Saturday, December 24, 2016

Christmas Sermon 2016 - somewhat recycled but sincere

The story I just read from the Gospel of Luke is a very strange one, though it is probably a story you’ve heard many times before; maybe memory connects it to other services in church buildings, connects to old music and stained glass, or to family dinners, and times of joy or maybe frustration and dread; or maybe the story connects  certain movies, either biblical spectaculars or family disaster-comedy ending with reunions in snowy villages with happy resolutions, starring Bing Crosby or Macauley Culkin or a cartoon character, generally not in the same film, generally fiction.

But I would like to go back to that original story we just heard and walk through it in a way that emphasises its original strangeness: the shock of the encounter, the journey, the discovery, and the moment of choosing where we might go from here.

So just imagine that all this is taking place inside your head. You’ve been spending the day minding your thoughts, watching, shepherding your concerns, looking over the various responsibilities that make up your daily existence: the ways you spend your days; whether that has to do with your job or family; with parents, partners or children, people you see on the street or at the store; whether it has to do with demands or depression, with money or meaning, health or wholeness, power or poetry; love, life or death. So you’re sitting here or there with all those concerns wandering like sheep over the meadows and mountains of your mind (And I apologise if this sounds like a 1970s song).

Then something new very happens. You are surprised by an idea, a possibility, a message that comes from someplace you have never considered before. You see something new! Remember the word we translate as angel simply means “messenger;” so pretend that a messenger (maybe several, or even lots of them) arrives on the scene and you have this intuition, insight, that the conveyed message is coming from someplace that is both deeper, higher, larger, livelier than the world you usually inhabit, telling you something new: opening a possibility that there could be, that you could see, a new way of being, of living, becoming, in the world, and that you need to leave aside your taken for granted everyday concerns and attend to this new horizon of reality.

Now these messengers may have wings, they may be in space suits, they may be dressed in an unremarkable manner; but let that matter less than their message, which is moving you towards a new discovery of how to be in the world, of how to be who you are.

So you leave your flocks, the usual and habitual concerns, and let them take care of themselves for a little while, and you follow this promising message to an incongruous destination and find yourself witnessing something that is absolutely newborn.

No birth happens in a vacuum. This one has been nurtured and mothered in the midst of surprise and miracle, there is a husbanding hope and help alongside, and all the animals of every day life are there as well. This all makes sense to the way you see the world: odd, but not too unusual. Yet there is something completely newborn in the middle of it. Something you never thought you’d see.

Any baby is a surprise. When I was young they all seemed to to look like Winston Churchill. But even now they seem to bring a message from another place, they’re seem like they’re not quite with us yet. And this baby is like that, except more so.

So I am going to get theoretical here. An English theologian from the 1950s talked about something called “God-shaped events.” So assume for the moment that the word “God” might mean something concerning holiness, justice, compassion, connectedness, truth, love. And just allow that  sometimes we can see small packages containing those events or transactions carried by or acted out in the life of others, as well as in our own lives: maybe even more than sometimes. Actually I would be surprised if there were anyone in this room today who had not been amazed fairly recently, in the last few hours, earlier today, this week anyway, by some surprise of caring, a “God-shaped” event they have received from another person; an unexpected gift, a quality of presence, a reaching out in love. I’d say that’s close to the centre of being human.

But it is as if this baby, in this stable that seems surprisingly unstable, both carries and is carried by that deepest current of love. It is as if the child is both a wide window into and a window, a vista, in which a depth and height and breadth, of caring is face to face with you. If the earlier messengers spoke a word of hope and holiness, then this infant is both sonnet and symphony, is Technicolor and 3-D and special effects beyond belief, and in looking at this child you see yourself and the world you thought you lived in, anew.

And this is all happening inside your head. Except that your head seems to be open to something bigger than itself, bigger than what you usually think of as the world, and you have this strange perception, call it a hope, that this is bigger than you know, that the baby may be the truth of how we are related to the centre of everything, to the edge of everything, to everything and everyone we know. And it has to do with love, being born in love, traveling in love, making mistakes and failing miserably, and rising up again to begin again in the name of love.

So if that is the case, then this baby, this new beginning, isn’t just happening in your head. It’s happening in the world you live in day to day, in the world of history, institutions, expectations, culture, here and now as well as there and then. And you look around at this church and the people gathered, at the old books, the strange robes, the stained glass and see a tradition and community gathered in the hope that this life, this love, is at the heart of reality.

A wise man once said, “Look at everything, look at anything, until it surprises you, until it tells you something you don’t know.” I’d say this: look at the story: Luke, Joseph, Mary, Bethlehem, the shepherd and the angels, look carefully at the tradition, and the hope of this place, and the hope you carry in your own heart; and see if this perception, tradition, community gathered over time and space can offer you a way to deepen your daily experience of connectedness and compassion and caring for yourself and your neighbour and the stranger too.

Then go back to your daily concerns, shepherding them in your everyday fields, but remembering the Angels as well, the newborn truth, remember the possibility of compassion and connectedness, holiness and hope, that it all may be true.

In the name of Christ. Amen

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Advent 4A

Every season of the Christian year has its own questions and concerns, and the Advent questions are these: How does a word of God come among us? How is it conceived, raised up, given life? How does a message, a newborn relationship, a  newborn call to serve, to heal, to teach, to love, to live out God’s love, first take root in our minds, hearts, priorities and purpose? How does God’s life once again come to live in our lives?

A collection of answer to that question are seen and articulated in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus and in the history of the church. For we are the body of Christ, the living and breathing record of the life and ministry of Jesus, of God’s word in flesh, over time, seen and lived out in history, geography and community. So the recorded lives of the saints, of the apostles, of the martyrs, of every parish and congregation all answer that question in some detail -- and the story of God's life is lived out in our human journey together.

But we can start with the scriptures. Because the wrestling with revelation and community  we see in the writing of Paul is a part of our history; and the same in the struggles in the life of Peter, where we see the disciple changed from saying too much and doing too little; where we see the life of God grow strong in the life of Peter and make him strong, turning him to a rock of faith, a witness and a martyr, sending him out to preach good news, to be good news -- like Jesus and Paul and you and I -- all called to be the body of Christ!

For the last two thousand years the church has been enlightened by the bright witness of saints and martyrs, agents of mercy and forgiveness, pilgrims of poetry and politics, exemplars of repentance and new life. They comes in different shapes and sizes, male and female, Jew and Greek, slave and free, quite a variety. Some of us are saintly, most of us do the best we can with varied results, but simply trying , day after day, with varying degrees of success, “to love God with all our heart and mind and soul and strength, and to love our neighbor as ourselves.”

We do what we can, keeping in mind that most of us are, if not rank sinners, than somewhat damaged goods, just like most of the apostles and disciples we follow. We all start out slowly just like them: less stained glass saints than sick people getting better, made more healthy by living day by day in the light and love of the life of God we see in the life, the ministry, the death and resurrection, the sacrifice and the salvation offered by this Jesus. In this Peter and Paul are a lot like us, as are Mary and Joseph. All of them offering more pictures of how faith can respond to God’s action in our daily lives.

For Mary it seems more clearcut, easier, maybe she is younger, more able to say yes, to be formed with God’s image within her, to be a vehicle for Gods action to be born out of her assent.  Sometimes the message comes and is seen clearly, and we just say yes! Even if it’s a surprise, if it takes us into new beginning, if it meets us at our most inexperienced, and we say yes, willing to be a vessel and vehicle of a new graceful message, and Mary has this experience.

But other times it comes slowly, over time, after deliberation, with some delays and at some cost, and Joseph is a model for this experience. Some traditions states that Joseph was older and -- let’s face it, when you’re older these experience, of a new life in faith, new duties, new directions, just take more time.

It couldn’t be easy for him. “The woman you are planing to marry is pregnant, and it is not your child!” But Joseph shows he’s compassionate right at the start, when he decides to end the relationship without publicity. He could responded with a more violent response which would have been in accord with scripture, but he is merciful, determined to put her away: simply to give her up: maybe he gives the whole matter over to God. And then he has a dream.

Maybe you’re like me; I’ve had a few dreams in my life that have been very helpful where a problem has been solved, a new option outlined. A few times when I’ve awakened with new insights, my mind changed by an insight that allowed a new possibility to be born. It's always a surprise!

So Joseph has a dream where he is told that the woman he planned to marry is pregnant with God’s child, Emmanuel: God with us. It is not as dramatic or as immediate as the experience that Mary has in Luke’s Gospel, and he doesn’t come up with a pretty speech in response. But Joseph wakes up resolved to do as the angel has commanded and he takes Mary as his wife and gives his life to protect, to father this new beginning as best he can, this new birth of God's into the world.

But I wonder if he always had some reservations, lingering doubts? This morning I want to hope so, for then he can be a model, a saint, for all of us who sometimes doubt. Because he still follows through, makes room and gives comfort for that miraculous birth, husbanding the life that allows God’s word to be made flesh and blood, born of Mary, “according to your word.” Joseph supports this, witnesses this, gives his life, the life he has to live and to offer, so that God’s word of hope and love and reconciliation might live in human flash, in human family.

Did Joseph live to see Jesus die?And was he there to see the resurrection light and life at the end of it all, that new beginning. We don’t know. He fades out of the Gospels when Jesus is a boy. Maybe like Moses he dies in sight of that promised land, and will be carried along in hope, like us, Maybe, like us, he gives his life to protect and honour and witness to a newborn life that he doesn’t fully understand, maybe all his days he would still look at this growing Jesus and wrestles with the inconceivable fact of him. Even as he came to love to child he raised as his own, even when he had held the child who would, by God’s grace, become a saviour, when he held the one who would carry him to a larger life. We just don’t know.

So then Joseph is a sign of faith for us. And so today we ask St Joseph to pray for each and all of us today, join us in all our doubts and hopes, as we come to carry this surprising child, prepare to try to care for this soon to be newborn hope. Just like him, not necessarily with all the answers, not with the great assurance that Mary had, but with a crafted and practised resolve that comes with a honed humility, to preserve and protect, to hold and watch and witness as we can, to offer support and strength, to husband that hope, to raise that new beginning, as another gift of God comes to be born in our lives this Christmastide.