Sermon notes: The Light of the World

BlakeBirthOfChristSermon notes, Christmas Day 2013

“And the Word became flesh, and lived among us.”

Last night we heard the beloved Christmas story, Luke’s account of the birth of Jesus: How Joseph and Mary went to Bethlehem for the census, and found nowhere to sleep but a stable; how Mary gave birth to her son there, and laid him in a manger. We heard of angels appearing to a group of shepherds, praising God and telling them of the birth of the Savior; we heard how the shepherds hurried to the stable to see the infant King for themselves.

It’s a powerful story, and a universally appealing one. The image of the young mother and her child, the helplessness of the baby whose bed is a feeding trough for cattle, speak to us all. So does the miracle of the angels making such an announcement to a group of shepherds. God’s own messengers gave the good news of hope to lowly shepherds, members of one of the most despised castes in the ancient world, in a foreshadowing of the coming career of Jesus. It is a story of God’s promise, of the commonplace rendered miraculous. It’s an origins story that we can understand.

This morning we turn to the Gospel of John. The message it bears is no less universal, and no less hopeful. In fact, it gives us the deeper reasons for that birth in a barn. The Word, who is Christ, became flesh – became human – as we are, and lived with us, as one of us, but the phrasing is a little more esoteric. Luke’s description doesn’t require much explanation, but John’s could use some unpacking.

As much as I love the angels and the baby in the manger, I find John more substantive and satisfying. Like many people, I was briefly an atheist in my teens. When I was coming back to faith, I picked up the Bible and opened it to the first chapter of John. It was electrifying and illuminating: Christ as the Word, as the Light in a dark world.

The Gospel of John is very different from the other three canonical gospels, those of Mark, Matthew, and Luke. It comes from a different tradition, and its emphasis is on the spiritual.

The opening of the gospel is dramatic and emphatic. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”

This is the back story to the much-loved baby in the manger. The Word is Christ, and Christ was with God, in God, and of God throughout all eternity, there at the creation of the universe. He was the light of humanity from the beginning of the world, and the darkness could not – does not, will not – prevail against that light.

There are reasons that Jesus’s birth is celebrated at the darkest time in the Northern Hemisphere. Although it’s long been thought that the date of the Nativity was fixed to take advantage of existing celebrations, some scholars have recently concluded that he actually was born in late December. It appears that some of the pagan festivals that Christmas was thought to be exploiting were actually attempts to save paganism from the growing popularity of Christianity. Whatever the case, this is the time of year that we need him most.

Darkness, real and metaphorical, lies heavily upon us now. There is the steady loss of daylight as the Earth turns toward the solstice, the getting up and coming home in increasing gloom. There is the emotional darkness of the pressure that, ironically, is a standard of the season, as we strive to have the perfect Christmas, filled with perfect decorations and perfectly chosen and wrapped gifts, a perfectly set table on which to place the perfect Christmas dinner, to serve to our perfect families. When we, or those around us, inevitably fall short, we can become perfectly stressed out.

There is the darkness of events in the world around us. This has been a year of more than the usual unrest and violence, with tragedies unfolding before us in in Egypt, in Pakistan, in Syria, in South Sudan, and elsewhere. Much of it is directed at Christians: An article in Friday’s Wall Street Journal noted that “Christians today indisputably are the most persecuted religious body on the planet,” with Islamists, Hindus, Communists and others all engaged in slaughters of Christians and the destruction of churches, everywhere from Africa and the West Bank to North Korea, and assorted locales in between.

There are other kinds of darkness that can engulf us if we let them. There is the darkness of want, of cold and hunger. There is the darkness of troubled minds, and the suffering that it places on individuals, families, and communities. There is the darkness of physical illness, the pain and distress that arise when our bodies betray us, when our personal worlds slowly crumble or suddenly fall apart. The is the darkness of seeing those we love afflicted, and the burdens that the care of the ill place upon others. There is always more than enough darkness, of every variety, to go around.

But the darkness is not the end, is never the end. Through the centuries, it has sometimes seemed insurmountable, but the Light of Christ keeps shining through. The knowledge of that light and love keep us moving forward through the pain and fear.

This is the Christmas miracle: The true Light has come into the world, and it can never be put out. The Word became flesh and lived among us, suffered like us, died like us, and brought us everlasting life. We have seen his glory, full of grace and truth, and having witnessed it, we can never be the same. Thanks be to God.

– Sarah Bryan Miller

The Christmas kitty

Lucinda, in boxWe had an early Christmas present a month or so ago, a little tuxedo cat who found her way into the house one frosty night in early December. When I got up in the  morning I heard a mewing that didn’t sound like any of the resident cats, looked for the source, and found her sitting in the corner of the box room next to our bedroom, shy but determined.

She plainly wasn’t a stray; she was glossy and had a blue collar, but when we offered her breakfast she wolfed it down and made short work of a couple of refills. At first we thought she was lost, but there was no identification on her collar and when we took her to the vet to be scanned for a microchip there wasn’t one. We put up advertisements with her photo and looked on lost cat websites, but no one claimed her and no one reported her missing.  In the meantime we observed that she wasn’t too well housetrained (though she soon sorted that out for herself once she got used to using the cat flap) and began to wonder if someone had acquired her, perhaps to please a child, but didn’t really know how to look after a cat – and had got tired of her and dumped her.

Wherever she came from, Lucinda is now part of the family. Apart from making the faux pas of chasing Felicity the Fierce, the next youngest of the cats, she’s settled in nicely, though Felicity now gets nervous at the sight of her and has totally lost her credibility as a Tough Kitty.  Feline dynamics change just as much as human ones when there’s a new arrival.

She came into our lives unsought and unexpected, but we’re delighted that one cold night she somehow negotiated the unfamiliar cat flap and took refuge with us. At the beginning of a new year, who knows what other new things lie in store? God’s gifts sometimes take us by surprise; instead of giving us what we ask, he has a way of dropping the unexpected into our lives and changing them in a way we’d never thought of.  May we all be open in the coming year to the gifts he has waiting for us.

– Margaret Z. Wilkins

Sermon notes: Logos

stars_wikiSermon notes, Christmas I, Year C (Given at St. Peter’s/Ladue, December 30, 2012)

On Christmas Eve, we heard the story of Jesus’s birth, the story of how Mary and Joseph went to Bethlehem and found that there was no place for them in the inn. We heard how Jesus was born in a stable and placed in a manger. We heard of the shepherds, visited by angels, and how they ran to see the newborn king.

This morning, we heard about Jesus from a decidedly different angle: “In the beginning was the Word.”

We have moved from the specific tale of one family, of one baby, to something that human beings cannot wrap their minds around: the nature and immensity of God. It’s as though we’re looking at a close-up of that family in that stable, when the camera pulls back, up from the streets of Bethlehem, up from Palestine, up from the Earth, beyond the Solar System, and into the vastness of space, its blackness blazing with an infinitude of stars.

God is simply too boundless and utterly other for us to comprehend. That’s why we need the baby; that’s why we need the family. Perhaps that’s one reason why we needed the Incarnation in the first place: to show us God in a form we can begin to understand.

This passage, the introduction to John’s gospel, establishes Jesus as an aspect of God. It’s also a foundation for the doctrine of the Trinity. “The Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.” There are several lifetimes’ worth of study in these few phrases.

Here is John’s version of the Nativity story: “And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory.” It’s the other side of the intensely personal, intensely human story we have from Luke. It’s a reminder that this story has to do with more than the milky infant in the manger who tugs at our hearts, the babe that launched a thousand Christmas carols. There is also a deeper meaning in this birth, a meaning to engage our minds. We need both sides of it in order to grasp the gift that we have been given in Jesus’s birth.

The Nativity story is filled with images of light. There must have been a light in the darkened stable, a little stoneware oil lamp, casting wavering shadows on the walls. When the shepherds saw the angels, the glory of the Lord shone around them, illuminating the night. The light of the star guided the Magi to the infant Jesus.

John introduces Jesus to us as the Light: the light of all people, the light that shines in darkness, the true light which enlightens our hearts and minds. The little oil lamp in the stable could not drive away the shadows, the star faded from sight, but the undistorted light that is Christ lifts the darkness and penetrates our hearts and minds.

The evangelist John’s use of “Logos” – Word – has its foundation in Greek philosophy. Along with the obvious, “logos” could mean reason, order, knowledge. It could mean “expectation.” There are, in fact, as many possibilities for meanings as there are in the English word “love.”

And love, God’s love for us, is one of John’s chief themes here. God loved us so much that Christ came to live with us, to be truly one of us. Jesus gave us “grace upon grace;” Jesus made us children of God, and opened the door to eternal life.

“The law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ,” John writes. The law was added onto and built up until it became an immense structure; until, for some, it became an end in itself.

Jesus came and boiled the Law down to basics: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your mind and all your strength, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself. Jesus provided grace and salvation for all who accept it, out of love.

We cannot comprehend God in all God’s infinite grandeur, but we can comprehend Jesus, a man much like one of us. We cannot comprehend God’s purposes for us, or understand why the world is what it is, filled with sorrow, sickness, and suffering, but we can comprehend Jesus, healing the ill and feeding the hungry, and suffering just as we do. We cannot comprehend the mind and the power that created the universe from nothing, but we know a mother’s love for her baby.

The Christmas narratives in Luke and Matthew show us how God made Man came into the world. The opening verses of the Gospel of John show us who Jesus was, the Word, the Light of the world, Love made manifest. We need both of those accounts, for balance, to take us beyond the stable to the greater meanings and truths of the Nativity. Thanks be to God.

– Sarah Bryan Miller

The other new year

The first Sunday in Advent begins the new church year, which makes the Saturday before it, effectively, the Christian New Year’s Eve.

I have never heard of anyone staying up late to observe it, or using it as an excuse for overindulgence. Indeed, early on Saturday evening Greenwich Mean Time, my friend Prudy, the Benedictine prioress, wrote on her Facebook wall from England, “We have rung in the new liturgical year, we have sung Vespers and our Vigil Office, and now it’s time to go to bed!”

That’s probably as it should be. Advent is a season of watchful preparation, and hangovers aren’t conducive to that spirit.

But there’s another common New Year’s custom which adapts well to a Christian context: making resolutions. I’m not thinking of the usual “I will go to the gym every day, give up eating anything tasty, clean out all my closets, learn a new language, and lose 20 pounds by Groundhog Day” resolutions here. Those can wait for December 31.

What I have in mind are resolutions to be more prayerful, more mindful, more intentional, to start the day with prayer and end it in the same way, to think before speaking, to act with care. This Advent I want to spend as much time helping others as I do shopping, to put as much of my money into giving to the church and the needy as I do into spending on gifts and self-indulgence.  I want to be kinder and more thoughtful, more helpful, more loving toward those I meet.

I feel about Advent and Christmas as I do about Lent, Holy Week, and Easter: How can we fully appreciate the joy of the holy day if we haven’t also experienced the quiet and discipline of the season that comes before it? Quiet can be hard to come by in the stressful, jangling weeks before Christmas, but if we make the effort to seek it out and find time with God, now and throughout the year, our lives will be far richer for it.

Happy new year.

– Sarah Bryan Miller

 

Sermon notes: The next morning

SERMON NOTES, CHRISTMAS DAY (10 a.m. December 25, 2011, St. Peter’s/St. Louis)

“But Mary treasured all these words, and pondered them in her heart.”

It is the morning after the most momentous night in human history, an event bearing layer upon layer of symbolism and meaning: the birth of Jesus, the Messiah, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.

Jesus did not enter the world in the way foretold in scripture, “in power and great glory.” He was born a helpless baby in the poorest setting imaginable, to humble parents, a member of a subject people living far from the centers of worldly power.

Luke’s gospel doesn’t go into detail about the events of the previous 24 hours, but we can imagine them. Mary, a teenager, was newly married to her husband, Joseph. She was pregnant, and near her time. In spite of that, they undertook a difficult, dangerous journey on the orders of an oppressive government.

They arrived in Bethlehem, but failed to find a place to stay. They had no relatives there to take them in; there was no space to be bought or begged in the town’s guest houses. Instead, they found cover in a shelter for cattle, with a roof and walls to provide some protection, and the heat of the animals around them for warmth.

Perhaps it was the rigors of the journey that brought on Mary’s labor. Luke doesn’t tell us about that. He doesn’t tell us whether Joseph delivered the baby himself, or if – as seems much more likely – women were found in the neighborhood to help with the delivery, to encourage the young mother, to ease the child into the world.

Someone wiped Mary’s face with a moist cloth and brushed her hair from her face; someone held her hand as she struggled through childbirth. Someone cut the umbilicus; someone washed mother and infant when the birth was complete. Someone emptied out a feeding trough to serve as an impromptu cradle. Someone found bands of cloth to swaddle the baby, to ease his adjustment to the cold and colors of this new world outside the womb.

Someone placed him in his mother’s arms, and helped to make both of them comfortable as he nursed for the first time. Someone who had experience imparted womanly wisdom and helpful hints about the best ways to do things, the sort of information that a new mother doesn’t fully appreciate until she is finally looking on the long-imagined face of her child.

The Evangelist is more concerned with the announcement of the birth, and with those who heard that announcement. The hearers weren’t King Herod’s courtiers, let alone members of the Imperial court in Rome. They weren’t scholars or members of the priestly class. They weren’t merchants with connections on the Silk Road. They weren’t even respectable. They were shepherds.

Shepherds occupied a spot on the bottom rung of the social ladder. They were poor workingmen, not renowned for their honesty or for a robust work ethic. They were itinerant, wandering with the flocks they kept, usually for other owners.

And yet it was to shepherds that the angelic messenger appeared; it was to shepherds that the angelic host sang, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

It was shepherds, members of a despised class, who beat a path to the stable to see the baby, who told Mary and Joseph the things that they had seen and heard that unforgettable night. “And Mary treasured all these words, and pondered them in her heart.”

But the night, with all its excitement, has passed. The angels have disappeared. The shepherds have returned to their work and their flocks. The women are back at their daily routines. Now, in the calm light of day, the little family is adjusting to its new dynamic, its new form, its new life, with a beloved child who will – as we know – grow in strength, learning, and holiness in the years to come.

Last night we celebrated Christ’s birth here, the message of the angels, the witness of the shepherds. It’s a big night, the most festive in the Church year. We observed it with a traditional Christmas pageant, with carols and other special music; there were platoons of acolytes, and crowded pews.

This morning’s service is an altogether quieter affair. The population in the chancel and sanctuary has plummeted from the full ranks of last night – clergy, lectors, choirs, acolytes – to the handful you see before you now. Right now, many of us still have a portion of our brains revolving around questions of preparing Christmas dinner, gift-giving, and of the coming celebrations with our families and friends

With the pageantry over, in the calm light of day, we can take a few moments to consider what all this means: that the Savior of the world should come to us in such humility; that he came for all people, even – or especially – the lowest among us; that God’s love abounds for us, in spite of all our faults. “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace and good will.”

– Sarah Bryan Miller

The between-holidays lull

We’re in the lull between the two major end-of-year holidays, Christmas and New Year’s Eve, and it feels good.

The gifts are opened; the thank-you notes are getting done. Most of the entertaining and travel are completed, or nearly so. It’s not yet time to take down the decorations. Many people are off work this week; for those who do have to go to an office, it’s easy parking and light duty.

After the frantic days and weeks leading up to this period, it’s good to have some down time, some relaxation time, some thinking time, time to play. It’s a little bit of Sabbath in our own ordinary time, a time to relax and relate to family and friends.

If we’re looking for resolutions for the new year, this might be a good one: To remember the feeling of these easier days, and find ways to keep it in our everyday life. Take a few minutes for yourself each day; talk to family members, communicate with friends.

I’m planning to keep my stress levels down and my contact with God up, and to never let a day go by without reminding the most important people in my life that I love them very much. It’s the best resolution that comes to mind just now.

– Sarah Bryan Miller

Another great end-of-year resolution: Make a tax-deductible donation to the much-needed work of Episcopal Relief and Development before the calendar turns to 2011.

Solstice

I sat down to write this as the hour of the solstice approached; it will be winter before I finish.

In the Northern Hemisphere, this is the shortest day; in some places closer to the Pole, the sun barely makes an appearance before rolling back over the horizon. In the American Midwest, where I live, the weather was gray and cloudy today, making the light even more abbreviated than the patterns of the Earth’s rotation alone would dictate.

In the Church, this is when we count the hours until the Nativity. In both the sacred and secular worlds, most of us are behind with Those Things that Ought to be Done, ranging from decorating to shopping to cleaning to cooking to doing the work involved in our actual employment and much, much more.

This year, though, the Energizer Bunny approach won’t cut it for me. This year, I’m on the sidelines, as my body is poisoned to cure to the cancer that threatens it. Part of me observes, almost clinically, the physical changes, the fatigue and string of minor ailments that accompany the chemotherapy; part of me chafes and attempts to carry on as usual. Working is like trying to swim through molasses, but I am compelled to try. My job now, however, is to wait and prepare.

Several years ago, I told my mother – herself a worker bee – that it was a form of service to allow others to help her when she needed it. She didn’t buy it. Now I tell myself the same thing. I am incredibly blessed with friends who take me places, who cook delicious meals, who bring me what I need – but I see the strain I put on others who are affected by my illness. I ache to be well.

A little while ago the Earth began its journey toward summer; the lightening will begin tomorrow morning, although few of us will notice an extra minute or two of sun. There are still many weeks of darkness before the change becomes apparent.

So, too, with my illness: the tumor has begun to shrink, and I have begun to heal, although there are months to go – and a lot more to endure – before it’s over. The changes will be gradual, but they will come.

Meanwhile, the greatest change of all is coming, the birth of Jesus, that Sun of Righteousness that lightens all: I will watch, and wait, and rejoice.

– Sarah Bryan Miller

Christmas, and the art of resurfacing

My plans were so good, my intentions so pure. This year, I would make time before Christmas to get everything done; I would not let myself be rushed; I would enjoy the season; and anything that didn’t get done would be gracefully let go.

And then I got (ungracefully) swamped.

I did let some things go. For one thing, it turns out that our Christmas tree looks almost as good with half the usual ornaments as in its usual heavy-laden state; for another, I don’t imagine that anyone seriously expects to receive a Christmas card from me now, after several years without one.

Still, things I was determined to do were left undone. Work intervened, vacation time was preempted, various roadblocks appeared unexpectedly, and a number of my best intentions (including several planned GPN postings) got washed away. Life’s like that; sometimes a tsunami hits, and it’s all you can do to keep from being swept out to sea.

I get annoyed with myself when I fail to accomplish everything on one of my ambitious agendas, when the big waves knock me off my feet. The trick, once back on the beach, is to shake yourself off, pull yourself together, and consider how to avoid a repetition of the worst features of what was just endured.

Christmas is officially over now: it’s Epiphany, when the Wise Men finally arrived to worship the Christ Child. For people like me, it’s useful to remember that the trip took longer than expected. Jesus, after all, was probably a toddler by the time the Magi found him.

Next year, I’ll try to do better. In the meantime, I’ll unplug the lights on the still-to-be-undecorated Christmas tree, and contemplate the promise of miracles yet to come.

– sbm

Counting down

As December deepens and darkens I find I’m working to three different calendars.

There’s the secular one, which involves writing Christmas cards, wrapping presents and having to sing Christmas songs well before Christmas at various carol services, and there’s the church’s one, with each Sunday reminding us of the people who were watching and waiting for Jesus’ first coming just as we watch and wait for his coming again.

But there’s a third one, less obvious but running deeper than either of the others; one I’ve inherited from my ancestors a long way back, Celts and Saxons on the north-west edge of Europe who watched the days shorten and the sun disappear behind heavy grey clouds. I’m not counting down to Christmas, but to the winter solstice.

It’s a commonplace sneer that Christians have stolen a pagan (or Roman, or Mithraic – take your pick) festival to which to attach the birth of Jesus. I think it works the other way round; it’s a human instinct to need to dispel the darkness. I feel it now in a small way – I’ve just got up to turn the light on because at half past three in the afternoon the light’s already fading outside. How much more my ancestors, shivering in wooden or stone huts in the gathering dark, must have longed for the light and enacted rituals to bring it back, or held feasts to banish it for a little while.

And this same sure human instinct led the church to celebrate the birth of Jesus at just the moment when our northern hemisphere has turned back towards the sun and the light begins imperceptibly to creep back. It’s Advent, and we’re still in the dark, waiting – but soon the Sun of Righteousness will rise!

— mzw

All contents © 2009 Grace Prayer Network

Prepare ye the way of the Lord!

st-john-baptist-grecoThe Church and the World are frequently in a state of disconnect, but never more so than during Advent. Since Christians have to live in both locales, that’s an issue.

Over at the mall, and in most other places, commercial Christmas is in full swing. Even on our local classical music station, owned (for the moment) by a liturgical Christian denomination, the fare has been dominated by cheesy Christmas muzak since the day after Thanksgiving.

In church, though, this is the time of year when the lectionary sounds oddly like the libretto to Part I of Handel’s “Messiah;” the music we sing and hear there is more anticipatory than celebratory. This week, the Second Sunday of Advent, the theme is one of prophets and prophecy, from Malachi to John the Baptist, of fiery refining (it sounds painful) and of the flattening of the landscape.

The Collect asks for “grace to heed (the prophets’) warnings and forsake our sins.” It’s a timely prayer, because – when it comes right down to it – most of us have limited appreciation for calls to repent now and avoid the rush. The Bible bears this out; John the Baptist was not the only prophet to come to a sticky end.

We can and should enjoy the seasonal cheer, but we should also remember who and what we await, and the words of the prophets: Prepare ye the way of the Lord!

— sbm

Here’s an essential piece of Advent music: Veni, veni, Emmanuel.