Of Hope and Memories: Together in the Communion of Saints

In the name of the One who wipes every tear from our eyes—sometimes with a song, sometimes with a touch, and sometimes with a word of encouragement.

Here we are. Together again.  Together with one another; together with those we love but see no longer; together with all the saints and with all that reflects the touch of our Creator.  Here we are—the Communion of Saints bound together through and in our sainting.  It feels good to be together—it feels good to be together in times such as these—Times that challenge us to find hope amidst that relentless stream of stories of hate crimes, mass shootings and everyday nastiness.  Times that underscore our deep need to live and move and have our being right smack dab in the center of the New Jerusalem!

We gather today on this great feast of all saints bearing in our hearts our memories, our fears, our doubts about the future and about the present as well.  We come together with our hopes carefully tucked close to our hearts lest they break and crumble and get swept away.

And that’s the danger of these times isn’t it—the danger that our hopes might get swept away; the danger that our hearts might break.  And yet it is in times like these—times of deep darkness that that community of memory and hope, that Communion of Saints,  surrounds us and protects us and keeps us afloat just like those round orange life preservers you find on boats.  The Communion of Saints cobbled together out of memories and stories all the while pointing the way to hope.

Memories from our own lives and the lives of others; memories that sustain and encourage. Memories of those times in which we wondered if we would even make to the break of another day; and memories of when we did make it through to another day; memories passed down from those we love but see no longer:  stories of struggle and survival that now inform our lives;  stories of people we’ve never met—people from a different time, a different place—who in the face of extreme hardship managed to care deeply for one another and to live with courage and hope: stories of parents bidding farewell to their children, giving them a kiss as they see them off to at least the hope of a better life in a distant land; stories of mothers holding their children close and singing softly as bombs fall around them; stories of kids planting seeds and seedlings thus making the world around them more beautiful and the air cleaner.  People leaning into hope.

These last few weeks have been hard for all of us.  The pipe bombs, the bullets, the words of hate that threaten to saturate our airwaves, the racist, anti-Semitic, homophobic, classist and misogynist acts that have come to mark the lives of people we know, people we love, people who share the air we all breathe.

Last Sunday was particularly hard for me.  I suspect I was not alone in that.

In the afternoon, I made my way downtown to the Gathering Against A Week of Hate.  By the time I got there, a small crowd had formed in front of the Holocaust and Intolerance Museum on west Central—a crowd of Muslims, Christians, Jews, and many others.  Old and young.  Prosperous and not so prosperous.

Introductions were made, short speeches given, stories told, prayers offered.  What moved me most and what has sustained me most this week was the story a native woman told.  I’ll try to do it justice.

She told the story of young boy caught in the grip of the Holocaust.  He and many others were standing in line—a line leading to certain death.  Something was holding up the process, so the boy stepped out of line.  And then he did something truly extraordinary.  He went from person to person, reaching out his hand, touching them, greeting each person with a vision of their future—for one a future of teaching grandchildren to read, for another watching her daughter give birth, visons of young men grown old.  All visions of hope.  As that young boy made his way down that line, people began extending their hands to him—blessings given and blessings received.  Somehow everything stopped.  The folks standing in that line were turned around and sent back to the line of life.

That story, the telling of it, and the group gathered to hear it have helped me through this last week.  Memories drawing people together in hope.  Memories spurring people on. Building a community of people linked to and sustained by hopes from the past while at the same time supporting one another in their struggle for justice and their acts of kindness. Kind of like the Communion of Saints.

This is my prayer this morning:  Let this Great Feast of All Saints, this festival of memory and hope, this poignant gathering of those who saint–both the living and the dead, both the present and the absent be for us an invitation to join together in the building of the New Jerusalem–not one built with stones and mortar, not one bound by the limits of time and space–but a living, breathing, caring Communion of saints at work in their sainting–the New Jerusalem built with the living stones of ordinary people like you and me loving and caring for one another and the world in which we live.

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The Stories We Tell

The gospel we just heard begins with these words:

In the beginning was the Word, and 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.  What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

What has come into being in him is life, and the life is the light of all people.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness does not overcome it.

Like John, the voice crying from the wilderness across the Jordan; like the prophet of third Isaiah, like the psalmist, we, too, live in a land and a time of darkness.  Darkness marks and often mars our days.  We can’t avoid it.  We live in dark times.

Boulders of hate and state-sponsored meanness and callous indifference to the neediest among us litter the landscape of our lives.  Our earth warms; waters rise; the atmosphere that blankets us thins and frays; the poorest on the earth suffer most.  A cold war threatens to turn hot.

The words of a poet, a prophet, a preacher come to mind.  In a time, some of us remember well—America of the early 1950’s—Howard Thurman wrote these words:

Let the bells be silenced

Let the gifts be stillborn

Let cheer be muted

Let music be soundless

Violence stalks the land:

Soaring above the cry of the dying

Rising above the whimper of the starving

Floating above the flying machines of death

Violence still stalks our land—in shopping malls and concert halls and schools and churches too, violence stalks our land.  Even here in New Mexico, in this thin place where spirit infuses the earth and the air and the space in between, a young white-supremacist well-armed and filled with bitterness and hate, bursts into a school and kills two students.

In the darkness of our days, we cry out with the psalmist

Restore our fortunes, O Lord,

Like the watercourses of the Negev or the Rio Puerte or even the Rio Grande

In the darkness of our lives, we give voice to our hope that

Those who sowed with tears/will reap with songs of joy

That Those who go out weeping, carrying the seed

Will come again in joy, shouldering the sheaves

We pause again.  We look back—back into our own lives and into the lives of those who have gone before us.

With the psalmist we remember those times

When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion….

For Then  was our mouth filled with laughter/and our tongue with shouts of joy.

And with the psalmist we remember that the Lord has done great things for us; we remember those moments of restoration:

—when God promised old Abraham (and Sarah and Hagar too) that their descendants would be more numerous than all the stars in the heavens;

—when God brought Joseph and Jacob back together again;

—when God brought the exiles home to the Promised Land, first from Egypt

and then from Babylon.

Perhaps we remember moments when, in the darkness of our own lives—as individuals, as this community of faith, and as a country—God has mended our broken hearts, our broken lives, our shattered world.  Moments when we’ve caught a glimpse of that light shining in the darkness of our own day, of our own time of our own world.

Elie Wiesel—author, activist and Holocaust survivor—used to tell the old Hasidic story of the four rabbis, each of whom lived in a time of great darkness.  The first rabbi, in deep desperation, went out to the forest, set a fire, and then prayed for a miracle which did indeed occur; years later, another rabbi lived in another time of darkness.  He, too, went out the forest.  He couldn’t remember how to build the fire, but he remembered the prayer and sure enough his prayer, too, was met with a miracle.  Many years later, a third rabbi was living in darkness.  He couldn’t remember how to build the fire or even the prayer, but he made his way to the forest and his efforts were rewarded with yet another miracle.  Generations later, another rabbi faced a time of great hardship for his people.  All he had were his words.  “I am unable to light the fire, and I do not know the prayer; I cannot even find the place in the forest.  All I can do is to tell the story, and that must be sufficient.”  And it was.  You see, God made humankind because God loves stories.

You and I, we stand today with John on the far side of the Jordan.  We join him in pointing to the light—the moments of light that have illumined the dark places of our own lives.

Ours is the work of pointing to that light; ours is the work of telling our own stories of light puncturing the darkness; and ours is the work of drawing out and hearing such stories of others.  Every time one of those stories gets told, that light that is the life of the world gets just a little brighter.

Take a moment.  Bring to mind one of your stories of light shining in the darkness in your life or in the life of someone you love.  Let your mind linger with that story.

Perhaps on your way out of church this morning, you’ll share stories of light with oneanother.  Pointing to light—that the work God calls us to this Advent.

 

 

 

 

 

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Connected: A Sermon on the Occasionof the Feast of St. Francis

Peace and all good to each and every one of you.

That’s the way Francis of Assisi greeted people—“Peace and all good to you.”  A prayer really.  A prayer people in his day—and ours as well—needed and still need to hear.

They, like us, lived in turbulent times.

They, like us, were often subject to the whims of capricious leaders and imperious overlords.

They, like us, found themselves in the midst of great change as money began to rule their lives and as the gap between rich and poor widened with a vast and increasingly vulnerable underclass becoming both more visible and more vulnerable.

They, like many of us, found their safety nets slipping away and their sense of place eroding.

Today, we meet Francis in our world marked by incomprehensible violence—not only the violence we saw last Sunday in Las Vegas and the violence of almost weekly mass shootings, but also the daily violence of an epidemic of shooting deaths and life-changing gun injuries.

Today, we meet Francis in our world of extremes—of wealth and poverty, of sickness and health, of hope and hopelessness, a world of insiders and outsiders, a world of death dealing divisions.

A world not unlike the one in which Jesus of Nazareth lived.

Today we celebrate the life of Francis of Assisi who accepted—no welcomed enthusiastically—Jesus’ invitation to take up his yoke and cross and follow him.

When you strain out all the fluff and nonsense that surrounds Francis of Assisi, when you filter out all the wild tales and fanciful stories, when you look closely at his writings and the demonstrable facts of his life, what you find is a delightful and loving and quite shrewd man who loved Jesus above all else, who lived the gospel as best he could, and who preached that gospel by his words and by his life.

Even after you boil off all that Francis malarkey, you get this wonderfully nuanced and deep and deeply loving and quite wise Francis who changed and is still changing worlds like ours simply by the living out of his love of God.

Sometimes I wonder how it came to him.  I wonder what it was that moved him from being a young bon vivant to a truly humble servant of the living God.  I wonder what it was that turned his heart to God.  I wonder when he started seeing the suffering around him and what moved him to respond.

There are those who say it all began in a prison cell in Perugia.  They say he came back  from that war and that cell a different man.  Changed.  Not quite a new man but not the youth who went off to war.

Francis himself said, “God allowed me to begin my repentance in this way:  when I lived in sin, seeing lepers was a very bitter experience for me.  God himself guided me into their midst and among them I performed acts of charity.  What appeared bitter to me became sweetness of the soul and body.”

Perhaps Francis’ sense of deep connectedness with God and with God’s entire creation began when he saw that he and the leper before him were one—different but yet the same, distinct but yet connected.

Is it so surprising that some years later after crossing seas and battlefields and human-made boundaries determined by language and religion and features of the land and seas, Francis, returning to Assisi,  one day put pen to paper and wrote his wonderful hymn of praise The Canticle of the Sun?

A song that offers praise not only to God but also from God through God’s creation—through Brother Sun and Sister Moon and Brother Wind and Sister Water and Brother Fire and Sister Mother Earth—the created both praising and receiving and passing on praise to and from  the Creator and all of creation.

Marvel with me at the man who wrote those words—a man who followed Jesus into enemy camps and lepers’ sores; a man lived humbly and loved deeply serving and leading with an uncommon charity and a spirit of forgiveness, a man who could writes such words while lying sick and blind and in deep sorrow and disappointment.  Marvel  with me at that extraordinary sense of connectedness fashioned in a world of division and disconnection.  Ligaments of love and likeness binding together forces as distinct and disparate as water and fire and sun and wind and life-giving earth and bodily death.

Today I hear those words as an invitation to a life grounded in a deep sense of connection.  An invitation that takes on a sense of urgency in the times in which we live.  An invitation that asks us to reflect on the bonds that connect us both with those some might see as the lepers of our day and also with the air we breathe, the earth we walk, the waters we drink.  And an invitation to explore—as individuals and as this part of the Body of Christ we know as St. Michael’—what a life lived from that point of connection with Christ and with Christ in one another might look like at this moment in our life in community and in our own individual lives.  An exploration.  A trying on.  A listening deeply to the call of Christ.  Not a set of answers determined in advance of the conversation but a deep and prayerful and searching and prolonged conversation about where Christ is calling us in relationship with our neighbors—neighbors others spurn and reject.

A few months before he died, my closest seminary friend—a Francis-obsessed deacon—wrote,

“When I start feeling that I am severely diminished and the world is closing in on me, I think of St. Francis at the end of his life. He is very sick, almost blind and is  sleeping in a hut in the courtyard of Clare’s St. Damiano. He wakes up one morning, staggers into the open, opens his arms and begins to recite his great hymn to the universe in which he is connected as a fellow sibling to all his brothers and sisters in the universe—Sister Moon and Brother Sun,and all the rest.   Not only does it capture the whole world view of the middle ages but it reverberates with the community of the universe. ”

My friend then concluded, “If I can remain part of this universe, I, like Francis, am struggling to be a good Christian.”

A fitting response to Francis’ invitation to connection to God, to one another, and, as my friend David put it. “the community of the universe.”

How shall we respond to Francis’ invitation?

 

 

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More to the Story

There’s more to the story of Hagar we just heard.  Beginning with her name.

Her people call her Hajar.  That’s what we will do today.  We’ll call her by her rightful name.  It’s the least that we can do.

Legend has it that Hajar was an Egyptian princess living in Pharaoh’s palace.  It makes me wonder—was that how she got hooked up with Abraham and Sarah?  Do you suppose that Pharaoh gave Hajar to Sarah and Abraham when he sent them packing?  A kind of consolation prize.

We first meet Hajar in the book of Genesis.  Just five short chapters before the section we read this morning.  Sarah and Abraham—that old and rich and very privileged patriarch have been waiting some time for God’s promise of descendants as numerous as all the stars in the heavens to produce even one descendant.   Sarah takes on the role of marriage broker and gives her handmaid Hajar to Abraham as a secondary wife.  A kind of consolation prize.

The magic works.  Hajar gets pregnant.  Then the trouble begins.  The way our Bible tells it, Hajar gets uppity and Sarah gets nasty.  Hajar and the child growing in her womb flee to the wilderness—the desert beyond Abraham’s and Sarah’s camp.  She stops beside a spring.  There she meets a messenger of God.  “What’s up?” that messenger of God asks the tearful woman bending down to take a drink of water.  I can imagine she had quite a story to tell that messenger of God.  Quite a story of desolation and distress.

What was God’s response to her distress?  “Back you go,” God said to Hajar, “this wilderness is no place for a woman growing heavy with child.”  But before God sent her packing, God equipped her with a promise—a promise almost as great as the one God gave to Abraham.  To Hajar God said, “I will so greatly multiply your offspring that they cannot be counted.”

At that moment, Hajar looks up at that messenger of God standing before her face and says, “You are El-Roi”—the God who sees.

Here I must break in to the story and add a parenthetical note:  Hajar is the only person in the Bible to name God.  Just sit with that for a moment or two.  A person in exile, a runaway slave, a stranger in the land, a refugee, a person darn near undocumented in the Abrahamic tradition, an illegal immigrant in the land of promise—is the one who gives a name to God.  The only one to give a name to God.

Hajar returns to Abraham’s and Sarah’s camp fortified by the promise she received and maybe just a bit emboldened by her act of naming God.

The scene shifts.  Time passes.  The child born to Hajar approaches adolescence.  And the child born at last to Sarah turns six.  Abraham holds a feast—a weaning feast.  Two mothers watch their children as they play.  One swells with pride as she watches her son on the verge of manhood—so confident, so skilled, so bold.  The other burns with anger as she watches the two at play.  “That slave girl’s child will never take my son’s place,” Old Sarah promises herself.  Then she goes to Abraham demanding he cast out that slave-girl Hajar and her bastard son Ishmael.

Rising early the next morning his heart heavy with grief and resignation, Abraham leads Hajar and their son to the edge of the wilderness supplying them with but one jug of water and one loaf of bread; dispatching them to an almost certain death.

Hajar, her heart heavy too, tells young Ismael to lie down under the shade of a bush.  Perhaps she adds, “Stay here while I look for water and forage for food.”    Then she goes off.  Some distance away.  She lifts her voice to the heavens and howls as only a grieving mother can howl.

But it’s not her howl God hears.  God hears Ishmael’s silent tears.  God then offers Hajar yet another promise—a promise that her son will be the father of a nation.  Then and only then does God open her eyes to the spring of water right there at her feet.

Some time later, Hajar goes off to find Ishmael a wife from her Egyptian homeland.  There the tale ends.  But Hajar’s story endures.  You see, sacred story comes to life in the lives of ordinary folk—yours and mine and the people we meet along the way:

*Hajar taking the shape of a pack-laden homeless man riding his rickety bike down the streets of Albuquerque just looking for a place to pitch his tent;

*Hajar dogging our memories of that weird kid no one wanted to sit by or eat with or pick for a team when we were in middle school;

*Hajar and her husband, fearing what will happen to their children as ICE agents stop their car and then arrest them;

*Hajar, languishing in an immigration detention center where guards address her not by her name but by the number of her bed;

*Hajar—could her name now be Susanna—taking sanctuary in church in a town not far from here;

*Hajar in the face of an Iraqi man, ICE closing in while he waits for sanctuary and hopes he’s not sent back to certain death.

You and I—we meet Hajar at the edge of the wilderness of our day and time—a wilderness of rabid xenophobia focused largely but not exclusively on Muslims–a people who trace their lineage from Hajar’s son Ishmael.  We have a choice:  will we hear their cries?  Will we address their needs?

For us here today at St. Michael’s those questions have taken on a certain urgency.

That man I just mentioned, the Iraqi who is facing deportation hearings and can’t find a place in sanctuary, just learned his ICE check-in has been pushed up.  It’s tomorrow.

If he is seized and then sent back, things won’t go well for him.  You see he’s a refugee from Iraq.  He fled in the early 1990’s.   He worked for the U.S. training soldiers then sent to Iraq.

Do we give him a jug of water, a loaf of bread and then send him on his way?  Or do we do what we can to show our support for this shape Hajar is taking at this moment in this place?

Sometimes sacred story comforts us; sometimes sacred story inspires us; sometimes it alarms us; sometimes it challenges us.  Today, both the story of Hajar and the Gospel challenge us.  Remember what Jesus said to those within earshot:  “…. Whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.  Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

The choice is ours.

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A New Earth

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Today we celebrate the second Sunday of Easter—the eighth day of the Easter Octave.  Alleluias resound as we remember ours is a God full of surprises.  A God who even brings life out of death.  Today we give thanks for new life rising from an empty tomb.

Today we at St. Michael’s are also celebrating Earth Day—a day recognized and celebrated all over the earth.  A day celebrated in places where the face of the earth is being renewed and a day celebrated in places where the face of the earth is being desecrated at ever more alarming rates.  Even as the alleluias resound we can’t help but hear cries of lament from the earth and the children who dwell therein.

Today, on this our Earth Day, I find myself remembering that first Earth Day forty-seven years ago.  Our country was a mess—the war in Vietnam still raging, protests all over the country, violence in our cities, lakes in which one would dare not swim (Lake Erie even caught on fire!), air which was hard to breathe, a toxic oil spill that killed fish and birds and sea mammals in it’s wide wide wake.  People in those days looked out at their world and lamented.  Hence–Earth Day.   A day launched—primarily but not entirely on college campuses, a call for renewal conveyed primarily but not entirely through speakers and teach-ins that focused in sometimes mind-numbing details on the many ways we humans were destroying the face of the earth.

And yet what I remember about that first Earth Day are not the facts or the personalities or the mechanisms of the day or of the movement but rather a most improbable scene that took place at the principal demonstration on my college campus.  It wasn’t the first day of spring and it surely wasn’t a warm day but still at least two thousand people crowded into the plaza in front of the student union.  There was a band, speakers chanting earnestly through bull horns, even a geodesic dome for on-lookers to wonder at.  But what caught my eye, in the midst of important speeches by important people decrying the condition of our planet was a sprite of a woman dancing joyfully at the edge of the crowd weaving a web of delight around that gaggle of protestors and on-lookers and the curious ones like me.  It seemed as if she’d made a connection the rest of us had missed.

We—you and I, the earth and all that dwells therein—are made for joy—the joy that moved that young woman to dance, the joy that reverberates through all of creation. How does Teilllhard de Chardin put it—“Joy is the infallible sign of the presence of God.”  I might couple joy with delight in God’s creation—both God’s joy and delight in the created order and all of creation’s joy and delight as well.  Remember God says to the people of Israel, the people returning from captivity in Babylon, “I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight….no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it, or the cry of distress.”

So also John of Patmos assured the people who listened to his revelation, people who faced persecution by the reigning empire of their day, “I saw a new heaven and a new earth” and then repeated to them the promise of God to make his home among them and to wipe every tear from their eyes.

Like the people returning from captivity in Babylon, like the people to whom John of Patmos preached, like the disciples hiding behind doors locked from fear, we, too, know fear and despair.  We, too, sometimes feel at the mercy of destructive forces far beyond our control.  As we look out at a world in which forests are cleared and species die off and water ways dry up, it’s hard not to feel despair.  It’s hard not to worry about tomorrow.

But that is not where we are called to be.  We are an Easter people.  We are called to live in hope.  Joy and delight are woven into our DNA.  After all—we are people who live with the knowledge that death and destruction do not have the very last word.  God is always making the world new.  We know that in our bones.  After all—we are Easter people.

And yet we are not called to sit idly by.  Waiting for the rapture is not an option.

Perhaps the place to start is with (or maybe in) delight—delight in God’s creation—all of it.  Delight even in the face of fear and despair.   Delight even as the earth seems to spinning off it’s course.  I’m reminded of a story I once heard about a young London model during the blitz.  She got a fantastic modeling job in a fancy store.  All she had to do was walk around the store in a fabulous fur coat.  Then the sirens sounded.  The city was being bombed yet again.  Most people headed to the shelters but she dashed out into the empty street where she danced and danced and danced in that fabulous fur coat.  A dance of defiant delight in a very dark moment.

Taking delight in the dance is an important first step, but delight is not enough.  The psalmist reminds us that God has made us but little lower than the angels and given us mastery over the works of God’s hands.  How we live on this earth and what we do with and to it matter.

On this, the forty-seventh celebration of Earth Day, my mind turns back to that improbable dancer wending her way around the outskirts of that crowd, sometimes darting into the center, often touching people gently on their arm, turning her head up to theirs in a gesture of recognition and connection and then inviting them into the dance.

What do Easter people do when the Lord of the Dance extends her hand to us?

Of course, we join in.  Some of us with our two left feet tentatively swaying to the music and taking a small step forward or maybe just to the side when we feel confident.  Some of us leaping gracefully in step with the dancer.  All of us sustained in the dance with the memory of the many ways in the past the Lord of the Dance has cared for us and all creation; all of us moving to the beat of God’s consistent care for all she has created.

On this, the 47th Earth Day and on this, the second Sunday of Easter we hear the words of the prologue of the Gospel of John.  “In the beginning was the word and the word was with God and the word was God.”  The Chinese translate that to “In the beginning was the road and the road was with God and the road was God.” Perhaps we might say, “In the beginning was the dance and the dance was with God and the dance was God.  Shall we dance?

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Again this year

Christmas comes again this year as it always does, the poet’s voice assures.

Accompanied by carols and cards and gifts beneath the tree.

Christmas comes in its own most predictable way—tales of shepherds asleep in the fields, songs that angels sing, a star—a brilliant star—shattering clouds gathered in the cold night sky then leading the curious, the longing and the dubious as well to that place where love itself takes on our most unwieldy human shape.

We gather here before the cross, before the table on this cold and crusty winter morn.  Again we hear the words we know so well.

In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.

In the beginning—that’s so very long ago.  Another time.  Another place.  Alien and unfamiliar.  Easy to hold at arm’s length.

But what if we hear these words a different way?  What if we hear them in a different tone?  A different tense?

In the beginning is the word and the word is with God and the word is God….

What is coming into being in him is life, and the life is the light of all people.

The light is shining in the darkness and the darkness is not overcoming it.

The Word is becoming flesh and is living among us, and we are seeing his glory….

Word, love itself, being made flesh—being enfleshed in us—in you and me

In the parts we proudly show like peacocks fluffing out our plumes of generosity and kindness and wisdom and keen insights too!

And in those parts we try to hide in the back corners of the closets that are a part of all our lives–those parts we know all too well.

The Word –Love itself– moving in right here in this very space that makes up our lives and the world in which we live.

Pitching a tent in our most human fields of failures and successes and loving kindness and callousness and cruelty too—a world where polar bears perch on the shore of  a sea without an iceberg and a world of war where children no longer have tears to shed.

Light shining through the darkness of all the muck and madness of our world and of our lives as well.

Light illuminating the way to that manger where Love takes on our most human shape.

A moment when we sing in heartfelt voices, “Joy to the World/The Lord has come/Let earth prepare Him room.”

Prepare him room.

The prophet Isaiah puts it this way: “Prepare a way in the wilderness.  Make smooth in the desert a highway for our God.  Let every valley be lifted up, And every mountain and hill be made low; And let the rough ground become a plain, And the rugged terrain a broad valley”

Preparing a way.

Smoothing out the rough places.

Clearing away the boulders.

Preparing room for the Word to move in and live and love and work with us.

In another—yet not so different—time and place, the poet and preacher Howard Thurman wrote,

When the song of the angels is stilled,

When the star in the sky is gone,

When the kings and princes are home,

When the shepherds are back with their flock,

The work of Christmas begins:

To find the lost,

To heal the broken,

To feed the hungry,

To release the prisoner,

To rebuild the nations,

To bring peace among people,

To make music in the heart.

Again this year that’s the work of Christmas.  The work of the Word being enfleshed in us.

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A Class Reunion: Memories and Triggers of Memories

I came late to the reunion.  This time it wasn’t my fault.  I waited over an hour in the car rental line.  So I missed the school tour.  But I made it to the “Meet and Greet” where folks quickly filled me in on all the important changes.  Imagine filling in a swimming pool in order to have more space for a school cafeteria.  I’m still shaking my head at that.

I loved that swimming pool and, with an equal passion, hated that school cafeteria.  Not because of the aesthetics of it all or because of the quality of the food or the unimaginative menu but because of all the social challenges a high school cafeteria presents.  A nightmare that haunted me for these many years.  Imagine the comfort I felt when I learned that some of my classmates shared my loathing.

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That cafeteria, with its highly varnished floors and tables, its wire reinforced windows, its rancid smells and cheery, hair-netted workers was then and still is the antithesis of God’s welcome table.  As my classmates and I compared notes at our fiftieth class reunion, I remembered a sermon I once preached.  The trope was the high school cafeteria.  Here’s the sermon:

Do you remember your high school lunchroom—the smells, the sounds, the layout of the tables?  Do you remember the food they served—the squeaky beans, the watery spaghetti, the crusty Mac and Cheese?  What about the sounds—the clanking of the plates, the loud voices, the constant hum, the sound of the chairs scraping against the floor—Do you remember the sounds?  Do you remember who sat at what table?  How you felt when it came time for you to pick your seat?  Do you remember what informed your choice?

Even to this day—just two days short of forty-six years since I first walked into the lunchroom at Murray Junior-Senior High School in St. Paul, Minnesota—I remember the feel of that lunchroom  and how I felt as I looked for a place to sit down.

I think such memories are seared in our minds and our hearts because they cut to the core of the questions who’s in and who’s out.

I bet those questions of who is in and who is out have been present in human society since the beginning of time.  I know they were important questions in Jesus’ day—questions that had significant impact on peoples’ lives; questions that made a difference in how people lived; questions that had the power to hurt or to heal.  Life and death kind of questions.

Who’s in?  Who’s out?  The Pharisees answered, “Jews who follow the purity codes are in.”  By that answer they excluded the lame, the blind, the infirm and all who could not afford the price of a sacrificial dove.

The Roman overlords and their minions answered, “The wealthy, the propertied, those who own land and can pay their taxes are in.”  By that answer  they excluded day laborers, slaves and those so poor they survived only by begging.

We, too, have answers to those questions—answers that include and answers that exclude.  Around the world today people are including some and excluding others—decisions that can have deadly consequences.  Shia and Sunni each have answers to the question, “Who’s in and who’s out? as do Israelites and Palestinians. In Sudan, the Janjaweed say they are in and black Africans and those who act to help them are out.  Deadly consequences.

But we don’t have to go so far from home to find folks answering questions that include and by their answer also exclude.  Lines are drawn every day for all sorts of reasons.  Who’s in?  Who’s out?  Some folks draw those lines on the basis of politics others on the basis of possessions.

We even find such lines drawn in our own Anglican Communion.  There are those who say the Episcopal Church is out because we have a gay bishop in our midst.

But Jesus has a different answer to that question of who is in and who is out.  Hear what he has to say:

“When you are invited to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host….But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you.  For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

What does Jesus see as that which distinguishes a person?  What does Jesus see as the way to exaltation?  It’s not one’s wealth or power; it’s where and with whom one stands or sits.

“…those who humble themselves will be exalted.”  The Greek word for humble means “low in height or status”.  Think of it, Jesus is asking those who follow him, to take their place with the humble ones, the lowly ones, the low in status.   Jesus is asking those who follow him to take their place with those others would cast out.

But I think there’s more to this Gospel call than just to stand in solidarity with the lowly.

I still clearly remember how I felt that day when I first walked into the lunchroom.  I remember standing with my tray in hand—immobilized really—longing for someone to call my name, longing for someone to invite me to their table.  I needed someone else to make that move, to take that initiative.  I needed someone else to invite me to the table.

Hear what else Jesus says that day at dinner.  “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors….But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.”  Jesus is calling his disciples, Jesus is calling us to go out and invite into our midst those who have been excluded from the table.  Jesus is calling us to welcome all who are hungry to God’s great welcome table.

O God, thy table now is spread,

Thy cup with love doth overflow;

Be all thy children thither led,

And let them thy sweet mercies know.

 

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