Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Sermon for Christmas Eve (Greta) and Christmas Day (Moyhu and Whitfield) 2014

We’re here to celebrate Christmas, the time when we visit family and friends, celebrate love and life together, sometimes sing songs, and usually open gifts that are often given with great love, and that’s all good. So today I want to talk about receiving and giving gifts.

One thing that always surprises me is all the different ways that people open their gifts! For example, as a girl, my cousin Barbara used to be very careful with wrapping paper; opening gifts slowly, then folding and putting away the paper for possible re-use, even saving the box it came in for future use. I, on the other hand, quickly ripped off the paper, throwing it away to some empty corner of the room, and following that  with the box the gift came in. The only exception to this rule happened when I was around fourteen and I bought a small gift for my older brother Tom, which I wrapped and put in a small box, wrapped inside another larger box, inside one more carefully wrapped very large box. I put this under the tree and successfully kept from laughing out loud during the whole, quite extended, time my brother took to unwrap the three packages and got to the gift which in the end, he actually liked a lot. 

Years later, on her second or third Christmas celebration, I gave his first daughter, my oldest niece Lisa, a very large reproduction of a nineteenth century, brightly coloured English, High Victorian, stuffed rabbit. I thought it was great and she didn’t like it at all, and quickly and firmly pushed it away. But she dearly loved playing in the big cardboard box that it came in. 

So how do we deal with the biggest gift we get, the Christmas gift that God gives us? How do we make sure that we unwrap it carefully, not getting too caught up with the wrappings or throwing it away unthinkingly, how do we make sure we don’t just end up playing in the box. Ff this gift is given in great love, how do we receive it properly?

I think that some hints of ways to open it are contained in the summary of the Law where Jesus says: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbour as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”  [Matthew 22:37-40]

For living those lines out has to do with sharing the life that God gives us as mindfully, heartily and prayerfully as we can, and that takes us where we need to go. For if God is the maker of the meaning, the melody and the wonder of it all, if all this is a gift, then loving and living our whole life is the best  way of opening the gift; of making our whole lives a unique opening, a personal and present introduction to love. Because that is what the gift is. 

I’ve always liked the advice of the poet, Robert Frost, who said to “take the light things seriously and the serious things lightly.” So we can look at something that might seem relatively unimportant, like how we handle our introductions to people, and let that be a template to how we come to live in the Kingdom of God in light of this Christmas gift. Here are three ways we can understand this.

When I was a kid I remember my mother prompting me to use peoples name when i was introduced.This showed good manners and was a way to remember their names, to be polite, to start to honour, appreciate, be mindful. Now I tend to forget names. But I do remember stories people tell, their sadness, delight, travels,  the troubles they’ve seen and shared, and maybe that’s going even farther in the mindful direction too.

There are two quotes that have to do with the heart. Plato wrote, remember that "everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” And to remember this, is to appreciate the struggles we all share, is to start to heartily honour what it means to be human, for as one great Hollywood movie put it, "You'll never be a first-class human being… until you've learned to have some regard for human frailty.” and that’s adding some strength from the heart to what it means to be together in the human journey.

But there can be more than that: I remember an organist and choir director, almost 50 years ago,  telling me that she always prayed for people when she first met them. That’s not only a sharing of mind and heart but adds hope and strength, compassion and care; that gets to be soul-sized! — and when we do that, in an initial introduction or afterwards, in any interaction; we’re opening, enacting, introducing Godly loving actions, and truly loving our neighbour, God’s neighbour, with all our mind and heart and soul.

And I am convinced that can finally take us almost all the way home, for when we are free to love our neighbours in these three dimensions, head, heart, soul; then we can finally figure out how we are to truly love ourselves, for, by the grace of God, there is only one love. But that isn't all.

Now, you know those tv ads where they're selling amazing appliances, super potato peelers and the like, and they always say, "And there's still more than this!"? 

Well, there's more here too, at least three more dimensions to the big Christmas present. For, first, if Jesus is a a kind of a moving picture of how God loves and deals with living life and death and loving neighbour and stranger with all heart, mind, soul, then the more we, read, research, reflect, listen to and live out his life (as presented in the Four Gospels, the New Testament, and reflected through the thoughts, prayers, traditions of the gathered worshipping community of the church), the more we can clearly see the scope, the breadth of His life, full of God’s love, forgiveness, patience and the full freedom to which we are called.

But there’s even more than that. For when, in the ancient rite of Holy Communion -- this Eucharist, we come to incorporate his passion and purpose, his life and death into ours; and just as intimately as we are nurtured by him, we aim to embody his freely given life, and to enflesh the holy freedom of love he offers us. 

This dimension is less of a thought process and more of a dance: we take up this gift to give it away and we take in this life to live it out. It isnt easy to get our minds around this, for we live in such a “heads up” culture, but to share Jesus’ life in this way can lead us to a complete and holy participation, sharing, head, heart and soul, in God’s own self-giving love. 

And there’s even more than that! Finally,as St Paul writes, “If anyone is in Christ, he (she) is a new creation.” And that adds a whole other side to what we do here. We first work to incorporate Christ’s life and love into our lives, and to live that love out in our lives; but then Jesus, God in Christ, invites us live in that love, abide in the heart of it, spend our days within the universal heart of love; by  becoming a new being in the living grace of God.

And that is what this two thousand year old story, God’s gift of Christmas, is all about. And then finally the question is: how can we possibly begin to respond? Well, Christina Rosetti gave a simple answer to this in 1872 when she wrote...

What can I give Him,
Poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd
I would bring a lamb,
If I were a wise man
I would do my part,
Yet what I can I give Him,
Give my heart.

May this Christmas season overflow with gift for you. Amen.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Pregnant virgins and being born in Jesus,

Saturday, the Eve of Advent 4, 21 December 2013

In today's Gospel the just man Joseph prepares to send his future wife Mary away because she is pregnant and it's not by him. I think we can all understand the difficulty of his situation pretty well. And  St. Matthew thinks this is important because he places this story in the second half of the first chapter, at the very start of his Gospel. It doesn't have to be like this. For example, when the Gospel of Luke tells this story, it starts out with an angel telling Mary about  this miraculous and forthcoming birth, It seems simpler for her: first, Mary says, “How can this be?” Then she simply says, “Yes.” But it is a little more difficult for Joseph.

Matthew’s Gospel goes on to say it is only when an angel comes to him in a dream and tells him, “Do not fear to take Mary for your wife because she is pregnant by the Holy Spirit.” then he decides to do so. So just as Mary's tentative response followed by a sure answer is one way to respond to faith, to the possibility of participating in God’s life and love working in us and through us; so the story of Joseph's doubt, the surprising dream, and his subsequent decision to take this new birth on faith, points to another way of being in a conversation with God.

Maybe all life is, at its most basic, a conversation with God that enables us to grow in and into love. Sometimes we can simply say yes, and other times — as in any relationship — we need further dialogue, we need to present our doubts, we need to sleep on it, we need to be awakened by a dream  or an insight that carries a message that makes the world bigger than we ever might have known. And the important thing to remember is that God has room for all these conversations with us to take place. The incarnation of Jesus means that God is willing to meet us where we are. If we are willing to do the same. 

Mary and Joseph will take this holy new life of God with them and bear it into being, father it forth, in everyday life; give him tools, teach him tasks, give him their very flesh and blood, as God’s child, God’s word, God’s human fave of love joins us in the very midst of the human family. And in these actions they are a model for us on this last Advent Sunday before Christmas.

Maybe every Advent, maybe every moment, God sends us a message, God asks us this question: "May my word of creativity, reconciliation, and renewal may be borne in each of our lives as it is born in the life of  Mary, for this good news of incarnation, God becoming flesh, means that God is willing to come into the very middle of each of our lives. God is always willing to meet us that intimately, to love us that much, so that he would be, as St. Augustine says, closer to us than we are to ourselves.

Almost 20 years ago in California I preached to a small group of deacons in the Anglican diocese there, and several people in the gathering laughed when I said that, when Christmas comes, we are all a bunch of pregnant virgins. It may seem shocking thing to say, but I stand by it. Jesus Christ is willing to be born in us, if we are willing to be born in him. God's love can come into the middle of our lives and make us new, give us new lives; though sometimes this can start in very small ways. But every little baby is a reminder of a very big promise, that Jesus wills to be with us and for us as we follow God in faith, grow in holiness and hope, and live in the light of God's love for us in our love for God, our neighbour and ourselves. 

Almost one thousand years ago St Simeon, the new theologian, wrote this; and it’s still true:

We awaken in Christ’s body
as Christ awakens our bodies
and my poor hand is Christ, He enters
my foot, and is infinitely me.

I move my hand, and wonderfully
my hand becomes Christ, becomes all of Him
(for God is indivisiably 
whole, seamless in His Godhood).

I move my foot, and at once
He appears like a flash of lightening.
Do my words seem blasphemous? - Then 
Open your heart to Him

and let yourself receive the one
who is opening to you so deeply.
For if we genuinely love Him
We wake up inside Christ’s body. 

where our body, all over,
every most hidden part of it, 
is realized in joy as Him, 
and he makes us, utterly, real,

and everything that is hurt, everything
that seemed to us dark, harsh, shameful,
maimed, ugly, irreparably
damaged, is in Him transformed

and recognized as whole, as lovely,
and radiant in his light
we awaken as the Beloved 
in every last part of our body.
Symeon the New Theologian  (949-1022)

translated by Stephen Mitchell 

Sunday, December 01, 2013

Advent Sunday Sermon, Final Draft...

Today at noon we will baptise three young people: Liam, 9, Hally, 7, and Marshall, 5, and I’ve been wondering what to say to them about what they are doing, the ceremony they’re part of, the gifts that it offers, the new community they’re joining. 
How can I say something they might understand and remember, as well as speak to the people  who are gathering to celebrate the gift this family wishes to share, people who might not know the ways of the church, who might see this as a colourful and archaic ritual. Like the psalmist  says, how can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land? And here’s what I decided to say:
What we’re doing today is telling a story, about one person, about every person, and about the whole universe. 

The one person was a man named Jesus: he lived a long way from here about two thousand years ago, and when he grew up he told some stories and taught some lessons and healed some people and shared food and hope and love in a world where there wasn’t much of that around. He seemed to live like there was more than enough, and that the liveliest thing that he, or anybody, could do was to keep sharing food and hope and love, and not worry about it too much. He lived like that was the easiest, truest, most joyful way to live and to love life for each person, for every person, for the whole universe.

And even when the people who were worried about many things told him he better be careful, he went on sharing food, hope, love like it couldn’t end. So some other people decided to kill him, partly because when people start giving like that, the world gets bigger, and gifts like food and hope and love can start people  doing new things, going in different ways, and that can be dangerous for people who want the world to be the same as it ever was. 

So they killed him, tried to wipe him away from life, from everyone’s memory, so that nothing would remain, and it didn’t work. Because of the simple truth, the deepest fact, that this kind of love lasts. It wasn’t long before a few people said they had seen him alive, others said that he had somehow gotten past death. some said he was still sharing like before, now even more, and it was as if his very breath was breathing everywhere, was willing to show up in everyone, and a few people, then more, then millions, tried to breathe life the way he did in sharing food and hope and love. 

It’s changed the world for the last few thousand years, sometimes it’s been like a great big party, sometimes like a really bad committee meeting, but there are still a bunch of people who are trying, as best they can, to share food, hope and love. 

So even though this Jesus is not around like he was two thousand years ago, he’s still here, in stories told, gatherings held, food, hope and loved shared, really in every moment and every breath in the heart of everyone — he still breathes this love of live, this life of love, for each of us and for more than everyone. Because he was, he is, a gift to remind us of what we deep down are: born of love, born to hope, born to share food; food for thought, for nourishment, for inspiration, to be part of a body bringing healing and hope to the whole creation. 

Because that’s what we were created to be; and we forget that, get lost in other stories, worry about many things, forget who we are, where we come from, what we’re to do: which is mystery and meaning and justice and joy and shared food and wine and life that is so much bigger than all our understanding and any kind of death that it is almost beyond belief. 

But it is in telling the stories, sharing the journey, the hope and healing, the bread and wine, the new and renewing loving life that Jesus said is in the heart of everything, that we experience what life and God is, even now.

So we come together to put these three people on that path, Liam, Hally, and Marshall, in that party, towards that purpose, this morning, and to pray that they may keep this kind of hope and love in their lives from here on out. This will be the first time they are washed and wiped and renewed and refreshed in their new community, and, as with any kind of love, we hope it will not be the last. 

So that’s what i am telling them. It’s true, though not the whole truth, but i hope it’s true enough to welcome them to the party and give them a taste for travelling together on this journey, but, if you've been around the church for awhile, for some days, when God’s Advent comes, it’s often not easy.  

For when seasons change it can be difficult, December, Advent, (to say nothing of Christmas), moving into summer, the last few weeks of the year as well can all be demanding, and finally, next Friday evening and Sunday morning and afternoon this congregation and the diocese will farewell Fr Michael, (and Kerryn, Nicholas, and Angela) after a decade serving as the Dean of this Cathedral, and as beloved members and ministers of this community. So many endings and beginnings, so many places where life turns a corner and a new journey emerges, so many moments when life asks a question, and the lessons for today  asks formidable questions of an open future that can feel like death and birth, ending and beginning, to take us to larger answers in order to start again.

Isaiah sees a future that opens room for delight: a vision of ecological wholeness and holiness, a place of prayer, justice, wisdom, compassion, a kingdom of peace to which the nations stream 

But the Gospel leads us to a demanding future where, instead of reconciliation, there may be separation, instead of a field seeded or a meal prepared, one will be taken and one will be left, and there is no way to prepare, but none the less, the lesson says, be ready. 

And finally good old Paul gives us hope for the present: “You know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers.” 

Even nearer now.  And how can we, as the baptised body of Christ, be present to this wide open future? How can we prepare for this beginning, this Advent, this coming Christmas, the new year, once again. 

Dom Gregory Dix, in his classic book, The Shape of the Liturgy, says that the Eucharist we share has four parts: take, bless, break and share. Since the Eucharist is also a pattern of the countless ways in which God reaches out in love to embrace the whole creation, we take Eucharist here to allow that fourfold pattern to permeate our whole lives. 

So take your questions, the old memories, the new pain, the unknown future, the wanting faith, and present them all to God as an offering, lift up your life and let God bless it, share it with family and friends, and let their light and love lift it up too with thanksgiving as an offering. Then, knowing yourself to be surrounded by such a company of family and friends and with all the company of heaven, break apart the gift God gives you, look to it with faith, and let it be a message of hope and meaning for yourself and others

For I am convinced that every moment of life contains seeds of heaven, gifts of God, of hope, love and light, and that we are called to share these moments where life asks living questions and offers new answers in the midst of our lives, where we are called to celebrate  these new beginnings, to share food and hope and love, to make Eucharist as the gathered body of Christ.  

What a gift that life can be this big, what a gift that love can come so close. May the blessings of this advent season be upon each of us, and may Christ the sun of righteousness shine upon us all. Amen.