February 11, Last Sunday before Lent and the Baptism of Francesca Meriwether

Kristin White

Mark 9:2-9

 

It is good for us to be here. It is really good for us to be here.

Rachel Meriwether came to us at St. A’s for the first time about a year and a half ago. She hoped to have a family of her own, and to have family around the children she hoped to be a mother to.

And here you are, Baby Francesca Elizabeth – Baby Frankie, as we know you. And here you are, family by birth, and family by choice. And here you are, family by church.

Indeed. It is good, really good, for us to be here.

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Today’s gospel tells the story that is always told on the last Sunday before Lent begins: the story of Christ’s transfiguration. Peter and James and John go with Jesus up a high mountain – and it really is high, I’m telling you, with switchbacks and all manner of craziness to get to the top. And there, as the gospel tells us, in Mark’s economical language, Jesus is transfigured before them. His clothes become white like you cannot even imagine. They are too bright for you to even look at them. And as if that’s not enough, suddenly the four of them are not alone. Because the prophet Elijah, who we heard about in the first reading, the one who got fantastically swooped up in front of the prophet Elisha in that business about chariots of fire and went on to ascend in a whirlwind into heaven, well Elijah (not Elisha) is there with Jesus also. And Moses as well, who died before leading his people into the Promised Land that was his 40 years’ journey…Moses is there with Jesus too, there on that high mountain, in the midst of the land that he had promised the people.

Can you even imagine?

Do you know people who, in spaces where they get anxious or scared, just start talking? Are you one of those sorts of people? I can be. And in those moments, when I don’t know quite what to say, if I’m particularly out of my skin, I can sometimes just start saying lots of words in the fervent hope that some of them stick, that a few of them turn out to be the Right Thing To Say.

So I have some sympathy for the apostle Peter, who I think has lots of feelings, who seems from time to time to be well outside of his own skin, and who can tend to throw a whole bunch of words up against a wall, hoping that a few of them just might stick, that one phrase, that one sentence, that might be the Right Thing.

We know that Peter and James and John are terrified. Not “a little anxious” or “maybe rather uncomfortable.” The text says “terrified.” It does not, however, tell us that James and John stammer around, though. No, that’s Peter’s role. Peter is the one who just starts talking: “It is good for us to be here,” he says. “Let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” And I'm pretty sure that, left to his own devices, he would have just kept on with the words and the talking. Because ‘he did not know what to say,’ the text tells us…because ‘they were terrified.’

God saves them, though, in spite of their terror, in spite of Peter’s stammering and wordy solution to his own fear. God saves them from that moment – because a cloud overshadows them.

(Can you imagine? A high mountain, and your friend and teacher suddenly transfigured before you, too bright to look at, and then he’s there with the greatest hits of prophet and patriarch, and then you can’t see because you’re in a cloud?!). I reflected on this passage this week with a group of colleagues, and we talked about this cloud being the Cloud of Shushing…the Cloud of Be Quiet.

There comes a voice: “This is my Son, the Beloved: listen to him!”

Could the be: The Cloud of: Listen!

Here’s the thing, though: we’ve heard that phrase before, and recently.

In the place where this gospel account begins, without reference to angels or magi or a baby, we hear instead about another prophet, one who wears camels’ hair and eats locusts and tells people to repent. John the Baptist meets his cousin Jesus, at the beginning of the good news of Mark’s gospel, out in the wilderness of the Jordan River. Jesus goes there, to be baptized by John, over that prophet’s protest. And as he comes up out of that muddy baptismal water, the heavens are torn apart, and the Spirit descends like a dove, and a voice from heaven says: “You are my Son, the Beloved. With you I am well-pleased.”

It’s not so very far away from “This is my Son, the beloved. Listen!”

And still, it is good – really good – for us to be here.

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Baby Frankie, your mother Rachel and I have been talking about your baptism for a while, now. As church, we laid hands on her and prayed for you on Mother’s Day last spring, when it became real for all of us to anticipate that you were coming into the world. I came to bless you just before your birth at the hospital, at a time when it felt like a kind of cloud was descending, when your mama was scared, and was back again the next day to welcome you into this life. Your first trip anywhere was to come here, to this church, where people have been scooping you up since probably almost that first visit. One of our members, as she held you, said to me, “The church has a new baby!” She joked about saying that you get to go home with your mama, but that really, you belong to us all.

When your mama and I talked about her hopes for your baptism, she said, “I want Frankie to know, for the whole of her life, that she belongs. That she is loved. And this is the place where I know that is true.”

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Well. It is good for us to be here. And that is true indeed.

So we celebrate this day, this very good day, when it is good for all of us to be here – for you, Baby Francesca Elizabeth, and for your family of birth, and your family of choice, and your family of church. You remind us of how good it is, for all of us, because our love for you reminds us of God’s love for us. Because I believe that the same love that makes our hands itch to be the next ones who get to hold you, is the very love that God has for each one of us, the God who is always waiting impatiently to hold us near…to adore us…to say “This – THIS – is my child, the beloved.”

I wish I could say that it will all be easy, that you will never be terrified, that you won’t have those moments that we do that cause us to lose ourselves. I wonder if you, like Peter, like me, will be the kind of person who finds herself out of sorts and just starts saying a lot of words.

Remember, when they come, that those are moments. Jesus doesn’t stay there in the waters of the Jordan River, he isn’t stuck up on that high mountain forever. Sooner or later, the cloud dissipates. Jesus leaves the river of his baptism and goes out into the wilderness of temptation, and from there will begin his ministry of healing and teaching and feeding people. He walks down off the mountain of transfiguration, and very soon will set his face toward Jerusalem.

You will come and go from this place, Baby Frankie, and all of you who are here with us. And maybe this will be the place where you will see the heavens torn open. And maybe this will be the place where you are transformed. Whatever comes, I pray that you will know that this is your home – that you may know, that we all may trust, that we are known, that we are loved, that we belong, together at home in the God who claims us at the mount of transfiguration, at the waters of baptism.

It is good for us to be here.

So, Beloved, God's chosen, let us go, now, together, to the font of our salvation.

 

January 28, Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany and Annual Meeting

Kristin White

1 Corinthians 8:1-13

Hear again these words from the apostle Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians:

“Now, concerning food sacrificed to idols: we know that ‘all of us possess knowledge.’ Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge; but anyone who loves God is known by God.

“…As to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that ‘no idol in the world really exists,’ and that ‘there is no God but one’…

“It is not everyone, however, who has this knowledge…We are no worse off if we do not eat (the same meat that is sacrificed to idols), and no better off if we do. But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak.”

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Paul loved the church at Corinth. He began this whole – very wordy – letter with this greeting to them, seven chapters earlier: “To the church of God which is at Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ: grace to you, and peace.”

And so to this church, comprised of those called to be saints together, Paul offered instruction. Ample, and detailed instruction…with many commas.

The Corinthian church had a number of members who were reasonably wealthy, reasonably educated, reasonably sophisticated people. They were comfortable in the knowledge, based in Holy Scripture, that idols do not exist. And so they were also confident in the practice of eating meat, sold in the markets, which had begun as an offering in the temple to idols.[1]

Life among this group at that time involved a number of parties, receptions, banquets, and public celebrations. And each of these was an occasions to eat good food, which meant people shopping for their own households and guests at the same markets that sold the meat that had been a temple offering.

The church at Corinth was not comprised only of this refined group of people, though. It included regular folks, too, people who worked for a living. It included slaves, and poor people, people who didn’t have the money to shop at those temple markets. And many of them had only just left the culture in which their two hard-earned coins would have purchased a dove to be sacrificed at the temple. These members were recent converts to the Christian life. They didn’t know the Scriptures yet. They weren’t experienced. They had only just accepted the invitation to “come and see.” They were learning how to love God in this new way. So for them to assume the liberty being asserted by their fellow members could be confusing at best, if not outright harmful, to their new life of faith.

And the tricky thing about all of this is that, in terms of theology and understanding, Paul agreed with the sophisticates. In fact, they probably believed and practiced as they did because of Paul’s own teachings. They knew the Shema of Israel: “The Lord your God: the Lord is one.”[2] Paul knew that idols are not real, and would have said so. He knew that food has no impact on either our salvation or our condemnation, and he would have taught that, too.

But he stepped into the midst of this thing that was dividing the community, in order to ask them to pay attention to what it was for: “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up,” he wrote to that beloved church. “Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge; but anyone who loves God is known by God.”

Food is at the center of a lot of what we do, in whole of the Christian faith and especially here at St. Augustine’s Church. Every Sunday, our worship focuses on a sacred feast – one to which everybody is welcome. After we meet today for our Annual Meeting, to share stories of this past year and hope for the future that lies ahead of us, we will continue in fellowship over the food that you all have brought to share: homemade soup and salad and bread and desserts.

Many of you know that I have Celiac Disease, which means that my body can’t tolerate the gluten found in regular bread and other foods. Now, you have the freedom to eat whatever you like and what nourishes your bodies. But I can tell you the blessing that it has been for me, the ways that you have extended yourselves to make sure that there is food safe for me, and for others, to eat when we gather, so that we can all join together at the table, so that we can all take part in the fellowship that food provides.

This is to say that the specifics of things matter – food and drink and fellowship, the hospitality extended in the life of the community and the nourishing of this Body – that matters.

And. I don’t believe that is the entirety what Paul is talking about here, in his letter to the people who are the church. I believe that the deepest part of what he has to say is about what freedom means in the context of Christian faith. Because, set within that frame, freedom is not just about the absence of rules that we have to follow or else be punished, it’s something more that the elimination of the law. “Christian freedom is grounded in love, God’s love for us in Jesus Christ.”[3]

Choosing to be a part of the Body of Christ means choosing to belong to one another. We can’t do that in isolation. Our faith cannot be only abstract. It has to be made manifest, in who we love and how we live. Does knowledge matter? Absolutely it does. But having the right answer is not the only thing that is important. Because relationships matter, too. What we do – right down to the practicalities of the food we share – affects who we are, together, and it has, since the earliest moments that the church was church.

Our Annual Meeting today involves many of those very same kinds of practicalities, relocated from the context of Corinth in the very first century, right here to Wilmette in the twenty-first. We will hear and read the stuff of our shared life together over this past year. We’ll talk about where the money we hold in common comes from, and how it is used. We will ask questions like this:

·      Who is here, and who is not here?

·      When are we silent?

·      What do we pay attention to?

·      What is our relationship to this neighborhood?

·      How do things feel to you at St. A’s right now?

·      How are children treated?

·      How do we handle conflict?

We will do this as a church comprised of members who have been part of this Body for decades, and we will do this as a church comprised of members who walked through this door for the very first time a week ago…or maybe even this morning. And my sisters and brothers, we are all, together, the beloved Body of Christ. We all belong to one another: everybody, everybody, everybody.

I give thanks for the conversations we will share today, and for those that lie ahead of us. I give thanks for the life we share in common, set within our love of the God who knows us. I give thanks for the fact that you are the church that I love and am called to serve. And I pray that in all that we do, we will strive to build up this Body, this church.

Because just as the members of the church at Corinth, so many years ago, I believe that you, each one of you, is sanctified in Christ Jesus. I believe that we are all called to be saints, together, with those who in every place and at every time call on the name of our Lord Jesus. And, together with the apostle Paul, I wish you grace. And peace.

 

[1] V. Bruce Rigdon, “1 Corinthians 8:1-13: Pastoral Perspective.” Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 1. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008. 302. Much of this sermon is informed by Rigdon’s essay, for which I am grateful.

[2] Deuteronomy 6:4

[3] Rigdon, 304.

January 21, Third Sunday after the Epiphany

Deacon Sue Nebel

Earlier this month I was at the Diocesan Center in downtown Chicago for a meeting of the Commission on Ministry.  It was our first meeting of the new year, a time to welcome new members.  A time to get to know each other and to orient the new people. Prior to the meeting, we had been told to be prepared to respond to this directive: “Tell briefly about an important decision you have made.”  After a brief go-around to introduce ourselves, we divided up into small groups of three or four, to share the stories of our decisions. In my group, one person told us about asking a woman he barely knew to accompany him to a business social function.  It was the beginning of a relationship that led to marriage.  The other three of us had made decisions related to vocation. In each one of the situations, the person faced a choice. They could move forward on a well-defined path, a path shaped by family background, role expectations for women, and a sense of security.  Or they could opt for a non-traditional path, responding to a deeply-felt conviction that it was what was right for them.  Each of them chose the second one, moving out of their comfort zone into the unknown. 

We have a situation like that—people making important decisions--in this morning’s Gospel lesson.  The setting is the Sea of Galilee, where fishermen are in their boats out on the water, engaged in their work.  Jesus comes walking along the shore.  Spotting two brothers, Simon and Andrew, he calls out to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.”  They drop their nets, get out of the boat, and follow him.  Continuing on, Jesus finds two more fishermen.  James and John, with their father and some hired men, mending their nets.  Jesus calls out, “Follow me.”  Like the other two, they drop their nets and join up with him.  An important, life-changing decision for the four men.  They choose to join up with this man Jesus to head off to who knows where.  They turn their backs on a secure livelihood.  A familiar pattern of going out each day in their boats to fish.  Bringing their daily catch back to sell.  Keeping their boats and their nets in good repair.  In the blink of an eye (Mark uses his familiar term “immediately.) they leave it all behind to set out on a different path—into the unknown.

It is quite a story.  Like so many Gospel accounts of Jesus’s ministry, this one is pretty thin on details.  I find it frustrating. What’s going on here?  I want to know more about the decision made by Simon, Andrew, James, and John. I want more information.  When I was in Deacons School, moving toward ordination, the instructor in one of my preaching classes offered some good advice. Words I have remembered and put to use.  When faced with a challenging passage of Scripture, he told us, approach it in a stance of asking questions. First, what questions do you want to ask the text?  Then, what questions is the text asking you?  What questions do I want to ask this passage about Jesus calling his first disciples?   I want to ask about the back story.  Did those four men make their decision to follow Jesus on an impulse?  Or, was it something they had been thinking about?  Was his calling to them on the Sea of Galilee their first encounter with him?  Was he a complete stranger, or had they already met him?  What, if anything, did they know about his plans?  Not much to go on here. 

But the version of this story in the Gospel of Matthew gives us a clue about the situation—and a possible scenario.  Matthew begins his version of the story by telling us that Jesus had left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the Sea of Galilee. So it could be that Jesus had been in the area for a while.  He may have been looking for followers.  Maybe he was talking with lots of people. Talking about his mission to spread the word about the good news of the kingdom. Keeping an eye out for people the potential to do the work of ministry.  It is possible that Simon and Andrew, and James and John, had heard about Jesus and his mission from others.  Or maybe they had been involved in some of his conversations.  Maybe they were more than a little curious about his vision of a different world than the one they knew.  One that would be better for everyone.  So, when Jesus comes walking along the shore with his invitation “Follow me and I will make you fish for men” they might have been open to possibility. Open to setting out on a different path. They respond to Jesus’s invitation.  They choose that different path. A path that will take them to places far beyond the limits of the place where they lived and the work they did.  They will indeed “fish for people,” bringing new followers to Jesus. They will learn to do new things, like teaching and healing. and, eventually, they will begin to  build the church. 

Now to the other question, the more important one. What question, or questions, is this text asking us?  I think it is this: Will we do what Simon and Andrew and James and John did?  Will we decide to follow Jesus?  The answer is yes.  The fact that we are gathered here this morning testifies to that.  We said yes in our baptism. The question is right there the baptismal liturgy, as clear as can be.  Candidates for baptism, or their parents and sponsors, are asked: Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your Savior?  Do you promise to follow and obey him as your Lord? They answer: I do.  Most of us, I would guess, were probably too young to understand what was happening in our baptism.  What was being pledged on our behalf.  The Church, thank goodness, makes sure that, as we grow older, we learn what baptism means.  We claim those commitments as our own.  They shape and form who we are and what we do. The Church gives us many opportunities to affirm the promises of baptism.  We can do in liturgical rites like Confirmation or Renewal of Baptismal Vows.  We do it in baptismal liturgies, joining with the persons being baptized to renew our Baptismal Covenant. To respond to questions about how we live our lives.  In the Diocese of Chicago, renewing that covenant is often part of a Celebration of New Ministry, the official welcoming of a new priest as rector or vicar.  Again and again, we claim ourselves to be followers of Jesus, his present-day disciples. This, we affirm, is who we are.

Follow me, Jesus says to the four fishermen in the Gospel story. Follow me.  Jesus has continued to say it to people down through the years.  He says it to us. Every single one of us. Every single day.  The question is not if we will say yes, if we will follow him.  We have answered that one.  The question is how.  How will we follow Jesus today? How will we continue the work started by Jesus and, the four fishermen on the Sea of Galilee, along with others who joined them?. Each morning, as we look to the day ahead, we should ask ourselves: What will I do today as a follower of Jesus? How will I live out my promise to love my neighbor, understanding neighbor in the broadest terms? How will I respect the dignity of everyone I meet or with whom I interact today? What can I do to work for justice? To make the world a better place for everyone.

Follow me, Jesus said to them. And they dropped their nets and followed him.

 

 

Epiphany 3; Year B: Jonah 3:1-5,10: Psalm 62:6-14; 1 Corinthians 7:29-31;  Mark 1:14-20

January 7, Baptism of Christ

Kristin White

Mark 1:4-11

The Jordan River is muddy.

I don’t think I would drink that water, and I tell you that I would not lower a baby down into it.

There’s a divider down the center of the river, in the place where I visited, on pilgrimage, at about this time last year. It’s one of those ropes with the little floaty things on it, like the ones that get used to divide the lanes in swimming pools so that people can swim laps without crashing into each other.

Except our guide pointed out to our group that the rope in the middle of that river was not about designated swimming areas in the Jordan. It is an international border. In a conversation that I would have with him a few minutes later, he showed me the Jordanian soldier who stood guard under a shelter on the other side of the river, with a machine gun slung over his shoulder. And then he nodded his head at that soldier’s Israeli counterpart, who stood on the hillside just behind us, also holding the requisite automatic weapon.

There’s a church on the Jordanian side of the river, pretty close to the water. It has a bell tower with bells that chime on the hour. And there are doves living up in that bell tower – no doubt well-fed doves, the cynical side of me supposed – there to further heighten the spiritual experience of so many pilgrims coming to that space to remember the baptism of Jesus.

My own experience on that day was like much of what happened throughout our group’s pilgrimage to the Holy Land last year. Our schedule was regularly shifting, based on delays or availability or traffic or security. We had hurried to make it to this baptismal site before it closed at the end of the day, quickly proceeded through a short liturgy that included a reading of scripture – the baptism of Christ, which had happened right there, or someplace near there, but scholars at least agree that it happened. We prayed for the renewal of our own baptismal promises. And then we divvied up into two groups, to be anointed with holy oil by one of the two bishops helping to lead us.

There were groups of people wearing white robes over their swimsuits as they went down into the Jordan to be baptized. I remember loudspeakers and tightly timed aspects, and still those soldiers with their machine guns, and an overall aspect of: “hurry up, have your spiritual experience, stick your feet into the Jordan if you’d like, buy your souvenir, and then let’s get back onto the bus for the next stop because it’s time to go.”

Somewhere in there, though, one of those well-fed doves flew out over the water.

And suddenly it wasn’t all that difficult for me to imagine John the Baptist (who might well have used a loudspeaker himself if he had had one on offer) together with his cousin Jesus, the person John had known since before the two of them were born, stepping down in among the reeds and the mud of the Jordan River. Maybe there. Maybe someplace nearby.

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Of the four accounts of Jesus’ life and ministry, Mark’s gospel is the earliest. It’s also the most concise and urgent. I read somewhere in recent days that Mark uses the word “immediately” 47 times…which feels like kind of a lot. There’s no story here about Mary and Joseph and a donkey and a dream, no talk of angels or shepherds and wise men coming to find this new baby – nothing is even mentioned of the Baby Jesus. The beginning of this good news begins with the words of one prophet, Isaiah, and leads us to another prophet, John, whose arrival is the start of our gospel passage today.

Mark tells us about the people from everywhere leaving their homes and their villages, leaving Jerusalem, in order to go out to the wilderness to be baptized by John. This is a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, which is a different thing than Jewish people would have known. And people came from all over, hearing that call to repent, which means to turn away; hearing that need to be cleansed from their sins by this unlikeliest of characters: John, with his camel’s hair and his leather belt and his locusts and his wild honey.

This guy out in the wilderness is the one that people are leaving their safety in Jerusalem, leaving their familiarity in their cities and their towns, to go out and meet in the wilderness?

Jesus joins them there. Mark’s gospel leaves out John’s protest – “I should be baptized by you!” – but it tells us this part: “As he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens split open and the Spirit descending like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’ ”

The Greek word for the heavens being split open will be the same word this gospel uses for the tearing of the curtain at Jesus’ death. Nothing will separate God’s love from the Beloved in this moment: not the heavens, not anything. And why is he there, even? Why is Jesus going through a rite that is for repentance and the forgiveness of sins – he, who has nothing to turn away from, no sins that need to be forgiven?

Because he would be with us. Because nothing will separate us from him.

And so, God uses ordinary things to convey extraordinary grace. Muddy water and unusual clothes and strange food; urgency, and oil, and some unlikely characters. And a bird and the sky and a voice that I’m not sure which people actually heard – but somebody did, or else we wouldn’t know about it today.

Was there jostling and a concern about who spent how much time in which place? Did someone say “immediately” out loud, with an edge to their voice? Were people keeping track of which of the baptized had the most stature (and did they want to stand in a particular part of that water)? Did the humanity of it all catch up to what was happening? I have to believe that it did.

And still, I’m telling you: I watched a dove fly out over those waters.

C.S. Lewis once told a group of people that, “for Christians, ‘spirit’ is not lighter than matter, but heavier. Spirit is the real substance of God acting in creation and redemption and…reconciliation.

(But) Spirit is always tied to material – real water, real bread, inexpensive wine, beautiful baptismal dresses …Spirit fills us in church and then drives us from church (as it will drive Jesus from the Jordan to the wilderness). There, outside the walls, we wrestle with the beasts, and pray for ministering angels…angels heavier than air.”[1]

God uses the substance of the things we know, in order to convey the heavier reality that is more – more than we can ask, or even imagine: “You are my beloved. With you I am well-pleased.”

The great reality of our faith is that God would be with us. The truth of our faith is that nothing will separate us from God’s love – not the heavens above, not a piece of cloth in the Temple.

Jesus will go on from the shores of the Jordan River, driven immediately out into the wilderness, Mark’s gospel tells us. There, he will be tempted for forty days by the devil, and there will be wild animals. And – thank God – the angels will minister to him.

Only after that does Jesus begin to live his call in ministry. From there, he will bid disciples to join him. He will teach and preach and heal people. He will cast out demons. He will give God thanks for five loaves and two fishes, and will use those to feed a whole bunch of people who are sitting down on a large bit of grass. He will call Lazarus out from the grave, and he will tell those who are with his friend to unbind him, and let him go. He will use his own hands to turn over the tables of the money changers in the Temple.

Over and over again, God will use ordinary things to convey extraordinary grace, teaching us, over and over again that we are the beloved, that God will tear through the heavens in order to be with us. God will use ordinary things to show us that we are called to the ministry of sharing the gifts we have – generously, lavishly, with a world that starves for good news.

And so let us go, now, to the font of our salvation.

 

[1] Elton Brown. “Pastoral Perspective: Mark 1:4-11” Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 1. Knoxville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010. 236-238.

December 31, First Sunday after Christmas

The First Sunday After Christmas – December 31, 2017

John 1: 1-18

A sermon preached by Debbie Buesing

St. Augustine’s, Wilmette

It is the seventh day of Christmas. In my house, the Magi and their camels have crept halfway around my living room, on their way to meet the Christ Child on top of my piano. Outside, Christmas trees have been stripped of their finery and set out curbside to await the chipper, around the same time the “holiday music,” that has been in non-stop rotation on WLIT-FM since early November, went silent. But here in the Church, we still sing Christmas carols. The green wreaths and red bows are still here, as are the festive vestments on our clergy and the altar. While the world’s attention moves on to the next thing, here we linger over Christmas just a little longer, with today’s lectionary reading presenting that most mysterious of Christmas stories, from the Gospel According to John.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. These words seem far from the beloved mashup of Luke’s and Matthew’s gospels that we know so well from nativity scenes and Christmas pageants. Today we do not hear of angelic messengers, long journeys, strange visitors, or of a poor and no doubt frightened young couple who dared to say YES to a call that must have seemed impossible. The writer of John’s Gospel takes the Christmas narrative away from first century Palestine, across the boundaries of place and time, to proclaim the One who existed before time itself.

What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it … and the Word was made flesh, and lived among us.

To me, the words that introduce John’s gospel are sheer poetry, with their echoes of Genesis and the way they surround its mysterious story with imagery and cadence. I find echoes of John’s words in a modern poem, aptly titled “Christmas,” by English poet John Betjeman, in which he struggles to make meaning of that same mystery.

He opens the poem with several verses describing a walk through his village in the days before Christmas, with its elegant manor houses decked out in greenery, the more modest homes with cutout decorations in the windows, and of course, the pretty church in the center. It may be mid-century England, but he could just as easily be describing Wilmette. But suddenly, in the midst of all that sweetness and nostalgia, a troubling question breaks through to the surface:

 “And is it true?” he asks.

And is it true,
This most tremendous tale of all,
Seen in a stained-glass window's hue,
A Baby in an ox's stall?
The Maker of the stars and sea
Become a Child on earth for me?

In the beginning was the Maker of the stars and sea. The Maker of the stars and sea became flesh, and lived among us. This is the story behind the more familiar stories of shepherds abiding in the fields, of wise men following a star to find a baby in an ox’s stall.

The baby part of the story is easy. We like babies. We gather around the font to bless them and welcome them into their new family. We pass them around at coffee hour for snuggles.

It is the Incarnation – literally, the taking on of flesh and muscle and bone – by the Maker of the stars and sea, that gives us pause. It is so staggering a claim that we can, I believe, be forgiven if we too ask, “And is it true?”  -- even when the question comes to us when we don’t want or expect it.

In the town of Bethlehem – which isn’t so little anymore – the Church of the Nativity, which dates to the fourth century, sits on top of a hill, in an open plaza they call Manger Square. Inside the church, there is a hole in the floor above a grotto that the faithful believe is the place Mary and Joseph sought shelter to bring the infant Jesus into the world.

Surrounding the hole in the floor is a large, fourteen-pointed silver star, about 36” across. The fourteen star-points represent the fourteen generations between Jesus and King David, as reported in the Gospel According to Matthew. Pilgrims come here to pray and to reach their hands into that hole in the floor, to touch the sacred space.

When my turn came, I knelt by the star and was suddenly overwhelmed by uninvited questions. Was this really the place? How do they know? Was it maybe down the hill, closer to the shepherd’s fields? Or was it really in Nazareth, like some scholars say? I found myself afraid to reach into the opening, so I just kissed my fingertips and pressed them into the star points. I couldn’t find words to pray. So I just rested in the mystery for a few moments, while sixteen centuries of prayers hung in the air like incense.

And is it true? And if we ask ourselves this, do we dare to ask the next question –

What if it is?

To return to the last part of Betjeman’s poem:


And is it true? For if it is,
No loving fingers tying strings
Around those tissued fripperies,
The sweet and silly Christmas things,
Bath salts and inexpensive scent
And hideous tie so kindly meant,

No love that in a family dwells,
No carolling in frosty air,
Nor all the steeple-shaking bells
Can with this single Truth compare -
That God was man in Palestine
And lives today in Bread and Wine.

Now that the busy-ness and stress of Christmas preparations are behind us, it is good for us to linger a bit longer with this mysterious “single truth.” To consider, perhaps, that the most tender aspects of our celebrations – whether in recent days or in years gone by – are simply an echo of a greater tenderness. The awkwardness of the well-intended gift that misses the mark but is graciously received (I mean, who among us hasn’t had their own “hideous tie” moment?); or loneliness relieved by a surprise Christmas phone call; or the grace that happens in our own families – families of origin or families of choice – when folks travel across town or across the country to set aside present differences or past disappointments, just to sit down at table together and remember who we are: these joys that we can understand point us towards something that perhaps we cannot: the love that burst through space and time to take on human flesh and walk with us.

The Maker of the stars and sea was made flesh, and dwells among us. This is a mystery, but it is also Good News. May we embrace this truth, and carry it out into the New Year, with joy.

“Christmas” by John Betjeman (1906-1984), published in John Betjeman: Collected Poem   http://famouspoetsandpoems.com/poets/john_betjeman/

December 24, Christmas Eve


Kristin White

Christmas Eve Sermon 2017

St. Augustine’s Church | Wilmette, IL

 

There’s a video of a pageant gone rather awry making the rounds right now on social media. The video begins at what I imagine is supposed to be the end of the pageant – Mary and Joseph and some angels and animals are all gathered around to adore the baby Jesus as the church’s children’s choir sings “Away in a manger”

(A note worth mentioning here is that the role of the Baby Jesus in that pageant is played, safely, by a doll).

One sheep in that pageant is so consumed in her adoration that she is overcome by it. The baby Jesus is just too irresistible for her probably three-year-old self. So first, she tears off the blanket covering the manger, and throws it aside. But then, there he is – and the singing is still going, and he’s there in the manger, and it seems that there’s nothing to be done but just to pick him up, right? So she does.

Amid the grownups’ laughter that you can hear at this moment on the video, the children’s choir is steadfast. They continue singing. So the little sheep, holding the Baby (doll) Jesus, and now possessing the attention of pretty much every single person in the church, she starts to dance, even, a bit.

Well. Mary the Mother of God does not ponder these things in her heart. In fact, Mary is having none of this. She’s a little bit older than that sheep, and a little bit bigger, and she knows how this thing is supposed to go. Which is not with the Baby (doll) Jesus kidnapped by an affectionate, dancing sheep – however cute she may be.

Mary takes the adoration into her own hands, literally. She reclaims the Baby Jesus by taking the doll right out of the arms of the adoring, adorable sheep and she restores him to his rightful place in the manger.

It turns out, though, that some sheep are tenacious. And this pageant has that sort of a sheep. She waits for her opening, when Mary’s hand has left the manger, grabs the Baby (doll) Jesus and makes a break for it.

Mary comes in hot pursuit, but the sheep blocks her. At the point when “Away in a manger” draws to a close, which helpfully coincides with the moment that suggests Mary might actually tackle the wayward sheep, an adult finally intervenes. And…cut scene. I can only imagine what happened on the other side of that taping – the consolations and reconciliations to be made among members of the holy family...and resident livestock.

---

I shared about the writing of this sermon on Friday morning after Eucharist with the group of us who gathered for breakfast after church. One of our members talked about how neat we tend to be in illustrating the story of Jesus’ birth – Mary is always depicted as calmly holding the baby, with everything in place. We find ways of making this story safe, and clean. When I looked back at the children’s Bible that our daughter Grace grew up reading – a version I usually really like, actually – the nativity story has Mary smiling as she finds her way in among the animals for the night: “I’ll be alright here in the hay,” she says to Joseph, “it’s very comfortable.”[1] (Have you sat on hay?!) We domesticate this mystery. We clean it up, make it nice. We discuss it in the abstract. We make it into an intellectual discussion of here, or there, or – God help us – if, at all.

Children’s Christmas pageants bring us back to the audacious particularity of the mystery we proclaim. This person said this. That person did that. This thing happened over there.

And really, sheep gone rogue or not, that is the scandal of this night: the God whom the People Israel had known as transcendent and all-powerful and distant and scary and sometimes smiting was in fact so crazy in love with this creation, with people made in the Divine image who looked like God, that God came into the world She created, looking like us.

The world that God came into had not already gotten its act together in preparation for that night. It was not a safe and clean and peaceful and just and well-fed and logical place, the place where God chose to be born.

In the person of Jesus, God was born: not to Caesar’s wife, or to Herod’s, not to a prophet or the priest of the Temple, but to a young, unmarried woman and her boyfriend, both of them from a small country town that nobody paid attention to. In the person of Jesus, God was attended by the lowliest kind of folks – shepherds were treated like tax collectors and prostitutes, considered dirty because of the kind of work they did; the Magi who came bearing gifts were foreigners, outsiders – they were strange people from a distant land who didn’t belong. In the person of Jesus, God had to escape in the middle of the night, because his life was in danger. In the person of Jesus, God had to get counted as part of a census, to make sure that his family, in their poverty, paid the taxes they owed to the empire.

God was born into all that, and God, in the person of Jesus, blessed every bit of the creation into which he was born. It’s not safe. It’s not clean. It’s not abstract or hypothetical. But it’s real. This night. This place. This holy mystery. Told by these children.

And maybe, through it all, that persistent little sheep with her beloved Baby (doll) Jesus has something infinitely important to teach us about God. Because I believe it’s true that God is so crazy in love with creation, even now, that God will disregard how this thing supposed to go, and tear through the veil of all that would separate us…cast it aside without care for the consequences, in order to get to us. In order to dance with us, even. In order to be with us.

Christ is born, my friends. Alleluia.

 

[1] Watts, Murray. The Bible for Children: “The Birth of Jesus.” Intercourse, PA: Good Books Publishing, 2002. 218.

December 17, Third Sunday of Advent

Kristin White

They will hold your gaze as you look at the page. You may recognize some of their faces: Ashley Judd. Megyn Kelly. Taylor Swift.

When you see Rose McGowan, I wonder if it will look to you, as it does to me, like her eyes are filled with tears.

There are others there, too, people whose names you may not know: Tarana Burke, the activist. Juana Melara, a hotel housekeeper. A state senator named Sarah Geslar. Adama Iwu, a lobbyist.

They are among the silence breakers. Together, they are Time Magazine’s Person of the Year.[1]

The truth of the experiences they witness to stretches from movie set to newsroom to capitol hallway to hotel suite and beyond. Again and again, the stories have their common threads: he had the money, the position, the contacts, the authority. If she talked, he promised to ruin her – to write her out, to make sure she never worked again…even to kill her. He promised to destroy her. And he could. In some manner, for a time, anyway, it seemed that he could.

So, many of them, needing the paycheck or the chance at a shot, took it. They contorted themselves. They avoided the places of opportunity. They told themselves that circumstances were other than they were, in order to be able to live within them. And they kept silent.

They did not want to be defined by their complaint. They did not want to be defined as their complaint.

It is a fearful thing to say the truth out loud, to let those words leave your mouth. Because after they are gone, in the face of risk and threat, your words don’t belong to you anymore.[2] Witnesses open themselves to scrutiny. People find questions about your motives. We’ve all heard the responses in recent weeks, the remarks: “Well, if that’s true…”, or “Why did she decide to come forward now?” We have heard the equivocations and outright denials, the retaliations. Others promised to destroy them, after all. And they could. In some manner, for a time, they could.

---

“The Spirit of the LORD God is upon me,” Isaiah says in today’s first reading, “The Spirit of the LORD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to provide…a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.”[3]

The season of Advent is a season of waiting and watching for God right here in our midst. It’s a time when God sends us prophets – never meant as the kind of fortune tellers some would make them out to be; no, the prophets are the witnesses. They are the ones willing to say aloud what they know to be real, in the face of doubt and scrutiny. They are the ones who open themselves to questions of motive, where risk and threat are real. Others will promise to destroy them. And they could, for a time at least.

But the truth that the prophet Isaiah tells in today’s first lesson is that there is more than the contortion, the avoidance, the equivocation that too many have known for too long. There is more to God’s promise than the grief of this present moment. There is more for us than a faint spirit.

The People Israel have been driven from their home, made to live in a land that is not their own. After a generation of loss, Isaiah tells them the greater truth of God’s news to this beloved people: that there is more.

And so they go home, only to find that there is no newly-rebuilt temple, to find that those who never left Jerusalem have worked out their own ways of doing things. The ancient ruins are not built up, the ruined city not restored to what it was, what it could be.

The glory the people Israel had imagined upon their homecoming is not what they encounter.

Still, this promise from the prophet, the witness: “For I the LORD love justice, I hate robbery and wrongdoing; I will faithfully give them their recompense, and I will make an everlasting covenant with them.”[4]

---

They will hold your gaze, those silence breakers. I look again at them, remembering that in order for God’s anointed to reach those whose hearts have been broken, and those who have been held captive, and those who grieve, then God’s own anointed has to confront the powers and principalities that made them so.[5]

They stare back off the page, those breakers of silence, their backs straight, their chins set, their unwavering gaze locked on yours.

---

John the Baptist comes into our gospel narrative last week and this week as one who defies explanation.

The people in positions of power try to figure him out, asking, “Who are you?” All he can say at first is what he is not: not the messiah, not Elijah, and he says he is not a prophet...

“Well, who are you?” they ask again, probably exasperated at this point, “What do you have to say for yourself?”

“I am the voice crying in the wilderness, ‘prepare the way of the Lord.’ ”[6] he tells them.

The things John the Baptist seems to say most often are “Behold,” and “Repent.” Behold, as in: look – look at what you’re doing. And Repent, which means: turn around. You’re going the wrong way, and you need to find your way back home again.

I wonder what John would say, in this Advent moment. I wonder how he might confront those who contorted power, that they might leverage silence. Where would he say “Behold!”[7] What principalities would he call to turn back?

John’s whole life is about witnessing to Jesus. He is the one always pointing to the Word. Before he is even born, scripture tells us that he leaps in Elizabeth’s womb at realizing that he is in the presence of Christ. He is the one who calls us to prepare for God’s coming. Soon, he will be filled with awe at doing it, but John will be the one who steps into the muddy waters of the Jordan to baptize Jesus. John will see the Spirit descend, will hear a voice from heaven tell him that this is the Son of God.

John proclaims God in our midst, calling people to live as though that is true. And there are those who would destroy him, because of it. With each “Behold” that leaves his mouth, John confronts the powers that would imprison and contort. And if we know nothing else of power, we know that it will seek to protect itself. And so John will find himself in prison. He will find himself constrained. And that will not be the end.

---

The writers of the Time Magazine article talk about another common thread those silence breakers share. As they put it, “Almost everybody described wrestling with a palpable sense of shame. Had she somehow asked for it? Could she have deflected it? Was she making a big deal out of nothing?”

He promised to destroy her, after all.

Did she avert her eyes?

I want to respond with the words of today’s second reading, from Paul’s first letter to the church at Thessolonika. In it, Paul writes: “May the God of peace sanctify you entirely.”[8]

This letter is probably one of the earliest of all the Christian writings we have. People among the first of the Christian communities were beginning to grow old and die, and Jesus hadn’t returned to them in the way they anticipated. So they didn’t know what it all meant. They didn’t know that it would take this long. They weren’t sure how they were supposed to live, and they weren’t doing a great job of taking care of each other.

Paul, who it seems to me doesn’t usually restrain himself from harshness, responds instead in the words of this letter with a call to charity, to love: rejoice and pray and give thanks, he writes. Hold fast to what is good, and refrain from doing evil.

Too often, our culture presumes that the word of the church will be a word of judgment. And too often, it has been. So what grace might we find, in this Advent moment, for the church to offer blessing, instead: may the God of peace sanctify you entirely – not the part of you that didn’t get twisted by circumstance, not the you before you encountered whatever it was that you wish you could have avoided. But all of you. May you know yourself as whole and holy and sacred by the God who created you. Because the one who created you is the one who calls you; and the one who calls you is faithful.

What healing might that offer, to those who kept silent, for the reasons that they had, for the time that they did? What gift might that be, for them to know themselves as blessed, entirely, by God?

---

The God whose way we prepare in this Advent season is the God of an everlasting covenant, who promises the good news of liberty and comfort and praise.

The God whose way we make straight is the same God who sanctifies you entirely.

Behold: that is the God to whom we cry out in witness; the God who will not let you be destroyed, in the end.

Level your gaze there. Look there, on our good God.

 

 

 

 

[1] http://time.com/time-person-of-the-year-2017-silence-breakers/

[2] http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=5022

[3] http://lectionarypage.net/YearB_RCL/Advent/BAdv3_RCL.html#ot1

[4] ibid

[5] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1100

[6] http://lectionarypage.net/YearB_RCL/Advent/BAdv3_RCL.html#gsp1

[7] http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=5022

[8] http://lectionarypage.net/YearB_RCL/Advent/BAdv3_RCL.html#nt1

December 3, First Sunday of Advent

Kristin White

Advent 1 – December 3, 2017

Mark 13:24-37

Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness and put on the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which your son came to us in great humility; that in the last day, when he comes in majesty to judge the living and the dead, we may rise to life immortal. Amen.

---

Narnia is a mess.

It is the Last Battle, in CS Lewis’s book of the same name, the rightful last book in the Chronicles of Narnia. (They have re-ordered the books in that series since my childhood. I have feelings about this.)

But as I said, Narnia is a mess at the point of the Last Battle. That great country, begun in the imagination of my childhood, returned to each time I read those seven books – in their proper order – to Grace, during her childhood…well that country is falling apart.

A cunning ape without a conscience has discovered a way for his simple friend, a donkey, to impersonate Aslan, the great lion, king of all the kings in Narnia. And as you can imagine, the cunning creature without a conscience who finds his way into unchecked power manages to wreak certain havoc in Narnia.

Holy trees are cut down, talking beasts enslaved and beaten. Evil seems to prevail. The Narnia that is, is not the Narnia it was created to be.

In that Last Battle, the rightful king fights those who have done the work of evil in the land this king loves. The numbers are what you might imagine – those they oppose outnumber the king and his friends, and the mark that they’re losing this Last Battle is the fact that they are being maneuvered, edged closer and closer to a doorway they are loathe to cross. It’s the door to a stable, where the imposter seeks to dispose of his enemies one by one. That stable is a place built of lies, based on fear.

The king of Narnia fights bravely alongside two mysteriously-appearing English youth (that happens, in Lewis’s books), and together with a faithful remnant of Narnian creatures. They’re fighting with everything they have for the Narnia they know. And they are doing all they can, in that Last Battle, to stay away from the stable door.

But they can’t. Of course they can’t. The thing they fear will be the thing they face. And so, one by one, they go through the doorway of that stable. And it is the end. The Last Battle, after all, has to mean the end of something.

But it is also more than they had imagined: brighter, and more spacious. And others they know and love are there, too. As one beloved friend reminds them, “A stable once held something inside that was bigger than our whole world.”[1]

And then it is time. Time for an end to the world they have known. Time for the stars to be called down from the sky. Time for the forests to disappear, and the seas to rise, and for the sun’s light to be squeezed from the sky. And finally, finally, it is time to make an end: to close that stable door.

---

Peter and James and John and Andrew are the only four disciples to hear Jesus say what he tells them in the passage of Mark’s gospel that we heard read today. It makes sense that it would be them, the first to drop their nets – immediately – to follow him.[2]

Together with Jesus, they had gone to the Mount of Olives, looked with him across the Kidron Valley (it’s not far) to Jerusalem, to the walls that still surround what is now known as the Old City, the Temple that adorned it, the place they believe to be God’s dwelling.

“It will all come down,” he told them. “Not one stone will be left on another.”

The four respond, as you’d imagine:

“When with this happen, and how will we know?”

So Jesus tells them what he tells us in today’s gospel lesson: the same story of the Last Battle, really, the stars called down from the sky, the light of the sun grown dark.

But, as Barbara Brown Taylor writes:

“He does not say it to scare them. He says it to comfort them. They need to know that even something as frightening as the end of the world is in God’s good hands. When the cosmos collapses and every light in the sky is put out, they are to remember that God is sovereign over darkness as well as light, and they are to watch – watch even in the darkness – for God coming to them in the clouds.”[3]

It would all seem very real, I imagine, about 30 years later, when Mark wrote down the words of today’s gospel lesson.

Jerusalem was a mess. The Temple had fallen, stone from stone. Cunning men unburdened by conscience stood ready to tell the people what God meant, actually, by all this. Christians were being destroyed as a people from without, by the same emperor who had destroyed Jerusalem, at the same time that those Christians were doing a fine job of destroying one another from within.

Did they think it was all a big mistake? Did they shake their fists at the darkness and the chaos of it all? Did they cry out to the God they longed to believe in, that the world around them could never have been the world God created us all to be?

Is that the moment when Mark told the story again? Is that when he reminded them that Jesus had told them this all must come to pass? There can be no new world, you see, if we can’t find a way to loose our grasp on the old one. And that letting go can be a painful, even a brutal thing: sometimes what we have held onto will crash. Sometimes it burns, and our job is to bless and scatter the ashes that remain.

Here is the good news, like the painful touch of an unprotected nerve that needs tending to, but which we’d rather just leave alone: the excruciating good news is that the end will come. And it will come, not because God has abandoned us, but because God is so very much with us. In God’s presence is great glory, the kind of power that can make something out of nothing, can breathe life and beauty into those very same ashes.

So stay awake, my friends. And pray with me for grace to cast away the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.

Because “there is not just one end to the world, any more than there is just one coming of Christ to look forward to.”[4]

The world ended under cover of darkness with a vote and the bang of a gavel late Friday night for people who already find themselves on the margins. The stars fell from the sky for more than 300 families in Egypt, just over a week ago, when gunmen entered a mosque on a mission of death. The moon loses its light every other hour of the day when still another person is shot in Chicago. The sun ceases shining every time a teenage girl finds herself in the hands of a predator.

The world can end for any one of us at any moment: in the words of a diagnosis; at the death of our beloved; in a single act of stunning betrayal; a breaking; a moment of profound injustice.

The door of the stable is there for each of us, and we fight our battles to the last, trying to keep our feet from crossing its threshold. Like the disciples, of course we want to know the particulars: “Tell us,” we demand, “Tell us when will this be, and what will be the signs when these things are to be accomplished?”

But remember: we know of a stable that once held something inside that was bigger than our whole world. And Christ’s entry into this world of ours, in power and great glory, offers the very brightness we need, when the sun and the moon and the stars have been torn from our skies.

Our work of faith in this season is not to pull calculators and make predictions about time and place, so we can avoid it. It is not to offer blame about who is at fault in this end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it moment. It is not to hunker down out of the terror of darkness, or to keep so busy that we can pretend none of this is actually happening.

No. Ours is to stay awake, and watch for the One who comes as friend, in power and great glory. Ours is to light candles in this season; because the night is long, but the day will come. Ours is to pray for the grace to cast away the works of darkness, to put on the armor of light; trusting in the promise of the far side of that door, in the pure love of the One who promises to be with us always…even and especially as we step across its threshold.

 

[1] C. S. Lewis. The Last Battle. 141.

[2] I’m grateful for the Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor’s sermon, “With Power and Great Glory” found in her book Gospel Medicine, which inspired much of this sermon of mine.

[3] Barbara Brown Taylor. Gospel Medicine. 135.

[4] ibid