiah 61:1-4, 6-11; Canticle of Mary; 1 Thessalonians 5: 16-24; John 1:6-8

Robert Fulghum, best known for his book “All I Really Need To Know I Learned In Kindergarten”, wrote a very funny short story about vocation. He relates that in his travels he often meets people who invariably ask him what he does. What they expect is that he will produce a business card that explains his role. That does not sit well with him, because it can never adequately express who he is on any particular day. Today for example he might be a singer, although, he points out, people are more likely to pay him not to sing. Then he goes on to say something very important for us to learn. “What I do is literally how I spend my time.”

He now has a business card, because he has finally figured out what to put on it. One word! Fulghum! His name. “What I do,” he says, “is to be the most Fulghum I can be. I and you – we are infinite, rich, large, contradictory, living, breathing miracles – free human beings, children of God and the everlasting universe. That’s what we do.”

Vocation is rooted in God as God’s gift to humankind. Knowing who we are, and, more importantly, whose we are, answering God’s call, can bring us to a true sense of joy. I am not talking about a spiritual high; I am talking about joy at the centre of our being. It is that joy, that joie de vivre, which assures us that all the incongruities of life, suffering, despair, everything, is in God’s hands. That leaves us free to be everything we are meant to be.

That is, for me, the theme at the heart of the readings for this Sunday. “There was a man sent from God whose name was John,” we read in the Gospel. God sent him to prepare the way for the one who would come after, to prepare for the Messiah. He went out into a desert place, a world in which there was conflict, evil, poverty and oppression. He felt alone in his call, a voice crying out in the wilderness. But he was far from voiceless. His was a voice to be reckoned with. He called for repentance, for conversion. His call went out, not to those you might think. He did not preach a message to perpetrators of violence. He did not preach a message to unbelievers. His call went to the good synagogue going people whose faith called them out into the desert place in which he preached. There they heard a difficult message. John was sent to preach repentance. His was a call to transform their lives, and through that transformation to bring about a change in all of society. He knew that such change begins with inner transformation, an understanding of who you are and who God has called you to be.

Some centuries earlier another man was sent from God. God sends people in every age. This man’s name was Isaiah. He was anointed by God to bring good news to oppressed people. His people had lived in exile for several generations. Many had lost their way. They had drifted far from God. He responded to God's call. He knew that he was called to a servant ministry. He called the Hebrew people back into relationship with God. He understood that his task was to help people discover the purpose and vocation to which God was calling them. He took up the daunting task of reminding them about that purpose.

Another man was sent from God. His name was Paul. He was called to be a joyful proclaimer of God’s word, even under the most difficult circumstances. He knew that God was calling the Thessalonians into difficult circumstances where they faced persecution. This fledgling church, new converts to the faith, had a difficult life. He called them to rejoice. He told them not to simply say their prayers, but to pray unceasing. He knew that their prayers needed to become an attitude of mind and soul. He knew that they needed to live in unbroken relationship with God. He knew that if they lived that way, if they accepted their call to be people of prayer, that it would strengthen them at times of difficulty. He knew that if their primary lens saw life as a gift of God, then they would be much more capable of looking on the difficult times as a gift. He knew that he was called, first and foremost, to be Paul, servant of Christ.

Like John and Paul and Isaiah we are called, each one of us, to testify to the light. The problem is that we may feel as if everything is in darkness. What kind of a world do we live in? People who proclaim a gospel of love are taken hostage and threatened with death. Violent acts take place on our city streets. Young people kill young people. We hear about poverty and sickness. We see so much evil going on in the world. We feel as John did that we are a single voice crying out in the wilderness. We think that no amount of talking could ever make our voice heard. We feel alone. At such moments we need to remember that God is with us. As Christians we are called to focus on the light of the world and on the transformation that it has brought about and continues to bring about in our lives and in the world.

There was a woman sent from God whose name was Ann. This is where you put in your own name. She was called to pray and sing and love and preach. She was called to be a daughter, a sister, a friend, a companion. She was called to be a secretary, a teacher, a cleaning lady, a nurse. She was called to do many things, but above all she was called to be the most Ann she could possibly be. She was called to testify to the light of God coming into the world.

We cannot prepare ourselves for the coming of Christ at Christmas without acknowledging what lies behind the manger. Behind the manger is the shadow side of Christmas, for behind the manger is the cross of Christ. God has come to this planet. Emmanuel, God with us! We respond to God with us by being everything we are meant to be. Amen.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

The Second Sunday of Advent, Year B

The Prophetic Role

Readings: Isaiah 40:1-11; Psalm 85:8-13; 2 Peter 3:8-15a; Mark 1:1-8

Mark begins his gospel with a message of such hope. He begins with a claim that he is the bearer of good news for the world. He heralds in a new beginning, a fulfilling of the Old Testament as God breaks into the world in a new way. It is a big claim to say that you have something that is good news. What can be ‘good news’ for what is going on in the world, either in the early church of Mark, or for that matter in our modern world?

And so he sets the stage for telling the story of Jesus who is the Good News. ‘How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of the one bearing good news to Israel and announcing God’s coming kingdom!’ It is John the Baptist, the last of the great prophets of the Old Testament, the prophet anointed by the Spirit to proclaim good news to the poor, to proclaim liberation whom Mark announces. John offers repentance as the way in which we enter into the kingdom of God. He points beyond himself, offering hope through renewing a right relationship with God. He preaches conversion, μετανοια. His is a call for a major change in direction, to turn their lives around. It is a call for the whole nation to repent as preparation for the coming of the Messiah. But that Good News may not be what people want to hear. The prophet is called to say what needs to be said, not what people want to hear.

I was leading a Bible Study on the prophetic role some years ago. I commented that we are all called to be prophets. One person replied, "Oh, no! You're quite wrong about that. We're Anglicans! It's a non-profit organization!" Although she was not serious, I think that it is easy for us to really believe that. After all, to be a prophet is to be at best strange and at worst fanatical.

But I have news for you. We are all called to prophetic ministry. And I can hear the clamour already. "I'm in business! I'm no prophet!" Or "I'm a teacher! A nurse! Retired!" Or best of all, "What do we pay clergy for anyway?"

And so we need to take note of what it means to be a prophet. What is the role of the prophet? What is God calling us to do?

The word prophecy comes from the Greek, προπηετεσ, "one who speaks before others." Often we take it to be some kind of ecstatic speech, but in reality the prophet is a person who is totally grounded, who speaks with authority what has been discerned through a close walk with God, and above all, one who listens to God.

Perhaps looking at some modern day prophets will give us insight into the role. I had such a person in one of the congregations in which I served. His is a much-maligned occupation. He is a meteorologist, so he worked at predicting our weather. He gave me some insights into how that happens.

Apparently in 1987, Pope John Paul was preparing for his trip to Los Angeles, and he wanted to know what the weather would be like while he was there. A weather consultant was hired by the Vatican to make some recommendations. He looked at the last thirty years of weather in Los Angeles at the time of year that the Pope's visit was to take place. He came back with his report. "At the time of your visit," he said, "it is likely to be very hot and dry." The Pope made his plans accordingly and the trip went off as expected.

The Farmer's Almanacs work on the same premise. They look at the past and make a prediction based on reasonable expectations. That explains why they are often so close in their predictions.

Parents do exactly the same thing. A child comes asking permission to do something. Based on experience, the parent knows what the outcome will be, says no and gives a reasonable explanation about why. There are the usual arguments. And if the parent gives in and the outcome is as predicted, with any luck the child comes and says, "How did you know?" But probably not until twenty years later.

The same thing is true of the prophetic role in Scripture. It looks back at the past in order to predict what is to come. So often the story begins with God recounting to the prophet all that God has accomplished for God's people in the past. "Wasn't I with you at the Red Sea? Did I not provide you with manna in the desert? Now go and tell my people ..." And the prophet is able to speak with authority, "Thus says the Lord!" The prophet is able to challenge the people on a moral level, to speak what needs to be heard in light of past experience. That is the role of John the Baptist. He is a predictor of what will be if the people continue on the same path without repenting and turning to God. He uses present behaviour to indicate what is likely to occur. In other words, he is a truth teller, and while we know that the truth will set us free, we are not always anxious to accept it.

Let’s face it! We do not always listen to truth tellers. Consider what happens when truth is suppressed. Is that not the story of the Christian faith? John the Baptist came to bring good news, to speak the truth. He preached repentance. He helped people to see their need to change their ways. He prepared the way for Jesus. He paid for it with his life. Jesus’ ministry was one of speaking the truth. He brought a message of great hope to the poor and to those in need. He befriended the outcasts of society. His message was offensive to the rich and powerful. His path was the way of the cross.

It is a story that is repeated over and over again in our history. It is the story of countless martyrs whose lives we celebrate. It is the story of Bonheoffer, executed for his faith. It is the story of Oscar Romero, murdered in his church for speaking words of liberation to his people. It is the ongoing story of many who speak out about the injustices that occur in our world.

Yet it is our call to bear the prophetic word, to be truth tellers. That is the message of the Incarnation. It is why Jesus entered into the sinfulness of our human nature. Can we be open to times of vulnerability as times of opportunity for change and renewal? Can we speak out against injustice and bring about God’s Kingdom of Shalom?

That is the message of Advent, after all. It is a season of fresh beginnings. The writer of Isaiah gives people a message of hope and comfort. The exiles will return to Jerusalem on a straight and level road. “God is always faithful,” he proclaims, “a God of power and tenderness.” John the Baptist heralds the good news of Jesus’ coming.

Today we are called to be heralds of this same good News. We announce to a hurting world that Jesus Christ has experienced the worst we face and has come through it. Our relationship with God helps us to see beyond our world. We are called to heal those who have been wounded by life, to relight candles that have been dimmed or gone out through all the tragedies that occur in peoples’ lives. How do we see the possibilities? How do we respond to the needs of others? Our life and witness as Christians is to shed light in human society on issues to which people remain blind. There is so much to do. There is so much injustice.

So yes! We need prophets. Those who prophesy encourage others. The prophetic word builds up the church. We need those in our day and age who are the encouragers. Such people witness through their actions, through their loving concern towards others. They speak out against the injustices they see in the world. They are the voice of the voiceless.

As Christians we follow an unknown path that leads us into new ways of being. There is a tension in being on that path. But we are offered grace, comfort and guidance along the road. We are offered hope in God’s promises.

The Second Sunday after Epiphany, Year A

Come and See Readings: Isaiah 49:1-7; Psalm 40:1-11; 1 Corinthians 1:1-9; John 1:29-42 Invitations come in many shapes and sizes. They ...