Friday, December 31, 2010

A New Year blessing for you and yours

Another year comes to a close and it is hard to believe it went so quickly. Thank you, dear readers, for being with me this year in this space, for your prayers, and when we've been in the same land, sharing a meal or two around the table when we can.

I've enjoyed sharing with you my thoughts and I've appreciated hearing yours. May you have a safe New Year's Eve, and may the new year to come bring you many blessings. Let me close this year by leaving you with an Celtic blessing I came across:
May love and laughter light your days,
and warm your heart and home.
May good and faithful friends be yours,
wherever you may roam.
May peace and plenty bless your world
with joy that long endures.
May all life's passing seasons
bring the best to you and yours!

Thursday, December 30, 2010

The Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces

This is from today's Daily Office readings and fits what I feel today, and I leave it with you today:
Isaiah 25:6-9
On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-matured wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-matured wines strained clear.
And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death for ever.
Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the Lord has spoken. It will be said on that day, Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us. This is the Lord for whom we have waited; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

We've lost a saint today: Greg Bunker

I received very sad news this morning. My dear friend, Greg Bunker, the executive director of Francis House in Sacramento, died last night of a heart attack. It was my honor and privilege to be his friend and to serve on his board for many years.

Greg was a tireless advocate for the homeless, and found endlessly creative ways to get people off the streets and on their feet. He never, never, never gave up. He built Francis House from the ground up, and it serves thousands upon thousands of people who have no other place to turn. The world has lost a saint.

I saw him last in June at a tribute by Sacramento Cottage Housing for Catholic Bishop Francis Quinn. I've always been amazed at how the various organizations working on homeless and poverty issues in Sacramento have been able to work closely with each other. A big reason for that was Greg and his willingness to find the good in everyone. He didn't have a territorial bone in his body.

Greg Bunker worked with homeless folks on a daily basis. And he spoke truth to power, getting at the heart of seemingly simple things that had a huge impact. I worked with him lobbying legislators when he discovered that ex-cons were being paroled from prison with no Department of Motor Vehicles state identification cards (and thus could not apply for a job). Greg was relentless on that issue and so many others, and he won powerful converts like Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg.

When the state of California invoked its imminent domaine rights to claim the property of Francis House so that the state could build the (infamous) East-End office project, many thought it was the doom of Francis House. But not Greg. He found an old building over on C Street, and built Francis House bigger and better.

Greg was a prodigious fund-raiser; he managed to get United Parcel Service to give $100,000 to rehab the old building -- the largest charitable gift in the history of UPS. That was an amazing day when Greg called to announce the grant.

Here is a video of Greg at the tent city in Sacramento, protesting how homelessness has become virtually a crime:

Feast of the Holy Innocents and the innocents in our world

Today our lectionary commemorates the Feast of the Holy Innocents (pulling it forward a day because St. Stephen's Day fell on Sunday).

Today at 5:30 pm we will have a Holy Eucharist at St. Paul's to remember this day; it will be the last Eucharist of the calendar year at St. Paul's, taking the place of our regular Wednesday Evening Prayer. I hope you will join me.

The Feast of the Holy Innocents is meant to remember when King Herod murdered all the young children in Bethlehem because he had heard a king had been born who would take his throne.

Did it happen exactly this way? Probably not. The story appears in Matthew 2:13-18 and nowhere else. Biblical scholars will tell you it is a highly symbolic story meant to evoke Jesus as the new Moses and to fulfill the predictions of the prophet Jeremiah.

That said, I don't want us to lose sight of the Holy Innocents. It was by no means certain that the infant Jesus would survive in the world where he was born. Disease and malnutrition was an ever-present danger. So was warfare.

In our own world, the infant mortality rate is highest in places of extreme poverty and warfare. According to statistics published by the United Nations, the worst infant mortality rates in the world are in Afghanistan, Somalia, Sierra Leone and Angola -- all places torn apart by warfare.

The safest place in the world to be born is Iceland.

For several years now, I've supported an organization, The Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict, or CIVIC, which documents the plight of refugees in war zones and advocates for their relief. The organizations puts people on the ground for first-hand accounts, at great risk to themselves (CIVIC's founder, Marla Ruzicka, was killed by car bomb in Iraq in 2005).

CIVIC has a new report on the plight of people caught in the cross fire in Northwest Pakistan; you can read the report by clicking HERE and a summary is below:
The number of civilian casualties-meaning deaths and injuries-is significant in Pakistan, though exact figures are unknown due to insecurity and government restrictions on information. In 2009, an estimated 2,300 civilians were killed in terror attacks alone with many more injured. Counting losses from Pakistani military operations and U.S. drone strikes, civilian casualties in Pakistan likely exceed in number those in neighboring Afghanistan.

Despite the severity of losses and consequences of ignoring them, civilian casualties receive too little attention from US, Pakistani and donor-nation policymakers, military officials, and international organizations alike. Overlooking the majority of civilians harmed or displaced by combat operations is undermining the Pakistani government's legitimacy. The US, too, has an obligation to these victims, as a major supporter of Pakistan's anti-terror efforts and as a warring party itself, with small numbers of troops on the ground and drones conducting strikes from overhead.
I would commend to you support for CIVIC; you can make a year-end donation by clicking HERE. I am making a donation today. Please join me.

Photograph of refugee children in Afghanistan.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Same-gender blessings report completed, made public

Some months ago, I was appointed by Bishop Shannon Johnson to an 11-member task force to examine the issues of authorizing same-gender blessings in the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia. The bishop appointed this task force in response to a resolution (R14s) approved by diocesan Council last January.

I am very pleased to report that our task is finished and our report is now public.

We began meeting in June, and we met seven times, each meeting lasting several hours. All of us respected the confidentiality that we needed to have for an honest exchange of views, and hence I have said very little about the task force on this blog.

We were asked to complete our report by All Saints Day, and we did so. The report was given to the Bishop and the Executive Council in late October. The bishop made the report public this week, posting it on the Diocesan Council website. You can click HERE to read the full report.

The basic question we were asked was whether any canons or other rules need to be changed for same-gender blessings to proceed in this diocese. Our conclusion is that is it completely within the authority of the bishop as to whether and how such blessings can and should take place. No canons need amending.

We did note that those dioceses that have proceeded with same-gender blessings have done so under guidelines issued by their respective bishops. We examined many sets of guidelines, and drafted proposed guidelines for our bishop, which we have given to him.

The task force report speaks for itself; the crux of our recommendations are in these paragraphs:
We recognize that Resolution 14s called on us to recommend possible “proposed canonical language” that would be required before same-gender blessings could proceed. However, after a careful review of national and diocesan canons, and in consultation with canonical lawyers, we concluded that no diocesan canon needs to be amended, and that no new diocesan canons are required for such blessings. It is our conclusion that same-gender blessings could proceed in this diocese solely through the pastoral authority of the bishop. Our conclusion is also consistent with the practice that we found in other dioceses that have proceeded with same-gender blessings.
Our review brought us to the determination that the best way to discharge our duties as a task group was to develop a set of proposed guidelines for the Diocese of Virginia should the bishop authorize same-gender blessings. We have therefore drafted proposed guidelines for the bishop’s adoption, modification or rejection. We believe that these proposed guidelines could provide an orderly and pastoral response to proceeding with same-gender unions while ensuring the right of clergy to refrain from participation without fear of discipline.
Our recommended guidelines, we believe, are consistent with all existing national and diocesan canons. We were careful to ensure that our proposed guidelines do not exceed the canonical authority of the bishop, or violate the canonical prerogatives and limits upon clergy and vestries. They fall within the scope of the bishop’s existing authority to provide pastoral direction to his clergy, and within the meaning of the General Convention Resolution C056 that “bishops…may provide generous pastoral response to meet the needs of members of this church…” [emphasis added].
Again, I am very pleased to have served on this task force, and I am pleased we are finished. I am happy to answer any questions as best I can, but it should be understood that the next steps are Bishop Johnston's and his alone. Please keep him and our beloved church in your prayers.

Monday, December 27, 2010

The Christmas Monday Funnies

It is still the Twelve Days of Christmas, and how better to keep celebrating than with a few more bad Christmas jokes, a Christmas present from buddy Patrick Hill and a cartoon from Dave Walker.

Ho Ho Ho, enjoy the Monday Funnies:

* * *
There are four ages of man:

1) When you believe in Santa Claus
2) When you don't believe in Santa Claus
3) When you are Santa Claus
4) When you look like Santa Claus
* * *
One night, the local Methodist Church caught fire one night. The fire department quickly arrived and dpoused the fire. As the flames died out, the pastor arrived at the church to survey the damage.
The Pastor recognized the fire captain as a church member who rarely attended. The pastor couldn't resist the chance to minister and said, "Too bad it took a fire to get you to come to church."
The captain responded, "Too bad it's the first time I've seen the church 'on fire."
* * *
A minister of a city church enjoyed a few drinks, but his passion was for peach brandy. One of his congregants would make him a bottle each Christmas.
One year, when the minister went to visit his friend, hoping for his usual Christmas present, he was not disappointed, but his friend told him that he had to thank him for the peach brandy from the pulpit the next Sunday.

In his haste to get the bottle, the minister hurriedly agreed and left. So the next Sunday the minister suddenly remembered that he had to make a public announcement that he was being supplied alcohol from a member of the church. That morning, his friend sat in the church with a grin on his face, waiting to see the minister's embarrassment.

The minister climbed into the pulpit and said, "Before we begin, I have an announcement. I would very much like to thank my friend, Joe, for his kind gift of peaches... and for the spirit in which they were given!"

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Christmas Eve reprise: The Friendly Beasts

We've had quite the Christmas at St. Paul's! And the snow began to fall just as we were finishing our Christmas Day worship.

On Christmas Eve, we put a new wrinkle on the singing of an old carole -- "The Friendly Beasts" (Ok, it is my personal favorite; you can hear it by clicking HERE).

We gave children toy animals to bring to the manger. They come up with their animals and I gave them a short children's homily.

Then we led them around the church in a long extended children's procession while we say the Friendly Beasts. When we got back to the manger, the children gave their animals to the baby Jesus. I then finished the homily in the pulpit. The idea of two parts came from my mentor Don Brown, and the photo is by Diane Wakat, showing the children during the homily. We had about 75 kids marching around the church. Here below is my Friendly Beasts homily:
* * *
Merry Christmas!
First, I want to talk to the children, but the rest of you can listen in. So, kids, come up here for a few minutes. Bring your animals, but hold onto them because you are going to help them in a little while.
Tonight you are going to meet the animals that who were there on that first Christmas night. I want you to imagine what happened with the animals on the night Jesus was born.
Do you know where Jesus was born? Jesus was born in a stable, or a barn. He was surrounded by his mother and father and many animals.
Each of the animals brought a gift to the baby Jesus, and tonight I want you to help the animals bring their gifts to the baby Jesus.
In a few minutes, you will bring the animals to the baby Jesus so the animals can give Jesus their gifts. Think you can do that for them?
Let me tell you about the gifts from the animals.

These are not gifts that the animals went out and bought because, of course, animals don't have any money.
There was a donkey whose gift was to carry Jesus’ mother up hill and down so she could get Bethlehem where Jesus was born.
And a cow whose gift was hay for a pillow; and a sheep with a curly horn who gave Jesus a blanket. And a dove who watched and cooed to help Jesus go to sleep.
And there were many more animals too. On that first night, the animals stayed with Jesus, and his parents, Mary and Joseph.
All the animals simply gave Jesus the best of who they were. They gave freely and happily just because they loved this special baby who was God's gift to the world.
The animals understood who this baby was long before the Wise Men came.
Maybe animals are smarter than people sometimes. What do you think?
All the animals are with us tonight to teach us a lesson. They know that Christmas Eve is very special because we all get a very special gift from God that last forever.
On Christmas Night, the animals teach us we are all blessed by God's Son, and they know they are loved by God forever.
If the animals know they are loved, maybe we can learn this too.
We are all loved by God – that is the real meaning of Christmas for all of God's creatures – you and me and all the animals.
In a minute, we are going to stand up, and we are going to march around the church to bring our animals to Jesus.
You are going to help the animals by bringing them to the manger, representing the first gifts on that first Christmas night.
And when we start marching, I hope you will stand up and sing for our children, and sing like you never have before. If you miss a few notes, who cares?
So let’s get started…
Tonight, I as our children brought the animals to the manger, I am reminded once again what a gift our children are to us.
Our children are reminders that we are all loved by God, no matter our age, our station in life, or what we have done right or wrong in life.
God loves our children unconditionally, and God loves you. No strings attached.
The voices of the Angels declare this love in the starry night, in the carols we sing, in the beauty of creation, in the glow of candles, in the joy we find even in the midst of sorrow and troubles.
And inside all this is the mystery of God's great boundless love that reaches out to embrace you and me.
This love heals and makes possible new beginnings. This love can transform you, and bring joy to the very heart of your life.
This is the truest gift of Christmas; the gift of Jesus brings into our world on a dark winter night. Hold that in your heart this night.
The angel tells us “Do not be afraid,” so don’t be.
To hold Christmas in your heart is to set aside fear, and see that God loves us enough to dwell among us as one of us, to knit us together as one community with many members.
We don’t think alike, talk alike, look alike, or vote alike. None of that is important tonight.
What is important is we are all loved by God no matter who we are or where we come from.

In a short while we will do something to show ourselves as one community, knit together by Christ as the people of God who are loved by God.
We will come together to share in the bread and wine of Holy Communion. I hope you will stay for this, our first meal of Christmas, the first Christmas present given to us.
Whether you have been to Communion a hundred times or this is your first venture into this sacred shared meal, I hope you will take the opportunity tonight to see and taste this bread and wine in a new way.
I hope you experience this Communion tonight as part of your deepest connection to each other and to the God who brought you here, and your connection to a baby born long ago.
So please don’t be shy in coming; all are invited tonight to share in this wonderful communion with each other and the Christ child who comes to us this night.
And don’t let this Christmas communion end for you when you leave tonight. Make tonight a new beginning.
Leave here with new eyes and new ears – for you are Christmas people, and you can see the world in a new way – just as the animals saw the Christ child for the first time on a starry night long ago.
This Christmas season, I would invite you to find ways to deepen your faith, to set aside a regular time each day for prayer, and to join a community of faith if you don’t have one.
If you live here in Charlottesville, and if this experience tonight speaks to you, join us here at St. Paul’s. If you have been away from this church for a while, come back. We want you here with us.
Join us and let’s explore this way of faith together.
May each of you, young and old alike, again know the presence of Christ's blessing and love in your life on this night and forever more. Amen.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Blessings this Christmas Day!

May you be filled with joy this Christmas Day!

Here is my sermon from this morning, based on Luke 2:1-14(15-20):

“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them light has shined.”

Something happened long ago, something so extraordinary it seemed ordinary at first:
The birth of a baby.
Only his parents knew how extraordinary this was at first.
No wise men came, no shepherds, no disciples, no adoring masses, no one was there but his parents.
The gospel writer tells us this baby was born in a stable; born not into wealth, not
into power, not into social status or aristocratic inheritance.
This baby, like so many tens of millions of babies then and now, entered life in obscurity and relative poverty.
The survival of this baby, like tens of millions of other babies then and now, was not so certain at first.
This baby was born out of wedlock, to Jewish parents living in a land occupied by a foreign power, the Roman Empire.
The mother was barely a teenager; her name was Miriam, or Mary. She was to have an arranged marriage with a man named Joseph, but she became pregnant – and not by him – before the wedding.
Her life was immediately in grave danger.
Joseph was a carpenter, and in those days carpenters made simple implements like wooden bowls and mallets. Carpenters like Joseph led a meager hand-to-mouth existence.
Joseph stuck by Mary when he didn’t have to. He could have had her stoned to death, but instead the two fled their hometown of Nazareth.
The gospel writer gives this a polite patina by saying they were going to Bethlehem to register for a census. Except that historians tell us there was no census. Mary and Joseph were probably fleeing scandal and the judgmental eyes of their relatives.
They had nowhere to go in Bethlehem; either there were no relatives in Bethlehem or none would take them in.
And so they had their baby in a stable – a barn.
There was absolutely nothing outwardly extraordinary about this birth.
Not at first.
Then, the gospel writer tells us, the angels started showing up.
And the angels didn’t come to kings or aristocrats. They came to shepherds in a field, at night.
Shepherds were an even lower class than carpenters. They lived outdoors, they lived with sheep, they smelled. And these particular shepherds had the night watch, the lowest of the low.
The angels came to the shepherds to tell them something extraordinary was happening. The birth of a baby in a stable, and this baby would be the messiah, the one who would bring them salvation and freedom, the one they had been waiting for.
How could that be? This baby? Here?
The shepherds were terrified. We are but lowly shepherds, and look, over there, this baby is in a barn. This is not what we expect. This is very different.
But the shepherds went, and looked, and then they understood. They found the Anointed One, the Christ, lying in a hay trough.
They expected a king on a throne tossing off judgments like thunderbolts, but they got a healer who would lead a life of simplicity, prayer and truth.
They expected a God of war. They got the Prince of Peace.
The truth of the message of Jesus Christ can be heard right here, in the story of his birth. This messiah is different than anyone or anything the world expects. He comes to set people free in their lowest places, their lowest moments, to bring unconditional love and unlimited healing that lasts beyond this world.
What better way for God to tell us this than by coming to us in a helpless baby, born in the lowest caste?
The world of power and politics is turned upside down by this one birth. Everything is now different.
The story of Jesus – his birth, his life, his ministry and his death on the Cross begins this day. So does the story of Easter, and how Jesus after his death appeared to his followers and gave them strength and courage against all odds.

Christmas forms this great bookend with Easter, and truly the two must be seen together.
Those who first saw the Risen Christ of Easter continued to write this story in the way they lived afterwards. The first Christians called this new religion simply “The Way.”
Their story is also our story. We continue to write this story by the way we live our lives.
This way of life, this way of faith, is not just about the afterlife. It is about this life. It is about how we live right now, here, today and tomorrow.
This Christmas season, I would invite you to find ways to deepen your faith, to set aside a regular time each day for prayer, and to join a community of faith if you don’t have one.
If you live here in Charlottesville, and if any of this speaks to you, join us here at St. Paul’s. If you have been away from this church for a while, come back.
Join us and let’s explore this way of life and faith together in this loving caring community.

And then we have work to do, people feed, the sick to comfort, children to rear, and a hurting world that needs every single one of us.
This way of life will change you if you let it. This way of life will change everything in this world if we let it.
This way of life begins today with the birth of a baby long ago.
“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them light has shined.”
May you have many blessings this Christmas Day and always. AMEN.

Friday, December 24, 2010

My favorite Christmas story of all time: "Get the kid his peaches."

Here, my friends, is a great Christmas story told by a great story teller, Al Martinez, formerly of the Oakland Tribune and Los Angeles Times.

As you may know, I spent 20+ years as a newspaper reporter in California, and spent many tedious hours on the night desk on holidays. This story brings a tear to my eye every time I read it. So, continuing the Christmas tradition of Fiat Lux, here again is Al's great Christmas story. Merry Christmas . . .
A Christmas Story
By Al Martinez

IT happened one Christmas Eve a long time ago in a place called Oakland on a newspaper called the Tribune with a city editor named Alfred P. Reck.

I was working swing shift on general assignment, writing the story of a boy who was dying of leukemia and whose greatest wish was for fresh peaches.

It was a story which, in the tradition of 1950s journalism, would be milked for every sob we could squeeze from it, because everyone loved a good cry on Christmas.

We knew how to play a tear-jerker in those days, and I was full of the kinds of passions that could make a sailor weep.

I remember it was about 11 o'clock at night and pouring rain outside when I began putting the piece together for the next day's editions.

Deadline was an hour away, but an hour is a lifetime when you're young and fast and never get tired.

Then the telephone rang.

It was Al Reck calling, as he always did at night, and he'd had a few under his belt.

Reck was a drinking man. With diabetes and epilepsy, hard liquor was about the last thing he ought to be messing with, but you didn't tell Al what he ought to or ought not to do.

He was essentially a gentle man who rarely raised his voice, but you knew he was the city editor, and in those days the city editor was the law and the word in the newsroom.

But there was more than fear and tradition at work for Al.

We respected him immensely, not only for his abilities as a newsman, but for his humanity. Al was sensitive both to our needs and the needs of those whose names and faces appeared in the pages of the Oakland Tribune.

"What's up?" he asked me that Christmas Eve in a voice as soft and slurred as a summer breeze.

He already knew what was up because, during 25 years on the city desk, Reck somehow always knew what was up, but he wanted to hear it from the man handling the story.

I told him about the kid dying of leukemia and about the peaches and about how there simply were no fresh peaches, but it still made a good piece. We had art and a hole waiting on page one.

Al listened for a moment and then said, "How long's he got?"

"Not long," I said. "His doctor says maybe a day or two."

There was a long silence and then Al said, "Get the kid his peaches."

"I've called all over," I said. "None of the produce places in the Bay Area have fresh peaches. They're just plain out of season. It's winter."

"Not everywhere. Call Australia."

"Al," I began to argue, "it's after 11 and I have no idea . . .”

"Call Australia," he said, and then hung up.

If Al said call Australia, I would call Australia.

I don't quite remember whom I telephoned, newspapers maybe and agricultural associations, but I ended up finding fresh peaches and an airline that would fly them to the Bay Area before the end of Christmas Day.

There was only one problem. Customs wouldn't clear them. They were an agricultural product and would be hung up at San Francisco International at least for a day, and possibly forever.

Reck called again. He listened to the problem and told me to telephone the secretary of agriculture and have him clear the peaches when they arrived.

"It's close to midnight," I argued. "His office is closed."

"Take this number down," Reck said. "It's his home. Tell him I told you to call."

It was axiomatic among the admirers of Al Reck that he knew everyone and everyone knew him, from cops on the street to government leaders in their Georgetown estates. No one knew how Al knew them or why, but he did.

I made the call. The secretary said he'd have the peaches cleared when they arrived and give Al Reck his best.

"All right," Reck said on his third and final call to me, "now arrange for one of our photographers to meet the plane and take the peaches over to the boy's house."

He had been drinking steadily throughout the evening and the slurring had become almost impossible to understand.

By then it was a few minutes past midnight, and just a heartbeat and a half to the final deadline.

"Al," I said, "if I don't start writing this now I'll never get the story in the paper."

I won't forget this moment.

"I didn't say get the story," Reck replied gently. "I said get the kid his peaches."

If there is a flash point in our lives to which we can refer later, moments that shape our attitudes and affect our futures, that was mine.

Alfred Pierce Reck had defined for me the importance of what we do, lifting it beyond newsprint and deadline to a level of humanity that transcends job. He understood not only what we did but what we were supposed to do.

I didn't say get the story. I said get the kid his peaches.

The boy got his peaches and the story made the home edition, and I received a lesson in journalism more important than any I've learned since.

I wanted you to know that this Christmas season.

Al Martinez is a former reporter and columnist for The Oakland Tribune, from 1955 to 1971, The Richmond (Calif.) Independent and Los Angeles Times to now. Born in Oakland, he also has written several novels, for television and the movies. This article first appeared in the Los Angeles Times on Dec. 25, 1986.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Christmas story through the eyes of children

Here is a bonus for your week, the Christmas story as told by the children of St. Paul's Church, Auckland, New Zealand. This is worth a few minutes of your time. Enjoy!

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The New Jerusalem inside each of us

I was up early today, long before dawn. It was still very dark out. I found the quiet and darkness to be calming and wonderful.

The distracting voices that always rush in the minute I am awake, though still lurking, quieted themselves for a time.

In the readings for the day, I was especially taken by the image of the "New Jerusalem" from Revelation 21:9-21 of a City with gates for all the tribes of Israel and all the apostles of Jesus, with jewels all over the place, with names I cannot pronounce, and the streets paved with gold.

I pictured there must be gates for all the peoples of the earth, and that this is the City where peace and justice reigns, so unlike the world in which we live.

I pictured many friends and relatives who have died, and who are now in this City, beginning with my Dad and my brother. So many people I know, I named as many as I could remember and asked forgiveness for those I could not remember. I pictured their faces, saw them happy and smiling. I found my own peace seeing them in this City, and my own fear of death dropped away in these moments. I waited awhile before praying for the people in this world; I wanted to stay in the City for a little longer, but I was told to go.

With the image of the City still somewhere in me, I moved onto to Luke 1:26-38, the story of the angel Gabriel telling Mary that she will be pregnant with Jesus. "How can this be, since I am a virgin?" she exclaims.

The angel tells her "The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you."

The line is meant to explain the virgin birth, but I was struck by something else about that line, something more important than biology. I wonder if the Holy Spirit "coming upon" Mary is why her image is so powerful to us still? Mary is changed, she is different, and it is more than being pregnant. Mary is changed forever in these moments. The Holy Spirit takes her form, overshadowing her, the two seem to merge. Maybe this is how and why the Holy Spirit comes to be seen most powerfully in female form?

In the darkness, I prayed she was with me. I prayed she would come to people I know who are sick and hurting, lonely and grieving in this world. I prayed their hurt would be lifted, that they would catch a glimpse of the City, and that my own eyes might help them see the City more clearly. I prayed that their fear will be lifted, and they will find peace and healing and comfort.

The next stop in my prayers was the "Collect" or opening prayer from this past Sunday -- and it mentioned preparing a "mansion" inside us for the coming of Christ. It hit me then that the City is inside me, a place I can touch, a place that is inside all of us that we can touch always.

"Greetings favored one! The Lord is with you," the angel Gabriel proclaimed. "Do not be afraid."

The Heart-in-waiting

This poem came across my email the other day and so I thought I'd share it with you:

The Heart-in-waiting

Jesus walked through whispering wood:
'I am pale blossom, I am blood berry,
I am rough bark, I am sharp thorn.
This is the place where you will be born.'

Jesus went down to the skirl of the sea:
'I am long reach, I am fierce comber,
I am keen saltspray, I am spring tide.'
He pushed the cup of the sea aside

And heard the sky which breathed-and-blew:
'I am the firmament, I am shape-changer,
I cradle and carry and kiss and roar,
I am infinite roof and floor.'

All day he walked, he walked all night,
Then Jesus came to the heart at dawn.
'Here and now,' said the heart-in-waiting,
'This is the place where you must be born.'

By Kevin Crossley-Holland, from Selected Poems, 2001; Photo by Ina Hramacek.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

A new heaven and a new earth: The amazing sky this morning and the lunar eclipse

The heavens gave us an amazing display early this morning, ushering in the Winter Solstice. The Earth came between the sun and the moon, and the shadow of the Earth turned the moon into a bright orange creating a total lunar eclipse.

We got up at 2 am, bundled up, and stood on our front porch. The orange moon came in and out of view in the wispy fog above our heads. The woods on our mountain were dark and foreboding, but the layer of snow on the ground shimmered like frosting on a cake. Lori says she saw a meteor, but I missed it. The universe was bursting aglow all around us and under our feet.

This morning when I got up for my morning prayers, the moon was setting in the west, casting shadows from the trees in our woods, giving one last display of its light. Then the moon disappeared and it was dark again, but the sky gave an Advent blue cast, and the woods looked gray. With the sun coming up in the East as I write this, the western sky has a purple tint.

The experience from last night's sky danced through my prayers as I read the Daily Office readings. From Isaiah 11:10-16, the prophet proclaims outcasts will be gathered from far and wide, and hostility shall depart.

From Revelation 20:11-21:8, the mystic visionary writer declares:
"I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away... And I saw a holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God... And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, 'See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God, they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and and crying and pain will be no more..."
God is certainly dwelling on our earth with us this morning.

And then in Luke 1:5-25, the story of Zechariah being struck mute, for a time, at the news of his pregnant wife, Elizabeth. The claims in these biblical readings are awesome. So is an orange moon. Maybe silence is the right way to greet these events. Silence for a time.

Monday, December 20, 2010

The Christmas Monday Funnies

A few Christmas funnies for your Monday. Stay warm . . .
* * *
Name That Christmas Carol
(answers below)

1. Bleached Yule
2. Castaneous-colored Seed Vesicated in a Conflagration
3. Singular Yearning for the Twin Anterior Incisors
4. Righteous Darkness
5. Arrival Time2400 hrs - WeatherCloudless
6. Loyal Followers Advance
7. Far Off in a Feeder
8. Array the Corridor
9. Bantam Male Percussionist
10. Monarchial Triad
11. Nocturnal Noiselessness
12. Jehovah Deactivate Blithe Chevaliers
13. Red Man En Route to Borough
14. Frozen Precipitation Commence
15. Proceed and Enlighten on the Pinnacle
16. The Quadruped with the Vermillion Probiscis
17. Query Regarding Identity of Descendant
18. Delight for this Planet
19. Give Attention to the Melodious Celestial Beings
20. The Dozen Festive 24 Hour Intervals

* * *
Every Christmas morning, when my kids were little, I read them the nativity story out of the big family bible.

When the youngest daugher was old enough to talk, she asked me what a stable was.

I thought for a moment how to explain it to her in terms she could understand, then told her, "It's something like your sister's room, but without a stereo."
* * *

1. White Christmas
2. Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire
3. All I Want for Christmas is My Two Front Teeth
4. O Holy Night
5. It Came Upon a Midnight Clear
6. O Come, All Ye Faithful
7. Away in a Manger
8. Deck the Hall
9. Little Drummer Boy
10. We Three Kings
11. Silent Night
12. God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen
13. Santa Claus is Coming to Town
14. Let it Snow
15. Go, Tell It on the Mountain
16. Rudolph, the Red-nosed Reindeer
17. What Child is This?
18. Joy to the World
19. Hark! The Herald Angels Sing
20. The Twelve Days of Christmas

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Mary: Mother of God? First disciple?

Today we reach the Fourth Sunday of Advent, or in popular lore, "Mary Sunday."

And though the gospel lesson for today, Matthew 1:18-25, is focused on Joseph, I still felt like preaching about Mary. Here is my sermon for today:

* * *
The Blessed Virgin Mary

Grace and peace to you this Holy day.

We’ve officially reached the Fourth Sunday of Advent. In popular lore, today is known as Mary Sunday.
In a little while, we are going to recite the Nicene Creed, and we will say the following line: “by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary and was made man.”
Now I know full well that some of you will be literally or figuratively crossing your fingers when you say that line, or your voices will drop to a mumble.
So I want to spend some time today talking about the Blessed Virgin Mary. To see her, we need to cut through layers and layers of hazy church history and dense theologizing. To see Mary, we need to use a little mental archaeology.
What do we know of Mary? Not a great deal. Her name in Hebrew was Miriam. She was very young, maybe 13 or 14 when she became pregnant out of wedlock.
The Greek of the New Testament uses the word παρθενος, which we translate as “virgin” in English; the word also means “young girl” or “maiden.” The word has everything to do with her age and martial status, not just her biology.
This we also know: Mary was betrothed to Joseph, a Jewish man probably quite a bit older than she, and almost certainly it was an arranged marriage. She no doubt outlived him, for we hear little else about Joseph soon after.
In the Gospel of Matthew, an angel tells Joseph about Mary’s pregnancy and to not be afraid. The angel tells Joseph that a child will come and he is to take care of him and call him “Emmanuel” – God is with us. He has no idea who the father is – the angel doesn’t tell him. All he knows is the maiden he is about to marry is pregnant and not by him.
Jewish law held that Joseph, if he wished, could have had Mary stoned to death for what was an obvious tarnishing of his honor.
He could have dispatched her just like this, and no one would have thought it wrong.

It is a great act of faith on the part of Joseph that he weds Mary anyway and protects her child and takes her child as his own.
We don’t get much of a portrait of Mary in the Gospel of Matthew. She gives birth in a stable but we don’t hear from her in Matthew. She is almost a secondary character in Matthew.
It is to the Gospel of Luke where we must turn to catch a glimpse of Mary’s personality.
In Luke, we hear that an angel came to Mary in a dream, and told her she was with child, and that God was already dwelling within her.
Mary must have been terrified. She knew Joseph could have her put to death, and still she said “yes” to having this child, and she trusted all would be well even when reason was screaming otherwise.
"My soul magnifies the Lord,” Mary sings in the Gospel of Luke, “and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.”
The rest of the story of Mary, Joseph and Jesus will unfold in the days and weeks ahead as we walk toward Christmas and the Cross and Easter beyond.
There is another side to the Mary story, and to hear it we need to fast-forward into the fourth century, to that Nicene Creed that we say, and to how early Christians struggled to understand their experience of the Risen Christ.
The church fathers, and they were men, knew there was something miraculous about the birth of Jesus, as indeed there was. But they struggled mightly with the idea that Jesus was both God and man at the same time.
To be God, they reasoned, he must be pure, he must be without sin, and by the fourth century sinfulness was becoming equated with the human body and sexuality. Some influential Greek philosophers saw the human body as revolting, and so all sex, even in the covenant of marriage, became sinful.
For Jesus to be without sin, they reasoned, he must have been born outside of sexual relations. The focus on Mary as a pure “virgin” came into high relief.
A legend even grew that Mary’s own birth must have been to a virgin mother, becoming known as the “immaculate conception” of Mary. Mary needed to be born in purity for Jesus to be born in purity. You can see where this is going.
Maybe all of that is true. But what is so unfortunate is how the human body came to be seen as a sinful vessel. Our current conflicts over sexuality began right here.
The Church began to lose sight of Mary’s humanity and her act of discipleship toward the child she bore. The ancient Church rendered Mary into a perpetual virgin.
The gospels note, by the way, that Mary had many more children after Jesus including his brother Jacob, whom we know as James.
His siblings pop up all over the place in the gospels, and yet the Church began to maintain that Mary was a perpetual virgin. Even in the gospel lesson you hear today, Joseph had marital relations with Mary.
The real miracle of Jesus’ birth is that God chose to walk among us as a human being. By so doing, God showed us that the human body is good, that our creation is divine, and our deepest most intimate and committed relationships with each other are truly ordained by God and should be cherished as sacred.
Something else happened as the centuries unfolded that clouds how we view Mary. The idea grew that Jesus was a mighty warrior, and you can see that reflected in medieval art in depictions of Jesus wearing armor and holding a sword.

With that grew the idea that Jesus was inaccessible, and so a counterbalancing cult of Mary grew. If we could not pray to Jesus, surely he would listen to his mother. So direct your prayers to Mary and she’ll talk to him for you. Call it heavenly triangulating.
Mary acquired a new title in Greek – Τηεοτοκος, the Mother of God.
Centuries later, Protestant reformers railed against the idea that they needed Mary to reach Jesus.
So they sought to rid Christianity of the cult of Mary. The new Protestants banished Mary statues and rosary beads, and mocked apparitions of Mary as superstition.
That reaction was also unfortunate side to it. In so doing, Protestantism lost sight of Mary as the mother of Jesus.
She was there at his birth and at his death; she is the one who ought to be thought of as the first apostle, the first disciple; the one who said “yes” every step of the way; the very blessed one who showed more courage than a legion of Roman warriors.
There is one more level to this that I would commend to you.
I believe the images of Mary are another way for the Holy Spirit to reach us in unexpected ways. The Holy comes to us not just in male imagery – not just as God the Father and God the Son.
The Holy Spirit can come to us as female, as she can and will touch us here in our heart in ways that will comfort us, give us courage and strength, and change us in ways we can scarcely imagine.
The Holy Spirit is like a wind that will blow where she will, and will show her face in ways that speak to us in the depths of our soul, and gives us strength and courage when we most need it most. The question is do we have eyes to see and ears to hear?
To me, this idea of Mary is a reminder that not all of life can be understood by our intellect. Not everything lends itself to neat equations and philosophical categories.
Much of life is inexplicable and only can be experienced as the inexplicable. Sometimes a legend or a poem is more powerful than a dense theological treatise.
The holy can come when we least expect it, coming as a friend who listens, or in the quiet of the night, or as an image of a young mother, or as a newborn child.

And so I bring you back to Mary, the Blessed Maiden Miriam, who rejoiced at hearing she would have her child, and was with him at every step of his life, even to his death and beyond.
She certainly had a mother’s worries, but she moved forward in faith anyway. She was truly the first Christian, and she still has much to teach us about how to say “yes” when it is hardest, and how to be a servant to the lowly, and what it means to face tremendous challenges with courage and even joy.
"My soul magnifies the Lord,” Mary sings, “and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.”

Theotokos icon by Kenneth D. Dowdy.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

What would healing look like for you?

My prayer meandered for awhile this Saturday morning. It took awhile to catch.

Candidly the Daily Office readings were pretty blah. The prophet Isaiah 10:20-27 talked of the Lord "wielding a whip," and then the obscure Letter of Jude 17-25 implored we should save people from unholiness while "hating even the tunic" of those who won't go along with the program. And then we meet up with John the Baptist in Luke 3:1-9 one more time calling us a "brood of vipers."

I get what all this is about, but I've had enough of John the Baptist this season. We've had him every which way, and it feels time to move on from the river and the locusts-and-honey. But I thought, let's dwell with this a little longer, see where we go. My prayer became about ridding myself of my flaws. Isn't that the point of all these lessons today?

Then the Voice said, "Go a little deeper with this. It's not about self-help and self-improvement. It's not about anything you can do for yourself. It's about grace and the power of love."

So I tried to go a little deeper. In my prayer I realized the point is about healing of all that hurts me, all that has wounded me throughout my life, and lifting from my back all of the baggage that I have carried around. I began to picture what healing at its deepest would like like for me, and what it would mean to leave those heavy bags beside the road, and walk on without them. This became very personal and felt very freeing.

What would healing look like for you? What bags do you need to leave beside the road so you can walk on?

And then I heard the Voice say "It is Saturday. It is Sabbath. I made the Sabbath for you today. Be at peace, be at rest this day."


Thursday, December 16, 2010

Christmas 2010: A Message from Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. —Isaiah 9:2

That's how the first lesson of Christmas Eve opens. It's familiar and comforting, as the familiar words go on to say that light has shined on those who live in deep darkness, that God has brought joy to people living under oppression, for a child has been borne to us. The name of that child is Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace — and God is bringing an endless peace through an heir to the throne of David (vv 3, 4, 6, 7).

This year we're going to hear a bit we haven't heard in Episcopal churches before, in that missing verse 5. It's pretty shocking, but it helps explain why the hunger for light is so intense, and the joy so great when it comes: "For all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire." The coming of this prince of peace will mean the end of all signs of war and violence. An occupied people will finally live in peace, without anxiety about who or what will confront them the next time they go out their front doors.

People in many parts of this world still live with the echo of tramping boots and the memory of bloody clothing. Many Episcopalians are living with that anxiety right now, particularly in Haiti and Sudan. Americans know it through the ongoing anxiety after September 11 and in the wounded soldiers returning to their families and communities, grievously changed by their experience of war. Remember the terror of war when you hear those words about light on Christmas Eve. Remember the hunger for peace and light when you hear the shocking promise that a poor child born in a stable will lead us all into a world without war. Remember the power of light when you go out into the darkness after hearing those words — and pray that you and those around you may become instruments of peace.

Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors! —Luke 2:14

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Blue Christmas at Church of Our Saviour

Our friends at Church of Our Saviour (1165 Rio Road, Charlottesville) are offering this worship service Wednesday at 7 pm, and I thought you might like to know about it. The time conflicts with our Community Night, but maybe this is the place you need to be this week. Here is the information:

Blue Christmas

Is this Christmas season a difficult one for you? You are not alone – join us for a quiet, reflective service for solace and strength.
Christmas time can be a very lonely, depressing, "blue" time for those grieving the loss of loved ones, loss of a job, health or other losses. It may be “blue” for those who are all alone when others are partying and gathering with family members.
Many people feel out of step with what society demands at this time of year. Then there are those years in our lives when we hurt during the Christmas season and just can't get into the traditional festivities.
It is at such times that we need to make the space and take the time to acknowledge our sadness and concern. We need to know we are not alone.
If you or someone you know finds Christmas a difficult time, Church of Our Saviour invites you to attend a Blue Christmas service on Wednesday, December 15, at 7:00 pm in the main church.
Join together to listen to prayers and scripture that acknowledge God's presence, even in times of sadness and struggle. God's Word comes to shine light into our darkness regardless of where we are, and we can lay our burdens before our Savior and Mediator at the time of year we celebrate His birth. The service will include special music, including our own Canterbury Bells.
The service will be followed by light refreshments and fellowship. Please accept this invitation to be with us, to experience the hope that is Christmas. The doors will be open to all. Feel free to invite others to come with you as your support, or if you know that they, too, are hurting at Christmas. If you have any questions, please contact Carolyn Voldrich at the church (434-973-6512).
From downtown Charlottesville and the Rt. 250 Bypass: Go west on Park Street, which becomes East Rio Rd., After passing a set of gas stations on the right, look for the stone chapel with the red tile roof on the right. Right past it, turn right onto Huntington Rd. and into the church parking lot.
From Route 29: Turn east onto Rio Rd., toward downtown Charlottesville. After approximately one mile, turn left onto Huntington Road and into the church parking lot.

Monday, December 13, 2010

The Monday Funnies

Last week we brought you the Hanakkah ham. This week, more of the sacred and profane with food. Look closely -- it's all pork. Enjoy your Monday. . .

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Watch for the Holy: Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe

This is my sermon from our 5:30 pm service tonight. Peace and blessings to all on this holy day.
Tonight I want to tell you a story. This story is probably more legend than fact, but it is a true story.
This story has touched millions of people, and still touches them. We do well to hear their this story because it is their story. It can be ours if we have eyes to see and ears to hear.
Here is the story:
Nearly 500 years ago, an Aztec Indian with a Spanish name – Juan Diego – saw an apparition of the Virgin Mary. The local Spanish bishop, Juan de Zumárraga, did not believe Juan Diego and told him to bring back proof of this vision.
Juan Diego went to where he saw the apparition, and saw her again. She told him to return to the bishop, and when he did, he came back with his tunic full of flowers – Castilian roses – and the roses were blooming in winter. When Juan Diego poured the roses from his tunic, an image of Mary was imprinted on his tunic.
That image has become probably the most copied and venerated image of Mary in the world.
Today is her feast day - Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe – the Virgin of Guadalupe. This day in 1531 marks when an poor Aztec peasant brought roses to the bishop, and the bishop had to believe him.
Whether you believe in the story, or believe it happened exactly that way, is less important than what she represents primarily to the people of Mexico and Latin America; and what it represents to people in the border states of California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas; and what it represents to to thousands of people who live here in Charlottesville who we rarely see on this corner except to trim the lawns and clean the toilets of UVA.
Her shrine near Mexico City is the most visited and venerated Marian shrine in the world. The Virgin of Guadalupe is sometimes known as the brown virgin – her skin color is that of the indigenous peoples of America. She is the Mary of the poor and the outcasts and those left behind or wiped out as Europeans colonized, industrialized and regimented the Americas.
Even the word “Guadalupe” has roots in native Aztec language, and many believe her image is filled with Aztec symbols.
She is the Mary of hope to the poor of the Americas, and these days hope is especially in short supply in Mexico these days.
There is one more level to this that I would commend to you, and I believe it makes this story of Guadalupe everyone’s story, and part of the Christmas story.
The Holy comes to us not just in male imagery – not just as God the Father and God the Son. The Holy can come to us as female, as a woman, as a mother, and she can and will touch us here in our heart in ways that will comfort us, give us courage and strength, and change us in ways we can scarcely imagine.
The Holy Spirit is like a wind that will blow where she will, and will show her face in ways that speak to us in the depths of our soul, and gives us strength and courage when we most need it most. The question is do we have eyes to see and ears to hear?
To me, this idea of Guadalupe is a reminder that not all of life can be understood by our intellect. That is an especially important message to us who work or study or live near this great university. Not everything lends itself to neat equations.
Much of life is inexplicable and can only be experienced as the inexplicable. Sometimes a legend or a poem is more powerful than a dense treatise.
The holy can come in surprising ways when we least expect it as a friend who listens, or in the quiet of the night, or as a woman bearing roses in winter, or as a newborn child.
The story of Guadalupe is part of the Christmas story, for she points to the messiah who is to come and is already here.
We hear John the Baptist in the Gospel asking what kind of messiah is here, and Jesus replies that his messiahship is not about power and violence. This is the messiah of the weak and lonely.
John the Baptist asks, and Jesus replies: “Go and tell John what you hear and see: The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.”
In this season of Advent, as we go about our busy lives, as exams and papers come due, it is my prayer that all of us here – you and I – will pause and look for the Holy in our every day life. Look for the holy in the ordinary, look for the holy in face of the person next to you – and be ready to be surprised. Watch for the Holy, she is here now. Amen.

It's all about showing up, or who is this messiah anyway?

This morning we have the children's Christmas pageant at the 10 am worship service. I am preaching at the 8 am service and the 5:30 pm service. The Rev. Nicholas Forti, our newly ordained priest, will celebrate his first Eucharist at the 10 am service.

At the later service, I will be talking about a feast day that the captures the imagination of much of the world -- the feast of the Virgin of Guadalupe. That sermon will be posted later this afternoon.

My 8 am sermon is posted below, and is based on James 5:7-10, Matthew 11:2-11. Here is the sermon:

* * *

It’s all about showing up.
Today the lessons have an outwardly simple theme: Showing up.
But let’s back up.
To set our stage: We meet again John the Baptist, only this time when we meet him, he is in prison. The placement of this passage in our weekly lectionary is a bit odd, because last week he was standing in the River Jordan calling people vipers, and this week he is already in prison.
We have skipped past Jesus coming to him to be baptized – we will circle back to that part of the story on another Sunday. The passage comes this week because it helps set the stage for Christmas, the birth of the messiah. But we aren’t quite there yet.
Today, John the Baptist is in jail and he sends a message to Jesus:
“Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”
He wants to know, who are you? Who has shown up?
John’s question is jarring. Doesn’t John already know the answer?
According to Luke, John has always known Jesus. They are blood relatives. Even before he was born, John knew it was Jesus in his mother’s womb when Mary came to see John’s mother Elizabeth.
John had leapt in his mother’s womb when Mary, pregnant with Jesus, entered the room. And they were cousins, and probably grew up together.
So it’s a very odd question from someone who supposedly knows the answer.
One way to read this is to hear John expressing doubt – and I take comfort in that. He’s experienced Jesus first hand, and still he is not sure.
Maybe even John the Baptist, this strident prophet of God’s kingdom, had his moments of doubt. From our moments of doubt can come moments of clarity.
Paradoxically, doubt can be a tool pushing us to a deeper place of faith by compelling us to ask hard questions and not settle for pat answers.
Yet John may be asking a more nuanced question, and the nuance can be found in Jesus’ answer.
John is really asking: What kind of messiah are you? Are you the one we have heard about: A messiah who will raise an army and vanquish the Romans with a sword in your hand? A messiah like King David who will bring us back to the glory years? Are you that kind of messiah?
That is the kind of messiah people yearn for in the time of Jesus.
By one estimate I’ve read, two-thirds of the Jewish population of the Middle-east was annihilated by the Romans in the century of Jesus. It was the first Holocaust, and we do well to read the New Testament with that backdrop in mind.
John the Baptist’s question is not unreasonable.

There was another “messiah” – Shimon Bar-Kokhba – who led an uprising against the Romans that briefly gained momentum before he and his followers were crushed by the legions.
John the Baptist wants to know: Are you this kind of messiah? Or are you something else?
Jesus replies, I am something else.
“Go and tell John what you hear and see: The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.”
Jesus is a very different kind of messiah.
Then he lobs a wonderful inside joke. Like all inside-jokes, you have to have been there to get the humor, and this joke is 2,000 years old, so you can be excused if it flew past you.
“What did you go out into the wilderness to look at?” Jesus asks, “A reed shaken by the wind?”
The reed was the symbol of Herod Antipas, the Judean king who is a puppet of the Romans. Herod’s reed was stamped on coins to show his strength.
Jesus takes a dig at Herod by calling him a “reed shaken by the wind.” Jesus is calling Herod a wimp.
That is an outlandish statement on the part of Jesus. After all, Herod is part of the Roman machine that will put Jesus to death. So what to make of this?
Jesus is saying that he is a messiah that stands outside of the human social and political order. We get a messiah who is pointedly not a politician with his symbol on a coin, not someone “in soft robes” – another dig at Herod.

Jesus is not using his messiahship as a place of power, but quite the opposite. He is saying I am the messiah who brings healing and health and life now.
The values of the world – power, possessions, violence – have nothing to do with what this kind of messiah is. Power, possessions and violence are but empty idols.
Jesus makes his claim of messiahship by standing outside those values, and by standing inside of God’s unlimited Grace that has no boundaries in this world or in the next.
The values of Jesus, the One for whom we are waiting, are the values of healing, wholeness, forgiveness and reconciliation.
Salvation comes not as a reward for standing in lock step with a political leader, or strictly adhering to a set of doctrines.
Salvation comes not from a human economy based on reward-and-punishment.
Rather salvation is gift from God’s unlimited grace-filled abundance. By saying so, Jesus is deliberately setting himself up outside the social order of this world.

Jesus’ position is profoundly threatening to the powers of this world because he is declaring that our salvation is not dependent on those powers.
His position brought tension in his time and brings tension in ours. We still live in a world dominated by politics and economics. We need social order. We still need police officers to patrol our streets and show up at this church when we have a break-in.
We need schools to educate our children, and yes, we still need the Congress to pass laws to deal with complex issues like health care, energy, national security, economics and global warming.
But we should not mistake our social order as being our messiah. Or to put this another way, our limited social constructions, even at their best, are not the best God has for us. They can become empty idols if we are not careful.
And that brings us back to Jesus, the One whom John wonders: What kind of Messiah are you?
Jesus replies with his life-giving actions, demonstrating that God’s gift of eternal life begins now, not in the future, but now. Healing and wholeness are ours, now.
That, too, is an outlandish statement.
We all know that people get sick and tragedy happens. So how can Jesus make this claim? I believe Jesus is showing us that there is a continuum from this world into the world just beyond the horizon of our experience.
There really is more to this Creation than what you see now. Healing does come, sometimes here, sometimes there – but healing comes.
God’s creation is all connected in this world and in the next. So be awake, look for the salvation that is already yours.

Life eternal begins in this place and dwells with each and every one of us. The One who comes is already here. The dawn soon arrives, and the blessing is ours forever. Amen.
Icon above of John the Baptist.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Photos from the ordination of Nicholas Forti

The ordination of new priests is always glorious -- and I have to use the word, it really is!

The ordinations on Saturday at St. Mary's Goochland (a suburb of Richmond) were spectacular. Our own Nicholas Forti, our newest associate rector, was among those ordained to the priesthood.

It was my honor and privilege to be among his presenters, and then to stand there as part of the "laying on of hands" while Bishop Shannon Johnston ordained him.

Our other priests, Ann Willms and Heather Warren were also present to lay hands on Nik. And we had a large contingent of St. Paul's folks in the congregation.

We were definitely a sea of red -- the traditional color at ordinations meant to symbolize the Holy Spirit.

Nik's first celebration of the Eucharist as a priest will be at our 10 am service Sunday. Do please come, and come to the reception afterwards in the parish hall.

Here are some photographs from Saturday taken by one of Nik's friends, Tracey Kelly.

Friday, December 10, 2010

The Upper Room, surrounded by everyone we love, no dividing lines

In the last few days, the lectionary Daily Office readings have brought us to the "Upper Room" where so much takes place in the story of Jesus and his followers.

The reading from Thursday, Luke 22:1-13, has Jesus telling his followers to meet him in the room and make preparations for their Passover meal.

Today Luke 22:14-30 is the story of that last meal -- the "Last Supper" -- with Jesus telling his followers to remember him in the bread and wine every time they gather.

In my own morning meditation, I've been imagining myself in the room. I can see the stone walls, and feel the floor beneath me where I sit.

I am surrounded by friends and family, and especially people I know who are hurting and in need of healing, or reassurance, or a dose of love and hope. I name them, and I can see their faces sitting there with me in the Upper Room. Some are with me still living in this world, others are in the next. There is no dividing line between the living and the dead in my mediation. All are alive with me in that room.

I can imagine Jesus sitting with us -- all of us -- and telling us over and over, quietly, that we are loved and healed and whole and connected with each other and with him. He doesn't say much else in my meditation. That really is enough. More than enough.

I remember that every time we gather for our Holy Eucharist, we are gathering again in the Upper Room, the place of the Last Supper, and when we do, we gather with everyone we love, in this life and in the next. That really is enough. More than enough.

My meditation made me curious about the other biblical stories of the Upper Room, and specifically the versions by the writer of the Gospel of Luke who was a follower of the apostle Paul. The writer of Luke makes no claim of being there, but gathered these stories from many sources and wrote them down.

As Luke's story unfolds after the crucifixion, Jesus comes back and is seen again by his followers in many places but especially in that Upper Room. In Luke 24:36-43, the followers have gathered in fear, and when Jesus comes into the room "they are startled and terrified."

Then he asks them for something to eat. Always there seems to be a meal.

Maybe it was a big room. I hope so, because there are a lot of people I want with me in this room. Acts 1:12-15 (written by the author of Luke) reports that 120 followers are gathered in and around this room, including many women and "Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers." Perhaps the writer of Luke-Acts was a woman, and I like to think that she got some of these stories from Mary herself.

The story gets a bit convoluted in Acts, with backtracking about Judas and the election of someone to take his place. It picks up again at Acts 2:1-12 with Pentecost, with the followers in the Upper Room being filled with the Holy Spirit and understanding each other perfectly no matter what language they speak in. The bickering ends, if only for a few moments.

The bickering begins again when they leave the Upper Room.

Luke 24:44-53 has a less dramatic but no less a profound a version of these events in the Upper Room after the crucifixion. Jesus comes to his followers in the room and shares a meal with them (a meal again!), and teaches them about the deeper meaning of Scripture. He tells them he has come not just to suffer and rise from the dead but to show that "repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations."

That his final command to his followers -- to proclaim repentance and forgiveness. That's it.

Elsewhere in the New Testament, the final command has more to do with recruiting people into joining the new religion. In Matthew 28:19-20, the final command is called the "great commission" to go out and baptize people and "obey everything I have commanded you."

But in Luke, the command is to tell people -- all people -- that they are forgiven and they can turn back to God. Forgiveness and repentance are central. The word "repentance" means to "turn around" to see the God who is always standing there waiting for us. It is a declaration that we can always be reconnected with God, that no matter how low we feel or what has befallen us, or how badly we have messed up. God's forgiveness and love are unending. Not even death can separate us from the love of God. There are no dividing lines here. This is about conversion to a new way of seeing and experiencing God, not recruiting.

I wonder why we don't call this the "great commission" as well?

This final command in Luke, to proclaim forgiveness and repentance, is a bookend with the Song of Zechariah which appears at the beginning of Luke when Jesus is still in the womb of his mother. The song is a part of the Advent-Christmas saga of Luke. Coming in Luke 1:68-79, Zechariah, declares the mission of Jesus's first follower, his son John the Baptist. The song underscores our mission as well:
"For you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
to give knowledge of salvation to his people
by the forgiveness of their sins.
By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace."
I pray this Advent season, we will all experience forgiveness, and follow the One who guides us in the way of peace.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Christmas Food Court Flash Mob

How come this never happens when I am in a shopping mall? Enjoy!

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

God in my cup of coffee

This past Saturday we were treated at St. Paul's to a talk by Bonnie Thurston about Evelyn Underhill (1875-1941). Bonnie is a scholar and writer about religion, the Bible, theology and mysticism. And she is a good deal more than that. We were blessed to have Bonnie with us on Saturday to lead us into a prayerful place.

Her topic, Evelyn Underhill, was among the most influential theological writers of the 20th century because she wrote about finding the divine in ordinary life and ordinary things.

After her first talk, Bonnie asked us to spend time in silence and try one of Underhill's spiritual exercises. The exercise was this: Focus on a thought. It doesn't matter what the thought is. Focus on the thought and keep all other distractions away. See where it goes.

So I found a quiet place and thought for a moment. I was holding a warm coffee cup, and so began the focus of my thought: my coffee.

This is going to sound very odd, but I spent 30 minutes thinking about the coffee in my cup and how it got there, and I went on a wonderful journey that brought me face-to-face with God's creation, God's compassion and our deepest connections with each other.

An image came into my mind of the mountains in Costa Rica where the coffee beans are grown, and I thought about the farmer who grows those beans. I thought about his hands and how rough they must be from years of tending coffee trees, pruning, cutting, harvesting. I thought about his family, and how they pack the beans in sacks bring those beans to port to be loaded on a ship. I thought about all those who bring these beans to a roaster and how those beans get to a coffee pot to be brewed for my cup.

What became clear to me is how many people are connected through my cup of coffee. We are each connected by the God who creates us and creates these delightful beans we enjoy, brought to us by the labor of human hands. This is not about economic competition or national borders, but about a very human connection through God's creation: coffee.

I cannot but help have compassion based on this connection with all of those who brought me this warm cup of coffee. True compassion is not based on pity, for pity comes from an unequal relationship based on power. True compassion is based on connection -- the deepest connection of all, our connection through our creator and the divine thread that courses through each of us and all of the universe. It is how Julian of Norwich (1314-1462) was able to say that all of the creation -- "all that is made" -- could be found in a hazelnut in the palm of her hand and God's love within it.
"In this vision he showed me a little thing, the size of a hazelnut, and it was round as a ball. I looked at it with the eye of my understanding and thought 'What may this be?' And it was generally answered thus: 'It is all that is made.' I marvelled how it might last, for it seemed it might suddenly have sunk into nothing because of its littleness. And I was answered in my understanding: 'It lasts and ever shall, because God loves it.' "
We sometimes joke in the Episcopal Church that coffee is a sacrament, and that may be truer than we think. God gave us senses to enjoy each other and to enjoy God's creation. God gave us a soul to experience creation and to express our enjoyment. The divine really can be found in ordinary things, even in a cup of coffee.

Painting "Cup of Coffee," by Wayne Thiebaud.